Writing Historical Fiction: The Trail of Tears

My interest in the Trail of Tears began four years ago. At the time, I was teaching U.S. history and I taught the Trail of Tears in some depth to my students. One day, not long after the 2008 presidential election, I was flipping the television channels and stopped long enough to listen to a news show host as she talked about the injustices at Guantanamo Bay and proclaimed, “This is America. We do not torture.” While I love the thought behind the sentiment and wished it were true, I knew it wasn’t. My thoughts immediately turned to what I had taught my students about the Trail of Tears, and that was America, and that was torture. There’s no other word for forcing hundreds of people to walk a thousand miles in the elements, hot and cold, with barely enough food to eat or water to drink. The Trail of Tears wasn’t merely an unfortunate incident in American history. It was U.S. government sanctioned.

Flash forward to the summer of 2011. Her Dear & Loving Husband was out and about in the world, and it was time to write Book Two in the trilogy. I wanted to keep everything readers love about the first book (mainly the love story between James and Sarah as well as the historical background), but I also needed to challenge my characters (and myself) by pushing us all past our comfort zone. I had already used the Salem Witch Trials as the historical background in Book One, and while it’s impossible to write about Sarah without touching on the 1692 witch hunts, I needed something new to introduce in the sequel. Very quickly I settled on The Trail of Tears as the background for Book Two.

I spent most of last summer researching the Trail of Tears. I started with my obligatory Internet search (no Wikipedia allowed—I don’t care how often it pops up as the first listed website), but I also hit my local university library and took hours of notes. I looked up details of the trail itself because I was already visualizing how the experience would involve my characters, but I also wanted to know how the people lived before they were forced away. I thought through the plot enough to know how I wanted to incorporate the history into the story as a whole; as a result, I was able to work my way through the research in a few weeks instead of a few months.

The Cherokee weren’t the only tribe forced to walk west, but I chose to use the Cherokee experience since that gave me a lens through which to focus the story. That’s one of the calls you have to make when you’re writing historical fiction: the more you can whittle down and narrow your topic, the better. Especially in a story like Her Loving Husband’s Curse, which weaves back and forth between the past and the present. I didn’t have time in that narrative to explain about the other tribes since for each of the tribes they had their own unique stories. In order to keep my plot focused, I chose to see the Trail of Tears through James’s experience with the Cherokee before and during the expulsion, and it’s through James’s eyes we see this travesty in American history.

My main goal when I write historical fiction is to inspire readers with enough curiosity about the period that they seek out nonfiction historical accounts of the era. I can’t give a thoroughly detailed account of the westward expulsion of the native tribes within the limitations of my story structure, but I can hope readers become interested enough in the history that they want to know more. There are many lessons we can learn from the Trail of Tears. As a society we still suffer from intolerance, ignorance, and greed, the traits that allowed the westward expulsion in the first place. If readers can see an echo of the past in the present in my stories, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job well.

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