About My People

To write this novel, I had to create some good, solid characters.
Characters of three-dimensions—flesh-and-blood-and bone, with their own back stories, habits and ideas about the world.
Because if the characters don’t feel real, you won’t embrace their story.
My novel’s based on a true story, so many character names are a given… no need to invent them.
Family genealogy, oral history, an old letter here, an old news clipping there…
It’s daunting trying to write a real story about real people.  Especially when they’ve all been dead for 100 years or so, and you can’t interview them.
I wanted to be true to what I could glean of their personalities, who they were and what they did.
Many hours of research led down rabbit trails and dead ends, as I tried to figure these people out.
Our hero’s personal autograph book, conserved by family since the 1880’s, came into my possession through a cousin.
Here was an unexpected treasure, since some folks who figure in the story wrote in it.
Now I had their choice of words, a tantalizing glimpse into how they spoke. And I could see how they wielded a pen, heavy or light, with a flamboyant flourish or none.
In the end, I still had very little concrete information about my people, and had to invent a lot. The Enneagram came to my rescue. It’s a synthesis of ancient and modern psychological teachings that divides us all into nine distinct personality types.
The Writer’s Path at SMU steered me onto the book, The Wisdom of The Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson.
From its description of humanity’s inner workings, desires and fears, I cobbled my characters together.
A lot of good juicy stuff came from Suzanne Stabile’s workshop on understanding the Enneagram.
The challenge was to figure out the kinds of people who would’ve done what these people actually did—an ex-Marshall running a ranch…a teen boy who lassoes a bear….
and his 21-year old brother who’s twisted sense of humor gets him fired.
Even after I gleaned what my characters were like on the inside, I needed to see them on the outside…how they dressed, how they smiled (or didn’t)—all those quirks that make a person real.
At the start of my efforts, I had only one photo—our young hero, John, sitting on a hay bale all duded up in a photographer’s studio. The studio name imprinted on the photo said, “Chicago.”
And I thought, Chicago…Jesus, what was he doing there! So, I had to figure that out, too. (Separate blog post there).
A cousin had more old photos (thanks Jack). So did The Sul Ross Archives, in Alpine.
Now, in addition to our hero, I had his true-blue girlfriend, Ginnie, his lawman boss, Gillett, and Pink Taylor, the cowboy who helped run the ranch.
But alas, I just could not find pictures of everyone.
So I ferreted out photos from books that in my estimation, “looked right.”
Thank heavens for, Cowboy Gear: A Photographic Portrayal of The Early Cowboys and Their Equipment, by David R. Stoecklein.
In its pages, I found many of John’s compadres, including his brother Tin, grinning in his broad-brimmed hat, red neckerchief and heavy work gloves. He’s right there at the top corner of Page 141.
I smile every time I open to that page. “How do, Mister Tin! …just what windies are we cookin’ up, today?”
Stay tuned.

Indian Marker Trees

“Indian marker trees…were the first ‘road signs…’
Marker trees were bent to guide travelers to significant locations such as campsites, water sources, river crossings, and other important natural features.”
– Carol Dawson with Roger Allen Polson, Miles and Miles of Texas
The thing people don’t realize is, these Indian markers are still around.
Here’s the bent tree which still stands to this day at Oak Spring, headquarters of the old G4 Ranch, in what today is Big Bend National Park.
The nearly horizontal trunk makes an inviting, shady bench.
A couple of scenes in my book take place right here. Oak Spring is where our hero John and his friends first arrive at the ranch, with their 2000 cattle, seed stock for the ranch’s enormous herds that later grew to something like 30,000 head.
An excerpt from the book, coming soon–
We lay down in the flood and drank. I gulped it down and dunked my head. My filthy, still-buttoned shirt floated up and the welcome cool flowed over my  toes.
‘We’re not dead, and I’m a mite surprised.’ Tin said it matter-of-fact, but I laughed till I hurt my sides.
Davenport and his sore-footed boys slapped us on the back, all smiles. I was one of them now, a tramp, a cow-sitter…practically an old hand.
All on account of our going through that Hell of desert together.”

Gettin’ It On, Back in the Day

My novel is set in 1886, on a Big Bend ranch, south of the town of Marathon.
As best I can tell from my fairly diligent research, Marathon at that time had roughly 50 inhabitants, and the local watering hole was a saloon called The McKinney.
I know the McKinney only from a grainy photocopy of an old photo, and a bit of oral history I got from the folks at the library at Sul Ross State University.
I had to invent the two whores myself—Prudence and Anna Mae.  These hussies do their entertaining out of a couple of back rooms at The McKinney.
They can often be found sitting on the narrow front porch, engaging in perfectly innocent conversation with the local passersby.
To the best of my knowledge, it’s not known whether any real whores were in Marathon at the time.  I didn’t find any account mentioning whores…but then again, I didn’t find any account stating that there weren’t any whores, either.
In case two soiled doves sounds like two many for a town of only 50 souls, consider that a western novel can generally benefit from at least one whore…and two is so much more interesting. Also consider the poor cowboys, out in the pasture for months at a time, and just hoping for a little female company on those occasional trips to town.
As the protagonist, John discovers, the problem with taking a shine to Prudence is that his brother’s already been with her.

“How was Prudence?” He grinned and raised an eyebrow.

“Fine.” I scratched the back of my neck, not sure what to say.

“Good woman.” He pulled out his papers and rolled a smoke.

As I watched him lick the edge of that paper, it dawned on me, the awful truth. “How many times you been with her?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Jealousy flooded my heart that he’d plucked the bloom on my sweet desert rose. “Godamnit, Tin, you didn’t tell me.”

“Tell you…what? That I let her grind my corn? For Jesus sakes, John, it was only a few times. She can be your girl all you want, but it’s not like she belongs to nobody else. If she was all yours, she’d be a mighty poorly paid whore.” 

To write up John’s adventures with Prudence, I had to learn the sexual lingo of the day.  My favorite old-time phrase for doing the nasty is “shaking the sheets.”  But there are several good ones, including, “grind the corn” (as in the above excerpt).
It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet!  And who knew, but the F-word dates all the way back to the 1500’s.

I’m on it–An Update About the Book

For anyone who’s recently asked, “how’s the book…?”

Yes, I made an unplanned move, and that cost me some time.
But that’s what it took to get out from under a mortgage, so I afford NOT to have a job…so I could complete this novel.

Yes, my mother came for a slew of medical visits and stayed a month.
Yes, that drove me nuts. But I toted the manuscript around on my laptop to every single doctor’s appointment.

Yes, daily life gets in the way.
Yes, I took time out and flew up to Philadelphia for my high school reunion (we won’t say what number. I’m 48 till further notice— you figure it out).
But I did tote the manuscript up there, too.

Yes, the third rewrite is due August 1.
I’m ON IT. I may be slow to respond to voice mails, emails, snail mails, and texts till then.
But it will get done by the deadline, and I’m really hoping it’ll be a good read.

Where Have I Been?

Everyone keeps asking how the book’s coming…
Truth is, I’ve just been sitting at my kitchen table. That’s where the best writing happens…preferably early, fresh from sleep, with the door to my subconscious still ajar.

Restaurant Table in Marfa

Come to think of it, I prefer the kitchen table to a desk. Just my opinion, but the kitchen in any house, whether grand or humble, is the place where stuff gets DONE!

Sometimes, I migrate to my office, but other times I write in the kitchen all day. So, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, there’s your answer: the kitchen.

As for the state of things, the book is written but I’m in the process of making major revisions. It’s choppy, at best, and not ready to be read. But I promise you, this book IS HAPPENING, and I swear I WILL finish it. This lifetime. Cross my heart.

The book describes the many adventures of our young hero, John, in 1880’s Big Bend. For you Ward people who know the lore— the bear roping incident is in here, as well as the fake stampede that got Tin fired. John’s boss, famous lawman Jim Gillett, is larger than life with his Winchester Model 1873 carbine and a pistol on each hip. The old fiddler’s there, too, at his remote mountain shack, teaching John to play the fiddle he acquired in a card game. There’s a little bullshit in there too (ok, maybe a lot). But just ask Stephen King– you need to add a pinch of BS to make a savory story.

The deadline for completion of manuscripts in the SMU program is August, so that’s what I’m shooting for. Till then, I’m trying to stay focused…which means a lot of kitchen table time.

I can’t wait till this is ready to share. The day will (eventually) come! Check with me late August. It sounds a long way off, but I promise, when you’re staring down the barrel of an approaching writing deadline, it’s not!

Besides, quoting my lovely and enormously talented writing coach, Tex Thompson– “Crafting immortal deathless prose takes time.”


briefcase-detailsMy father started the research for this book many years ago. He gathered and saved articles, photos, letters and maps relating to the story of his grandfather, John Ward. I found them in these old briefcases, after he died.

trunkJohn’s flat-topped wooden trunk sat for nearly 130 years gathering dust on a closet floor, till finally I decided to write his story. Beneath the dusty lid I found John’s personal papers, all carefully bound with string, two pairs of spurs, and a set of magnificent photos of Big Bend. On each photo, John had written a caption in rough pencil. His appreciation for detail and sense of humor are as clear and crisp as the images themselves.Multiple fiddles

High on a closet shelf, I found John’s legendary three-dollar German fiddle. His relics inspire me. I keep them close as I write his story.


Doing Justice to the Story

The characters in my book are young ranch hands in the wide-open spaces of Big Bend. They roam the unfenced wilderness at will on their horses. They shoot their own food and sleep under the stars. By today’s standards, they travel light…canteen, pistol, rifle, cartridges, lariat, and a little food wrapped in a napkin.

It’s difficult to write about their world with insight. I live in a city, miles away and 130 years later. I’m female and until recently, my natural habitat was an office. I do have some small advantages, though. As a rancher’s daughter, I’ve spent time outside in West Texas (hot and dry, or cold and windy, throw in the occasional thunderstorm and deluge).  I also have a passing familiarity with guns and horses… but to do justice to the story of these boys, I need to immerse myself in their world…

So…I’m backpacking Big Bend!

Bought my gear Labor Day at REI’s big annual sale. Pack, tent, footprint, boots, poles…the whole nine yards! I now have every modern, lightweight camping convenience. Ok, my investment in cushy, comfy gear sets me apart from the characters in my book, but…this is as pared-down as a modern woman gets…as no-frills as I’m willing to go.  I’ll be packing two luxury items: a tiny notebook and a pen for writing. Extra ounces to burden my pack, but neanne-at-reicessary to recording details for good storytelling.

I’ve taken the backpacking classes REI offers, and they were helpful. My personal trainer, Roland at Telos Fitness, has obligingly taken our workouts to Arbor Hills Nature Preserve, where I can hike the trails with my pack fully loaded. I assure you it is heavy! 20 pounds of the pack’s weight is water. My tour leader says, “it’ll only be heavy at the beginning, since you’ll be drinking it…”

I won’t exactly be shooting my own food, but I will be sleeping under the stars.  I’ll experience the wind whistling in the mountains and shiver at the night noises… I will see the sunrise and feel the first warmth of morning light seeping into my bones… and I’ll see parts of Big Bend only accessible on foot. (Places our four wheel drive couldn’t go, last trip). Hopefully, the end product of these adventures will be good reading for all who pick up the book.

Stay tuned for more about my itinerary and preparations, and photos from the hike itself, which will take place next month…


Act II.


As the youngest and smallest of the G4 cowboys, John feels the need to prove himself.
Given the job of wrangler, he herds a hundred or so horses from the pastures to the corral several times a day, and gets very, very good throwing a lasso.

As if he isn’t busy enough, Gillett also assigns him the job of looking after the old “Fiddler Man,” a hermit who lives on the ranch.
When John isn’t herding horses, he’s gathering wood and hauling water at the Fiddler’s cottage.

In return for his labors, John receives instruction on the fiddle.
Soon, the pastures are filled with song.

John sticks close to his older brother, Tin, a skilled cowhand with a wry sense of humor.
But Tin’s fondness for pranks and jokes gets them both into trouble.
This is the story of John’s many scrapes and adventures, as he grows into his job.

John becomes a legend when Tin gets him to lasso a grizzly bear.

Hang tight, for the wild ride!

The G4 Ranch

This story takes place on the fabled G4 Ranch, an enormous spread with its heart located in Block G4 of the Texas Land Survey.

The ranch consisted of 155,000 acres, more or less. Lush grassy deserts and stony mountains, bordered on the South by the Rio Grande River.

55,000 of those 155,000 acres were actually owned. The rest was leased, and some was just “roamin’ rights,” but at any rate, the place was huge by anyone’s standards, then or now. The ranch was in operation about ten years. Today, its lands are part of Big Bend National Park.

In 1885, at the time our story begins, the G4 is a brand-new venture.

Well-known lawman, Jim Gillett, a former Texas Ranger, has left his position as Marshall of El Paso, to be the foreman.

Gillett imports large herds of longhorn cattle, and hires a few capable hands to tend them.
Dangers include wolves, bears, panthers, bandits, cattle thieves, and small roving bands of Indians.

Protecting the herds, and keeping them from straying, is no small task, since this is the open range, and there isn’t a single fence anywhere on all those acres.

That sets the stage for Act II of our story.

Act I.


Back in the days before telephones or electric lights…

Back when you shot your own food and sewed your own clothes…

Indoor plumbing was new and not everybody had it.

Air-conditioning was the stuff of fantasy.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was fresh in memory.

There were only 38 United States. Oklahoma, New Mexico, and plenty others were still territories.

Waay back.

The golden age of the American cowboy was in its last fleeting years.

Boys drove fast, of course, but they drove horses, (no cars yet), and every young man dreamed of galloping the open range.
That pretty much sets the stage. Now, imagine a fine Spring afternoon in the rolling hills of Central Texas. Two brothers heading West in search of adventure. They have the clothes on their backs, their horses, their pistols, and most importantly, each other. In their saddle bags, they’ve got food and money to last a couple of days. They dream of striking it rich in Los Angeles, where a land boom is making and breaking fortunes. But it’s a long shot they’ll ever get there.

John, 16, worships his older brother, Tin, and would follow him to the ends of the Earth. Tin can ride, rope and shoot with the best of them, but he’s an irresponsible sort, inclined to the pleasures of gambling and pool halls. The two get hungry and down to their last few coins. See how their chance encounter with a cattle drover changes everything. Join the two on a cattle drive to the remote Big Bend Country of West Texas. Their lives will never be the same.