Tuesday, June 10, 2014

More Amazing Than Fiction

by Donis Casey

Since I write a historical mystery series set on an Oklahoma farm in the mid-1910s, I’m always doing research about daily life in that time and place. I know how to do laundry in an iron kettle, how to make household cleaning products, how to grow and put up vegetables, how to harvest and make herbal remedies, and how to slaughter a hog and preserve every last bit of the carcass. Not that I need to, thank goodness, but I know how it’s done.
I often discover the most amazing and unexpected things. Things that if I had made them up, no one would believe it. When I find a historical gem I certainly use it if I can, but sometimes the best tidbits don’t fit in with the story. That doesn’t mean I don’t keep a record of them. If not for future use, then for my own delight and pleasure.

One of my novels takes place in Arizona in 1916, and I used a few historical personages as characters. But one real person’s story, Dr. Benjamen B. Moeur, was just getting started when the book ends. Moeur became the governor of Arizona in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. His most notorious act during his governorship was to call out the Arizona National Guard in 1934 to stop construction of Parker Dam on the Colorado River. Moeur decided that California was stealing Arizona’s water, so he sent two converted riverboats, forty riflemen, and twenty machine gunners to stop construction. Unfortunately, the boats ran afoul of some cable and had to be towed free by the Californians. The sortie of the Arizona Navy was the last time one state took up arms against another. 

The seventh installment in the Alafair Tucker series, HellWith the Lid Blown Off, is set in Oklahoma and deals with the aftermath of a killer storm. In a bit of strange timing, I had just finished writing the twister scene when the 2013 storm hit Moore, Oklahoma. Or maybe that wasn't such an odd thing after all, because living in Oklahoma means living with the possibility of bad storms. You can't write a long series set there without eventually writing about what it is like to live in tornado alley.

For generations, folks who live in bull’s eye country have dealt with the reality of the situation with a certain black humor. 

“Why, once, I left a pot of coffee on the stove during a twister, and when I emerged from the cellar the stove and coffee pot had blown away and left the coffee floating in mid-air.”

“Lightning struck the house and it went up in flames, but the twister sucked all the water out of the cow pond and dumped it right on the fire and put it out before it burned to the ground.” 

But reality is just as bizarre as fiction when it comes to tornados. When I wrote about a killer storm, I didn’t need to exaggerate. In a twisted way, it was useful for the story that I have a lot of first hand knowledge of the hideous things that can occur when a tornado strikes. I’ve seen or read or heard about:
·         A house sheared in two and half left standing untouched.
·         A body found completely wrapped in barbed wire. 
·         The fact that the wind in a tornado is so strong that you can’t breathe or even close your eyes. 
·         A board that nailed itself to a man’s back.
·         A child who was blown three miles and found alive in the mud. 

 Oh, and by the way, a twister really can suck all the water out of a small pond.

Donis Casey is the author of seven Alafair Tucker Mysteries. The latest installment, Hell With the Lid Blown Off, is available from Poisoned Pen Press in June 2014. The award-winning series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Donis lives in Tempe, AZ, with her husband. Readers can enjoy the first chapter of each book on her web site at


Susan J Tweit said...

Yikes! Great post, Donis, and thank you for the eye-opening look at tornadoes and your inspiration for your mysteries.

Brigid Amos said...

I live in Nebraska. Nuff said!

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Susan. Enjoy your blog, by the way. And Brigid, I empathize. After I moved to AZ, my shoulders relaxed for the first time in my life.

Pamela Foster said...

Interesting post. I'm in NW Arkansas now. Moved here four years ago. I'm not yet used to the tornado warnings and the threat of severe weather.