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.

Historical Research

Let’s start with a simple proposition: there is no one right way to do historical research.

Then again, there are a lot of wrong ways. But I’m not here to talk about those (at least not today). If you want to discuss wrong ways, chat up just about anyone who teaches history courses.

One thing about doing history research is that it’s highly idiosyncratic, or peculiar to each individual person. In short, how you research–your choices of where to search (assuming you have choices), how to search, and how you navigate results–will all affect what you find.

There are a lot of good books and websites out there on how to do historical research. I’m not here to replace them. Rather, I’m here to talk about some of the ways I go about finding relevant material when writing historical fantasy (i.e. this is not necessarily how I go about doing research when I’m working on a scholarly history project).

Most of my fiction historical research falls into one of two categories: fact or ambiance. By ambiance, I mean general information and overall circumstances shaping the specific times and places in which I’m interested.

When I’m looking for ambiance, I tend to head for my local academic library catalog (I work at a university, which helps!). I prefer physical books when I can get them for a variety of reasons which include finding it easier to flip back-and-forth among them. I’ll use e-books when that’s all that’s available. I do check for articles in journals as well, but I tend to go for books first.

Since I’m searching a catalog for books, I go wide. I tend to start with a keyword search — this means generally combining a geography term (such as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, United States, Mexico) with a broad chronological term (such as nineteenth-century) and maybe a topic (such as women or race or transportation) and see what I get. Catalogs tend to return results in “relevance” order, but I usually change this to most recent first. Whenever I find a book which seems of interest, I plumb subject headings (those are the terms a cataloger somewhere, often at the Library of Congress, decided describe a book’s overall contents). Clicking on subject headings and navigating them is a good way to find other books on the same subject. And, of course, when I actually go retrieve the books from the shelves, I take a look at what’s nearby.

Ambiance reading helps me learn about who was present in a given place at a given time, what kinds of things they were doing, what kinds of things they resisted doing, and all manner of story ideas and background. Usually these are scholarly or popular history books–secondary or tertiary research (i.e. someone who wasn’t there writing up an account based on documents of people who were).

When I’m looking for facts, on the other hand, I’m usually looking for very specific information. For example, “Drinking Unhappiness” is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. I wanted to know, as much as possible, what that experience would be like for someone in the 1850s–sights, smells, sounds, activities. Any detail that might help recreate the experience. As it happens, I did find a secondary history book which provided a lot of good information–but primary sources (diaries, journals) can also be of a lot of help. And sometimes when I’m searching for facts, the best thing to do is hop on a good search engine and see if anyone has put up a reliable website with the kind of information I’m looking for (I found a lot of good material on 19th century Chicago in the online encyclopedia).

Of course, this is a very down-and-dirty summary of my research practices–but since I’m writing historical fantasy I thought someone somewhere might find it of interest. I keep bibliographies for the Twisting world and the stories set in it, and will add them to my website as I go along. Just in case . . .


On the outskirts of Albuquerque lies Petroglyph National Monument. Petroglyphs are created by carving off top layers of rock to use contrasting colors to make a selected form. Pictographs are painted on.

A rock with three possibly separate images on it.

The Petroglyph National Monument features 25,000 or more spread across 17 miles–it’s one of the largest sites of Native American and Spanish rock art that is generally known. I use that phrasing because it is possible there are other, larger sites which are not generally known. It’s my understanding that many tribes don’t share locations with rock art–because Western cultures tend not to respect them. (And that’s putting it mildly.)

This site, however, is generally known and part of the National Park Service. I stopped by while passing through Albuquerque. It was a hot summer day and I didn’t have anywhere near as much time as the site deserved. Nevertheless, I took a short hike up and around a hill with hundreds of images. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!

Beginnings and other things

Well, I had a lovely post up here for a few days — but then tech things happened (don’t ask) and it went bye-bye. Sigh.

I’ve pondered beginnings lately. They’re all over the place. Many things have multiple beginnings–and every ending has at least one beginning tucked somewhere within it.

21 June 2019 was a beginning in many respects. It was a solstice, which means days or nights will lengthen/shorten (depending on where you live on the globe), seasons change, and time moves on.

On a personal level, it was the beginning of a new phase for my Twisting world — publication of the first installment of Twisting the Border. This is, ultimately, one day of many. It will be a long trek, so I’ll celebrate moments such as these where and when I have them . . . and then move on.

I’m looking forward to finding what’s beyond these beginnings (preferably not more tech problems). But that’s enough philosophizing in retrospect. Now back to more regularly scheduled life and posts (and plotting to visit all manner of historic sites).

Camels and The Alamo

While in San Antonio for a convention, I visited several historic sites, although nowhere near as many as I had originally planned. (Then again, my visit got cut short so I could fly off to interview for the job I’m currently in, so things worked out just different than planned.) And, of course, I visited the Alamo.

Front view of the Alamo with people in the distance.

I didn’t spend that long there (see above for why I was short on time) — but what time I had I spent soaking up atmosphere and looking for elements to use in story-writing. Well, I’ve got to the point where I’m writing a story (for the Twisting the Border sequence) set in San Antonio at the Alamo . . . sort of. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

But now, I have to take the photos and think back. To draw on period descriptions (remember my post about primary sources?) and imagine the Alamo as it might have been in the 1850s, long before it became a historical park. Back when it was, among other things, a supply depot for the US Army. And here I will admit to departing, at least a little bit, from history. You see, in the mid-late 1850s the US Army used camels for supply runs to/from the Alamo as part of the relatively short-lived Camel Corps. The camels arrived in our world after my story starts–but how can I resist shifting things just enough for the camels to be present and maybe even some will accompany the expedition westward? Along with their handlers (because mule-handlers don’t necessarily know how to deal with camels)? We’ll see.

In the meantime, here are a few more photos as I was scouting for where my characters might pass the time in their San Antonio, their Alamo (with camels!)