Across the Great Divide

Today, I welcome Michael L. Ross, author of The Search, book II of his series Across the Great Divide. His post reflects on the challenges of seeking oral sources for history, eliminating historical bias, and bridging a cultural divide.

Historical fiction is an unusual type of writing, because many events, and even characters are already determined. There is a basic timeline for the story that can’t change. Most writers of history do mountains of research to make their work as authentic as possible, true to the culture, times, known facts, and people. 

Research means delving into the internet, written archives, libraries, diaries and newspapers, and possibly visiting the places of the events. But what if there isn’t much written down? What if there isn’t much left to see? Authors concerned with ancient history often encounter this problem, but it can be equally true when writing about more modern but not literate societies. 

In writing my most recent novel, The Search, I follow my main character Will Crump from the ashes of the Civil War to the high country of Wyoming and Montana, in the period 1865-1868. Suffering from what was then known as “soldier’s heart”, Will follows the trail of immigrants west, searching for peace – and runs into the middle of Red Cloud’s War. Along the way, he acquires a companion, Huwei or Dove, a young Shoshone woman, a survivor of the Bear Creek Massacre. 

Though the novel is half the length of The Clouds of War, the first in the Across the Great Divide series, it took nearly twice as long to write. Tracking down information about the Shoshone, Sioux, Arapaho, and Crow tribes is daunting, and means consulting oral sources. The written documents are often slanted to the white or Army point of view. When you are forced to deal with oral history for research, grabbing scraps from various people, it can be quite difficult to construct an accurate world view.

For example, one primary written source is Francis Carrington’s book, My Army Life. While informative, Mrs. Carrington had a vested interest in protecting her husband, Colonel Henry Carrington, and his reputation following the Fetterman fight. Since there were no survivors, her arguments were persuasive, but suspect.

I constantly ran into roadblocks, due to Native Americans’ understandable reluctance to discuss their history and culture with a white person. I read Red Cloud’s Autobiography, The White Indian Boy (first person account of a boy who lived with Chief Washakie of the Eastern Shoshone), biographies of Jim Bridger, material from Idaho State University that told about Shoshone culture, and countless pioneer diaries.  I even got a little help from Drusilla, a Shoshone who consulted on Hollywood movies – but she retired, and quit answering questions. There were still huge gaps in the knowledge of the Shoshone way of life and customs. Finally, I found Darren Parry, modern day Chairman and “Chief” of the Northwestern Shoshone Band, on Twitter

Darren was mounting a run for Congress in Utah’s first district, and was willing to meet with me. His ancestors were the victims of the Bear River Massacre, the largest US Army massacre of Native Americans in history – and which is barely mentioned in most history books. Darren had written a non-fiction book on the Bear River Massacre, and when we met, he gave me a personal tour of the massacre site – the real one, not the one marked by the National Park Service. The tribe is raising money and applying legal pressure to acquire the site. The current owner cannot farm it without encountering human remains. 

Darren said that as a boy, his grandmother made him memorize all the stories of their tribe. He had to repeat them word perfect before he was allowed to play. The stories, language, and customs were passed down through six generations, each learning them perfectly. For me, he patiently answered question after question on history, culture, dealings with other tribes, dealings with the soldiers – especially Patrick Conner and the California volunteers. I checked what he told me with Drusilla, and the few written historical sources like Sergeant Beach’s diary that provided a map of the Bear River massacre.  

Not all research can come from books – sometimes people are the books. Darren and I forged a friendship, one that reaches Across the Great Divide.

Follow Will’s journey into another culture with The Clouds of War and The Search.

This is fascinating, Mike. As board members for the HNS North America 2021 conference, Mike and I have gotten to know one another this past year. Mike’s writing routine includes getting up once or twice a week around 3am to get some work done! Congratulations on your series, Mike, and best wishes for The Search.

The Search by Michael L. Ross ~~ The guns of the Civil War have ceased firing, and the shots are but an echo… yet the war rages on deep inside Will Crump’s soul. His soldier’s heart is searching for peace, and in that quest Will joins the westward movement, setting his path on a collision course with adventure, loss and love. 

The Westward Expansion floods the sacred, untouched lands with immigrants bringing conflict to the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Amidst the chaos Will finds safety in the shadow of the US Army, but the army brings battle-hardened troops into Red Cloud’s War, pulling Will into a tornado of conflict. Broken treaties and promises, leave both sides searching for answers. Will’s search leads him to a battle for survival, and there he finds a love that could change him forever. 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Why Write Westerns – by author Mike Torreano

the-reckoning-mike-torreanoI met Mike Torreano at the 2015 HNS conference in Denver and chatted about our preferred time periods and the careers we had before becoming obsessed with writing. Mike’s novel The Reckoning – a post civil war mystery – has just released from The Wild Rose Press. Today Mike talks about writing a western and the Code of the West. Over to you, Mike.

So my western mystery, The Reckoning, was just released by The Wild Rose Press. It takes place in 1868 and is the story of Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find that his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the killers, a search which takes him to the high plains of Colorado.

I’ve heard some people say the traditional American western is dead—all of which prompts the question, ‘if that’s so, why write a western?’ Well, it’s true that the golden age of westerns was some time back. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell until recently when several big box office western movies have been released.

Are they’re coming back? I don’t know, but I hope so. If they are mounting a return, why would that be? Perhaps it’s because westerns and the Old West embody timeless values, timeless outcomes where right triumphs over wrong. Not always, certainly, but you get the idea. The American West in the 19th century was a black and white place with clear-cut rules—there were things you were supposed to do as well as things you weren’t. And if you did wrong, there were consequences, usually immediate.

There was a code of the West, even among the bad guys. Simple rules for simpler times. Unwritten, but adhered to nonetheless. The Code drew its strength from the underlying character of westerners, both men and women alike. Life back then was hard, but it was also simple. Things that needed to get done got done. Whining wasn’t tolerated. Complainers were ignored. You weren’t a victim, you just played the hand you were dealt.

If you’re getting the idea that I like that kind of culture, I guess you’re right.

The world we live in today sometimes baffles me. Everything seems to be different shades of gray. Honor and fidelity don’t seem to be in fashion. Our culture is filled with victims. People are entitled.

While the Code of the Old West was unwritten and existed in various forms, there were certain common elements that everyone—from the hard-working sodbuster, to the law-abiding citizen, to the hardened criminal—typically abided by. Granted, there were exceptions, but generally that held true.

In 2004, Jim Owens synthesized the Code into 10 guiding principles in his book, Cowboy Ethics- What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. Keep your promises.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Some things aren’t for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.

Let’s take a look at three of these.

How about number 7—Ride for the Brand? It means be loyal to the people in your life—from family and friends, to those you work for. That last part refers to the idea that when you work for someone, you should work for them.

Take a look at number 4—Do what has to be done. Life is oftentimes messy, our days are filled with ups and downs, and we make choices all the time. This is about choosing to get done what has to be done, then getting on with something else.

Next, there’s number 9—Some things aren’t for sale. The Code gave westerners a guide to live by that they broke at their own peril. Are there still things today that aren’t for sale? What are they for you? They might be different for each of us, but at the end of the day I’d wager we all still have values that are non-negotiable. After all, values don’t really change, only times, circumstances, and people do.

Have these values that the Code embodied vanished from our society today? The good news is no, they haven’t, but sometimes it seems they’ve been driven underground. Popular culture tends to look down on old-time values, or should I say timeless values. We’re an instant gratification society that focuses on the here and now, and disregards the lessons of the past. Imagine a world where you sat with your family at night, sometimes even talking with each other. What a novel concept. Imagine a world where a man’s word was his bond. Where handshakes took the place of contracts.

Or as Arthur Chapman says in his poem, ‘Out Where The West Begins’—

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,

Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,

And a man makes friends without half trying—

That where the West begins.

So, yes, sometimes I yearn for those simpler times amid the hustle and bustle of today’s world. Where we are inundated with various media platforms from morning to night. Sometimes Ike’s world looks pretty appealing. Still. To many of us. That’s why the western will never die.

The Reckoning by Mike Torreano

Ike McAlister returns home to Kansas after the Civil War, his soul bruised and empty. Worse, his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders who are still on the loose. No stranger to death and destruction, he vows to run the killers down.

A clue leads him to the high plains of Colorado, but when his sister, Sue, disappears there his world quickly spins out of control. In the midst of this turmoil a feisty landlady sparks an attraction that’s the only good thing in Ike’s life.

Now, in a race against time he must make a deadly choice. If he continues to pursue the killers, Sue will likely never be found. If he veers off to find her, the killers’ trail will likely go cold. Which track to follow? Will the love of family triumph in his broken heart or will it be the passionate hate of revenge?

Many thanks, Mike. I’m so delighted to have you on the blog today. Your perspective on the code is very timely. Wishing you lots of success with The Reckoning. You can also read Mike’s post on what makes historical fiction unique.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.