Sunday, November 27, 2016


It all started when I read THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks, a novel about a woman who made the dead soldiers of the War Between the States her life's work. By the time I finished reading that book, I knew I had to go visit this place, Carnton, where she had lived and devoted her life to the dead.

Carnton is the name of the plantation just outside of Franklin, TN, where Carrie Winder McGavock and her husband John made their home with their two children, Hattie and Winder. There is so much history that comes before the fateful Battle of Franklin that changed Carrie’s life forever that there is no room to include it in this post.

So I will start with a brief nutshell of the circumstances. At the time of the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864, Carrie’s children were nine (Hattie) and seven (Winder). Carrie herself was thirty-five, her husband, John McGavock, fourteen years her senior at forty-nine. They had been married several years, Carrie coming from Louisiana to marry John, who was quite a wealthy man for the times, worth over six million dollars in our present day currency. He owned the flourishing plantation where he and his brother James had been raised, Carnton, in middle Tennessee. The McGavocks raised wheat, hay, corn and potatoes as well as maintaining a thoroughbred horse ranch.
Carnton, (Scottish for “the place of stones”) was less than one mile from the battle that took place on the far Union Eastern flank. Most of the battle took place after dark, from 5-9p.m., so the McGavocks could see the firefight that went on over the town of Franklin that evening. Because their plantation was so close, it became a field hospital for the Confederate troops.

This, according to the Wickipedia account:
More than 1,750 Confederates lost their lives at Franklin. It was on Carnton's back porch that four Confederate generals’ bodies—Patrick Cleburne, John Adams, Otho F. Strahl and Hiram B. Granbury—were laid out for a few hours after the Battle of Franklin.

More than 6,000 soldiers were wounded and another 1,000 were missing. After the battle, many Franklin-area homes were converted into temporary field hospitals, but Carnton by far was the largest hospital site. Hundreds of Confederate wounded and dying were tended by Carrie McGavock and the family after the battle. Some estimates say that as many as 300 Confederate soldiers were cared for by the McGavocks inside Carnton alone. Hundreds more were moved to the slave quarters, the outbuildings, even the smokehouse—and when the buildings were full, the wounded had to lie outside during the frigid nights, when the temperature reached below zero.

After the battle, at 1 a.m. on December 1, Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield evacuated toward Nashville, leaving all the dead, including (several hundred) Union soldiers, and the wounded who were unable to walk as well. So when morning came, the 750 or so residents of Franklin faced an unimaginable scene of what to do with over 2,500 dead soldiers, most of those being 1,750 Confederates.

According to George Cowan's "History of McGavock Confederate Cemetery," "All of the Confederate dead were buried as nearly as possible by states, close to where they fell, and wooden headboards were placed at each grave with the name, company and regiment painted or written on them." Many of the soldiers were originally buried on property belonging to Fountain Branch Carter and James McNutt. Many of the Union soldiers were re-interred in 1865 at the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

Over the next eighteen months (from all of 1865 through the first half of 1866) many of the markers were either rotting or used for firewood, and the writing on the boards was disappearing. Thus, to preserve the graves, John and Carrie McGavock donated 2 acres of their property to be designated as an area for the Confederate dead to be re-interred. The citizens of Franklin raised the funding and the soldiers were exhumed and re-interred in the McGavock Confederate Cemetery for the sum of $5.00 per soldier.

A team of individuals led by George Cuppett took responsibility for the reburial operation in the spring of 1866. By June, some ten weeks after the start, the last Confederate soldier was laid to rest at McGavock Cemetery. Some 1,481 Rebel soldiers would now be at peace. Soldiers from every Southern state in the Confederacy, except Virginia, is represented in the cemetery.
Sadly, George Cuppett’s brother, Marcellus, died during the process of the reburials. Just 25 years old, he is buried at the head of the Texas section in the McGavock Cemetery. He is the only civilian interred there.

The McGavocks, especially Carrie, took great care to preserve the identity of the Confederate soldiers. The original names and identities of the soldiers were recorded in a cemetery record book by George Cuppett, and the book fell into the watchful hands of Carrie after the battle. The original book is on display upstairs in Carnton. Time has not been favorable to the identities of the Confederate soldiers though. 780 Confederate soldiers’ identities are positively identified, leaving some 558 as officially listed as unknown.

Most of the above was taken from the Wikipedia article about Carnton and the McGavocks. Now you know the FACTS, but let me tell you about my impression of this remarkable woman and the cause she put above all else.

Robert Hicks's book, THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH, is a fictionalized story about Carrie and John McGavock and their lives, but that was what made me want to travel to Franklin and see the house for myself. I put the description that Wikipedia gave near the beginning because I can’t begin to do it justice. It is one of the most gorgeous, meticulously restored homes of that period you will ever see. They do not allow pictures AT ALL as you’re touring inside. Many of the pieces of furniture, glassware and the pictures that are on the walls have been donated by the McGavock extended family and most everything in the house is a genuine period piece, whether it belonged to the family or not.

It is said that Winder’s room was used as an operating room. A table was set up by the east-facing window where the surgeries were performed. Today, there is a table there much like what would have been used, along with the crude medical implements that were available at the time. Our guide told us that when the doctor finished an amputation, he would throw the limb out the window, get the man off the table and make room for the next one. Because the doctor most likely wore a rubberized apron, the blood pooled in a kind of horseshoe shape on the floor where he would have stood. He walked in it and stood in it, grinding it into the wood. It is still there, to this very day—a testament to five of the bloodiest hours in the history of the Civil War.

Once, Hattie was asked about her most enduring childhood memory. “The smell of blood,” she replied.

In the book, there is mention made of Carrie’s friend, Mariah, who had once been her slave but chose to stay with her as they had been together since childhood. Mariah was said to have had the ability to look at some of the graves and tell something about the person who was buried there. She had “the sight.”

For the next forty years, after the Battle of Franklin, Carrie dressed in black, visiting the graves every day. She carried the book of names with her. I have to tell you, when I saw that book of names I got chills thinking of the devotion she had to this cause. Those men were not forgotten.

At one point, the house fell into disrepair, but was bought by a historical preservation society and maintained. The cemetery was the largest privately owned war cemetery in the US. Robert Hicks meticulously researched for the book he wrote, and the profits from the book (which made it to the NYT Bestseller List) helped to re-establish this grand old home as a piece of history where we can go to learn firsthand about what happened on that fateful day.

My husband and I toured the house, a gorgeous old mansion, with a wonderful guide who was glad to answer any and all questions. Tours are around $15, and well worth it. The cemetery tour is $5, or you can just walk around and look for yourself, which is what my husband and I did. If you buy the book, I promise you will be as anxious to see this place for yourself as I was.

Walking those same floors that were walked upon by Carrie and her family, and the wounded men, the generals, the doctors…gave me feeling I will never forget. I could almost swear I felt her presence, still there, still watching over the soldiers she devoted her adult life to at Carnton…the “place of stones.”

You can order the Kindle version of THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH here, and it's also available in print.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


Those of you who have read any of my books or occasional columns realize by now that I am a big fan of western films. And, with this group, I don’t consider myself alone in my enjoyment.

There are a lot of us who still thrill to the sound of “the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver,” and other classic lines that bring Pavlovian smiles to our faces. Whether it is the beginning of a 1930s matinee serial, the yodeling of a 1940s singing cowboy, the William Tell Overture from radio and early television, the theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or even Frankie Laine singing Blazing Saddles, our attention is captured.

But, it is a common situation that spouses don’t always share the same interests. My wife, for instance, has not been a big fan of westerns. She doesn’t know Ken Maynard from Ken Starr and, when I mentioned the Three Mesquiteers recently, she asked if Annette Funicello had been a member. It’s a sad situation. However, being a modern, enlightened sort of guy, I figure that I can find a way to bring her around. Cowboy films are something that couples should share.

There is a slight difference in our film tastes. For instance, when we were first married, the wife asked me to go see a British comedy with her. I thought she said “Benny Hill.” I was delighted. When the lights came on in the theater, I had been stuck watching Notting Hill. The memory of that terrible night still haunts me with HCFDSS (Husbands’ Chick Flick Delayed Stress Syndrome). I probably should have reported her to the Geneva Convention.

Anyway, I’m over it. And I have a plan to improve her film interests. Christmas is coming up and, instead of getting her a new iron or set of dishtowels, this year I plan to shower her with DVDs that will certainly put a smile on her face.

Knowing that I have been thinking about holiday gifts, the little woman has been tossing out hints on things she would enjoy receiving. Just last week she was watching the Travel Channel and remarked how she would like to see more of the country. So, for her geographic knowledge, I ordered Buck Jones and Tim McCoy in Down Texas Way, Dick Foran and Leo Carrillo in Riders of Death Valley, and Randolph Scott in Abilene Town.

And while watching the Hallmark Channel, she mentioned how much she enjoyed romance films. You guessed it. I bought Romance on the Range with Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes.

One of the things the two of us agree upon is our support for law enforcement. Therefore, I think she will really appreciate the DVDs of Law of the Lash with Lash LaRue, and Guns of the Law with Dave O’Brien.

Now, obviously you have picked up that I’ve subtly taken her suggestions slightly to the west. And, by doing so, I have chosen the perfect Christmas entertainment that will inspire her to become a western-film aficionado. To cap everything off, I’ve included a 2017 calendar so she can keep track of family events. I can’t wait to see her eyes light up when she opens it to see the large, beautiful, color photos from the last 20 minutes of Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.

Who said romance is dead?

Friday, November 11, 2016


I stood at the top of the incline, looking toward the long, black wall, with the more than 58,000 names just a blur. I watched people moving slowly along the wall…from those too young to have any memory of the Vietnam war, to those people whose hair had been bleached white by the passing of too many years.

Sometimes there would be a couple of men staring at the wall, engaged in quiet conversation.

“I don’t believe Smitty ever bought a cigarette of his own.”

“No, but he was a good man. You needed somethin’ done, you could always count on Smitty.”

“Problem with him, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was always talkin’ himself into trouble.”

“He only had three weeks ‘till his drop date when he was killed. Can you believe that? Three weeks.”

Ruth had gone to check in the book to help me locate some of my friends. They aren’t listed alphabetically, they are on the wall chronologically, according to when they were killed.

She came back with the names. The first name was Dan Lambdin. Dan and I were friends from Germany, in Vietnam at the same time, but not serving together. I found his name on the wall, and, as dramatically as if it were a scene change in a movie…the wall, the people around me, tone and tint, disappeared. I could hear the sound of rotor blades, I could smell jet exhaust, I could feel the oppressive heat of the flight line at Phu Loi, Vietnam.

Dan was in Vung Tau, and I had flown over from Phu Loi to deliver a helicopter. Dan’s roommate was gone, so he invited me to stay with him. We lay there that night, talking across the dark space between our bunks, remembering funny incidents from Germany, talking about what we had encountered in Vietnam.

“The first thing you have to do is to learn not to be afraid you’re going to be killed every time you go out,” Dan said. “You need to stop worrying about your mortality and think only about the momentary reality.”

But we wondered what it would be like to be killed. Are you aware beyond death? Where does your soul go?

“Ha! You better believe, I won’t be staying here,” Dan said with a chuckle.

The next day we went down to the airfield together. I was going to fly back to Phu Loi, and Dan was going to deliver a generator to a Special Forces “A-Team” unit near Binh Khat. We exchanged some off-color remark by way of goodbye, and went our separate way.

When I landed at Phu Loi, the line-chief, who had served with Dan and me in Germany, came over to tie down the aircraft. “Chief, did you hear about Mr. Lambdin?”

“What do you mean, hear about him? I just left him. Hear what?”

“He was just shot down and killed near Binh Khat. He was delivering a generator.”

“No,” I said. “That’s not possible!” I spoke those words while standing at the wall, but they reached back across the almost forty years that separated then from now in an instant.

Then, with my throat choked, and my eyes dimmed by tears, I continued my sojourn down the wall, putting my hands on 22 more names, feeling each of them, seeing them as the young, vibrant men I remembered. Looking around I saw that I wasn’t the only one traveling through time and that day. To me, my fellow time travelers were no longer old men with gray hair and drawn skin. They were young, and they were wearing jungle fatigues and flak vests, and they had M-16s slung over their shoulders, or .45 pistols strapped to their sides. Their eyes weren’t filled with tears…they were set in the ‘thousand yard stare’ that we all wore then.

I said one more goodbye to all my friends that day, then I walked away, leaving the wall behind me, but not the ghosts and memories. They will be with me until I cross that great divide. Vietnam was but three years out of my 76 years of life...but the impact those three years made on me is incalculable.

On this approaching Veterans Day I think not only of my Vietnam and Cold War peers, but of all 40 million who have served this country since its birth. We are one long line stretching through the battles that mark our history; Bunker Hill, New Orleans, Matamoros, Shiloh, Little Big Horn, San Juan Hill, The Marne, Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, Ia Drang, Baghdad, and Fallujah, and I am proud to say that I am a brother to all of them.
Robert Vaughan - CW3 - US Army (ret)

All of us gave some…some gave all.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I am fascinated by Cherokee leader Stand Watie. I've used him as a character in many of my stories. I think the reason I can't seem to get enough of him is because of his remarkable life and accomplishments. Here's a little bit about Stand Watie and what he did--and then I'll tell you about my stories he appears in.

Only two Native Americans on either side of the States’ War rose to the rank of brigadier general. Standhope Watie (Uwatie), fighting for the Confederacy, was one of those two. Yet, what makes this accomplishment so incredible is the fact that while he was fighting for the Confederate States of America, he was also fighting other Cherokee tribal leaders who held opposing political views and very different visions for the Cherokee nation.

Stand Watie commanded the Confederate Indian Cavalry of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. While the cavalry unit was comprised mainly of Cherokee, some Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribal members also served.

Born in Oothcaloga in the Cherokee Nation, State of Georgia, Uwatie (or Oowatie) was also known as Isaac. He was educated in a Moravian mission school. In his early adulthood, he occasionally wrote articles for the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper. The State of Georgia confiscated Cherokee lands in 1832 when gold was discovered, including the thriving plantation owned by Stand’s father and mother. Stand and his brothers, part of the powerful Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction of the Cherokee council, stood in favor of the Cherokee Removal. Their signing of the Treaty of New Echota facilitated the removal of the Cherokee people to Indian Territory—what is now Oklahoma.

Another faction of Cherokees following John Ross refused to ratify the treaty signing. This segment was known as The Anti-Removal National Party. Members of this group targeted Stand Watie and his brother, Elias Boudinot, along with their uncle, Major Ridge, and cousin, John Ridge for assassination. Stand was the only one who survived the assassination attempt. Although Watie’s family had left Georgia before the forcible removal of all Cherokees in 1838, another brother, Thomas, was murdered by Ross’s men in 1845.

In October, 1861, Watie was commissioned as colonel in the First Mounted Cherokee Rifles. Besides fighting Federal troops in the States’ War, his men also fought opposing factions of Cherokee, as well as Seminole and Creek (Muscogee) warriors who supported the Union.

In 1862, Stand Watie was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, through dissension continued among John Ross’s supporters.

On June 15, 1864, Watie’s troops captured the Federal steamboat J. R. Williams on the Arkansas River off the banks of Pleasant Bluff near Tamaha, Indian Territory. The next morning, Colonel John Ritchie’s men, who were stationed at the mouth of the Illinois River near where the two rivers met, engaged Watie’s men as they attempted to confiscate the cargo. The river was rising, and they fought to a standoff. When Watie learned of the advance of Union troops from Fort Smith, Arkansas, (within about 40 miles), he burned the ship and much of the remaining cargo, then sank it.

Watie surrendered a year later in June of 1865, the last Confederate general to lay down his arms.

In my debut novel, Fire Eyes, I weave this bit of history into my plot. The villain, Andrew Fallon, and his gang have come upon the site where the J.R. Williams was sunk four years earlier. Fallon speculates there could have been gold aboard, and sets his men to dive for it. As mercurial as his temper is, none of them dare question his order. Here’s what happens:


“Damn! I know where we are.” Dobie Perrin said.

Andrew Fallon turned in the saddle, glaring at Perrin, the afternoon sun dappling them through the leaves of the thick canopy of trees. “So do I, you idiot! So do we all, now.”

The secluded cemetery sat on a bluff, overlooking the Arkansas River. They had been wandering for two days, ever since retracing their steps to the first small creek they’d come to. The one Fallon felt sure would give them their bearings. Now, at last, he recognized where they were. He’d figured it out ten miles back.

“Tamaha,” Denver Rutledge muttered. “I was raised up over yonder.” He inclined his head toward the riverbank. “Over in Vian.”

“Then why didn’t you know where we were?” Fallon’s anger surged. “I am surrounded by idiots!”

“I shore ’nuff shoulda known, General,” Rutledge said apologetically. “Right yonder’s where we sunk the J.R. Williams. Rebs, I mean. Stand Watie’s bunch.”

Fallon jerked his head toward the other man. “Right where, soldier?”

Rutledge kneed his horse, coming abreast of Fallon. “Why, right yonder, General. It was in June of ’64. She was a Union ship, the Williams was.”

“What was she carrying?”

Rutledge shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. Supplies, maybe.”

“Payroll? Gold?” Fallon fingered his curling moustache. “Could be anything, eh, Rutledge? But the Yankees were known to cache their gold profits in casks. Maybe that’s what the J.R. Williams was carrying. Casks that weren’t really supplies, but were filled with gold.”

“Could be, I ‘spect.” Rutledge’s voice was hesitant.

Fallon nodded toward the river. “I think maybe we’ll try to find out.”



The next story Chief Watie was included in was my time-travel western novella, MEANT TO BE. Here's a little bit about this Civil War story:

Robin Mallory is facing another Christmas all alone when she decides to surprise her aunt and uncle several hours away. A flat tire leaves her stranded near a desolate section of interstate. With a snowstorm on the way, Robin has no choice but to walk, hoping to find shelter before the storm hits full force. But the road she chooses leads her back in time, to a battleground she's only read about in history books.

Confederate Jake Devlin, an officer in Stand Watie's Cherokee forces, is shocked when the spy he captures turns out to be a girl. She's dressed oddly, but her speech and the ideas she has are even stranger than her clothing. Where did she come from, and what is he going to do with her? Will he be able to hold on to his heart? Is it possible for a love this strong to span centuries? It is, if it was MEANT TO BE…



My most recent story that Stand Watie appears in is my first venture into "alternate history" in the alternate history anthology, TALES FROM THE OTHERVERSE released through Rough Edges Press. If you aren't familiar with alternate history, it's fascinating to read and to write--because you can change history to suit the story you want to tell. My novella is called MRS. LINCOLN'S DINNER PARTY--a very different story about how the Civil War ended, thanks to Varina Davis, Mary Lincoln, and of all people, Stand Watie. Hmmm...let's just see what's going on at this odd dinner party of Mrs. Lincoln's, shall we?


“If you’ll excuse me, sir,” Mary said, “I must return to the receiving line. You’ve had a long journey—if you’d like a moment to freshen up, Mr. Pennington can show you to your quarters—” She nodded at the guard standing behind the general.

“Yes, please. I’d like to know where I need to place my bag,” the general said.

Mary glared at Mr. Pennington, who squirmed uncomfortably.

“Thought maybe there was a mistake, Mrs. Lincoln—”

“Mr. Pennington. There is no mistake. And I will not tolerate rudeness. Please, show General Watie to his quarters—and you carry his bag.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Pennington answered. “This way, sir.”

General Watie gave Mary a rare smile. “Thank you. I will see you at dinner, Mrs. Lincoln.”

Mary felt Abe’s eyes boring into her as she moved across the floor, back into her place in line.

“I’m…surprised at you, Mary.”

Mary felt the hot flush creep up her neck, into her cheeks.

“I’m wondering, what other—guests—you may have invited without my knowledge.”

Oh, how she did wish he’d keep his voice down! She didn’t want the children to see the discord between them—especially here in public, where it was so easy for others to read between the lines, pick up on any issues that were best kept private. As Robert had said earlier, they could all find themselves on the front page of the papers along with unflattering descriptions and comments if they weren’t careful.

She didn’t answer Abe’s prodding, becoming suddenly resentful of being placed in such a predicament. She wouldn’t have had to resort to this if Abe and the others who had started this war had been more reasonable.

And though, in her heart, she believed fathers loved their children dearly…she couldn’t yet reconcile how fathers could call for sons to go to war. War! Where the children mothers had fought so hard to keep safe and whole all their childhood years could—in one moment—be maimed, or left to die a horrific death at the hands of their enemy…The enemy—people who had, just two scant years earlier, been their neighbors, their friends—even their own families!

She couldn’t sit by any longer and do nothing. Robert would be heading off to West Point in the fall…then Eddie and Willie would follow.

She was not going to lose her precious boys to this confounded idiocy.

“My God,” Abe swore, his tone calling her back to the present. “Is that—”

“Varina Davis. Yes. It is.” Mary turned to look up at her husband. “It looks as if Jefferson declined the invitation. Would you care to accompany me to greet her, or—”

“Yes, I’ll come,” he all but growled. “Mary, we have some talking to do.”

But Mary was already on her way across the floor to greet Varina Davis, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s wife.



I want to thank everyone for joining me today! Do you like to read fictional stories that incorporate real historical characters in them? I love it--if it's done right! Please leave a comment and you will be entered in my drawing for a copy (DIGITAL OR PRINT--YOUR CHOICE!) of FIRE EYES and I'm also giving away a copy of MEANT TO BE!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Cooking in the Old West

Cooking was a lot more complicated in the 1800's than it is today. You'd think food would be much simpler, but, in fact, much of the time it was more complicated than what we prepare nowadays.  Here are a few recipes your characters might have encountered, along with the books from which they were taken.

Good Family Bread
The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1864

For five common-sized loaves, make a pint and a half of thin water gruel. Use half a teacupful of fine Indian meal. Salt it a little more than if it were to be eaten as a gruel, and boil ten of fifteen minutes. This is of importance, as, if the meal is only scalded, the bread will be coarse. Add enough milk to make two quarts of the whole. If the milk is new, the gruel may be poured into it in the pan; if it is not, it should be scalded in the kettle with the gruel. This is particularly important in the summer, as at that season milk, which is but a few hours old, and is sweet when put into the bread, will sour in the dough in a short time. When the mixture is cool, so that you are sure it will not scald, add a teacupful of yeast, and then stir in sifted flour* enough to make a thick batter. This is called a sponge. This being done in the evening, let it stand, if in summer, in a cool place, if in winter, in a moderately warm place, till morning. Then add flour enough to make it easy to mould, and knead it very thoroughly.

A half an hour is the least time to be given to kneading a baking of bread, unless you prefer, after having done this till it ceases to stick to your hands, to chop it with a chopping-knife four or five hundred strokes. An hour’s kneading is not too much.

After it is thoroughly kneaded, divide it into four or five equal pieces, and mould according to the form of the pans in which you bake it. These being greased with clean drippings, put in the dough and set it in the sun or near the fire (according to the season) to rise. Loaves of this size will bake in an hour; if the oven be rather hot, in a few minutes short of an hour.

*All kinds of flour and meal should be sifted for use, except buckwheat and Graham flour

Old Fashioned Turnip Soup
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881

2 lb. veal bones    1 lb. turnips
1/2 gal. water    salt and pepper to taste

Take two pounds veal bones to half a gallon of water, and boil  [down] to one quart. Put turnips and bones to boil together. Then strain the liquor off and send to table hot. Season  while cooking  with pepper and salt.

Snitz and Knep
Godey's Lady's Book 1866

Take of sweet dried apples (dried with the skins on, if you can get them) about one quart.  Put them in the bottom of a porcelain or tin-lined boiler with a cover.  Take a nice piece of smoked ham washed very clean and lay on top; add enough water to cook them nicely.  About twenty minutes before dishing up, add the following dumplings:

Mix a cup of warm milk with one egg, a little salt, and a little yeast, and enough flour to make a sponge.  When light, work into a loaf.  Let stand until about twenty minutes before dinner, then cut off slices or lumps, and lay on the apples and let steam through.

Onion Custard
Godey's Lady's Book 1860

Peel and slice some mild onions (ten or twelve, in proportion to their size) and fry them in fresh butter, draining them well when you take them up; then mince them as fine as possible; beat four eggs very light and stir them gradually into a pint of milk, in turn with the minced onions; season the whole with plenty of grated nutmeg, and stir it very hard; then put it into a deep white dish and bake it abut a quarter of an hour.  (Bake at 350mins.)  Send it to table as a side dish, to be eaten with meat or poultry.  It is a French preparation of onions and  will be found very fine.

Cocoa Flummery
Civil War Cooking: The Housekeepers Encyclopedia, 1861

Egg whites, beaten stiff    Shredded coconut meat
Boiled custard    Sponge cake

As in many recipes of this period, the term "cocoa" does not mean anything resembling chocolate. It means "coconut" 

Beat the whites of eggs stiff, grate the white part of a of cocoa-nut, Mix the egg and nut together, sweeten to the taste; prepare a boiled custard, pour it over sponge cake, and lay the egg and cocoa on the top.

J.E.S. Hays

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Humor me if you will. Or, rather, be humored yourself by a true master.

During those times when the creative well is running a little low and the plot lines lie flat on the page, I try to prime the pump with some good reading. There are several contemporary authors who inspire me but I also enjoy reaching back into the archives to see how the old guys did it.

One book that I never tire of revisiting is Roughing It by Mark Twain, based on his stagecoach journey to the west and subsequent adventures in silver prospecting, real estate speculation, and (after a side trip to Hawaii) newspaper reporting in San Francisco. During these years of 1861-1867, he honed his rough-hewn, almost madcap, style of writing into the Twain style that forever set him apart: sharply satirical (as in The Gilded Age) but capable of tender character portrayals as well (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). For spot-on, wry descriptions of the mundane, Twain is hard to beat. I’d like to share a few of my favorite excerpts from Roughing It.

First off, the western landscape provided Twain with all sorts of writing fodder and I love this meandering passage that manages to work in references to sagebrush, mules and anthracite coal all in one sitting:

“Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner.”

From the stagecoach, he observed this forlorn creature:

“The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.
He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”

In Carson City, Nevada, the young Twain is caught up in a romantic desire to own a horse and is tricked into buying one at an auction, described to him in a secretive whisper as a “Mexican Plug.”

“I did not know what a Genuine Mexican Plug was, but there was something about this man’s way of saying it, that made me swear inwardly that I would own a Genuine Mexican Plug, or die.”

As you can imagine, the partnership between horse and tenderfoot does not last long:

In the afternoon I brought the creature into the plaza, and certain citizens held him by the head, and others by the tail, while I mounted him. As soon as they let go, he placed all his feet in a bunch together, lowered his back, and then suddenly arched it upward, and shot me straight into the air a matter of three or four feet! I came as straight down again, lit in the saddle, went instantly up again, came down almost on the high pommel, shot up again, and came down on the horse’s neck—all in the space of three or four seconds. Then he rose and stood almost straight up on his hind feet, and I, clasping his lean neck desperately, slid back into the saddle and held on. He came down, and immediately hoisted his heels into the air, delivering a vicious kick at the sky, and stood on his forefeet. And then down he came once more, and began the original exercise of shooting me straight up again. The third time I went up I heard a stranger say:

‘Oh, don’t he buck, though!’

While I was up, somebody struck the horse a sounding thwack with a leather strap, and when I arrived again the Genuine Mexican Plug was not there. A California youth chased him up and caught him, and asked if he might have a ride. I granted him that luxury. He mounted the Genuine, got lifted into the air once, but sent his spurs home as he descended, and the horse darted away like a telegram. He soared over three fences like a bird, and disappeared down the road toward the Washoe Valley.”

You can view the first edition of Roughing It in its entirety online, along with the wonderful original illustrations at:

I'd love to hear about some of your go-to Western books!

All the best,

2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist, Short Fiction
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist, Short Fiction

Keep up with Vonn! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Ask any writer where their titles come from for their work and you’ll get a thousand different answers from “It just came to me!” to “My publisher made me use this one.” As an author, I’ve had both happen to me, with several other scenarios for my titles scattered in between.

In my first book, FIRE EYES, the heroine’s name is Jessica—my own daughter’s name. She needed a name that she was referred to by the Indians, and my daughter had told me years earlier she wanted her Indian name to be FIRE EYES. So that was a given. And it worked out great! That story was the one that the title came easiest for, of all my books.

Fast forward to my first contemporary romance novel, Sweet Danger. The story takes place in a deli that has been taken over by a very dangerous escaped convict, Tabor Hardin, and his men. His hostages just happen to include an undercover police officer, Jesse Nightwalker, who put him away in prison—supposedly for life. One of the other hostages is Jesse’s neighbor, Lindy Oliver, who is the retired police commissioner’s daughter. They’ve just met and are minding their own business over a sugar ring when a hail of gunfire erupts and—well, y’all know how I love my wounded heroes, and Jesse is no exception. I had titled the story THE SUGAR RING. But I was told by my publisher that that title would have to be changed. Period. SWEET DANGER was born, and in retrospect, is a much better title.

Titles should stick with the reader, be memorable, and make readers want to know more about the book.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Who would do that?)
SWEET SAVAGE LOVE (Tell me more!)

SHANE (Who is this person?)
NOBODY’S DARLING (Maybe mine?)
THE GATES OF THE ALAMO (I’ve gotta know!)
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (Maybe I can learn something, here!)

TALES FROM THE OTHERVERSE (Where is this place, and what are these tales about?)
LOST SISTER (Who was she and why was she lost?)

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Who was he? Certainly not who we thought!)

The list goes on—but you get the idea. I know right now you’re thinking of titles you’ve read that have stuck in your mind—and the questions they’ve made you ask about those particular stories or books.

And I bet you’ve seen a phrase and thought, “That would be a great book title!” I know I’ve done that plenty of times. I’ve even written them down. Now, if I could only remember where I wrote them!
Another fun way to come up with titles is through a title generator. There are several of these online. They even have them for different genres: Sci-fi, westerns, fantasy…you name it. But they come up with some real doozies! Take a look at some of the ones a western title generator came up with for me:

These are mainly odd, funny titles, but the beauty of them is that they get your mind working in ways you might never have thought before—and adding and changing some of the words in some of these titles can make for a beautifully creative experience!

What are some of YOUR favorite titles, and why?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Wolf Creek #17: Comanchero Trail

Troy D. Smith

The newest Wolf Creek book is here -and it is intense.

Abby Potter and several of her soiled doves are traveling by wagon to the Breedlove ranch -to help the hands enjoy a barn dance -but they never make it. Kiowa war chief Stone Knife is back in Kansas, and he takes the girls captive, also killing several settlers along the way. Stone Knife takes the women southwest to the Llano Estacado to trade them to Comancheros.

A small rescue party from Wolf Creek goes after them: Ben Tolliver, Charley Blackhorse, Derrick McCain, Rev. Obadiah Stone, Jimmy Spotted Owl... and young cowboy Billy Below, whose true love Brandy is among the captives. Along the way they meet new allies: a Texas Ranger troop that includes Rangers Jake Blackwell and Jim Blawcyzk (from western series by Troy D. Smith and James J. Griffin). They also meet an enigmatic farmer, Tom Sallee, who is looking for the Comancheros for reasons of his own.

As I said at the outset, this volume is intense. In order to be true to the historical period and to demonstrate the stakes faced by women taken captive at that time, there are a couple of scenes that might be disturbing to some readers. The authors taking part, however, believe we have produced a powerful story.

Those writers are Jacquie Rogers, James J. Griffin, Chuck Tyrell, myself (Troy D. Smith), and John Neely Davis, in his first Wolf Creek appearance. If you are unfamiliar with our series, it is a Western Fictioneers production in which at this point almost thirty WF members have created their own unique characters who interact in collaborative novels. They appear under the house name "Ford Fargo." We have as much fun writing them as you do reading them.

Another Wolf Creek volume is coming along soon -in November -a short story anthology titled Hunter's Moon. It will feature events that will change the lives of several Wolf Creek citizens... watch for it.

Buy Comanchero Trail HERE

Wolf Creek: Comanchero Trail by [Fargo, Ford, Griffin, James J., Tyrell, Chuck, Rogers, Jacquie, Davis, John Neely, Smith, Troy D.]

Monday, September 5, 2016

Why did they go West?

Why did they migrate West? The third in my High Mountain Sheriff series, Founding Sheriff, tells the story of the man who apprenticed as a cooper in Bury, Lancashire, England.  He took his wife and five year-old son and moved West.  In the story, good fiction requires that the discovery of the reason be dramatized, not analyzed.  Here, in the first Monday blog, I invite you to work with me on the analysis to help me understand.  Why?

The question is an onion.  Keep peeling it and layers fall away but core questions remain.  “They” is anyone who went West. “When” for our Western Fictioneers concern covers the fifty years from 1840 to 1890, but the fact is emigrating West started in 1620 (or maybe earlier, if you do not date your consciousness of American settling to Plymouth Rock). Ohio, Midwest, illustrates this migration: 1800: 45,000; 1820: 580,000; 1840: 1,400,000.

Some research and a lot more time spent with my chin in my hand (Rodin, forgive me) lead me to four reasons, with a couple of sub- elements thrown in. Please join me in my brief discussion by adding your comments: more reasons, better explanations, lively examples.

First, a short digression into an understanding of the notion of emigrating.  It starts with the verb migrate.  1. to go from one country, region, or place to another. Synonyms: move, resettle, relocate.  Antonyms: remain.  There are other definitions less pertinent to our concern (to pass periodically from one region to another or to shift from one system to another) because our question is Why did they migrate? As in the title of the blog, Why did they go?

It remains to note that emigrate is to leave one country or region to settle in another and immigrate is to come to a country of which one is not a native.  So everyone who went West migrated by emigrating and when they arrived they were immigrants.  Doesn’t it make you wonder how the word “immigrants” was/is turned into a slur in some places and for some classes of people.  But that is not today’s blog.


Plymouth Rock may serve as the first major and visible symbol of wholesale emigration for the primary reason of seeking an amenable locale to practice the religion of choice.  Forgive me for not using the phrase, religious freedom. Neither that religion, nor the one that sought out Salt Lake City, nor the one that is seeking refuge in the U.S. today tolerates anything like religious freedom while they ask for the freedom to believe in the religion that organizes the people who are emigrating.

A few other groups went West to find a better place to practice their religion, some Friends, some Lutherans, and if you count Virginia as once West to someone, the Huguenots.  In our Old West, however, one force consistently strove to convert a desert with one tree and three trappers in 1846 into a state of 260,000 population admitted in 1896.  Beginning with its early flight from persecution to a place beyond the borders of the United States and through its missionary program that first created converts then preached the Gathering of Zion, the LDS Church had on its mind the creation of a Western Empire.

Indeed, the founding sheriff accepted his submersion in the local river and then removed his family to the arduous task of an overland trek.  But could belief alone create such motivation?


The motivation to escape provides no end of action-event sequences for our fiction.  Oppression, poverty, and trouble cover most of the reasons for escape I can think of.  Escape from oppression may often be the other side of the religious freedom coin, but it would appear two million Jews who escaped from oppression in Eastern Europe, mostly Russia, during our Old West years landed on U.S. shores.  One study identifies 154,000 who settled in the West.

Escape from poverty is the mirror of opportunity, so the most interesting escape reasons lie in escape from trouble.  Here all sorts of mayhem may be found.  I wrote a blog earlier this year complaining about random violence in Western Fiction, and I underscore the complaint was about random not violence.  Some young boys get in trouble because they breathe, some young girls, too; and, of course, the true creator of our Wild West was the Civil War.  Its conduct bespoke unfathomable violence, to some, its aftermath justified more.   The treatment of women may be overlooked, but should not be forgotten. Even in inexplicable violence, reason is the cause, not randomness.

Escape as one of the reasons for going West strikes me as a big reason for a small number.  This is, of course, why we write fiction and why escape stories are so engrossing.  Very few people need to escape the trouble they got into, but those who do travel uncertain and tortured paths.


The vast motivating opportunity was the chance to leave their status.  Except for 13,000 Chinese in 1862 and a lot more in 1866, the majority of Americans who went West were of European origin and most of them were working class.  That translated into three rigidly constricting facts of life: they were not rich, they were socially jailed, and they had no land.  Land and wealth represent what could be achieved, but the simple opportunity, the prospect of social mobility, the notion of not living inside rigid boundaries, all of those added up to the feeling and the pursuit of freedom.

Opportunity was certainly the major force behind the grand migration.  An organized religion moved only 260,000; a world-wide oppression may have moved only 150,000, and all the trouble in the nation probably moved fewer than a thousand (my guess, so yours is as good as mine). Yet from 1840 to 1890, while the entire country was growing from 17 million to 63 million, the West (not including Kansas or Nebraska as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854) grew from 450 thousand to 7.8 million.

In short, some seven million people probably emigrated West for the opportunity it afforded.  The concept of opportunity may often be very difficult to bring to life in fiction – how many store keepers have been conceived of as the leader in their community?  Remember the one in High Noon? Fortunately, social mobility is also opportunity and it exudes human feeling.


Land and, its nourisher, water are symbolic and tangible and given to great dramatic tension.  Some of this owes to the reality that it created wealth, and also, that it established empire, even if it was the family empire. The ownership of land held a symbolic importance almost as important as the right to practice a religion.

Almost the entirety of America’s immigrants arrived on these shores because they could not afford or were not allowed to own land.  Looking merely to the population numbers above, it follows logically that more than 10% of those immigrants kept going west in search of the promise of owning their own land.  The fulfillment of this promise, while euphoric, had its inhuman, even evil, underbelly: the treatment of the Native Americans from whom almost all of this land was taken away—even when purchased.


Gold provides the symbol.  Second, perhaps, comes cattle. But the list is very long: railroads, banks, mineral rights, mines, oil, and you can add to the list.  Perhaps nothing more than another example of the 1%, but the prospect drove and motivated many more than the 78,000 who made it. (I exaggerate by using that number. In fact, ample evidence suggests that income distribution in the West provided wealth for more than the 1% and a good life for disproportionately more than the rest of the U.S.)


All of the above are a form of adventure and any character thinking about his motivation to go west cannot help but see and feel the adventure in the immediate reason that drives him.  Still, my bet is there were some, mostly men, but even a woman or two, who went west simply for the hell of it. Because it was there.

A Very Short Summary

Once examined, the reasons for migrating west all merge into that big one, opportunity.  Somehow the symbolism strikes me as apt: The West is as big as it is because it is one big opportunity.

E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


"MITCHELL PASS" by William Henry Jackson
At the end of a recent trip to Wyoming, I decided to ramble over to western Nebraska and investigate Scotts Bluff National Monument. I have a couple of short works in progress set in the area and needed to see and smell it for authenticity’s sake.

     Scotts Bluff, named for a fur trader who died at its base, is actually a chain of sandstone/limestone rock formations covering 3,000 acres and towering 800 feet above the North Platte River. It’s a spot rich in history. From 1860 to 1861, Pony Express riders thundered by every ten days or so. 
     Between 1841 and 1869, some 350,000 people traveling the Oregon Trail squeezed through Mitchell Pass–with only sixty feet of clearance– in the shadow of majestic Eagle Rock, the southernmost peak of the bluffs. Westbound pioneers would have seen the pale hulk of Scotts Bluff for days before they reached it. It was an important landmark; it meant that they were a third of the way to Oregon and the prairie was about to give way to mountain ranges.

     It’s interesting to note that Mormon emigrants traveled and camped on the opposite, northern bank of the Platte, to avoid unpleasant encounters with those who opposed them. For that reason, the Mormon Pioneer Trail parallels the Oregon Trail for much of its length.


     Of course, the Native American tribes in the area had known about Scotts Bluff for a long time, although they may have had mixed feelings about its significance. Their name for it was “Me-a-pa-te,” or “hill that is hard to go around!”

     Scotts Bluff has been managed by the National Parks Service since 1919. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed an access road during the 1930s. The drive to the top of the bluffs is dramatic, beginning with a lazy arc across the plains, then rising steeply through outcroppings and passing through three tunnels carved in the sandstone cliffs. (I recommend that you postpone enjoying the breathtaking view of the plains until after you’ve negotiated the switchbacks and are safely parked at the top!)

     Hiking trails allow visitors a closer look at geological features and vegetation. Numerous overlooks afford sweeping views of the plains and another rocky area known as the Badlands, lesser to those located in South Dakota. The Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center, located at the park entrance, provides a wealth of historical and scientific resources, along with some gorgeous oil paintings by noted Western artist William Henry Jackson.

     While it’s always fascinating to walk in the footsteps of our pioneer forefathers, sometimes the line between present and past feels mysteriously blurred. As I hiked up the rocky trail to the overlook, I stopped to take pictures of a determined little pine tree that had contorted itself into existence in the rocky ground. As its branches swayed in the wind, I heard what sounded like a faraway song…but only for a few seconds. As the breeze ebbed, I heard it again and, this time, it sounded like a chant––a Native American chant.

     I was sure I’d become weak-minded from altitude sickness, but just as I gave up on hearing the chants, they drifted by once more. I crawled up on a flat boulder and looked eastward down into the valley. I saw a grouping of buildings next to a large grassy park, roughly the shape of a baseball field. It was packed with people…and, even at that distance, I could see that most of them gathered in a circle. The chants drifted up again. A pow wow!

     Later, I drove past the Legacy of the Plains Museum and confirmed that my first visit to the summit of Scotts Bluff had coincided with the closing ceremonies of the Lakota tribe’s Circle the Bluffs Pow Wow, or wacipi, as the natives call it. How lucky can a writer girl be?

     Of course, I left with an overflowing well of inspiration. While I do all my writing from a converted bedroom office in the southeastern United States (at least, for now), I try to make the most of trips out west. Stories emanate from the land and the people of a place. I take hundreds of pictures, talk to locals, and drive down backroads. I have learned the hard way how to identify roads on the map that peter out into gravel. I’ve been known to sneak pine cones and bags of rocks into my carry-on bags. You do what you have do to make the West come alive in your writing!

 Learn more about Scotts Bluff National Monument at
                                                           All the best,

Vonn McKee
“Writing the Range”

2015 WWA Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)