People often ask me where I get the ideas for my novels. I think sometimes they come from my DNA. Certainly I’ve mined my family history for characters, settings, and story arcs, but there have been a couple times when I’ve written something as fiction that I found out later actually happened to a long dead relative, and there was no way I could have known.
It happened in my latest book, Counting the Cost, which is based on the story arc of my uncle, a cowboy, who married a socialite from back east.
My mother’s people were ranchers, but my dad worked construction. Though Mother would love to have stayed close to family, my father’s work took us far away for years at a time. I loved it when we came home to New Mexico for a visit, because I’d get to hear all the family stories again: how Aunt Clara’s husband got struck by lightning out on the roundup; how Uncle Buck used to travel with a goat in the rumble seat because his baby was allergic to cow milk; how my adolescent uncles staged an impromptu rodeo for the benefit of the local saloonkeeper’s clientele.
I was a grown woman before I realized that, in all the stories told, no one ever mentioned the uncle who married the lady from back east. This uncle died before I was born, and when I puzzled about the absence of stories about him, I figured it must be because the family was so hurt by his untimely death that they couldn’t speak of him.
My mother spoke of him to me, though. Living away from New Mexico, she assuaged her homesickness by recounting family stories, and she told me all about this brother and the lady he married. My mother and the lady had become friends, and she, the lady, taught this poor, rustic, southwestern girl all the little unwritten rules that young women of the early-twentieth-century needed to know when they went out in society.
There was one story Mother didn’t tell me, though, until the day before she died. That’s when I discovered that it wasn’t sorrow that kept the family from speaking of this uncle for fifty years; it was shame, for she already had a husband when she ran away with my uncle. They lived together without benefit of clergy until she was free. It was after they finally married that that my mother met and grew to love this new sister-in-law.
Nowadays, people might not be shocked by two people living together unwed, but in Depression-era, provincial New Mexico, it made outcasts of the couple and shamed the family.
After my mother died, the story of a cowboy who falls in love with a married socialite from back east welled up inside me and poured out my fingers. When the book was half written, I visited my two octogenarian uncles—one of whom was still working cattle—and got them to finally talk about their long-dead brother. Each told me of an incident with that brother, an incident that I had no way of knowing about, that I had already written as fiction, but that actually happened. How did I know? That’s why I say some of my stories come from my DNA
Other stories come from long-forgotten memories. As I wrote Counting the Cost, I must have remembered seeing the photograph of my mother traveling from Seligman, Arizona to Hot Springs, New Mexico with her mother and this same brother. Without his saddle and bedroll, a cowboy was unemployed, so they stowed it the best they could for the journey.
Here’s how I used it in the story:
Shadow rode in just as Heck was tying up his bedroll. He dismounted and stood holding his horse’s reins as Heck carried the bedroll out to the car and tossed it atop the things in the rumble seat. It stuck up above the roof of the car, even when Heck cinched it down as tight as he could. “That’s my bedroll,” he said.
Ruth called to him from the car, where she still sat with her head resting against the doorpost. He leaned in closely, since her voice was so faint. “What’s in the rumble seat?” she asked.
“That’s my bedroll,” he said.
“Tom Mix just uses one blanket. I’ve seen him in the movies.”
Heck smiled tenderly, glad that she was feeling well enough to tease him. “The ground’s a lot softer in the movies.”
Heck stuck his saddle blanket, bridle, and spurs behind the seat and stood looking at his saddle. There was no room, but without his own saddle, he was unemployed. So, he threw it across the hood of the car and tied it down with a short piece of rope. He took the quirt that was hanging on his saddle horn and approached his young friend. “Evening, Shadow. I’m pulling out now.” He nodded toward the car. “Miz Reynolds is going with me. I think she’s feeling too bad to say goodbye.” He offered the quirt to Shadow. “I made this the other week. I’d like you to have it. I sure enjoyed working with you. I know you’re going to be a mighty fine cowboy.”
Shadow’s eyes went from Heck to the car, where the battered face showed through the windshield. He swallowed. “Thanks, Heck.” He had to make a second try, because the words didn’t come out right the first time.
“I’d be obliged if you’d take Spook to Mike. Tell him I want him to have ‘im.”
“All right, Heck.”
Heck reached in his pocket for the sugar and walked to the corral. Spook trotted up and took the sweet morsel from his hand. Heck said softly, “You treat Mike right, you hear? I’m sure gonna miss you. Never been a pony like Ol’ Spook. Goodbye, old fella.” He patted Spook on the neck and turned away, feeling all of a sudden very weary.
Shadow watched as Heck got in the car and swung it around, waving to him as he went past. But, he couldn’t wave back. He just stood there, holding the quirt in both hands as he watched his hero drive away with someone else’s wife.
So the question for you western writers out there is, where do you get your stories? Your settings? Your characters? I’ll have a drawing of the names of all the people who comment and send the winner a copy of Counting the Cost.
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