Guest Posts

Writing Historical Fiction: Inspiration, Research, and Getting It Right – Guest Post by Samantha Specks

Samantha Specks ~

Writer Samantha Specks - Photo by Russell Heeter

My childhood home was just west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the city’s suburbs dissolved into the farmlands of the Midwest—the same area Laura Ingalls Wilder called home in the 1800s, living with her Ma and Pa in a sod-house on the banks of Plum Creek. But it was Christmas Eve in 2005, on a silver snow-covered country road that the first seeds of the Dovetails in Tall Grass story were planted in my heart. I was a high school student—cozy, riding in my parents’ Suburban, making the final turn to my grandparents’ home, when I spotted something new. Headlights illuminated unusual shapes moving across the darkening horizon. A group of men on horseback. Curious, I asked my parents why people were riding in the cold. My mother explained: “They’re Dakota who are marching to show they haven’t forgotten what happened here long ago.”

I felt compelled to learn what they hadn’t forgotten. And quickly I found out that the riders I crossed paths were the Dakota 38+2 Riders—a group that still rides every December from Lower Brule South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota (330 miles)—riding to commemorate the war that resulted in the largest mass execution in United States history. The war was also the largest mass civilian casualty event until the events of September 11th, 2001. How did I not remember this from my history classes?

From that Christmas on, I picked up any book I could about the US-Dakota War. I knew before my family arrived, the Ingalls and other settlers called Minnesota home. But before them? I hadn’t thought much about any others who’d been here. So, I educated myself. I learned about the Dakota-Sioux people, about proud warriors, and hunters.

Years passed and my interest never waned. During graduate school I dug into the scholarly articles. I learned about the violence of westward expansion that ended many lives and changed so many others. The war that sparked the next three decades of warfare, massacre, and genocide of the Indigenous people of the plains.

Eventually I started to see the history, especially the injustices, through the lenses of two young women. Over a decade of research and writing later, those lenses are now “Emma” and “Oenikika” and the history plays out through a fictional tale of Dovetails in Tall Grass. This was my approach to the research, writing, and publishing process:

Research

  • Reading scholarly articles couldn’t take the place of walking the bluffs along the river, touching the stone of old buildings that would have echoed the gunshots of battle, or standing on the ground where 38 men lost their lives at once. Every summer, my grandmother, mother, and I visited the historical markers scattered through the countryside. These markers were almost unnoticeable along a random gravel road next to a soybean field. The three of us would stand around quiet stone statues with dandelions sprouting around the bottom. Most of the monuments featured the names of the settlers—over 600 men, women, and children—killed. Other markers listed the 38 names of Dakota men hanged after revenge-fueled trials. These peaceful rolls of prairie and sleepy country towns held so much history that mattered then and now.
  • I went to historical society meetings and listened to presentations by the Lower Sioux community.
  • Primary and secondary sources galore: I watched documentaries, read trial transcripts, listened to podcasts, scrolled the pages of comments on old history message boards.
  • I sought research recommendations from people in the Dakota-Sioux community. They pointed me in the right direction for the most useful and accurate Dakota accounts of the war.

Writing

  • In the fictional story, I chose to include real people from history and draw dialogue from actual historical transcripts. I wanted readers to get close to the real events and people.
  • Capturing the factual events of the US-Dakota War on the page was extremely important, and initially, I wanted to work in every single detail and follow the exact timeline of all battles in the war, etc. But once I started working with an editor, I learned how I could stay true to the history but not get locked down in chronicling every event that occurred. I dug into my protagonists’ emotional journey—and that’s where the magic happened! (Although, I still managed to sneak in historical details like the actual weather conditions for my characters to encounter).
  • I sought advice and feedback. A lot of advice and feedback. From multiple editors and beta readers. I submitted my work for webinars where it was picked apart on live virtual lessons in front of hundreds of other authors. It was excruciating but very helpful.
  • After a first draft of the manuscript was complete, I worked with a Dakota writer, Diane Wilson (brilliant author of The Seed Keeper). She offered feedback on cultural components related to writing from a Native person’s perspective.

Publishing

  • After reviewing my options and talking with a few agents out of NYC, I decided the best and most authentic fit for this type of story was to work with an indie publisher. Many of the issues of representation of diverse voices point to the systemic power differentials in the traditional publishing industry. My indie publisher was very supportive in protecting what I felt like was a feminist and authentic interpretation of the history.
  • As I’ve talked with the media and with readers about Dovetails in Tall Grass, I root for and try to amplify Native writers and their work, as well.

Writer Samantha Specks Book Cover - Dovetails in Tall Grass

—Samantha Specks

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Samantha Specks is a licensed independent clinical social worker. She and her husband live in Houston with their baby (Pippa) and fur baby (Charlie). When not in Texas, they enjoy spending time on the lakes of Minnesota and in the mountains of the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado. Dovetails in Tall Grass is Samantha’s debut novel. Currently, she is writing Dovetails of a River, which is set at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. For more information, please visit https://samanthaspecks.com

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