Delving into History – Denver’s Colorful Past

Delving into History – Denver’s Colorful Past Guest Post By Elaine Russell

Delving into History – Denver’s Colorful Past
Guest Post By Elaine Russell

To write historical fiction, an author must have a vivid imagination and an interest in thoroughly researching the past. I earned an undergraduate degree in history, so I find research a pleasure rather than a task. It’s a little like solving a mystery, unwrapping a treasure trove of fascinating places, people, and events, which add richness and authenticity to a novel’s storyline. I read everything I can find from primary and secondary sources, both online and in person at public/university libraries, historical archives, historical societies and homes, and other specialized organizations. Research centers are also great places to publicize your book once completed, as they usually have blogs, Facebook sites, or newsletters. Some centers have gift shops, which could carry your work. I always travel to my story’s location to gain a sense of place and take dozens of pictures—a great help in writing detailed descriptions of scenes.

Delving into History – Denver’s Colorful Past Guest Post By Elaine Russell
The research for my new novel, In the Company of Like-Minded Women, involved all of the sources mentioned above. In addition, I exchanged emails with helpful research assistants, and ordered popular magazines and novels from the era. The idea for my story originated with my paternal great grandmother, Elizabeth B. Russell, who became a doctor in Denver, Colorado, in 1907. I had never been to Denver and knew little about its past. I started with general history books on Denver and Colorado then books on early women doctors and famous madams in the West, biographies of Colorado’s leading women, and much, much more. I discovered Denver’s rough and tumble early days, as a Wild West center for Rocky Mountain mining towns, and its gradual transformation into a civilized city, known as the Queen of the Prairie.
In June 2016, I visited Denver for ten days, a trip I planned around the annual Historical Novel Society conference held there that year. While online searches are wonderful and convenient, there is nothing like browsing through library shelves to find an unexpected gem or reading original documents in archive folders. Some materials are only available on microfiche at research centers (luckily more and more are being made available online). But I’m definitely old school! 

At the Denver Public Library’s Western History Section and the History Colorado Center’s Research Library I poured through everything from newspapers, city directories, magazine articles, photographs, and theatre programs to individual collections on well-known women leaders, such as Ellis Meredith and Minnie Reynolds. What a thrill to read original letters sent to Ms. Meredith by Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Lucy Stone. I toured the city’s old neighborhoods, historic buildings and local bookstores. The Molly Brown House Museum had a gift shop with interesting books about the era that I had not previously found.

As a result of my research, I chose to set the novel in 1901, the start of the new century, a time of tremendous change and great promise. More women were earning college degrees and entering male-dominated professions. This mirrored the growing fight for women’s suffrage and laws to protect women and children from the grave injustices of the time. Colorado led the charge on many fronts. Women from the Republican, Democrat, and Populist parties banded together to win a stunning victory in 1893, convincing a majority of the State’s men to approve a constitutional amendment granting women the vote (twenty-seven years before women’s suffrage passed at the national level). 

By 1901, a number of Colorado women had held public office and ushered through important reforms. But Denver also had a seedier side that could not be ignored—a booming red light district with lavish houses of ill repute run by infamous madams like Mattie Silks, and a Chinatown known for its opium dens and gambling parlors. A number of Denver’s leading ladies and less savory residents landed a role in my novel.

The challenge in the end was what to select from many diverse elements to include in my story in order to paint an accurate picture of the era and the lives of my characters. It was a little like sorting out a huge pile of clothes to see what fits and is useful. For me, the joy of the writing process is how different pieces suddenly fall into place and connect to one another in a way I never anticipated. It feels like magic!

Delving into History – Denver’s Colorful Past Guest Post By Elaine Russell
Elaine Russell is the award winning author of the novel Across the Mekong River and a number of children’s books, including the young adult novel Montana in A Minor, the Martin McMillan middle grade mystery series, and the middle grade picture book, All About Thailand. Her new novel, In the Company of Like-Minded Women, comes out this month. Elaine lives with her husband in Northern California and part time on the Island of Kauai.


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