Writing a historic western with broad appeal

By Nora Vasconcelos

Headshot_Charli_MillsCharli Mills loves riding horses the same as she loves writing stories. As she describes herself, she is “a born buckaroo, wrangling words”, and currently she is building a literary community at Carrot Ranch with weekly Flash Fiction Challenges open to all writers.

“Like most passionate writers, I’ve been writing since I was young. My 7th-grade teacher assigned writing stories (using the week’s spelling words) and I was hooked. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 before I went to college and earned a BA in literary writing.”, Charli remembers.

“Back in the 1990s, if you seriously wanted to write fiction you either had to be connected, brilliant or pursuing an MFA. With three children to raise, I turned to a career in marketing communications which allowed me to develop my freelance writing. Yet, I yearned for fiction. I’m a storyteller at heart. I dabbled with writers groups and contests and started numerous novels that fizzled before completion. When life took an unexpected hard turn, I decided it was time to finish at least one novel.” (Her first novel, “Miracle of Ducks” is currently seeking representation)

Over two decades, Charli’s worked in freelancing, publications, sales, marketing, editing and speaking. Her work has been published in magazines, anthologies, books and online. In 2012 she moved back west to follow stories and sunsets, working on her writing. As part of her motivation to finish her manuscripts, Charli decided to be part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

“In 2012 I used NaNoWriMo to complete all the gaps I had in my book in progress. After numerous revisions and professional edits, my 2012 manuscript is ready to seek a publishing home. In 2013 I wondered if I could write a first draft in 30 days from start to finish. I did. That manuscript needs more work, research and revision but it is material I wouldn’t have without NaNoWriMo. This year, I developed an idea from writing flash. I researched all summer and wrote weekly flash fiction to blend the history with my characters and ideas. In October I made my first-ever research trip! NaNoWriMo 2014 was a chance to pull it all together.

Rock Creek Mock-Up

– Once you committed yourself to this challenge, how difficult was it for you to keep going with it?
I’m the sort of person who perseveres. Even when I’m feeling low or lost, I keep pecking at the keys until I find my way. This book industry can be discouraging to emerging authors. That’s another reason why I appreciate NaNoWriMo; it is a challenge that helps me focus on my commitment and not the distractors. Every year, I improve. Every year, I meet other writers that have something to share with me. It keeps me going the rest of the year when I have to work on revision.

– Which was the toughest part of achieving your goal and how did you managed to cope with the difficult times?
This year was particularly difficult because I’ve focused more on fiction than freelancing which is a financial balance that can easily become a struggle. When my husband lost his job, I had a choice: continue, or stop and pick up some clients. I continued on while also putting out feelers for possible gigs. Mentally this was taxing for me and I felt near hopeless at the beginning of the month. I had also committed to encouraging others during this process, and I kept to it even when it was tough. The reward was the encouragement other writers gave in return.

– What is your manuscript about?
Rock Creek” is the story of one of the west’s most disputed historic gunfights. In July of 1861 James Butler Hickok (not yet known as “Wild Bill”) gunned down the notorious McCanles Gang at a Pony Express relay station in Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. There was no gang, but historians continue to argue why the shooting of three men took place.

My book explores and fictionalizes the women of Rock Creek in order to understand what happened that day. It looks at a surface event through the deeper gaze of these women that history has overlooked. I hope it surprises historians and offers fresh insight. “Rock Creek” is an historic western with broad appeal.

– Your book involves some traveling experiences, can you give me more details about them?
Rock Creek Station is now an historic state park. The fact that Wild Bill Hickok lived there and shot three men has spared the station from demise. Following an historic photograph from 1860 and an archaeological dig in the 1980s, the park has rebuilt both the west and east stations.

I really wanted to see the physical recreation and understand the positions each of my characters had taken in real life. I wanted to see the place as they saw it and absorb the feeling of the story by standing in the existing wagon ruts. I found a rental suite in Fairbury, which is the nearest town since I was taking family along with me on this journey.

My daughter and I both flew into Kansas City. She is a radio journalist and brought along her recording equipment to tell the story of discovery. We talked with locals, visited the library and found David McCanles’s grave. I cried when I discovered his wife was buried next to him. She is one of my characters and I feel her pain. Not only did she lose her husband and raise their five children as a widow on the frontier, but she lost her connections to family back home in North Carolina because of the Civil War. It’s a deeper story when you listen to the women.

The trip allowed me to experience the lonely expanse of the prairie first-hand, and enjoy a bottle of Nebraska wine!

– Now that the NaNoWriMo challenge has ended for this year, what’s next for you and for your manuscript?

I’m finishing up the first draft that will be 75,000 words or more. Then I’ll re-plot the scenes to make sure I have a solid three-act structure. Next I’ll list new research questions for historians, museum experts and a select few beta-readers who will help refine the historical accuracy. That will result in a better-informed revision.

After that, I’ll pass it off to my editor for an initial assessment. Next I’ll revise for readability and then I’ll send it off to my editor for copy-edits. I have a few specific publishers to explore. Because I’ve learned so much about this event, place, people and time, I’m also planning to promote the book by writing freelance articles for special interest magazines. However, I would love to travel one more time! My story begins in North Carolina and I’d love to complete the research there in person.

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I'm part of Post A Week 2014

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Author: The Traveling Book Club by Nora Vasconcelos

I'm a born writer and a journalist who loves books so much that can't live without them.

2 thoughts on “Writing a historic western with broad appeal”

  1. I suppose I knew a bit of this as one of Chari’s ‘regulars’ but it is great to have the depth of the insights laid out in one pace. Thank you Charli and Nora. Good luck both.

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