Ashley Ludwig: Fiction, Fact, or Figment of Author’s Imagination?

allornothing_w2343_200x300Wow. Let me first just thank Cheryl St.John for asking me to post to this wonderful site. I’m a long time visitor, sometime commenter, and have been a fan since researching my current release, All or Nothing.

Writers and readers of historical fiction know—whether we’re talking romance, mystery, or any other sub-genre—more goes into the story then simply writing the tale. We need to know the landscape of the piece. Understand the perils and pitfalls of the time period. And, most importantly—what was it like to be a woman in those conditions? How did one bathe? Eat? Where was the bathroom? And what was one to do when it was so blasted hot outside without air conditioning?

All or Nothing is set in the Arizona West of 1876. The time when my bandit—a real to life bad guy who was never captured, El Tejano—roamed the Dragoon Mountains outside of Arizona. The story is seasoned it with my own life experience, after spending much of my childhood playing among the rugged adobe ruins of Fort Lowell, in Tucson, Arizona.

However, much of my research came from my previous profession. A trained archaeologist.  I traveled the southwest surveying for corporations. I studied historic and prehistoric sites, bagged and tagged artifacts, and hauled boxes of them to dusty museums, all the while knowing that someday I’d fold all that knowledge into my own stories.

I’d been a writer for years, but strictly in the work sense. No romanticizing allowed, my supervisor would say.  I was an archaeologist, tasked with writing reports on sites we discovered, researching bottle-bottoms and landmarks, recording that history for posterity, for whatever corporation funded our research.

sherds_exampleMy favorite discovery came after surviving the scariest hike in history—surveying ridge tops down the rugged, red slopes of the Copper King Mountains in eastern Arizona. Exhausted, shaken from almost tumbling down a drainage hole during a rockslide, I needed a minute before starting up again. I walked. I took deep breaths, sat—head between my knees, when I saw it. A bit of white and blue mixed in with the pine needles and gravel. I picked it up, surveyed the shard, and found another. A broken plate. Praise God, I stumbled on an historic site—the Little Colorado Mine. My discovery, and mine to map, survey, and write up for history. But, just the facts, they warned me.

Fine. I did it their way. And, oh boy! It was a struggle.

ashleyMy romantic nature wanted not just to report on the Limoges pattern on shattered dishes. I wanted to discuss the woman who’d opened her hope chest after traveling the rutted road in their rickety wagon, and found her wedding china smashed! How she sobbed over their hand-painted shards. Sure. Maybe that’s what happened.

Or, perhaps a marriage of convenience lured her to that God forsaken bit of land under the shadow of Copper King. In a fury, her husband out digging for silver (and finding nothing but wretched copper ore), she flung a plate or two at his head right before she hitched up the wagon and hightailed it out of there. 

Or, maybe their third baby knocked it off the table while reaching up for a cookie, they all had a good laugh, picked up the pieces and tossed them out onto the trash heap and went in to read the Bible together.

So, my supervisor was right. All I knew for sure was I had a shattered feminine plate in a rugged wasteland. It wasn’t my job to figure out how it broke or why. 

But guess what? As an author, I can.

I can take bits from that experience, the harrowing experience down the mountain side which opens All or Nothing, and weave it with the story of a massacre left widely untold by the popular citizens of Tucson, and pick apart the accounts to guess what might have actually happened there. I also can create a heroine who was confronted with one of the worst occupations in history – being an Army Laundress for the US Cavalry—some of the most unsung heroines of our time.

Researching these things in a time before the internet was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. But, with the help of women like you—I was able to research historic catalogs, read through to find the price of coffee (green or roasted), by the bag or barrel, and what rations and pay were given a woman who worked for the Cavalry!

Like a kid in a candy store, I grabbed facts. I pocketed them. I wove in “spice” for the story, seasoning my characters and their encounters with each other. I walked with them through the fort grounds, laid out my map, figured out what angle to reach the stable from the parade grounds, and lived the story with them.  My editor picked out the rough spots, evaluated my historical claims and matched them to reality. Where did the train really stop? What song would your heroine be dancing to? Humming? In 1876! Thank heaven for the Internet. A library at our fingertips.

Does an author do this much research for a story set in modern day? Perhaps. But, there is so much that contemporary authors can take for granted that we have to stop and really think about. Our readers can tell when we’re faking it.

www.ashleyludwig.com

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