So not being really a romance writer, and having pretty much washed out of the lists of matrimony personally, I still have managed to write about romance … mostly by pulling in a little bit of inspiration from here and there from real-life couples. For instance, the main romantic couple in my first book, Dr. John and Elizabeth in To Truckee’s Trail were inspired by … you’ll never guess. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning! A married couple, wildly, passionately, crackers-in-love with each other after twelve years of marriage – why not? The romance doesn’t and shouldn’t end at the altar, but it should go on. I rather liked the Victorians, by the way – they weren’t nearly as prudish as they’ve been painted, nor were their emotions quite so stifled. Robert fell in love with her through reading her published poetry – and lest that sound rather stalker-ish, it worked out. They married blissfully, although she was an invalid and several years older than him. They went off to Italy and were more or less happy for the rest of their lives together, just as I imagined Dr. John and Elizabeth to have been. Men and women alike poured out their souls in letters and poetry, and they weren’t ashamed or repressed in the least, especially when it came to a good manly weep or putting down on paper how they really, really felt.

I didn’t particularly have a literary model for the central romance and tragedy in the Adelsverein Trilogy – that between Magda Vogel, the immigrant German girl, and Carl Becker, the former soldier and Ranger. I did think at first that it might be one of those sparkling Beatrice and Benedict-type confections, where they poured witty scorn at each other, and only later realized that they were in love. There did have to be a romance, of course – between the daughter of an immigrant family, and a representative of the country they were coming to – bridging the two worlds, as it were. But I just couldn’t make it work in that way; Magda turned out to be rather humorless and stern, and Carl was just too reserved. I did recycle the Beatrice and Benedict angle for the romance in the third book of the Trilogy; with Peter Vining and Anna Richter. They both had a sense of humor, and were quite aware that their sharp teasing of each other amused the heck out of anyone who had the luck to be in the vicinity.

Another great historical romance happened between two very real people, and which I put into Deep in the Heart; the marriage between Sam Houston and Margaret Lea Houston, which initially horrified her family and dismayed his friends. Some of them gave it six months, tops. He was twice her age, twice and disastrously married before, had a reputation of being a drunk, a rake and a reprobate, and being the hero of Jan Jacinto and the President of an independent Texas  just barely made up for all of that. Marry a gently-bred Southern girl barely out of her schoolroom? Everyone confidently predicted disaster – and everyone was wrong. They were devoted to each other. She had a spine of pure steel, unsuspected under those fashionable Victorian furbelows.  For the rest of their lives, whenever they were apart – and they were often separated, since Sam Houston spent much time at his official duties as a senator in Washington DC, or campaigning for office – they each wrote a letter a day. Margaret Lea bore and raised a large family of children, made a comfortable home for him whenever he was there to enjoy it, made him stop drinking and eventually to be baptized. His very last words included her name.

And my final real-life romance inspiring a romance between a couple of my characters is that of the painter Charles M. Russell, and his wife, Nancy – who, like Margaret Lea, was very much younger than a husband who had a bit of a reputation. Half his age, a bit prim and self-contained, Nancy also had steel in her spine – and she was a much better marketer and business agent than her carefree cowboy artist husband. C.M. Russell lived for art, and likely would have been no more than locally known as a wrangler-cowhand who had a talent with a paintbrush, but he made a partnership with Nancy, and she put him on a wider artistic scene. And that is the angle for one of the romances in the current book – between a young prospective professional artist, and a woman with a head for business. Because it all isn’t just love – it’s a partnership between a woman and a man, each filling in each other’s lacks and supporting each other in a mutual endeavor called life.

28. August 2012 · Comments Off on Snow Bound · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , ,
  • A few years ago, I was offered an opportunity to review a new movie about the Donner Party – which turned to be one of those arty flicks, with some moderately well-known actors in the cast. It appeared at a couple of film festivals and then went straight to DVD. The plot actually focused on a small group of fifteen, who called themselves the Forlorn Hope. As winter gripped hard, in November of 1846, they made a desperate gamble to leave the main party, stranded high in the mountains, and walk out on snowshoes. They took sparingly of supplies, hoping to leave more for those remaining behind, and set out for the nearest settlement down in the foothills below. They thought they were a mere forty miles from salvation, but it was nearly twice that long. (Seven of the Forlorn Hope survived; two men and five women.) The poster art made it seem as if it verged into horror-movie territory – which I usually avoid, having an extremely good imagination and a very low gross-out threshold – but I did watch it all the way through. The subject – a mid 19th century wagon-train party, stuck in the snows of the Sierra Nevada – is something that I know a good bit about. The ghastly experience of the Donners and the Reeds, and their companions in misery, starvation and madness has horrified and titillated the public from the moment that the last survivor stumbled out of the mountain camp, high in the Sierra Nevada, on the shores of an ice-water lake.

    Their doom unfolded inexorably, like a classic Greek tragedy. It seemed to historians, no less than the survivors, that in retrospect, every step taken closed off an escape from the doom of starvation, of murder, betrayal and grisly death which waited for them in the deep mountain snows of the Sierra Nevada. They had departed from the established emigrant trail on advice of a man who had never actually traveled along the route which he had recommended in a best-selling guidebook. They lost precious time, wandering in the desert, where they lost supplies and a portion of their draft animals – and what may have been a worse misfortune, at a critical point, they lost a large portion of their faith and trust in those outside the immediate family circle. (Comprehensive website about their journey, here.)

    And yet, two years earlier, another wagon-train party, the Stephens-Townsend Party had also become marooned in the mountains, on the very same spot. Ten wagons, carrying fifty or so men, women, and children had also gambled against being over the wall of the Sierras before winter blocked the passes. They also had suffered in the Forty-Mile Desert, had also taken short-cuts along the trail, consumed nearly all of their supplies, become lost, and occasionally distracted with personal disputes, and had made the same hard choices. They also had split their party – but by choice rather than chance, exhaustion and accident. They also built rough cabins – barely more than huts and brush arbors – and slaughtered the last of their draft oxen for food. And yet, the Stephens-Townsend Party, with the Murphys and the Sullivans and the Millers, and young Mose Schallenberger and the rest of them – they survived. Better than survived, for they arrived in California with two more than they started with, two wives in the party having given birth along the way. But hardly anyone has ever heard of them. The eighty or so of the Donner Party, the Reed family, with the Breens, the Graves and the rest – under the same circumstances, same kind of gear and supplies – they lost nearly half their party to starvation and perhaps murder, and became pretty much a byword in the annals of the West.

    What made the difference; why did one group manage to hold together, under challenging circumstances, and the other fall apart, spectacularly? I don’t suppose anyone could give a definitive answer at this point, although I wrote a fictional account of the Stephens-Townsend emigrant journey experience in an attempt to explore that question.

    It was my theory that the Stephens-Townsend people were fortunate in two respects and that would be their salvation. (Of course, they were also hampered in one respect – of not actually having a trail to follow once departing from Ft. Hall, save the faint tracks of the Bidwell-Bartleson party from three years before.) Against that handicap, of having to scout the longest and most perilous section of the trail to California themselves, they had men among them who were knowledgeable about what they faced generally, if not specifically. Hired guide Caleb “Old Man” Greenwood was one of the old breed, a mountain man and fur-trapper, who had married a Crow Indian woman. Another member of the party, Isaac Hitchcock, who was traveling with his widowed daughter, had also spent much time in the far west. He is thought by some of his descendents to have been an associate of Jedediah Smith, and to have ventured to California, sometime in the late 1820s. In any case, he also had vast experience, existing in the untracked wilderness which lay beyond the ‘jumping off’ places, all along the Mississippi-Missouri. Their elected leader, Elisha Stephens, one-time blacksmith and all-around eccentric may have been a teamster on the Santa Fe Trail; he appeared to have superior skills when it came to maging the daily labor of moving a number of heavy-laden wagons over rough trails.

    The other fortunate aspect which strikes me, in reading the accounts of these two emigrant parties, is that the Stephens-Townsend group was a more cohesive organization. Over half the party was an extended family group, that of Martin Murphy, Senior – his sons and daughters, son-in-law, and various connections. But although they had lived for a time variously in Canada, and in Missouri, they seem not to have been accustomed to the west in the way that the two old mountain men were, and sensibly accepted the leadership of Elisha Stephens. Indeed, Stephens appears to have been trusted implicitly by everyone in the California-bound contingent, even before splitting off at Ft. Hall from a larger group bound for Oregon.

    The Donner Party was also made up of family groups, but in reading the various accounts of historians, it becomes plain that during the increasing hardships attendant on crossing the worst stretches, they fractured, with each family left to look after their own. James Reed, who emerges as the strongest and most able leader, killed another emigrant in a violent dispute, during the arduous passage along the Humboldt River. Exiled from the wagon-train, he borrowed a horse from his friends, and went on ahead, later bringing back help and spearheading the eventual rescue of his family and friends.

    But at the time when active leadership was most required – the ill-fated emigrants were deprived of it. As historian George R. Stewart described it, their crossing of the 40-Mile Desert – that deathly stretch between the last potable water at the Humboldt Sink, and the Truckee River – turned into a rout. They had lost draft animals, wagons, supplies, many were on foot, straggling up the twisting canyon of the Truckee River. They had no margin for making considered choices after that point. They could only make a desperate gamble on whatever chance seemed to offer slim odds of success over none at all.

    It makes for terrific drama, after all. Still, it has never seemed fair that one party should be infamous, and the other barely known at all.

  • The character in To Truckee’s Trail who goes by the name “Dog” is actually a real dog – she belongs to my daughter. She is actually a boxer-who-knows-what mix, not a mastiff as I described her (although she could very well have a portion of mastiff in the mix.) She does have a white splotch on her nose and at the end of her tail… and she is very loyal, but not quite as obedient and bright as “Dog”. Still – if I am writing a story, I get to make it my way, right?

    23. February 2012 · Comments Off on E-book Revolution · Categories: Book Event · Tags: , , ,

    So, having had my books available as Kindle and Nook editions since the very first that Amazon and B&N made that mode available to authors, I’ve decided to go all in with e-books in general and make them available through Smashwords for all formats. Several other indy authors that I know have recommended it highly, and why limit myself to just the two house-specific formats. Of course, I am  several years late, of course, but I’ve never been famous as an early-adapter… unless it was in joining the Air Force when it wasn’t really the hip thing to do, joining the military … and blogging, before simply everyone got a blog … and then, being an indy author. So upon reconsideration, maybe I’m a kind-of early adapter.

    The Kindle/Nook readers are getting to the point of being rather popular. My daughter and my business partner now have them, they’re so popular that they’re for sale at Sam’s Club, for pete’s sake, so I think it’s clear that they’ve arrived. People are even readingbooks on their phones! Well, it saves the trees, and publishers don’t have to have a humongous warehouse any more.

    Anyway, I’ve done a edition of To Truckee’s Trail; my first novel, and still hands-down the best seller. In March and April, I will make The Adelsverein Trilogy, and Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart also available in any-e-book format, not just what is available on Amazon and B&N’s proprietary readers.

    13. November 2011 · Comments Off on To Truckee’s Trail – The Very Roof of the Mountains · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , ,

    Chapter 12 – The Very Roof of the Mountains

     From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932: “There was snow falling every day that we moved the wagons along the river. I don’t think we knew how bad things was, until Ma told Mister Stephens to kill the milk cow. We were only children, you see, but my little sister Sadie, she cried and cried. We all cried, even Ma, I think. That was the one milk cow we took from the old farm inIowa, and Ma, she still scolded us for crying. The men and Ma had consulted and decided to leave six wagons at the lake, and continue on with the teams that were still fit.”

    From Dr. Townsend’s diary: “Twentieth of November, 1844 . . . still encamped at a lake in the mountains, endeavoring to find a way over the rampart of the mountains. There are three notches in the mountain wall to the west, the lower of the three appears to offer the clearest path. Captain Stephens has called another meeting.”

    * * *

    It seemed to John almost a twin of the meeting a week before, when Elizabeth and the others had drawn straws for the fast-moving party to go down the south fork, instead of carrying on west with the wagons: the fire burning on a bed of cherry-red coals, throwing up a shower of sparks, as another armload of wood we tossed into it, Stephens looking like a grim, bearded gargoyle.

    “Folks,” he said, quietly, “Thanks for coming round. It’s too cold for a long palaver, so I’ll bite the bullet first. It’s been brought up before; we ought to leave the wagons –” He held up his hand, at the murmur of disagreement around the fire, and Isabella cried out, “We can’t! How can we manage with the children!”

    “Miz Patterson, we already been all over that ground. I already know how some of you would be in a passel of trouble, trying to pack out enough to keep everyone fed an’ sheltered. So here’s my thought. Leave five or six wagons here, pack the rest with just what we’d need. Pool the fit oxen to double-team those wagons. And,” he looked serenely around the group of faces gilded by firelight, half in flickering shadow, “I’ll be the first to say I’ll leave my wagon here and put my team in the pool and come back in the spring to bring it out. Anyone else?” More »