Sunday, February 5, 2012

I Love Historical Westerns

I write western historical novels because I love that time period. The old west was raw, hard, and character building.  To survive, the people had to have exemplary strength and determination.  But, my fascination doesn’t end with the pioneers; I’ve always had an unexplained interest in the history of American Indians, so much so that I wonder if I lived a previous life as one.  By writing about them, I can help alter the perception that TV westerns have fostered—that the red man was always the bad guy.  In two previous novels, I focused on the customs and traditions of the Lakota Sioux.  I tried to portray them as the proud people they were.

Do readers realize that writing an historical novel is much more time consuming than say writing a contemporary or suspense?  Although my stories are fictional, the facts to support history have to be accurate and true.  The language has to fit the period as does the dress, and the gadgets available at the time.  Back in the 1800s, which is the era of my choice, kids were goats, mothers were Ma, not Mom, and fathers were Pa, not Dad.  The idea is not to overwhelm the reader with a history lesson, but pepper the story with facts that relate to the scenes and characters. 

In writing my first novel, I had my hero delivering his bride to in a shack in the middle of the prairie.  I described her reaction to a rundown house, grass growing through the wooden shutters, a few pieces of splintered furniture.  When I described the rooms, I also described a heavy iron stove.  My editor was quick to point out that a deserted shack was more likely to have a fireplace and hearth where cooking was performed, and that the abode wasn’t likely to be more than one big room.  Thank God, for editors who help us learn our craft.   Now, when I write about a room, I put myself back in the time period and see through the hero or heroines eyes what should be there.  If there is a question in my mind, I research the object and see exactly when it was invented. 

 There’s no faster way to lose your credibility as an historical author than to yank your reader out of the story by having written about something that doesn’t fit the time.  Imagine my Sarah, dressed in gingham, with her bonnet securely tied under her chin, coming in from the barn, carrying a pail of fresh milk.  She sets the heavy container on the floor, and deciding to have some more coffee, pops a cup in the microwave to heat it.  WAIT a minute.  Something is wrong with this picture, and although I’ve used a very obvious discrepancy in time, you’d be surprised how quickly some historical readers are to pick up on even the slightest faux pas. 

Still, despite the extra time and effort required, historical writing is my preference.  My heroine in Sarah’s Journey is the kind of person I strive to be.  I want her survival strength, determination, and her ability to stand up to people when others are mistreated.  I want to right the wrongs of humanity, and if only through becoming Sarah for a brief time, I can show my readers how badly people of half blood were treated and how hard life was in the old west.  I can hold up my head, trudge along the Oregon Trail and wonder what looms over the next horizon.  Sarah’s Journey is a historical fiction but more so a story about a woman’s struggle to find a new life, deal with disappointment, and handle the realization that she loves a man that no one in the world but her is ready to accept.  I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.  It doesn’t have a “traditional ending” but that’s all I’m going to say. You either GET it or you don't. 

I asked a fellow author at Eternal Press to do a review of Sarah's Journey for me.  He said the only western-type book he'd read was Shane, but he would give it a try.  I picked this part from his lovely summary to share with you.  Robert Appleton made my day when he posted:

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Simpson’s recreation of Western life. The word that kept coming to mind as I read this story was uncompromising. Little is omitted, whether it be gruesome wounds, the preparation of herbs and food, Sarah’s body language, or the precise terms for the different noises made by a horse. I loved seeing all this research come to life. The author’s passion for the period and particularly for her characters shone throughout. This was clearly a labour of love.

And he's right.  Every book I've written is a favorite for different reasons, but I have a very soft spot in my heart for Sarah and Wolf and I think it showed.  *smile*

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