THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
April 16, 2016
Welcome writers and readers, and anybody who likes a good story. This week it’s my pleasure to welcome Anne Schroeder, who writes historical fiction about the American West. She has a lot to say about research and the hunt for clues and truth about the past. What she has to say about how Hollywood has depicted women of the frontier is eye-opening!
For my essay this week, I’m also concerned with the hunt for historical stories, but my focus here is on the historical value of the stories we carry in our memory. Whether we fictionalize the stories or set them down as true (or as true as memory tries to be), they have historical value. Here’s why:
Those of us who are writers must write. We storytellers write stories. Anybody who has lived as long as you have lived has plenty to write about. In the attic of your memory you’ll find a treasury of tales to put on paper. Mine your past, with all its surprises, narrow escapes, successes, foolish mistakes, your loves and your fights, and all the wisdom you’ve picked up along the way, and turn all that fine material into stories.
The stories we tell about our lives form a link between the past and the future. What happened to you when you were a teenager is still important to you, and it will be important to your teen-aged great-grandkids some day. How you raised your children will be fascinating to those children’s children when they’re bringing up kids in the future, kids who will share your experiences, just as they will share your DNA.
Believe me, what you write will be important to your family for generations to come. I know I wish I could read a first-hand account of how my father’s grandfather came from Wales to Wisconsin. He didn’t leave me a clue. That’s why I’m making a point of writing stories about my adventures and discoveries, before I forget them. I want to record my personal choices. I want somebody in the future to know what I thought about rock and roll, about civil rights in the 1950s, and about the Vietnam war; how I married three very wonderful and very different women; what I learned from my own sons; how I enjoyed working with words, as a bookseller, an editor, a writer, and a publisher; and how I once hitchhiked through Nevada in the snow.
You have stories to leave for the future, too. Show the world of today and tomorrow how you feel and felt about your yesterdays. What was your first thought when you stared at the television and watched airplanes crash into the World Trade Center? Were you overjoyed or appalled when a black man was elected president? Do you remember a time when young children could explore their neighborhoods safely and unattended? When you could drink out of mountain streams? The information you impart by writing your stories will be about more than just yourself. You will be setting down a permanent, eye-witness historical record of the times in which you have lived.
Another reason to write our stories is just for the sheer joy of it. It can be a delight to revisit the past. Yes, it can also be painful, but the writing will turn the pain into valuable truth. The secret is to write with storytelling style.
Socrates encouraged us to examine our lives. A good way to examine your life is to write about the stories you’ll find in your memory. And a generous, satisfying thing to do with your stories is to share them.
Now please welcome Anne and read about her methods and her books.
Historical Western Fiction
I love writing historical fiction, a passion born of torrid hours spent with Zane Grey while I was a teen. I loved his shy, woo-pitching cowboys and his gutsy women, even while Hollywood was dishing out prim schoolteachers, whiskey-throated whores, and stand-by-your-man ranch wives. Then it happened! I was cursing the Sundance Kid for his ruthless degradation of the prim virginal schoolteacher Etta Place, and she turned and said, “You’re late!”
I picked myself off the floor and began writing the stories I imagined that Mrs. Zane Grey might like to read. I won a few awards. Spent a fortune buying books and attending lectures. I learned about the un-Hollywood West. That the average age of a “sporting girl” in those days was 13; these girls were sold to brothels as young as 10 to save their families from feeding them; and most were dead by 18 from pneumonia in a drafty room with germy, unwashed johns. (There went the Miss Kitty image. Actually, a lot of thought went into how Gunsmoke’s femme fatale would be portrayed. The producers decided America wasn’t ready for a 13-year-old prostitute.)
There’s a common belief that men don’t read a woman author, but women will read a male author. Road apples! I say. My editors and reviewers include a lot of men. It turns out that men like character-driven dramas about relationships. Turns out, women buy the books and their husbands read them too.
Every book requires a ton of research. Before I start writing I plow through a lot of books. Interviews, photographs, horseback and Jeep rides, climbing hills in search of Indian sites—nothing is beyond me and my patient husband. Sometimes the facts find me. One of my novels started with an actual tombstone of a ten-year-old pioneer girl that I found in the Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz.
Right now I’m writing a four-book series set in California’s Central Coast where I grew up. The novels follow a Mission (Salinan) Indian family though California’s Spanish, Mexican, and American eras. Each book takes place in the same time period, but is about a different character. Cholama Moon, already released by Oak Tree Press, is about a pioneer white family and their hard-working Indian cook. Maria Ines (due out from Five Star Press in October, 2016) takes the Indian woman back to her birth at Mission San Miguel and through the “time of the troubles.” The next two books will follow her bandit son, and another, his Mexican wife.
I learned a valuable lesson when a writer whose work I admire gave Cholama Moon its only 3-star review. I didn't take offense; in fact I hired him to edit my next book. Experts on the Mission era vet my finished manuscripts and hold me to a high bar. Thanks to them, Cholama Moon, the first in the series, was named “Best Non-traditional Western of 2014” in True West magazine’s review. Accuracy is important to me. I did the happy dance when an Oregon Trail expert proclaimed a yet-unpublished novel the most accurate novel of the Oregon Trail he had ever read. Score!
Anne Schroeder’s love of story was fueled by her Norwegian grandfather’s tales of bandits in the Conejo Valley. She grew up on a sheep farm in California; graduated from college with a husband, toddler, and part-time job in the first wave of the Social Revolution; and considers life an adventure of small steps. Her interest in California history has evolved into a multi-generational series about a Mission Indian family that includes Maria Ines.
Anne is past-President of Women Writing the West and belongs to Western Writers of America and Native Daughters of the Golden West. She resides in Southern Oregon with her husband, has three grown children, and hopes for even more grandchildren.
Buy links for Cholama Moon:
Calling all authors—
I feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for May’s 99-word story submissions is May 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for the week beginning Saturday, May 14.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Think of something you feel strongly about, an opinion that defines who you are—or who you are not—politically, spiritually, economically, professionally, or any other important way. Why is it important? When did this self-knowledge come to you, and how did it change your life? Show (don't tell) this in the context of a story. Hint: if you don’t want to share the details of your own life, write fiction.
Adios until next week. Don't forget to write. And don't forget to enjoy yourself as you write your stories.