Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why Writing Historical Fiction Is So Much Fun

 by Carolyn Niethammer

While readers can learn a great deal from historical fiction, it’s even more of a treat for writers.. For my novel The Piano Player, I read The Tombstone Epitaph on microfilm to learn what life was like in that dusty frontier town in the 1880s. It is said that Tombstone at that time had the best food between St. Louis and San Francisco, and the menus published in the paper confirmed that fact with offerings of  fresh oysters, lobster, six salads, five roasts, four different pies and three puddings all at one restaurant on one Sunday.

Researching what a fashionable young woman might wear led to an enjoyable afternoon in the historical society library looking over old ladies’ magazines with pictures and descriptions of bustles and bows and laces. Then there were the fabulous hats. The under garments were even more fascinating, calling for layer upon layer of fine batiste and corsets with whalebone and laces.

One of my characters, the real life Nellie Cashman, had mining interests in Alaska and Yukon Territory, so I went to Fairbanks to look at the old mining records. Down in a locked cage in the courthouse basement, in huge dust-covered books, I found Nellie’s signature when she signed for her claims. Seeing her actual handwriting sent a chill down my back. Did it ultimately make a difference to what I wrote about her? Probably not, but it sure was fun.

Next I went to Dawson City in the Yukon, and out to Nolan Creek where Nellie Cashman mined. When I figured out approximately where her claim was, I sat on a rock and willed her spirit to speak to me, to help me make her character come alive. Alas, no appearance from the other side with guidance on my project.

Stories have been told about the founder of the Arizona Historical Society and how she would attend funerals of the old-timers, accosting their relatives for diaries or memoirs. She was considered brazen, but she did collect an astounding amount of material that gives great insight into Arizona life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reading those fading typescripts, now carefully preserved in acid-free folders, were windows into lives both mundane and exciting.

Now all this research has been woven into my novel The Piano Player. Well-bred Mary Rose follows her dream to Tombstone and quickly discovers that she is not prepared for the challenges of being a piano player in the Bird Cage Theater. Help comes from her landlady, Nellie Cashman, proprietor of The Russ House. It is an unlikely friendship. Years after each has left Tombstone, they join up again to seek their fortunes during the Alaska gold rush. Together they deal with a lover who turns out to be a murderer, imprisonment in a Mexican jail, near death falling into the icy Yukon River and disappointment when their quest for gold is dashed. They postpone romance with the men who love them until for one, it becomes too late.
               You can find The Piano Player at 
Carolyn Niethammer grew up in the territorial capital of Prescott, Arizona and now lives in Tucson in a downtown historic district. She is the author of nine nonfiction books on southwestern subjects including five cookbooks and two biographies. The Piano Player is her first novel. Find her at 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

City Mouse & Country Mouse

By Jonnie Martin

My cousin Sharon McAmis was the inspiration for my book, Wrangle.  Like the protagonist in the novel, Sharon ran her dad’s quarter horse ranch and she still owns acreage. We both live in Hempstead, Texas and there the similarities end, for I am a City Mouse and Sharon is a Country Mouse, and our lives could not be more different. 

Sharon’s day begins before sunrise with the crow of feral roosters in the trees.  She rolls out of bed into plaid shirt, jeans and boots, and strides outside to feed animals.  She opens the cages on the porch, to let hens and chicks out for daily grubbing, and unpens her 3 quarter horses and 5 thoroughbreds who freely roam the 15 acres.

As the sun creeps over the horizon and the kinetic sounds of animals increase, she makes mental note of the day’s errands.  Too early to pick up feed – hen scratch, chick starter, alfalfa, hay to horse standards.  A cow might eat anything, but not her well-bred horses, and the wet spring has compromised the hay supply.

A few more steps and she’s on the tractor, headed to the west field to continue her assault on Texas Goatweed, Silverleaf, Nightshade, Pigweed, and Thistle.  Over the past 3 years she has reclaimed 8 acres of pasture that had been lost to wild growth.  Sometimes she’s progressing; at other times she’s not sure.  It’s hard to keep accurate markers.

At 10:00 a.m. Sharon is still working the land, managing a burn pile, repairing fence line . . . and by now I have climbed bleary-eyed from bed.  I’m a late riser, a benefit of retirement, and first, last, always I trail to the computer to pick up emails, check the sales on Wrangle, and consult my writing and marketing schedule.

As Sharon’s day hits 90 degrees and rises, I’ve made an appointment to interview a rodeo cowboy, drafted a blog post about Cuero’s Chisholm Trail Museum, and calendared the deadline for submitting Wrangle for the WILLA Award.  By afternoon I am in sandals and sundress and headed to Houston boutiques.

By afternoon Sharon will have bought provisions and given the horses their afternoon shower; refilled the water tanks and headed out for more spraying, digging, burning, hauling, hoeing.  Late afternoon, she lets the horses into the corral for their night feed, first the two older mares so they get their fair share, and then the young ones, jockeying for position.

Then there is watered-down chick starter, dry and wet cat food, grain for the wood ducks who sit atop the barn, scolding.  As day fades Sharon walks the property, assessing the next day’s needs. At nightfall she clucks to the hens to bring along their babies, back into the protective cages on the porch.

By 10:00 p.m., I have dined out then headed home to a good book.  Sharon has missed supper to rescue a neighbor stuck in a field bog.  Soon we’ll each answer email, watch a late night TV show, perhaps talk by phone.  On a good night, we are both in bed at midnight.  One of us is terribly, terribly tired.

Jonnie Martin is a native Texan who returned both physically and emotionally to her home state to write her first novel, Wrangle, set on a 1970s quarter horse ranch (available on Amazon).  She also writes a bi-monthly column about ranchers and other “people of the land” for The Waller County News Citizen and a weekly blog, Jonnie’s Writerly Notes, about the West in general and Texas in particular.  Martin’s first career was as a journalist before migrating into business, where she continued to write.  In recent years she has completed a second Bachelor’s (in Literature and Creative Writing) and a Master’s (an MFA in Fiction).

August Member News

The BIG news this month is our winners and finalists for the WILLA Literary Awards, honoring the best books published in 2013 and featuring women's and girl's stories set in the West. Congratulations all!

WINNER: Bone Horses by Lesley Poling-Kempes (La Alameda Press)
FINALIST: Jackson’s Pond, Texas by Teddy Jones (Midtown Publishing, Inc.)
FINALIST: Blood of the White Bear by Marcia Calhoun Forecki and Gerald Schnitzer (WriteLife, LLC)

WINNER: Dollybird by Anne Lazurko (Coteau Books)
FINALIST: Meadowlark by Dawn Wink (Pronghorn Press)
FINALIST: A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert (Persevero Press)

WINNER: Junction, Utah by Rebecca Lawton (Wavegirl Books)
FINALIST: Merciless by Lori Armstrong (Simon and Schuster/Touchstone)
FINALIST: Bodie by Anne Sweazy-Kulju (Tate Publishing)

WINNER: Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands by Sara Loewen (University of Alaska Press)
FINALIST: Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl (Beacon Press)
FINALIST: Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey by Darcy Lipp-Acord (South Dakota State Historical Society Press)

WINNER: Trail Sisters: Freedwomen in Indian Territory, 1850-1890 by Linda Williams Reese (Texas Tech University Press)
FINALIST: I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches by Sherry Robinson (University of North Texas Press)
FINALIST: Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp by Ann Kirschner (Harper Collins)

WINNER: Losing the Ring in the River by Marge Saiser (University of New Mexico Press)
FINALIST: Upriver by Carolyn Kremers (University of Alaska Press)
FINALIST: Life Between Dust & Clouds by Sally Harper Bates (Morris Publishing)

WINNER: Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry (Random House Children’s Books)
FINALIST: Taking the Reins by Dayle Campbell Gaetz (Coteau Books)
FINALIST: My Magic Cowboy by Katy Lente (Casa de Snapdragon LLC Publishing)


Lorrie Farrelly, Terms of Surrender, is a finalist in the Western Fiction and Historical Fiction categories in this year's Reader's Favorite Book Awards. Former Confederate Captain Michael Cantrell has lost his home and everyone he loved. On the Wyoming frontier, he finds himself suddenly in the middle of Annie Devlin's war. Standing with the determined young rancher will test the limits of Michael's courage – and his passion. 

Amy Hale Auker, Rightful Place has been re-released in paperback by the Texas Tech University Press. From the Texas panhandle to the mountains of Arizona, Amy Auker has lived the cowboy life—as wife, as mother, as cook, as ranch hand, as writer. In fine-grained detail she captures the prairie light, the traffic on small farm-to-market roads, the vacant stillness of shipping pens when fall works are over. But she also captures the unmistakable westernness of the people and creatures around her: the son who must get back on the horse that just bucked him off, the husband who gives great gifts, the animals whose names and temperaments are as recognizable as family. Auker understands those who live in the sway of nature’s moods far off the main roads, and she commends them to us in luminous prose backlit by her own hard-earned experience.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Part Four of "30 Deadly-Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & Gimungously Vast Swaths of Time for Writing"

Part Four of "30 Deadly-Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & Gimungously Vast Swaths of Time for Writing" which first appeared on C.M. Mayo's blog.  

 by C.M. Mayo

26. Use a "bucket" for all your to do lists and ideas. In other words, quit trying to keep everything from next week's dentist appointment to the ideas for a holiday party in your head. I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system and thereby free up great jazzy swaths of short term memory for more creative work. (One day I may set up a little altar in a corner of my office to St. Allen.) For me, a Filofax is an indispensable tool for implementing GTD.
>Listen to this podcast of November 6, 2013 about the GDT method for creative people. (I couldn't find the direct link; you may need to scroll down for it once you land on that page.)

27. Keep your closet decluttered and organized. Clutter not only makes it difficult to find things when you need them, it pulls and yanks and pinches your attention to decisions you haven't made (like, when and how to get rid of that mustard-colored shirt that doesn't fit / has two missing buttons?) So you're rushed and addled, right at the start of the day. It all adds up over a week, a month...

28. Fie to piles. Piles are sinkholes of chaos and, to pile on another mongrel of a metaphor, they tend to sprout and ooze all over the place like fungi. (Yeah, did that need an editor.) Any time you need to do anything important, pay taxes, file a claim, send out a manuscript, if you have to paw and dig through piles to find what you need you will add possibly hours, possibly days, possibly weeks or even months to the process-- not to mention a walloping dollop of time-sucking anxiety. So get a filing cabinet, even if it has to be a cardboard box, and make proper, labeled files, and dagnabbit, file things.

29. Let go of things you won't use but someone else might. This might sound strange as a source of time for writing, but think about it: any clutter, anywhere, becomes a drag on your time and attention. So all those old winter coats, faded towels, mismatched dishes, clothes than haven't fit for 10 years, overflows of flower vases, toys… For heavenssakes, sell that stuff, gift it, and/or make regular runs to Goodwill or the like. (But remember, trying to sell it will take up your time.) As my favorite estate lady 
Julie Hall puts it, "the hearse doesn't have a trailer hitch." 

And last but far from least:

30. Remember to bring your pen and notebook. Always, except in, say, a swimming pool, keep these on your person; you never know when the muse may whisper. What I'm saying is, some of the most valuable writing time arrives in snatches-- while you're standing in the dog park, about to get out of the car, riding an elevator, etc. In other words, you might not have been planning to write, but write you do because write you can.

C.M. Mayo is the author of several books, most recently, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. She is currently at work on a book about Far West Texas, and apropos of that, hosts the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project at