Well, we’re five days out from the release of Hell’s Marshal, so I thought this might be a good time to go over something that’s often overlooked in a book of this kind: research.
Hell’s Marshal is set in real places like Creede, Colorado; Liberty, Missouri; Adair, Iowa; and Northfield, Minnesota. Normally, researching those settings could be as simple as a search engine and Google Earth, but since Hell’s Marshal takes place in 1892, things are a little different now, and some information isn’t going to be available through normal internet sources.
One of the hardest things to do was get the setting right. For example, one scene (a gunfight) takes place in Bridge Square, in Northfield, the spot where the James-Younger gang conducted a failed robbery attempt during Jesse James’ life. Specifically, they robbed a bank that was in the back of a building on Division Street. That building–the Scriver Building–still stands today, but it has different signs, different paint, and so on. And of course the streets are much different now than in 1892. So I had to figure out three main things: How were the streets set up in 1892, what did the buildings look like, and what was going on?
The street arrangement part proved most difficult. In previous cities, I’d been able to find old fire insurance maps online that showed me not only the street layout at or close to the time of the story, but what businesses were in each building. For Bridge Square, that kind of map wasn’t available online, so I had to go with a combination of Google Earth, an old map from 1869 with no street names, a reconstructed map showing the layout during the James gang’s robbery, and photos of the square and its buildings.
Here’s the recreated map. While it isn’t very detailed, it allowed me to see the general layout of the square and its bridge, as well as the buildings.
The photo below (from the Daily Mail) shows Bridge Square as you start across the bridge, which allowed me to recognize that my characters wouldn’t be able to see the bank until they were in the square itself, versus from the bridge.
Below are two old photos of the Scriver building (Courtesy Here). Note the differences in roof structures, the stairs on one side, and so on. The bank is visible on the left wall, toward the rear. I needed to choose the more accurate photo for 1892, which turned out to be the second one, since the staircase was added in 1875 to provide access to a dental office.
Finally, I used historical accounts of the James-Younger gang’s original botched robbery attempt to find other points of interest I could use in the story, but when things got really tough, I turned to the experts at the Northfield Historical Society. Hayes Scriven, Executive Director, answered some tough questions and even suggested some other points of interest that were James gang-related, including The Exchange, a hidden saloon the brothers went to in both real life, and my story.
In fact, people from the Creede Historical Society, Clay County Museum and Archives in Missouri, and the Northfield Historical Society were crucial for filling in the historical gaps in this story. These folks are all volunteers, dedicated to preservation of our past, keeping it alive so we can learn from it and not repeat our past mistakes. I found them all willing and enthusiastic about helping, and suspect it’s that way with just about every historical society.
Is Hell’s Marshal 100-percent historically accurate? Nope. I had to fill in some blanks myself, where information just wasn’t available. But It’s close, and what’s really important is that it captures the flavor of these places in 1892, making it easier for the reader to jump back in time while reading.
The following historians proved invaluable in writing the book:
– Bob Seago and Johanna Gray, Creede Historical Society, Creede, CO
– Hayes Scriven, Executive Director, Northfield Historical Society, Northfield, MN
– James Thorn, Clay County Museum, Clay County, MO
– Christopher Harris, Resident Historian, Clay County Archives, Clay County, MO
Hell’s Marshal arrives on Amazon April 14th!