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

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Inspiration for The Last Rodeo

The Story

Dev Summers wants nothing more than to quit the grind of the rodeo and return to his grandfather’s Nevada ranch. At thirty-five, and battling serious injuries, his decision to retire from professional bull riding thrusts him into conflict with his freewheeling dad and brother . . . and into the arms of July Jones, a woman he dare not love.

Running from a failed marriage and an empty life, July is searching for meaning to her existence. She seeks sanctuary at the ranch with Dev, her long-time friend and confidante. As she struggles with her own inner conflict and her growing desire to be more than Dev’s friend, she becomes the catalyst that sets his family on a course they did not seek, nor could have foreseen. But before their broken lives can mend, tragedy and a murderous plot will force them to face what they have become.

Behind the Story

Interestingly enough, The Last Rodeo was one of the first books I ever endeavored to write. I can’t remember what single thing inspired it, only that I was in my early 20s at the time. It started out as a simple coming of age story about two brothers who lit out on their own, escaping a rundown ranch where their father’s alcoholism had made their lives miserable. They were only twelve and sixteen when they saddled their horses (their only means of transportation) and ended up on a neighboring Nevada ranch where they were taken in by a kindly rancher. From there, the oldest brother planned to take care of himself and his brother by becoming a bull rider. I couldn’t have known then that these two brothers would become larger than life and would remain so for many years to come.

Over the course of the next several decades, The Last Rodeo mostly rested on the shelf, its characters waiting for me to write a dozen other books that were more marketable. But occasionally they called out to me from their shadowy corners to take up their story again. At last, I did, but by then I’d married, traveled the country, raised three daughters, ran a ranch with my husband, lost a parent, and become a grandparent.

The brothers in my story, too, had become adults and experienced a good deal of life. The oldest brother had succeeded in becoming a world-famous bull rider but had reached the age where it was time to let it go. He had married, divorced, and had a teenage daughter who was mature beyond her years. He yearned for the love of a woman who was married to his biggest rival. The youngest brother was having his own life’s crisis by being forever in the shadow of his older, more successful brother. Their father clung to his own youthful fame as a bull rider, living off his sons’ careers and his Jack Daniels. Their mother had abandoned their father—and them—long ago to find a more stable life with another man. They had a grandfather who grounded them, an old widowed rancher who saw his life fading away, hoping that one of his grandsons would take over the Nevada ranch he’d spent his life building.

The book now spanned four generations of people. Over the years, it was written, rewritten, and shelved many times. It grew, changed, and matured, as did the characters, and as did I as a person and a writer. After living with these characters for decades, it was fulfilling to complete their story at last, but it was sad to let them go. The only constant in their story, it seems, was that they were characters who had stood over my shoulders for years, patiently waiting for me to tell their story. How could I let them down?


“A unique and highly recommended piece of western fiction.” Midwest Book Review

“Duty makes a difference in this tale . . . the apex of the story is one you’d never guess, making for some darn good storytelling.” Roundup Magazine

“A powerful story that shows Sandifer’s intimate connection with the West.” Rod Miller, Cowboy Poet and Author

“Great story-telling, a stunning sense of place . . . one of the finest and most authentic western novels to come along in ages.” Irene Bennett Brown, author of Miss Royal’s Mules

The Last Rodeo brings the world of professional bull riders into sharp focus—the swagger, the glory, the danger, the pain—along with the pride and heartache of the women who love them.” Dee Marvine, author of The Lady Rode Bucking Horses

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The Inspiration for Came A Stranger

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The Story

Maggie Cayton had first come to Wyoming as a seventeen-year-old bride. Together, she and her husband fought impossible odds to build the White Raven Ranch from a wild, untamed land. Then, suddenly Trent was dead, killed by a bullet bought and paid for by Big Ben Tate, a wealthy rancher out to seize her land. Maggie hired Seth Sackett to safeguard her family and her home. But Seth had lived through a darkness no man should ever know, and he hid his bitter secret deep in his soul. His gun was his curse and his salvation. Now he would use it to fight a brutal range war and to protect the woman who made his heart ache with longing for the promise of a love he never dreamed could be his.

Behind the Story

One of my favorite books to write, which also became a favorite of readers, might not have been written at all. I had wanted to set a book in Wyoming and wanted a female protagonist who was more mature. She came to life as Maggie Cayton, a widow with three children and an aging mother to take care of. Maggie needed help to protect the ranch as well as her family from Tate. The decision to turn to a hired gun wasn’t as easy as it might have seemed because Maggie’s late husband had been killed by a hired gun. Still, even though she hated who Seth Sackett was even before he rode onto her ranch, she knew he was a necessary evil.

Maggie sprang to life easily enough, as did her children and mother, but Seth was another story. There was something in his past that I couldn’t find, and until I did, the book had come to a standstill. Then one day while my husband and I were traveling across Wyoming en route to somewhere else, I was doing some brainstorming. I had often found that traveling across our great country was the perfect time to let the muse take over. Who knows where ideas spring from, but I had my “ah-ha” moment when out of the blue I saw Seth take a Bible out of his saddlebag. The wall around him fell down. Here was a gunslinger who killed for a living but still read the Bible. A man who made people fear him but who, when alone, turned to God for redemption. Then the questions began to pour out. Why? What led him here? What were his failings? What were the ghosts he hid? Why had he turned to the gun? Not only did his past take shape, but also the notion that he was a tortured soul who believed he was not worthy of a normal life, and not worthy of the love of Maggie Cayton.

The heart of Came A Stranger was born in that moment of revelation. The plot itself wasn’t a complicated one (wealthy rancher tries to take widow’s land) but it was the people—Seth, Maggie, her children, her mother—that made the book unique. It is common knowledge among writers that there aren’t many plot ideas out there, yet there are thousands of books using those few plots in different ways, different settings, and different eras. What truly makes a memorable story is not necessarily a plot that no one has ever read before, but rather characters, their pasts, their hopes and dreams, and their interactions with one another. These are the things that pull readers in and keep them reading.

To my pleasure, Seth Sackett became one of my most beloved characters among readers. The book also won numerous awards in its publication year, including “Outstanding Hero” from Affaire de Coeur’s Readers Choice Awards, as well as finalist for Best Overall Historical and Best American Historical. You can purchase Came A Stranger from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The Inspiration for Raveled Ends of Sky

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People often ask where we writers get our ideas. My inspiration for Raveled Ends of Sky, an historical saga of an 1843 overland journey to California, came from the diaries of many women who participated in the Westward movement. The following is the book's Foreword, which might be of interest to readers and history buffs. The book is also available as an eBook. 


The Westward movement of the 1800s has seldom been portrayed in books and films from the viewpoint of the unmarried woman. Even those stories written about married women tend to lean toward the notion that women, in general, undertook the overland journey because they had no choice, and that every step of the way was a torturous affront to their delicate sensibilities.

In writing Raveled Ends of Sky, I wanted to dispel that myth. I wanted to show that although there were women who did not want to go West, there were just as many who took an active part in the decision to do so.

In 1849, Catherine Haun wrote of her journey west with her husband:  "It was a period of National hard times and we being financially involved in our business ... longed to go to the new El Dorado and ‘pick up’ gold enough with which to return and pay off our debts.... Full of energy and enthusiasm of youth, the prospects of so hazardous an undertaking had no terror for us, indeed, as we had been married but a few months, it appealed to us as a romantic wedding tour."

In 1852, Lydia Allen Rudd traveled to Oregon with her husband. In her words, "We were leaving all signs of civilised life for the present. But with good courage and not one sigh of regret I mounted my pony and rode slowly on."

Raveled Ends of Sky hinged, to a large degree, on the motivations that drove my lead protagonist, Nancy Maguire, and her widowed friend, Lottie England, to join the Joseph Ballinger Chiles company in 1843. Chiles's company was only the second wagon train ever to undertake the overland journey to the Mexican province of California. The first wagon train to attempt the perilous journey had been in 1841 and was unsuccessful. No wagon road existed across the Great Basin or the mighty barrier of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The pioneers on that first journey were forced to abandon their wagons at the Sierras and walk the remaining distance, weak with starvation, to the California settlements on the coast.

In those early days, maps still did not exist, save those drawn on scraps of paper, or etched into the soil by some trapper's stick as he squatted near a fire before an anxious audience and tried to relate landmarks, water holes, and possible mountain passes. Chiles, and a few of the men who would be with him on his 1843 expedition to California, had made the journey in 1841. They had returned by horseback to Missouri in 1842. Although they still had not discovered the wagon road over the Sierras during that first expedition, they at least had a better idea of the best route south from Fort Hall and across the Great Basin. Finding a wagon road was the one thing Chiles wanted to accomplish more than anything.

Historical records are not consistent, but there appear to have been approximately six women and five children traveling with the Chiles company, including two unmarried women. One would automatically ask why those women agreed, or chose, to leave the relative comfort and safety of their homes to undertake a perilous journey to a foreign land where no wagon road had yet been discovered, and where rumors of revolutions and wars passed over the land with the regularity of the sun.

It has been said that people went West for three reasons:  to get something, to get away from something, and just to get there. A study of the Westward movement reveals that men, at least, were usually motivated by financial difficulties, health problems of a family member, free land, business opportunities, or the call to be missionaries to the Indians. The discovery of gold in California and other areas lured thousands.

The women's characterizations in this book were crucial to the story's plausibility. "Gentle tamers" would not embark upon such a treacherous journey without men to protect them. Instead, the story called for highly independent women. Women who were driven by the desire for adventure and freedom from the restrictions placed on them by Eastern society.

For a while I entertained the notion that a single woman would have to be forced to embark upon such a dangerous journey alone. She would have to be running from something–a disastrous love affair, family problems, poverty, or scandal. But after numerous excerpts from women's diaries of the overland journey, I seldom found those things to be motivators for the women who journeyed westward, at least in the beginning.

 Recently married nineteen-year-old Miriam A. Thompson Tuller set out for Oregon in 1845. "I was possessed with a spirit of adventure," she wrote, "and a desire to see what was new and strange."

Single woman Elizabeth Wood, traveling to Oregon in 1851 said, "I have a great desire to see Oregon ... the beautiful scenery of plain and mountains, and ... the wild animals and the Indians, and natural curiosities in abundance."

Many books about the overland journey end when that distant shore is reached, but the journey itself was only the beginning for the emigrants. For those in this book, who journey to California, getting settled in a foreign land where "gringos" were not welcome was as much of a challenge as the journey itself. As Eliza Gregson wrote of those difficult years before California became a possession of the United States, "We few women were very uneasy about this time for we did not [know] whether we were widows or not."

The reasons women went West were many and varied. But those unmarried women who set out alone–possibly more so than those who went with the protection of husbands and families–were possessed of the spirit of adventure that was fundamental in opening and taming new lands. They were stubborn and defiant, strong-willed and resourceful. They stepped out bravely into the unknown, risking their lives for a dream they could have no other way but by their own doing.

In Nancy Maguire and Lottie England I have tried to portray two single women who exemplified the courageous indomitability of the whole. Women who had nothing to lose by going West, and everything to gain. Women who possessed the tenacity and the fortitude to blaze the trails upon which an entire nation would follow.

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The Inspiration for The Turquoise Sun

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The Story

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...

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The Inspiration for Hattie's Cowboy

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The Story

She didn’t want a husband. He didn’t want a wife. They had the perfect relationship ... until love came calling.

Hattie Peyton Longmore hasn’t had much of a future since her selfish husband divorced her and set her out in the streets of San Francisco. Struggling to keep a roof over her head, she jumps at the chance to move to her brother’s Idaho ranch to help him raise his motherless daughter. But when Hattie arrives, it isn’t her brother who greets her, but his best friend, Jim Rider, with the news of her brother’s murder. She longs for strong arms to comfort and shelter her in this strange, lonely land, and the handsome cowboy is more than eager to comply. She doesn’t have to worry about a rake like him wanting to marry. With him, she’s safe. With him, she’ll never have to disclose her greatest failure as a woman.

Jim Rider has always been wild and free, but his best friend’s pretty sister might just be worth sticking around for, at least for a short-term love affair. Besides, he needs to find Billy’s killers—and he wouldn’t dream of leaving Hattie out in this empty land alone until she can find some hired help, or a husband. The latter shouldn’t be too hard since every available male within traveling distance winds up on her doorstep, something that soon rubs him about as raw as a burr under the collar. It comes as a bit of a shock to his freewheeling mind-set when he realizes he doesn’t want anybody in her bed except him, and he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it ... even if it means marrying her himself!

Behind the Story

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

As a writer and student of history, this is one of my favorite quotes. You can look at any place and there will be history there. There will be people who have passed through a place, or by a place, or who have been affected by a place, if for no other reason than to avoid its harshness, to fear it for some reason, or to bury a loved one on their way to another destination. Even that lone marker left in the wilderness will carry with it somebody's story.

I chose to set one of my books, Hattie’s Cowboy*, in my own back yard, literally, because there was a story here to be told. Numerous stories, as a matter of fact. There was, first and foremost, the story of my own people who settled this region in 1915, and my own life spent here following in my grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, farming and raising cattle with my husband. My grandfather started out raising sheep; it was big business in Idaho in those days. It was my father and uncle who, in the 40s, shifted gears into raising cattle because my dad, for one, hated sheep. He spent years working all over the west shearing them in the spring, but he didn’t raise them. His dislike for the little woollies was something I had some fun with in the book. My hero, Jim Rider, a died-in-the-wool cowboy, would rather die than be caught owning range maggots (sheep), an issue that nearly makes him ride off and leave the love of his life, Hattie Peyton, to tend her own darn sheep!

Besides the ranchers and farmers who settled the area, I also wanted to include others in my story: the Indians, the miners, the soldiers, and the outlaws. The latter found this untamed area ripe for the picking. They would lay in wait along Idaho’s Gold Road for gold shipments coming out of the mines in Virginia City, Montana, headed to Salt Lake City. Another road, one that ran right past my heroine’s ranch, also had historical value. It was known as the Salt Road, a winding passage through the mountains of southeastern Idaho that began near the Oneida Salt Works on the Idaho/Wyoming border and joined the Gold Road at Eagle Rock (now Idaho Falls). Not only did three hundred teams of oxen continually haul their precious white cargo over the Salt Road, but it was also traversed by soldiers, Indians, gold seekers, and emigrants.

Many might pass through this area where my ancestors took root a hundred years ago, and they might see nothing but wide open country dotted with farms and rangeland and mountains. They won’t see historical sites along the road for famous or infamous characters. It was common people who left their mark on this land. Sadly, common people seldom go down in history, but their stories, their struggles, are often more interesting than those of the notorious characters who fill the history books. Often the very nature of their mundane lives makes them easy to relate to. Why? Because we can see ourselves in their daily struggles. Because the human condition always focuses on the basic needs and emotions of all people, of their struggle to make a living and provide a home for themselves and their families, of their desire for love, success, and perhaps even power.

Hattie and her cowboy are fictitious characters, but they represent the real people who settled this part of the world. They represent my people. I hope as you read their fun, lighthearted story set in a hard, unforgiving land, that they’ll make you laugh, cry, and love every minute of their story. And perhaps, in the end, they'll become very real people to you, too. It's the most a writer can hope for.
*Available for Kindle and Nook. Hattie's Cowboy, was originally published by Zebra Books as Mountain Ecstasy. The paperback is still available under that title.