Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Working the Muddle out of your Middle as Instructed by Cheryl St. John

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No matter if you write westerns or other genres, the pacing of your book is a big issue.  I took a class, given by Cheryl St. John, a multi-published, mainstream author, and with her permission, am using her info for blog fodder to help garner attention for her wonderful book.  Today, I'm looking at the tension checklist in my class handouts and I'm sort of quoting Cheryl, but using my own words.

The middle of your book can become frustrating, both to write and read.  Pay attention to problem areas.  Have you revealed too much about the characters too soon?  Remember, never dump all the back story on the reader at once, nor the conflict.  Spoon feed the back story as it applies, and always keep a few secrets/surprises or two in reserve.

Your reader has to care about your characters before you lay the whole conflict out.  Establish an emotional connection by showing who they are, but don't give  away every thing about them.  Learn from "Shrek" and reveal your characters one layer at a time. 

 If you find you've created a secondary character who has taken on a life of their own or inserted a subplot that's grown to overwhelming proportions...whittle them down to size. Remember who the star is.

Keep the outcomes in doubt, use a time limitation, but give the reader flashes of hope.  It's always a good suspense technique to leave a character's fate hanging by changing to another POV.  You can always add an action scene, but remember your pacing.  

Question every scene.  Is it necessary to move the story forward?  Does it change the flow.  If you say no, then cut it.  Nothing is more annoying than reading information that leaves you shaking your head.  I'm not just an author, I enjoy escaping through reading.

I once edited for a short time.  Boy what a fiasco that was, and our editors deserve our praise.  *Bowing to them*

 A new author I was assigned had written a western story and was determined to describe every tree on the property and every drawer in the kitchen.  I tried to explain it was only important to note a lot of trees but the truly important one was the one outside the heroine's window where he could describe a bird perching there and singing, and what was important in the drawers to him only affected the reader if the heroine moved through the kitchen and selected something from one.  He just didn't get it and accused me of trying to re-write his book.  I really wasn't, but I viewed his story from a reader's perspective and how boring it was to read all the extraneous information.  He also liked to dump back story.  Too much crappola that did nothing to move the story forward.

Yikes...this example explains my short tenure as an editor.  I prefer critique groups now and highly recommend them if you aren't in a rush.

Prologues have become a publisher's choice  While they were once commonly used to display back story to provide the reader with information, the redundancy issue has left most publishing houses preferring using the back story in small portions throughout the book, therefore eliminating the need for a prologue.

End every chapter with a hook to keep the reader turning pages, and check your story time-line and language.  There is nothing more annoying than reading a book with something not yet invented or language that doesn't fit the time-period.

Most importantly to your story believable?  Can the reader identify with your character's reactions and life?  If not, then you're bound to get reviews stating the obvious.

All in all, we aren't born as authors.  While we may have the ability to write, we don't know all the ins and outs that come with writing a novel.  People who've been there, done that are really helpful to know, and Cheryl has been an invaluable asset to me.  I urge you to utilize the info I've provided, and more importantly, get a copy of Cheryl's book.  The handouts I printed from her class are worn and frayed, so I guess that's a great sign.

Would this face steer you wrong? 
Cheryl St. John

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


What? Using genealogy to research a historical novel? No way.

Way. Let’s say you’re writing a Civil War story. Your hero was born in the South but moved to the north as an adolescent. The skills he learned hiding out in the woods to avoid beatings from his father now serve him well as he sneaks through enemy lines to gather intelligence for the Union. The Rebs call him “that dang Yankee ghost.” So what is his name? Something that sounds Southern would be best, something strong.
Military Registration Card

On, I clicked on military records, then Civil War Records and Profiles. There’s a box for selecting Confederacy or Union, then you choose the first two letters of a surname. I chose Ra because R names have a strong ring to them. My hero is now Stephen Dodson Ramseur. Or how about Winter W. Goodloe? These are actual names of men who served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Neither of these names might strike your fancy, but they can give you ideas, or you can keep looking.

Civil War Pension Record
Now, remember, names are not copyrighted. Even so, it’s wise to be cautious when using the name of a real person. After all, it might be understandable if someone became put out because you named your horrible, conscienceless villain Abe Lincoln. Not long after I posted this blog on another site I received a message warning me against using the name Stephen Dodson Ramseur because he ended up being quite a prominent person and there might be family left who would object. So be sure any name you use isn’t well known. One trick is to take a given name from one place and use it with a surname from another one. This also allows for more choices.

A few of the heroes in my books bear the name of a man who lived in centuries past, such as Bartholomew Noon (from Forever Mine, available at e-book stores now), and Columbus Nigh (from Tender Touch, to be released October 18, 2012).

Stephen Dodson Ramseur’s father remained in the South and is buried there. Stephen missed the funeral but knows the old guy died of apoplexy, a common cause of death back then, better known now as a stroke, and was buried the next day. Why the next day? Doesn’t sound very respectful, does it? Well, morticians capable of embalming the dead were few and far between back then except in larger cities and towns. Plus, they cost money. So next-day burial was often a necessity.

Infant mortality was high, so old cemeteries tend to have more graves for children than for adults, although you can’t always tell because it was common to bury an infant or toddler with a parent or even a grandparent already buried. Babies lost in childbirth with their mothers were generally buried with Mom.
From death certificates you can learn the most prevalent causes of death and the terms used for them. Unfortunately, such certificates didn’t come into being until mid to late century. Birth certificates are even more difficult to find. Often, in rural areas, there was no such thing as a birth certificate. I couldn’t get one for my father when I was trying to join the DAR.
1900 census

Census reports are a great place for gaining an understanding of how people lived in the second half of the nineteenth century. Until 1850, they reported only the name of the head of household and how many children of certain age groups lived there. The 1850 report, however, lists each member of the household. The later the report the more information is available. Note the 1900 census report here. Enlarge and see all that you can learn about people there. You can learn how long a couple has been married, how many marriages they had before the report, what they did for a living, how much land they owned, their yearly income, where their parents were from, who was literate and who wasn’t.

On the 1870 census, you'll notice there is less information, but still enough to be helpful.
1870 census

Does my Stephen Dodson Ramseur know how to read? Few people did back then, especially the women. Children often left school as soon as they were big enough to contribute some real labor to the farm or family business, so their reading abilities were not always good. It’s interesting to see which occupations list the most people who were literate. Farm families were generally at the low end of the scale. Those children were needed at home, and farms were out in the country, frequently too far away for children to attend school.

Another great research source available through genealogy societies and online sites is county history books and town newspapers. These require some time-consuming reading, but you can learn a lot about how people lived, what their social lives were like, and their activities, even how they thought.  County histories list the towns and give descriptions of the area, such as how the towns were laid out, rivers, fields, trees, etc.

Names of towns and counties were changed time and again. You don’t want to set your book in a town or county that didn’t exist then. The wise thing here is to consider inventing your own town. Hard to invent a county, though, and have it be credible, although a quick study of counties in various sections of the country will reveal numerous names that were used over and over. Lincoln County, for example. Washington County. But before you invent a Lincoln County, make sure there wasn’t one already in a different section of the state.

Histories also give biographical information on the earliest and most prominent citizens. Another great chance to learn about life in the time period, and to collect names.

Personal journals are also available through genealogy sites, and these contain a wealth of information. I once started a book set in Utah in 1857. My heroine was a young lady fresh out of finishing school that travels west to live with her father who is an officer at a post called Camp Floyd, southwest of Salt Lake City. As part of my research I acquired the journal of a soldier at that post, which gave me oodles of those tiny details that can make your story truly believable.

All of these sources are available through sites such as,, Cyndi’s List, Genealogy Bank,, and many others. Most require paid yearly memberships. You can get around this by finding a local LDS (Mormon) Ward House that has a genealogy library. There you can use a computer to access sites like without having to pay a fee. The people who maintain these LDS Ward House libraries are usually canny about doing genealogy research and free with their valuable advice. If you need a record that is housed at the main LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, these small local libraries can order a copy for you to study.

I’m only an amateur genealogist, but If you have questions about genealogy research, I’ll be happy to do my best to answer them, or to find someone who can.

Now, I need to excuse myself so I can write down all the plot ideas that came to me while writing this. Stephen Dodson Ramseur is going to be a very busy, very sexy, and courageous young man. Hmm, who is going to be my heroine? Looks like I need to peruse my personal genealogy, or pay another visit to

How much do you know about your own genealogy?

Charlene's webpage
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Romance of a life time...

Writing historical fiction about cowboys and the cowgirls who love them is one of my greatest pastime pursuits. We know that life on the frontier was hard and often unforgiving. With that said, when you read about a remarkable love affair that over comes so many pitfalls it stays with you. I am a sucker for true love conquers all.

For me, one of the greatest love stories of the American West revolves around the figure of Phoebe Anne Moses. Born in 1860, Phoebe arose from poverty to become one of the greatest folk heroes that America ever produced. You may not know her as Phoebe Anne, but I'm sure you recognize the name "Annie Oakley".

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

At fifteen, Annie had already endured the poor farm and some unsavory guardians. She ran away from a couple she had been sent to as a farm hand and returned home to help her mother by hunting and selling the game she'd shot. Hearing of a sharp shooting competition, Annie signed up all to the surprise of Frank Butler, who at that time was considered the best shot in the world. Poor Frank, he should have taken her seriously, before long, Annie was not only keeping up with him shot for shot but besting him at the end. Imagine the shock on his face to be ousted by a beautiful fifteen year old innocent. Swallowing his pride, Frank began courting little Annie and a year later, in 1876, the two were married.

At that time, Frank was the star of the show. But when his partner fell ill, Frank brought on Annie who adopted the name 'Oakley' from a town near where she grew up. Before long, Annie's sharpshooting tricks out classed Frank,who took great pride in managing his wife. Their courtship and life has been depicted in film, Broadway, and on T.V. But it's their devotion to each other that outshines this Hollywood love story.

Late in 1901, both Frank and Annie were involved in a terrible train accident. She retired from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and toured in a melodrama written just for her called the Western Girl. During World War I, she helped the Red Cross to raise money and pressed the president in the hopes of recruiting a group of women sharp shooters. The idea was much to broad for it's time.

In 1913, Annie and Frank retired from touring and split their time between homes in Maryland and North Carolina. They spent their time teaching women how to shoot for protection and hunting. Late in October of 1926, Annie took ill and on November 3, 1926, she died. Upon hearing the news, Frank was inconsolable. He refused to eat and eighteen days later, he died.

Annie was cremated and her ashes buried with her husband in the Greenville, Ohio - oddly on Thanksgiving Day, 50 years to the day of that fateful sharp shooting competition where they first met.

 Photo courtesy of The Annie Oakley Garst Museum: Annie, Frank, and their dog Dave.

Until next time,
Nan O'Berry

To read another great group of love stories, why not check out the Indigo Springs series and find out how the Malone brothers get their brides.

Prince Charming Wore Spurs

Once Upon A Dream

To Lasso Her Heart

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Genealogist's Perspective on Courting

Many of our historical western romances have as part of their theme drifters coming to town, folks moving in to homestead land or mine precious ore, or mail order brides riding in on the train or stagecoach. The reality is, most people out west courted the locals.

One of the big challenges in doing genealogy is finding the birth family of women. We often can find her married name on a census record and maybe a headstone or death record. However, oftentimes death certificates won’t have the spaces for the names and birthplaces of the parents filled out. Perhaps the recording official was careless. Possibly the informant was from a younger generation and did not know. And, unless a woman was the head of household, women’s names did not appear on federal census records until 1850. Even then, not much information was given on those earlier forms. So, how do genealogists find the maiden names and birth families for the women?

 One technique is to couple census record research with looking at the land records for where the family lived. Granted, some people did move around. But, most stayed in the general area where they were born.

Public land in states west of the Mississippi are organized and plotted using the range and township format. Land was divided into regions of six square miles, each containing 36 sections. Those sections could be subdivided into smaller plots. Often less populated areas were not known by the name of a town or a city, but by the name of the TOWNSHIP. However, there might be several small communities within a township.

What does this have to do with genealogists? We figure if a man courted and married a local girl, she probably lived within a half day’s walk or a half day’s horseback ride. Half a day to get there, time to visit a little, and half a day to get back home. Each of these days were no doubt bracketed by morning and evening chores.

One way to find what land fell within that half a day travel radius is by studying the township plot maps, especially the ones with the original owners’ names on the plots. Sometimes we need to find the bordering townships to see who fell in that radius, and check to see if any of those families had a girl child with the same first name and the right age during the census year before the couple probably married.

The moral is, for realistic romance stories not involving drifters, gold-diggers and mail order brides, if the groom doesn’t marry the girl next door, he probably married a girl within a half a day’s journey by horse.
 And, what if the family did move rather than stay in the same location? Back in the day, family groups and close friends—either neighbors, business/fraternal  associates, or people from the same religion or ethnic group—often traveled together. Census records show they often intermarried. For example, back in the early 1800’s, in my husband’s family, the Echols, Robbins and Godwin families migrated together. Their children fell in love and married each other.

Another example is Alma Township, Kansas. As editor of my local genealogical newsletter, I have been working with a member whose Prussian line --her direct ancestor and several siblings--came from Germany and ended up in this township. So did a whole lot of other Prussians. That was the marriage pool for the original immigrants and many of their children.

When looking for a mate, people often found romance with someone close to home.

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. The first three novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine,  A Resurrected Heart, and Her Independent Spirit, are now available. He Is a Good Man was published as part of the Lariats, Letters and Lace anthology.

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A half day horseback ride away- A GENEALOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE ON COURTING @ZinaAbbott #CowboyKisses

Monday, April 18, 2016

Do You Watch Naked and Afraid?

When I first heard about the show a couple of years ago, my first impression was along the lines of you’ve got to be kidding. Now, I have to admit, I end my weekend by watching the latest episode on Sunday night. I am amazed by the courage of these people. They agree to strip themselves of everything except their knowledge in order to survive in a strange and often hostile environment, with a person they’ve never met.  

These people have to forge out food and shelter, and some come up with very creative ways to make clothing or cover themselves. They also have to learn how to get along, negotiate, learn new skills, and depend upon each other. At times personalities clash, ideas fail, and accidents happen. 

Within the short span of an hour, including commercials, I find myself liking people I didn’t think I would have during the opening scenes, saddened by some I’d thought would succeed and didn’t, and rooting for a successful extraction for those who have forged their way through twenty-one days. 

In many ways, this is the closest I’ll ever be to watching anything close to the nitty-gritty of the American pioneers who sold everything, packed up and headed for the Wild West. Though many traveled in groups and/or with wagon trains, and they weren’t naked, I can imagine many of the pioneers were afraid. They had brought along a few basic necessities, but ultimately, when they eventually arrived at their destination, which was often a chunk of virgin land, they had little but their knowledge and skill to survive the fast approaching winter. It couldn’t have been easy, and they certainly didn’t have a camera crew they could appeal to for medical help or a ride home when the going got too rough. The raw basics of human nature had to be the same. The will to survive. The determination. The joy of successes and the heart-wrenching disappointment of failure. 

There’s my confession, or maybe it’s my justification for watching a show I first scoffed at. Either way, I watch Naked and Afraid, and will continue to. 

My next release will be June 1st. The heroine in Her Cheyenne Warrior is close to being naked and most certainly afraid when Black Horse scoops her out of the middle of the river in Wyoming.

The Cheyenne's captive! 
Runaway heiress Lorna Bradford must reach California to claim her fortune, but when she's rescued from robbers by fierce warrior Black Horse, she's forced to remain under his protection. 
Immersed in a world so different from her own, wildcat Lorna learns how to be the kind of strong woman Black Horse needs. But, to stay by his side, she must first let go of everything she knows and decide to seize this chance for happiness with her Cheyenne warrior!

Robinson’s talent for period detail shines in her newest stand-alone novel, and the author’s dare to go retro with the classic “Englishwoman vs. Indian chief” plot might just revive an entire sub-genre. Mildly sexy and thoroughly engaging, this tale of broken hearts allowing love in once more is a guaranteed HEA. RT REVIEWS- See more at:

Ouray Livery Barn

Definition of livery stable
1.      a stable where horses and vehicles are kept for hire and where stabling is provided —called also livery barn.

Have you ever been asked “Were you raised in a barn?”
For me, the answer is “Yes, I was raised in a barn.”
My mom, dad and two younger sisters moved to Ouray (U-ray), Colorado in 1968, when I was five years old to take over the Ouray Livery Stable. We would run dude horses out of the stable for 40 years, in what would be the longest continuous riding stable in Colorado, until my middle sister last closed the doors in 2006.
Here is a brief history of the place I spent all of my childhood and a lot of my adult years, too.
Gold and silver brought miners to the area and they needed pack animals the haul their freight in and out of the high mountain mines.
John Ashenfelter owned the largest of the freighting companies, or liveries. John Donald came to Ouray in 1886 and started a packing business with a string of burros. He eventually purchased the Ashenfelter stables in 1920. The Fellin brothers purchased John Donald’s business after his death in 1933, including the Ouray Livery Barn.