23 September 2012

Guest Blog: Celia Hayes

This week, we’re welcoming historical fiction author Celia Hayes, who writes novels of the Old West. Her novel, Daughter of Texas, is the first of her series on the drama of a woman's life in Texas. Celia is be here to talk about the novel and offer a copy to a lucky winner. Leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win. Here's the blurb:

Before the cattle drives … Before the Alamo …Before the legends were born. She was there, and she saw it all. On the day that she was twelve years old, Margaret Becker came to Texas with her parents and her younger brothers. The witch-woman looked at her hands, and foretold her future; two husbands, a large house, many friends, joy, sorrow and love.

The witch woman would not say what she saw for Margaret's younger brothers, Rudi and Carl – for Texas was a Mexican colony. Before the Becker children were full-grown, the war for Texas independence would come upon them all and show no mercy.

During her life, she would observe and participate in great events. She would meet and pass her own judgment on great men and lesser men as well; a loyal friend, able political hostess . . .  and at the end, a survivor and witness. But in all of her life, there would be only one man who would ever hold – and break – her heart!

**Q&A with Celia Hayes**

You have had something of an interesting background, before becoming a scribbler of historical fiction: Tell us about that.
I served in the US Air Force from 1977 to 1997, as a radio/television broadcast specialist – mostly overseas, in places like Japan, Korea, Greece, Spain and Greenland. That’s where there generally was no English-language television and radio programming, until cable stations like the Star Channel began international service. So, I wound up doing all sorts of interesting and amazing things – I was the midnight rock and roll DJ at our station in Greece, for example, and the TV newscaster for the 6 PM news broadcast in Japan. I got lost in every major city between Portugal and the then-Iron curtain, and I knew how to say ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’ll have a pound of that’ in about eight languages. I drove across Europe alone with a small child; we took six weeks at it, and my poor daughter got dragged through every museum and historical site we came across. We went camping all over Spain, and when I was in Korea I had an outside job copy-editing and voicing English-language educational videos. The experience of military service came in handy in several ways - first, in meeting and working alongside of a great variety of people, from very different backgrounds than mine. Secondly – in letting me travel all over the world, and to see and experience a larger world, and finally for honing my ability to tell stories, in practically any format, from a thirty-second radio spot to a 500 page novel.

Can you explain why you are attracted to the American frontier, and the 19th century in particular?
I’d always been drawn to the history of the frontier and the western pioneers; I read Little House on the Prairie at an impressionable age, and I also loved the stories of the wagon-train pioneers as I was growing up. I had mapped out a novel about the Stephens-Townsend party decades before I ever sat down to write it. And I had so much fun, that I thought I would go ahead and write another!  I decided that it had to be set on the frontier, since I already had so many of the necessary reference books and I was comfortable writing that time frame … but it would have to be an unknown story, something that not many people knew about. Where’s the fun in writing yet another story about the Tudors, or the Donner Party? Better to write about a terrifically interesting but relatively unknown story.  I realized that I lived just down the road from the scene of a fantastic unknown story; the thousands of German settlers who were brought to Texas in the late 1840s and essentially dumped on the far frontier to fend for themselves. It was going to be just one book, but grew to three, since I found out so much stuff about them, in doing research.

Then I got interested in that part of early Texas history that didn’t have much to do with the Alamo, which lead to the most recent work; a closer look at the life of a minor character in the Trilogy – a woman who was there in Texas from the start, experienced the Texian revolt against the Mexican dictator Lopez de Santa Anna, and the very complicated years of the independent Republic of Texas … all much more complicated and dramatic than most people know. Texas is kind of a concentrate of the frontier; there was enough drama there to go on for most of the century. The historian TH Fehrenbach wrote that Texas was at war for fifty years: war with the Comanche, with Mexico, the Comanche again, with the Union, and finally the Comanche one last time … and in between that, Texans feuded with each other. If they had kilts and broadswords instead of chaps and Colt revolvers, it would be Scotland! Texas was an independent country for ten years, and recognized by the great European powers; the last battle of the Civil War was in Texas, the Butterfield stage line ran through it, the great cattle drives began there, and humongous hurricanes wiped out a major port city – three times! The possibilities for a ripping good yarn are practically limitless!

As to why I am particularly attracted to the 19th century? That period was absolutely key in developing what we think of as our national character, for better or worse, and because so much changed for us during the course of it. Consider that in 1801, the United States was a relatively poor, struggling little nation, just barely filling up the area between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachians. The way that everyone lived looked back more to the previous century, people lived by candle-light, they never went farther from where they lived – and they mostly lived on small farms – than the nearest town. Goods and people traveled on horse-drawn wagons, or on ships powered by wind. And by 1899 – good heavens! The United States went from sea to sea! There were electric lights, and factories making everything that once had been made by hand; you could travel by the railway or steamship, send a telegraph or use a telephone. And it was possible for someone to seen all of this during their lifetime! The 19th century and the western frontier made us; and I find it irresistible to write about.

How much of your own background and experiences are expressed in your books?
One of the experiences that I put into my books, especially the Trilogy, came from a moment when my daughter and I returned from Europe, after I had been stationed there without a break for nearly twelve years. We were driving up the I-15 through the Great Basin, and we came over a low pass and looked out at a long, long valley … and there was nothing man-made in sight, but for the highway itself, and the electrical towers running along side. No ancient ruins and walls, no watchtowers or castles on the tallest height, no ruined village or stone sheepfolds … nothing. We had just past a little town with a sign warning us – that was the last gas station for fifty miles. I had driven all over Europe, and I don’t think we were ever more than five miles from a gas station, and I remember thinking that some of my British and European friends would just completely freak about that. And that the European settlers who came to the US, and found themselves in the Great Basin, or the Platte River Valley, or the Llano Estacado must have been very discombobulated by the emptiness of it all.

Now and again, I have been kind of amused by the irony that I have written very movingly about happy and loving marriages, but was never married, myself. Kind of like Jane Austin, I guess – never married and apparently never seriously courted, but wrote so charmingly and endearingly about it all. I also have had a very strong relationship with my father, and with my brothers, so some of that comes through in my books; father-son, father-daughter, and brother-sister relationships are a very strong element. And I write about strong women, who still have to deal with having responsibility thrown onto them, who sometimes don’t feel quite up to the challenge of it, who do have doubts about themselves, feel their own limitations, or feel a little resentful because they are not conventionally pretty, or perhaps don’t conform to the expectations that they think others have of them.

Are there any authors who inspire you in your writing?
I always loved Rosemary Sutcliffe for Rider on a White Horse and Sword at Sunset – she wrote so beautifully about two very different historical periods, the English Civil War and Arthurian Britan. Then Mary Stewart for The Moonspinners and My Brother Michael.  She wrote so beautifully about Greece! I wound up taking an assignment there, just because I loved the way she described the places and people.  As for American historicals;  A.B. Guthrie for The Way West; Robert Lewis Taylor for The Travels of Jamie McPheeters and Two Roads to Guadalupe – for rollicking adventure on the frontier. Without realizing it at the time, I used his method of using a couple of narrators or creating contemporary letters and diaries to further the story. Finally, George Macdonald Fraser – for the Flashman series.  Ripping good yarns, good fun and accurate down to the sub-atomic level

What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?
I am a very organized one: I have a rough chapter outline and a fairly good idea of what is supposed to happen within the chapter. In that framework of course, all sorts of wondrously strange and creative things do happen. Whole conversations and characters do appear out of the blue, and some of the more strong-minded personalities try and take over. I do lots of reading and research first, almost always with contemporary accounts of what I am writing about. I make notes of incidents and accidents that I keep circling back to and try and incorporate a story that will take them in. Since last five books and the current work in progress are turning into a generational saga covering about 70 years, I have assembled this huge spread-sheet, tracking several interlinked families and their romances, marriages and other adventures, four wars, half a dozen cities and small towns and well as national and international events. 

What book projects are you working on now?
The most immediate is a German translation of the first volume of the Trilogy: It should come out around the end of the year, in e-book and print editions. The whole Wild West thing is very popular in Germany, and I would so love to clean up from all those Karl May fans out there. The second book project is a kind of follow-on to the Trilogy, again featuring some minor characters that appeared in it. It’s about an English lady who marries a Texas cattleman in 1876. She is desperate to escape an unhappy situation, and he feels sorry for her; it’s a kind of Mrs. Gaskell meets Zane Grey – I hope! I’ve only just started researching and outlining the book after that; a picaresque adventure in Gold Rush-era California. I’ve always wanted to write a Gold Rush adventure; like Texas at about that same time, there was a lot going on!

Thank you, Celia, and best of luck with Daughter of Texas!

Daughter of Texas is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Visit Celia's blogFacebook and Goodreads page.