A Recipe for Historical Romance
All story is built on an idea. Like a great oak is born from a tiny acorn, every idea has to start somewhere. The difference is, unlike growing one plant from one seed, ideas can germinate from multiple sources, blending more into a recipe or blend to serve your own nefarious purposes – to get your hero and heroine, and quite likely your villain, into the proper space and time.
All or Nothing is historical fiction, based upon facts. A series of interesting points from the same time period in Arizona Cavalry history, when mixed together became the story that it is today. What I needed:
- A setting – I chose Tucson, Arizona of the late 1870s. Having grown up there, I used to spend hours daydreaming about the people who inhabited the fort, built the adobe structures, looked upon those same mountains…
- A motivating/inciting incident for my brooding hero – I chose an incident from history that was in my backfile – a newspaper article by Tucson reporter, Bonnie Henry, when she discussed the horrors of the Camp Grant Incident from 1871. A group of powerful citizens of Tucson took it upon themselves to pal up with one side of a Native American war, and see to it they obliterated the Apache tribe under supplication to the military. This horrified me when I read it, and even more when I realized that so many streets, districts of Tucson boasted the names of the men in charge of the mess. How would a soldier with a conscience, doing as told, have handled such a massacre? Thus, became Bowen’s backstory.
- A reason for my heroine to head west, and meet said brooding hero—well, what did a woman do in the 1870s? She was either a wife, a teacher, possibly a nurse, a seamstress. As I’ve always loved the art of stitching—seamstress she became. And, her erstwhile hubby—a dreamer and schemer—received a contract to make military uniforms for Fort Lowell…that she must fulfill after his murder.
- A mechanism for such a strong minded heroine to lean so heavily upon her hero/and a mystery for them to solve, together—An Arizona Highways article led me to the brief blurb about El Tejano, one of the bandits who roamed the Tucson area mountain trails in the late 1870s, terrifying his victims with a horrible mask and the Mexican phrase, Todo o Nada…All or Nothing. Not only the title, but his catch phrase. And, who better for him to set upon than a young widow traveling through the mountains, flying by the seat of her pants, powered by faith that someday things would be better for her.
Years ago, while an archaeology student at the University of Arizona, I studied the laundresses of Fort Lowell, under the tutelage of the Museum Curator, David Faust. He loves to talk about the women who worked the fort, how the officers’ wives felt about them, and how important and unsung they were. Mr. Faust told me about the landscape of the area, gifted me with articles that described the area rivers in detail—now dry and dusty, diverted to reservoirs. I’ve moved those files with me from home to home over the course of fifteen years, and finally found a story worthy of using them.
While I had the framework of the idea, and the story in full swing, occasionally I’d find myself in need of “seasoning.” I no longer had the luxury of running to the Arizona Historical Society to view their archives of photographs, but I did have their web site to sift through. And, thanks to the Google Book Project, I had access to writings and journals from people who lived in the time period and place I was researching. I poured over Martha Summerhayes’ Vanished Arizona, her account of growing up in the west, a new Cavalry wife, available in the public domain. Though only a small portion takes place at Fort Lowell, she taught this writer about what it was like to travel during that time, to be a mother during that time, and provided the name of my hero from one of her lesser characters. Bowen. Loved it. Had star quality, even if her description is a far cry than my own devastatingly handsome hero.
With yellow pad in hand, I took notes. On Martha’s remembered sights, scents, sounds. It was a start, but I needed more. I needed details on dress, costume, what resources were available for a woman in a remote fort. What would she buy at the post store? How would she ride a horse? How long would it take to go by horseback from the fort to the city? To the edge of the mountains? Plus, I had the advantage of hiking that terrain most of my life, and an author’s imagination of how someone from a time with no air conditioning in the heat of the summer, no indoor plumbing, and no ready access to a Walmart would handle the perils and pitfalls of being a woman during that period of history.
Of course, there was creative license. It’s fiction, after all—and sometimes, even with the history in hand, you need to bend facts to meet your plot-needs. But, before bending them, you need to know what really happened, and make it work for your modern audience.
So, how’d it all pan out?
Reviews of All or Nothing have been overwhelmingly positive, remarking on detail, setting, and story. The recipe was sound, the ingredients meshed together in proper flavor, and the seasoning enough to provide an intriguing event for my hero and heroine to reach their happily ever after.
Researching the elements of history were key to success, and most of it, from the comfort of my living room couch, courtesy of my wireless internet access.
Yes, it’s barely necessary to darken the doorways of a library anymore –though I do, whenever possible—because nothing can replace the skills of a knowledgeable librarian, and the scent of book stacks.
- Camp Grant Incident – 1871: Original article pulled—which I spoke with Ms. Henry about at length. The Rebuttal: http://www.azstarnet.com/public/comm_editorials/Peter_Vokac_334394.html
- Fort Lowell – a US Cavalry fort in Tucson, Arizona. The fort was in full swing in 1876, decommissioned in 1879-1880:
- Archives at Historical Society: http://lista.azhist.arizona.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&PAGE=First
- Museum Site: http://www.oflna.org/fort_lowell_museum/ftlowell.htm
- Plan of Fort Lowell: http://www.oflna.org/fort_lowell_museum/fort_lowell_1880%20map.tif
- Military in Arizona Territory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arizona_Territory
- US Army Uniforms – Uniforms were contracted out by the Post – researched on Wikipedia, and through visiting numerous sites, including: http://www.ushist.com/cavalry_dragoons.htm
- Costumes and dress of a traveling woman in 1876: http://www.ushist.com/wardrobe/ladies.htm
- Army Laundresses – the women in service of the soldiers, and were in fact paid by the army by the soldier (often paid better than the soldiers!) and also received steady rations. So, what was her life like? Resources like this are useful, found through google searches: http://www.armylaundress.com/theirjob.htm
- Transportation – the train didn’t reach Tucson until 1878, so how would a woman traveling with her sister reach Tucson from Kansas City, Missouri? – I literally ran into an almost train wreck here, having an improper stop on my Atchitson, Topeka, Santa Fe line out of Kansas City. So, back to Google I went – during edits! And found some excellent maps, depicting stops, as well as how one would get from Colorado to Tucson, by way of stage. Searching a variety of resources, including Wikipedia led me to a blip of a station in La Junta, Colorado: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atchison,_Topeka_and_Santa_Fe_Railway
- El Tejano – villains of the old west, vanished treasure, and approximate location, originally through www.arizonahighways.com article, and varying reports. His exact identity uncertain, due to the mask he wore – and his treasure never securely found, this time of year—A quick web search found a story of his ghost roaming the desert, challenging those who seek his treasure with their very lives… http://tucsoncitizen.com/paranormal/2009/09/28/the-ghostly-legend-of-el-tejano/
While writing this article, I’ve discovered something about historical research. It’s possible, when you talk about something long enough, devotedly enough, that you can in fact put your own thumbprint on history. Research of El Tejano, more often than not, brings up blog posts I’ve written on this unsung villain of our desert. See my comments on him here:
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