Tag Archives: travel

Being There

North Carolina seawall

It hangs at the southern tip of Cape Fear, where North Carolina ends. The narrow, curving rock seawall runs for six miles, separating the Atlantic Ocean (left) from the Cape Fear River (right). Before I set foot onto the rocks, I had no thought to using the wall itself as a setting in SILVER CROSS. I knew part of the story would be set on the Carolina coast, thanks to the historical event that drives the story. But the seawall itself played no part in it–until I saw it.

There is no substitute for being there, for walking the steps my characters walk. As I’ve blogged about before, it’s not always possible–kids, day jobs, budgets, etc. But my visit to North Carolina led directly to a critical scene early in the book, a scene that takes place at a setting I didn’t know existed prior to seeing it–the seawall.

Fort Fisher

I knew Fort Fisher (a few miles north of the seawall) would play a part  the book, thanks to Rose Greenhow’s drowning within sight of it in 1864, setting the events of SILVER CROSS in motion. There isn’t much left of the fort as it would have appeared during the Civil War. But as I looked along the wooden fence toward the ocean in the distance, I imagined a Confederate soldier on guard, looking toward the place where the “Condor” ran aground, helpless to aid his countrymen and women.

Travel in researching novels is a study in careful planning, punctuated by bursts of the unexpected. (As a landlocked Oklahoman, this was my first view of the Atlantic…just be thankful I’m not posting the silly pictures of my bare feet in the ocean…) These two pictures tell two different stories, yet they merge into one: the view I expected and imagined from Fort Fisher, juxtaposed with the one I discovered from the seawall–the place where Meg Tolman’s friend Dana Cable is murdered, her body arranged in the center of the wall. That is the gift of travel, and the gift of on-site research.

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When I have spoken to people who read SILVER CROSS, I am asked about the setting of the silver mine in the Texas Panhandle, and if I had a particular place in mind when writing the book.

Nope–I had to search for it. I knew I wanted to put my fictional silver mine on the high Panhandle plains, with its brutal, stark and dramatic landscape. With only the slightest notion of what I wanted, I spent a Sunday driving the back roads of the Panhandle, meandering aimlessly. I would know the spot when I saw it.

Indeed I did, and these two pictures are why the mine–setting of the climactic scene of SILVER CROSS–is set in Hall County, Texas. I didn’t realize what I was seeing until after I took the picture of the highway. The crumbling wall of the bridge, the play of the shadows, the look downward to the dry river bed–I knew I wanted Journey and Tolman and Sharp and Ann Gray to meet here. The other is a bit to the left o the bridge, encompassing more of the river bed. Look closely–there is a barbed wire fence running through it, which struck me as odd. That fence made its way into the book, though in a somewhat altered form: much higher and topped by razor wire.

The day I visited the Panhandle was in high summer, and anyone who has visited west Texas in July knows the heat is murderous. It was 101 degrees when I walked along the bridge and down to the river bed. You may recall from the book that it was a similarly hot day when Journey and Tolman discovered the location of the Silver Cross.

“But what about the mine?” readers have asked. “There are no silver mines in west Texas. How did you know…”

IMG_0126I got to have some fun here, by indulging in a bit of geographic (and geologic?) creativity. True, the closest working silver mines to my Oklahoma home are in Nevada. Couldn’t make it there, but my research told me that modern mining processes are very similar for gold and silver. So I struck gold–by visiting the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine in Colorado…a much easier drive. Combining a vacation with my sons (“No really, guys, a gold mine will be much more fascinating than the arcade.”) with research was just what I needed. I simply transferred my mine from the Colorado mountains to the Texas plains. This is the pit into which Darrell Sharp fell during the climax of SILVER CROSS. I kept this picture open on my computer while writing the scene.

And finally, a few pictures of settings of COLD GLORY…”by popular demand,” as they say. (Well, a few people asked, not really demanding. They were much more polite than that.)

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When I visited the Louisville, Kentucky area and the Falls of the Ohio, I knew I wanted to use the area in COLD GLORY. This was another case of the conditions at the setting on the day I visited winding up in the book. Falls of the Ohio is known for the fossil beds, which in the dry season are uncovered, allowing visitors to literally walk halfway across the Ohio River. But when I visited, the area was only a week out from devastating floods. The river was high and swift, almost spilling its banks on the Indiana side. These wooden stairs are where Nick Journey is chased by the Glory Warriors. He is shot and falls into the river from this platform. Note the debris at the bottom–in a “typical” year, this would have been sandy shoreline. Just as it was the day I visited, the river was up when Nick Journey raced down these steps, leading to one of the most dramatic and suspenseful scenes of COLD GLORY.

The railroad trestle above the Ohio River looks from the Indiana side to Louisville across the river. Before being shot and tumbling into the river, Journey warded off an attack by another assassin from this spot atop the trestle. Note how the sign is bent, a fact that is in the book.

Finally, Fort Washita, Oklahoma…I was raised 10 miles from here, but viewed the old fort with fresh eyes when researching the book. These are the ruins of the west barracks, just as they were when I was a boy.

But most powerful of all…

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Of all the places in both books, I am asked most about the Chickasaw burial ground at Fort Washita. It is exactly as I described it in the book. The only marker is this one, and the powerful phrase “Known But To God” has a simple eloquence that I could not forget. The Chickasaws of earlier generations did not mark burial places–most were buried under their houses, according to the Chickasaw Nation’s tribal historian. But this small enclosure, with its unnamed and unknown Chickasaws forever at rest, is a place where I felt the physical and spiritual worlds keenly, at the same moment. The climactic scene of COLD GLORY takes place here.

I’m a writer, and words are my life. But these pictures show the intersection of fiction and real life. There is nothing compared to being there, to use all five senses to understand a place, to bring it to life, to make the fiction real. Thanks to the readers who requested that I post some photos. It helped me reconnect with the reasons I write, and I am happy to share.

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Research, research

Ask almost any writer, and they’ll tell you they love the research aspect of writing a novel. Most of us have this innate drive to get the details right (even if we wind up altering some of the details for storytelling purposes). I know one writer who told me, “I could research myself to death, but at some point I have to sit down and write the damn book!”

My research process is two-pronged: the history, and the settings. Since my new series is centered around the Civil War era, there are many, many resources available to me: books, papers, library archives, and yes, online sources. I make use of them all. I talk to people. I send emails. (And without fail, people are responsive when presented with a reasonable request.)

But I especially love on-site research. Of course, it’s not always practical. I still have a couple of day jobs and three teenagers at home, and a little thing called a budget. So I can’t go everywhere I would like. Still, if I’m writing about a place for any extended part of a story, I try to visit that place.

COLD GLORY is set in part at Fort Washita in southern Oklahoma. It’s ten miles from my hometown, and about a two-and-a-half hour drive from where I live now. I made three trips to the site and walked the places my characters walked (both in the 1865 and present-day parts of the book). I knew how many steps it was from the entrance of the Chickasaw burial ground to the main part of the post cemetery. I stretched out on the ground behind a cenotaph so I would know how the ground felt. I breathed in the wind, I listened to the crickets, I felt the gravel crunch under my feet. I got to know the place.

Same thing with the Falls of the Ohio. I visited the Louisville area and spent a full day wandering around the park. I counted the steps leading down to the platform where Nick Journey was shot, calculating what would have to happen for him to fall into the river. I climbed on top of the railroad trestle and looked down onto the road below. I just stood and absorbed the feel of the place. Esoteric? Yes, undoubtedly. But I experienced bits and pieces of what I was asking Nick Journey and Meg Tolman and my other characters to experience.

For some of my earlier books, I hiked to the top of Black Mesa, the highest point in Oklahoma. (And I’m no hiker, I can assure you.) I walked along the seawall at Galveston. The atmosphere is overpowering. The sense of place is another character of the story, in my view.

For SILVER CROSS (release date: Nov. 2012): I spent time on the Cape Fear coast of North Carolina; I took a legendary car ferry across Lake Michigan; I walked up and down a dry river bed in the Texas Panhandle; I toured a working mine. I took pictures, I made notes, I took long walks and tried to figure out how much of all that atmosphere needed to be in the story, and how much was over the top.

In the near future, I will be road-tripping from my home in Oklahoma to Kansas for research on the third book, as the “Bleeding Kansas” era prior to the Civil War plays a role in that story. I need to visit Ford’s Theater in Washington as well…we’ll have to see about that one. But…I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nothing beats being there. I love visiting new places, and every new place I visit can become research. Case in point: the Lake Michingan ferry. That wasn’t intended as research, but the setting so impressed me that I knew I had to write about it.

Perhaps I will see you down the road somewhere, and perhaps the next place I visit will work its way into a new book–even further down the road.

Oh by the way–the photo that I use as the banner for this website? The ruins of the west barracks at Fort Washita. See, it’s ALL research.

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