One of the most dangerous things about living in the Wild West was how close they came to the edge of physical survival. Can you imagine giving birth at a time when the number one killer of women was giving birth?
Fortunately, it’s all fiction for us, so we as writers are free to wreak havoc in our stories. But our tales are based in reality, and those were some tough men and women. Adding a medical problem to a story raises the stakes immediately. Not only are we concerned about how the relationship is going to work, or how the villain will get stopped, but we also wonder: Who’s going to tend to that stab wound? And what is that strange disease the neighbor has?
I find it fascinating to write about the medical problems. I’m sure it’s got something to do with my background as a former R.N. (pediatric ICU). I enjoy the research, and tend to give every book some unique medical dilemma.
Klondike Fever, out now, is set in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The hero is a Mountie. One of the secondary characters, an old man, wears a broken set of spectacles. One of the lenses is smashed. He’s living in the woods, hundreds of miles from a nearby town. He either wears the eyeglasses with just one lens, or he’s totally blind. On the run from their own troubles, the hero and heroine agree to take him along so he can buy a ‘new set of eyes.’
Of course, it’s a love story first and foremost. It’s about a reversal of fortune, when the richest woman in the Klondike is robbed on a stagecoach headed to Alaska, and chained to the man she used to work for as a servant.
Western Weddings is an anthology I have coming out in May, with fellow authors Charlene Sands and Jillian Hart. In my novella, “Shotgun Vows,” one of the secondary characters is trampled by a horse and almost doesn’t survive. It’s a key turning point in the story of two young people forced to marry at gunpoint.
What surprises me most about the late 1800s is how much the medical community actually knew about diseases, rather than what they didn’t know. Here’s an example. I was scouring through actual copies of the British Medical Journal from the 1880s and could not believe the detail of some of their clinical trials. In the 1880s in London, doctors were studying the increased rate of prostate cancer in chimney sweeps. And I thought prostate cancer was a fairly modern concern.
Unfortunately, I think many Hollywood movies make it seem like the doctors knew very little. Definitely, we know tons more now, but not all doctors back then wanted to amputate a leg with a rusty saw, if you know what I mean. It also makes me wonder how our future generations, two hundred years from now, will view the type of medicine we practice. Will Hollywood of the future paint us as dimwitted and archaic?
Here are some other interesting facts. Did you know that Parkinson’s Disease has been treated since ancient times, but its symptoms weren’t categorized until 1817 by an English physician named James Parkinson? One of the early treatments to stop the tremors was to have the sufferer ride in a horse and buggy very fast. For some reason, speed calmed the body. That’s how one of my young characters deals with it in The Surgeon (released 2003).
Before the rabies vaccine was invented by Louis Pasteur in France around 1885, everyone in the world was terrified of catching it. Packs of rabid dogs were the scourge of North America and Europe. In fact, it’s been said some of the first tales of vampires grew from the real-life witnessing of a rabid human being attacking the throat of another.
There is something riveting and powerful about overcoming these medical obstacles. Of neighbors helping neighbors. And about writing how women were finally allowed to study and enter the field of medicine.
One of my grandfathers was a wagon maker.
If you post a comment or a question on my blog today or tomorrow, we’ll enter your name in a draw to win one of four signed books— Klondike Fever (2) or Western Weddings (2). Kate