Friday, August 14, 2015

A Writing Retreat 132 Years After Ed Watkins' Lynching

Looking east towards Salida.
The Christison and Watkins ranches were on the mountain in the center pink in the sunset.

I spent the last week at the Heart of the Rockies Campground writing a chapter of the book. Coincidentally, this was the week major events took place in the story.

Ed Watkins was lynched by a mob of masked men at the Canon City courthouse in the early morning hours of August 11, 1883. That chapter was already written. The chapter I worked on this week is when the South Park cattlemen arrived on the train in Salida two days after Ed Watkins' lynching. They had to appear in court because Ed Watkins had named several men in a lawsuit for driving away his cattle before he was killed.

Ed Watkins' friends were quick to accuse the cattlemen of the lynching and met the cattlemen at the train. A tense situation, to say the least.

My writer friend, Nancy Oswald, sent me a quote this week by A.M. Homes, "I think that in fiction you can say things and in a way be truer than you can be in real life and truer than you can be in non-fiction. There's an accuracy to fiction that people don't really talk about - an emotional accuracy."

I believe emotional accuracy is why this book evolved from nonfiction to creative nonfiction to historical fiction. It is also part of the reason this book is taking forever to write. Writing emotional accuracy is hard work in this story. Much of it is gut-wrenching. Emotions I don't want to gloss over.

So, I piece together events - the train arrived at noon and the hearing started at 2:00 p.m. What did they do for two hours? Then I write the scene thinking about the emotions based on what had already occurred in the story. How did this make them feel? How did they show it?

And now that I've read what I just wrote, I understand why my writing process takes a little longer. This week I spent two days piecing together what happened in the chapter. During those two days, I processed the events in my mind and wrote paragraphs that didn't go anywhere. But on day 3, I could write, sometimes using sentences from those paragraphs that didn't seem to go anywhere. The scene fell into place and I could write with emotional accuracy.

Knowing that the two days that seemed hopeless are really an important part of my writing process will help me. Stay in there, don't give up, the moment it all falls in place is just around the corner.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Part 2: Circling and Story Round-up in Writing

Gayle Gresham at the Mulock Ranch corral in Park County, May 2014

In my last post, Part 1: Circling and Story Round-up, I wrote about my discovery of "circling" and how it worked in researching my book (without me knowing it at the time).

When I started writing the book, my thinking went linear. That's the way you write a book, right? Start at the beginning and write to the end. Using my cattle round-up metaphor, I had to get my cows in a straight line, in the correct order and move them forward. And that worked just the way it would if I went to the pasture and started trying to make our cows line up in a straight line and stay in order!

Everything came to a grinding halt. 3 years later, I am still stuck and overwhelmed. I have bits and pieces of a book, but nothing that reads in order.

Now, in my defense, I do have a chapter order and what events need to go into each chapter. But I get stymied when I try to write. What if I forget something? What if it didn’t happen the way I think? What were the motives? Why did it happen this way?

And then I discovered circling and round-up. What if I round up my book the way I rounded up the research? I start in a broad circle and gather the story. That’s my chapter order. I’ll keep circling in, bringing pieces of the story together.

For the first draft, I’m finding the pieces, seeing how they fit together. I’m bringing them to the corral. I’ll keep circling, looking for strays, but concentrating on what I have and what I know. I’ll keep bringing the story in, tighter and tighter, until I have the center, the focus, the essence of the book.

While circling, I don’t have to have perfection. I’m just gathering the story together. What may seem important (so important it keeps me from writing it) may not be that important in the end. If I get stuck, I’ll circle to the next cow, the next scene, or perhaps another scene that will inform the first scene. I’ll keep circling until I have a story.

I’m not circling to circle. I am circling to bring the story to the center. Moving from the outside in. Circling to make the story complete. Circling to the end.

As a lifetime circler, (I've heard it described as circling the airport and never landing), I realize that this story must land. I have to circle to the center to completion.

 I have numbered the circles in my spiral to be certain I keep moving to the center. Now I know exactly where I am in the spiral and what I need to do to get to the next circle. I have 5 circles in my spiral - the outer circle is a 5 and and inner circle is 1. 1 is the finish line, when the inner circle is filled in, the 1st draft will be complete. Right now I'm at the 4th circle. I figure I'll have half the book rounded up at the 3rd circle.

I'll keep you informed about my circling. It may seem bizarre to you (unless you are a circler, too), but it has opened up my mind to be able to write again. Which makes me very happy!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Part 1: Circling and Story Round-up

With the New Year, my thoughts circled around writing my book. Why can’t I write it? What is keeping me from writing it?

I thought of a Diana Gabaldon
interview I’d read recently where she talked about keeping 17 tabs open on her computer at a time, writing one scene until she got stuck and then moving to another. She said that’s how her brain works. The word “circling” came to mind when I read it. Then I read a blog post Dawn Wink wrote on how she organizes her writing with a clustering, a journal, and lists. Once again, I thought of “circling.”

I remembered drawing spirals in school when I doodled in my notebook during class. I’d start at the center and spiral outwards. Thinking about circling and writing, I wondered about starting at the outside and spiraling inward to the center.

I sat down at my desk and drew a spiral. It felt right when I started at the outside and spiraled in. I felt the completion when I reached the center.

The word “Circling” stayed on my mind. Last night I realized that circling is like a cattle round-up. Cowboys start in a broad circle and move the cattle together, picking up strays and gathering the cattle in a corral.

When I began researching the story for my book, I didn’t start at point A and move to point B. Instead, I gathered information like gathering cows in a roundup. I started on a broad loop, learning the story. Then, I started gathering facts and putting them in the corral – Excel spreadsheet, notebooks and folders. I went after strays and sometimes ran across unexpected information. I kept circling, bringing in information until I had all of my facts. I know there may be some mavericks out there I haven’t found, but I know I did my best.
Next, I examined my facts like a cattleman examines his cows. Are they healthy? Or are they sick or have an injury? Which facts are strong and true? Which ones are untrue? What proof do I have? Who made this statement and what was their bias?

I got to know my facts like a cattleman knows his cows. I knew which ones had a certain bias and which were most likely made up. How? I found other documentation or proof. I culled the information that was inaccurate or false, just as I would an old cow or one that won’t produce any longer. I kept the info with a bias, but I know to keep an eye on it and not let it get loose.

Circling worked for my research. I feel confident in my research and know that I have done a good job.  My next question – Could circling work in writing my book?

Part 2: Circling and Round-up

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cabin on Alder Creek

John and I returned to Alder after Labor Day and, once again, searched for the Carothers cabin where my Grandpa lived when he was a boy. First, we walked along the beaver ponds and counted at least ten ponds. Riding back down the trail, we stopped on the east side of the ponds and noticed a trail across from the diggings. We hiked down the trail and discovered...

the remains of a cabin!

We are not certain if this was the cabin my Dad remembers his father showing him. But it's the only cabin we found.

To read more about Grandpa's childhood in Alder and our search for the cabin, read the post "Past and Present Alder, Colorado."

Monday, August 11, 2014

WMA - Colorado Chapter Showcase/Jam at Florrisant Grange

Come listen to the story of Ed Watkins and Ernest Christison in song and storytelling! John, Kate and I will be performing at the Florissant Grange this Saturday, August 16, in this fun showcase/Jam session. We have written five songs that tell the cattle rustling story. Honored to perform with the  great cowboy poets and performers of Colorado.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

National Day of the Cowboy

Ernest Christison (Drawing by Katy Kinder from a photograph)
Today, July 26, is National Day of the Cowboy. I thought it an appropriate time to share this drawing of Ernest Christison with his horse and his dog. He doesn't look like much of an outlaw, does he? Artist Katy Kinder drew this from a photograph in which the horse was blurry and faded. The photo was likely taken in the late 1870's or early 1880's.

Born in Missouri in 1852, Ernest traveled west with his family to the Colorado mining camp of Cash Creek when he was 9 years old. His older brother, Leslie, followed his father into mining, but Ernest preferred horses and cows to picks and rocks.

His first brand was recorded in 1876, the same year he signed on to round up 175 head of cattle for the ranchers Leonhardy and Turkey and trail them from Buena Vista to Denver to sell. The cowboys arrived on April 23 and they held the cattle at a ranch near Denver until the sale could be made. Everything seemed to be going well until a spring blizzard blew in at noon on April 25 and stampeded the cattle. Two days and four feet of snow later, the cowboys proceeded to locate and round up the scattered cattle. Ernest became snow blind which made it impossible for him to continue with the round-up, but Henry Weber managed to locate the rest of 155 head of cattle, sold them, and returned to the Buena Vista with Ernest.

Ernest had a couple of cattle partnerships including one with Thomas Cameron and his son, J.B., before his partnership with Ed Watkins.

If you want to read more about the outlaw part of this story, click on The Cattle Rustling Story.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Sackful of Westerns

Visiting my Grandpa Ken Christison and his wife, Elizabeth, with Katie in Oregon

In 1989, I flew with my one-year-old daughter, Katie, to California and Oregon to introduce her to my Dad's family. While Grandpa Christison and I talked, we learned that we both loved to read westerns. On the flight home, I carried a paper sack filled with paperback westerns that Grandpa gave me - Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, and Steve Frazee.

The Steve Frazee books were special. Grandpa and Steve were friends. Grandpa told me the story of how they met in 1934. Grandpa was walking from Westcliffe, where he worked at a dairy after high school, to Turret, the tiny mining camp east of Salida where his parents lived. He'd walked all day and half the night before falling asleep along the trail. He was awakened by Steve Frazee. Steve walked the rest of the way to Turret with him, where Steve lived with his dad.

It wasn't until I started writing my book that I became aware Steve Frazee had been the President of Western Writers of America in 1955-1956. He was the third president of the organization.

I find it interesting that today, I happen to know the current President of Western Writers of America, Sherry Monahan. Sherry recently began her term as President at the annual WWA Convention in Sacramento. Sherry and I met through Women Writing the West and worked together on marketing for the group when she was the VP of Marketing. I am very excited for Sherry as she steps into this new role. This is one of her latest books, one I happened to buy when I was in Tombstone this year, making it even more special to me. Here's the link to Sherry's website

Westerns, storytelling and a love for central Colorado, the ties that bind a grandfather and granddaughter. I still have Grandpa's paperbacks and every once in a while I pull one out to read.