In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”