Friday, February 15, 2013

Loving the Facts: Post Valentines Day Post

“Manna from Heaven.”  It’s wonderful when the historical facts surrounding an event  are so gripping that it’s hard to improve on them with a fictional account. 

This happened to me with my first published historical fiction work, “Nothing Here but Stones”.  The drama surrounding the immigration of a group of Russian Jews to a relatively isolated part of Colorado was palpable. What first began as a planned move to the United States became urgent when anti-Jewish pogroms became widespread in Poland and the Ukraine. 

Cotopaxi, Colorado about 1890
All planning aside, the immigrants left their homes and settled in an area south of Cotopaxi, Colorado. With promises of houses, farming equipment, two span of horses and other items, the Cotopaxi “colonists" set out, traveling from New York City to what must have seemed like an empty expanse of nothingness.  As they left Pueblo and headed due west, the terrain quickly shifted to steep rocky canyons, foothills, and towering rugged mountains.

When they arrived in Cotopaxi, they discovered the houses were insufficient and incomplete, the equipment and livestock less than promised, and the “farming” ground littered with rocks. Miles south of town, the small dwellings were above 8,000 feet with no water available for irrigation.

The colonists struggled to succeed, but for two consecutive years, their crops failed, yielding potatoes smaller than the seed stock they used to plant them.  To complicate things, they had hoped to own their own land. This never happened. Whether the understanding was lost in the translation from Yiddish to English or was misunderstood from the beginning is unknown.  They traveled 40 miles by wagon to Canon City to the county seat and made statements attesting to ownership, but the statements did not provide any rights of ownership.

This skeleton version offers plenty to hang a story on.  One can imagine the long, uncomfortable train trip, the difficulty getting the first crops planted, the language barrier and difficulty communicating…

And within that are the documented facts of men, three to a log, carrying huge trees down steep slopes to the river for the extension of the railroad, west from Salida over Monarch Pass, the women scavenging for coal along the railroad tracks, “marauding bears”, hungry Utes begging for food, pleas for help on bended knee, and a man fording the Arkansas at flood level to get medicine for his wife.  
And I still haven’t mentioned the love story of two of the colonists and the third colonist who tried to get the marriage annulled. When he was unsuccessful, he left the colony on foot, journeying through the back country to Denver in despair.
When the colonists began to struggle, some naysayers accused them of unrealistic expectations and lack of resolve.  Others insisted they were victims of misinformation and deceit. After two short years, the Cotopaxi Colony dissolved. Many colonists became leaders in the Denver Jewish community, and some became successful farmers in other places.  The descendants ‘success stories are numerous and varied.
 Manna from Heaven!  Who wouldn’t fall in love with this story of struggling pioneers and the things they endured to start a new life in the United States. 
I know I did.  It captured my heart, and after that, the hardest part was deciding on which details to add or subtract, or to bend or embellish in order to render the story in fictional form.  
With the recent re-release of “Nothing Here but Stones” in a paperback version, I’ve had a chance to revisit the original story that inspired me so much in the first place.
 I’m still in love with the facts as much as the fiction…still in love with the idea that people can overcome difficulties and go on to find success…even when the original vision becomes something new.


Thursday, February 7, 2013


One of the best things about writing historical fiction is the research…especially if it involves going somewhere.  So, last week my husband and I took a trip to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado.  I’ve wanted to go since visiting a similar museum a few years ago: the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. And while the Colorado museum came up lacking for indoor exhibits,  it had a yard full of trains and train cars dating from the late 1800’s up to present.  Great fun walking around to see them and helpful people in the museum office and library!

On this trip, I was specifically interested in the Toilets.  Odd, but when you need to put an eleven year old and her cat inside one, it’s pretty important you have an idea of how much room she has to maneuver in.  I already knew that the toilet itself, flushed onto the tracks…thus the helpful advice of “Do not flush while in the station.”  But the surprise was how relatively recently this practice changed.  If I remember correctly, the man from the museum said it was in the 1960’s. That doesn't seem that long ago to me.

The car I walked through to check this out was actually a standard gauge Midland Terminal passenger car, but sure enough, the ground was right below.

 Not much else in the small room…a very ornate coat hook and a few other fixtures.  No sink, but outside there was a metal water “cooler” with a push button spigot. Across from the “Toilet” was the coal burning stove…the only source of heat for passengers on a winter trip, and ornate lights hung from the ceiling, which from what I learned so far were fed by kerosene.    

To get a better idea of the insides of an actual narrow gauge passenger car, I went exploring.  These cars were closed to the public, but by climbing the steep steps, I could look down the aisles at the lighting, hat racks, and seating.  The narrow gauge cars were a little less fancy than the Midland car I walked through, with bench seats instead of individual adjustable seat.  There was one restroom and one wood stove at either end of the car. These were labeled Mujeres: Women and Hombres: Gentlemen.  I wondered where this car had been.

It was helpful to know ahead of time that most
passenger cars for the smaller Colorado lines were made by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which is what this car and the two other Narrow Gauge cars I looked at were labeled.  I was specifically looking for information on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, but through reading discovered that for the first years of operation, they leased cards from the Denver and Rio Grande.  Bingo.  If not a D&RG car, then likely the Florence and Cripple Creek cars were made by them and should be fairly similar in structure and inside components.

When I write historical fiction, I want to be as close as possible to the actual time period I’m writing about so  that the details are accurate and ring true. It’s not always possible to get exact, but as one historical fiction writer that I heard speak said is that if you can find evidence that it was probable, then you are OK…writing fiction, that is. 

I’m still in the process of reading more on this subject and a couple others that came up during the draft of my new book set in Cripple Creek.  I try to check multiple sources and come up with the best fit.  Even browsing antique stores turns up some interesting tidbits, like the antique collapsible camping cup I recently ran across.

I had to stuff my hands in pockets to keep from shelling out the three dollars to buy it.  (These things can add up.)

Angel Self:  “This item isn't in the book.”
Devil Self:   “It might be in the next book.  You know, I was thinking about a camping scene with Pa and Miss Sternum.”
Angel Self:  “Then when you write that book, you can come back and see if the cup’s still here.”

Left arm yanks right arm out the door.

In spite of a library and extensive web search, I've already purchased two railroad books.

That’s enough.  (For now.)

Freight car from the F&CC the approximate dates of the book.  
Not helpful  as far as passengers, go, but pretty cool anyway.