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SunLit Interviews

How organizing an archive ignited a fascination that became a Colorado author’s historical novel

As a young Colorado Historical Society volunteer, Ellen Kingman Fisher learned about mining innovator and Colorado politician Nathaniel Hill. Her interest endured.

When studying for her Ph.D., Ellen Kingman Fisher worked with a collection of letters written by Nathaniel Hill in the 1860s.

Intrigued, she used the letters to write “Hill’s Gold,” a historical novel about the early marriage of Nathaniel and Alice Hill. 

Dr. Fisher was a senior program officer with the Gates Family Foundation and the Director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver. She served on the board of the Colorado State Historical Society (now History Colorado) for 28 years and on the Advisory Board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for 9 years. She was awarded the Molly Brown Spirit Award by Historic Denver for community service and the Alumni Recognition Award by the University of Colorado at Denver for her role in developing the public history (applied history) program at CU Denver. 

“Hill’s Gold” is her first novel. In 2018 it was awarded first place in historical fiction by the Colorado Independent Publishers Association and was also a finalist in western fiction for the Colorado Authors League 2108 awards.

The author has spent most of her life in Colorado enjoying the outdoors, which includes climbing all of Colorado’s fourteeners. She also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when she was 64.

The following is an interview with Ellen Kingman Fisher.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

At the time I was studying for my Ph.D. in history, candidates had to concentrate in five areas. One of mine was archival management so I decided to volunteer at an archive. On the appointed day I arrived at the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) for my assignment. The staff presented me with several boxes donated from an estate that would be added to the already existing Nathaniel Peter Hill collection. The boxes were a jumble of letters, diaries, photographs, and business papers. My job was to arrange them and create a finding aid describing the collection. I found the information (perhaps the power of letters and diaries) so intriguing that when I finished my assignment I read everything in the original collection and promised myself that I would do something with the Hill family someday. That promise took several decades to fulfill, but when I found myself spending winters in Arizona with a different schedule, I knew it was time to start writing.

Ellen Kingman Fisher.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

Three of my favorite authors are Sue Monk Kidd, Kristin Hannah, and R. F. Delderfield. All three describe actual historical events and people set in the context of economic and social situations of the time. The authors’ lyrical writing seduces the reader to learn not only about history but themselves.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature for SunLit?

This excerpt gives a picture of both Nathaniel and Alice. It describes his business venture, which is clearly risky and one that he is trying to gain support for. It also shows Alice’s emotion of having left the life she knew in Providence, Rhode Island, for Black Hawk, Colorado Territory, but most important leaving her young children. The reader can also gain a sense of the relationship between Nathaniel and Alice from this passage. Many things are unresolved at this point.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

There were many fun and rewarding aspects of working on this book but one stands out. Nine months after the book was published I received an email. It was from a woman who said she had been visiting Denver and took a historic walking tour in Capitol Hill. It ended at the Molly Brown House Museum gift shop where she found “Hill’s Gold,” bought it, and read it. She was writing to report that she is the great-great-granddaughter of my principal characters, Nathaniel and Alice Hill. She later introduced me electronically to other members of the family and last May I attended a Hill family reunion in Philadelphia. It was an amazing treat.

MORE: Read more SunLit author interviews

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

It was not a section that was difficult, it was the whole book. During my career I wrote nonfiction in one form or another; however a colleague, Jay Fell, had written “Ores to Metal” that included much of Nathaniel Hill’s life. Anything I wrote would be duplication, so I had to learn how to write fiction. It was a daunting undertaking having never in my life ever written a dialogue. I had to figure out how to portray history through fiction. I got involved in the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, joined a writers group, and received feedback from others along the way. Sometimes it seemed that I spent  hours in front of the computer wringing my hands not knowing how to proceed. In the end, struggling to learn something new was enormously satisfying. 

“Hill’s Gold” by Ellen Kingman Fisher.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

I’m not sure this would be considered a fact, but the dichotomy of the Plains Indians during my novel’s timeframe was tragically interesting. When Nathaniel Hill traveled from Providence to Denver in 1864, Colorado Territory was calling for troops to protect them in the aftermath of the Hungate Massacre in juxtaposition to the Arapahos camped peacefully at the edge of burgeoning Denver City. The same year the disastrous Sand Creek Massacre occurred.  Later, as the Civil War wound down, military forts became as much a vehicle to eliminate Native People as for protection of settlers, and of course, tribes were forced to give up their traditional lifestyle as they were put on reservations. The Indian problem was not a focus of my book, but my protagonist did encounter these different facets of life in the West.

What project are you working on next?

“Hill’s Gold” focuses on the years 1863-1869, the years Hill struggled to solve Colorado Territory’s mining problems and succeeded. Many readers have asked me what happens to the Hills after 1869. I did not want to do a sequel, but I have picked one of the minor characters in “Hill’s Gold,” (Alice’s close friend) to begin another historical fiction. She will visit the Hills, allowing me to include their lives without making them main characters.

The story is of Kate Sinclair, a fiercely independent woman at a time when women were deemed passive. When traveling she meets a man and struggles between wanting a deep connection and feeling the price (loss of independence, vulnerability to pain) may be too high. She further complicates her life by having a secret career that would not be available to a woman. Her job forces her to make a decision with the dilemma of conflicting options—none entirely acceptable. Kate takes the reader along with her as she tries to figure out how to deal with life’s inscrutable circumstances.

— Buy “Hill’s Gold” at BookBar

— Excerpt from “Hill’s Gold” by Ellen Kingman Fisher