Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Joys and Pitfalls of Research

            What I love most about historical novels is their ability to carry me off to a world completely foreign to everything I know. Regency Period, Elizabethan days, Victorian times, Middle Ages, Biblical times, and the American Wild West; all are as different from our modern age as sugar is from salt. Among my collection of research books on the nineteenth century, I have a book called, The Good Old Days; They Were Terrible. And they were. So, are we crazy to be fascinated by those long gone days?
            I don’t think so.
Cape Meares Lighthouse
            Even as a child I was captivated by tales of cowboys and Indians and the old West. My regret for having to live in a suburb of Los Angeles instead of on a farm out in the country, horrified my mother, who grew up on farms and hated the mere mention of the life. I suppose it’s natural that I came to love antiques. Anything from the past grabs my attention no matter where I am, books, furniture, porcelain. The day my book Forever Mine was born was no different.
Lightkeeper and bride
            My husband and I were exploring the Oregon Coast and stopped at the Cape Meares Lighthouse. I had been there before, but this time, it was open to tourists. Inside a showcase I saw a photograph of a man and woman a volunteer explained was the wedding picture of one of Cape Meares’ keepers. The bride and groom looked anything but happy. In fact, she looked downright forlorn.
            After we left, my mind started spinning. What if that bride had never met her new husband before that day? What would it have been like to go to such an isolated place as a new wife to stranger? Running back to Mama would have been nigh impossible. The nearest town was ten miles away—miles of barely navigable old growth forest, with no real roads, and a boat trip up the bay, which could only be made during high tide. There was no such thing as an impromptu trip to town in those days.
Cape Meares, lighthouse on tip
            The Cape is very familiar to me. Friends and I have been going there for writers’ retreats for nearly twenty years. We rent a house in a little village with a view of the sea. We sleep, eat, write, walk the beach, then do it all over again. There are no stores, no gas stations, no school, not one single business. Most of the houses belong to Portlanders who only show up on weekends. During the week we, along with an occasional deer or a few elk, have the place to ourselves, and we love it.
            Much of Forever Mine was written there. Ariah and Bartholomew were jabbering in my head before I could write the first word. In fact, I was trying to wrap up the book’s predecessor, Taming Jenna. Ariah and Bart didn’t make it easy. They told me about themselves, and what their lives were like, and how I should write their story.
            And I listened.
            The first thing I did to research Forever Mine, was to pay another visit to the lighthouse. I climbed the narrow, winding steps to the top where the wind threatened to snatch me off the catwalk and toss you into the sea if I didn’t hang onto the rail. Inside, I listened to the unique rattle and moan of the wind battering all those windows and the metal roof, and imagined Ariah and Bart standing beside me.
            My second step was to visit our next door neighbor, artist Barbara ­­­Watkins, a long time resident of Cape Meares, who put me in touch with a local historian, Jerry Hysmith. Besides giving me information about the area, Barbara and Jerry made it possible for me to communicate with three of the children of light keepers at the Cape. All were kind and obliging, but the most helpful was “Old Hig,” otherwise known as George W. Higgins, the son of George H. Higgins whose wedding photo first inspired m story.
            “Old Hig” at the time, happened to be the age my father would have been had he lived past his forty-fifth birthday. George and I sort of adopted each other and exchanged many letters. He came to see me the year I was at Cape Meares working on Forever Mine, so we could meet. The dear man told me tale after tale of life at Cape Meares and the area. His father no longer worked at the light, but they lived in the village. Many of “Old Hig’s’ stories made their way into my book, including Bartholomew’s recollection of trying to cook and eat a cormorant, and the terrible storm that tossed a rock over two hundred feet in the air to smash a window in the light.
Floor plan of keeper's house
            More research help was available at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum where I found books full of stories told of the area by pioneers. I also acquired photographs there, which I have included here, even floor plans of the keepers’ houses. I studied geographical maps of the cape, and read books—about lighthouses, about pioneer days in the Tillamook area, and about sailors of the day (which helped in creating my wonderful character, Seamus, Bart’s assistant keeper).
            I learned early in my career to delve deep in my research, seeking those tiny details of life that can truly bring a book to life. Of course, I also learned to guard against using too much of the information I dug up. That’s where the pitfalls come in. Never bury your reader in research details.
Often doing the research for a book is as much or more fun than writing the story. But it can also be a lot of time-consuming work.
            Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share about doing your own research?

Charlene Raddon is an award-winning, multi-published author of historical romance novels set in the American West. Her books, published in paperback by Zebra Books, have won or placed in numerous contests. She was a Golden Heart Finalist and received a Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award Nomination. Four of her books are available as e-books from Tirgearr Publishing. A fifth will be released in November 2013.

All Charlene's e-books are available on, B&, and other e-book stores. Her paperbacks are out of print.

Find Charlene at:


  1. I love lighthouses and your research into your book was quite interesting. I've had some odd experiences in lighthouses because they do set off a vibe that makes you so aware of those who came before. Photographs of them are always useful as they are so symbolic. And that Tillamook museum is one of my favorites. My childhood was heavily into all those areas as I had grandparents who moved to Woods (near Pacific City). Taking a writer's retreat as you described sounds like a dream for the energy of the women and the area :)

  2. Our retreats were wonderful. I haven't been there now for 4 years because of ill health and a broken neck but I'm hoping to go next spring, unless I can find someone to go this fall.

  3. You're very good, Charlene. Your first-hand account of researching your topics was very enjoyable. And what an adventure you had learning about the lighthouse. Oh, if the walls could talk.
    I liked your idea of a marriage between strangers, too. I suppose this happened more often than we will ever know.
    Your book does sound intriguing, too. And the cover is gorgeous!

  4. Thanks, Ceilia. Mail order brides were fairly common in the west.

  5. What a fabulous post, Charlene! I love lighthouses and had the bucket-list experience of climbing to the top of the smokestack one at Point Arena, California.Oh, how the tales of romance began to spin.

    Throw in a mail order bride, I'm hooked. Great and intriguing post today.

  6. Thanks, Tanya. You'll have to get my book Forever Mine and see if you enjoy it. Glad you stopped by.

  7. Enjoyed your post, Charlene, and I look forward to reading your book, Forever Mine.

  8. Loved Forever Mine, Char. You have a real gift for telling a story. And this was a great post. I've toured a few lighthouses. The steps were narrow and steep is all I really remember.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Carra. I hope you enjoy Forever Mine.

  10. Ciara, you're definitely right about the lighthouse stairs and it bothered me that they were like metal grating you could see through. I'm so glad you liked the book. It's a special one for me.

  11. I loved hearing about the lighthouse. They have always drawn my interest. I am so lucky that I live just up the mountain from where the 1849 gold rush happened and I can explore the area and ask questions. It feeds my hunger for history. I rarely read anything that isn't historical these days.


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