Friday, May 8, 2020

Guest Post by Ashley E. Sweeney, Author of Answer Creek

Please join me in welcoming Ashley Sweeney to Let Them Read Books! Ashley is celebrating the release of her new novel, Answer Creek, and I'm thrilled to have her here today with a guest post about researching her novel and getting into the minds of people of the era.

From the award-winning author of Eliza Waite comes a gripping tale of adventure and survival based on the true story of the ill-fated Donner Party on their 2,200-mile trek on the Oregon–California Trail from 1846 to ’47.

Nineteen-year-old Ada Weeks confronts danger and calamity along the hazard-filled journey to California. After a fateful decision that delays the overlanders more than a month, she—along with eighty-one other members of the Donner Party—finds herself stranded at Truckee Lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, stuck there for the entirety of a despairing, blizzard-filled winter. Forced to eat shoe leather and blankets to survive, will Ada be able to battle the elements—and her own demons—as she envisions a new life in California?

Researched with impeccable detail and filled with imagery as wide as the western prairie, Answer Creek blends history and hearsay in an unforgettable story of challenging the limits of human endurance and experiencing the triumphant power of love. 


As historical novelists, we must consider the culture of the time period we’re writing about. As we peel back layers of customs and values, we must consider many other elements: jargon, recipes, attire, mode of transportation, communication, and currency, to name a few.

Nineteenth century journalist Francis Parkman, who traveled the Oregon Trail to document emigrant travel in the mid 1840s, wrote: “Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than research. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in the bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.”

As I was writing Answer Creek, set on the Oregon-California Trail in 1846, I filled a dozen black and white composition books with excerpts from period literature, newspapers, and journals. I scoured 19th century advertisements in newspapers from New York to San Francisco. And I visited countless historical sites along the Oregon-California Trail itself, stopping at historical markers, historical societies, and museums. By far, the closest glimpse I got into the minds and hearts of the western travelers was through their journals. At a regional museum near Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska, I pored over surviving journals:

June 7, 1845
After keeping our new course for seventeen miles our progress became suddenly arrested. We all at once came to the edge of the high prairie, and from thence down to the valley . . . a distance of three miles, nothing but a chaotic mass of rocks, hills, precipices, and chasms could be seen; and through which it seemed as if it were impossible ever to proceed . . .
—J. Henry Carleton

August 1, 1846
Left our encampment and traveled a tolerable rough road crossing several very high hills and encamped at the head of a larger Valley with a fine little stream . . . cattle plenty of grass, Country appear (sic) more hale west. Made this day 16.
—James Frazier Reed

May 2, 1847
Made 20 miles. Exceedingly cold for the season . . .
—Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

May 24, 1847
This is the place for everything, laughing, scolding, whining, whistling, and singing. Some find everything better than they expected; others worse . . .
—Chester Ingersoll

I strongly believe that historical novelists must adhere to historical accuracy, as long as it doesn’t get into the way of a great story. That’s the “faithfulness to the truth of history” part that Parkman alluded to. In doing so, we are often forced to hold our noses about period biases. Patriarchy. Misogyny. Domestic violence. Xenophobia. Yup, it’s all there. But we must write all of this in; we wouldn’t be true to history if we didn’t (Parkman himself is accused of cultural biases. He is a product of his time and upbringing, a fact that does not excuse his thoughts or behaviors, but offers a glimpse of 19th century mindset).

Reading Answer Creek, we cringe when one of the women on the wagon train has a black eye and when another woman is silenced with a stern look and curt comment. We wince when there’s a murder on the trail that goes unpunished and when Native Americans are slaughtered. And we shake our heads when the men of the Donner-Reed Party choose to take an uncharted “shortcut” (with no input from the women on the journey).

It’s easy to judge our forefathers and foremothers from the comfortable distance of time. But the time will come for us to be under scrutiny as well. How will we be judged by our thoughts and our actions 175 years from now?

Amazon  ~  IndieBound  ~  Bookshop  ~  Goodreads

About the Author:

Photo by Justin Haugen Photography, LLC
Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, ELIZA WAITE.  Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. ANSWER CREEK is her second novel. Find her online at the following:
Twitter: @ashleysweeney57


  1. The reason I love reading historical fiction revolves around how much you learn of our past far beyond the history textbooks - which means Ms. Sweeney is dead-on - accuracy as much as possible is a must!


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