Travels of Jaimie McPheetersIt was said to me so long ago that I really can’t remember who or when they said it – that being a writer is like drawing words from a cistern; you have to keep replenishing the store in the cistern by reading – and reading even more than you write. Was it Mr. Terranova, the whirlwind 6th grade teacher, or maybe the elderly gentleman who came to speak to a school assembly at Vineland Elementary when I was in about the 2nd or 3rd grade? He was blind, with a seeing-eye dog named Rosie whom he let off duty long enough for her to run down the center aisle in the auditorium for a good petting. Our teachers told us that he was an Enormously Famous Published Author – for some reason I thought for years that he was William Prescott, the author of The Conquest of Mexico and the Conquest of Peru, never mind that William Prescott would have been dead for a little over a hundred years by then. Yes – Mr. Terranova had us read excerpts of The Conquest of Mexico and Peru, which should give an idea of how eccentric and bloody brilliant he was as a teacher. The Enormously Famous Published Author with the seeing-eye dog named Rosie did give us one bit of authorly good advice, using ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ as his example; telling us to show them going up the hill, describe the hill, and why Jack and Jill did so, and what they saw and felt. Show, not tell, in other words. But enough of my early influences in writing, such as they were.

I have to limit myself when working on a book project; nothing by other fiction-scribblers working in the same area or time-period. This is because there is a danger for me of inadvertently taking an idea for a character, or an incident or accident of plot from someone else’s visualization, so at this time, all fictional accounts of Gold Rush-era California or the various trails and journeys towards the Ophir of the far west are strictly off the table. I have this totally bird-witted habit of seizing on certain things as I read about them, as if they were bright and shiny objects, and thinking, “Ah-ha! This has to be in The Book!” Other things just grab at me, and I come back to them again and again. In Adelsverein – to give just two small examples – it was the concept of the children, taken by Comanche Indians, who were returned, but never returned in spirit, and the massacre of the Texians at Goliad.

So, now I am faced with doing the episodic and picaresque Gold Rush adventure that I have always wanted to write. I grew up with this, because it was the event that I think made California what it was, for better or worse – and in the brief blink of an eye, as far as time goes. It was a sleepy agrarian backwater with a wonderful climate and spectacular scenery, a paradise to those who lived there at that time, a lost Eden to which they looked back on later with considerable nostalgia. And in the space of two or three years – the whole world piled in. The sleepy port of Yerba Buena became the muddy, lawless, brawling town of San Francisco, from hundreds of residents to thousands in mere months. The empty bay was suddenly forested with the masts of hundreds of abandoned ships. The properties of entrepreneur John Sutter were swamped with squatters, rogues and gold-seekers, the pristine rivers and streams in the foothills all alive with more men, looking for gold. Gold from the mines of California – and from just over the border in Nevada – kept the Union from going under entirely, so say some … and I have always wanted to write about it.

The next book, (after the bagatelle of Jim Reade and Toby Shaw, in the days of the Republic of Texas) will follow the adventures of Fredi Steinmetz, the younger brother of Magda Steinmetz-Becker, from the Trilogy. I’ve noted in other books that he went out to California as a cattle drover in the 1850s … and he returned, thinking not very much of the place, for a variety of reasons.

So, that’s why I am reading, and not writing and posting quite so much. I know the main character, one or two of the secondaries, and the rest will suggest themselves in time. The overall and relatively episodic plot will come out of what I am reading now; Maryat’s Mountains and Molehills, Dame Shirley Clappe’s Letters, Captain Gunnison’s history of the Mormons in Salt Lake City, Randolph Marcy’s 1859 advice to transcontinental travelers, William Manly’s account of his journey through Death Valley … and at least a score or more of others as they take my butterfly interest. Some of them are on my own bookshelves, some as eBooks or PDFs stashed away in my computer file … but shusssh … I am reading now.

Did you know that William Tecumseh Sherman and Edwin Booth were in California at the very time of the window for Fredi Steinmetz’ adventures there?

…and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings — and commoners too, for that matter. The great William Shakespeare wrote many such sad stories, some of them more protracted and dramatic than others, some of them mercifully taking place offstage, as it were. The other night we watched the current episode of Downton Abbey, and even though we knew it was coming, we did sniffle a little at the shocking death of Lady Sybil – in childbirth, too. Whereas this was a tragically common cause of death in women of high and low social stature alike up until the end of the 19th century, it probably took real effort on the part of the writers to have it happen convincingly in the 20th – even the first quarter thereof. I’ll give the writers all props for creative research and as extra round of appreciation for avoiding the old soap-opera standby of a long fall down a staircase (although in fairness, they have hit upon a good few classic soap opera memes).

This also brought me to think on how many times I had to go into books, or perform a routine googlectomy in looking for just that very means of afflicting or removing one of my own characters. Which did turn out to be a fairly substantial list of conditions, ailments and cause-of-death, although some of them happened off-stage, so to speak or were referred to only briefly, while others had more detailed treatment. Let’s see: To Truckee’s Trail – threatened and actual near-starvation, malaria (called the ague) and cholera, both offstage before and after the time of the story. The Gathering – gunshot to the head, typhus (called ship-fever), malaria again, aftereffects of frontline meatball surgery in wartime, cholera again, and hints of manic-depression. The Sowing – more manic-depression, post-traumatic stress, pre-eclampsia, diphtheria, chronic alcohol abuse, gunshot to the back, multiple gunshots to the torso, and multiple sclerosis. The Harvesting; full-blown manic-depression, agoraphobia, more post-traumatic stress, incipient senility, stroke, peritonitis following abdominal wound with a bladed weapon, gunshot to the abdomen, drowning, and sudden massive heart attack/heart failure. Daughter of Texas: immediately fatal arrow-wounds, unspecified chronic illness, extreme dysentery coupled with heart failure, meatball surgery, and tuberculosis … plus, a war going on. Deep in the Heart: multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic shock, uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, massive stroke, again aftereffects of frontline meatball surgery, and malaria. Plus another war going on. So far in the latest book, Quivera Trail, I have only gotten up to a massive heart attack, but there is an operation for a depressed skull fracture in my plot outline, so I really should get back to work on that.

This listing actually makes it look as if it it is wall to wall General Hospital-type soap opera medical emergencies in the books, but actually it isn’t. It’s just that illness and death is a part of life – and in the 19th century, it happened with really dismaying frequency. Considering that Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart and the Trilogy cover more than fifty years of the lives of four different families, during three wars, and at a time when the best of doctors couldn’t do all that much … this list could have been much, much longer.

04. December 2012 · Comments Off on Becoming at One With Texas · Categories: Fun and Games, General Nonsense, Local, Old West · Tags: , , , ,

It was a gradual process … the place grows on you, even back before it became clear that it was one of the states – out of these occasionally United States – which has a good chance of emerging comparatively unscathed from impending economic disaster. I don’t know why Texas should be so fortunate among states and nations, but perhaps it is because of a part-time Legislature. Yes, this might tend to discourage professional busy-bodies from taking up a full-time career dictating the teensiest minutia of every scrap of our lives, from the number of flushes our toilets need to the wattage of the light-bulb in our porch light and the knotty question of whether a puddle in the back forty qualifies as a seasonal body of water. The Texas Lege can only assemble every two years for a set period of time to consider these and other weighty matters, and so must find other and more remunerative means of earning a living and staying out of their constituents hair. There was an adage to the effect that work expands to fill the time you have available for it – very likely it works the same way for legislative bodies. Perhaps limiting the time available to them forces legislators to prioritize and focus their potential mischief on only the most necessary tasks. Still, what a thought, that Texas might be the last best place to survive the impending economic and political meltdown – who would have thought, eh?

So, Texas took us over, bit by bit – although it wasn’t without a struggle, especially when enduring the ghastly heat of summer, which occasionally felt as if it were lasting all year. Or when there was a highway alert because … er, there were stray cows on the roadway … Or when I could not get just-introduced men in a social setting to not straightaway start addressing me as ‘darlin’’. There were charms, insidious ones – the Hill Country, and sweeps of wildflowers in spring, breakfast tacos (the breakfast food of the gods, I swear), the many splendors of the HEB grocery chain, real Texas BBQ … oh, the list goes on and on. I suppose the first sign that assimilation had begun was when my father began to say that Blondie and I sounded a little more Southern in our speech – there was, he swore, a faint interrogatory lift in tone at the end of certain sentences, which had not been there previously. Blondie began to like country-western music, I began to giggle at Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” … and upon finally retiring from the military I had to get a Texas driver’s license. And then I began to write historical fiction … and well, it was all over, then. Assimilation was complete, or nearly so.

I do like to dress up in a slightly western-fashion when I do a book event now; a long skirt, western-style shirt and vest – and I have let my hair grow long again, so that I can do it up in a roll with a curved Spanish comb in it – and I have been looking around for a pair of Western boots to complete the look. I’ve substituted a pair of high-laced old-fashioned ladies’ boots for now – but a pair of cowboy boots would really complete the look. But not just any boots – being thrifty but with high standards means that I’d like I. Magnin style at a Walmart price, so we’ve been checking out the various thrift and resale stores for a pair of good and broken-in (yet not broken down!) boots. We almost thought we’d found them at a little boutique in Boerne last week, but I couldn’t get one pair on, and the other was too big … for me, but not for Blondie. So, she has herself a pair of Tony Lama’s now, and for me, it is just a matter of time.

Assimilation complete. I got here to Texas as fast as I could.