Art Imitating Life

There’s the old saying about life imitating art. I don’t recall hearing or reading a saying about art imitating life, but that’s probably because it’s seen as unnecessary. Of course art imitates art. The visual art world went all in a tizzy a century or two ago when painters made portraits, landscapes, and other works of art which deliberately skewed perspectives and altered things.

So let’s take the art imitating life as something of a given.

But . . . what parts of life do artists incorporate in crafting art? There are conscious and unconscious choices. Some may be easy, others political (to return to visual art, consider the portrait painters over the years who chose, potentially for financial return, to flatter their sitters), and others the product of long consideration.

Now, I write historical fantasy (and fantasy and magical realism, but mostly historical fantasy at the moment) — so I’m making a lot of imitative choices in the interests of authenticity and making the world realistic (apart from the particular variants of magic, which have their effects). None of the characters are me, and all are me, so I’m also imitating myself.

And in an homage to the current and previous dogs in my life, I’m imitating life by having a canine characters. In point-of-fact, the canine characters doesn’t look much like any of my dogs. Doesn’t act quite like them either (for one she’s much better trained, I must admit). But she’s there and her existence in the pages of the story owes much to my having lived with and loved dogs for many years.

So here’s to them!

Many Missions

A week or two ago, I discussed the Alamo (and camels!). It started life as a mission (Mission San Antonio de Valero)–long before it became a fortress, army outpost, or museum. And it wasn’t the only one built, used (worshipped in), abandoned or passed by, and then rediscovered or reconsecrated at a later date. There are many throughout the Southwest. Indeed, there are many around San Antonio. I’ve enjoyed incorporating references to them in a recent Twisting the Border story (probably set for release in December).

The National Park Service keeps a number of San Antonio missions open for visitation and exploration.

There’s Mission Concepción, (more formally known as Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña)–largely unrestored but boasting not one but two bell towers.

Or Mission San José, the “Queen of Missions, which shows something of the scale of churches as communities. It has a round bell tower stair which makes a brief appearance in my story. I wanted to have my viewpoint character climb it, but she declined. Sigh.

Then Mission San Juan Capistrano, which supported an active agricultural community in the 1700s.

And one of the oldest Texas missions: Mission Espada (Mission San Francisco de la Espada). According to the NPS, it has the most complete & original acequia system (and these are cool!)

I knew a little about the missions beforehand, but at some point in the past year or two, I also picked up a lovely book of photographs and supporting texts: A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest. Three of the San Antonio missions linked above appear in it. I’ve seen it listed with at least two different covers, so there are probably multiple editions. If you can’t get out to see some of the missions themselves (depending on where you live, etc) then consider picking up a copy or borrowing one through a library. Just a thought (after all, if you’ve wound up here there’s a fair chance you like some elements of history …)

Research, research, always research

I do a lot of research. I don’t always read books all the way through–I’ll flip through, focus on particular chapters, consult the index, and/or other techniques. And I readily admit to regularly consulting web sites as well. I prefer books and websites that offer some measure of research transparency–i.e. they show their work and how they came to certain conclusions (in other words they note which primary and secondary sources they consulted … or they are primary sources).

So with that in mind, here are a few of the sources used for my upcoming Twisting the Border installment, which is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi River. I write “a few,” because these are sources specific to this installment, or at most used for one or two others. Any source I use for more than three or so installments I add to the general list instead of the installment.

Allison, J. Thomas. Hudson River Steamboat Catastrophes: Contests and Collisions. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013. — not the most useful for this work, but I did appreciate the discussion of things that could go wrong!

Buchanan, Thomas C. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2004. — very useful. I wish I could have drawn more on this explicitly rather than having it be part of the “iceberg” of the worldbuilding. I hope there are others out there using it for stories set along the Mississippi in the early-mid 19th century.

Carkeet, David. “How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain… And Vice Versa.” Smithsonian Magazine (April, 2014). — fun, but as above more atmospheric than specific

And this next related to a very specific element ….

Sandlin, Lee. Wicked River: The Mississipi When It Last Ran Wild. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. — also slightly more on the interesting than useful side, largely due to the type of story I wrote

Smithsonian Institution. “On the Water: Inland Waterways, 1820-1940.” — interesting & informative

Crossing Texas: Fort McKavett

After the California Gold Rush began, various speculators and other travelers from the eastern United States began to trek west across California. Those who took the southern route through San Antonio had two main choices to get to El Paso at the far end of Texas — the “upper” route and the “lower” route.

Fort McKavett sits on the “upper” route. It’s a couple hours drive or so these days, and not that far off a main highway. In earlier times, of course, the journey there would take much longer.

There are beautiful, long views. I visited four forts when traveling from San Antonio back to New Mexico a couple of years ago. In truth, I prefer the vistas around Fort Lancaster (really dramatic, winding hill roads with wonderful views–I’ll post about it down the road), but Fort McKavett is in better shape overall.

To say Fort McKavett is in better shape is not to imply it’s all been restored. As these photos show, there are a number of buildings which haven’t been.

That said, there’s a nice little store (about the only place around with air conditioning or at least a fan!) and a number of buildings showing the kinds of furnishings and facilities people living at the fort would have had.

For instance . . . the Dead House, complete with coffins (untenanted, I hope–I admit I didn’t check, but I also didn’t smell anything rotting so …)

The dead house included a room for the still living, and a display of surgical instruments (ouch) and potions/pills/other medical paraphernalia of the time. (Sage advice: if you ever do go back in time, try not to get sick or injured until you return to current times!)

Or the sinks (which I’m guessing were latrines?), divided of course class (i.e. enlisted versus officer). For some reason, one could view the enlisted but not the officer. I decided to keep a respectable distance from both.

And then there are the barracks for the enlisted folks — how many can one cram in? Depends on whether or not there are bunk beds, of course.

The officers quarters were slightly more off-limits, but here are a few views. They were better than enlisted quarters–but not necessarily less crowded. And the Army practices at the time meant quarters were strictly rank-based. So whenever a high-ranking officer came to visit or stay, the next highest-ranked officer beneath him was turfed out along with family and would promptly turf out the next highest ranking officer and family and so on until the last one in line might have to go live in a chicken coop, if that was all that was available.

So that’s a taste of Fort McKavett. I did visit a couple of other forts in Texas, with pictures, so stay tuned down the line for Lancaster and Davis. (I also stopped in Fort Stockton, but didn’t take much in the way of photos for various reasons.)

Drinking Unhappiness

The riverboat Illinois Queen‘s passengers form a microcosm of humanity. Gamblers. Settlers. Scientists.

For a spinster headed into self-imposed exile, homesickness turns into seasickness. A fellow passenger offers a cure.

But one sip too many lays bare the sorrows, sins, and secrets the riverboat holds.

Board the Queen as powerful, believable characters face the loss of all they cherish.

Available 19 July!

For something a bit different . . .

Today, we’re taking a brief step way from historical sites. Instead — how about bike races? For several years, I lived in Silver City, New Mexico, which hosts the Tour of the Gila every spring. The long races mostly start in town and head out. Ah, but on Saturday all of the racing is in-town. The criterion takes place around a rectangle stretching just over 1 mile with some wicked turns and hills.

And oh was it fun to walk the reverse direction from the criterion and see the bikes whipping over the hills and around corners! These photos don’t capture the whole–but they give at least a little idea of the spectator experience.