Sticking With History

When writing historical novels, there’s always a balance between historically accurate and what many readers assume is historically accurate. History is not, in most cases, written in stone. For instance, the cowboy of song and story was much different in reality than in legend. Most cowboys were scruffy, illiterate, and often plagued with STD’s. Not to mention alcoholism was rampant. Not exactly John Wayne.

Native Americans once numbered somewhere near 100 million. Sometime after Columbus (surprise!) a massive plague wiped out 90% of the population, leaving 1 million Native Americans along with their rich, extensive culture still roaming the Americas. Their numbers were further decimated by smallpox, STD’s (thanks, cowboys) and genocide during the frontier period in America.

wild west town

The Wild West may not be nearly as wild as books and legend suggest. Rumor has it that Wild Bill was fired from Buffalo Bill’s show because his voice sounded too feminine. His nickname referred to his nose and he was originally dubbed ‘Duck Bill’. (Wild Bill sounds much more manly.) Billy the Kid claimed he killed 20 people, though historians put the number at closer to 4.

The Shootout in the OK Corral actually took place in a back alley and lasted about 30 seconds. I guess Shootout at the Back Alley didn’t play well with theater audiences. Historians once estimated the actual number of bank robberies in the old west at about a dozen. Homicide rates in the old west were lower than they are today – from 1870-1885 Dodge City had about .6 murders a year. Gun control was rigidly enforced Tombstone. Laws prohibited the carrying of firearms.

There you have it – the wild west wasn’t nearly as wild as we’d like to think. Although, when I write Westerns, my cowboys are handsome and honorable, banks are robbed early and often, and outlaws are super bad. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of The Cattleman Meets His Match, 4 1/2 stars from Romantic Times Magazine. Susan Mobley says, The characters are delightful and play well off one another.

The Cattleman Meets His Match

Here’s a fun youtube video on five common historical misconceptions:


cattleman review

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23 thoughts on “Sticking With History”

  1. I have a favorite book that was a historical novel, “Prairie” is about Wild West Shows and rodeo, bull riding in particular. As I read I formed a larger than life picture of the main character. Then I visited a museum in Walden Colorado where there were many of this person’s personal items including his chaps and photos. I discovered he was a short little man. I was so disappointed. I still love the story but discovered that when I read I don’t always ‘see’ what the author wrote about!

  2. Well, I guess I’d better rush to the defense of the Wild West.

    While I agree with you that the Wild West most people think of didn’t happen exactly that way, there was some fact interfiled with fiction.

    Wild Bill Hickok famously shot several bullets into the letter “O” in the town hotel sign from fifty feet–rivaling John Wesley Hardin, who could put bullets into falling playing cards–Billy the Kid was so charming/popular that a fan helped him escape prison by hiding a gun in his outhouse, John Wesley Hardin probably did kill about 20 men, and many cowboys did say that they’d prefer to sit on the porch with a respectable girl than hang out with saloon girls.

    Also, while many frontier towns like Tombstone did enforce strict gun laws, the successful ones were only successful when the sheriff was noted to be good with a gun. That’s why Wild Bill was able to enforce gun laws so well with cowboys and yet allowed the even more talented John Wesley Hardin carry his guns around town.

    The trouble is around this time, dime novelists would overemphasize the wild aspects of the west in order to sell books to bored Easterners. These books sold so well that they eventually became the idea of what the west was like. It’s a bit like that awesome video you post. The myth about Columbus and the Earth came from a story by Longfellow, who actually said that it wasn’t true at the time. Because his work sold well, people forgot that it was all fiction.

    So there’s truth to handsome cowboys, horrible outlaws, and shootouts, don’t feel bad for writing about them.

  3. What a fun history lesson! And The Cattleman Meets his Match sounds like a great read! Can’t wait for it to come out.

  4. Sherri, You certainly gave some facts I didn’t know about. Thank you for sharing! I love the title of your book……you have to watch those cattlemen!

  5. And beards. I’d image most of them had scruffy beards but our covers always show closely shaved men with neat haircuts. I don’t even want to think about the body odor issues.
    I bet the cowboys of old would send most of us running the other direction.

  6. Connie, I had a chance to see some of the artifacts from the Bertrand, a steamship that sunk in the Missouri, and those clothes were TINY. We’d all seem like giants if Wild Bill came to the future.

    Frindlesmith, There’s a famous ax murder around the turn of the century in Iowa. I remember visiting the town and reading how it was difficult to pinpoint the murderer because there NUMEROUS ax murders in the Midwest around that time! Kind of creeped me out.

    Alisa, There were definitely plenty of outlaws who were ‘legends in their own minds.’

  7. Faith, I’m happy to add to the romanticism of the old west!

    Melanie, my poor Cattleman definitely meets his match! Miss Moira O’Mara and her band of orphans give him a run for his money ๐Ÿ™‚

    Janie, Probably a good thing books don’t have ‘smell o’ reading’.

  8. Thanks for the history lesson, Sherri. The true west was a much harder and tiring time. Many women died during child birth and men would have to leave their homes for weeks and months at a time for work. Fiction lets us see the romantic side of history, a time of living in the West.

  9. Great facts! As much as I love history I always think that even with hard facts everyone’s perception is going to be a little different. But that’s what is so great because know one is suppose to be the same, if they were it would be a little boring and not worth re-telling. That’s the best thing about history is wanting to re-tell it over and over.

  10. Linda, what would fiction be if we didn’t exaggerate the facts a bit, right ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Carolyn, I can’t even imagine the hardships. Think about the winters in the Midwest! yikes.

    Cori, I definitely love the retelling ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. How interesting! I never knew some of the things you and the youtube video put forth. I did know that the OK Corral was not as told in story. Didn’t know it was an alley. I love history and know we don’t always get the real thing when you hear it. Thanks for the post and would like to have your book.

  12. When I was younger, I visited Tombstone and it was fascinating. Most of the original buildings were there and the streets were dirt. Nowadays, it is very commercialized and not a fun place to visit. It is all about selling souvenirs to the visitor. This was back in the 60’s
    I got to go backstage at the Birdcage Theatre and now one only gets to go into the front which is taken up by a gift shop. I also went inside the old courthouse now it is boarded up and falling down.

  13. Wow… I did not realize that almost 90% of Native Americans were wiped out… I knew diseases did some damage, but nothing like that. Some truly interesting facts… thanks for sharing them with us!

  14. Erin, ’embellishments’ are good ๐Ÿ™‚

    Connie, I thought the video was a fun way of illustrating the misconceptions.

    Joye, how cool that you were able to see Tombstone that way!

    Colleen, I had no idea either. The accounts and the original numbers vary (I’ve heard the original number of indigenous people estimated as low as 20 million), but the devastation is numbered between 90-95% by most scholars. There’s a great documentary called Guns Germs & Steel that traces the migration of Europeans.

  15. Thanks for the video. It was interesting as well as fun. If they would incorporate more clips like that in school, students might remember more.

    It is amazing, or sad, how many misconceptions there are about historic events and people. I was familiar with some of the information, but didn’t know about Wild Bill. I also didn’t realize how “tame” the West was. Sounds like gun control worked pretty well.

    As for stretching things a bit for a story, as long as the basic frame work of the era is correct, what do a few extra bank robberies matter. Anyone who has seen pictures taken during that time period knows that the handsome, rugged cowboy and the beautiful, young woman working her farm were few and far between. In a college history course, I remember the professor saying that many people would basically sew themselves into their winter clothes and not take them off until spring. I am sure they must have had to burn them after cutting them off. As cold and drafty as most of the houses were back then, I am sure bathing wasn’t an option many considered, especially when you consider the trouble it was to get enough hot water. It is fiction, and as such can be populated by all the lovely, handsome, good, evil, and wacky characters an author wants. Some of the more unpleasant parts of life can be ignored unless they add to the story.

    THE CATTLEMAN MEETS HIS MATCH sounds like it will be an enjoyable read. I am looking forward to finding out more about Miss O’Mara and her girls. It sounds like poor John doesn’t stand a chance.

  16. Great post, Sherri, and congrats at the terrific review. Way to go. You’re so right…we write romance because, the redefinition of romance is “the way we’d like things to be.”
    (My cowboy heroes bathe too…even though historic cowboys didn’t.) Good job today.

  17. Oh my! This was interesting . Do you really think there wasn’t many bad chacters out of the many who lived and traveled there in those years? There’s good and bad whereever people are. A town not far from where I lived, Coffeeville, KS. had their banks robbed quite a few times by gangs. Right this minute, I can’t remember who all of the robbers were, but I’m thinking the Younger or Cole brothers were a part of them. Most of them were killed there in town on their last robbery. You see, there was two banks acrodss fron each other on corners. Well, that day, they robbed the one then decided to just get the other bank too, but people were watching by then, and most were killed. There was pictures of those guys after dying in their newspaper. And, the little town where my husband’s family lived while the boys were growing up and many years used to be where the cattle drives drove their cattle to, to load them on the train in that town. There was a deep hole in the grown with some doctored water that they had to drive the cattle through before being allowed on the train. when I moved there we were living across the road from where that vat (hole) was.You could still see a big indention in the ground where it was. My husband’s great-grandfather was the sheriff at one time there. They all said it was a wild place when all of the cowboys came into town. There was a newspaper with picture and story of their ancestor when he went after a man that had murdered someone, and brought him back to jail. BUT, I do love my cowboys and love to read the Western books. Thanks for giving one away. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  18. Patricia – sewing themselves into clothes..that’s one I’d never heard! Ewe.

    Tanya – definitely. My heroes bathe. often!!

    Maxine – Probably the dipping vats you’re talking about were for vaccination against Texas Fever. A pathogen brought by Texas cattle, the disease decimated Midwestern cattle. States like Kansas closed their borders to the big cattle drives drying up the growth of the big cattle drive cities.

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