Last summer I took a combined research/pleasure trip to Maysville and Louisville, KY. I learned so much and had to get right down to fixing parts of my story that didn’t jibe with history. I may be writing fiction, but I want the historical parts to be as accurate as possible.
I was concerned about details such as the correct names of steamboat landings and the location of the Point in relation to Beargrass Creek. I needed to know where the river rats floated their shanty boats and if people really could walk across the Ohio River in late summer. I had to see the Portland Canal and determine if Shippingport can work as setting for the story’s climax. I absolutely had to know if a lantern shining high atop a hill in Ripley, Ohio could be seen in Maysville, KY seven miles away or if Dover was a more likely setting. And I had to pin down the former locations of the slave pens in both cities.
Help in my quest for clarification came from several corners. Nona Marshall at Maysville’s National Underground Railroad Museum showed me the hole in the floor of the Bierbower House where fugitive slaves crawled down a ladder and hid in an underground storage room. She then sent me to Jerry Gore, great-grandson of slaves, who took me on a chilling tour of the basement below Phillips’ Folly, where slaves were held in a jail cell that still has blood on the wall.
Rick Bell, author of Louisville’s Waterfront Park/A Riverfront Renaissance, spent hours chauffeuring me around the city, hunting out the remains of the original stone bridge from Portland to Shippingport, touring the oldest street in Butchertown, finding what’s left of Frenchman’s Row, pointing out 19th century warehouses still in use on Main Street, drawing my attention to the lines of shotgun houses in the old city sections, and taking me down Green Street where brothels ran shoulder to shoulder. They don’t any more. Green’s been renamed Liberty Street and is a busy commercial district.
Natalie at the Portland Museum opened up the site on her day off so I could view the diorama that drove home the extensiveness of the Falls and their debilitating location–completely blocking the Ohio River. The ferocity of the Falls and rapids became obvious with a trip to the Indiana side where they are most visible.
All this is just the tip of the iceberg. I learned so much more and am using as much as I can in my story, the third book in my Canal Tales Series. In this book, Beany, Tess and Lucy are maturing and dealing with mature problems and situations–as you might have guessed from the Green Street statement.
It takes time and money, but there’s nothing like traveling to a location to absorb the sights, sounds, smells–and history–that will make a story sing.