I’ve always believed that my the characters in my historical fiction–my imaginary toads–must live in real gardens. In other words, the historical world of the Texas Panhandle between 1877 and 1882 that I create must be as accurate as I can make it, if for other reason than my responsibility to those readers who, unfortunately, learn their history from fiction rather than nonfiction. To me, my characters must exist and interact within a real historical background. Would Mattie Hunter and Jesse McDade, characters in A Time Too Late, be such vibrant, alive people if their garden was “off” in way? No, not to me, and not to discerning readers.
Creating a real garden can be as simple as going to the source for information. By source, I mean letters, journals, diaries, newspaper accounts, government documents such as census records and military reports, the minutes of the governing body of the region, and any other piece of paper to be found that are contemporary to your world. That means hours spent in archives or online, not casual reading of some popularly written history whose bibliography, if it has one, may or may not be trustworthy. My description of Mattie and Jesse fighting a prairie fire and the method they used came from personal written accounts by men and women who actually fought fires at that time and in the region. Personal diaries and letters, as well as newspaper articles, described the horrendous blizzard of the winter of 1886-87 that nearly destroyed the western cattle industry, drove many ranchers into bankruptcy, and devastated the Panhandle. One account said that a man could walk the width of the Panhandle (approximately 170 miles) on the carcasses of dead cattle without ever touching the ground. That is an exaggeration but not much of one.
It does help that physically the Texas Panhandle, at least in the rural areas, looks much like it did in the 1880s. There are changes, of course, paved roads and so forth, but the bones of the old Texas are still visible using just a little imagination.
So I have created my real garden. Now what about those imaginary toads?
How do I bring them to life?
I’m a good listener. As a small child in the 1940s and 1950s I accompanied my mother when she visited elderly neighbors who lived near our farm. Most of these neighbors were women in their late 70s and 80s. They were teenagers and young women during the period that I write about. I learned about corsets and how uncomfortable they were, but how necessary to modesty from women who actually wore them. I learned about the authority fathers and husbands wielded over their daughters and wives from women who lived within that framework of society. I also heard the resentment in elderly voices as they recounted some instance of dictatorial male authority. I also heard stories of the consequences to women to women who violated the dictates of that authority. To these accounts from my mother’s elderly friends, I added information gleaned from letters and diaries. From these sources springs Mattie Hunter, a woman who dares break society’s rules and accepts the consequences. In an age and society that defines a woman as either helpmate or whore, she is neither.
I am proud of my imaginary toads in their real garden.