I remember a time when we used kerosene lanterns here in Arkansas, because it was 1954 before rural electric came to the wilderness of our Ozarks. Though we had moved away when WW II broke out, my aunts and uncles and grandparents remained here, and we visited often. I got a taste of how it was to live without modern conveniences much as my historical fiction characters do. They drew water from a well, heated and cooked with a wood stove, had no modern machines, like washer, dryer, hot water tank, etc.
By that time we lived in the modern world in Wichita, Kansas, but I still remember how much I enjoyed returning to Arkansas and visiting my relatives.
I thought it romantic, except for running to the outhouse just before bedtime, especially on cold nights. Ah, yes, the outhouse. It was in the barnyard where one particular rooster laid in wait. He heard the gate squeal open, and one step through here he’d come, feet pounding on the ground. He had these huge horned toes, one in particular that he would slash at me with. Now why would a domestic bird delight in attacking a member of that species that fed and watered and cared for him? Better, why was I scared of a chicken?
My favorite time of the year in those long gone days was when the crews came in to cut hay. My uncle raised cattle and poultry, and the hay was cut two to three times a year and put up to feed the cattle in the winter. As a teenager I would make sure to be lying in the sun in a bathing suit when the crews showed up in the fields so I could get a good look at the young men, and they at me. I can still recall the fragrance of hay as it’s cut, filling the mountain air with the sweetest smell imaginable.
One memory disrupts another buried in the cobwebs of my mind. The year we took a six-week trip to California, up through Washington and Oregon and back home. My Dad was doing well as a contractor following the war and I was fifteen, flirty and feeling my sexuality. But I hadn’t learned yet how to handle the attention I would get when I did flirt. We went to San Francisco where the streets were filled with sailors.
I still remember the outfit I chose to wear when we walked those same streets. It was a white fishnet shirt with an attached stretch strapless top underneath, plus a navy blue pencil skirt and white high heels. My first pair. I let my long blonde hair down to blow in the sea breeze and reveled at the stares from the passing sailors. At six foot in flats, I did attract some attention and gave as much as I got.
Do you suppose memories of those days fuel my writing today, as an old lady no longer tall and lithe or blonde? I really suspect they do. I cling to them voraciously when I sit down to write about young women heading west so long ago. While they never had the experiences I had, that basic feeling of excitement and self awareness probably existed within them, just as it did with me that long ago summer when we headed West and I got a look at the world I’d never been exposed to before.
I must’ve been thirteen when I fell in love with the boy who lived down the street. There were three boys who hung around. Kenneth, Robert and Jack. We climbed trees, played football and walked downtown on Saturdays to the Matinee movie. Jack was more adventuresome, laughed a lot and teased me every chance he got. I loved him dearly. The other two were pals. In those days I preferred the company of boys to girls who were silly, giggled a lot and were afraid of bugs and snakes. I loved Jack until he went in the Navy at the age of 17 when his mother died. That was the year my family went to California. By then he was riding a motorcycle and that was even more exciting for me. We dated until he left, then wrote each other for a long while after I began to go with the man who would become my husband.
Those feelings of young love and loss that I remember play a huge part in what I write today. My heroines are often rough and tumble like I was, they don’t whine or act silly or weak. They climb trees and ride bareback and play rough games. They are young and strong and hopeful, and certainly not perfect. Their flaws must be overcome for them to succeed. And how about our heroes? Don’t we all want that perfect man? But does he exist? Probably not, beyond the romance novel, and even there he too has his flaws. Like my Jack, who tended to drink a bit too much, even at that young age. And he was wild, though never in bad trouble. One dark, rainy night he slid his motorcycle beneath the trailer of a semi and broke his leg. How exciting, how brave. I adored him, but was no doubt better off without him. I never knew what became of him.
Those memories along with many others, are treasures. As a writer every experience holds something valuable for me, as it should for you. So dig into your memories when creating characters and plot. You may find something there you didn’t expect.