Yes yes I’ve been sorely lax in the blog-o-sphere. I’ve been working, and trying to see friends, and even more desperately trying to teach my baby how to sleep through the night because mama’s on her last legs–you know, blah blah blah! I believe all of these things are progressing. Or I’m in a sleep-deprived state of optimistic delusion. One or the other.
In between all of this I have been feverishly outlining character arcs for my cowboy vs. mermaid epic. I lied a couple of weeks ago. I am not physically capable of working on two projects simultaneously, and the cowboys have stolen all of my attention. But that’s okay because I am digging this project more every day.
Now I just need the baby to sleep through the night so I have enough energy to wake up at 5 a.m. every day and sneak in writing time before he rises!
I’m surprised it took me this long to zero in on the American Wild West period as a fantasy setting. I’ve written Weird West before (and even had one of those published back in 2012!) but I didn’t make the leap to cross-breed with secondary world-building. I like the themes and problematic nature of this narrow slice of history, but I also like the freedom to improvise that comes with making up all my own shit.
In my other life as an archivist I get to handle a lot of late nineteenth century documents. My favorites by far are personal letters and diaries. If I wasn’t nosy about the lives of long-dead strangers I wouldn’t be an archivist! Early diaries take a lot of patience because they generally weren’t the gushing confessionals that we think of today. They were more often a very abbreviated summary of the day’s more mundane activities, which is why it is like striking gold to come across brief glimpses at a more emotional internal life.
Early diaries also take a lot of patience because of illegible handwriting, potentially faded inks, and nightmare spelling. One of my more outstanding disappointments was a diary in which the writer kept to very sanitized material all of the time, and then just when it seemed like something intriguing might happen, she switched to shorthand! Trust me, I tried my damnedest to translate that shorthand, but her handwriting wasn’t great to begin with and it turns out there are a variety of shorthand styles and abbreviations. I know all the juicy stuff was in those sections, I just know it!
Just for kicks, here are some excerpts from my favorite cowboy diaries. I’m also exceedingly fond of a household of ladies who ditched all the men of the family and moved to California from Ohio (including Miss Shorthand!), but I’ll excerpt them another time.
This is a ranch hand named Isaac, who usually just listed his groceries, the weather conditions, and the number of cattle/horses he counted in the field each day, but who occasionally dropped in personal, poorly spelled tidbits about his romantic aspirations.
- A typical entry, from April 1892: “Started for Mesa Granda, got too San fillipie creek. Cattle gathered 155 head. Cattle Left on Palm Creek Eight head. Taken way Pool 153 head. Cool, few clouds. No. cattle Died on Desert six head.”
- He gets sick in August 1897 and spends a couple weeks reading some deliciously trashy library books: “A Prodigal Wife,” “Mistress Margrey Seven Cap.,” “Kindred Spirits,” “Pretty Polly,” “The Knave of Diamonds,” “My Grandmothers Lovers,” “Dangerous,” “Sweetheart,” “Two Opinions,” “A Managing Mother,” “Its Own Reward,” “Janets Dowry,” “Five Years After,” “A Laggard in Love,” “Not More Than Friends,” “Rhoda’s Secret,” “Hereditary Foes,” “Till Death Did Them Part.”
- After getting a negative response from the 18-year-old girl he fancied (he’s 41 by this point) he tries to change his life around: “Burnt up cards, Never to Play Again.” Unfortunately he’s gambling again a few months later.
- There’s a gap in the diaries from 1902 till 1908, and suddenly he is living in Oregon by himself yelling at all the young people who drive by his porch making too much noise.
- “Had A Fight with Cal Hutchens. He Is a Dirty coward. He would not Fight Fare. He Clinched.”
- “Some one Passed on A Run Hollowing Like A Crazey Person. I think It was Tom Hutchens. It may Have Been Crazey Cal. Hutchens.”
- “Seen Chas. Stevens in Newberg too Day at the Lunch house. He Turned his Back on me and Began to whistle.”
- “Stevens Passed. He whistled Again. I moked him and called him A coyote and Puppy.” “Someone just Passed And Hollered. I mocked them. They Think They are Smart.”
- “If I am killed you can take up E.J. Wilber for my murder. He Threatened too Kill me.”
- “Had words with Chas. Stevens. He whistled Again. He got off his wagon and wanted too Fight.”
- “Someone was singing coming up From The mill someone Laugh Like A Lunitick just as I got home. I Maucked them.”