Connecting With Other Writers

Recently I met up with Kathleen Kent, author of four books, including The Dime, which is about to become a TV series.
At Interabang Books, to listen to Joe Lansdale, author of Jack Rabbit Smile, tell the lowdown about making a novel into a film.

Spending time either in conversation with or listening to the experiences of other writers has helped me to understand this work I have taken on.  It helps make it seem all worthwhile.  People like Kathleen and Joe help put things into perspective for me and, ultimately, my soon-to-be readers.

By the way, Kathleen’s third novel, The Outcasts, is set in Texas just a decade before the events of my own book.



On Writing the Truth

I go after buried truths like a paleontologist digs for bones.
A few ribs here, maybe a spine. A tooth or a claw there. Not much to go on, perhaps. But with patience, out of that rubble you can build a whole dinosaur.
Sure, you might have to whip up a few plaster fakes, where actual bones have turned to dust. But in the end, when you wire it all together, you get a skeleton. Intact and real.
Some well-intentioned people, including good instructors, have told me just to make my story up. “You’ll have to write it as fiction,” they say, “because you can never know what truly happened.
Just go for emotional truth.”
As if throwing the pile of bones together just any old way would do…!
Well, it won’t! (for me at least).
My book is a tribute to the very real life of my main character, John. I uncover bits of fact, one by one, and examine them.
Dust them off. Line them up. Wire them all together. Build as much of the dinosaur as possible.
True, I wasn’t there in 1885 and I can’t know exactly what happened. Some facts are just plain lost, and no amount of digging will ever turn them up.   These missing bones, I improvise as best I can. But ALWAYS based on what I know. Always, from the “real bones” of the true story.
The backbone: the remote West Texas Big Bend of the 1880’s. The railroad has recently arrived, linking Big Bend with the outside world, and it’s now possible to travel by rail all the way to California.
The ribs: the characters who populate the story, with their real names and ages, and appearances (to the extent I have photos to tell me what they looked like).
Where they lived, their ages and occupations, as gleaned from genealogical research and personal writings.
The small bones, unique to this project: family lore handed down through the generations. How the brothers were running off to Los Angeles but ran out of money on the trip.
How they fell in with a West-bound herd of drovers, ending up on the G4 Ranch in Big Bend.
And a few precious lines of dialog, repeated to me by my dad, as his father had told him. “Johnny, stay here till the hair blows off your head. I’m going to California.”
Set all this against the backdrop of the weather, a brutal winter, and a drought where no rain at all fell for a whole year.
String all of it together. A story emerges. Sure, it’s partly fiction, but it’s also very real.
(the featured image for this blog post I call “Mountain Scenery.” A photo I found in John’s own trunk, taken somewhere in Big Bend.

On the back, he’s written, “my old pasture,” which I believe was supposed to be funny. Some pasture, right?  This photo is part of a collection, all found in John’s trunk, which I have donated to The Archives at Sul Ross State University.These pictures are a mystery. I’ll tell more about them sometime, in another post. One cool secret about this one is that there are people in it! Can you find them? )

The Transformation

Struggling authors need your sympathy.
The difference between a first draft and a final manuscript is huge, and I suspect that for most of us, there may be a lot of intervening drafts.
In my case, it’s taking forever. I spent a couple of years researching my subject and learning the craft of fiction writing. And I’m not even counting that time, as I look at the many months I’ve been messing with the manuscript itself.
Merely telling folks “how long it’s taking” is starting to feel akin to confessing my true age (which I never do, ‘cause I’m permanently 48).
And by the way, back at the beginning, when I was a freshly-minted novelist still wet behind the ears, I figured I could write this thing in a year. Yes, you got that right—an entire novel in a single year. Ha ha. But not so funny now that, um, “several” years have passed and I’m still deep in the rewrite.
I work on my book at least a few hours, every single day. And yes, it’s slowly taking shape (emphasis on “slowly”). And it’s great!
But what a struggle, revising scenes, tweaking the words to get them just right… And then, to my horror, I sometimes find I have to delete them!  Yes, you heard that right. “Killing your babies,” one of my writing teachers called it.
Sometimes, an entire scene has to go. Why? Because it just isn’t needed, to make the story work. And I don’t realize it, till after it’s done. And maybe it’s taken weeks to write. Damn!
Man, it is just so HARD to write what I’ve plotted, and what comes out on the page is often different from the outline. Sometimes it’s just plain better. And nothing to do but go with it! Watch as the story evolves, and see how the tweaks I’ve made affect the chapters still to come.
So, one thing I need you to understand is that writing a novel is not journalism. It’s not reportage. You don’t just crank the pages out and that’s your draft.
I’d venture to say that an author who can just crank out a book is about as rare as a photographer’s model who never needs airbrushing.
Those pimples and freckles are somewhere. And it takes an artful touch to whisk them away, so our final impression can be satisfying.
So much sweat goes into this.
Be patient. I think it’ll be worth waiting for.
(The featured image for this blog post is a page of Stephen King’s edits from On Writing, by Stephen King)

A Tall Order

It’s a tall order, writing first person narrative through the eyes of a sixteen year-old boy.
Especially a boy who lives in 1885, in rural Texas. (I’m a city girl, myself).
Every word, (even curses, slang, terms of endearment) must be in 1880’s vernacular, and no ten-dollar words when a one-dollar word will do.
I keep having to think how boys talk! So few words! And a glance or a shrug can say so much…
Real places and events are the backdrop for John’s story—the family farm in Wrightsboro, the Los Angeles land rush of 1885, and the rail lines, then new, linking Texas with California, Chicago and points east.
Kansas City, where Texas herds were shipped by rail, and Chicago, where Bill Cody parades live cowboys, Indians and buffalo down crowded city streets.
The main characters are real people. To the extent possible, I’ve captured their true-life appearances and personalities, relying on photographs and personal writings for guidance on how these people thought and spoke.
Town names, some of which were different back then,local landmarks and weather… all as real as I can make it.
From a family elder, I got juicy details like the actual name and description of Eagle, John’s sooty-colored, homely horse. Hairy-Hooved, but smart and much beloved of our hero, John.
It’s hard writing what’s real. You have to study, study, study, till you can describe experiences you’ve never actually had, and sound like you’ve lived them.
Shoeing a horse, birthing a calf (omg, so incredibly messy and enough fluids to fill a bathtub and no I’m not kidding)…lassoing a bear and dragging it to death (you would not believe how hard that scene has been to write, and how many drafts it’s taken).
Every step of this takes longer than I think.
But this is not some flight of fictional fantasy, where I can make up a universe to suit my story. (Not that a fictional story would be easy. I’m just saying I don’t have the luxury of being able to depart from the known parameters of truth that form the scaffolding of this tale). Anyway, here I am, grinding through the truths of 130 years ago. Getting down to the gritty heart of the matter and trying to make it real.

How It Went

Everybody’s asking, “how’d it go in New York?”
First answer: “It was AWESOME!”
Second answer: “Let me explain…”
You meet an agent who likes the beginning of your novel and the gist of your book synopsis…
Awesome! You made somebody smile. Somebody who reads manuscripts all day for a living.
That’s HUGE.
BUT…now you have to go home and make a ton of edits. Maybe you still have chapters in the second-draft stage. Maybe the agent suggested some changes.
Changes, by the way, can be hard. Ripping out sentences or paragraphs or pages that took months to build, and inventing something new to take their place…you might as well be ripping flesh from your own arm. It takes willpower beyond imagination.
Anyway, there’s a lot still to be done on my book.
Even once it’s “done” (and done-ness is as hard to determine as the consistency of the interior of a made-from-scratch cake), THEN you can send the whole entire novel back to that agent, to read and CONSIDER.
Upon reading the whole thing, they might love it, or they might vomit!
Ha ha, flow chart here…if they vomit, you’re done. At least with that agent.
If they love it, then maybe they’ll try shopping it around to publishers, to see if anyone’s interested…
It’s possible the agent may not find a publisher who wants it or is ready for it.
It’s a long, long process, and the outcome uncertain.
Just having a meeting with a literary agent “go well,” does NOT equal a book contract!
Have I just knocked you over with a feather?
So, the answer to everybody who’s asking, “When will it be published?”
Can only be, “Do you read tea leaves?”
In a nutshell: awesome weekend in New York.
Yes, people said nice things about my manuscript, which I am totally stoked about.
I also received some good constructive criticism.
There remains a lot of work to be done.
The agents were great. Truly insightful, and I enjoyed meeting them.
Four agents in one day, one at a time, plus an editor…an exhausting slew of meetings.
I even got to sit next to an agent at dinner- two nights in a row. Awesome.
But…do you read tea leaves?  ‘Cause I don’t.
Having said that, I am bound and determined this thing’s going to get published.
But the time has to be right. Every word in place, and every comma.
You wouldn’t want to read it any other way.
Don’t rush it.

New York: An Interior Journey

New York City. I’m with a handful of other writers from the SMU creative writing program.
Our manuscripts have survived the every-other year judging that leads, for a lucky few, to a series of agent and editor meetings in New York.
We are blessed, really, to have made it this far, no matter what happens (or doesn’t happen) next, whether a big publishing deal pans out, or the manuscript sits quietly in a drawer.
We’re in a lovely 1914 mansion near Central Park, once owned by the Vanderbilts.
Each of us has had a bunch of meetings with real, live literary agents—my first glimpse of the publication world.
You know how vulnerable you feel, stripping naked for a doctor exam?
That’s how it feels to walk into a room with someone who dissects manuscripts for a living, day in, day out…and now they’ve examined YOURS.
If you’re pronounced “healthy,” you walk out with a spring in your step.
And so it is with a manuscript.
A spring in my step, to be told I’m on the right track..and given new insights to weave into yet another round of edits.
Not your ordinary trip to New York.
I haven’t been to The Met, or shopping. Or anything. Barely left the house.
Just glimpsed the outside world through the windows of this gracious home of yesteryear.
All of us packed into the fourth floor servant’s quarters, with its small oval windows, marvelously creaky doors and floors, back staircases and an ancient brass-cage elevator.
It’s like being back in college. And like college, an interior journey—a deep look into all that’s poured out of my pen and keyboard for the past couple years.
(Can you believe I said that? …YEARS. OMG, how long it’s taking, to write this first novel).
From the first word of the first page of the first draft…to the umpteenth round of edits. Daunting, anxiety-inducing…and yeah,fun (at least, if you’re a writer).
Three days here, and time to go home. Back down the winding stairs, out the massive door…back out into the world.

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.