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.

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…