Digging up the Old West

My literary agent, Joyce Hart, recently suggested that I consider setting aside the contemporary novel I’d been working on, at least temporarily, in order to get going on the next one, which is historical in nature. Trends happen in publishing as in most fields, and right now, few publishers are interested in contemporary novels or women’s fiction. Since what Joyce doesn’t know about publishing is not worth knowing, and what I know about publishing is minimal, I happily took her advice and plunged into Old West research with enthusiasm.

I decided to set my historical novel in Navajo County, AZ (yes, that’s where I live) because of the available resources here and their proximity. I didn’t expect Holbrook to yield too much in the way of exciting history, but it turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Holbrook’s past involves cattle ranching, Mormon pioneers, one of the most famous ranges wars in the Old West, outlaws aplenty, and  a curiously monikered place called the “Bucket of Blood Saloon.” In fact, when Jeff and I went for our walk this morning, we followed Bucket of Blood street to its conclusion. Alas, the old saloon burned along with most of the businesses in Holbrook in 1888.

My research introduced me to our one-time Sheriff, Commodore Perry Owens, who settled the aforementioned range war decisively in a famous shoot-out in the yard of what is now the Senior Citizens’ Center of Holbrook. Seriously–the house is still part of the complex. I met Robert “Red” McNeil, a most literary outlaw who left polite notes and poetry–no, really, he did!–for the lawmen who tried to chase him down. Sometimes he sent a copy of his verses to the local papers, which were happy to publish them. McNeil enjoyed twisting the tail of Commodore Perry Owens, who had publically declared his intention of shooting the versifying bandit. Owens once had the chance, when he accidentally stayed overnight at the same cattle camp where McNeil had bedded down, but he didn’t know McNeil was in residence, no one told him, and for obvious reasons, the outlaw didn’t introduce himself. Relations with the local Navajo nation and the not-quite-so-local Apaches were far from exemplary in those days. Livestock changed hands with shocking regularity, and without the benefit of bills of sale. And certainly each group, the settlers and the tribe, committed atrocities against one another frequently. One visitor to early Holbrook commented that it was not a “safe place for women or churches.”

My main character is a school-teacher who arrived in Holbrook in 1885 from Los Angeles (then quite a small town) to bring education and a certain amount of civility to the violent little community. She will face a series of difficulties in the book, of course, since this is fiction and fiction requires them. But by the end of the book, she will have taught for more than a year, gotten married and become stepmother to four children, and helped the family keep their ranch safe from the predations of a greedy neighbor. Somewhere along the way, she’s going to have to meet Commodore Perry Owens or perhaps receive a poem from Red McNeil.

How could I resist?


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Sandi Dutton on July 27, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Mary – Your new book sounds great and something I would enjoy reading! You are such an excellent writer (in my book! Ha) and a great friend! I love Jane Kirkpatrick’s books, partly because there is true history along with the fiction. Write on!!


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