Don't you sometimes wish you could BE in your ancestors' shoes – just long enough to see what it was really like, living in those times and places? We recognize how quickly things have changed in just the past few years – step back and consider how alien 19th century customs and living conditions would be to us!
Immigrants to North America were faced with impenetrable forests, vast prairies, dark miasmic swamps. Travel was by boat through often-torrential waters or over bone-jarring roads, and established rural livings were often so solitary some settlers were driven to suicide. Birth and death were both at-home events, "putting food by" not a casual option but an absolute necessity, and pragmatism trumped sentimentality every single day.
The only way we can begin to understand what it must have been like, wherever our ancestors lived, is to read about it.
There is a series of books called "The writer's guide to everyday life in ...." covering various times in various places. They can provide a general view, but life in colonial Boston was not the same as it was in the ante-Bellum south, or Daniel Boone's Kentucky.
To explore an area of interest at greater depth, try local and regional histories and biographies. "The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840," a two-volume work by R. Carlyle Buley, gets my attention because it covers Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois Wisconsin and Minnesota, at a time when some of my ancestors' families were making their way west...along with a lot of other people.
Genealogists with British roots may wish to look at "Albion's Seed," by David Hackett Fischer, which examines the lives of settlers from different parts of U.K., in four regions of the American colonies.
Once you find a book that covers your area of interest, check to see what else the author has produced. And be sure to check his/her references, footnotes and bibiliographies for additional material.
To find some titles available locally, go to the Sonoma County Library website, click on the Catalog tab, and enter key words such as "pioneer" and/or " frontier," and the name of a state. Another useful term is "Social life and customs" for the time and place of interest.
While actual histories tell us a lot, a skilful novelist can create an atmosphere of reality if his or her research is well done.
A brief discussion on the online Wikipedia site defines the "Historical novel" and gives a few examples. Following it is a link to "List of Historical Novels" which has subdivisions for various countries and regions, including the United States.
Classics in this genre include the trilogy by Conrad Richter, "The Trees," "The Fields," and "The Town," which are also combined in a single volume entitled, "The Awakening Land." This is a saga of settlement in the Ohio River Valley.
There are lots of others. Take a look!