Where Ideas Come From
“Where do your ideas come from?”
That is the writer’s most frequently asked question. Mostly I weakly reply, “Well, it just happens.” There’s some truth to that, as vague as it seems. I can’t explain it.
But now and then, I know precisely how a book starts. Essentially, Softly Falling is the story of the winter of 1886-87 known as The Big Die-Off in Wyoming. The range was overstocked and there had been a dry summer. Blizzards started on October 2, and never let up until spring. Fencing of the range was nearly non-existent. Many of the cattle were newly arrived from Texas (think “Lonesome Dove”). These cattle drifted south before each storm, trying by instinct to return to the Texas plains. Some were stopped by drift fences, where they piled up and died. Other kept moving south and died, too. Cattle deaths approached 90 percent of the entire range.
The Big Die-Off was the beginning of the end of open range. Once barbed wire came into more use, it was the beginning of selective breeding. Ranchers could now improve the breed behind fences.
My interest in this started when I was kid and first read The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of you have probably read this book, arguably the best of the series. During the winter of 1880-1881, when Laura was fourteen, the Dakotas went through a season of endless blizzards.
The Ingalls started the winter on their claim near DeSmet, South Dakota, but moved into town to Pa’s empty office building. There they froze and starved with their neighbors. It’s a gripping story of survival that I never forgot.
Then came my own experience, the one that I knew would write about someday. I worked for several years as a ranger at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, located on the Montana-North Dakota state line. I spent the summers there, and went back in the winter for special projects, from my home in eastern North Dakota.
I was working at the fort one week in the winter. The day started out fine. The ranger offices were downstairs – no windows – in the visitor center. I had a meeting in Williston, but when I came upstairs, there was a total white-out going on.
I started out from the fort, which is situated on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. There is a long, curving sidewalk down to the parking lot which is some distance away, but I had walked it hundreds of times.
Snow blew in all directions, but I knew that sidewalk well, except that I didn’t. Snow covered everything, and I ended up off the sidewalk, disoriented and heading into a field. I could tell after a few steps that I was on grass, even though I couldn’t see it. I stopped and had no idea where I was. I just stood there a few minutes, reminded myself to calm down. I turned around, but my tracks were all gone. I couldn’t see a thing.
I started walking, and after what seemed like an eternity, I felt the sidewalk again. I stayed on it this time, and eventually came to the curb for the parking lot. Visibility improved a bit, and I found my car. In that mysterious way of snowstorms, things cleared up and I had no trouble getting to Williston for the meeting.
I never forgot how frightened I was. A novelist by then, I knew this was an experience that shouldn’t just be wasted on me!
I started looking for “snow books.” In 2004, HarperCollins published The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin. It’s two stories: one of the infancy of the National Weather Service; and second, the terrible day of January 12, 1888, when a blizzard struck South Dakota and Nebraska as school was letting out for the day at those little schoolhouses situated between claims.
The day had begun unseasonably warm, so some of the children hadn’t bundled up. What happened was probably what we call a polar vortex now. The blizzard swept in and left brutal cold behind. Many children died on what should have been a safe-enough walk home. Some teachers insisted on keeping their students in the school, and ended up burning everything in the building to stay warm. Several hundred children and others were caught in the storm.
The NWS was located in St. Paul, Minnesota, then, and the forecasters could tell something was happening. By the time they predicted the enormity of the storm, it was too late. They telegraphed the news, but there was no way to contact these remote schools.
I had a story. Here’s where the “what if” comes into play. What if I have a schoolteacher, a real novice to both teaching and to Wyoming Territory? What if she is living with her broken-down father on an isolated ranch? What if the winter is The Big Die-Off? How will she cope, and how will the ranchers and hands survive?
I had further historical help from Teddy Blue Abbott, a ramshackle young fellow who became an excellent stockman. He started in Texas as a cowhand on the trail drives, and ended up in Montana. His memoir, We Pointed Them North, is a classic of the trail drive era, and an excellent source of The Big Die-Off in Wyoming and Montana.
I had my ideas and my sources, which included the ranches themselves. Many of them were consortiums created by British and Scottish stockholders who bought up huge acreage in Wyoming, and overstocked the range, because they knew they could make fortunes in the West. After that awful winter, most of the consortiums dribbled away, and ranching changed.
So that’s it. Lily Carteret, a mixed-race woman of British and Barbadian ancestry comes to Wisner, Wyoming Territory. My experiences and interests become hers, and that’s how writers do it.