Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Opening Windows

First of all, Hi to anybody who came over here from Susan Taylor Brown's blog. This is one of the values of having friends - you start a blog, they tell their established readership that you exist before you start showing up on Google searches. Thanks, Susan!

Now, on to the regularly scheduled post. Tuesday, I've decided, is research posting day. This'll be easy for awhile, as I'm in active research mode, trying to get enough info together to nail down the plot of the WIP, whose working title, I'm afraid, is "the lesbian western." Yes, it's YA. Anyway, it's set in Texas in the crack between Appommatox (April 9) and Juneteenth(June 15) when Reconstruction Governor Hamilton arrived and officially implemented the Emancipation Proclamation. (Remember that date so you can celebrate with a barbeque.) The war was over in the East and in the West soldiers were deserting in droves, but it took General Kirby-Smith, nominally in charge of the Trans-Mississippi department, till June 2nd to surrender, and General Jo Shelby never surrendered at all, but led a long retreat down to Mexico (which had its own Civil War going on) trying to keep together enough die-hards to relaunch some miracle counteroffensive. Nobody could ever accuse the Confederate leadership of overburdening themselves with realistic goals.

This is a tough period to research. Newspapers were being printed when editors could get paper, which wasn't often - the San Antonio Herald was printed on wallpaper for awhile - and people who had kept diaries all through the war had run out of the wherewithal in fall of 1864. Historians deal either with the Civil War or with Reconstruction, and this chaotic transitional period is given short shrift in secondary sources. Memoirists skip over it entirely.

Actually, most Texas home front memoirists, at least from the frontier areas I'm interested in, skip the Civil War. Over and over I read paragraphs like: "Then secession came, and the war. It was an awful time. I hauled cotton to Mexico for the government. In 1868 -" and off we go again into stuff I can't use. This is because frontier Texas, never the most tranquil place, was plagued with paranoia, outlawry, and neighbor-on-neighbor violence on an appalling scale. The Confederate government made no attempt to protect the frontier from Indians, and a number of their most idiotic decisions (such as undermining their own currency by limiting the export of cotton, the only commodity they had to back it) played out in Texas and along the border. Men deserted and dodged conscription because they didn't want to leave their families vulnerable, because they didn't want to be Confederates, and because lynching Unionist neighbors was more profitable and less dangerous than joining the Army and being shipped out of state. Sorting out who did what thing to be ashamed of, or refrained from actions they could have been proud of, afterward, was just too painful. But my heroine's in the middle of this, and is making decisions based on first-hand knowledge of what was going on. I need to know details!

So I research every day, but keep encountering obstacles, in the form of canyons of missing information and resources. Books that I know exist I suddenly can't find and so on. I discovered that the first hundred years of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly is online, and beautifully indexed, so early last week I was looking under "B" - for Bandit, and also Bandera County. But it stopped working for some reason - and when this site crashes, it drags the whole internet down with it. It was too late in the day to bus down to the library and commence the newspaper search I've been putting off (microfilm makes me seasick, but I'll have to suck it up sooner or later), so I did a google-search on one of the few Evildoer Names I had - Waldrip. And I found this online essay: "True to the Union." It contained a lot more stories about specific incidents than other secondary sources I've read, but didn't have any source notes. So I e-mailed the author, who is local historical adult fiction novelist Celia Hayes, and she kindly linked me to "The Dogs of War Unleashed: The Devil Concealed in Men Unchained," by Joe Baulch, and it is the goods! Not only did I get more names and dates from it than I had from all my previous research, but the great-grandfather of a friend of mine is in the footnotes - in a completely unexpected context. So I printed out a copy for him and a copy for me.

Which reminds me, I need to get contact information from that friend to hook me into the local historical society network. Meanwhile, I was talking about this on my e-mail writing group and a friend of mine from there who actually belongs to the Texas Historical Association didn't know about the journal being online and she's thrilled. If the glitch on the site ever goes away, she'll have a wonderful time with it.

And the point is, writing is a solitary occupation, but it's not one you're doing alone. When the door of research shuts in your face, open a window. Talk to your neighbor that you've never talked to before. Share your blogs, share your links, share your stories. Talk about what you're doing, encourage others to talk about what they're doing. Other people can't solve your problems, but they can loan you the tool that enables you to solve them, or introduce you to the person who's solved a similar one. I suck at networking, and look how well I did last week!

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