Hello, readers. It’s been a while. We have myself to blame. My health took a bit of a downward turn, and I’ve been buried in editing gigs so I just haven’t had much time to do anything on my website.
I’ve been mulling over this Deep Dive a bit. I wasn’t sure how to attack this topic, and I think I finally figured it out.
As you (may or may not) know, the things I write are very often, if not always, based on history. Seraphina’s Lament was largely based on the Holodomor and Stalinism. An Elegy for Hope is based a lot on World War II, specifically the Operation Barbarossa part of it.
Of Honey and Wildfires, which will be published in March, is set in a Wild West/frontier-based secondary world. I’ve already talked a bit about worldbuilding and how I used oil as a basis for the magic system. (Go ahead and read that post here.) Today I want to talk a bit about picking and choosing which bits of history I use, and which I decide to pass over when I write. I’d like to use Kit Carson and his eldest daughter Adelaide as an example.
Ready? Here we go.
If you say the name “Kit Carson” out here in the west, there aren’t many people who haven’t at least heard his name. Kit Carson is a historical figure who is larger than life.
Whether you think of him as a murderer, criminal, or Wild West hero, chances are, you’ve heard of him.
He worked for the army, he was a mountain man, fur trader, trapper, hunter, and worked as a liaison with many Native Americans. He hit the open road as a teenager and never looked back. He was instrumental in a lot of the things that happened in the great drive west in the United States
Kit Carson moved west as a boy along with his family. Eventually settling in Missouri, Carson’s father died when he was clearing a field and a tree branch fell on him. This left Kit, the eldest son of a large family, someone at odd ends. He ended up becoming an apprenticed to a saddler in Franklin, Missouri. The work did not suit him, and he hit the Santa Fe trail.
It was during this time of his life that he was introduced to the great wide west and his ability to wander through it must have been intoxicating. Meeting up with a bunch of mountain men, he learned how to hunt and trap with them, and eventually made his way to a rendezvous, wherein he met his first wife, an Arapaho woman named Waa-nibe (Different sources spell this name different ways, so I kind of just picked one spelling and ran with it), which roughly translates to “Singing Grass.”
(Note: Carson did have a wife after Singing Grass died, and before Josefa, but the marriage didn’t last long and was not happy so I don’t mention it here.)
Now, this is where sources differ, depending on who you’re reading. I am going to tell you what was said in the book Blood and Thunder, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
Carson and Singing Grass got married (all signs point to the fact that he loved Singing Grass deeply), and they had two daughters. The eldest daughter, Adelaide (nicknamed “Prarie Flower”) survived. However, his wife died shortly after the birth of his second daughter. He took his two children to Taos, New Mexico and sometime when he got down there, he realized that Adelaide needed education and stability and the life of a mountain man wasn’t suited to that. He left his youngest daughter in Taos, in the care of others, and took Adelaide back to Missouri to be raised with his younger sister. The way it is told in Blood and Thunder, shortly after he left Taos, his youngest daughter fell in a vat of soap when it was being made, and died. Thus, many sources you read online will say he only had one child with Singing Grass, not two.
Anyway, Carson takes Adelaide up to Missouri and eventually settles on leaving her with his sister to be raised. He bought her dresses, and cleaned her up so she would make a good first impression. After he left, heading back down to Taos, his sister said that Adelaide was so wild, she would pull up plants and attempt to eat their roots.
Adelaide did not live a long life. She died at 21, and if you look online, there really isn’t anyone that knows how or why, though it is assumed she died in childbirth. She is buried in California. Even then, there are some claims that she lived longer than the plaque on her grave claims, as there was an Adelaide Carson living alone in the 1860 census of Tulare County, CA, which is some years after she is claimed to have died.
I haven’t been able to find much information about her other than speculation, so I’ll leave her story there for now.
Kit Carson, however, is very much larger than life and was even more so back then. His stories, often embellished, were featured in dime novels. His exploits were known from sea to shining sea. In Blood and Thunder, I found the small details of the man to be intoxicating. He was illiterate. He was quiet and rarely spoke in any way that gave away his personal thoughts and emotions. He was fiercely, doggedly loyal to his wife Josefa, and his children.
Okay, so let me leave things there for now. Kit Carson is so big, so well-known, that I really don’t need to say much more than that to get to where I’m going. Which is… how does all this impact Of Honey and Wildfires?
Of Honey and Wildfires is very much a family drama. The story starts out with Christopher Hobson, a single father, outlaw, and mountain man, leaving his five-year-old daughter, Cassandra, with his sister to be raised.
Already you can see some similarities, right? They aren’t on accident. I named Christopher Hobson “Christopher” as homage to the Kit Carson who very much inspired him. There’s a bit very early on in the book where Cassandra is being discussed, and it’s said that she dug up some bushes and started to lick the roots of the plant to see if they were edible (which was in a letter written by Carson’s sister, quoted in Blood and Thunder.).
“She’s half animal, Imogen. She came here in buckskins and a tunic, hair in braids, five minutes away from howling with the wolves. I caught her, just yesterday, digging up one of my flower bushes, licking the roots, wondering if she could eat them. She speaks our language well enough, though she’s uneducated. Chris was never a man of words, and he’s been gone for… It’s been so many years. Whatever manners he had, disappeared. Then his wife died. He loved her, and it broke him. He dragged his poor child through the mountains and didn’t teach her a thing aside from survival.”
– Of Honey and Wildfires
More difficult, though, was how hard it was for me to decide which parts of the actual Kit Carson man, and his daughter Adelaide, to take and put in my development of the characters in my book.
I like to use history as a springboard, but not as the entire basis for what I’m writing. Kit Carson was just too big, and so when I was developing Christopher Hobson, I decided to take those parts of Carson that were positively human, just small details many people overlook, and use them to make my own Christopher Hobson. Christopher Hobson cannot read. His wife, whom he loved dearly, died in childbirth, and so now he has a five-year-old daughter and doesn’t know what to do with her, as well as all his grief, and that’s how Cassandra ends up being raised by his sister Annie, in Shine Territory.
“He’ll come back, Cassandra. He’ll come back as soon as he realizes what he’s left here. Don’t blame him for being broken. Sometimes the world is too hard for the people who live in it.”
– Of Honey and Wildfires
Christopher Hobson is also more comfortable in nature, never staying in one place too long. He’s a man of few words, and rarely goes into how he feels about a thing. He’s got his own moral compass very few people actually understand.
“Are you staying?” Annie asked, voice full of hope. “You could hide out somewhere—”
“I can’t,” Da said. He cast his eyes to the far wall, as though he could see through it. “You know me, Annie. My life wasn’t made to be lived in one place.”
– Of Honey and Wildfires
All of this was inspired by Kit Carson. For me, it wasn’t as much bringing Kit Carson to life, as using the human things I discovered about the man to make my own character, Christopher Hobson.
Adelaide Carson was a bit harder for me to work with, and she required a lot more imagination on my part. I don’t have Native Americans in my book, but the people who live in Shine Territory are different than the people who live outside of it, and Cassandra has the blood of both in her veins. She spent her childhood with a mountain man, and then ended up on the frontier, forced to learn how to live a life of dresses and school and social norms and all that.
I imagine that Adelaide very much felt like a girl with one foot in two different worlds, and I imagine that caused a lot of inner conflict and termoil, especially at first and that’s not even considering how society must have treated her. I imagine that life on the frontier was easier for children like Adeliade, though still not easy. She must have felt very torn between two different and I think that would have been very confusing and painful. That “torn” feeling, that inner conflict, the feeling of being torn between two lives is something I tried to catch with Cassandra.
I imagined a lot when it came to Adelaide.
I straddled two worlds. The world of Annie on one side, complete with civilization and dresses, letters and numbers. Propriety. On the other side was the untamed and my father. A life where the only rules that really mattered were the ones that kept a person alive. The frontier was a fertile place for someone like me to grow, someone with the mountains in her bones, first learning the ways of civilization.
– Of Honey and Wildfires
I tried to bring some of that to life, though Cassandra’s situation is a bit different due to the world I’ve created and the problems surrounding this specific area. Mostly, I tried to bring some of the humanity of Kit Carson to life in Cassandra. I tried to take the things I envisioned him wanting for his daughter, wanting them enough to travel to Missouri and leave her with relatives he hadn’t seen in sixteen years. I tried to show how that experience would impact a little girl, like Adelaide. Like Cassandra.
Because so little is known about Adelaide, a lot of my development of Cassandra was based on what I dreamed up, based on what I knew of Kit Carson. Here was a man who’d lost his wife, a woman he’d loved. He had spent most of his life trapping, and living in the mountains, alone sometimes, with Native Americans sometimes, sometimes with other mountain men. He knew how to hunt and trap, he knew how to survive. He did not know much about how to raise a girl. He must have been overwhelmed with suddenly finding himself alone in the world with two daughters. Overwhelmed enough to travel to Taos, New Mexico, and then, upon realizing his eldest daughter was old enough to go to school and become a lady and he was utterly unequipped to deal with that, travel again with her to Missouri, a place he’d been gone from for sixteen years, with family he hadn’t seen in just as long.
All of that makes me think that Kit Carson was a bit out of his depth, and desperate. Plus, in the way of all fathers, he wanted so much more for his child than he knew he could give her. Though I tell most of this story from Cassandra’s point of view, I tried very hard to put the tangled emotions from both Christopher and his daughter into her narrative.
What kind of man leaves his only child in the arms of strangers? What kind of pathetic daughter was I for being so easy to leave?
– Of Honey and Wildfires
That’s what I tried to use when I built Cassandra. A father’s desperation, his grief, his worry, and his desire for his daughter to be something more than what he could make her, and give her opportunities he couldn’t. So, in the first chapter of the book, Christopher ends up leaving his daughter, Cassandra, with his sister, Annie, whom Cassandra had never heard of before. She lives in a cabin on the frontier, goes to school, makes friends, but life is not easy.
“Don’t forget me,” he whispered, gripping my chin with his thumb and forefinger.
Perhaps being forgotten is the worst thing an adult can imagine, but as a child what mattered wasn’t the forgetting, but the removal. Being isolated. I was a stranger in a strange world, too small to navigate these waters. Too young to understand what was happening. Everything narrowed. Reality became defined by the shattered-glass sound of my own frozen screams.
I did not know that a person could feel so powerfully. I did not know that sorrow could scald.
I was not sad that he would forget me, or I him. I was afraid, because suddenly I knew what it was to be cold. I was frightened, because now I understood the awesome power of the word alone.
When I was a child, I did not know how much life could hurt.
I have gained one truth over the years: The heart is a knife. Each beat of it cuts.
– Of Honey and Wildfires
There are small things I added in, in homage to what I know of Adelaide.
Her father cannot read, and he really wants her to learn how to, so she spends a lot of her childhood trying, very hard, to fulfill her father’s wish for her. Kit’s nickname for his daughter was “Prarie Flower” and Christopher Hobson’s nickname for Cassandra is “Little Flower.” But mostly with Cassandra, I had to imagine how hard life must have been for Adelaide, the desperation of the situation, the pain of being left, the inability to fit in, no matter how hard she tried. Constantly an outsider, I think she probably had happy moments, but I also think there was a lot of pain in her life, as well.
Writing from history can be a lot of fun, but the story of Kit Carson was probably one of my biggest challenges, just due to how absolutely huge the man is in American history. For me, it’s not as much figuring out how to fit history into my writing, but figuring out which bits of history to use, and which to toss away. Writing in a secondary world gives me a lot of freedom, but it also means that carefully choosing which real-world history bits to use to infuse my world and characters, and which to leave aside, can be a real challenge, and can change the entire course of the book, for better or worse.
I tend to really enjoy the small details of history, and I usually focus on the more human aspects of the people that populate it than the bigger, more dramatic picture. Kit Carson is a good example. He was almost so big a figure he became superhuman, and I instantly knew, when I decided to use him as a basis for Christopher Hobson in Of Honey and Wildfires, that I had to do away with all the superhuman and focus on the man or the book wouldn’t work. That’s why I decided to settle on the fact he couldn’t read, his dogged loyalty to his family and wife, his love for Singing Grass, the decision to leave his daughter in Missouri after his wife had died. The grief he must have felt. The desperation that must have fueled that decision.
Adelaide’s rather mysterious life was unfortunate, because I’m really interested in what it must have been like for her, the daughter of this infamous man, left with relative strangers on the frontier at such a young age. I cannot imagine any of her childhood being easy. I ended up having to imagine a whole lot about her, and then sort of building up Cassandra from the things I knew of Kit Carson, life on the frontier, and my own imagings about the situation as a whole.
Did I do a good job of it? I don’t know. You’ll have to decide when Of Honey and Wildfires drops in March.