Cindy Wilson fell in love with the Little House books in third grade, when she selected On the Banks of Plum Creek from the library. The series captivated her then and has ever since, with The Long Winter still being her favorite. An American studies major at the University of Minnesota and a charter member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, Cindy is passionate about history and enchanted by the prairie landscape. When not meticulously poring over newspaper archives, she enjoys traveling, delving into architecture, creating art quilts, reading, hiking, biking, or going out to watch storms as a trained weather spotter for the National Weather Service. She especially treasures time with her daughter, Laura, who at any given moment is living in some remote corner of the globe, exploring other cultures and histories.
How do you conduct your research?
Obsessively! I have an insatiable curiosity about most things, so research is an all-immersive experience for me. For this project, I started by learning everything I could about the development of the railroads in southern Minnesota and southeastern Dakota Territory to understand the context for how and why the residents of so many new towns were where they were as the winter of 1880-81 descended.
After I understood that context, I dove into the newspaper record. Focusing my research from May 1879 to May 1881, I think I read most extant newspaper issues covering territory from Fort Pierre on the west, Janesville (MN) on the east, Milbank (Dakota) on the north and down into the Yankton area on the south. That work yielded nearly 3,000 articles covering a variety of recurring topics and an additional collection of unique, off-topic, fascinating pieces. From there, I began to sort and analyze.
What is your favorite thing about research?
The learning! So much fascinating information to dive into and sort out, to analyze, to put into the larger context, etc. I truly love connecting dots and understanding the larger picture of history, by way of being down in the weeds.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
The rabbit holes. If an article made a passing reference to something that seemed like “common knowledge” in 1880 but was lost on me in 2019, I researched what it was. And sometimes those answers led to more research about tangential things about the tangent I was on…many hours were “lost” going down the rabbit holes. I learned a great deal, but those things did not make their way into the book. Having to keep my focus on topic was difficult at times. HOWEVER…I didn’t want to lose those fascinating things, so I started a Facebook group both as a place to support the book and to share some of those interesting tidbits. For instance…did you know that they could transmit photographs via telegraph? Yes! They could!
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
I fell in love with the entire concept of typesetting and producing newspapers and other print materials via the era’s presses and related equipment and tools. I spent more than one hot, humid afternoon in historical recreation locations talking to typesetters and playing with old presses. I learned how to set type, ink the letters, and produce a page. I’ve pulled the levers and turned the rollers.
I’ve stood in awe at the beautiful cabinets full of type in various fonts, sizes, and style (regular, bold, italic, bold italic, etc).
The entire idea of having to identify the tiny letters, put them into the right order (they were reversed, you know!), create an entire page of newsprint, then disassemble it all after printing…it’s mind-boggling! During that disassembly step, each letter had to be returned to its exact compartment in the trays or the next issue could be more difficult to produce.
Yes…this was another rabbit hole. While I only really needed to know three on a scale of ten for the purposes of the book, I digressed into learning the six on a scale of ten –- the next step might be to actually take on the role of one of those enactors and play with the equipment while talking to others about it.
Why is historical fiction important?
When well done, it teaches history –- and lessons –- to people who think they don’t like history. It brings history alive, and helps people understand the how and the why, but in emotional terms, not dry factual terms. My favorite reading tends to be historical fiction, and I’ve learned about some fascinating dusty corners of history because of it.
Actually, my curiosity about one of those “dusty corners” from the historical novel The Long Winter went so deep that an entire book (The Beautiful Snow) came into being.
Now others will be able to explore the wider context of the Hard Winter of 1880-81, all because I suddenly wondered about the location of the Tracy Cut, a plot device within a piece of historical fiction.
In turn, I very much hope that a historical fiction writer will be inspired by some of the stories within The Beautiful Snow, and craft a new piece of engaging fiction out of them. It’s a beautiful circle of life. 🙂
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
I’m excited to share the information in The Beautiful Snow with the readers. I’ve been a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan since the early 1970s, when I checked On the Banks of Plum Creek out of my school library. Since that time, I’ve (again, obsessively) researched and read just about anything I could get my hands on about Wilder. I noticed, however, that not much went into any depth about The Long Winter, nor the Hard Winter of 1880-81 for that matter. After speaking with Pamela Smith Hill, who annotated the Pioneer Girl project (Wilder’s original autobiography), I began the deep-dive into the winter. What I found showed similarities and vast differences from what we’ve all learned about the winter, yet Wilder’s fictionalized account still rings true.
The wonderful irony – and something my friends ask about – is that my perfect day tends to be around 80 degrees with a touch of humidity. Yet, I spent several years immersed in the details of one of the region’s worst winters. Why? Because it is wonderfully fascinating!