Some authors choose the books they write, and some have their books choose them. So far, I seem to be in the latter camp.
The first chapter of Hands of Other Men came along one Sunday afternoon and looked only slightly different from what it does now. When I stopped typing that day, I was shocked to see a “cowboy story” staring back at me. I showed my wife, who asked whether it would be a short story or a novel.
“I think a novel,” I said. “I think this is the next book.”
If I had known how much time I would spend in research, I might have thought twice about setting this story in the old West. But that was how the story came, and in the end, it was probably best to keep it there. In these notes, I’ll discuss how that decision affected both research and editing.
Strewn throughout Hands of Other Men, the reader will find small historical facts. In the book, I did not spend time explaining each historical element. The characters lived in that time and would not think twice about a lot of the tiny things they encountered every day.
While I can’t discuss all of the historical references here, I’ll take you through some of the research issues, and focus heavily on the less clear-cut ones, as they are often the most interesting.
When researching history, you often find that facts are dependent on the memory of those who tell the tale. Every now and then, you will need to make a decision based on conflicting information. As stated in the novel itself, you just have to make the best choice you can . . . at the time.
In such cases, there will always be someone who will say you made the wrong choice. Either they heard of a fact or know of a historical event that may not correspond to your depiction.
I believe that the research goal of a fiction writer is to establish a plausible answer, not a definitive one. I strive to know how things could have happened and look for realistic possibilities. I do not profess I know the one way things must have happened. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the dilemmas encountered.
Bourbon vs. Whiskey
After reading my previous novel, The Book of 21, some readers asked why the word bourbon seemed to be used interchangeably with whiskey. Since the two words are also used the same way in Hands of Other Men, I suspect the question will come again.
The difference between these two words is like the difference between a square and a rectangle; all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
What makes them different? I was once told that bourbon was whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and the designation was made upon place, much in the same way that Scotch whiskey is made in Scotland, or champagne is made in Champagne.
Since Gil was pouring whiskey from Julia’s ancestral home, in Kentucky, the Tylers were drinking bourbon, which is a type of whiskey. So in a way, they were drinking both bourbon and whiskey at the same time. Simple.
Ah, if only it were that easy . . . others may argue differently.
Some argue that the name bourbon came from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Another challenge to my usage comes from the US Congress. In 1964, Congress declared Bourbon was a type of whiskey produced in the United States (not just in one Kentucky county).
Either way, a quick web search, or even just a trip to Wikipedia, will show you that the name bourbon was first used in the early 1800s and was employed fairly often by the time of this story. Plausible enough, no matter which story you believe.
Calibers of Ammunition
While the .45 caliber is most often associated with the Colt revolver, the .44-40 Caliber was interchangeable between the Winchester model 1873 rifle and several of Colt’s pistols. Buying a .44-40 Colt and .44-40 Winchester meant you needed only one type of cartridge.
Don Rickey (who, at one time, was park historian at the Custer National Battlefield) produced a report in 1957 that was entitled “Cowboy Dress, Arms, Tools, and Equipments, as Used in the Little Missouri Range Country and the Medora Area, in the 1880’s.” On page 39, Rickey points out that the .44-40 caliber ammunition was very popular with the cowboys on the northern range.
Tyler, ever the pragmatist, has switched to this caliber from the .45 caliber he was likely to carry in Texas. Why? In a fight, Tyler would not want to sort through which bullet belonged to what gun. The .45 had more stopping power but, as Tyler said, “a bullet’s a bullet.”
The cowboys’ shoulder holster was made of leather. There was a simple loop at the top, through which one stuck their arm. The Colt revolver was thereby kept between the arm and chest.
In the aforementioned report by Rickey, he noted that these shoulder holsters were commonly used by cowboys in winter (page 27), but it was unusual for a northern range cowboy of this era to carry two guns.
However, professional gunmen did carry two guns, and if they did, it was likely that they used a shoulder holster for the second gun (page 29). The idea was to have a second gun loaded and ready for action, not to allow the gunman to go blazing away with a gun in each hand.
In such a holster was where Tyler kept a second Colt revolver, identical to the one on his hip. This seemed the best way for Tyler to have more shots ready for trouble, but avoid looking like some tenderfoot who thought it threatening to wear a gun on each hip. Tyler was not one to seek the attention brought by such a display, nor naïve enough to believe he would be able to hit something when shooting with either hand.
Grulla or Grullo
Gil calls his horse a “blue dun.” Tyler uses the Spanish word grulla, pronounced “grew-ya.” This horse has bluish-gray coat with a dark dorsal stripe, dark points, and varying degrees of zebra striping on its lower legs.
Aside from the horse, a bluish-gray crane found in the Southwest was also called a grulla. Some say the horse’s color was named after the gray crane. That would make some sense, and I could see a cowboy saying, “Bring me the grulla one,” since they often referred to a horse by color.Simple right?
Since Gil’s horse was male, some might argue that the horse should have been called a grullo. They would contend that the term has a Spanish origin, and the name should be altered between grullo (grew-yo) and grulla (grew-ya) depending on whether the horse is male or female. This approach seems to ignore the whole idea of the name coming from the horse having a color similar to the crane’s shade of gray.
While people cannot decide what they want to call this horse today, my question was different: What would someone like Tyler, who lived in Texas during the 1870s, call them?
I want back to several sources to see what these horses were called in books of the time. Among several searches, I could find the word grulla, but no mention of the horse’s gender. For example, The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days is a fictional account of a trail drive in the 1880’s. It’s written by Andy Adams, who was supposedly on such a cow drive. He used the term grulla and did not mention the sex of the horse, though he did bring up gender when discussing a black mare and a bay mare. While some might argue this showed he referred to a male horse as a grulla, some could argue that he did not say “grulla mare” because the gender was already in the feminine word grulla. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to ask Andy Adams to clarify this point.
I could not seem to find grullo in sources of the time, though those sources may have simply eluded me. The deciding factor came from another writer named Adams. Ramon F. Adams referred to the color as grulla in both Cowboy Lingo and Western Words. Ramon Adams made no mention of the term grullo.
So I used grulla, but does it matter? Probably not. This is one I spent hours researching in order to use the word ten times in the manuscript. In the end, the only thing that I can say with any authority about these horses is that they are beautiful.
When exploring Tom’s store we see a few things that are aberrations for the day. He stocked more than he could sell. He organized his store in a way that employed merchandising. Both these things say something about his character.
Peach Trees in Wyoming
Yes, today there are varieties of peach trees that will grow in Wyoming. I could find less than a handful of them. A presentation from the University of Wyoming lists only one (http://www.uwyo.edu/uwexpstn/centers/sheridan/_files/2013-field-days-pdfs/growing-fruit-trees.pdf) but some other sources offered a few possibilities.
The two most prominent varieties that can produce fruit in that growing zone, Reliance and Contender, were first created in the 1950s and 1970s—a bit too late for the timeframe of the story.
Even if a variety did exist in the 1880s, the varieties of peach that will grow in Virginia are much greater in number. So, finding just the right variety to grow in the Wyoming climate would be difficult. Even after finding one, the trees would have had to suffer with the journey west by rail, and then rely on Gil’s less-then-methodical care.
Aside from the voice of this book being dramatically different from the voice of my first book, there were some oddities of editing that were not present in my first novel. Apparently, characters in a Western seem to speak differently than those in a mystery/suspense novel. Go figure.
Fair warning: If you are a writer, these notes may prove more interesting than the notes on historical research. If you are a reader, this section may be worth skipping. Okay, don’t say you weren’t warned . . .
Who vs. That
When the manuscript came back from my editor, there was a perplexing note. He said I seemed to be confusing the use of who and that. He then reminded me who is for people and that is for things.
When it was pointed out, I was a bit shocked that I had made the error. Then I looked at the text and saw why. Tyler would never say, “There was a little Mexican girl, about thirty years old or so, to whom I took a fancy.”
He just wouldn’t.
A quick review of Western lit showed me Louis L’Amour used that instead of who a couple of times in The Quick and the Dead. This approach was also used in the dialog of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. (A quick search for a “man that” will show you where. If you’d like to see a related, weird aside, look for “horse who.”) In the dialogue of Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry uses that in place of who several times. Including an appearance in one of my favorite lines from all of literature: “A man that rents pigs won’t be stopped.”
So, I wasn’t alone in thinking this approach was more natural for characters in the old West. The problem was that this usage had spilled over into the narrative. Those errors were easy enough to fix.
In the dialogue, I made the character’s use of who or that consistent, except for two cases. Gil uses who when speaking of ladies, and that when referring to men. I didn’t realize he even did so until I reviewed the text and found there was a variation in his approach. I let Gil keep this mannerism. I also found that Tyler used that quite consistently, but he changed to who when trying to convince others of a point. In the current text, he does so twice—only with a certain person.
While I did not take the advice of my editor to change every erroneous that to who, his suggestion made me review what I had done and improve it. It also provided a good example of why an author should never blindly execute the edits suggested. Sometimes our subconscious decisions are more trustworthy than we first realize.
“Ode To Joy” and Italics
There’s more than one web page that discusses how to correctly format titles of books, plays, and music. When checking my assumptions of whether or not to italicize the musical pieces in “The Piano Recital,” I ran a quick web search and found many pages that specifically proffered the example of “Ode to Joy” as a name that should be italicized. Such pages explained symphony titles were formatted in this way.
As a result, I had it italicized right up until press, but something just didn’t seem right. It took only a few seconds of thought to figure it out. “Ode to Joy” is not a symphony. It is part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It should technically be set off by quotation marks.
I know . . . news flash . . . don’t trust everything you read on the interwebs. The convenience of the internet is a strong lure for all of us. So strong, that this was a no-win situation to some extent. If I put the title in quotation marks, someone would claim I should have italicized and cite plenty of incorrect web pages as proof. On the other hand, italicizing the text just to placate those claims would mean that the text would be incorrect.
In this case, I went with the correct format.
Citing the Epigraph
A similar no-win situation came forth when attributing the epigraph. “Maxims for Revolutionists” was a pamphlet produced to accompany the play Man and Superman. It should be attributed as such—part of a larger work.
However, in recent years, several ebooks have been produced of this public-domain material. The pamphlet seldom accompanies the larger play and is often broken out as its own publication. Referencing the larger play would look incorrect if someone found a printing that did not include the pamphlet.
There was also one more fact to consider; the fully correct citation simply seemed a bit long for an epigraph. Sometimes, less is more.
I went with the citation of the separate publication, so that it could be easily referenced and located without having the citation abnormally long.
Afterthoughts and Pauses
There are a few times that a comma sneaks into the text before the word and in a series of two things, or the comma appears before what looks like a dependent clause. Some readers may look at these commas and think they are an error. They are not. There’s a difference between, “I missed the valley and the family,” and “I missed the valley, and the family.”
The Chicago Manual of Style tells us to use a comma before afterthoughts, or simply for clarity. There are quite a few afterthoughts in the text. The commas there are intentional. While em dashes might have been used for this purpose, they just didn’t seem to fit. I reserved em dashes for explanations or abrupt changes in thought.
The “Old English Teacher” Comma
Some believe that commas should always be used in front of words like too, either, and instead when they fall at the end of a sentence. The fact that I use this comma for some instances and not others might be interpreted as sloppy inconsistency. Again, it is not. I stuck to the advice of the Chicago staff (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Commas.html), which told me to use a comma when I wanted to indicate a pause and omit it when I did not. This approach yielded benefits. By not putting in “obligatory” commas, the writer can better show pacing and delivery in the dialogue.
Though The Chicago Manual of Style tells us to italicize foreign words, such practice seemed odd to me in the context of this setting. Spanish words were part of the cowboy’s lexicon, and routine vocabulary for someone like Tyler, who spent years in Texas and married a Tejano. There was also the plain old fact that it always bothered me when Westerns italicized them. This rule was skipped.
Wrapping Things Up
I thought the above would answer most reader questions. Of course, not all the answers are as clean as the short explanations given here, but I tried to keep this as brief as possible.