"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Stable’s Place in History

Before the automobile displaced horses for anything but pleasure, people depended on these noble creatures for both work and transportation. Their lives, and their livelihoods literally depended on the horse, so a wise man, or woman, took extremely good care of these precious animals. Horses that were used daily were kept in barns, or stables so they could be well fed and groomed daily. These structures could be simple or very elaborate, depending on the wealth of the owner. The main criteria was that they were functional, well ventilated, and afforded protection from the elements.

Buildings materials could be everything from rough lumber to buildings made of brick and mortar and decorated with paneled ceilings and fancy lamps. Most owners agreed that the best floors were clay or lumber. Concrete or asphalt was not chosen because it was too hard on the horses’ legs and feet. Straw or sawdust was used on the floors to absorb the urine and manure, then easily shoveled or forked out daily into wheelbarrows to be hauled away.

A lot of work went into taking care of the horses, so oftentimes men were hired specifically for the job. Sometimes a crew was needed to do the feeding and watering, grooming, as well as to keep the stables cleaned out daily. Harnesses had to be cleaned, oiled, repaired, and organized. Sometimes each horse’s harness was placed on hooks next to the horse’s stall; other owners preferred to keep the tack in a separate room. Saddles almost always went into a separate room and were placed on saddle racks. Equipment such as shovels, pails, brooms, pitchforks, clippers, hoof picks, soap, brushes and currycombs had to be kept clean and organized.

Stalls were built according to the size of the horse. They were designed to fit either big draft horses or the lighter weight saddle horses. Each stall had a manger at its head for oats and hay. Individual stalls could have gates, if they were larger and the owner chose to turn their horse loose inside, but if there were many horses, the stalls were narrow, not gated, and the horses’ were tied inside the stall near the manger.

Well-bred, well-kept horses and stables were not only a source of pride, and a symbol of affluence, but they were also a reflection of the man himself. For if a man mistreated his horses, he not only lost a good animal to serve him, but he lost respect among his peers as well. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Inspiration Behind The Turquoise Sun

While excavating the primeval cliff dwellings of the long-vanished Anasazi tribe, 19th-century archaeologist Tanya Darrow and rival archaeologist, Keane Trevalyan, find a hidden passageway that sweeps them back in time to the 13th century. Trapped in the untamed splendor of the primitive past, and worshipped as gods by the ancient cliff dwellers, Tanya and Keane are drawn into a lively battle of wit and will, of love and war, and the realization that their destinies have always been linked by one thing ... the Turquoise Sun.

Behind the Story:

Shortly after the Spaniards arrived in the American Southwest, explorers reported the discovery of ancient ruins belonging to a lost civilization in southwestern Colorado.

The first report to gain public notice came after an important discovery by two cowboys in December, 1888. While out searching for stray cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason stumbled upon the largest ruin which they named Cliff Palace.

The Smithsonian Institution and other museums had been sponsoring expeditions into the Southwest since the 1880s. With the discovery of Cliff Palace, the interest shifted to Mesa Verde. Both official and unofficial excavating was conducted in the area until Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906.

Many people have theorized on the disappearance of the Anasazi. When I read the history of the Hopi Indians, however, I felt that the question had been satisfactorily addressed by their historians. I chose to use their creation myths, legends, and some of their religious beliefs to provide the basis for this story about the Anasazi.

Studies also reveal that the Anasazi gradually abandoned the cliff dwellings during the same time-frame that the Aztecs, or Aztlans, rose to power in Mexico. Some scholars believe that the Aztecs (whom history records as having come from caves in the north) might have been descendants of those Anasazi who left the hard life in the San Juan River region for the easier life in the tropics.

When I think back to what sparked my initial interest in the Anasazi Indians, I would have to say it started with a hurried trip to Mesa Verde around 1979. It was the first time I’d seen the ruins, and I had never heard of them before this visit. Some ten years later, I read Louis L’Amour’s book, The Haunted Mesa, and it renewed my interest in the mysterious cliff dwellers. Like all writers, it only takes one seed to grow a forest. The next thing I knew, I was up to my ears in some very compelling research, which required that I return to the cliff dwellings around 1992 for more in-depth study. On that trip, with our three children, we visited Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, and Betatakin and White House Ruins in Arizona. These places inspired both The Turquoise Sun and Firelight.

One of the strongest memories I have was of an old Indian man we passed on the steep, twisting path leading down to the Betatakin ruins. When we looked back, just a moment later, the old Indian was gone–nowhere to be seen on the path above us, leading out of the canyon. It was only a brief passing, eye contact, and exchanged smiles but it had a lasting impression. We joked at the time that maybe he was a ghost of the Old Ones said to linger in the dusty ruins. From him was born the loveable and slightly eccentric shaman in my book, Ten-Moon, who believes it was his power that brought the hero and heroine across time.

When you stand in the ruins with the massive rock all around you, it is indeed easy to imagine that the stone dwellings have retained the imprint of those who lived there. When you go into the kivas and the small rooms where they lived, you can almost feel their presence. If you listen closely, you'll hear the wind whispering through ruins like the voices of those who went before. And one of the voices might even belong to the Old Indian who smiles at tourists on the path to Betatakin...

Purchase either the Kindle edition or the paperback.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part III)

Fiction's Fine Line of Truth

As a writer of Western tales, your story is only one fraction of the whole, and it should be perceived within itself as a believable part of the whole. The writer of Western fiction–or any fiction that deals with history–should remember first and foremost that he is writing for the audience of his time. The writer is always dealing with current knowledge and sensitivity acquired through hindsight and through history itself, not necessarily knowledge and sensitivity of those who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago.

The reality of the Old West has never changed, only the ongoing contemporary perspective of it. A study of movies and books will reveal that the plots reflect the opinions and attitudes of society at the time the work was written. You can, and should, read old journals and diaries, but if you try to write true to how the people of that era felt and believed, you’ll find yourself in hot water. We live in a world where political correctness rules, so even if you want to be one hundred percent historically accurate, you can’t be. There are things written just twenty or thirty years ago that are no longer accepted today. A secondary character, who might end up being the villain or an insensitive bloke, can say or think what was completely true of the time, but your hero or heroine had better follow the PC of today’s world or you’ll hear about it from readers. That is, if it gets past an agent and editor first!

The writer of Western fiction not only has to be politically correct, but he needs to study extensively and continually the genre for which he wants to write, or for which he does write. What he writes today will be influenced by certain formulaic demands that may have very little to do with what actually took place in the West. And ten years from now, or twenty, those demands will likely change again.

The old dime novels, as well as current literature of the West, fall into what is termed, "romantic fiction." By definition, romantic fiction is escapist literature and depends on exaggeration to obtain the desired effect. Romantic fiction is very well suited to the image of the legendary West. Readers have demanded, namely, that the protagonist has a definite problem to solve, sets about solving it through heroic means, meets plenty of villains and obstacles along the way, and in the end successfully fulfills his original objective. A couple of books that go into greater detail about the structure of romantic fiction are, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, and The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell.

The West is the mythical land of the American people and continues to fascinate not just Americans, but people all over the world. For all its romance, though, today's reader won't accept implausibility and historical ignorance or inaccuracy. Nor do they want to be cheated of their romantic notions of the place, the people, the era. They want that which they perceive was real (the myth), and that which was real (the truth). You, the writer, have to walk the fine line and give them both.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part II)

How the Legends Began

Dime novelists of the late nineteenth century can be given the credit–or the blame–for starting the Western myth, and readers ever since have demanded it, so writers ever since have perpetuated it. While the West was being settled, the East was also undergoing changes, facing financial crisis, incurable diseases, and deadly illnesses.  People in the East saw the West as something new and exciting, an unknown. And because it was an unknown, they could make of it what they wanted. They heard stories, and they allowed those stories to grow with each telling. Writers picked up the stories and put them in print. In the fantasy world of the West, the hero always emerged as the victor, and the villain always met a proper and satisfying end in accordance to his crime.

From the early 1800s on, the West easily embodied all the elements for the mythological land of one’s imagination. With its vast spaces and stunning landscapes, its danger and adversity, its colorful heroes and heroines soon became symbolic of morality, courage, loyalty, generosity, strength, and good prevailing over evil.  Through a deluge of "escapist fiction," the West was heralded as a place of excitement, a place free from the devastating truths of reality, of financial desperation, daily drudgery, and oftentimes sheer hopelessness. It was a place of new beginnings, a place where anybody could do anything he or she wanted to do with few restrictions. A person could even take on a new identity if he wanted to. No wonder dime novelists had a hey-day with their fictional characters, and no wonder the Eastern public gobbled it up like home-made apple pie.

But the romance of the West was not sheer fantasy created by dime novelists; they got their sensational ideas from true exploits performed by real people. Heroes, in any country and in any time, are created from events and circumstances that force people to engage in heroic deeds and superhuman feats for the mere sake of survival. Think of King Arthur, William Wallace (Braveheart), and Joan of Arc–just to name a few. In American legend, recall the astonishing story of a mountain man named John Johnston, who became known as “Crowkiller,” and “Liver-eating Johnson,” and later became known to us as Jeremiah Johnson in the movie of the same name starring Robert Redford. The truth of what John Johnston did has been largely lost to legend, among both the whites and the Indians, but the legend started because he did something so astonishing that it became a topic of conversation around the campfires of the mountain men, the Crow Indians, and the Blackfeet Indians. Soon writers took the stories, added and subtracted from them to suit their individual purposes, and the legend grew until fact and fiction became hopelessly entangled. Such is the nature of all legends.

So how do you, as a writer of the West–or any other historical era–separate the myths from the lies? The facts from the fiction? And should you? Join me next week for Part III, "Fiction's Fine Line of Truth."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part I )

The Old West.

Those three words immediately bring to mind images of cowboys and ranchers on big spreads; Indians chasing buffalo on the Great Plains; pioneers in covered wagons seeking a better life; trappers and miners reaping their fortunes in furs and gold; gamblers and prostitutes in lawless towns; robber barons connecting the East and West with the Iron Horse; outlaws reaping what they sowed; and indomitable men and women engaged in superhuman feats against Mother Nature to put food on the table. The scenes one could conjure are endless.

Increasingly, however, we hear new historians–revisionists–declaring that over the decades of the twentieth century, writers of both Western fiction and nonfiction have consistently portrayed the West, its romance, and its people inaccurately, creating a myth–a legendary lie. These revisionists tell us there was nothing romantic about it to warrant our pride or capture our imaginations. They seem to want to make us see only the bad parts of history and none of the good. In short, they want to dismantle our heritage and take away our heroes.

But just how much of this so-called fantasy is actually reality, and how much is only based on reality? Why did the Old West become legendary in the first place? And how should those of us who write about the West, deal with this alleged myth and revisionist history?

History is based on the particular view taken by the person who recorded it, and therefore it is subject to that person’s interpretation, his perception, and possibly even the role he took in the event. Oftentimes, first-hand accounts of events are reshaped, even expanded to larger-than-life proportions if the writer wanted to make himself look good, or heroic. And, as time goes by, history is almost always rewritten to conform with changing attitudes and opinions.

When we study history, and begin to read conflicting reports, it becomes clear that what we read might not be absolute truth, either from old sources or new. But just as historical events are never one hundred percent true, neither are myths and legends entirely fictitious. There are many, many layers to lift and set aside. Historians–and writers–should keep an open mind and study each layer carefully and from all perspectives to get the full picture of any given event. There are, after all, always two perspectives to every story. Sometimes even dozens.

One would naturally ask why the West and its people developed to such legendary proportions in the first place, even before the door had been closed on the era, and even before the people who made the legends had died. Join me next week for Part II: "How the Legends Began."