A Family Story Inspired my book, Fly With The Mourning Dove
The most asked question at workshops and conferences is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, have you ever thought of looking at home? Where you grew up, who you lived with?
That’s where the idea for Fly With The Mourning Dove, my latest book, came from. My Dad was a great storyteller and he told one particular story to anyone who would listen. It was about a distant relative of my mother’s, who spent an entire winter living alone on a remote homestead in the high desert of New Mexico.
As a child, I met the family, but then I grew up and went on my way to raise my own children and then to become the writer I’d always thought I could be. Well, at least, I’m trying. As I wrote book after book and began to be published, I never really forgot my father’s story. How much had he enhanced it, I often wondered. And what kind of woman could have accomplished such a lonely mission?
Then I attended a Western Writers of America Conference in Albuquerque and remembered that the daughter of that woman in my father’s story lived in New Mexico. She still owned the ranches. One in Colorado in the San Luis valley, the other in New Mexico on the high desert. She would be close to ninety, I thought. Would she still be lucid? Could she tell me more of the story?
I gave her a call and she was ecstatic, invited me to come spend a week with her. My fears about her lucidity were immediately put to rest. She was perky physically and knowledgeable about everything. Her bookshelves were filled with books about New Mexico. During the winter she lived in a small trailer in Espanola, but in the summer she went to the ranch high above Tres Piedras where cattle and horses still grazed the high country, where there were no modern conveniences, where she spent time alone and connected with her past .
I spent a whirlwind week with Edna, who told me she would turn 89 that summer. She acted more like a sixty-year-old, still hiked trails in the mountains, and she drove like a race car driver. As we flew at 80 and 90 mph over the desert highways, she talked about her life growing up there. She came there at the age of six, right after World War One, and they lived on a homestead near Taos Junction on the narrow gauge railroad that ran from Antonito, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artists were just beginning to discover Taos, which prior to that was a Tewa Indian Pueblo. Anglos were pouring into New Mexico, and history was being made. She and her parents became a part of that history.
We drove on little known back roads, one particularly scary narrow dirt lane snaked its way down into the Rio Grande canyon. As she maneuvered the twists and turns she talked about John Dunn, the first man to run a mail route, to open a bridge across the river, to run a stage line to Santa Fe. And she told me about her parents.
I was hooked. My father’s stories had become real and I had my protagonist. All I had to do was write the book. At the time I was writing historical romances and she read them all avidly. I began to visit her every summer, and she told me on one of my trips, that when I wrote her story, she hoped I wouldn’t write it as a romance. She loved my books, but skipped over the sex scenes. That was my first hint that she would be amenable to my writing a book about her life.
So, we began. Though I made a lot of notes and taped some of her stories, we did the most part through the mail. During that time, she retired from her trailer, gave up driving for fear she might get someone hurt, and moved into a veteran’s retirement village in Colorado. I asked for more stories, sent her a package of yellow pads and she started to record her memories. Anything that came to mind, at first, then replies to specific questions I asked. No matter how much I asked of her, she never failed to respond. Sometimes she’d say she just couldn’t think of another thing to write, but then in a few days, I’d get another fat envelope with memories covering both sides of the yellow legal pad paper written in handwriting still as legible as mine.
I spent close to two years getting the book in manuscript form. At last I sent it off to her. She read it, made some suggestions, which I followed, then she read it again. One day I received in the mail that final ms from her with a post-it note on top. It read simply, “I’m satisfied. Edna.”
She’ll be 94 years old in July, and she’s self-effacing about the experience, saying that all her friends think the book is “okay.” She requests boxes of books which I send, and she sets out, her granddaughter at the wheel, to carry them to small shops and bookstores with which she’s familiar in her area. She gives them away, sells them, whatever she thinks is best. And she’s having a heck of a good time. One of the shops, located in Antonito, Colorado, on the narrow gauge railroad that today carries tourists from there to Chama, New Mexico, has ordered books from the publisher several times, she told me. Only thing she regrets is that we weren’t both twenty years younger when we tackled the project.
I’m going out to see her this fall, and she’s expecting to accompany me to some book signings in the area where we can both sign copies of the book. And I’ll probably have trouble keeping up with her.
So, next time you’re looking for an idea, look in your own family history. There just may be a story there begging to be written. And then Google Lee Gutkind online. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and his articles and stories can get you started writing your true stories in such a way that everyone will want to read them.
Velda Brotherton has a biography and information about her books on her website at: