Hi everyone! I have kind of an odd topic today about “strange things happening for a reason.” Okay, maybe I should have saved this for closer to Halloween, but it’s a story that happened in the summer, and summer is coming to an end, so I wanted to tell you all about it now.
Because everything I write takes place in Oklahoma or Texas, and because I was born and raised in Oklahoma, most of my research tools are right at my fingertips. Talking to older people in the area, going to the actual places where my stories are set, and visiting museums and landmarks are all part of my research practices for just about all my novels.
Louis L’Amour said that if he wrote about a creek or a particular landmark, it was authentic; that it was actually where he said it was, and looked the way he described it. I don’t quite go that far, but I try to keep the setting and every other component of my writing as true to life as possible. In order to do that, sometimes you just have to “be there.”
Tamaha, Oklahoma, was an unlikely candidate to be included in my story, FIRE EYES, until I visited there. But how its inclusion came about is a story in itself—and proves that sometimes our research, as that other saying goes, “happens.”
Though there’s very little to say about the actual town of Tamaha as it exists today, I couldn’t help but use it in my story, FIRE EYES, released last year. In those long ago days of more than a century past when my story takes place, it was a thriving community.
There’s an odd thing that happened that made me include Tamaha in my book. I’d been working on it, and had come to the part where the villain and his gang needed to reference a landmark. But which one? And what was the significance? As I said, I try to stay as historically accurate in my writing as possible, and this story takes place in the eastern part of the state, toward the Arkansas/Oklahoma border. I must admit, I’m not as familiar with that part of the state as I am with the central part, since that’s where I was born and raised. A lot of these smaller towns don’t even dot the map, and I had never heard of Tamaha, until one day in May, 2005.
I’d just spoken with a lifelong friend, DaNel Jennings, who now lives in a town in that eastern area of the state. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she and her husband, Jeff, were doing some genealogical research and she had learned she had some relatives buried in a small cemetery in Tamaha. Now, the intriguing part of this was that her relatives bore the same last name as my maiden name, “Moss.”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we really were related?” she asked. We’d always secretly hoped we were, and pretended that we were, when we were kids.
“Yes,” I responded with a laugh, “but where in the heck is Tamaha?” (As if I would know.) She began trying to tell me where it was, and I said, “Never mind. It’s a good thing Jeff knows where he’s going. Let me know what you find.”
I hung up, wistfully wishing that I could go with her—but that was a three-hour drive and they were leaving the next day. No way I could take off and drive down there on the spur of the moment, with family obligations.
A couple of hours later, my sister Karen called. “Cheryl, I need you to come down this weekend,” she said. I was really intrigued, because she is my “much older” sister—10 years older—and never much “needed” me for anything before.
“What’s going on?”
“I promised Mr. Borin I would take him to visit the graves of his parents and siblings for Memorial Day, and two of his brothers are buried in a cemetery in Tamaha—”
I never heard the rest of her sentence. I was sure I had misunderstood. “Where?”
“Tamaha. And the others—”
Stunned, I interrupted her. “Wait, I have to tell you something.” I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard of this place before, and now, within the space of 2 hours, two people who were very close to me had told me they were going to be going to the cemetery there!
This was no mere “coincidence.”
I promised her I would be there—no matter what—Friday afternoon. We would be going on Saturday morning.
I would never have found the place on my own. I doubt that Mapquest even has it on their site. But Mr. Borin, an older gentleman my sister had befriended in years past, knew exactly where to go. Once we got there, I stepped out and found the headstones for the “Moss” family. It was amazing to think that my best friend, DaNel, whom I had not seen in over a year, had been standing where I was just a few days earlier—a place neither of us had been before. Again, I wondered what our research through family ancestry would yield. Were we related, as we’d always hoped? There was an incredible sense of connection, for me, not only for what we were doing that day for Mr. Borin and his long dead relatives, but for what DaNel and I might discover about our own. (BTW, cemeteries are also one of my passions–great for research, just by reading the headstones and figuring out what happened.)
As the three of us, Karen, Mr. Borin, and I stood in the quiet peacefulness of the old cemetery, a man made his way toward us. “Can I help you?” he asked, introducing himself. We explained why we were there. “Let me show you the historical side of Tamaha while you’re here,” he said cheerfully. He had lived there all his life, and there was no detail about the once-thriving community and surrounding area that he didn’t know. He was glad to share his knowledge, and believe me, I was writing in my little notebook as fast as I could while he talked.
The cemetery is on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River. “Right down there is where the J.R. Williams was sunk. She was a Confederate ship, but the Union seized her and changed the name to the J.R. Williams. But Stand Watie and his men seized her back.”(June 15, 1864) Our guide chuckled at the thought.
NOTE: (Stand Watie was one of only two Native American brigadier generals in the War Between the States. He was the last Confederate officer to lay down his arms, and was also Chief of the Cherokee Nation at the time.)
“Come on, I’ll show you the largest black oak tree in Oklahoma—and the oldest.” Sure enough, it stood towering over one of the first buildings of the settlement of Tamaha, dating back to the 1800’s.
Next, we visited the town jail, the oldest jail in Oklahoma, built in 1886. We were able to walk right into it and take pictures. “We’re trying to get money up to preserve it,” he said. It stood in the middle of an overgrown field. “Watch out for snakes, hon,” he told me. Yep, he didn’t have to tell me twice. My eyes were peeled.
When we left, I knew I had my landmarks that I needed for my book. I had seen it, and my imagination took over. It was the “jog” I needed to get on with the writing, but I will never believe for one minute that it was coincidence.
I use many research resources, but because of the nature of what I love to write—western romance—and because I have been so blessed to actually grow up in the area that I’m writing about, I feel like the most invaluable resource available to me are the people and places I meet and visit. It’s all around me.
One of the best “hands on” research places I’ve ever been is The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. I worked there for two years, and I loved every minute of it. The best advantage of working there was the fact that every morning when the doors opened, there was a whole new crowd of people to visit with, and yes, I carried a piece of paper and a pen in my pocket at all times. As for research books, I swallowed very hard and bought the complete set of Time/Life books about the West. I use it constantly. Another set of books that I have that really have been a great research tool have been Shelby Foote’s three-book series on the War Between the States. Very easy to read and full of rich detail that you wouldn’t find in a “regular history book.”
But my day of research at Tamaha is one that I will never forget, and that I’m so glad to have been able to take part in. Have any of you ever experienced anything like this? Some kind of remarkable occurrence that has affected your writing in some way? Do you classify that as “research”? Share it, if you have—I know I can’t be the only one!
Below is an excerpt from FIRE EYES. I hope you enjoy it!
THE SET UP: A stranger has shown up at Jessica’s door in the evening. She is reluctant to let him inside, even though good manners would dictate that she find him a meal and a place to bed down. There is something about him she doesn’t like—and with good reason, as we find out.
The stranger looked down the business end of Jessica’s Henry repeater. It was cocked and ready for action.
She drew a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. She stood just inside the cabin door, the muzzle of the rifle gleaming in the lamplight that spilled around her from the interior.
He raised his hands and gave her a sheepish grin. “Don’t mean to startle you. Just hopin’ for a meal. Settlers are few and far between in these here parts.”
“Where’s your horse?” She didn’t lower the gun.
“Well, funny thing. I kinda hate to admit it.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. “I, uh, lost him. Playin’ poker.”
“Over to Tamaha.”
“You’re quite a ways from Tamaha,” she said. “Even farther from where I expect you call home.”
He gave a slow, white grin. “More recently, I hail from the Republic of Texas.”
Jessica raised her chin a notch. It was almost as if this man invited dissension. She disliked the cool, unperturbed way he said it. The Republic of Texas. “Texas is a state, Mister. Has been for over twenty years.”
“Well, now,” he said, placing his booted foot on the bottom porch step. “I guess that all depends on who you’re talkin’ to.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she stepped back to shut the door. “I think you better—”
“Ma’am, I’m awful hungry. I’d be glad for any crumb you could spare.”
“What did you say your name was?” Her voice shook, and she cleared her throat to cover her nervousness. Most people had better manners than to show up right at dark.
“I didn’t. But, it’s Freeman. Andy Freeman.”
“Are you related to Dave Freeman?”
“He’s my brother.” He gave her a sincere look. “Look, ma’am, I’d sure feel a heap better talkin’ to you if I wasn’t lookin’ at you through that repeater. I been lookin’ for Dave.” There was an excited hopefulness in his tone. “You seen him? Ma, she sent me up here after him. She’s just a-hankerin’ for news of him. He ain’t real good about letter-writin’.”
Jessica sighed and lowered the rifle. “Come on in, Mr. Freeman. I’ll see what I can find for you to eat, and give you what news I have of your brother.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I sure do appreciate your hospitality.”
FIRE EYES is available at www.thewildrosepress.com