Monday, February 27, 2012

On Writing Biographies & Historical Fiction...Research

I got to attend a luncheon with speaker Cynthia S. Becker, who wrote Chipeta: Queen of the Utes, a biography about Chipeta, wife to Chief Ouray of the Utes. She spoke to us about resources for researching biographies, but her information would be useful to anyone who wants to be historically accurate, no matter the type of story you're writing.

A lot of what Cynthia did was legwork. If any of you have ever tried to find information on Native American history, you know how hard it is to find thorough and accurate information. I've hit roadblock after roadblock in trying to research my own ancestry, and that's despite family still living on Indian land and my grandfather having been offered a plot in Oklahoma (he wasn't registered, and we can't find who was). You see, the safest thing for many Natives was to pretend to be white, to record it that way on censuses, adopt white names and get social security cards, etc. Tracking family beyond that point can be very hard, unless you know what their previous given names were.

Luckily, one of Cynthia's hobbies was genealogy, something that gave her a leg up on knowing some resources for historical research. She recommended genealogy websites. Personally, I found great information at, but the cost was steep. Cynthia informed us that many libraries have access to, so if you don't want to pay for your own account, you can do this research at the library.

You can check Census records to find locations, as well as who was living with the person you're researching. There was a separate Indian Census on reservations, done by their Indian Agents, so if you happen to be researching Native history, that is one additional place to look.

Some obvious places to do research are old newspapers (often available online these days), historical societies in the appropriate areas (for instance, Cynthia worked with the Colorado Historical Society), Grolier (a research site with encyclopedias and newspapers), OneFile (which has periodicals and journals), CultureGrams (which covers over 200 countries), and ProQuest (for research around the world).

Newspapers are a great source for those writing historical fiction, as well as biographies, because they can give you a feel for other things going on at that time. For instance, you can see how people dressed, what was in style according to the ads, what prices were, kitchen and household items being sold, vehicles being sold, movies and shows playing at the time, etc. This can be valuable research when trying to set the scene.

If you can swing it, a visit to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. can be very valuable. They have copies of government receipts and documents. Cynthia was able to swing that by piggy-backing on her husband's business trip out to D.C. I would love to spend some time at the National Archives!

All of this research is great, of course, but even better is talking to people who have a more intimate knowledge of what you're researching. You can find golden nuggets of information that you likely wouldn't have found out any other way. Cynthia points out that people are often eager to talk about their past experiences, whether loved ones or a famous person they encountered. While doing her research, she was able to talk to family members of people who had met Chipeta and/or Ouray. One man talked about how Chief Ouray came to a trading post and took the little boy whose parents ran it out back, spending hours patiently teaching him how to properly use a bow and arrow. A man told Cynthia his neighbor was having a baby at the hospital when Chipeta came in for a surgery, and how Chipeta, who had never birthed a child of her own, came in and asked to hold the baby, snuggling it and talking to it in the Ute language, so sweetly. Considering how horrid newspaper reports were about Natives during the time in question, first-person accounts like these can help tell us who these people really were.


One thing to remember in newspapers and personal accounts is that anything that can be researched/backed up, should be. Reading through the sensationalized newspaper accounts about the "savages" running around torturing white farmers and prospectors, mutilating them, raping their women and children and the like, it is easy to see why residents wanted the Natives removed. What the papers were reporting was utterly terrifying. Yet those who lived near the Utes, the Indian Agents and those that came into contact with them reported things completely differently, though attempts to set the record straight fell on deaf ears. Here, I've been thinking that our media has gone downhill, sensationalizing things and stretching the truth, yet you see it no matter what the year. The news has always been about what would sell papers, so take what you read with a grain of salt and seek other means of research to check it out before reporting it as the gospel truth.

Cynthia S. Becker was a wonderful speaker. I was captivated with her obvious respect for Chipeta and what she went through. She passed along some great information, and I'd like to close by sharing resources she recommended for research at the end of this message (many of them are regional, but may give you an idea for places to look that are similar).

Come by tomorrow for a teaser from Chipeta: Queen of the Utes, as well as Alex's Catch Fire! Blog Party!

From Cynthia's handout:

Online Research Sources

National Archives Denver Branch

Native American Nations (Southwest)

Colorado Historical Society

Colorado State Archives

Library of Congress American Memory

U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management


Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection

Library of Congress Historic American Newspaper Collection

New York Times Archives (fee for use/free for subscribers)

Rocky Mountain News Archives (fee for use)


Denver Public Library Digital Collections

National Archives Digital Photography Archives

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library

Some of those sites are so incredible that I could get lost for hours! Any great research sites you'd like to pass along? I'll gladly re-post them on Thursday with credit to you!

May you find your Muse.


  1. I didn't realize you were Indian! That is very cool, even if it makes research a challenge.

  2. excellent information and advice. thanks so much for this. I recently finished a book proposal for a historical kids book and the research was the most fun, but also the most daunting. I'm bookmarking this post for future reference.

  3. Interesting stuff.
    I had to do a geneology project when I was in high school, and I didn't get very far since I couldn't get records from before my ancestors came to the US.

  4. Research can be dangerous because you can lose hours at a time with all the great info you find.

  5. Alex, I'm a mutt!

    Terena, thank you, it was a great workshop! Research is so fun and interesting; good luck on your proposal!

    Andrew, you'd find a lot more information for it now. We didn't have to do that kind of genealogy project in school, but I did have to send a questionnaire out to family members then write papers on each of them. I'm glad I did it (and that I am a pack rat).

    Kelly, no kidding! I always get sucked in, but there's just so much to learn and soak up.

  6. Yeah, no internet back then. I had to mail physical letters to other countries trying to get information, and I never heard back from any of them.

  7. I loved this. You know I am B.W.I.F. and Arlee is part I (Indian) also. I hope he read this. I blogged about the A-Z this week and leaving it up till we reach 1,000.

  8. Hi! I just wanted to stop by and tell you thanks for following The Writer's Block. I am now a follower of your blog, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. :)

  9. Andrew, that does not at all sound like fun. At all.

    Debra, I do! I don't think Arlee saw this one.

    Vanessa, hi! Thanks for coming by and following.