Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How Real Do You Like Your Historicals?

By Kathy Otten

Main St. Goldfield, NE 1903

Much like writing dialogue,  grounding the reader in another time and place requires balance. I write historical westerns and while I don’t want to create a perfect ‘Gunsmoke’ kind of town for my stories, the actual reality of an old west town can sometimes be a bit too real for the fantasy I hold in my mind.

My own home town is a farm town and more than half Amish. While many people would think it quaint, when farmers start spreading manure on the fields, it stinks. Then with all the buggies in and out of town, it doesn’t take long for piles of horse manure to accumulate in front of the various hitching rails. In the summer, tiny black flies swarm over them.
Cimarron St. 1931

Imagine an old west town, where everyone rode horses and wagons were pulled by oxen. The streets must have been veritable cesspools of smelly muck. Aside from all the flies, mosquitoes were also attracted to the animals, and out west they often carried malaria, a disease of fever and chills commonly called the ague.

Goblin Gulch
After a rain the streets became a mass of yellow-brown ooze that could almost suck the boots off a man’s feet, and rats lived under the planks of the wooden sidewalks.
Slops and ashes were thrown into barrels outside and garbage piled up in alleys and behind buildings. When broken wagons, wheels and other implements cluttered the yards of farms and ranches, they were burned or carted off to a ‘dump,’ somewhere on the owner’s land.

The farm fresh milk sold in town, carried bacteria and tuberculosis.  Without proper refrigeration, butter turned rancid. Except for seasonal greens like dandelions and pig weed, fruits and vegetables were rare in the westerner’s diet and children suffered from vitamin deficiency, scurvy and scrofulous sores.  Bacon sizzling in a pan over an open fire most likely carried trichinosis as six percent of the pigs at that time had the disease.

Plagues of grasshoppers and Rocky Mountain locusts moved over the plains in black, humming clouds that were at times 150 miles wide, by 100 miles deep. They stopped trains, ate the bark off trees and could obliterate an entire harvest in a day. Electrical storms caused lightning balls to jump from the horns of cattle and tornadoes could destroy acres of crops.

Replica of miner's house Silver City
During winter, the windows were kept closed to keep from freezing, and instead people choked on the fumes from p oorly insulated and vented stoves. Long periods of time shut indoors, without contact from any neighbors intensified the loneliness so much that some people went insane.

I do wonder how anyone managed to survive. And as a reader, would you rather visit that time in history with rose-colored glasses or would rather we authors present our stories with the unvarnished reality of the time?


  1. Kathy, I prefer a little less reality in my westerns unless the muck is needed as part of the story.

  2. Hi Caroline,
    I agree with you. It is like writing dialogue, realistic, but not real.

  3. Kathy, I like to keep a small bit of reality in my historicals, but the main purpose is to whisk readers away in an adventurous love story set in another time. Most of the real life details should be left to the history books.

  4. I just wonder how far we will evolve with the reality of it. The TV westerns weren't real enough or gritty enough for the modern audiences and now we have the reality of Unforgiven. In twenty years will our romances be too unrealistic? I don't know.

  5. Rose-colored glasses are just fine, and preferred by this writer and reader. :) It goes the same with those gorgeous old castles - life wasn't pleasant then and so much better now, even though there are a of people who don't realize how lucky they are.

    Fantastic information, Kathy.

  6. I agree with the rose-colored glasses version, unless it serves a specific purpose in the story.

    By the way, we have a ranch in Oklahoma and we have TONS of grasshoppers right now. It sounds like rain when you walk because hundreds of grasshoppers are jumping away from you! But, I got home and read up on it... and the grasshopper plagues were SO much worse! Incredible! This is bad enough, though, and the grasshoppers are probably eating as much as our cattle!

  7. Hi Paisley,
    I actually thought about medievals when I was writing this. I love reading them, but I don't want to think about the garderobes emptying out the side of the castle or dead horses in the moat. For now, I like rose-colored glasses too.

  8. Hi Dana,
    We don't have grasshoppers yet, but when the hay gets tall, they'll be flying and jumping all over me when I walk through the fields with my dog. I hate them, but it sounds like they are way worse out where you are. And I can't imagine what those early settlers endured with them when even the water tasted like grasshoppers. Blah!

  9. I don't think we should whitewash just how inconvenient living was back then, but as an author you've also got to make your reader empathise.

  10. Hi Nancy,
    I remember watching All In The Family, when for the first time TV audiences heard a toilet flush. Over the years our sensitivity to reality changes,the trick is finding the balance.

  11. As a writer it's our job to balance the reality of our historical settings with the needs of the story and the sensibilities of the reader. Larry McMurtry does this with great skill in his westerns. The only thing he doesn't give his readers that I prefer is a happy ending. :-)

    Each time period and setting has it's own challenges. I love westerns that are realistic about what people faced, but show the beauty of the place and time, as well as the ingenuity of the people. And of course in romance provide a happy ending, at least for the hero and heroine. :-)

  12. Hi Elysa,
    I like to put as much reality into my historicals as I can without taking away from the story. Ultimately it's about the characters and I don't want to detract from that emotion. Historical details ground the reader in the story but too many will take them out. BTW, Lonesome Dove is a great book, but like you, I enjoy the HEA.


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