Saturday, June 25, 2011

Drowning Puppies

She was shocked, my animal loving daughter, to learn people living in frontier Kansas drowned unwanted puppies.  In Eastern Kansas, where I was born, there were available rivers and ponds. In Western Kansas, where water was hard to come by, I don’t know what they did.
They could have given them away, she argued. Really? To whom? There were no people, no humane societies, no towns, no resources, barely enough to eat. They couldn’t risk the danger of savage feral dog packs increasing each year.
The incident of the field mice in Lethal Lineage is true. I thought it was (easily) the strangest story I had ever heard. Edna’s children rescued a nest of field mice. Once started, field mice take over a house, and of course they had to go. But Edna couldn’t bear the thought of her children regarding her a mouse murderer. She had to do something. . .
The Lottie Albright series has a strong history component because she’s compiling county history books and soliciting family stories for publication. These stories become entangled in the plot and have a strange relationship to contemporary murders she’s investigating. Lottie is also an undersheriff and it’s a toss-up as to which job gets her in the most trouble.
My most difficult task, by far, is to make critical historical plot situations and conditions, or morals seem believable to today’s reader. Can it be done?
Once I interviewed a lovely ancient Catholic ladies’ quilting group, and a number of them remembered stories passed down from their mothers. Is it possible to for us to understand the despair of a woman raising nine kids in a one-room soddy—snowed in, or with the wind howling? One lady remembered her mother rocking back and forth in a chair. Beyond lay an endless sea of grass. Not all of the children liked one another.
Sometimes murderous family tensions arose simply because there was no escape
Sometimes children couldn’t attend school in winter because there were no shoes available. Some women went crazy because of the wind and isolation.
Is there a way to impart the shame of “having to get married” in today’s society when unmarried mothers no longer have to hang scarlet letters on their bosom? Or the compulsion to wash every Monday because that’s what decent women did?
 Can mere words convey the exhilaration of receiving flats of baby chicks in the mail every spring?  Or the wonder of fields of wheat safely harvested? Or spring lambs? Or the giddy sense of accomplishment felt by women who ran their household like they were the CEO of General Motors?
As a historian, I’m wildly defensive of people who come from harsher times. As a mystery writer, I’m intrigued by the way family conflicts and intergenerational patterns affect our contemporary lives. This was brought home to me when I realized how thoroughly Southern some of my attitudes were, even though I was born in Kansas and stayed there. However, my father’s people came from Georgia. They moved to Kansas after the Civil War. My mother, sister, and I were never allowed to work in the field. The only reason given was that it wasn’t appropriate for women to do so. We were allowed to hoe gardens, however. My father had rigid standards for “ladies” which literally went back to the old plantation.
We mess up in real life due to our deadly descent. But this peculiar unconscious collection of attitudes, prejudices, and staunch beliefs greatly enriches our writing. Because then, rather than being labeled as neurosis, it’s called voice.
 A unique voice is a quality quite prized by editors.


Donis Casey said...

My grandfather drowned kittens in a burlap bag. Cats that were allowed to grow up to live in the barn and catch mice seldom lived very long anyway. Coyotes and feral dogs, you know.

Another thing that people wouldn't believe today is the wildly personal questions that people (especially women) would say to others they barely knew, like 'are you pregnant yet', or 'say, you've got fat since last I saw you!' or 'have you killed that worthless husband of yours yet?'

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis-loved the "worthless husband" comment.