History – Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow

I have started my “next” book (#59) – DESPERATE HEARTS – a western romance set in a little gold town in 1880’s Montana. People ask me how I come up with so many ideas, and I just tell them that so much happened in the early years of America’s growth that it all provides an unending supply of food for plot. The gradual growth from Jamestown to California; the political upheavals (especially when the Civil War divided us); the era of carpetbaggers; the great discoveries (gold, silver, oil and more); the transportation advances (first the journeys by riverboat and covered wagons; then the Pony Express; then the telegraph; then the Transcontinental Railroad); the gradual change from lawless places to civil towns with schools and churches; years and years of wars with Native Americans and how our growth affected them; the gradual changes in women’s rights; the Emancipation Proclamation; the list goes on and on. 

I like to take real history and real locations and put my fictitious characters right in the middle of it all, telling history in an entertaining way. It’s kind of like today’s generation living through Kennedy’s assassination or the horrific 9/11 disaster. We are always “living” in history, because every new day makes yesterday a part of history. In 30 or 40 years a story set around 9/11 will be considered an historical novel. The author can create fictitious characters and wrap them into that disastrous, historical day, giving them a personal story that might be full of drama, intrigue, maybe even someone getting away with murder! It would have been so easy if they were directly involved in the disaster. Maybe they were in some kind of terrible trouble and chose that day to make an escape and disappear forever. Maybe someone could show up years later – someone everyone else thought had been killed that day. Why did they wait until years later to come back and set the record straight?

Well, now I’ve given away a good plot that some other writer might pick up and run with. If I don’t get to the story first, that is probably what will happen. For now I’m just showing you how a writer’s mind works, and when writing historicals he or she has tremendous freedom to “invent” characters and plots because there is so much exciting background information to work with. As opposed to writing a futuristic novel wherein the author has to come up with some twisted plot for something that has never really happened (yet) – something that could happen – or maybe something so impossible it couldn’t really happen at all but readers and movie-goers still want to read it or see it … writing historicals simply requires knowing your history, letting it excite you, and asking yourself – “what if” my characters were involved in this?

I think the key to telling real history well is to tell it from the very personal points of view of the characters. Just as we don’t realize today that we are actually involved in tomorrow’s history, people back then didn’t realize it either. They just went about their daily lives, and those lives become affected by what is happening around them. The author shouldn’t “tell” the story as though teaching a history lesson. He or she should let the story happen naturally as history unfolds for the characters within their story.

If you read my Savage Destiny series, you will realize that by the last book I have taught the readers the history of Colorado and the Cheyenne. Every major Native American event in those books is true, like the Sand Creek massacre and the disaster at Fort Robinson (in book #6). It involves the history of Denver, and although they live in Colorado, I get some of my characters involved in the Civil War. Why? Because that’s how it was. It didn’t matter where you lived or if you were directly involved in that war as a soldier. Everyone, men, women, children; people living in the North, the South, out West, and even in territories that were not states yet, were affected in some way by that war.

And there is your food for plot. I seldom study a particular location and historical time period for what I am working on at the moment without coming across yet another idea for a different book, because I’ll inevitably learn something I didn’t know before and think, hmmmm, this could be a good story. Sometimes characters move into my stories that become so important that they begin taking the limelight from my hero and heroine, so I write them right out of the book and give them a story of their own.

And so the ideas are never-ending. I hope to stay healthy and sound of mind enough to write many, many more stories. I only need 41 more books to reach my goal of 100! It’s a challenge, but one worth trying for. All I know is, I won’t have any trouble coming up with 41 more plots!


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