Lessons learned during a research trip
My wife and I returned two days ago from a ten-day research trip through west Texas, southern Colorado, and northern New Mexico. It was a lot of fun, apart from the altitude in Colorado and New Mexico, which proved difficult to cope with. That aside, I also learned a lot, yet again.
When I write, I find it helpful to try to see through my eyes what my characters are seeing through theirs. It’s a technique that pays dividends for me. I don’t always describe it on the printed page, but it helps me think about how they would react in a given situation, and how their thoughts and words would be shaped by what was around them. That’s a work of the imagination in something like science fiction or space opera, but far closer to reality in things like fantasy (at least as far as the world around the characters is concerned) and my Western novels. Traveling the regions about which I’m going to write helps me see things more accurately.
This trip was centered around the next four novels in my Western series, the Ames Archives.
My Colorado-based protagonist, Walt Ames, will start by joining a Texas trail drive boss in making a horse-buying trip to Mexico, bringing back horses for an Army contract and for his own use as breeding stock. It’ll be set immediately prior to the Red River War of 1874, which opened up western Texas and the Panhandle to settlement and exploitation by cattle ranchers. I’ll be using some of the US Army’s frontier forts, particularly Fort Supply in what was then Indian Territory (today Oklahoma) and Fort Concho in Texas, as important ‘nodes’ in the story. I’d already visited the former, but not the latter, so this trip remedied that. Fort Concho was the linchpin of the north-south chain of forts, and at one end of the east-west chain, and played a key role as the base of Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, primary field commander during the Red River War. He makes an appearance in the book, too.
Next, Walt will find himself accompanying his partner to a new ranch they’ll jointly own in a more northerly state, following the Great Western Cattle Trail to Nebraska and perhaps as far north as Wyoming (I haven’t made a final decision on that yet). I’m going to use it as a vehicle to describe what the trail drive life was really like, stripped of all its literary ‘romance’ and providing an accurate, unvarnished look at why the daily life of the cowboy was so very dangerous (and frequently short, too). It’ll look at the economic history of the western USA, showing how consumer demand for meat back East spurred the development of seemingly unrelated areas of this country thousands of miles away. It drove the expansion of the rail network, which brought hitherto unusable mineral resources within reach of exploitation, which in turn boosted industrial expansion and development. It’s a fascinating tale in both its human and technological aspects, and I hope to do justice to it in the context of a rousing story.
In the third planned book (which will be the fifth in the series), Walt will run headlong into the conflict between hordes of get-rich-quick prospectors and mining stock fraudsters (who made many of the 19th-century railroad and industrial ‘robber barons‘ look like choirboys by comparison) and the more stable residents of the Old West, seeking to farm or ranch or establish a more settled lifestyle. It’ll take place in the context of the silver mines of Colorado, which will threaten Walt’s horse ranch with their expansion. How he deals with the crisis will set up a number of future books. It’ll take careful handling.
In the fourth book (the sixth in the series), Walt will be drawn into the railroad war through the Royal Gorge into the Colorado mountains. This was a very serious fight indeed, involving two rival railroads that each hired literal armies of gunfighters, attacked each other’s work crews, and even occupied public property to keep out their rivals (in one case using a 12-pounder cannon ‘borrowed’ from the local armory!). Walt’s transport company (described in the second book in the series, ‘Rocky Mountain Retribution‘) will become involved as both sides try to hire its services for themselves, and/or use it against their rivals. He’ll have to navigate the troubled waters very carefully if his business is to survive. Being the versatile (and sometimes ruthless) character that he is, I daresay he’ll find a way.
As part of our research, Dorothy and I rode the Royal Gorge route aboard a tourist train one day. I’ve described it in a post at my own blog. It was an awe-inspiring look at the difficulties that must have accompanied the work, and our minds boggled at how dangerous it must have been. The steep sides of the gorge, and the rapidly flowing Arkansas River running through it, must have made it one of the most hazardous work sites in US history, long before the advent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) almost a century later.
We ended our trip by heading for Cimarron, NM, to stay at the historic St. James Hotel in that town. (I reviewed it in detail on my blog.) It was disappointing as a hotel, but extraordinary as a piece of history. The numerous reports of hauntings and ‘things that go bump in the night‘ are interesting to the credulous, I suppose – at least, the hotel seems to attract a fair proportion of its guests from among their ranks.
While there, we took the opportunity to visit the town of Taos, with its thriving artist community. There are art galleries by the dozen, a source of visual stimulation that we both found fascinating. I was particularly taken with this painting, ‘Heritage: Taos Pueblo’ by Richard Alan Nichols, which hung in one of them. Open it in a new window or tab for a larger view – it’s worth it.
I spent a long time looking at it. I think I could write two or three chapters of a Western novel, just fleshing out the detail that I can see there, and building a story around it. At $15,000, it’s never going to grace my walls – we’ve just paid not much more than that for our latest vehicle! – but I’m very glad to have seen it. My thanks to the gallery owner for permission to photograph it, and use it in my blog posts.
We came home late on Wednesday, very tired after ten days on the road, but happy to have learned and experienced all we did. I think I’m going to make a point of doing at least one research trip like this every year. It exposes me to new perspectives, gives me a lot of useful material, and allows me to meet friends and fellow writers. What’s not to like?