I was schooled in Pennsylvania; I raised my children in Virginia. I know the histories of these two states. Now I’m learning the history of Wyoming as I’m writing The Diary of Clare Coleman. And why would I take on such an impossible task? My readers have asked for the diary in reviews and in emails.
When I wrote A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming, I eluded to the diary of Clare Coleman. Clare and her husband, Jessie founded the ranch. They survived because they had befriended the “Indians.” But I also reference an unrequited love between Clare Coleman and one particular Native American.
Shortly after I published that book, I started getting requests for the diary. Of course I can do this! I’m a novelist. My mind is fertile, and words flow freely from me. The problem is I’m not a historical writer. So to write this, I’ve had to learn the history of Wyoming.
Okay, I can now tell you the history of Fort Laramie, and more about wagon trains then I ever wanted to know. I already knew how to “make” yeast. And thanks to my research, I now know how to preserve an animal pelt. Don’t you think that’s got to be a skill that will come in handy at some point during my lifetime?
Twenty years ago, this information would have taken a year or more to compile via interlibrary loans, but thanks to the Internet, it’s pretty quick. My granddaughter asked how I know that information I’m getting is accurate. Good question. I’d say because I’m going directly to certain sources. If you want the history of a fort, go to the fort.
But then I hit a brick wall. There’s not much information about the Native American tribes. There’s some, but not much. History has been written by the White men who invaded the West. I’m certain it’s because the Native Americans weren’t writing it all down. I can’t find a single account of where they setup tepees in the spring of 1846 and where they went after that.
I wanted the name Coyote in their language. The closest I could find was wolf. Seems they weren’t very particular, as it was a dog-like creature. Apparently they used wolf and coyote interchangeably. In general, I think it’s sad that we don’t know more about these people, but I’ve learned quite a bit more about them these last few weeks.
The other problem with writing historical fiction is the words. I have a tall, sexy, Native American hero. And guess what? I can’t say sexy. That word didn’t exist back then. Simple, basic words that we use everyday weren’t part of our language 150 years ago. Yikes! I’m living in the dictionary double-checking when words came into use.
The other thing I’m coping with, is writing in first person (I), rather than third person (she). Because it’s Clare’s diary, it’s forcing me into writing first person. I’m not used to doing it, so I slip. Then I must go back and fix my words.
It’s tough work, but in the end, it will be worth it. My readers will get a few hours of cheap entertainment from a book, but I’ve gained much more. I’ve not only learned more about English words, I’ve learned some Crow words. I’ve learned about people who lived back then, who opened the West, and survived or didn’t. I’ve made friends along this journey in my quest for information. I’ve learned about plants native to Wyoming and the animals that ran freely. I’ve learned about Kentucky rifles, and where you must hit a Bison in order to kill it. So when The Diary of Clare Coleman is published, it really won’t matter if I never sell a single copy, because I will be a richer person for writing it. The wealth of knowledge can never be measured in money.
“Where’s Sarah?” Caroline asked as she came through the back door.
“Sleeping,” her grandmother answered. “I put the monitor in my room so I’ll hear her.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll sleep in there.”
Barbara’s eyes twinkled as she grinned. “You’re in love with him.”
She looked at her grandmother and smiled back. “I know. Does that bother you?”
Her grandmother laughed. “Why, because you’ve fallen for a tall, dark, handsome man with a broad set of shoulders and tight butt? I might be old, but I know a good thing when I see it. That man packs a pair jeans.” She laughed. “Ain’t nuttin’ wrong with finding a good man and going after him. He is a good man, Caroline. He might not have money, but there’s nothing wrong with him marrying it.”
“I certainly am.” She got very quiet. “I’m not as invincible as I thought I was. Don’t let this ranch get sold. Our roots are here. Our blood is in this soil.” She leaned back in her chair. “Andy’s blood is here too. Go read that diary one more time. This land was stolen from the Indians, but Jessie and Clare Coleman made peace with them. They shared food and allowed the Indians to hunt. Do you really think Jessie took a pail of milk to them everyday because he was a good Christian man? Think about it.”
“What are you saying?”
“It was payment. And so were the chickens, the eggs, the corn, and everything else. What belonged to Jessie and Clare belonged to the Indians, too. Jessie and Clare tried very hard and willingly gave, but it was also taken from them. There were a lot of Indians that didn’t want the white man and didn’t like their fences. Read that diary again, not as an idealistic teen, but as a grown woman.”