Friday, April 28, 2017

Is Your Setting Another Character? by Cheryl Pierson

Location. Setting. Why is it so important to the stories we read and write? It seems obvious in some cases. In others, there could be a 'hidden' agenda. It can actually become another character.

Let's take a look, first, at the importance of setting to our genre, or sub-genre.
Fifty years ago, the choices were limited. Regencies and Westerns were prevalent sub-genres in the historical category, and mysteries and detective stories captivated the 'contemporary' nook. Science fiction was still relatively uncharted.
The setting of a novel was a definitive device, separating the genres as clearly as any other element of writing.

The glittering ballrooms and colorful gowns and jewels whisked historical romance readers away to faraway, exotic locales. Sagebrush, cactus, and danger awaited heroes of the western genre, a male- dominated readership.

But something odd happened as time went by. The lines blurred. Rosemary Rogers combined the romance of exotic places with the danger of an action plot, and an unforgettable hero in Steve Morgan that, had a man picked up 'Sweet Savage Love' and read it, he certainly could have identified with.

By the same token, the male-oriented scenery accompanied by the stiff, stylized form of western writers such as Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage, The Last Trail) gave way to Louis L'Amour (Conagher, the Sackett series) and Jack Schaefer (Shane, Monte Walsh).

Why is the evolving change in description of location so important? In older writings, many times the location of a novel was just where the story happened to take place. Often, the plot of the story dictated the setting, rather than the two forming any kind of 'partnership.'

But with the stories that came along later, that partnership was strengthened, and in some cases, location became almost another character in the plot.

Take, for example, Louis L'Amour's 'Conagher.' As he describes the heroine's (Evie) dismal hopelessness at the land her husband (Jacob) has brought her to, we wonder how she will survive. Yet, Jacob has plans, sees the possibilities that Evie cannot, or will not see. The underlying message is, "The land is what we make of it."

As the story continues, she begins to appreciate the beauty of the prairie, while acknowledging the solitary loneliness of her existence. She plants a garden, nurturing the plants, and gradually she sees the farm being shaped into a good home from the ramshackle place she'd first laid eyes on.

The land is beautiful, but unforgiving. Her husband is killed in a freak accident, and for months she doesn't know what has happened to him. She faces the responsibility of raising his two children from a previous marriage alone.
In her loneliness, she begins to write notes describing her feelings and ties them to tumbleweeds. The wind scatters the notes and tumbleweeds across the prairie. Conagher, a loner, begins to wonder who could be writing them, and slowly comes to believe that whomever it is, these notes are meant for him.

At one point, visitors come from back East. One of them says to Evie something to the effect of "I don't know how you can stand it here."

This is Evie's response to her:
"I love it here," she said suddenly. "I think there is something here, something more than all you see and feel…it's in the wind.

"Oh, it is very hard!" she went on. "I miss women to talk to, I miss the things we had back East–the band concerts, the dances. The only time when we see anyone is like now, when the stage comes. But you do not know what music is until you have heard the wind in the cedars, or the far-off wind in the pines. Someday I am going to get on a horse and ride out there"–she pointed toward the wide grass before them–"until I can see the other side…if there is another side."

The land, at first her nemesis, has become not only a friend, but a soulmate. If that's not romance, I don't know what is.

In your writing projects, what importance do you give setting in your description, plot, even characterization? Within 40 pages of 'Conagher', we understand that the land, with all its wild beauty and dangers has become enmeshed in Evie's character. She can't leave it, and it will never leave her.

I'd love to hear from you about settings in stories that you've read or written that have played an important part.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017



The last post by Paty Jager on frontier preachers reminded me that in the West, a preacher was not always available. In my own ancestry, my great-great-grandfather was a Methodist circuit preacher until he built a chapel next to his home in South Carolina. This fosters the question of what did couples do when there was no preacher around?

In genealogy, researchers will come across the term “marriage bond” but this was not a marriage. Think of a marriage bond as an intention to marry. A man who proposed to a woman went to the courthouse and posted a bond indicating his intention to marry the woman. If he then failed to marry, he forfeited the bond. The bondsman was often a brother, uncle, or father of the bride.

Marriage by Bond

Old West Preacher
By contrast, “marriage by bond” was when there was no minister available to perform the marriage ceremony. In some remote areas, months—possibly years—went by without a minister coming through town. In this case, the couple chose to be “married” by bond. 

They would file with local authorities a document that included their wedding vows, their agreement, and the amount of money they would mutually bind themselves to pay should they not have the marriage validated by a competent authority as soon as the opportunity arose. The amount of money posted as bond would vary with the couple and area. It could be as low as fifty dollars and as high as several thousand. I wonder how the money was collected if the groom just headed for distant lands. Surely the bride did not have to pay the groom's share.

As an example, the document might read:

Be it known that we, John Smith and Mary Jones, are of lawful age of (county or Territory), wishing to unite ourselves in the bonds of matrimony and there being no priest or minister to celebrate same. Therefore I, John Smith, do agree and do hereby take Mary Jones to be my legal and lawful wife and as such to cherish, support and protect her, forsaking all others and keeping myself true and faithful to her alone. And I, Mary Jones, do hereby take John Smith to be my legal and lawful husband and as such to love, honor and obey him, forsaking all others and keeping myself true and faithful to him alone. We mutually bind ourselves to each other in the sum of one thousand dollars to have our marriage celebrated by a priest or minister authorized to do the same whenever the opportunity offers, all of which we promise in the name of God and in the presence of Harry Brown, (Title) of (County or Territory) and other witnesses present whereof we have hereunto set our hands this 1st day of September, 1859.

John Smith                                          Mary Jones

Witnesses:   Harry Brown
James Jones
Bill Smith

Can you visualize a small community in the back of nowhere after the arrival of a traveling preacher and him standing before several couples—and their children? 

Jumping the Broom

Jumping the broom began in Wales, Scotland and England. It may have referred to the broom plant as well as an actual broom. As such, it referred to a marriage that was not viewed as legitimate. This could be because the couple eloped without having their banns read three times, the bride was underage, or another societal reason rather than actual legality. It is still performed at the end of some ceremonies or a person sweeps a broom in front of the couple as they leave their wedding.

Jumping the broom  was used by slaves before the Civil War. Slaves were denied legal marriage because a civil contract required the consent of free persons. The slave community developed its own methods of distinguishing between committed and casual unions. The ceremonial jumping of the broom was always done before witnesses and signified that a couple chose to become married as allowed.

Jumping the broom fell out of practice after the Civil War when freed slaves could marry legally. The practice made a resurgence after the publication of Alex Haley’s ROOTS, and particularly after the book became a movie. Many African American weddings end with jumping the broom as a testimony to heritage.


Handfasting is an ancient practice that is no longer recognized as legal. Handfasting probably comes from Scandinavian Christian and pre-Christian practices introduced to Scotland before 1000 AD and was still popular in the 1500-1600s. It was a form of betrothal. Some historians have interpreted this as a trial marriage of a year and a day. In some places in the Scottish borders, it may have been.
In Handfasting, the hands were bound by the bann (ribbon or chord), rather than by rings. Under old Cannon Law, public figures other than priests would sometimes perform the wedding: Blacksmiths (as in Gretna Green), clan chiefs, other prominent public figures. It was the vows before the family that made the marriage legal, not the person officiating. The law changed in the 1600s, allowing only church ministers to perform marriage. The practice of binding the hands had become so popular that some Scottish churches still use handfasting as part of the wedding ceremony.
There were several types of handfast throughout Great Britain, depending on the area/country. By the 18th century, the church of Scotland no longer recognized marriages formed by mutual consent with subsequent sexual intercourse, even though the Scottish civil authorities did. To minimize any resulting legal actions, the handfasting ceremony was to be performed in public. This situation persisted until 1939, when Scottish marriage laws were reformed by the Marriage Act of 1939 and handfasting was no longer recognized as legal and binding. Some couples still include handfasting as a part of their legal wedding. 
The custom has been adopted by those who practice Wicca.
Photos from iStock and Wikipedia commons

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Spooning the Frontier Preacher by Paty Jager

While trying to construct/conceive/fabricate the hero of my next historical western romance I hit the research trail to discover which denomination of clergymen wore the white collar. In this quest I purchased a used book titled: Pioneers & Preachers by Robert William Mondy.

I thought the book would tell me more about the type of man who became a preacher in the old west and a bit more about how they lived.  In some respects it did show me that preachers, especially itinerant ones, were at the mercy of the people along their route. They traveled throughout the mid-west and west without a church but stopping at people's houses and towns to preach. They stayed in homes, ate with the families, and then headed out again to hopefully find another house to give them a roof and food for the night.

The book also stated that even the clergymen in the small towns weren't given any money as compensation for staying in a town. He usually had to find a job to make a living, while preaching on Sundays and tending to the needs of the town during the week. This part I liked. It gives my heroine even more of surprise when she discovers the hero is a preacher. ;)

According to the author of the book the best preachers were the ones that could blend in with the people they encountered or lived with. Here are a few sayings that were in the book:

"Setting to her" was a term from bird hunting and it meant that a man was courting a lady.
"She kicked him" meant a lady rejected a man.

Itinerant preachers found themselves the most welcome when a marriage ceremony need to be performed because a couple had produced many children, or an overdue funeral service as needed.

A good preacher did more than quote the Bible, he could be a teacher or counselor, help with raising a house, or planting a field. He had to be versed in many things.

The parts in the book that had me chuckling were tales of spending the night in some "full" houses. People were so happy to have messenger of God come to their homes and communities they would ride out and tell neighbors there was a preacher. People would come from as far as ten miles away to hear a sermon and speak with the preacher. There were times when many would stay over night. There was mention of one night when there were 40 people sleeping in a cabin that measured 12 feet by 16 feet. At bed time all the men were chased outside and beds of blankets and buffalo robes spread on the floor. Before the men returned 10 women got under cover with the married ones in the center(this didn't' make sense to me). The men came in, each husband laid down with his wife and the single men laid on the outside. when someone wanted to turn, they said, "Spoon" and everyone would turn at the same time.

Another told of men going outside as women retired for the night, slipping into beds and covering themselves completely. The men then entered, undressed and slept on pallets on the floor. In the morning, they all lay in their places chatting until they decided they should get up. The woman covered their faces with their hands while the men dressed and left to do the chores.

This is what I like about the pioneer spirit and the old west. There are scenarios that could happen that make for great scenes in fiction books.

Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 30+ novels, a dozen novellas, and a passel of short stories of murder mystery, western romance, and action adventure. All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters.This is what readers have to say about  the Letters of Fate series- “...filled with romance, adventure and twists and turns.” “What a refreshing and well written love story of fate and hope!”

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Weird Texas: A Book Review, Sort of

I am fascinated by strange or unusual places, occurrences and historical mysteries, as well as untapped powers of the human mind. That’s why I feature psychic characters in my novels and why I love reading about mythology and legends. It’s no surprise then, that when I spotted a book titled Weird Texas while browsing a local Buc-ee’s (a huge gas station, food stop and souvenir hunter’s paradise) I had to have it.

This book is a treasure trove of spooky tales and oddities from the Lone Star State, including some ancient not-so-natural sites. One is “Enchanted Rock,” a pink granite dome more than one billion years old. Encompassing 640 acres in the Hill Country of central Texas, some twenty miles north of Fredericksburg, the rock reaches 400 feet above the surrounding land. The huge batholith (an igneous rock formation exposed by erosion) is the second largest in the United States, the first being Stone Mountain in Georgia. It’s also one of the oldest in the world.

The name Enchanted Rock stems from Native American beliefs that it is haunted, so the story goes. Both the Tonkawa and Comanche feared and revered the rock, possibly offering sacrifices at its base. The Apache believed it was inhabited by mountain spirits. Since many Indians avoided the rock, white settlers sometimes sought refuge there from raiding parties.

One legend says the rock is haunted by a band of warriors who fought to the death against enemy attackers. Their wailing spirits supposedly wander over the rock. Modern scientists suggest the Indians saw how the rock glitters at night after a heavy rain and thought the glittering lights were spirits. Likewise, they mistook the creaking sounds the rock makes when the surface chills after a warm day, for ghostly wails.

The book's authors say, "Such theories do not credit the Indians with having much sense, and assume that they were a superstitious bunch, ignorant in the ways of nature. Much of this attitude may result from our own ignorance of the forces of nature, of which the Indians were very much aware."

Members of the Weird Texas team have camped near Enchanted Rock and other granite rocks in the area. They report hearing strange noises coming from the giant rock, particularly during solstices, that sound like the hum of a high-voltage power line, even though there are such lines anywhere near. The authors speculate that the lights and sounds come from energy within the granite, and go on to say shamanistic cultures have long held such sites sacred.

This is just a small taste of the interesting legends -- and facts -- I found in this thoroughly entertaining book. If you'd like to add it to your library, it's available on  Amazon. 

You can also find all of my books on Amazon.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Wild Wonders of Hoover Dam by Sarah J. McNeal

One of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been was when I visited Hoover Dam, an American icon. Although I had seen it in movies and documentaries, nothing prepared me for the magnificence of it first hand and in person. It’s not just a dam to provide water and electricity to millions, it is also a work of art.
The unpredictable and powerful Colorado River overflowed its banks every spring and flooded the land. It caused the ruin of crops and loss of income for farmers all along its banks. If only there was a way to control the water from the Colorado in order to irrigate the land and provide drinking water for those who lived toward the south and to the west. Once electricity blossomed in towns across the U.S. people began to wonder if they could somehow use the Colorado to generate electricity. Taming the Colorado would be a mammoth undertaking even for the best engineers of the day. So, when the Government instructed the Bureau of Reclamation to come up with a solution, it was decided to build the world's largest dam.

Frank Crow and Walker Young

Frank Crow, general superintendent, and Walker Young  Engineer of Hoovered Dam were assigned the job to get it completed in the span from 1931 - 1935. The construction of Hoover took 7 years at a cost of $ 125 million. Nowadays this amount is about 788 million dollars. If the dam was not completed in the given time it would have cost the contractors $ 3000 / day in financial penalties.

The site chosen for the megastructure Hoover Dam was Black Canyon. It is an 800 feet high deep gorge through which the Colorado River flowed. The spot, Black canyon is in the middle of the desert, so there was no infrastructure, no labors, no transportation and the weather was harsh. 21,000 men took part in its construction and of them 112 laid their lives to complete this mega structure. Situated in Mojave Desert, 30 Km south-east of Las Vegas. Built on Colorado River at Black Canyon, the construction site was extremely difficult. The risks involved were huge and the consequences could have been catastrophic, if the dam failed.

The construction had to be done in stages. The first stage was necessary to divert the Colorado. It’s kind of difficult to build a dam while the river is pouring water over the area of construction. Just considering the diversion of the river is exhausting and mind-boggling.

In April 1931 blasting began for construction on the plain dry area where the dam would be placed. To divert the Colorado, 4 tunnels were excavated on each side of the Canyon, measuring 4000 feet long and 56 feet in diameter. These tunnels became diversion channels. Two tunnels were constructed on the Nevada side and another two were constructed on the Arizona side. Two small cofferdams were built to force water into the tunnels. Drilling, digging, and blasting along with debris removal continued for 13 months, with men working 3 shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Holidays were observed only at Christmas, 4th July and Labor Day.

Apache Indians hired to work on high scaffolding

The workers faced harsh conditions but were paid only 40% extra for this arduous and often dangerous work. No proper ventilation was provides, work was extremely physically demanding. Men had to swing 100's of feet down the canyon walls to remove dangerous loose rocks, using jacks and dynamites. Due to lack of safety measure men required nerves of steel. 

Workers swinging on the side of the canyon

The most common cause of death was, being hit by falling rocks. But the construction of Hoover Dam took place during the years of the Great Depression and workers were actually happy to be hired no matter the danger of the work involved.

Because no roads led into the canyon, men and equipment arrived at the work site by boat. Workers used 500 pneumatic drills, hoses, and compressors to make holes in the canyon rock where explosives could be placed. Once holes were drilled, workers used dynamite to blast into the rock and break it into smaller pieces that could be hauled away by dump trucks. A ton of dynamite was needed for every 14 feet of tunnel in the canyon walls. Special teams visited the inside of the tunnels to ensure it would remain safe for the workers to work inside. The tunnels were lined with concrete. By using this technique, the workers were able to blast and excavate large diversion tunnels, each of which was about the size of a 4-lane highway, lined with 3 feet of concrete. These tunnels allowed the river water to be transported away from the construction site at a rate of 1.5 million gallons per second. By November, 14, 1932, the 4 tunnels began to divert the water away from the site and the workers made alternate cofferdams by using 100 trucks to dump dirt, rock, and debris into the water at a rate of one truckload every 15 seconds. This amazing pace of dredging and dumping went on for many months.
At this point Stage 2 of construction began. This was the stage in which the actual dam was built. The work was huge and there were many problems in design which needed to be solved. Hoover is an arch gravity dam, incorporating two principles.

Arial View of Hoover Dam

The first principle has to do with the weight of the dam forces into the ground due to its weight, thus helping it to remain stable. The second principle is that the arch shape of the dam deflects the force of the water into the canyon walls through the compression of the dam's concrete walls, using the compressive strength of concrete because concrete is very strong in compression. The major problem now was the pouring of 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete. Plants were installed at the construction site to produce concrete locally. But the dam was too big to be made into a single concrete mount. If the concrete in the dam was poured in only one go, the concrete would not have settled even by today. When the ingredients of concrete - cement, sand, coarse aggregate combine in the presence of water, they start a chemical reaction, resulting in the generation of internal heat which slows down the curing process. The larger the pour, the longer the cure. If heat is not dispersed, cracks would form and weaken the structure.

                                      Concrete Dam Forms

The solution to the heat generating problem was to pour the concrete in layers of interlocking blocks, each 5 feet tall. To accelerate the setting of concrete, cool water pipes were passed through each block. The concrete mix was cooled and cured faster.  Then the next layer was poured. To speed up pouring of concrete in the mega structure, an elaborate overhead network of cables and pulleys was designed, carrying vast buckets of concrete. Labors stayed on the site to spread, place and compact the poured in concrete. Due to this new method, a record breaking volume - 8000 cubic meters of concrete was poured in a single day.

Secretary of the Interior Ray L. Wilbur announced the structure would be called Hoover Dam at a 1930 dedication ceremony, though the name didn’t become official until 1947. September 30, 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the completed dam.

The Hoover Dam Angels

I couldn’t help but notice the Art Nuevo design used for the decorative columns in Hoover Dam. They are impressive and beautiful.

The Star Map in the center of the floor

Hanson Bas Relief on the inside wall of the dam

Here are some factoids for your inquisitive minds:
726.4 feet high (221 m)
1,244 feet wide (379 m)
660 feet (203 m) thick at the base
45 feet (13 m) thick at the top
$165 million dollars to build
4.5 years to build
4.4 million yards of concrete used for construction
March 1931 building began
September 30, 1935 completed
17 generators
4+ billion kilowatt hours produced each year
10 acres of floor space

Power used by:
56% California
25% Nevada
19% Arizona
Lake Mead took 6.5 years to fill (A slow filling process was required to lessen the pressure change on the dam and to help prevent small earthquakes due to land settlement.)
589 feet (181 m) at the deepest point
247 square miles in size
110 miles (176 km) long
Named after Dr. Elwood Mead, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (1924 - 1936)
Largest man made reservoir in the United States

 Hoover Dam Memorial by Oskar J. W. Hanson

And there you have it, the great, iconic Hoover Dam. An engineering accomplishment and a work of art.  

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: