Monday, March 11, 2013

How Characters Guide Research and Plot

Characters often guide my research and plot ideas, even before I really get to know them. That was the case with Choctaw Jack, a secondary character from Dashing Druid, book two in my Texas Druids series. Inspired by a real life cowboy, Cherokee Bill, Jack is meant to honor unheralded Native Americans who worked on ranches and helped drive cattle to northern markets. Another character, Dewey Sherman, represents the many black cowboys, often freed slaves, who rode the range after the Civil War. (Dewey may one day get his own book.)

Choctaw Jack remained an enigma throughout Dashing D. Handsome, charming yet brooding at times, he fascinated me. I wrote him as a Choctaw half-breed who served in the Confederate Army with the brother of Lil Crawford, book two’s heroine. Since war’s end, he’s turned up each spring at the Crawfords’ ranch, just in time for the trail drive to Kansas. That’s all I knew about him.

When I began plotting Dearest Druid, book three in the series, Choctaw Jack insisted on playing the hero, but casting him opposite Rose Devlin, youngest of the Devlin siblings, proved challenging. I’d never written a Native American romance, meaning lots of research lay in store for me, and I would need to get inside the head of a man who stemmed from a different culture. Whether I succeeded at that, readers will have to judge.

Another problem arose. The Choctaws were one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” who had adapted in part to white ways. Like the Cherokees, they’d been forced from their eastern homelands, suffering their own Trail of Tears, and most were settled in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) years before the Civil War. By 1876, when Dearest D. takes place, many Choctaws lived peacefully as farmers, stockmen or storekeepers (though not all.) The trouble was I wanted a more wild-west setting to contrast sharply with Rose’s sheltered youth in a convent. Thus, I decided to give Jack a hidden connection to one of the untamed plains tribes.

The two tribes I considered were the Kiowa and the Comanche, the great horse lords of the southern plains. Closely allied, these two tribes held off white settlement for decades prior to their defeat in 1874. (See ) Since the Comanche have often been portrayed in books, I chose to write about the Kiowa.
Elk Mountain in the Wichitas
Making Jack half Kiowa, a fact he has concealed due to white hatred toward the fierce raiders, allowed me to send Rose and him on a trek to the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation, where the heart of their story takes place. I traveled to Oklahoma for a firsthand view of the land, and visited Fort Sill and the Wichita Mountains, two important settings in the book.

From books and websites I learned about Kiowa myth and spirituality, their migration from the far northern mountains to the southern plains, and their reverence for Rainy Mountain, near which I placed Jack’s Kiowa kin. I also learned about their hardships on the reservation, how they missed hunting buffalo after the great beasts were decimated by white hunters, and about remedies they used for everything from coughs to snakebite. Here’s an excerpt from Dearest Druid illustrating the latter:
Dearest Druid cover, almost complete

“Did you see where the snake went?” he asked unnecessarily, trying to distract her from what he was about to do.

“It slithered off that way,” she said, turning her head and gesturing toward the trail he’d already spotted. While she was looking away, Jack made two swift cuts across the bite. Rose shrieked and tried to pull away, but he hung on to her arm.

“Hold still,” he ordered, tossing his hat on the ground. “I’ve got to suck out the venom.” With that, he bent, circled the bloody wound with his lips and sucked as hard as he could. Ignoring her gasp of pain, he spat and repeated the process. When he figured he’d drawn out as much venom as he could, he loosened his bandana and retied it directly over the wound.

“W-won’t the poison sicken you?” she asked.

“No. It doesn’t work like that. Come on. Let’s get you back to the horses.” Slapping his hat back on, he helped her up and carefully guided her out of the prairie dog colony. Once on safe ground, he had her sit on a small hillock near their mounts. She was still shaking despite the warmth of the day. Retrieving her coat from Brownie’s saddle, he draped it around her shoulders, hoping it would stop her trembling.

“I want to find something to treat the bite. Stay right here. Understand?” he said sternly.

“Aye. I won’t move.”

“Good.” Striding away, he headed back up their trail, toward where he’d seen the bush he was looking for. It didn’t take long to find. Hurriedly, he gathered what he needed, turned and ran back to Rose. True to her word, she sat hunched over where he’d left her with her injured arm cradled close and her cross clasped in her other hand. The arm was beginning to swell, Jack noticed when she straightened and looked up at his approach. He read fear in her blue eyes.

“How do you feel?” he asked, crouching beside her.

“My arm hurts.”

“I expect it does. I’m gonna make a poultice and spread it over the bite. Then we’ll start back.”

“To the village?”

“Yeah. My mother’s a medicine woman, remember? She’ll take care of you.” For a brief instant, he wondered if he’d do better taking her to Fort Sill for doctoring, but he dismissed the idea. He trusted his mother’s medicine more than the Army sawbones.

“Oh. That’s nice,” she said distantly.

He frowned, realizing the venom was starting to affect her. “This is buffalo currant. It’s good for snakebite,” he explained, using his knife to quickly strip away the outer bark from the branches he’d gathered. They gave off a spicy scent. Next, he peeled off pieces of tender inner bark, wadded them into his mouth and began to chew. They tasted bitter as gall. He’d seen his mother boil the bark into a poultice but had never known her to chew it. Was it poisonous? He didn’t know and didn’t care. As he chewed, he untied the bandana from Rose’s arm. Once the bark had softened into a pulp, he removed it from his mouth and spread it over the oozing wound.

Rose jumped. “Ayeee! That hurts worse,” she complained.

“I know, but it’ll help,” he told her, securing his bandana in place over the poultice. His mother, like her people, believed snakes were afraid of the buffalo currant bush and that it was a cure for snakebite. He prayed to the Kiowa gods that it was true.

Dearest Druid will be available in mid-April on Amazon.

My Other Books:
Water Witch (prequel novella to Texas Druids trilogy)
Darlin’ Druid (Texas Druids, Book I)
Dashing Druid (Texas Druids, Book II)
Texas Druids Duo (White Witch & Darlin' Druid together at bargain price)
Six Cats In My Kitchen (memoir about cats, family& life with a disability)

To learn more about the Kiowa, Choctaw and the Indian Territory, try these great sources:

The Kiowa by Mildred P. Mayhall
Bad Medicine and Good, Tales of the Kiowas by Wilbur Sturtevant Nye
The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday
Civil War in the Indian Territory by Steve Cottrell


Caroline Clemmons said...

Lyn, great post. You've researched a lot for this character and this series, but your background research enriches all your books.

Lyn Horner said...

Thank you, Caroline. I love researching and you're right, research does enrich our books. The problem is I get so caught up in reading about other times, places and people, that I can't quit. One of the perks and pitfalls of writing historicals.

Ciara Gold said...

Lyn, kudos for doing all this work. I'm working on one now where the heroine lived among the Cheyenne so I know what you mean about digging deeper. I visited Oklahoma too, but I think I need to go farther north than I did. Great excerpt.

Sharla Rae said...

As a fellow lover of history, I love the history in your books Lyn. Can't wait to read this book!

Lyn Horner said...

Ciara, I appreciate your kind words. It isn't really work, is it? I'm sure you're enjoying your research about the Cheyenne.

BTW there were some Southern Cheyenne who allied with the Kiowa and Comanche. A few were present at Palo Duro Canyon, when Col. Ranald Mackenzie and his men surprised the Indians, destroying their villages and killing off most of their horses.

Lyn Horner said...

Sharla, I know you're as crazy about history, especially the Old West, as I am. I can't wait to read your book about the timberman and the Texas school marm. I hope you publish it soon!

Carra Copelin said...

Great post, Lyn. I've been on a few research trips with you. The fact-finding is essential for bringing life and flavor to our stories. I enjoy your stories immensely and can hardly wait for Dearest Druid!

Lyn Horner said...

Thanks, Carra, for your friendship and support. Those research trips were fun! Also, you really helped me make sense of my plot ideas for Dearest D. Glad you could stop by CK!

Meg said...

I love taking trips to see the places we write about! It's so much better than using photos, although time has changed towns and cities, even canyons. Great info on the Indians in your books.

Lyn Horner said...

Meg, I love research trips too. I'd really like to return to Ireland to research a book I have on the back burner. For now I'll have to stick closer to home.

Thanks for stopping by!

Jacquie Rogers said...

I have Dashing Druid but haven't had a chance to read it yet--very much enjoyed the first two. Best of luck with your new release. You do have great characters. :)