The one constant in my life—other than my inexplicable love of cottage cheese and my ability to sleep through deadly weather situations—is the daily sensation I have of being completely undereducated. My colleagues at the day job possess MBAs and JDs and EdDs and PhDs, and while I used to joke that everyone I knew was cooler than me, I’ve amended that statement: Everyone I know is smarter than me. It’s a hellishly wonderful sort of environment in which to work.
When I first made the decision to write historical romance, I experienced a fairly regular niggle of worry that I wasn’t qualified to write in the subgenre. Google searches could only provide me with so much information, and sourcing what information I found was often an exercise in frustration. A young twentysomething, perhaps an easier choice would have been to set these stories in a modern time—not that there’s anything easy about writing contemporaries. The era of the text-message breakup presents authors with a challenge all its own.
I wrote the erotic short story that was eventually published in the Agony/Ecstasy anthology from Berkley at age 23. 5,000 words, approximately 19 pages, and set in the seemingly random year of 1859, in Philadelphia. Those numbers are meaningless…unless you know the history behind them, and the unexpected effect the story of those numbers had in shaping the writing career I have now.
At age 23, I was in the second year of my previous day job, working as a private voice instructor at a city high school and teaching classical opera and musical theatre. I had no degree in either education or music, learning the job through an amalgam of past performance experience, artistic passion, and an aurally painful trial-and-error process. Forefront in my mind that October was what arias to assign my students that would both interest and challenge them, as well as enhance their technical vocal knowledge in preparation for upcoming annual auditions for the All-State honor choir. I scoured various music books for opera pieces, soon finding a soprano aria from La traviata that would work for one of my more advanced girls.
I researched translations for the aria’s lyrics, my Italian rough at that time. I researched the composer, Giuseppe Verdi. I researched the character of Violetta, in order to give a proper background to my student when I assigned the piece. I researched when and where La traviata was first performed (1853, in Venice)…and that was when “Shameless” first took shape. It snowballed when, in a casual conversation with my mother, she mentioned wishing for more historical romances set in the 19th century United States.
Remember, all I was thinking about was what I knew, and at that point in my life, what I knew was music. Opera. Verdi. La traviata. In this subject, I felt as confident as any MFA graduate. Soon, I was looking at the National Register of Historic Places, discovering Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, constructed in 1857 and the oldest US opera house still used today for its original purpose. Then came the Holy Grail of researchical winning: 15 gorgeous black-and-white photos of the Academy of Music on the Library of Congress’s website. A little creative maneuvering gave La traviata an American tour by a traveling European opera company, all before the start of Civil War hostilities in the 1860s (of which I had little scholastic knowledge)…but after the building of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia…and as well as permitting enough passage of time, logically, for the opera’s original producers to prepare for a hypothetical US premiere.
After that, it was easy. So easy that I wrote 5,000 words—approximately 19 pages—in three hours. Then, having proofed and submitted the story within 15 minutes of finishing it, I drove 100 miles to go watch my little brother’s marching band competition. Less than a month later, I was informed “Shameless” would be featured in the anthology, and that was the proverbial beginning.
Those were my numbers.
But the real beginning was the moment, while listening to Anna Netrebko sing “Ah! fors’è lui”, that I realized I knew history. Not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but that little nugget of confidence unlatched the winter-sealed Pella window in my mind that was keeping me from thinking I was smart enough to write what I wanted to write: historical romance.
History fascinates me. Even when it’s horrific—genocidal and racist and violently unequal—history is fascinating. It’s a bloody mess of misogyny, misanthropy, and malicious human behavior. History is ugly and uncomfortable. Most importantly, it’s unchangeable. All we can do is educate ourselves in our various histories, internalizing those lessons so that we may learn to not repeat the egregious mistakes of our predecessors. So many tragic-yet-compelling ages in which humanity has lived and died and evolved—history invites fascination, troubling though it can be.
As someone who is not a true scholar of history, I had to make a decision when I started playing with the story idea that would eventually become Wild Burn: Would I simply borrow the surface historical setting, my characters then much like actors roaming among two-dimensional stage pieces? Or would I take the risk of delving deep into era research I hadn’t touched before and potentially making a fool of myself if I presented the historical details incorrectly?
In the end, I chose the latter, but Wild Burn started in much the same way that “Shameless” did—with a seed of confidence. This time, it was Chief Black Kettle. In college, I’d picked up a postcard at a local indie bookstore bearing the image of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, who presided over the Colorado encampment of Native Americans eventually devastated by the Sand Creek massacre. I had used the postcard as a bookmark (these were the pre-Kindle days for me), and the more times I had opened the pages to find Black Kettle’s compelling face staring up at me, the more I wanted to know who he was. I spent two weekends in the university library reading about Sand Creek and the Cheyenne people…so, four years later and that postcard long since gone missing, when I was considering setting a book in 19th century America (at the behest of my mother, of course), I wracked my brain for possibilities and remembered Black Kettle.
And even though Chief Black Kettle never made it into the narrative, Wild Burn was born.
I dove into researching the last days of the Civil War, the beginning of the Reconstruction Era, Colorado Territory and its problem-plagued developmental history. I studied the Savannah Campaign, the workable acreages of mid-sized plantations in the South, the death rituals of the Cheyenne. I spent hours listening to recordings of people speaking the Cheyenne language, as well as reading up on its phonology and etymology. I investigated how rapists were prosecuted by the federal government, and what sort of jurisdictional power U.S. Marshals wielded in states and territories. Clothing styles and wardrobe costs were looked into, as well as the mining practices and trends within a 50-mile range of Denver City in the 1860s. Not to mention the hiring of “contractors” (or, in Del’s case, sanctioned killers) to collect bounties in the name of the United States government. And there were definitely some questionable Google searches on period-appropriate firearms, which probably put me on a watchlist or two.
And you know what? It. Was. Fascinating. Wild Burn came together in a whirlwind of geeky excitement, and my regret now, looking back, is that I didn’t put more of that research into the novel itself. I had so much to share but didn’t possess quite enough confidence to place everything I’d learned (everything that should have been there, in my current opinion) onto Wild Burn‘s pages.
That little nugget of confidence needed further nurturing, after all.
Back in October of 2012, I put up a post about my visit to a massive Civil War exhibit located at the State Historical Society of Iowa, in which I squealed over incredibly exciting discovery of Del’s revolver. You know…the one he shoots Moira with in the first chapter. The visit to the exhibit—and seeing firsthand how many details I’d gotten correct—was an incredible feeling. It reinfornced that while there may not be a “PhD” after my name, I could still write the historical romances I’d always been drawn to writing, and write them well.
The following researchical splendor is the Author’s Note featured at the end of Wild Burn:
There’s some debate over how many lives were lost during the American Civil War—anywhere from 600,000 over the span of its four years to upwards of one million—but there can be no argument that the following decade (and change) of the Reconstruction Era was a decade of both great suffering and great hope. The decision to set Wild Burn in Colorado Territory, some eleven years before it was admitted as the 38th state, allowed these characters to rebuild their war-torn lives in a western frontier that was definitely still wild.
The expulsion of the Cheyenne and other Native American tribes form the territory was the culmination of a series of violent incidents now commonly referred to as the Colorado War. The most infamous attack—the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, led by an angry, intoxicated colonel and his army of volunteer guardsmen—left over one hundred Arapaho and Cheyenne women, children and elderly reported dead. Though official Congressional hearings occurred, there was no resulting conviction or punishment, and Coloradans’ fear of native reprisal remained strong in the wake of the lack of justice served. John White Horse and his uncle’s tribe would likely have never succeeded in their efforts to peacefully coexist with the town of Red Creek, but for the purposes of the narrative, it can be assumed that the integration initiative eventually met with success.
In another example of the marriage between historical research and artistic liberty, there were a number of federal court martial records from the time period concerning reported incidences of rape, for victims both black and white. If the perpetrator was found guilty, the assigned sentence was often death by either hanging or firing squad. As a United States Marshal, Alonzo Hood would have acted as an agent and emissary of the government’s justice system, including collecting a witness’s deposition and executing lawful necessities…such as the appointment of a new town sheriff.