Wednesday, November 9, 2011

guest post: Ann Weisgarber on Researching The Secret History of Rachel DuPree

Last week I reviewed The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (I loved it). I couldn't stop thinking about Rachel, an African-American homesteader in South Dakota's Badlands. As an academic librarian, I spend much of my day teaching students (and to a lesser extent, faculty) how to conduct research and which sources are most appropriate for which research topics. I'm fascinated by how people conduct research, and Ann graciously agreed to write a guest post about her research for this novel. It was a fascinating surprise to hear that Ann's research began right here in Des Moines!

Carrie, thank you for asking me to write about the resources I used during the research process.  I do, though, have a confession to make.  I told very few people, including the librarians who helped me, that I was writing a novel.  The very word intimidated me.  Instead, I said I was working on a project.  When the book was published, I finally told them.  The librarians weren’t surprised since they had guessed that long ago.  Detectives at heart, librarians cannot be fooled.

When I started, the Internet wasn’t the tool that it is today. Instead, I packed paper and pencil and went to the public library in Des Moines, Iowa, where I lived at the time.  Perched on a stool at the catalogue, I started with African-American homesteaders.  I found John Ravage’s Black Pioneers, and I was off and running.

Soon after the discovery of Ravage’s book, I moved back to Sugar Land, Texas.  Again, I turned to my local library.  I found Luchetti and Olwell’s Women of the WestA librarian told me about reference books that listed popular music from the past century and inventions of the day.  When I researched cows, water wells, and the history of South Dakota, children’s non-fiction books were just what I needed.  The descriptions and illustrations were concise and clear.

The library was also the place where I went when I was overwhelmed by the writing process.  The atmosphere soothed my nerves, and the stacks of books reminded me that other writers had gone before me. Another resource was the library at Badlands National Park.  I had a writing residency through the U.S. Park Service, and I was able to access the library in the visitor’s center.  My knees wobbled the first time I saw it.  I had no idea the parks had historical archives that included diaries and photographs.  I had hit gold. 

During the residency, I talked to local people.  Some of their stories, such as an electrical ball of fire that travels along a stove pipe, found a place in Rachel DuPree.  In Wall, South Dakota, I drifted along the aisles at Hole in the Wall Bookstore.  There I found Oscar Micheaux’s The Conquest and Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter, autobiographies of African-Americans in the West.

Thank goodness for museums.  In eastern South Dakota, I visited one that included a collection of antique ranch equipment and medicinal remedies for farm animals.  I spent hours at the sod dugout at Prairie Homestead, a National Historic Site near Badlands National Park.  I visited Ft. Robinson State Park, Nebraska, where Isaac was posted.  Back in Houston, I went to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum and took notes about uniforms, forts, and battles

A major eureka moment was the discovery of Ida B. Wells Barnett.  I came across her name while reading a library book about Chicago and slaughterhouses.  Her name was mentioned briefly, and I was fascinated by her.  I knew that Rachel would admire her, and I had to find a place for Wells Barnett.  Eventually, she became a role model for Rachel and her influence changed the shape of the novel. 

Each piece of research impacted the story.  Not every detail was included but a solid foundation in historical facts gave me the confidence to write a novel – rather than a project -- about a woman who lived a life very different than my own.

Many thanks to Ann for taking the time to tell about the research behind Rachel DuPree. You can buy The Secret History of Rachel DuPree from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle. I hope Ann will come back when her next book is published and tell us about the research for it too.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. How interesting! Wonderful to see the process behind the book. Thanks.

  2. I am reading this book right now so your timing is perfect!

  3. Historical fiction has got to be one of the most intimidating to me when it comes to thinking about writing it - so much research involved in writing about a way of life that we haven't lived.

  4. I am going to be reading this book next week, and am so excited now! I love the way that Ann researched this book, and find it particularly interesting that she used a lot of children's books. Great guest post today!

  5. Thank you for posting this. It was fun to think back on the research process.

    Alyce, it's one piece of research at a time. If I had thought about all that I didn't know, I never would have tackled this project. I took it one sentence at a time. If I can do it, you can too.


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