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.
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.
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.
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.
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!