How did I wind up writing historical westerns? It's a little convoluted. I grew up on the East coast, riding English. Although I will admit there's something special about a guy in chaps. And I'll confess that I'd never been to a bull-riding event until about ten years ago when the local county fair had one. It was the last place the guys could earn enough points to go to the PBR. Okay say PBR and I think beer. Am I an Easterner or what?
So how did I get into historical fiction? I wrote A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming. It wasn't meant to be a western just a sweet, contemporary Christmas story.
I created a hero Andy Coyote that I figured anyone could love. That misunderstood young man who was really a good guy. He'd also made a few mistakes along the way, but now he had a good stable job, an adorable little daughter, whom he loved with all his heart, and employer who was honest and took him under her protective grandmotherly wing. Andy wasn't stupid, but he was dyslexic, therefore he had not done well in school. I made him tall and dark. Handsome? In the eyes of the beholder he was. And Caroline saw him as handsome. A few clicks on the computer, and I made him a Crow Indian because there's a Crow reservation not too far away.
Where I live in Virginia there are plenty of Land Grant properties still within families and although that does not exist in the west, I saw that heritage of this particular ranch that keeps getting passed down through the generations. I casually mentioned a diary of that original settler, Clare Coleman. So as I lay my head upon my pillow, I could imagine this unrequited love between Clare and a young Crow Indian. And how life tends to come full circle. Clare's love for Cheéte is repeated in Caroline's and Andy' story.
Call it dumb luck. But that story took off six years ago, and people began to ask for the diary. Um, I don’t write historical - that means research! But after several requests I said hmm, maybe I should reconsider my stance on historical. So I began researching.
WOW! I had no idea! The only thing I'd been taught in school about those early years in the west was the Pony Express, The Battle of Little Big Horn, and the Golden Spike. Not even a full paragraph on each.
Debra Holland was getting ready to write Sweetwater Springs Christmas and asked several of her friends to join her. I knew Debra. I had met her a few years after my husband died and I was still coping with grief. Her book on grieving helped me to understand that what I was feeling was normal. We all experience grief, even if it's the loss of a pet, or a job, or a favorite piece of jewelry. Things that are taken from us hurt! Long story short, she had read some of my other books and loved my writing. I remember when she emailed me and said I want that house! Anyway, she knew I was working on the Diary of Clare Coleman and she asked me to write for her Sweetwater Springs Christmas anthology. I said yes, and that was it. From that historical story of Adie Reiner and Frank Coleman the grandson of Clare Coleman, grew the story between Adie's sister Malene and a Native American man by the name of Many Feathers and became A Rancher's Woman.
That chance to write with Debra Holland sent me firmly down a historical path. Ninety percent of what I write now is historical westerns. I'm hoping to finish the Diary of Clare Coleman in 2017. I've been at it for years, working on it between other things and researching as time allows. It's not been easy for me to write. A diary is in first person, and although that seems to be the easier voice to write for the average author, for me, it's the most difficult. I'm used to third person. The diary had to be in first person or it would become a biography.
Today I love writing these historical novels. I find the research to be fascinating. I've actually had to research pens, corrugated cardboard boxes, toilet paper, "modern" washing machines, plumbing, cement, stoves for cooking and heating, brickyards, and even mining. I swear I had the Bureau of Indian Affairs on speed dial when I wrote A Rancher's Woman.
All that research into the Crow tribe was worth it. A Google alert came in one morning about the book. It was being placed in an American Indian encyclopaedia. It took some more digging, but I did find out it was because of my accurate portrayal of the Crow tribe as people, their attitudes, and our attitudes towards them. They might as well have given me the Nobel Peace Prize and a few million dollars to go with it, because the feeling inside of me was the same. The fame and the money would have been worth more, but I was so thrilled! My research had paid off, not in dollars, but in the personal pride of knowing I had done well.
I have no idea how it happened or who submitted it. It wasn't as though I had won the golden ticket because I had paid a few bucks to submit it someplace for golden award or begged everyone to vote for my book on some website. It just happened magically.
There are quite a few tribes in or near Wyoming. I randomly said Crow tribe and that opened up a whole new area of research. I'm still digging and trying to find answers. But I'm happy that I said Crow because what I have discovered is a wonderful group of people with a very rich history. I have yet to find another tribe that honors their women the way the Crows do. But my research has branched far beyond the Crows, to the Shoshones and the Lakota. Each is different from the other, and when I read some of what they have been through, I cry.
It was believed that our Native American Indians were no different from the herds that they followed. And many people thought they should be hunted as we might have hunted a wolf when we think it is attacking our herds or chickens. We didn't like the Indians, and we didn't trust them. They felt the same way towards us. Were we mean to them? Oh, yes! Did they do horrible things to us? Yes! But they also took the rap for things done by the whites that dressed as Indians.
What we failed to see was how these people were the stewards of the land. They weren't taking the prized buck for his antlers and leaving the meat to rot in the sun. Wisely, they culled a herd just as we do for management of any herd we have today. They honored the spirit of the animal that was about to become dinner. And they used everything that animal had to give.
We were the ones that changed the landscape. We dug up the natural grasses and planted wheat. We dammed the streams, over hunted the natural wildlife, and fouled the waters. We ruined their land! Imposed our religion on them and confined them to land that we really didn't want. And then if we decided we did want that land, we just took it back and ignored any treaty we signed with them. And as for those treaties…well the land may have been shared with several tribes or sub-tribes, and if we had the signature of two or three chiefs, we thought we had all that we needed. That would be like making a treaty today with Hawaii, and figuring you had the backing of the other 49 states.
Today the Lakota tribe is still "fighting" with the US government over land. Land given them and then taken away. The government has offered money and the tribe has turned it down. To them, it's the principle and not the money. And although it was quite a hefty sum of money, it really does not cover the actual losses that they have suffered. So the battle continues, not with guns, but in the court system. We've taken their land and their lifestyle. We taken their freedom, and we've taken away their hope.
Even as a child, I somehow knew something was amiss. Remember playing cowboys and Indians? If you were the cowboy, you got the shiny silver gun with the red roll of caps, the leather holster on a gun belt and that pretty suede vest with the silver star. The red cowboy boots and the felted red hat that hung down your back with a cord that wrapped our necks. But if you were the Indian you got a leather strip to tie on your head that had a few dyed feathers that stuck up and you carried either a rubber or a wooden hatchet-like thing called a tomahawk. All you could do was toss that hatchet at the cowboy before falling to the ground and playing dead, because that cowboy had the noisy gun that shot you. And in my neighborhood tossing anything at our friends was strictly forbidden. If you played the Indian, it was an automatic loss. Or you got to be the sidekick of the cowboy, act stupid, and grunt words like ugg.
It has been in my lifetime that I've seen a change in attitude towards our Native American Indians. In fact, I haven't seen a child playing with a toy gun in years. The only ones I've seen in stores have been those huge water-blasting things made of colorful plastics. In fact if you are under the age of 35, you probably have no memory of cap guns or playing cowboy and Indian. That's probably a good thing.
I was six when I saw my first Indian. We must have entered the Navajo reservation and my father stopped for gas. My mom turned to me and said he's an Indian, referring to the man who was pumping our gas and cleaning our windshield. I was so excited. I immediately stuck my head out the window and asked if he was a real Indian. He never answered me. My mom wanted to muzzle me. But I will never forget that handsome man who was the age of my grown brothers. And at the tender age of six, I began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. That young man was no different than my brothers. He wore normal clothes, had a normal job, and was just like "us", except he was very handsome. Yes, six-year-olds notice that! Just as we noticed a pretty dress that someone might be wearing. And for the next few hours as we drove through that reservation. It was the same as driving through any small other small towns along our travels.
I cannot undo all the wrongful things that have been done to these people or to any group of people, but maybe through my writing I can allow people to see what we did. The tribes today are working hard to preserve their language and their heritage. But they are also trying to build a future for their people. That's a difficult task when their children are trapped within the walls that poverty has built.
We didn't tame the west. We stole the land from its native people and then shoved those people on reservations that we shrunk little bit by little bit. We destroyed the natural habituate and changed things forever.
On the flipside of all the wrongdoing, we gave others a chance to become self-sufficient, to make something of their lives, and become productive. All they needed to do was work hard and persevere. Today our west appears to be tranquil, but it's not. It's a major food producer, a giant oil field, and a rich mineral basket. It contains some of our top universities and some of our largest parks that preserve the natural landscape.
To say it is beautiful is an understatement. It has a bit of everything from fields planted in the wide-open vastness, to rugged mountains, colorful rock formations, giant redwoods, deep gullies, large rivers, and stretches of sandy nothingness. On a clear day, there are places in the west where it feels as though you can see forever and the night sky is extra brilliant with uncountable stars.
And that is what I love to write. I love the people there who work those fields, herd the cattle and the sheep, protect the environment, and look to the future. Many are still living on land that their forefathers homesteaded. It is those people who populate my Creeds Crossing, Wyoming books, along with the newcomers who are drawn to the small towns and the atmosphere they provide.
I love writing about the people who settled in Creed's Crossing and about the families that are still there. It's a look forward and a look back.
Visit me on the web. Several of my books are available in print and in large print.
For a chance to win a free copy of one of my books, just drop a comment and tell me if you love to read history or just a good romance story.