I’m still in the thick of revisions for The Outlaw’s Return (LIH, February 2011), but the end is in sight. That means I’m thinking about the characters for my next book. The heroine’s easy. This is Book #4 in a four-book series, so Caroline already has a personality and a problem. She was widowed shortly after the War between the States, and she’s wanted a family of her own for years.
So who do I set her up with? Right off the bat, I’m ruling out a preacher, a lawman or an outlaw. Those are the heroes in the first three “Swan’s Nest” books. So what’s left?
A doctor? I did a lady doctor in Kansas Courtship, plus I want to get Caroline off to an isolated ranch. A newspaperman or a lawyer? Same problem as the doctor. A rancher is an obvious choice, but he has to be unique in some way.
I went through all sorts of possibilities before I settled on a character I’ve never once considered. Dear sweet Caroline is about to meet a retired British officer. It just so happens he’s settled in Wyoming with this two children and he needs a nanny for them. He also needs a nurse because he’s ill. And he’s not easy to get along with. The man is bossy. He’s exasperating. He’s accustomed to being obeyed, and he’s terrified he’ll leave this earth without providing a mother for his two not-so-adorable children. (Change that: the kids will be a little adorable…maybe “a lot” adorable by the time I’m done.)
So how does my British Army officer end up on a ranch in Wyoming in 1876? History led me right into the perfect set-up for this story. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed settlers to claim 160 acres as their own. The Powder River basin was rich with grass, largely untouched and just waiting for vast herds of cattle. Word traveled to the eastern United States and then across the Atlantic to Great Britain. Wealthy Englishmen began arriving with big ideas. They invested in large herds that grazed freely on the open tracts of government land.
The first Englishman to run a big herd of cattle was Moreton Frewan in 1879. My book is set in 1876, but the conditions are workable for fiction. I’m going to be doing a lot of research on Moreton Frewan. He came to Wyoming at the age of 25 and immediately made himself known. He built a two-story house near Kaycee that cowboys called Frewan’s Castle, and he had a knack for convincing his wealthy friends to invest in his cattle business.
Here’s a fun bit of trivia. Frewan married a New York socialite named Clara Jerome. One of Clara’s sisters, Jennie Jerome, became the mother of Winston Churchill.
This was quite a time in Wyoming. During the 1870s and into the 1880s, this rough-and-tumble landscape was a playground for visiting Englishmen and their families. Big game hunts, fancy balls and lively parties were common.
As with all periods of history, events conspired to bring about change. More homesteaders arrived, claiming land and fencing it, so that the vast acreage was parceled out. With such large herds, the pasturage was overgrazed. Investors wanted a better return, and the beef prices didn’t cooperate. The biggest blow came with the winter of 1886-87. It was disastrous. Ranchers lost up to 80% of their stock in the worst winter Wyoming had ever experienced. By the 1890s, the British were pretty much gone from Wyoming.
I can hardly wait to get started on this book. My mind’s spinning ideas for scenes–a ball where my heroine feels insecure, a hunting trip gone awry–but first I’ve got to finish those pesky revisions. It’s frustrating, but I don’t really mind . . . Sometimes ideas are like spaghetti sauce. The longer they cook, they better they are.