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Recalculating

RodeoThe first time I ever rode in a car that had a Garmin GPS, I laughed at the voice prompt when when we missed a turn. It patiently stated, “Recalculating.”

As a writer riding the rodeo circuit to get published, my recalculations are not always because of missed turns or errors. Sometimes, I see a new opportunity or connection. I tend to grab the bull by the horns, but often find I have a corral full of bulls and have to figure out what next.

My corral is full at the moment, and for a pantser, that feels good. I like the energy of having multiple projects in the works. My overarching goal to publish books is always my priority. My motivation remains high when I feel inspired and connected.

However, my friend Kate, who despite having terminal cancer, remains a wise council for me. She pointed out that while I write down my goals, I should also write out my full plan. Another friend also once advised me to create an individual business plan for each of my books. I certainly know how, but as a pantser I tend to balance it all in my head. To that, Kate reminded me that when you write it down, you have a better chance of succeeding.

“Goals in writing are dreams with a deadline.” ~Brian Tracy

While I balk at self-imposed deadlines, I do know that I want my goals to come to fruition. I have several written down beneath my overarching goal of publishing, but perhaps it is time to plot more deeply. After all, that is a recalculation I do in my writing process: I draft freely like a pantser, but buckle down and revise like a plotter.

“Goals allow you to control the direction of change in your favor.” ~Brian Tracy

And change is blowing across the prairie, nudging me to change direction. My goal stands, but my tactics need recalculating because of recent opportunities. This is why I like having a corral full of bulls — more bulls, more rides and a better chance to make the ride I need.

I intended to publish Miracle of Ducks first. It makes sense; it’s complete, professionally edited and my first manuscript. I took it to LA, met with a publisher who advised me to find an agent, and met with an agent who declined. I messed up my first submission, uploading an earlier draft and was told that I didn’t have enough social media. I’ve not heard back from any agents since.

So weird thing happened on the way to the rodeo…a publisher answered an email I sent seven months ago. She asked if I was still working on the project, Rock Creek, which is my current WIP still in draft form, awaiting research for gaps I discovered in the writing. She expressed interest and advised me on how to submit the manuscript.

You might be wondering why I was contacting publishers about an unfinished manuscript. It began as a call to an editor of a western history magazine to ask if she’d be interested in research that I had from a distant cousin. I thought I could pitch the copious amounts of research I have on the topic of the shoot-out at Rock Creek, Nebraska. She was clear in what her magazine publishers wanted and I filed it away for the day I could pitch it as an author because magazine articles in big publications can help promote one’s book.

But first one must publish (write!) the book.

The editor also gave me two great leads in regards to my writing: one was for an association called Women Write the West and the other was for a publisher who is looking for new women’s voices in the genre of western historical. I wasn’t sure about signing up for the association until I was further along on my western book, but I took the opportunity to write the publisher.

In my mind, I hear Garmin stating, “Recalculating…”

No hard fast rule says my first novel has to be my first manuscript. Over the past two weeks, I’ve played out several what-if scenarios in my mind. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to get Rock Creek finished and reviewed by an interested publisher. I could join the association, pitch my research articles and opt the manuscript movie rights to an interested feature writer and director. Um, yeah, about that…

While posting the flash fiction that got me started down the road to write Rock Creek as a novel, I was contacted by a feature writer and director who was working on an undisclosed television project that included the life of Wild Bill Hickock. The producers wanted to include the Rock Creek incident as a turning point in Hickok’s life. The feature writer found Carrot Ranch because I had tagged both the place and the gunfighter’s name.

As of last week, I now know the name of the series with which I shared my research. I’m not a conservative so it stunned me to realize that I shared with Fox News! The show is Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: Into the West. The episode about Hickok is called, “Plains Justice.” I already know that the producer’s goal was to show Hickok in a white hat and McCandles in a black one, so the outcome will not surprise me. The good news is that there remains much interest in Hickok in general and in what happened at Rock Creek.

My contact on the project told me:

“This is all very interesting. During my research, the Rock Creek incident is the most cloudy and confusing. After every email and phone call with you, it seems to gain clarity. You are at the forefront of knowledge of the subjects involved and what really happened that day. Keep tackling and uncovering, Charli!”

It seems the stars are aligning over Rock Creek.

So what is holding me back? I wanted to publish a novel before Rock Creek because I feel the need to build my credibility, after all I’ve not published a book before. Without a book, I feel like everyone is excited over my idea, but they might think my novel-writing skills are less than expected; they are unproven, and that creates the doubt I’m battling.

Also, I feel an odd sense of disloyalty to Miracle of Ducks. I know I’m not abandoning it, but I would shelve it. Instead of finding an agent for generalized women’s fiction, I would have a publisher in a genre I love. I could always self-publish Miracle of Ducks after I build up a better author name, or if I fail at Rock Creek, I could return to my original plan.

As I recalculate, is there any sage advise for me to consider?

July 30: Flash Fiction Challenge

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionSummer sunlight blazes through the cracks between drawn curtains, creating bars of light across my dog as we all huddle inside the shadows to escape the heat. We have no air-conditioning because it’s rarely needed. Today, I can empathize with those hardy pioneers who settled on the prairie and endured summers without modern conveniences.

My office upstairs feels like a stuffy attic so I’m writing at my kitchen desk; books scatter across the dining-room table as I try to make sense of recent research. There are cracks in the stories that historians tell about Wild Bill Hickok. Cracks also in my loyalty to kin as I realize I’m becoming enamored with Hickok like some wild-west-junkie.

Researching Sarah, Cob & Hickok

Hickok biographer, Joseph G. Rosa, has both deepened the spell and broken it. Rosa himself fell in love with the idea of Hickok as hero when he watched Gary Cooper portray Hickok in the 1936 movie, The Plainsman. Called “highly fictional,” it nonetheless sent Rosa on a lifelong search for who Hickok really was as a man.

Rosa would discover that early Hickok historians were often highly fictional, too. While some based their stories on exaggerated newspaper accounts, including the one that launched the whole “M’Kandlas Gang” myth into existence, others nagged the Hickok family for facts, or made up their own. One even harassed a 93-year-old Sarah Shull until she confessed to historian, F. J. Wilstach, that David Colbert McCanles was a “horse-thief for the Confederacy.” Even Rosa says that Sarah most likely told Wilstach what he wanted to hear so he’d leave her in peace. Historian, Mark Dugan, goes deeper to surmise that Sarah would rather confess McCanles as a horse-thief than as her lover.

That Sarah was Cob’s lover is documented by my 4th-great grandfather, James McCanles who was Cob’s father. Sarah had a baby out of wedlock in 1856. A year later, the baby died but was memorialized in a poem that James wrote to his granddaughter. That shows the McCanles family accepted the girl as one of their own. Also, it is documented that Sarah’s father refused to grind corn for James after 1856, and it’s known locally that he shunned his own daughter. He did not accept the baby born out of wedlock and held the McCanles family accountable.

“Cob” was a familial nickname, probably derived from David’s middle name Colbert, phonetically making the “l” in “Colb” silent. In recognizing the phonetics, you can almost hear the deep southern drawl in how the name was pronounced, “Cawb.” It’s important to remember that his name was perceived as southern as we consider the misconception of historians, including Rosa, that because Cob was southern, he was a Confederate sympathizer. Absolutely not. I’ve extensively researched the duality of Civil War sides in my North Carolina kin, having ancestors that fought brother-against-brother. I have records that show the dividing lines, and the McCanles men were Unionists.

Where historians make their assumption is in the bloody scrimmages that marked the Kansas-Missouri territory as “bleeding Kansas.” Here, staunch abolitionists went toe-to-toe with diehard slavers over the issue of slave-states as America expanded west. The Hickok family came from Illinois and were abolitionists, even participating in the underground railroad. Thus, historians pit McCanles against Hickok as part of the border ruffian battles. While Cob wasn’t necessarily for or against slavery, he was staunchly opposed to succession. Ultimately, both men were pro-union but for different reasons. So nix the idea that Cob was doing anything on behalf of the Confederacy.

But what was he doing out west? Several historians in the 1920s dug up information that Cob had made off with tax-payer money as sheriff of Watauga County, NC. Court records substantiate this claim, although most historians, Rosa included, rely on the hearsay accounts of  historian, J. P. Arthur. And here’s another crack: if Arthur is correct, and court documents do show multiple parties involved in a scheme, then Cob was not the only one who benefited.

Consider this–your buddy says, “Hey, I know how we can scam the system.” If the scam includes only your buddy getting money with your help, you’d probably pass. But if the scam means that you get money too, then you’d be more likely to get involved. So, to say that Cob was helped by his brother Leroy, the deputy and his kin, the Coffey kin and several others, you have to wonder what was in it for them. Cob might have left North Carolina with his pockets lined, but who else lined their pockets, too?

This leads to an interesting, unexplored crack. While historians take sides regarding why and how Hickok shot Cob, and families ruffle feathers over the bad light old tales cast on dead ancestors, we have failed to consider Sarah’s role beyond that of mistress. Women are crafty, too. Consider what Arthur writes about Cob:

“McCanless was a strikingly handsome man and well-behaved, useful citizen till he became involved with a woman not his wife, after which he fell into evil courses.”

Add that thought to the skills that Dugan attributes to Sarah:

“As the children [Shull] grew to adulthood, they would help run the mill or work in the store. Following her arrival in Nebraska in 1859, Sarah reportedly kept books for McCanles and undoubtedly learned this while working in her father’s store.”

If Cob didn’t go wayward until 1855 when he met Sarah, who was 21 and working in her father’s store, is it possible that she–as an experienced accountant–came up with the scheme to defraud tax-payer money. Her motive? To leave town where she had been shunned, buried a baby and master-minded a fraud to fund her new life out west. Because after the money changed hands, that’s exactly what she and Cob did. They left.

Other cracks that seem minor, discrepancies such as whether or not Sarah left after Cob’s death, or how Hickok was injured  before coming to Rock Creek are difficult to prove or disprove. So many historians rely on the accounts of others. Rosa discredits earlier Hickok biographers but then relies on their same work to show McCanles as a sadist horse-thieving Confederate bully. Rosa fully cites from Hickok’s great-nephew, but sneers at Cob’s son who shares his eye-witness account of the Rock Creek incident because it was published 50 years later.

My conclusion: historians are all cracked.

While I hope to one day write a fictional account of  Sarah, Cob and Hickok as a BOTS (based on a true story) it’s hard to sift out what is true. That I fell for the legend that is Hickok is partly because of letters Rosa published from him as a young man, first arrived in Kansas Territory. So full of enthusiasm, humor and adventure it’s hard not to love the boy he must have been. I hope to find that in Cob, too and certainly I feel sad for Sarah who lived long knowing the real reasons for what happened that hot summer day on the prairie in 1861.

Let’s Get On With It!

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m exploring cracks. We crack-up at jokes; we call the mentally-crazed “cracked”; we know it as slang for cocaine, a sharp retort, a split, a change in voice. There are cracks in times, cracks on her face, and worrisome cracks across thin-ice. What a wonderfully rich word is found in crack.

July 30, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a crack.  It’s a rich word, full of possibility. Do cracks reveal something to you, something beyond the surface? Take a crack at this prompt and respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, August 5 to be included in the compilation.

Calico Curtains by Charli Mills

Sarah stared at the crack between calico curtains. Cob had teased her when she hung the divide.

“Why the bed veil? I like watching you stir the fire from here, Rosebud.” He reclined on the trundle bed, leaning on an elbow. Thick black hair tousled. Blue eyes shining like summer sky on water. She remembered smiling, abandoning her task.

Her ears rung as acrid smoke drifted from parted calico. Cob had just come to the back door, asking for water, touching her fingers lightly as she passed the cup.

It was the perfect place to hide, behind those curtains.

###

Rules of Play:

New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
You can also follow on Carrot Ranch Communications by “liking” the Facebook page.
First-time comments are filtered by Word Press and not posted immediately. I’ll find it (it goes to my email) and make sure it gets posted! After you have commented once, the filter will recognize you for future commenting. Sorry for that inconvenience, but I do get frequent and strange SPAM comments, thus I filter.

July 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

Tips for WritersBuried beneath brambles, weeds and brush, the Colburn Cemetery eludes me. The general description is that about 30 stones, mostly toppled,  crest a knoll overlooking Highway 95 at mile marker 483. That’s exactly seven miles south of my home at Elmira Pond. It used to be the milling town of Colburn, but like Elmira it no longer exists unless you look for remnants.

Twice now, I’ve tromped through underbrush only to find two abandoned orchards. Out west, cemeteries are often called “bone orchards,” but instead of marble markers, I’ve only found gnarled apple trees. Fruit keeps turning up and I even bemoaned that I’m becoming a reluctant orchardist.

I’d rather dig into history than graft trees. I don’t even own pruners. Am I supposed to water the trees? I have no idea. But alas, I’m surrounded by fruit that calls to me like orphaned children seeking a mother.

Orchardists, hay merchants, turkey farmers, loggers and buckaroos linger like a cocktail in my DNA. I’ve preferred to sip from the buckaroo line, relishing the horse-culture best, but maybe fruit is attracted to something in me that I’ve denied.

My great-grandfather Marcus grew up in the shade of apricot trees in California. His father, a Danish immigrant, planted the orchard before an early death when Marcus was only 8-years-old. Born in 1884, Marcus lived long enough to tell me stories as a young girl about working the orchards. What made a huge impression upon me was the fact that he drove horse-drawn wagons. Fruit didn’t matter; wagons did. Old things fire the flames of my imagination.

Yet, a recent book I’ve picked up is a debut novel by Amanda Coplin. It’s titled, “The Orchardist.” It fits my historical interests, set in this Pacific Northwest region at the turn of the 20th century. The writing is clear and crisp as I hope the apples will be, yet varied and lyrical as the mysterious quince that appeared by my pond. Here is a taste of her writing:

“And so she began to tend her own orchard, and think of many things she had not thought of before, such as if she had a choice, which kinds of trees would she plant, and what would thrive there, and how far apart she should plant the trees, and where she would get the trees. Talmadge observed her struggles, answered her questions when she asked him. He bought her a small notebook like his own to fit into her front overall pocket while she worked. She began to be interested in the tools at the hardware store, the prices of different seed. She had a rough understanding, despite her age, of what was expensive, what was overpriced, what was a bargain. She and Talmadge discussed these things on the long wagon rides to and from town.

Mostly she learned from watching him. She watched him in everything he did; she was his shadow in the trees.”

And this gets me thinking about Sarah Shull and Bill Hickok. Did she watch him? Did she observe that he was a different man from Cob McCandless? More history books have arrived from Amazon via the big brown UPS truck that the dogs bark at with relish, sending me downstairs in an excited flurry to tear through the cardboard wrapping to get to my latest book. Some women go on shoe buying sprees; I’m buying books and photos of Hickok.

So far, historians disagree on many points regarding the entire shoot-out that led to Cob’s death. It annoys me when an historian calls Sarah Shull, “Kate Shell.” Somehow, the latter name became the dimestore character. I’ve researched enough primary documents–and many historians agree with my findings–that Sarah Shull left North Carolina with Cob McCandless. The 1860 Federal Census even lists her as part of Cob’s household (as a servant) along with his wife and children.

Most historians agree that Cob was a bully. He was a man who demanded he get his own way; held others up to strict standards despite his own flaws; and used his powerful physique to dish out punishment upon those he felt deserving of his fists. Hickok was also a fighter, tall and athletic, but not massive like McCandless. He was recuperating from serious injuries which was why he was at Rock Creek to feed horses. According to letters Hickok wrote to family, he saw the violence and lawlessness of the Kansas-Nebraska Territory and worried for women and children.

This makes me think that Hickok was sympathetic to Sarah. Cob did not pay society’s price for his affair with her; plucking from the tree of forbidden fruit as a married man. But Sarah was shunned and that might be why she left North Carolina in the first place. Some say it was Hickok that tasted of the forbidden fruit, but maybe his feelings toward her were more of empathy than attraction.

Fruit is the oldest story we have. It features in many creation myths and was the downfall of Adam and Eve. Fruit tempts us, taunts us–“Do I dare eat a peach,” worries J. Alfred Prufrock. It is sweet, ripe and the result of our labors. It’s brutal, as in the southern trees that once bore the “strange fruit” of men hung for nothing more than the color of skin. Lust is regarded as forbidden fruit. Yet it is good. Fruit is abundance and fertility.

July 23, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes fruit.  It can be mythological, metaphorical or realistic. Think of fruit as a way to create tension, add a twist or something unexpected to your story. Use it to define a character or make it her obsession. Is it abundant, absent or desired? Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, July 29 to be included in the compilation.

My unexpected fruit–quince by the pond.

Dry Fruit (10)

The Honey Locust by Charli Mills

“The fruit of honey locust is sweet,” Hickok said, breaking open a pod to show Sarah dark peas inside. He grinned as she nibbled, then nodded. “Makes great beer.”

“You could make liquor from water, Mr. Hickok.” Before he could reply, he noticed distant riders on the prairie. One appeared naked on a galloping horse. The other was Cob.

“We’d better go.” He led Sarah through cottonwoods to their hobbled horses. He knew Cob was dragging another poor soul to the honey locust. The four-inch thorns twining the tree were agony to bare skin.

Torture was Cob’s favorite fruit.

###

Rules of Play:

  1. New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
  2. Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
  3. Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
  4. Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
  5. If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
  6. Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
  7. Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
  8. Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
  9. You can also follow on Carrot Ranch Communications by “liking” the Facebook page.
  10. First-time comments are filtered by Word Press and not posted immediately. I’ll find it (it goes to my email) and make sure it gets posted! After you have commented once, the filter will recognize you for future commenting. Sorry for that inconvenience, but I do get frequent and strange SPAM comments, thus I filter.