from research to writing

So, I took Josie Marcus Earp, Adah Issac Menken, Mary Jane Magguire and seasoned them with images, ideas, personalities from other dauntless women;  I then mixed in my own experiences from when I left my safe Jewish neighborhood for college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1969, and the wandering years afterwards.  From all these parts Lena Benjamin, a 19 year old woman who marries and travels overland to the California Gold Rush, was born.  We were on our way!

The people and worlds that Lena encountered stepped out of my imagination which had been feasting on fiction (Cather, Updike, L’Amour, Zane Grey, RLStevenson, Rick Bass), real tales (Frontier Women, Marie Sandoz, A Yankee Trader, The World Rushed In), histories of the time, including the Industrial Revolution, European revolutions, Panama Canal, ship building, Jewish Cooking, Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, The Voyage of the Frolic…. and the list goes on and on.

coverThe research trail I followed took dozens of detours.  All of them inform the writing, even if never directly referred to in the book.  The writer’s mind lives and breaths an atmosphere of another time, another place where everyday activities create world views that determine the choices made by the characters.

Creating these characters and this book was one of the most satisfying times of my life and has set me on a course for historical fiction I could never have predicted.  Serendipity Rules!

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enjoyment grows as research deepens

I was a long way from putting my book, The Sound of Her Own Voice, into any voice at this point.  I took notes and while driving around town thought about who my characters might be; each one too similar to whomever I was reading about at the moment.

One of my favorite books is “They Saw The Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush” by Jo Ann Levy. Here I found records, pictures and, most importantly, letters from women who had made the difficult journey to the Gold Rush.  It was my own personal gold mine!

One astonishing woman was Mary Jane Megguier.  She traveled from Maine with her husband through the isthmus of Panama (as did my heroine, Lena).

Her complete joy in discovering a new world was communicated in her letters:

The birds singing the monkeys screeching the Americans laughing and joking the natives grunting as they pushed us along through the rapids was enough to drive one mad with delight.”

Wonderful!  She gave herself up to joy!   In contrast most all of the letters and diaries from men complain about the heat, the bugs, the ‘natives’, the illness, the rigors of travel.   Mary Jane must have experienced all that as well, but it didn’t get in her way of enjoyment.

Perhaps an intelligent, fearless woman freed from the cultural demands of domestic life in 1849 took advantage of all that was new; it was a world with diminished expectations for ‘proper’ behavior.  Perhaps the adventure not only freed her to act in the world as a whole person, but saved her as well.

My character, Lena, was beginning to take shape.  But, I needed more information about the places, times, people she was living in and with.

inspirations continue to be found

My appetite was whetted for learning more about adventurous women in the 19th century West.  I added American history to the sections in my favorite used bookstores which I trawled regularly.  So many of those books were hagiographies of all the familiar famous men like Daniel Boone and Robert E. Lee, or blow-by-blow descriptions of battles.

But, buried between the hefty books I could occasionally find a footnote to ‘big history’.  It was there one lucky day I found “I Married Wyatt Earp. The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp.”  Josie’s biographers were her nieces, Mable Earp Cason and Vinolia Earp Ackerman and this was an ‘as told to’ book.  Her story fascinated me on many levels, not the least of which was that this coquette reminded me of my oh so vain grandmother.  Oh yes, Josie was of another generation, but the way memory of her youthful beauty informed her old age was recognizable to me. My Bubby’s grey eyes would brighten and her liveliness would spread throughout the room when she spoke of how the men flocked to her on the streets of the Lower East Side, NYC at the turn of the 20th century.  The complete sense of privilege that comes with being a beauty continues throughout a life that grows heavy and marred.

Josie Marcus was born into a Jewish merchant family in San Francisco some time around 1860.  She ran away from home with a girlfriend to join a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe.  Tombstone Territory was the most exciting place in the West in 1880, most exciting and most unruly.  Those few sentences are as close to the facts of her life as we can get because she was self-invented and selective about what she chose to recall.  Her love for Wyatt Earp and his love for her was the stage on which she played out her tales.

I had discovered another wild and free woman in the Old West.  My own book began to take shape as my research deepened.

Research is fun

One of the joys of writing historical fiction is the research.  I had originally planned to create an Adah Issac Menken character because she was so unique, unknown, and outrageous.  Then, Josie Marcus Earp grabbed my imagination.  While visiting a friend in Berkeley, CA I visited the Bancroft Library where are stored an enormous amount of oral histories, personal journals, reminiscences, and letters from the era of the 1849 Gold Rush. I was hooked!

In order to put a believable character into a book I had to become informed about the times, the clothes, the attitudes, the landscape.  Thus began three years of reading everything from “Arizona Nights” by Stewart Edward White, published in 1907 and my husband’s grandmother’s favorite reading in small town Kansas at the beginning of the 20th century, through “They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush” compiled by Jo Ann Levy.  I read “Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey and learned where so many of the western cliches began, but mostly I was astonished to discover that one of the central characters in this book is an independent woman struggling to live free.  I read John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country” to get familiar with frontier-minded people, and “The World Rushed In” by J.S. Holliday which is a fascinating and complete correspondence to and from one of the original ’49ers.  In all I read nearly 87 books that included topography, folk songs, and costumes.  I was ready to write my book.

writing historical fiction

I ask myself why I’m interested in writing historical fiction.  My personal library was not especially top heavy with histories.  It all began while leafing through a book given to me one Chanukah called Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin.

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Here were photographs of adventurous men and women that by their looks could have been my great-grandparents.  The women interested me most.  These were not simply appendages to their husbands and fathers; they were industrious, determined, vital women inventing themselves and their lives in a world with few rules and small expectations.

I was fascinated by Adah Issac Menkin.  In the 1860’s she was a famous entertainer in the West and an outrageous personality: rebellious, successful, infamous.  Mark Twain, when he was a cub reporter Sam Clemens wrote:

“About this time a magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision-the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gas-jets, and shed a glory abroad over the universe as it fell! I have used the term “Great Menken” because I regard it as a more modest expression than the Great Bear….”.  I believe he was describing one of her shows in which she rode across the stage on a white stead wearing a flesh colored leotard.  (Madonna and Lady Gaga have nothing on her!).

But, the larger point impressed upon me was the realization that flesh and blood women from the Wild West were absent from the textbooks and TV Westerns that formed my thoughts about what represented the life of 19th century America.

I began a quest to right a wrong and to have lots of fun along the way.