Friday, May 24, 2013

Getting the Facts Straight . . .

I enjoy writing historical fiction based on actual events because the plot is basically laid out for me. After 18 published books, I was finally able to combine my favorite genres—mystery/suspense with history—when I wrote my latest mystery, No Escape, The Sweetwater Tragedy. However, getting the facts straight was more than I had bargained for.
I was researching a centennial nonfiction history book during the 1980s on microfilm when I discovered conflicting newspaper articles written about a young couple murdered a hundred years earlier by wealthy cattleman in southern Wyoming’s Sweetwater Valley. A cattlemen-influenced newspaper in Cheyenne reported that “Ella” Watson and James Averell had been operating a rural bawdy house and accepting rustled cattle for her "services." The lynchers considered that a hanging offense and watched the young couple strangle to death at the end of lariats, their toes bouncing off the ground. That not only angered me, it propelled my imagination into overdrive.

Conversely, a newspaper in Rawlins, Wyoming, reported that James Averell had been a good man who served as postmaster and justice of the peace in Sweetwater Valley. No one seemed to know that Ellen and James were married, so Ellen was vilified as a prostitute living in sin. She was dubbed “Cattle Kate” and later books, films, songs and poems labeled her an outlaw. Years of research discovered that the innocent 27-year-old woman had worked as a cook at the Rawlins House and kept her marriage secret, at her husband's insistence, so that she wouldn’t lose her land. (Only single women in 1889 were allowed to prove up on a homestead). Further research uncovered the fact that the cattlemen had been grazing large herds of cattle on government land without paying for it, although they claimed ownership when a homesteader legally filed on the property.
When the murder case went to trial, all the witnesses had disappeared or died, so the cattlemen went free after posting one another's $5,000 bonds. Wyoming didn’t become a state until the following year so justice was apparently a figment of the imagination.

Because I like happy endings and didn’t want to end the book with the Averell’s deaths, I created a fictional character, Susan Cameron, who traveled by train from Missouri to homestead on her own, as did 200,000 actual unmarried women in the western states. Some were successful, others were not. Susan homesteads on land adjacent to the Averells and they befriend her. But she soon regrets her decision when Albert Bothwell, the lynchers' ring leader, begins his terrorist attacks on all the homesteaders in the area.
I conducted considerable research about women homesteaders and the problems they faced, wondering why single women would choose Wyoming, which at that time, had temperatures that dipped well below minus 40 degrees during the winter months. Most lived in shacks with leaking roofs, others in dugouts. I then remembered that Wyoming offered equality to women from as early as 1865, including the freedom to vote and hold office as well as freedom to live on their own and voice their opinions. Many were escaping controlling men in their lives.

 So Susan, my feisty fictional protagonist, is resistant to the advances of a nice young veterinarian who plans to start his practice in the territory. Women are still scarce and considered a prize by the men who greatly outnumber them. That's my secondary plot: women seeking freedom and men trying to marry them.
I cried when I wrote the hanging scene.  Emotion, as we writers all know, is the fuel which propels the plot. So I hope my readers feel the same sense of injustice and outrage at the crimes committed by wealthy cattlemen. I hasten to add that the book is not all tears and drama. There are also elements of humor and romance to lighten the storyline, , and I  hope that I’ve helped to dispel the rumors which still persist that the Averells were disreputable characters.
                                                                                                    ~ Jean Henry Mead


Morgan Mandel said...

It's great that you can make a moment in history come to life, and draw out emotions in the process.

I've never liked research, but admire those who do a good job of it!

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Research is one of my favorite aspects of writing, Morgan. Like other historical authors, I do so much of it that I only use about 10% of what I learn, and it's hard to quit reading. :-) The upside is that other books come from the same research.