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.

Brings The Lightning - blog size cover 350x559 pixels

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.

Rocky Mountain Retribution - blog size - 350px

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.

Royal Gorge advertising poster

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.

Richard Alan Nichols - Heritage - Taos Pueblo - Small

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?

15 thoughts on “Lessons learned during a research trip

  1. The post-CW long-trail cattle drives were absolutely fascinating to research – I brought in a trail drive to Kansas from Texas in Adelsverein: The Harvesting, and then a shorter one from central Texas to the Palo Duro country in The Quivera Trail. And it was amazing to me, that practically everything you ever thought you knew about the long-trail drives from movies and TV shows … is wrong.
    Being a cowboy – or a drover as they were called in the early days – was brutally hard work. Most who worked at it, only did it for five to seven seasons, before taking up something a little less brutal. In The Harvesting, one participant compared it to the army: long stretches of tedium interspersed with back-breaking labor, and the occasional moment of innards-melting terror.

  2. The romance of the past is often overrated when one reflects on the reality of what happened. Interesting read, which further cements my opinion that horse riding through the wilderness is not for the likes of me. 😉

  3. One thing I didn’t know until I was doing some research was that prices for cattle plummeted in July-August-earlySeptember, then rose steadily to peak in January, then steadied until spring and started slowly dropping until the summer crash. Demand for beef decreased markedly in summer because people were eating far more produce, and because of the lack of ways to keep meat fresh in hot weather.

    Also interesting – until the 1910s, three and four year old cattle were prime beef. After that it shifted to younger animals.

    PS. Don’t forget the importance of the “dead line” in TX and NM.

  4. As a writer it really pays you to keep accurate records and receipts for all expenses related to such research trips as they can be leveraged against future earnings.
    I am of the opinion that you aren’t really a professional writer until you stop treating it like a hobby and accept that you must regard your work as a business.

    1. Tell me about it! We’re doing that, of course. We’ve also formed a LLC this year, to make things easier from an accounting and administrative point of view. With the new corporate tax rate being so much lower than the personal rate, that also makes a lot of sense now.

      1. Yep, figured you and Dot already had that bit nailed, but I’ve seen so many authors get terribly wrapped around the axle when they did really start to earn simply because they never considered the tax implications. You two on the other hand are what I’d consider the poster couple for how to do things the right way.

        1. If that stuff didn’t change so quickly I’d suggest a how-to book. Self-employment in the arts, business basics: Setting up your foundations.

          Like that.

          1. I strongly recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Survival Guide. That covers a lot of the basics that many people don’t stop to contemplate (except in hindsight, with regret), without getting into the weeds of tax stuff that changes quickly.

              1. The other good business one is MCA Hogarth’s Business for the Right Brained, which covers a lot of the same of the same ground, some separate topics, and focuses a little more on keeping the artist/writer sane, healthy, happy, and feeding their creativity.

  5. Coming back to Denver from Platteville, I actually looked at the fort that’s on the route (has a weigh station next to it, now). It’s TINY. I know there aren’t a lot of trees in the area, but I think I’d make the effort to build a wall high enough to at least require a ladder to get over.

    On a moonless night, attack from all directions and vault over the wall. Or even stand on your buddies’ backs and shoot over the top. Seems a rather senseless fortification.

    Maybe now that I’ve actually paid attention to it, I’ll stop next time and ask.

    1. During the American occupation of the Philippines, the Jungle Patrol performed a number of assaults on what were described as small forts built deep in the jungle. Assaulting a weak fort or position is not necessarily trivial when the opposition is good and determined.

    2. Never forget that some defenses aren’t apparent from far in the future when you’re looking at historical sites….. such as caltrops sown on the approaches to the fort when the enemy was known to be in the area. Makes sneaking up on a moonless night “interesting”.

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