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An Inside Glimpse into Researching NEVER LET GO


November 30, 2019 by Pamela Nowak

Researching for a historical novel is a bit different from researching for scholarly writing yet both begin in the same place. Methods are personal to each author. For me, because I consider myself both a historian and a writer of fiction, the process involves two layers. I research as deeply as scholarly historians to pin down the actual history and to seek answers to research questions. But I also explore sources that will give me clues about how to craft character and motivations. Knowing I will need to create scenes with action and dialogue, I need to find details that form the seeds for my story-craft.

For NEVER LET GO, I started my research with the Workman and Currie Papers. The two interviewed and corresponded with every original settler they could locate. Workman’s broad intent to document the history of the settlement (rather than just the events of August 20, 1862) provided rich information about when pioneers came and what happened in their daily lives. That he did so by questioning the original inhabitants provides first-hand information. That offered not only a record of what happened but how each person “viewed” the events. After all, “history is in the eye of the beholder.”

From the Workman and Currie collections, I found details about Christina Koch’s love of lilacs, Almena Hurd’s reputation as a butter-maker and trading interactions with the Dakota. I found information on the personalities and biases of the Duleys and the behavior of the Wrights and Lavina Eastlick’s practical world-view. In terms of events, I learned about John Wright’s illicit activities and the shooting of a fellow settler and discovered clues about how the families socialized and the frequent visits of Pawn’s band. I also noted multiple references to “sun-rise” as the time that the events of August 20 began, which I was able to look up online as 5:26 a.m. All of these bits helped me round out plotting and characters.

Lavina Eastlick’s personal narrative of the attack at Lake Shetek and the days/weeks that followed offered an almost minute by minute account. This, combined with other personal accounts, allowed me to create a timeline of events. It also provided a glimpse into her character and the very personal struggle she underwent as she had to choose which of her children she would try to save. In comparing her account to others, I was also able to identify ways in which different individuals viewed events. This was especially useful in looking at Pawn’s behavior at the Wright cabin, the flight from the lake, and the beginning of the fight at the slough.

Lavina’s account reflects her own biases. Her language reflects the time she lived in, her adjectives and verbs clearly showing that she viewed the Dakota negatively. Yet, she included small details which suggest other interpretations of events. Reading between-the-lines of her account, one can see so much that wasn’t reported in absolutes, especially in the initial responses of the Dakota and what prompted the shootings at the slough.

Archival research also played a role in my retelling of the Lake Shetek story. This exploration proved especially valuable where there were primary sources that could help clarify contradicting information. This was important in trying to unravel the various secondary reports of the age/gender of Laura Duley’s youngest child. Reports variously indicated that Laura was pregnant (some say it was Julia), that the child was an infant, and variously that it was a boy or girl.  A search revealed William Duley’s depredation claim to the government in which he references the child and her age at the time. This is likely the most reliable account—given by her father just weeks after the event and supersedes newspaper reporting and a letter from Jefferson Duley many years later since Jefferson was very young himself. Whether or not there were pregnancies was never mentioned by either woman.

I also utilized archival research to verify the role of the Fool Soldiers in ransoming the captives.

Understanding cultural differences was also important in researching for NEVER LET GO. One of the largest issues in deciphering historical reports is that every person reporting events “spins” those events by imposing his/her own interpretation of motivations. This is particularly problematic when cultures have differing values. A review of Dakota culture was very important toward allowing me to see events and reactions from another point-of-view. I knew I needed to learn from Dakota tribal members and look at sources that explored the role of the Dakota in the events at Lake Shetek.

No one knows how the Dakota present at Lake Shetek really saw the unfolding events or why they took the actions they did. No one knows how much bias was present in the settlers’ first-person accounts of events and how much of what survivors said was shaped by their own culture and the accepted norms of the time. It’s unfortunate Julia Wright did not leave a personal account—her point of view would have helped in sorting out events.

In exploring Dakota culture, I learned of the emphasis on the value of kinship relationships, truthfulness, and respect for women. I also learned that defined gender roles and marriage customs were often misinterpreted by Whites and created a barrier to Whites’ understanding of those values. During the Dakota conflict, captives were taken for a purpose that was unfamiliar to Dakota customs—ramson. In all likelihood, that meant there had to have been a good deal of confusion about how those captives were treated. Usually, captives were adopted into families. Suddenly, there were captives that were outside the normal kinship relationship. All of this needed to be considered as I attempted to create motivations for the Dakota in my story.  

Thankfully, there was information in the historical record which I could combine with cultural considerations to help me sort out some of the Dakota motivations. One example is the record of the differences of opinion at the Dakota War Council held on August 17. Leaders from multiple bands attended and they very much disagreed on actions that should be taken. This council occurred after a month of tension and rising conflict. The bands that were present at Lake Shetek were represented there and took differing views. It is not difficult to imagine the conflicting viewpoints still existed three days later.  

Another complication unique to how I researched for NEVER LET GO was my personal need to craft these main characters (Laura, Lavina, Almena, Julia, and Christina) as true-to-life as possible. For this, I decided to begin their stories long before the day the conflict began at Lake Shetek.

Toward that purpose, I began with a review of genealogical sources. This, of course, started with online family trees (since that’s where the clues are) but I relied on vital records to establish fact. I could pin down when and where the Duleys lived by looking at land records. Censuses revealed names of family members living at particular locations, land values, education, etc. I found that Almena Hurd and her younger brother went to live with a neighbor after their widowed father remarried—this was an event I could use to shape her personality and something I could fictionally use to motivate her learning to make butter. Likewise, I found bits and pieces of real history about most of the women that I could use to shape their characters.

These same sources also reined me in from using secondary and tertiary reports. There was much gossip about Julia Wright having fallen in love with one of her captors and having his child, after which her husband left her. However, I was unable to find any record of that occurring and did find some primary sources that did not support the rumor. It was a great plot line I had to abandon.

Research for NEVER LET GO was an extraordinary experience. I uncovered previously unknown information (which may find its way into a scholarly article) and I got to create living characters as a vehicle for conveying that history. While the book is fiction, I tried to be as accurate to known history as I could be. Where facts were unclear, I was able to interpret them. It was an unforgettable experience.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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