Narrative History or Historical Fiction 3: A Moonlit Night In Yellowstone Park, August 23, 1877.

“Should I approach it as narrative history or as historical fiction?” That question haunted me this week as I continued research for my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877. I’ve written about it before, here and here.

Great Fountain Geyser

To write the kind of story readers want, I need to include details that bring the story to life and give it credibility. That’s true no matter how I approach the book, but there’s more flexibility in fiction.

A crucial scene in the book occurs on August 23, 1877, the night before Nez Perce Indians take Mrs. Emma Cowan captive along with her brother, Frank, and their 13-year-old sister, Ida. Earlier that afternoon, the tourists learned that the Nez Perce had fought a bloody battle with the Army two weeks before and were headed toward the park. In her reminiscence about the trip, Emma admited the news worried her.

In his book about the trip, Frank said, “Mrs. Cowan was uneasy, and upon being asked what was wrong, replied ‘nothing.’” Frank said that later he saw Emma come to the door of the tent she shared with her husband and Ida and look out several times. Emma’s repeatedly peering out of the tent is a good example of the adage, “actions speak louder than words.”

I was reminded of Jerrie Hurd’s admonition to write slow scenes fast and fast scenes slow. Jerrie says “when you get to the action, slow down, take your time, fill-in as much detail as possible allowing the reader to savor every moment of what’s happening.”

There’s no doubt that Emma was worried, but what did she see? If I knew that, I could heighten the drama, but neither Emma nor Frank described the scene and there are no other accounts by members of their party.

What to do? I saw three options: (1) write historical fiction and invent a plausible scene, (2) write up what I already knew as narrative history and hope that my readers will forgive the lack of detail, or (3) do more research to flesh things out. I chose option 3.

I knew that the tourists were camped in the trees near the Fountain Geyser, which is at the edge of the Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone Park, so the first thing I did was a web search for images of the area. I found several photos like the one above that show several geysers spewing columns of water and steam in the middle of a chalky plain surrounded by pine forest. (I plan to visit the site this summer to get more detail.)

Then I reviewed Emma and Frank’s accounts of the evening. After deciding to head home the next day, the group put on a sort of minstrel show to celebrate. They built a bonfire and spent the evening singing and dancing. Then the bachelors in the group curled up in their blankets under the trees while Emma, her husband and Ida retired to their tent.

Next, I looked for journals of travelers who were nearby that night. One of them was Jack Bean of Bozeman, a scout the Army hired to find the Nez Perce. Bean was on a hillside about 30 miles from Emma’s camp watching the Nez Perce arrive at Henry’s Lake. Bean didn’t comment on the weather, but apparently had no difficulty seeing the Indians’ campfires four miles away across the lake.

Another Scout, S.G. Fisher, who had been hired in Idaho, was 10 miles closer than Bean in Targhee Pass. Fisher had heard about a Nez Perce camp ahead of him and was planning to attack it with his force of 80 Bannack Indians. Fisher said he approached the camp cautiously because “the moon was shining brightly.” Fisher found the Nez Perce had moved on—and I found an important snippet of information—it was a moonlit night.

With the new information from my research, I feel confident that I can write compelling description of Emma’s behavior—one that sticks close enough to the facts to qualify as narrative history. It probably will go something like this:

Emma didn’t fall asleep quickly that night. Instead, she repeatedly came to the door of the tent she shared with her husband and sister and peered out. Perhaps she was just checking to make sure the bonfire her friends had built to celebrate their impending departure from Yellowstone hadn’t spread.

Perhaps she was hoping to see Fountain Geyser play one more time. The bright moonlight reflected off the surrounding chalky ground would have made that a beautiful sight.

Most likely, she was worried about encountering Nez Perce on the trip home. Emma couldn’t have known that Yellow Wolf and his band of Nez Perce scouts had seen the bonfire and were planning to attack the camp the next morning.

I’m glad I kept researching. I’m sticking with narrative history.


You also might enjoy:

— To see related posts, click on “Narrative History” under the Categories Button on the right side of this page.

— Image detail from Coppermine Gallery Photo.

8 thoughts on “Narrative History or Historical Fiction 3: A Moonlit Night In Yellowstone Park, August 23, 1877.

  1. I’m flatter to be quoted here. When it comes to writing, of course, there are not rules. You do what makes the writing good. Best wishes with your project. Sounds interesting.

  2. Similarly, Sebastian Junger used extensive research in “The Perfect Storm” to provide the most plausible scenario from the available facts.

    I don’t think you can go wrong with a historical narrative kept within the context of verifiable fact, i.e. all the details of scene must fit with the truth, but thoughts and conversations would be open to interpretation since A) no one can truly know what another person thinks and B) we interpret the same messages differently depending on our frames entering the exchange of ideas.

    I do think any interpretation of thoughts or conversations should remain true to the character’s known thoughts, conversations and actions, e.g. I would find it hard reading a text where Abraham Lincoln promoted slavery in his thoughts.

    • Thanks, Ron. I should read “The Perfect Storm.” Perhaps that would persuade me to ease up a bit. I’m intrigued by the question of where to draw the line. Doubtless, I’ll blog about it again.

      I greatly admire Laura Hillenbrand, who scrupulously gave a source for everything in quotation marks in “Seabiscuit” Still a close reading of her work indicates that she’s probably presenting her inferences as fact. That strikes me as acceptable. Inventing quotations and motives–no matter how plausible–does not.

  3. Mark–I enjoy your blog. As for this particular problem, I would also vote for narrative history. It seems to me that a swerve into fiction is going to subject you to all kinds of scrutiny about your “characters”–if they are fleshed out, if their motivations are adequate. Also, I just think readers will be attracted to something that’s history first of all in a place that has so much geologic and human history.

    And as Ron says, I think you can let yourself loosen up a bit in the writing of it!

    • Thanks, Ruth. I’m pretty sure I’ll stick to narrative history, but the research gets tough–and that’s pretty often–I find myself wrestling with the temptation to switch to fiction. You’re right about the demands of fiction. Here’s how I put it in my first rumination on the topic: “[Switching to fiction] may sound like a no-brainer: don’t bother with the hard research; go with historical fiction, but it’s not that easy. When you tell your readers you’re writing fiction, you promise to provide compelling stories, fully formed characters, and gripping details that will bring your story to life. That can be as hard—maybe even harder—than sticking to the facts.” I find the issue fascinating. Doubtless I’ll keep think–and posting–about it.

  4. You might want to continue the sad story of Ida May Carpenter. She married my grandfather, Janes Ernst Stevens in February, 1886. He was a newspaper man,reporter and publisher. Ida died in a fire when a kerosene lamp tipped over in November, 1886. Maybe just a postscript to the story for a very brave 13 yer old girl. James married Margaret Stevens in 1897. Their son, Don Stevens lived to be 102, see the San Francisco Chronicle for his life story as a reporter and writer.

    • Thanks for the information. I knew Ida married and died in a fire, but nothing about her husband other than her name. I’m working on a book on the encounters between Yellowstone Park tourists and the Nez Perce in 1877 so finding out more about Ida would be good. Could you provide the date for the story of Don Steven’s life.

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