From The Sherritt and the Sharpshooter:
Daniel picked up a rifle and held it out for her to examine. “Here’s what I’ve been using lately,” he said. “Brand new on the market. This is a Sharps breech loading carbine, tape primer, paper cartridge, modified by Sam who’s a wizard with guns. I have two of these I use in the show. It’s an eye catcher with all that custom inlaid scroll-work, but rugged, extremely accurate and easy to load. I have a deal with the company so they supply me with all the cartridges I need in exchange for showing it off every chance I get.”
She looked it over. A lot of what he’d said didn’t mean much to her, but it sure was pretty. She’d bet her pa had never owned a gun worth half as much in his entire life. “You’re going to shoot at me with this?”
And thus our plucky heroine Nancy and hopefully the reader has just been given a crash course in what sort of rifle a professional sharpshooter might use around 1858 in Kentucky. Am I an expert on antique guns? Nope. I have many hobbies and interests but that's not one of them. I had to become an instant expert.
I spent more time researching the details of 1850s frontier life for this story than I did actually writing it. If you're an experienced writer, you know details can make a difference. For instance, many readers won't know or care that after you shoot a black powder rifle a few times you have to wait for the smoke to disperse to see anything. Adding that detail puts a little pinch of realism into the story and keeps the real experts out there from noticing a flaw.
Sometimes a writer can stumble onto something fascinating during the research. At one point I needed my heroine to ride a horse into town. Sounds simple, right? She climbs on the horse, lets the guy adjust the stirrups for her shorter legs, gathers the reins, and away they go. But then I got to thinking. I'd already established that this woman was modest in spite of her dire circumstances, How did they keep from showing a woman's legs when in the saddle? So off I went doing research.
Turns out proper women in their long skirts didn't sit astride a horse back then. There was that whole (cough) protect the maidenhead thing if you were a young maiden, but also their pretty ankles and legs would be exposed for all to see and that just wouldn't do. Neither did women in the 1850s wear pants, in spite of Calamity Jane's fame. Side-saddles were rare and never really caught on because they were dangerous and required lots of practice. Women mostly walked or rode buggies and wagons. In other words,
riding astride a horse down this town's mainstreet was going to cause comment. I had to find another way for her to sneak into town. Nancy
Until then, it simply had never dawned on me that women on the frontier led such a restricted life when it came to the most common form of transportation. Continued reading taught me that not all women thought this was fair and they didn't always take the restriction sitting down (so to speak). Further research taught me that the struggle for the right to ride a horse the same way as men arose at the same time as the Suffragette movement for the vote and was just as emotional and controversial. Fascinating.
So now I know a whole lot about the history of horse riding when it comes to gender roles. Those Western movies that show the women riding alongside the men using a man's saddle are about as accurate as the high noon fast draw gunfight. A tiny detail in the story caused me to become an instant expert. If you're a writer, was there some fascinating research you've done for a story that sticks with you?
Gerald Costlow is currently writing a supernatural romance series that spans generations for VTP Publishing. You can find a list of his published stories at Gerald Costlow at Amazon.com. His blog (such as it is) can be found at http://theweaving.blogspot.com/ and he promises to get it caught up as soon as he finishes his next story.