I HAD IT ALL WRONG!

Sheer cliffs. Indians lined up at the ridgeline. Horses kicking up dust as they switchbacked down the steep sandstone slope.

It was all wrong.

I’m working on a new novel. I had written a scene that takes place in the winter of 1879 at the real-life site of the Ashurst family cabin. The Ashursts, an influential pioneer family in Territorial Arizona, owned a ranch about 25 miles southeast of Flagstaff. I am incorporating some of their “real life” into my story.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with “making up” a scene for a novel, and nothing wrong with deciding how you want it to be, regardless of history, I find it’s usually more authentic (and more interesting) to lean toward reality.

Photo from the filming of "They Died with Their Boots On" (1941), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland

Photo from the filming of “They Died with Their Boots On” (1941), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland

My writing teacher, James Sallis, often says, “Don’t use the first thing you think of.” He’s also good at poking fun at scenes that look like “you called up central casting and asked for—” (fill in the blank – in this case, I asked for an Indian attack). What I had written was straight out of a 1950s B-movie western. Or maybe a 1960s television series. It couldn’t have happened in the way I imagined or the way I had written. Not at the real location.

Perhaps this relatively cleared area, near the spring, was the location of the cabin. Or maybe a garden. Some details will always need to be imagined.

Perhaps this relatively cleared area, near the spring, was the location of the cabin. Or maybe a garden. Some details will always need to be imagined.

Ashurst Spring - approach with caution!

Ashurst Spring – approach with caution!

I’d done my research. I had read about the cabin’s location, in a box canyon, near Flagstaff. I had my notions about what it would look like and how it would all happen. But in that part of the Colorado Plateau, I discovered a canyon is more like a deep depression. It’s not surrounded by 1,000-foot-high soaring cliffs. Instead, hills covered with rocks and boulders slope down into a 20-foot deep depression. William Ashurst built his cabin in there because it would be sheltered from the weather. Standing in this depression, I could envision the cabin as it was in 1879. I imagined it would have been built up snug against the canyon wall, near the spring for easy access to a water source. And I got a different perspective from ground-level after I lost my balance on the spring’s rocks and landed on my . . . well, research can be hazardous to your health!

But back to those attacking Apaches.

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1. Standing on the NW edge of the canyon. 2. Looking down into the canyon floor. 3. The top of the rocky slope on the opposite side. It's hard to get the perspective right in a photograph.

1. Standing on the NW edge of the canyon. 2. Looking down into the canyon floor. 3. The top of the rocky slope on the opposite side. It’s hard to get the perspective right in a photograph.

How much more interesting if the Indians are flitting shadows, hidden in the brush between towering ponderosa pines. Maybe those Indians are silently descending the boulder-strewn canyon wall. Maybe you’re behind a boulder, rifle in hand, straining to see, to hear. What if you only know they are close because a loose rock tumbles down the slope to your feet.

When I write my revisions they won’t be sitting their horses along a ridgeline, in plain sight; they don’t scream and yell and gallop their horses down the canyon wall; they don’t fire rifles and sling arrows from a distance. Wouldn’t there be more tension—wouldn’t it be scarier—if you knew they were out there but you weren’t sure where? Until they were right on top of you?

It’s still made up. But now it’s also real.

Mustang Sally enjoyed the field trip to the Flagstaff area.

Mustang Sally enjoyed the field trip to the Flagstaff area.

How important is authenticity to you when you’re reading historical fiction? Leave a comment!
And be sure to check out my webpage: www.patriciagradycox.com for updates and news on my upcoming novel CHASM CREEK. Thank you!

My friends and I are Iooking for the canyon. The upper mesa is a meadow filled with yellow wild-flowers and sparse grass. In 1879, the mesa would have been thick with tall, native grasses. The perfect place for William Ashurst's flocks of sheep.

My friends and I are Iooking for the canyon. The upper mesa is a meadow filled with yellow wild-flowers and sparse grass. In 1879, the mesa would have been thick with tall, native grasses. The perfect place for William Ashurst’s flocks of sheep.

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19 comments

  1. Marty Murphy · · Reply

    Trish, this sounds like a very worthwhile field trip! And a great post.

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    1. Thanks, Marty! We had a good time in Flag that day.

      Like

  2. Great point about reality being different than what we imagine.

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    1. Thanks, Joe, for commenting! Sometimes the difference doesn’t matter. And sometimes you want to make it up, but in this case I was glad I checked things out. Now I just have to revise! heh heh

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  3. Absolutely agree,”I find it’s usually more authentic (and more interesting) to lean toward reality.” Interesting blog. Love your dog.

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    1. Thanks, Julia, especially since you know much about authenticity. I am halfway through Scalp Mountain and really enjoying it. :o) And I love my dog, too!

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      1. Whoa!! Didn’t expect that. Message me and tell me where you got your dog and also discuss blogs.

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  4. Mac Ryder · · Reply

    Keep on riding.Ride til the sun goes down.

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    1. Mac – you are my favorite real-life cowboy! xxxooxxx

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  5. Great post, Patricia.

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  6. Brenda Grey · · Reply

    I’m so proud of you for following your dreams…great job! Brenda

    Like

    1. Coming from you when you’ve just returned from yet another follow-your-dreams visit to Europe, that means a lot! Thanks, Brenda. See you soon, I hope!

      Like

  7. Great post! Authenticity in historical fiction always makes for a more satisfying read.

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    1. Thank you, J.R. I do strive for authenticity. In this case, I thought I had it. Good thing I live close enough to my locations to take a ride and see for myself!

      Like

  8. Very interesting question,almost another way of asking “What is truth?” As a reader of historical fiction, I would like the known facts to be respected, while the author develops the characters, paints the story, and writes the dialog around those facts. As an, example, the brilliant “I, Roger Williams” by Mary Lee Settle.

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    1. Thanks, Al! I agree completely. But I’m okay if some dates or occurrences are played around with to enhance some necessary plot line or character experience. Usually the author will let you know they’ve done that.

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  9. K Dorman · · Reply

    I love to read historical fiction and I want the details to be authentic so I can really see how they lived. Sounds like a great trip north.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I agree. I’m glad I was able to go and check out the area. I also tried looking at it with Goggle Earth but even that doesn’t give you a clear idea of what it’s like.

      Like

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