Though I do very little preliminary research, once I start writing, it’s another matter entirely. About the time I began the Jinx and the Pinkerton, I found a series of actual Oregon Trail diaries. A book called The Prairie Traveler, by Randolph B. Marcy, was mentioned repeatedly by the pioneers that wrote them back in 1850’s. It was apparently a gold mine of information detailing everything from what supplies to take, to how to deal with all manner of obstacles they might encounter on the trail. Accordingly, I gave a copy to my heroine.
One hot July day several months later, I got a wild hair and decided to do some personal research; to experience first-hand what it was like at Independence Rock in the middle of the summer and to take some pictures for my bulletin board. I loaded the kids in the car and headed for the Oregon Trail. Before you get too impressed, I should mention that three of the most famous landmarks, Split Rock, Devil’s Gate and Independence Rock are within easy driving distance of my house. We stopped at Split Rock, ate a late lunch and took pictures. We took more pictures at Devil’s Gate and then continued on to Independence Rock.
That particular day, a group of pioneer reenactors in full costume was there celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, which are one in the same until Fort Bridger where they split. Not surprisingly, I got into a conversation with one of the women dressed in a period costume complete with a corset, numerous petticoats and a poke bonnet.
We had a great time exchanging tidbits we had discovered in our research. In the course of the conversation, I asked her if she’d ever come across any reference to The Prairie Traveler. To my everlasting shock she said yes, in fact, she’d just purchased a copy at the Fort Casper gift shop the day before! I’m pretty sure my mouth dropped open.
This was pre-Amazon days before you could get any book with the click of a mouse. My only source was that gift shop. The Fort Casper Historical site closed at five, we were sixty miles away, and it was nearly four o’clock. I wasn’t even sure where my kids were, other than somewhere around Independence Rock which has a perimeter of nearly a mile. To this day, I can’t tell you how I managed it, but by the time Fort Casper closed for the day, I owned their last copy of The Prairie Traveler. I seem to recall I also bought a couple of gift shop items for my kids that cost more than my book. But hey, bribes are part of the job, and they’d been good sports about leaving Independence Rock before they’d finished their explorations.
The Prairie Traveler was fully as valuable to me as it was to my characters. I learned how to ford rivers, for instance, how to fix a broken wagon wheel, and why oxen are preferable to horses and mules when it comes to pulling wagons. When a prairie fire swept down on the wagon train not far from Independence Rock, Charisse and I both turned to The Prairie Traveler for help. With quick thinking and some judiciously lit back fires, we managed to save everything but one wagon cover. To paraphrase one of my characters, “No one, immigrant [or writer], should be allowed on the Oregon Trail without a copy!”