Sunday, March 17, 2013

Frank Capra’s Writing Retreat

Famous stars of the silver screen enjoyed winter vacations in and around Palm Springs. Although the desert valley is only 120 miles from Hollywood, it is warmer and the winters are more dry and sunny. 

Painting of Mount San Jacinto near Palm Springs, California, by John Frost, 1926
In the same year John Frost painted Mountain San Jacinto, the hotel called La Quinta opened its rustic doors. Crafted of adobe and tile, the desert hideaway began to attract stars like Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Errol Flynn. They swam, golfed and played tennis, just as the resort’s guests do today.

The movie director Frank Capra, however, came to work.  He had read a short story, “Night Bus,” while he was in a Palm Springs barbershop, and he thought it would make a great movie.    

Capra lawn with its mountain view
While a hotel guest at La Quinta, he turned the short story into a script which became the romantic comedy “It Happened One Night.” It was released in 1934 and won the five most important Academy Awards, including director and co-producer Oscars for Capra. Robert Riskin took home a statuette for the witty screenplay, and Claudette Colbert won Best Actress. Best Actor was awarded to Clark Gable, who later enjoyed visiting the La Quinta Hotel with his wife Carole Lombard.

A plaque on La Quinta Resort’s Capra Lawn states that he became superstitious about La Quinta after this. After all, this was the first Oscar sweep of the five major categories (it would not happen again for forty years). He made the resort his writing retreat, returning for many winters with his wife Lucille. Among the movies he penned in these rooms are “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

La Quinta guest rooms and porch

Pamela Tartaglio, Past-President of Women Writing the West, has been visiting La Quinta for almost thirty years and happened upon the plaque and its story of Frank Capra. She is writing a novel set in the 1890s, and is currently Chair of WWW's WILLA Literary Awards. Her blog, Past and Present with Pamela, on the arts, history, and places to visit, includes film clips from “It Happened One Night” and more photos and facts about La Quinta.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

At the Plaza, Santa Fé

Governor's Palace and Plaza, undated, photographer unknown,
from the collection of The Governor's Palace Museum, Santa Fe, NM
Whenever I tell people I grew up in Santa Fe, their eyes light up. They’ve either been captivated by the Land of Enchantment or they want to be. Tourism has always been a big source of revenue for the town, and its commercial, political and historical heart is the plaza downtown. Santa Fe was the first foreign capital conquered by the U.S. Army. Thousands of soldiers entered the plaza and took possession. “Some of your priests have told you that we would ill-treat your women and brand them on the cheek. It is all false,” General Kearny said to the crowd of New Mexicans and foreigners filling the plaza. No branding, but they did put a cannon on a hill aimed at the plaza.

A marker for the End of the Santa Fe trail was home base for playing tag in the plaza when I was a kid. Back then, I figured it had something to do with cowboys, but my research revealed the trail was all about trade and sales. Spain kept foreigners out for over 200 years, but Mexico welcomed trade.  Wagon trains arrived regularly from the East. ‘¡Los carros!’ shouted women, men and boys, all anxious to get first pick of the goods as they were unloaded.  Filthy teamsters yelled, ‘Aiiiie, aiiiie,’ and waved their sombreros at the horses, cows, mules and oxen, herding them into nearby corrals. The uneven wooden wheels of carretas, pulled by tiny burros, clackety-clacked on the street.  Wandering pigs, goats and stray dogs added to the uproar, and the smell, of Santa Fé.

The Palace of Governors, built in 1610, faces the plaza, and is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the U.S. It’s now a museum. As a child, I stopped in frequently to stare at the mummified baby still in its leather papoose. When I began my research for my historical novel, The Sandoval Sisters, I found a wealth of historical information there, including furnishings in use by the ricos (rich people) of the time. Alas, the baby was no longer on display.

Today, Native American vendors sit outside the doors to the museum selling jewelry, but in the 19th century,
Cottonwood trees planted in front of the Governor’s Palace provided shade for butchers to hang mutton, and under the covered porches of the Palace, bakers and fruit vendors displayed their produce, and Indians brought in venison and wild turkey. I’d once seen the carcass of a grizzly for sale, and bought the fatty parts. Bear grease was useful in herbal remedies; it made hair glossy black, and it lubricated everything from a baby’s rump to carriage wheels. (The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood)
Although I live in Southern California now, there’s a tether from my heart to Santa Fe, so much so that I wrote my heart into the novel through Pilar, one of the Sandoval Sisters:
I long for the comforting ring of mountains encircling Santa Fé like a vow. I want the play of light and shadow, and the subtleties of color, which only a mountain desert can produce. I need the drama of black starry night, and the passion play of electrical storms, charging even the air we breath with its energy.
As the daughter of a New Mexican Catholic and a Texan Baptist, Sandra Ramos O'Briant was introduced to both the self-flagellating Penitentes of New Mexico and the tent show holy-rollers of East Texas. Her hometown of Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith, is host to state politics and the attendant corruption, artists and their hangers-on, and a thriving tourist economy. All of these themes weave through her first book, The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood.

Friday, March 08, 2013

WWW News: Autry Center Tour & New Releases

In 2012, WWW members enjoyed lunch and the Western fine art exhibit at the Autry National Center of the American West.  Top row, from left:  Kaye Roll, Harriet Rochlin, Liz Simmons, Heidi Thomas and Anne Schroeder.  Bottom row, from left:  Pam Tartaglio, Mara Purl and Penny Sidoli.
WWW Lunch and Tour at the Autry in Los Angeles

Join WWW members, prospective members and guests at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, on Saturday, March 16 for lunch, the country's most important Western art show, and a special Western Women's History Tour. We will meet for no-host lunch at 11:00 at the Autry Café; the tour is at 1:00. 

Anyone considering joining WWW is welcome, as are guests of the members. The admission charge for the Autry includes the tour.

Please RSVP, preferably by Sunday, March 10, to Pam Tartaglio at

WWW member and WILLA-award-winning author Linda Jacobs announces the release of her latest book in the Yellowstone series, Jackson Hole Journey, published March 1st by Camel Press.

Brothers William and Bryce Sutton vie for the love of immigrant Francesca di Paoli on a Jackson Hole dude ranch during the Roaring Twenties. Against the backdrop of the massive Gros Ventre landslide and a flood that wipes out a valley town, they fight prejudice against their Nez Perce heritage, and battle those who would destroy their ranching tradition.

WWW member and historical consultant Linda Wommack's newest book, Colorado's Historic Hotels, was released in December by Filter Press. The book includes an introduction by "Dr. Colorado," historian Tom Noel, and a CD of songs by award-winning singer/songwriter Jon Chandler.

Thirty historic hotels in Colorado currently hold the prestigious Landmark classification from the National Register of Historic Places, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 'Landmark' designation by Colorado Preservation, Inc., or designation as historic properties from city or county organizations. Linda R. Wommack brings the stories of each of these hotels to Colorado travelers and history buffs. All but three of the hotels are at least one hundred years old, and all are all in operation today.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


One of the best things about writing historical fiction is the research…especially if it involves going somewhere. Last week my husband and I took a trip to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado. I’ve wanted to go since visiting a similar museum a few years ago: the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. And while the Colorado museum came up lacking for indoor exhibits,  it had a yard full of trains and train cars dating from the late 1800’s up to present. Great fun walking around to see them and helpful people in the museum office and library!

On this trip, I was specifically interested in the Toilets. Odd, but when you need to put an eleven-year-old and her cat inside one, it’s pretty important you have an idea of how much room she has to maneuver in. I already knew that the toilet itself, flushed onto the tracks…thus the helpful advice of “Do not flush while in the station.” But the surprise was how relatively recently this practice changed. If I remember correctly, the man from the museum said it was in the 1960’s. That doesn't seem that long ago to me.

The car I walked through to check this out was actually a standard gauge Midland Terminal passenger car, but sure enough, the ground was right below.

 Not much else in the small room…a very ornate coat hook and a few other fixtures. No sink, but outside there was a metal water “cooler” with a push button spigot. Across from the “Toilet” was the coal burning stove…the only source of heat for passengers on a winter trip, and ornate lights hung from the ceiling, which from what I learned so far were fed by kerosene.  

To get a better idea of the insides of an actual narrow gauge passenger car, I went exploring. These cars were closed to the public, but by climbing the steep steps, I could look down the aisles at the lighting, hat racks, and seating. The narrow gauge cars were a little less fancy than the Midland car I walked through, with bench seats instead of individual adjustable seats.  There was one restroom and one wood stove at either end of the car. These were labeled Mujeres: "Women" and Hombres: "Gentlemen." I wondered where this car had been.

It was helpful to know ahead of time that most 
passenger cars for the smaller Colorado lines were made by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which is what this car and the two other Narrow Gauge cars I looked at were labeled. I was specifically looking for information on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, but through reading discovered that for the first years of operation, they leased cards from the Denver and Rio Grande. Bingo. If not a D&RG car, then likely the Florence and Cripple Creek cars were made by them and should be fairly similar in structure and inside components.

When I write historical fiction, I want to be as close as possible to the actual time period I’m writing about so  that the details are accurate and ring true. It’s not always possible to get exact, but as one historical fiction writer that I heard speak said is that if you can find evidence that it was probable, then you are OK…writing fiction, that is.

I’m still in the process of reading more on this subject and a couple others that came up during the draft of my new book set in Cripple Creek. I try to check multiple sources and come up with the best fit. Even browsing antique stores turns up some interesting tidbits, like the antique collapsible camping cup I recently ran across.

 I had to stuff my hands in pockets to keep from shelling out the three dollars to buy it. (These things can add up.)

Angel Self:  “This item isn't in the book.”
Devil Self:   “It might be in the next book.  ou know, I was thinking about a camping scene with Pa and Miss Sternum.”
Angel Self:  “Then when you write that book, you can come back and see if the cup’s still here.”

Left arm yanks right arm out the door.

In spite of a library and extensive web search, I've already purchased two railroad books.

 That’s enough. (For now.)

Nancy Oswald taught for more than twenty years in one room and two room schools in Canada, and more recently, in a K-12 school in rural Colorado. She lives with her husband, dogs, cats, cows, goats, and chickens on a family ranch in Cotopaxi, Colorado. Her Colorado-based historical fiction books include “Nothing Here But Stones,” ased on the Jewish colony in Cotopaxi in 1882; “Hard Face Moon,” based on the events leading up to and through the Sand Creek Massacre; and her most recent book about the adventures of Ruby and her donkey, Maude, in 1896 Cripple Creek, Colorado. Nancy's books have won both the WILLA and the Colorado Independent Publishers Evvy Award, and have been finalists for the Colorado Book Awards and the Western Writers of America Spur Awards.