Looking for a Novel
The Stories Behind the Stories
Fifty Years in 1000 miles
Many readers ask if my novels are based on real people, real events, and real places. All of them are—some more so than others. All of the major events happened; all of the characters were inspired by real people. Not all of the events happened to me, nor did I witness them all. A few are taken from newspaper and magazine articles that I found intriguing. But I witnessed most of the events. The people are often composites of interesting characters I have encountered. Some are readily identifiable as real people. The places are also real, though I might change the topography or combine characteristics of places to get the right setting for my characters.
I took a trip awhile back to retrace some of the places and people that inspired my writing in previous books and in my new offerings, Circle of Hurt and Believing in a Grand Thing.
Part 1—A song and mortality, old towns and ranches of West Texas
This trip, like many of mine, was unplanned. I just felt the need to get away from the office, the computer, and social media that had swallowed me whole after the publication of three books at the same time. I threw some things in a travel bag and left just after noon on a hot July Sunday.
I left the CD player going the last time I drove my pickup, and as I rounded the curve on our driveway, Red River Valley was still playing. I have used the words to that old song in at least two books. But today, the sound of the Sons of the Pioneers brought a sudden and very strong awareness of my mortality. Tears came to my eyes.
The song reminds me of my childhood and of my long gone parents. It’s about a girl leaving the valley, but as I drove away, I imagined my wife and children singing it to me. Lyrics like, “From this valley they say you are leaving” and “Then come sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu.”
Sounds like I am over dramatizing and I suppose I am, but as tears filled my eyes, I had the definite feeling that I might never see them again. Why? Maybe because this would be the first night I had spent alone away from home in several years. Nothing short of death could keep me from returning—thus the feeling that mortality rode with me. I had recently lost my cousin and close friend Marion, so death was fresh.
As I drove farther away, I tried to recall the words from Go Down Looking as I wrote about Jake’s loss of his brother, Gray Boy. I could almost recite them from memory.
His death undeniably changed my life, almost as much as his living. Mortality slapped me in the face that day and every day for months. The slaps were sharp and stinging. Then mortality became a distinct personage and regular traveler on my shoulders. He was heavy at first but then grew lighter with time, even lifting me up on those occasions when I wanted to bend with the weight of living. Having mortality there caused me to make better decisions, to take chances I might not have taken without his constant reminders that life is often short and always fragile.
I was headed to the Panhandle and possible other points north with the intention of coming back through Hollis, Oklahoma to see old friends. I had no real agenda, just go and hope. I had driven the Panhandle route many times over the years, but old landmarks were gone or changed, and without GPS in my old truck or on a smart phone, I decided to pull over and check my map about an hour from home.
A car driven by a Mexican woman and a young boy pulled up beside me. The boy asked directions to the prison in Bonham. Said his daddy was a prisoner there. He translated the directions I gave them. As they drove away, I wondered at the sad story they could probably tell and whether it was deep enough for a novel. Was that what I was looking for—a new novel—or was I rediscovering an old one?
As I passed through Nocona, I saw a for sale sign on what had been the world headquarters for Nocona Boot Company. I had visited there a couple of times back in the days when I sold boots in Chute I, my western wear and tack shop. Sad to see that old empty building, sort of a shadow of a former life.
In Henrietta, I pulled off the main highway and drove downtown to see how things had changed from the old days. Took a picture of an old hotel that had lots of western character. Downtown, like a lot of small Texas towns, seems to be on the decline. I sat on a bench on the courthouse lawn and felt cool under the shade even though the temp was around 100.
The sign for Waggoner Street reminded me that I was near the Waggoner Ranch (also known as the Triple D), the second largest ranch in Texas and the largest inside one fence.I tried to recall the family connection of the Waggoner to the 6666 Ranch and a little bit of the history I used to know well.
Legend has it that the 6666 was won with a poker hand of four sixes, but that is myth. Many towns, including Henrietta, Electra, Burkburnett, and Vernon claim ownership of that legendary poker game. The Sixes and Waggoner mixed families (but not land) when one of Burk Burnett’s (founder of the 6666) descendants married a descendant of W. T. Waggoner (founder of the Waggoner Ranch).
I understand the Waggoner family is feuding now and the ranch is up for sale for a mere $725 million. Legendary cutting horse Poco Bueno is buried there. I spent a little time with Wes O’Neal, a former horse manager there, when Glen Spradling, a farrier for the Waggoner, suggested that I write Wes’s biography. A project still not completed. Was that street sign telling me something? Part 2 soon.