Every morning after her morning coffee, Ashley Sweeney goes into her home office, closes the door, and, until early afternoon, returns to the 1800s.
A retired journalist and teacher in Washington state, Sweeney is now an author of historical fiction. Her second book, “Answer Creek,” was released just a few weeks ago.
While researching her book, Sweeney and her husband spent some time looking through the Paul and Helen Henderson history collection housed at Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering.
“The motherlode of all Oregon Trail information is housed in the Henderson Collection,” she said. “I arranged to spend the better part of a week at Legacy of the Plains going through that history.”
In the summer of 2018, the couple spent a month traveling from Omaha to Sacramento, California, to conduct research.
“That trip put time and distance into perspective for us,” Sweeney said. “We took about a month for the trip, but it took several months for the early settlers.”
In addition to spending an extended period of time at Legacy of the Plains, the couple was able to visit their extended family’s old home in Bayard.
Sweeney said she was struck by the warm hospitality in the area while visiting the old homestead. Her husband’s aunt and uncle no longer live there, but the people who are there invited them in for dinner.
“I’m rooted in the premise that historical novelists must adhere to historical accuracy, whether that’s uncomfortable or not as long as it doesn’t get in the way of a good story,” she said from her summer home in McConnor, Washington, just north of Seattle. “Readers need to trust the author that the facts are accurate. I often check them two or three times as I’m doing research.”
She added that setting is also a character in any good story, so she needed to stop along the trail and take in the weather, the wind, the sunsets, the flora and fauna, everything the early settlers experienced on their trip west.
“The immenseness of the sky and the land was especially memorable to me,” Sweeney said.
The narrative for her second novel, “Answer Creek,” opens at Chimney Rock, one of the prominent landmarks along the Oregon and California Trails. It follows the journey of the ill-fated Donner Party on their way to California.
The story, told by the fictional protagonist Ada Weeks, tells of how the small group of families was trapped on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the winter of 1846.
“Although she’s a fictional character, I believe that Ada Weeks is every woman who traveled with those thousands of immigrants heading west,” Sweeney said. “She’s not a lovable character, but you root for her.”
It’s still early, but national publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Book List have featured positive reviews for her latest book.
Fellow author Mary Volmer wrote “In Answer Creek, Sweeney rescues the story of the Donner Party from its fate of salacious anecdote and delivers a harrowing tale of resilience, folly, loss and hope.”
Sweeney’s first book, set during the Klondike gold rush, is “Eliza Waite.” It was the 2017 winner of the Nancy Pearl Book Award. She was also a finalist for the U.S. Book Award and the International Book Award, among others.
On July 4, the publisher is offering a one-day-only ebook version of “Answer Creek” for 99 cents on bookbub.com. Sweeney called it part of the new electronic marketing campaigns that authors are taking advantage of today.
She said she’s already deep into her third manuscript, set in 1905 Arizona and features a “prickly” protagonist whose father is a contemporary of Buffalo Bill Cody and the Wild West shows. She hopes to have it completed in another year.
For her first book, “Eliza Waite,” Sweeney collected 47 rejections before a publisher picked it up.
“You deal with rejection by sticking to your writing and being confident in your story and your storytelling,” she said. “My father started writing at 65 and had seven novels published before he turned 90, so I’m just getting started.”