9 June 2015

Researching an Obscure Place and Time

My Tuesday Talk Guest - Linda Covella

My young adult historical romance Yakimali’s Gift takes place in 1775 New Spain. At that time, New Spain consisted of parts of California and Mexico, which included areas of modern-day Arizona. The story revolves around a historical colonization expedition from Mexico to California led by Juan Bautista de Anza.

When I first learned about the expedition, I was surprised that I had never heard of it and, especially since I grew up in California, that it wasn’t taught in schools. Thus, I was inspired to write my story. Additionally, among the 240 colonists, more than half were woman and children (115 children), and I wanted to write the story from their perspective.

As I began my research, I realized I’d taken on a bigger task than I’d originally anticipated: information on the expedition and the time and place was very limited. There was no historical society, no newspaper articles, etc., that could provide information. The focus of the colonization of California was mostly on the colonists who came from the eastern U.S. some eighty years later, and on the California mission period. (In 1775, they were just being developed.) And most of the resources I did uncover were from the male’s perspective.

I was lucky in one aspect: I had access to the diaries of Anza and the priests who also went on the journey. This “Web de Anza” became my go-to resource for details about the journey (though somewhat dry and again from the male perspective).

After much Google and library research, I found primary and secondary resources that provided me with period detail: customs, clothing, food, utensils, plants, wildlife, etc. The primary resources are from priests, missionaries, and other travelers to New Spain in the late 18th century who wrote about their experiences. Of course, I was thrilled to find these accounts. Most of this information, however, only discussed the Spanish people inhabiting the area.

My main character, 15-year-old Fernanda, is half Spanish and half Pima Indian. Along the journey, she tries to learn the secrets to her mother’s Pima Indian past. I thought it was difficult finding information on the Spaniards! Anything on the Pima and Papago Indians from that time was almost non-existent. Information about the relationship between the soldiers, missionaries, and Indians during that time is sketchy. (Again, there are abundant resources about these relationships during the time of the missions.) After much digging, I found some wonderful books that detailed the different tribes’ housing, clothing, religious beliefs, language, and social customs of that time.

An invaluable book gave me some of the female perspective I was looking for: Women and the Conquest of California. The book and the author, Dr. Virginia Bouvier, were both helpful.

My research brought me to various people who were willing to talk with me, including descendants of colonists who joined the expedition. I contacted Pima Indians in Arizona, mostly to answer questions about the language. I did get some answers, but they were wary of speaking with me.

Besides people, books, and websites, I found other resources. I traveled to Arizona and visited the areas in which Yakimali’s Gift takes place. I saw the ruins of the ancient Casa Grande. I explored small museums that displayed personal items used in New Spain in the late 18th century, and nature museums where I could view plants and wildlife of the area, as well as traveling around by car just soaking up the atmosphere. To be able to visit these places, to get a sense of what it may have been like to live there in 1775, was the best part of my research.

All in all, researching the novel took several months before I even started writing the novel. At first I was worried I wouldn’t find enough information. I ended up being overwhelmed by what I discovered and deciding how to use what in my story. Thankfully, I love doing research, so it wasn’t drudgery, by any means.

I’ve loved historical fiction from an early age, and to research and write my own has been a real thrill.

Story Synopsis:

It’s 1775 in Mexico, New Spain, and 15-year-old Fernanda Marquina, half Pima Indian and half Spanish, can’t seem to live up to her mother’s expectations or fit into the limited female roles of her culture. While she tends her garden, matches wits with buyers and sellers at the weekly market, and avoids Mama’s lectures and the demands of Nicolas, the handsome soldier pursuing her, Fernanda grabs any opportunity to ride the horses she loves, racing across the desert, dreaming of adventure in faraway lands.
But when a tragic accident presents her with the adventure she longed for, it’s at a greater cost than she could have ever imagined. With her family, Fernanda joins Juan Bautista de Anza’s historic colonization expedition to California.
On the arduous four-month journey, Fernanda makes friends with Feliciana, the young widow Fernanda can entrust with her deepest thoughts; Gloria, who becomes the sister Fernanda always wished for; and Gloria’s handsome brother Miguel, gentle one moment, angry the next and, like Fernanda, a mestizo–half Indian and half Spanish. As Fernanda penetrates Miguel’s layers of hidden feelings, she’s torn between him and Nicolas, who has joined the journey in the ranks of Anza’s soldiers and whose plans include marrying Fernanda when they reach California.
But propelling Fernanda along the journey is her search for Mama’s Pima Indian past, a past Mama refused to talk about, a past with secrets that Fernanda is determined to learn. The truths she discovers will change the way she sees her ancestry, her family, and herself.
Fernanda’s story is one of discovery: her place in the Spanish world and in the Pima Indian world, her views on race and religion, her connection to family. And as a teenage girl curious about love and romantic relationships, she discovers that on her journey as well.

You can find out more about Yakimali’s Gift—historical notes, bibliography, excerpt, trailer, reviews—on my website. I welcome your comments or questions on my research, or I’d love to hear anything about your own work.

Thank you for reading my article

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  1. Helen, thanks so much for having me on your blog!

  2. I love reading the behind the scenes on historical fiction, and this is one of the best descriptions I've seen. Never heard about the expedition either, and I've lived here in California for over 20 years. So much work and love goes into a great book such as this. Thank you for hosting Linda and sharing her story with us.

    1. That is what is so fascinating about historical fiction I think... new things never heard of! Thanks for dropping by my blog Silvia!

    2. Silvia and Helen, the research is hard work, but fascinating and fun. The other difficult part is weaving the facts into the story. I enjoy it all! :-) Silvia, thanks for reading and for your lovely comments!


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