Friday, November 7, 2014

Guest Author - Debra Holland on writing Sweet Historical Westerns

Due to some personal issues, I didn't have time to put a post together for my scheduled posting day. I'm so grateful that NYT best-selling author, Debra Holland, agreed to fill in for me. Thank you so much for helping me out today, Debra!

By Debra Holland

I write sweet (meaning not sexy) historical Western/prairie romance set in the 1880s and 1890s in my fictional town of Sweetwater Springs, Montana. One of the reasons I don’t write sexy books is because I want to remain true to the morality of the time period.

In those days, couples often didn’t indulge in physical gestures of affection until after they were affianced or maybe not until they wed. A woman who engaged in premarital sex risked the loss of her reputation (an important value in those days) as well as becoming pregnant. Any child of an unwed mother was illegitimate. Being born a “bastard” had significant lifelong social and legal stigmas.

Keeping to historical parameters of physical affection with a modern romance novel can be difficult for an author. In order to do so, I’ve often drawn on stories of my great-grandparents, told me by my grandmother as told to her by her grandmother--not necessarily the details, but the pattern of behavior and the essence of their courtship and marriage.

My great-great grandparents didn’t even kiss until they were married. Yet the romantic connection between them must have been strong. During their courtship, he wrote her a love letter that she cherished all her life. When he died, she tucked the letter in his breast pocket, and he was buried with it.

With my latest book, Glorious Montana Sky, I had the dilemma of writing a romance with a hero who was a minister. The constraints of the time period would be even stricter for Reverend Joshua Norton, a missionary returning home to Sweetwater Springs, than for other men.

A minister in 1895 (the time of Glorious Montana Sky) would likely not kiss the woman he was courting. In addition to his own beliefs about physical affection before marriage, the couple would have all the eyes of their community watching them and judging—after all, the minister was supposed to be the moral compass for his community.

Yet I needed some kisses in my book. How could I make that happen? I did a whole lot of thinking about possible love scenes, discarding all of them. I also brainstormed with some author friends.

I knew Joshua had to be caught up in the moment—the encounter innocent and unplanned. Finally, I realized he’d have to be moved by emotion instead of passion, and the scene came to me.


No sign of Delia. Anxious to see her, Joshua stepped through the glass door and onto the brick path. He moved toward the fountain, then veered to the right, checking underneath the arbor, and then looked across to the other. The wooden benches under both were empty.
Disappointed and wondering if she’d gone in to check on her father, Joshua continued his stroll around the fountain, choosing the slanting path toward the gazebo. The breeze brought the scent of the roses growing in beds along the wall. From this angle, he could see through the doorway to where Delia sat reading on a cushioned bench that circled the interior. His stomach did a little flip, and his feet rooted to the ground.
Sunlight filtered through the lattice and hanging morning glory vines to gild her gold-and-brown patterned dress and burnish auburn highlights into her dark hair. He could see her profile…the line of her throat, the soft rise and fall of her chest.
Somehow, Joshua knew he’d always remember this image of her. Reluctant to shatter the picture, he watched for another moment before taking off his hat. “Miss Bellaire,” he called softly.
Delia looked up from her book and saw him.
The way she smiled and how her eyes lit up caused Joshua to catch his breath.
“Reverend Joshua.” She placed a bookmark between the leaves and closed the volume. “How good to see you.” She waved him in.
“Mrs. Graves tells me your father is resting.”
“Yes, I insisted. Although Papa does seem much stronger and has started to chafe at staying in bed.”
“I don’t blame him.”
“Your son is a godsend, the way he entertains my father. After their chess game, Micah walks him in the area outside the bedroom. It’s something to see, Papa’s hand on Micah’s shoulder, their painstaking progress, that boy’s patience with a sick man.”
Her words gave Joshua a sense of pride. For so long, he’d only heard complaints and criticism about his son, mostly he reflected with some guilt, from the boy’s own mother. And she’d made him believe their son’s normal boyhood mischief was a more serious behavioral problem. Thank goodness, Micah and I are gradually growing closer.
“Visiting with Andre has helped Micah too,” he said. “My son seems happier lately. I’m hopeful adapting to Montana won’t be as difficult as he and I feared.”
She patted the bench next to her. “Come sit. I imagine my father will awaken soon and will be happy to see you.”
Joshua took a seat next to her, perhaps closer than he would for any other lady, setting down the bowler on his other side. “I’ve been in better spirits, too.”
Delia gazed at him, sympathy in her eyes. “You’ve been in mourning.”
He let out a long breath. “Yes, but I’ve also struggled with a feeling of malaise.”
She touched his hand. “I’ve seen signs of that.”
“Being home…with my family and old friends…” He gazed at her sure she could see his feelings in his eyes. “And new ones…has proven to be a tonic.”
Pink rose in her cheeks, and she glanced away.
He reached inside his coat, pulled out the letter from his vest pocket, and handed it to her. “The stationmaster sent this with me. He says it’s from New Orleans.”
The light left her eyes, and her skin paled. With obvious reluctance, Delia reached to take the letter from him.
Concerned, Joshua leaned toward her.
Delia glanced up at him, her eyes wide and apprehensive. “It’s from my mother.”
“Would you like me to leave so you can read in private?”
Her hand shot out to clasp his. “Oh, no. Please stay.”
Joshua squeezed her fingers and had to prevent an instinctive need to bring her hand to his lips. Reluctantly he released her.
Delia took a deep breath, opened the envelope, pulled out the single sheet of paper, and began to read.
From the glimpse Joshua had of the writing before he turned his face away, her mother had only written a few paragraphs.
Delia made a small gasping sound of distress.
His stomach tightened. What’s wrong?
When she finished reading, Delia kept her head averted. With shaking hands, she clumsily folded the paper and tried to stuff the sheet back into the envelope.

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Debra Holland is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of the Montana Sky Series, sweet, historical Western romance. She’s a three-time Golden Heart finalist and one-time winner. Debra is also the author of The Gods’ Dream Trilogy (fantasy romance) and the nonfiction book, The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving. She’s a contributing author to The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing. Learn more about her at


Caroline Clemmons said...

Debra, I love the Montana Sky series. Your writing immerses readers in the story. I hope you continue this series forever. LOL Thanks for guesting on Sweethearts!

Caroline Clemmons said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Caroline Clemmons said...

I meant thanks for guesting on Cowboy Kisses.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for being our guest today. Enjoyed your post, shared it on Google, FB and Pinterest, and Triberr will see that it receives many tweets. Hope you'll return often as a guest.

Dr. Debra Holland said...

Caroline, thanks for the feedback about the Montana Sky Series. I have many more books to come. :)

Ginger, thanks for the welcome!

Zina Abbott Author said...

Debra, thanks for your post. I think there is a lot of truth in what you say about the moral climate being different back in the day from it is now. I'm old enough that it was more subdued, or "sweet" back in my youth, at least until the sexual revolution of the 60s hit. I sometimes have problems with writers who impose the standards of today on the past. It wasn't real. I'm sure things happened back then, but not as often. The social penalties of disease, illegitimate children, women being left alone to try to raise a child and lost reputation were HUGH.

I have several of our Montana Sky novels and love them. Keep up the good work.

Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

Dr. Debra Holland said...

Thanks, Robin. I didn't even mention disease. And some sexual diseases can eventually kill you.