Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Civil War Reenacting: Hardtack and Johnny Cakes

By Matthew Pizzolato

Preserved hardtack from U.S. Civil War,
Wentworth Museum, Pensacola, Florida.
Hardtack has been around for several thousand years. The ancient Romans ate it and it has been a common form of sustenance on ships. Sometimes its referred to as sea biscuit or ship's bread. It is made of flour and water, sometimes with a little salt or sugar added. An added benefit is that it lasts for a really long time. At the onset of the Civil War, hardtack rationed to the soldiers was left over from the Mexican-American War, fifteen years earlier. In fact, hardtack from the Civil War still exists today.

Soldiers of the American Civil War had more colorful names for the cracker, such as: sheet iron, worm castles, teeth dullers and molar breakers. None of them were very fond of it, but in a lot of cases it was all that kept them from starving. 

Johnny Cakes were the Confederate equivalent of hardtack. Because of the Union blockade, flour was not readily available in the South and corn meal was substituted. 

This first hand account of the delicacy known as hardtack was taken from HARDTACK AND COFFEE published in 1887 by John D. Billings, a Union veteran who served in the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Artillery Battery of the Army of the Potomac.

What was hardtack? It was a plain flour-and-water biscuit. Two which I have in my possession as mementos measure three and one-eighth by two and seven-eighths inches, and are nearly half an inch thick. Although these biscuits were furnished to organizations by weight, they were dealt out to the men by number, nine constituting a ration in some regiments, and ten in others; but there were usually enough for those who wanted more, as some men would not draw them. While hardtack was nutritious, yet a hungry man could eat his ten in a short time and still be hungry. When they were poor and fit objects for the soldiers’ wrath, it was due to one of three conditions: first, they may have been so hard that they could not be bitten; it then required a very strong blow of the fist to break them; the second condition was when they were moldy or wet, as sometimes happened, and should not have been given to the soldiers: the third condition was when from storage they had become infested with maggots.

When the bread was moldy or moist, it was thrown away and made good at the next drawing, so that the men were not the losers; but in the case of its being infested with the weevils, they had to stand it as a rule ; but hardtack was not so bad an article of food, even when traversed by insects, as may be supposed. Eaten in the dark, no one could tell the difference between it and hardtack that was untenanted. It was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils, after breaking up hardtack in it, which had come out of the fragments only to drown; but they were easily skimmed off, and left no distinctive flavor behind.

Having gone so far, I know the reader will be interested to learn of the styles in which this particular article was served up by the soldiers. Of course, many of them were eaten just as they were received — hardtack plain; then I have already spoken of their being crumbed in coffee, giving the “hardtack and coffee.”

Probably more were eaten in this way than in any other, for they thus frequently furnished the soldier his breakfast and supper. But there were other and more appetizing ways of preparing them. Many of the soldiers, partly through a slight taste for the business but more from force of circumstances, became in their way and opinion experts in the art of cooking the greatest variety of dishes with the smallest amount of capital.

Some of these crumbed them in soups for want of other thickening. For this purpose they served very well. Some crumbed them in cold water, then fried the crumbs in the juice and fat of meat. A dish akin to this one which was said to make the hair curl, and certainly was indigestible enough to satisfy the cravings of the most ambitious dyspeptic, was prepared by soaking hardtack in cold water, then frying them brown in pork fat, salting to taste. Another name for this dish was skillygalee. Some liked them toasted, either to crumb in coffee, or if a sutler was at hand whom they could patronize, to butter. The toasting generally took place from the end of a split stick.

Then they worked into milk-toast made of condensed milk at seventy-five cents a can; but only a recruit with a big bounty, or an old vet, the child of wealthy parents, or a reenlisted man did much in that way. A few who succeeded by hook or by crook in saving up a portion of their sugar ration spread it upon hardtack. And so in various ways the ingenuity of the men was taxed to make this plainest and commonest, yet most serviceable of army food, to do duty in every conceivable combination.

Out of the goodness of my heart, I've provided a modern recipe for hardtack that I got from the Arkansas History Hub website should you like to try this exquisite Civil War cuisine. There's also a recipe there for making Johnny Cakes, if'n you're interested.

2 cups flour
½ to ¾ cup water
Salt (5-6 pinches)
Mixing bowl
Rolling pin
Cookie Sheet
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Add all dry ingredients into the mixing bowl, and then add wet ingredients. Mix all ingredients together. Use extra flour if necessary to make sure the dough is no longer sticky. However, be careful not to make the dough too dry. If you add too much flour, add slightly more water.
3. Knead the dough until it is easy to work with.
4. Spread the dough onto the ungreased cookie sheet.
5. Use the rolling pin to roll the dough into a rectangular shape. Hardtack was around a half inch thick, so don’t worry about making the dough thin.
6. Bake the dough for 30 minutes.
7. Take the dough out of the oven and cut it into large squares (around 3 inches by 3 inches). Use a fork to poke 16 to 20 holes into each square.
8. Flip the squares and return to the oven for 30 more minutes.
9. Allow the hardtack to completely cool inside the oven. Be careful when biting into a cracker, as they do get very hard when completely cool.

I have tried some homemade hardtack at the reenactments and it is every bit as hard as described. It's much easier to eat by breaking it up into pieces first, using the butt of a gun or an axe. Proceed at your own risk.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website: 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014



Under the blanket of a cloudless blue sky, thousands of land-hungry settlers waited with restless patience, eager for a jump-start on opportunity.


At noon, April 22, 1889, a bugle sounded, a cannon roared, and a gunshot rang out, signaling the start of Oklahoma Land Rush.

Some said the ground shook as horses, wagons, and men, women, and children on foot kicked up clouds of red dust stampeding across what was once known as Indian Territory.

Waiting beyond the horizon were more than two-million acres of  land for non-Indian settlement on a first-come basis.

Fifty-thousand hopeful settlers, from all walks of life and ethnic origins, raced hell-bent-for-leather to stake claims, even thought there were less than 12,000 homesteads available.

On March 23, 1889, newly-elected President Benjamin Harrison declared the two-million-acre parcel of Unassigned Lands open for settlement. 

The borders of this region, situated in the central part of Indian Territory, came about through a series of treaties with Indian tribes.

Under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862,  a settler could claim 160 acres of public land, and could receive title if they lived on and improved the land for five years.

The settlers aiming to stake claims were known as Boomers.

The ones who sneaked into the territory early, and illegally, to register choice sections of property with land offices were dubbed Sooners,  who often occupied the most favorable sections of land.

The bitter disputes over the land were often settled by violence. Many court cases over the disputed land dragged into the 20th century before the U.S. Dept. of Interior got the go-ahead to settle them.

The land rush proved so successful that by the end of the day it started, April 22nd, entire cities sprang up, and others experienced population explosions.

Guthrie grew from a railroad station to a town of 10,000. And, settlers established Oklahoma City the same day, also with a population of about 10,000 residents.

According to Harper's Weekly, in about a one-half day, "…streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government."

Sixteen years later, white Americans owned most of the land in Indian Territory. In 1907, the territory entered the Union when Oklahoma became a state on November 17, 1907.

Except for the panhandle, all of Oklahoma previously had been set aside for the Indians displaced from other part of the country. Among them, the Five Civilized Tribes - the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole - so named because of their willingness to abide by white laws.


The Land Rush of 1889, and two subsequent land grabs, made the Indians casualties of this enormous occupation juggernaut, which forced them onto reservations.

Washington took our lands and promised to feed and support us. Now I, who used to control 5,000 warriors, must tell Washington when I am hungry. I must beg for that which I own…My heart is heavy. I am old, I cannot do much more.
—Sioux leader Red Cloud, as an old man, recorded by anthropologist Warren K. Moorehead who spoke with the chief at his home in Pine Ridge. 


Monday, April 21, 2014

Who is Marta? by Gordon Rottman

Sometime ago I started writing young adult novels and have several in the works. One is a series of four books, Vaqueras, based on one of my daughter’s insane adventures here in Cypress, Texas (outside of Houston) and her being largely raised on my wife’s family ranch in Morelos, Mexico. As a result she’s not your usual Texas girl. In fact she’s a bit of legend in northern-central Mexico. Those are still works in progress.
I completed another YA that will be released in June by Taliesin Publishing, Tears of the River. It’s a Hatchet-like survival story set in Nicaragua. If you’ve not read Hatchet, you should. Tears involves a competent, strong-willed young lady. I like stories of teen girls and young women who fend for themselves. Our large extended family on both sides of the border is full of them, so I’ve lots of role models.
I came up with the idea for a YA story involving a Mexican girl born of illegal parents in Texas. Her father returned to Mexico when her mother died. She’s raised by English speaking relatives. She later decides to look for her father in Mexico and speaks barely any Spanish nor knows the ways of the land, certainly a challenge for a teenage girl.

The more I thought about the story, I realized that if set in 1886 I would have more flexibility and plot opportunities than making it a contemporary story. Of course 1886 was the year of the Great Die-Up and I was tired of Westerns set in the burning desert. Once I decided on a traditional Western, the story changed greatly to become The Hardest Ride.
Out of work cowpoke Bud Eugen comes across a sixteen-year old Mexican girl whose family has been murdered by Indians. Bud reluctantly takes her along, even though he’s never had to accommodate another person in his simple life. He’s unable to find anyone willing to take her. In spite of his prejudices, Bud grows to like the spunky girl (and her excellent cooking). Bud speaks little Spanish and the girl understands little American. I’ll let a reviewer give her impression of Marta:

“Many westerns are guilty of making their women characters flat—they’re plot devices. Or, they turn them into some kind of gun-toting male fantasy. Marta was neither, and I absolutely loved her. She WAS tough as nails, but she was also vulnerable and flawed, and really bossy (despite the fact that she’s mute. And while we’re on that topic, I was amazed by the way I almost forgot she was mute because her forceful personality was so vividly portrayed).”
Rejected by churches, a priest names her Marta and that’s fine by her. Now with a ranch job, Bud finds he’s saddled with a girl he doesn’t really want and most folks assume she’s “his woman,” which he repeatedly denies. Regardless, their relationship grows although Bud’s slow on the uptake. Marta and the rancher’s daughters are kidnapped by bandits and taken to Mexico with no hope of ransom. A viciously deadly chase follows in terrible weather with one group getting the upper hand on the other and the balance changing often.
To me Marta and The Hardest Ride’s other female characters personify the spirit and perseverance of the women of that era. I think the women who settled the West had a lot more going on than how they’re often portrayed.
The Hardest Ride was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Best Traditional Western Novel Peacemaker Award and is a finalist in the Western Fictioneer’s Best Western Novel and Best First Western Novel Spur Awards. The Hardest Ride is available in e-book format and can be found on all e-book distributors’ sites. In celebration of Taliesin Publishing’s first anniversary, they have reduced the price.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Sacred Path

I live a couple of miles from the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which the National Park Service describes as “a 444-mile drive through exceptional scenery and 10,000 years of North American history.” The two-lane billboard-free road meanders north from the delta lowland of Natchez, Mississippi, to the rolling hill country near Nashville, Tennessee. Motorists will meet no eighteen-wheelers and see no fast-food neon, but will probably have to brake for plenty of deer and wild turkey.

The parkway more or less follows an ancient footpath that began as an animal track thousands of years ago, maybe even ten thousand. Bison traversed between southern grazing lands and salt licks on the Cumberland Plateau. Later, prehistoric mound builders used the Trace to move between villages. Its native wanderers eventually included the Choctaw, Chickasaw and the Natchez. 

European explorers utilized the old path but its heaviest use was from about 1785 to the 1820’s when the “Kaintucks” of the Ohio River Valley floated goods downriver to the ports of Natchez and New Orleans and returned on foot via the Trace. It was notoriously dangerous: organized gangs of (literal) cut-throats lay in wait for the travelers. Robbery was the least crime feared on the journey.

Today, the biggest threat of traveling the Natchez Trace might be mindlessly enjoying the scenery rather than eyeing your speedometer. Park rangers abound. (I can vouch for the fact that the speed limit is a strict 50 miles per hour.


      The Natchez Trace Parkway at Birdsong Hollow, near Franklin, Tennessee           (USDOT Image)

Occasionally, I drive for a ways down the parkway just to relax and take in the sights. I think about those who walked here…the mysterious natives whose burial mounds can be seen along the route. John James Audubon may have sprawled on a boulder to sketch a cocky bluejay. I imagine the tramping of Andrew Jackson’s foot soldiers on their way to fight the Battle of New Orleans.

                                        A few sections of the Old Trace remain.

Near Mile 386, is a memorial to America’s greatest pathfinder Meriwether Lewis, who died here at Grinder’s Stand. The details are sketchy and historians are divided as to whether he was murdered or perhaps committed suicide. He was known to suffer from what President Andrew Jackson called “sensible depressions of mind.”

                    Here lies Meriwether Lewis. Milepost 385.9, near Hohenwald, Tennessee           (NPS Image)

Sometimes my Sunday drive over the Natchez Trace, and all those ancient footprints, turns philosophical. As a writer, I recognize that I follow a path that is not only well-worn, but that has been worn very well. Particularly in the western genre, we have just one time period to write about and just so many character types to choose from. The possible scenarios come (and please, Lord, let them come) from an unseen creative well.

My hope is that I can, now and then, find a new way to say the old thing, to delight a reader with a previously-unvoiced expression or description. But a look at my own bookshelf tells me the hard truth. Others have ridden this way. Bret Harte. Mark Twain. Grey…L’Amour. McMurtry…McCarthy. Wister…Leonard. I’m a piker…and I know it. A greenhorn, if you will.

Oh, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take the journey. I’m not only writing for readers. I write for the love of the genre and the great period of American history that it represents.

There’s another reason I write too. You see, others ride behind. Someone has to point the way. With every story, we keep the old trail worn, revered, relevant.

Vonn McKee is Louisiana-born but has called Nashville, Tennessee, home for over twenty years. She has spent time in the music business, the construction business, and has even waited a few tables along the way. Vonn has written songs, radio jingles, magazine articles, short stories and is at work on her first novel. She has a real heart for historical fiction, especially the Old West.

You can keep up with the latest news at

Saturday, April 19, 2014



Before 1900, Denver had two women doctors with the same name: Dr. Mary Bates. Although there is still so much to learn about these two women, their stories so far are still the stuff of legends. The stories can and will lead to so much more.

Putting their stories into context, Colorado became a state in 1876. The early days of Colorado were filled with people seeking gold and other minerals to be found in the high mountains. If they weren’t searching for gold, remember the 1859 “Pikes Peak or Bust” slogan, they were providing services and goods for the searchers. There also was an influx of people who found the Colorado climate beneficial for their health. This combination lead many women to brave the new territory to practice their medical skills.

The first Dr. Bates to arrive was Mary Helen Barker Bates (b.1845-d.1934). She was the daughter of Dr. Ezra Barker who had a practice in New York. This Mary graduated from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Before she moved to Colorado she practiced in Salt Lake City, Utah, where some of her patients were the family of Mormon leader Brigham Young. (The family site said she was “Brigham Young's Family Physician”. There she met and married George Bates in 1876. Two years later in 1878, at the age of 33, she and George moved to the mining town of Leadville, Colorado where George was an attorney and Mary practiced medicine.

Leadville, for those who don’t know, sits at 10,152 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies. During the 1870's- 80's it was a booming town. It was here the Guggenheims, Horace Tabor and others made their fortunes in silver. Even Doc Holliday spent time there.

From the Hayden survey of the Colorado Territory in July of 1869. Two miles south of Georgetown on the Denver road.
While there, one source says Dr. Bates founded the Ladies Relief Hospital. In 1881 she and George moved to Denver for his health. When Colorado started licensing physicians in 1881, Mary was one of the first women licensed by the State. (Her license #271). She took special interest in Woman’s Suffrage, children and education. She introduced the Colorado Law for the Examination and Care of Public School Children which went into effect in 1910.

"Denver in 1898"
Our second Mary, Mary Elizabeth Bates (b.1851 d.1954) arrived in Denver in 1891. Prior to arriving in Colorado she was the first woman intern (1882-1883) at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois after a grueling exam in which she beat out a number of male candidates. She studied in Vienna from 1883-1884. Upon her return she was a professor of anatomy at the Woman’s Medical College in Chicago from 1884-1889. After moving to Colorado she also was involved in the Woman’s Suffrage movement and was part of the group that affected the passage of the 1893 referendum which gave Colorado women the right to vote. This Dr. Mary Bates also was a champion of the strict adherence to the liquor and gambling laws of the state. Her other passion was animal rights and prior to her death in 1954 she created the Mary Elizabeth Bates Foundation for animal care.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Our class was six miles into a Friday night “Fun Run” when the ratty limousine we used in dignitary protection training rolled up beside our formation in the shadow of a Georgia pine forest.  Some numbskull had only moments before cracked a joke during the lead instructor’s favorite cadence. A hush fell over the column of forty-six sweating, bug-bitten, splint-shinned Basic Deputy U.S. Marshals. We’d just earned at least another three miles. The limo’s windows were armored and didn’t roll down so the driver opened his door a crack as he crunched alongside us on the gravel road. He barked my name, told me to fall out of formation.
            “We’re having a baby,” he said. “Get in.”
            It remains the only time I’ve ever ridden in the backseat of an armored limo.  
            He drove me to the U.S. Marshals Academy offices and let me return a call to my somewhat loopy bride. The instructors let us talk a few minutes then asked me if this was going to make me quit and “run for the next smokin’ jet home.” I said no, and they apparently believed me because they drove me back out to finish the run with my classmates.  I didn’t care. The last few miles breezed by. I was a daddy again.
            While I stayed at the Academy for the next three months running, shooting, fighting—and basically getting paid to play a giant, interactive game of Clue, my sweet wife brought our new baby boy home from the hospital and packed our household goods into a U-Haul. It was my first assignment so the government didn’t help with relocation. Still in training, I didn’t either. A few weeks before I returned home, she moved with our three kids—two in diapers—to our new duty station near the Texas/Oklahoma border.
            Our eldest is pushing thirty and now carries a badge and gun for a living. Our youngest (the one born while I was at Marshals Basic) is in the application process. I’m at once proud and fretful, worried about the dangers that come with the job, both physical and emotional—to them and their families. I never served in the military but I’d imagine many of the issues are the same, if not greater. Especially the worry. Thankfully, they both married brave women. 
Fun with Vegas photoshop. It captures her
personality though, and our partnership
           Early in my career as a deputy marshal I was sent to Mississippi to help with a high-threat trial where a witness had been murdered. I was young and aggressive. To me this was a grand adventure. In nightly calls home, I regaled my wife with all the excitement of my day—prisoner movements in a helicopter, high speed motorcades, and the darkness in a couple of prisoner witnesses who had been on death row but were now commuted to lifer status. I took it for granted that she was sharing in my adventure. About two weeks into the assignment, my partner, John, who was still back in Texas, needed the caged G-ride (government car) that I’d left parked in front of our house. He had someone drop him off with the extra key and went to tell my bride what he was up to. A former Texas Highway Patrolman and gentleman cowboy through and through, John removed his hat and knocked on the door. When my wife saw him standing there in his suit, looking so official with a gray Stetson over his heart, she collapsed in the doorway, certain I'd been killed in some gun battle. We all laugh about it now, but I learned, at least in some small way, not to be so glib about my wife’s silent fears.
            A law enforcement attitude can’t help but rub off on the entire family. Our kids learned the concepts of ‘stranger danger’ earlier than most of their playmates and memorized a ‘password’ that anyone picking them up had to give to prove we’d sent them. Depending on where we lived, sometimes they didn’t exactly advertise what Daddy did for a living. They grew up in a house full of guns surrounded by talk of violence, bad men and blood. I tried to spare them the worst of my war stories, but they are smart kids and when cop families get together they talk. I practiced hostage drills with my wife, so she would know to throw her feet out from under her when I said a certain code word because I was about the shoot the bad guy holding her in the head.  You can’t live like that and not have it change you.
 Early in our marriage, my wife would sometimes attack me out of nowhere for “training purposes”, like a brunette version of Inspector Clouseau’s Kato.  When I learned a new arrest technique, she let me walk through it with her so I could get it cemented in my head. Usually we ended up in a good natured wrestling match. If she ever felt like I was about to pin her—or if I tried to say, tickle her after she was pinned, she’d cry out “Help me boys!” and our sons would rush to her rescue in a giant free for all. Sometimes our daughter would even join in. It was great fun but somewhat disconcerting to my mother in law.
My fearless bride with our eldest, about
the age when he came out to
"back me up" in the yard. 
            As the boys got older, I transferred my practice of technique to them. I didn’t know what an effect this was having until one evening years later when our eldest was around twenty and about to head back to school at the U.S. Air Force Academy. A proud father, I chatted happily as I sat on the carpet watching him pack his suitcase. In the blink of an eye, my firstborn, the fruit of my loins, pounced on me and shoved me to the floor, smacking me in the floating ribs and pinning me. Trying to draw a breath, I looked up—full of pride at my son’s incredible tactics and strength—but wondering what this was all about. He looked down with a smile and said, “Remember when I was ten and we were wrestling and you popped me in the ribs and I couldn’t breath?” I nodded, still croaking for air. “Well,” he said, “this was for that.” And then he went back to his packing.
            Maybe he holds a grudge. Maybe I was a little rough in his training. In any case, my wife and kids know how to defend themselves.
            One of the most frightening things I ever heard as a patrol officer was a radio call for a fight in progress at my home address.  I was in the early stages of writing a speeding ticket when I heard the call come over my handheld radio. I wasn’t the officer dispatched, but that didn’t matter. It was a lucky day for the speeder. I threw him back his license and sped away running code (lights and siren), beating the responding units by half a minute.
            There was an unconscious guy on our lawn when I rolled up—knocked out with a tire tool by our neighbor who happened to be his cousin. My wife stood in our living room at our large picture window, the leash of a snarling black German shepherd in one hand and a Mini 14 rifle in the other. Our little boy was next to her, holding her knee. It was a pretty cool sight to behold, and the other responding officers talked about it for some time in hushed and reverent tones.  
            Not long after that, relatives of those same neighbors were racing a beater car up and down the street in front of our house and nearly ran over their own child. I had arrested the driver a couple of times for DUI and drugs—and his brother was my neighbor—so I knew him pretty well.  I yelled for them to slow down and, of course, they stopped to exchange a few words with me. Armed with only a garden rake, I walked to the car with a few words of my own. In the heat of it all, the driver suddenly started laughing and nodded toward my house. When I looked behind me, I found my son standing in our yard wearing his little double rig of Buscadero holsters above his diaper and holding a cap gun in each hand. Even at two, he’d come to back up his daddy. I was mortified at the time, but looking back, with the knowledge that nothing bad happened it’s a cute image—and a real peek into my son’s personality.
at my last book signing
            Over the years my wife has spent many nights not knowing where I was, or when I was coming home. When I was with the police department I worked nearly every Christmas and Thanksgiving.  For our fifth anniversary, she made a candlelight feast of Cornish game hens—at 2:00 AM, when I could get away from patrol for my meal break. She’s gotten more than a few calls from the hospital after I’d been injured in some fight, dragged beside a car or banged up in an accident with my mounted police horse. In the early years she stretched a policeman’s budget further than humanly possible and washed the smell of dead bodies out of more than one uniform. There was one set of uniform pants that got hit with a ball of maggots that went straight into the trash… No one signs up for that.  
            More important than anything, I think is that she listened to me when I droned on about the filth and crap in the world, and showed me that there was still something good in it.  
             In my next Jericho Quinn book, a young Eskimo woman quizzes Quinn about how difficult it must be to have family and people he cares about while in his line of work. Jericho points out that although loners might have less to worry about, they don’t have as much to fight for either.

It’s all too easy to paint (or write) law enforcement personnel as stereotypical—the donut eating beat patrolman, heavy-handed traffic cop or even the lone stranger with the Big Iron On His Hip. It’s rarely that way. Well-balanced people are usually a package deal, with people who depend on them—and on whom they depend. Lawmen in literature, more often than not, have no wife or family. I couldn’t have done it without mine.  

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He's published ten novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).   
TIME OF ATTACK fourth in his USA Today Bestselling Jericho Quinn Thriller series, is the newest release from Kensington February of 2014. 
Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.

Visit him at:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Which Comes First--Character or Setting?

Many genre writers start with setting. Yes, they say they start with characters, or with situations, but the truth is, if you’re writing a Regency, it’ll be set in England between 1811 to 1820, give or take. If you’re writing a Scottish Medieval, then it has to be set in Scotland between the 5th and 15th centuries. If you’re writing a Western, it’ll be set west of the Mississippi (or at least rural North America), usually sometime after the first wagon train went to Oregon and before automobiles became ubiquitous. If you’re writing to the commercial market, the setting needs to be marketable, which is why Texas and Wyoming are used more than any other areas of the West.

So yes, many of us do start with setting.

Setting is far more than a time and a place. Woven properly into a story, it becomes a character in itself. Louis L’Amour was a master at this. How did setting come into play in the first book in my Hearts of Owyhee series, Much Ado About Marshals, which is set in 1885 Owyhee County, Idaho Territory? The seeds of the idea came to me when we visited Idaho to see relatives and while there, made some research trips to local sites.

I grew up in Owyhee County, so I’d been to the former boom town, Silver City, many times, but as I stood in front of the Idaho Hotel taking in the view, the huge bank safe sparked my imagination. What if a desperate bumbling cowhand botches up a bank robbery, is saved by his sensible friend, but then his friend is shot? Hmmm.

Setting and character were on equal footing at this point—couldn’t have one without the other. Why? Because the bank and its proximity to the other buildings in Silver City were firmly a part of the story. Besides, the sensible friend is Cole Richards and he has a ranch on Sinker Creek. The bumbling cowhand is Bosco Kunkle and he’s Cole’s best friend. Okay, so I moved geography around a little. Writers can do this.

As I contemplated that scenario, we stopped by Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Oreana. Even though I grew up not far from there, I never knew that the church was originally built as a general store by stonemasons John Pierson and Jim Kelly, the best stonemasons in the area. A store! It’s a good-sized rock building and was actually built later than my story is set, probably 1888, but is typical of the rock buildings constructed during the 1870s and 1880s. My book is set in 1885 so I felt comfortable using the building.

General Mercantile converted to
Our Lady Queen of Heaven Church
Oreana, Idaho

(To read more about the history of the church in Oreana, visit St. Paul's website.  The graphic above is from there.)

Aha! In my mind, I saw a vivacious young woman run down the steps, carrying a package. She has a purpose and no one can stop her. Her name is Daisy Gardner. The store is Gardner’s Mercantile, owned and operated by her father. An aside note—I’ve always thought Oreana was the prettiest name for a town, and so I envisioned a lively little town full of fun characters. It was the perfect place for Bosco to take Cole for medical care.

That little rock building behind the store-now-church?  It was originally a saloon—extremely small, with room for maybe three customers.  Short ones.  I was told that men came in to buy their drinks but usually went outside to socialize and play cards while imbibing.

And no, the real Oreana isn’t on the way to Sinker Creek from Silver City, so I moved it, too. Literary license, you know. Bustling? Hardly. (See Google Maps satellite photo above.  Yes, that's the whole town for real, and it never was any more populated.)

So let’s say the editor wanted this story set in Boston. First problem is law and order—Boston had some, but Owyhee County wasn’t nearly as “civilized.” (Many would contend that’s still true, but in my opinion it depends on your definition.) At least 50% of the events could never have happened in Boston or any metropolitan area. Worse, Cole would never have been accepted by the city fathers, and Daisy would’ve been ostracized by society for her behavior. This story simply can’t be moved.

The point of all this is to not underestimate the value of setting. When well written, setting emphasizes conflict and every aspect of a character’s decisions. Writers: how do you use setting to the best effect in your stories? Readers: how does setting influence your perception of the characters? Would Hondo be the same character if the story took place in New Orleans or Paris?

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