What would you do if you suddenly found yourself back in the middle of the eighteen hundreds? If you were in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight, would you be able to survive? I don’t think I would. I would be too squeamish to kill something, clean it and cook it. I’d be the berry picker who would probably starve because it would be fall or winter and all the berries would have been picked over by birds and bears or spring when they haven’t bloomed yet. It’s one thing to have all the books in front of you and reiterate what they say so it appears that the character you’re writing about has the knowledge in their head. It’s another thing altogether to be plunked down in a survival situation and try to live. My character in ‘Withershins’ and ‘Spirit Quest’ was able to rely on the kindness of strangers and learn survival skills from them – skills that I learned from books so I could plant that information in the story.
The best advice anyone can give a writer is to write what you know and what you don’t know, research. I know Southern Manitoba, especially the areas around Winnipeg. That includes my favourite place, the Lower Fort Garry Historical Site.
My second favourite place is the old St. Andrews Church, Rectory and Cemetery. The best part of these places is how well they have been preserved. In the summer, history students and volunteers from the Manitoba Historical Society play the characters from our past. It is basically like walking into the past. No survival skills necessary. This really helps me, as a writer, to visualize what it was like back then.
What I couldn’t discover by wandering through this historic site, I researched from the internet, but mostly from books. Some of the books I have relied on the most came from my research shelves. These shelves include history books (like the History of Lower Fort Garry, above), biographies, maps and a few other subjects, as I will show you.
In one of them, I discovered a woman I really wanted to be a part of my story. Her name is Harriet Sinclair. I found her story from this fantastic resource, Women of Red River. These are the stories of Manitoba’s earliest pioneers, collected from the women themselves around the turn of the last century. I highly recommend reading their amazing stories.
My grandfather had a pretty extensive library including many books on the history of Winnipeg. Here are a few of those old books that have many sketches of the area done in the middle of the eighteen hundreds, which really helped me visualize the past.
The Nor’Wester was a newspaper published in the Red River area, depicting life at that time. This is a hundred year anniversary version, including excerpts from the archived newspapers. One must take some of the editorial comments with a grain of salt because its publisher was an Orangeman, a supporter of the Upper Canada regime, not a fan of the Metis and French residents, so some of the features have a slant in that direction. Winnipeg 100 was published in 1970 to commemorate the birth of our city. There are many pictures and articles about how the city began and all that had been accomplished since its conception.
There is also the pictorial Winnipeg’s Early Days. It’s hard to tell by the cover, but it does contain many sketches of the area done in the eighteen hundreds.
The pioneers were not the only residents of the area in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Cree and Ojibway tribes had wandered the area for thousands of years, using the forked rivers as a meeting place for trade. They welcomed the settlers that Lord Selkirk sent from Scotland and helped them through the first few years as they established their farms. The early pioneers arrived with very few possessions and no idea how harsh our winters could be. If it wasn’t for the help of Chief Peguis and his people the settlers all would have died during their first winter here. A lot of this struggle was described by the Women of Red River.
In order for me to understand some of the native lifestyle at the time, I turned to a huge tome, Mystic Warriors of the Plains. Although it is written by an American mostly about the Sioux, a lot about the way they lived is similar to those who lived in the prairies of Canada as well. Thomas Mails does a great job of describing every detail, from making moccasins to all the uses of bison parts, how they carved their arrowheads and cooked their meals.