I'm fascinated by how writers find ourr stories, and how we make landscape and its community of lives come alive in those tales. Today I'm hosting Velda Brotherton, as she discusses two of her books, both about women, and set in very different eras and different parts of the West. She's on a blog book tour, promoting her books by visiting different blogs around the virtual landscape of the internet. I'm interested in where Velda gets her story ideas, and how she evokes the different landscapes she writes about.
You've written two very different books in Fly With the Mourning Dove, a true story from your family about growing up on a ranch in northern New Mexico in the early 1900s, long before it was a trendy place to live, and Images in Scarlet, a novel about a young woman who sets out to follow the Santa Fe Trail to a new home in the West as an itinerant photographer after losing her entire family. How did each story come to you?
With Dove it was serendipity. I grew up in Kansas hearing stories about my relatives who lived in the distant, wild state of New Mexico. My Dad was fascinated by Cassie's story because she spent a winter alone on the homestead high above Tres Piedras near Taos Junction. The snow often was above the windows and the only company she had was a cat, and when she could venture out, her horse would take her to Tusas or Taos Junction. Many years flash by. I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico attending the Western Writers of America Conference and thought of Edna, Cassie's daughter, by then an elderly woman. All I knew was her name and that she lived in Espanola. I found her and called. She invited me to come see her, and that visit lasted a week. She led me to her small car and drove me all over that gorgeous high desert country. Her knowledge and love of the area was so evident that I was immediately captivated. My husband and I began to visit Edna every year. I played around with writing a fiction novel based on the life her family led on the homestead. She was reading my historical romances by then, and she began to talk of my writing her story, except she didn't want it to be a romance. The book sort of unfolded over the years. The more tales she told, the more I realized that hers was a story that must be written. Edna is now 94 and we both wish we had been 20 years younger when we began the project. We ended the first book when her husband returned from WW II badly injured, and would it up with an epilogue. Readers have asked for the rest of her story, but she no longer has the desire or energy to help me tell it.
As for Images In Scarlet, I've always been fascinated by the lives some women in the west were able to live in spite of all the barriers raised. They ran for office before women could even vote, they dressed as men in order to carry out their desire to be more than a feminine life would allow, some became outlaws while their sisters sat at home darning socks. That's not to put down the courage of the women who kept homes together. They were heroes in the largest sense of the word. But some strayed into forbidden fields. And so Allie Caine accompanied her father to the Civil War battlefields when her mother died because she was too young to be left on her own, and did not want to live with another family. She learned the trade, and was protected by dressing as a boy. The book begins, though after the Civil War, a period I'm intrigued by. So many heroic deeds took place in those times. Imagine setting out alone as a woman with a wagon, a team of mules, and a dream to become a photographer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a territory that would not become a state until the next century. I could do no less than go with Allie to find out what she would do and what would happen, and most of all, what she would achieve.
One thing that unites these two divergent stories is an awareness of place, and your ability to conjure up the details of different landscapes, from the Ozarks to the Plains and the sagebrush desert. When you are writing about a particular place, what do you draw on to know it well enough to evoke the feel, the sounds, and the sights for your readers?
I've always been deeply aware of a sense of place, no matter where I am, and only have to close my eyes to be transported back to those divergent places I've visited over the years. Say Kansas to me and I feel the hot summer wind that bends all the plains trees until they all bow to the northeast, the sharp aroma of ripe wheat being harvested, the never ending panorama of land that flows into eternity. The high desert of New Mexico appears as a barren, stark and breathtaking landscape. I easily recall taking deep breaths of thin air, being light headed, the crisp smell of sagebrush, the chamisa when it blooms a sunshine yellow. I'm not sure what I draw on, it's just that senses have always been of great importance to me. Even as a child I craved the touch, smell, sight, sound and taste of every single thing. It helps a lot that my father believed in showing us as much of our world as he could afford. Once he came home from the war, it was a rule that we took vacations every summer, camping out in those days was much more rugged than it is today. Often we slept in the car while my parents slept on cots under a tarp stretched from the car doors to the adjacent ground. But we traveled, and so when I married we began to take our children on trips from the time they were tots, again sleeping in the great outdoors. Nothing gives one more sense of place than that.
What is your favorite passage from each book? In Fly With The Mourning Dove, I think it's the epilogue when she speaks of her God and where she would like to spend the remainder of her life. It is so touching that I still cry when I read it or speak or write about it. Of course, Images in Scarlet is a different type of book, though much of it takes place in New Mexico near where Edna's family actually settled. I think my favorite passage is when Allie is taken to Jessie James camp and asked to take photos of the entire gang. The scene is humorous and rather sad as well, for these men reveal their ordinary side. And when Jake comes to rescue her, the scene is relieved with a bit of humor as well. I don't like intensity with no relief.
If you could read only one author for the rest of your life, who would you pick? James Lee Burke, no contest. His work has the most in-depth sense of place of any author I've read.
If you could write only one more story, what would it be about? The memoir I'm working on when I catch a few free minutes now and then. I want to finish it so my children and grandchildren and great grandchild can understand what makes me who I am. It's titled Tigers and Snakes and Flying Machines. Though it only covers 9 years of my life, the years I spent working as a reporter for a small, rural newspaper, I believe that what I accomplished in those nine years and how I felt about that life, will reveal my true self. That title I will insist upon keeping.
Thanks, Velda! Read Velda's other virtual book tour stops including those with poet and blogger Janet Riehl.