Search This Blog

Monday, October 5, 2020



There is a wise old saying….to Thine own self be true. I believe that truth applies to writing as well as living and is especially applicable when writing fiction set in the past.

When  21st century readers travel back in time a century or two, or perhaps even further back to medieval times, they understandably bring their modern-day perceptions with them. An author wants to be true to the times yet knows there is a limit. When it comes to writing a love scene, for an example, hygiene is extremely important. Those were smelly times—no deodorants, no bubble baths, let alone bathwater from a tap. A pail or pails of water cannot be heated in five minutes for the lady’s slipper tub. Heck, even with our electric or gas stoves, it takes at least five minutes to boil a small kettle of water let alone make a pot of coffee. Therefore, a writer has to be realistic even with small, daily tasks.

There’s another saying—don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Why is that? Well, back in the day, the man or men of the house bathed first, then the wife/women and lastly the baby. By this time, the water was so dirty that one might not see the baby. This is repugnant to our modern-day sensibilities, we being used to daily showers or baths, but it was quite a reality in olden times.

In the wild west, unless there was a handy stream, bathing might be done on Saturday night in preparation for Sunday church. Cleanliness before Godliness, so be religious with your soap. In other cases, it could be once a month or several months when the cowboy or outlaw came to town and went for a shave, a haircut, and a bath. And that didn’t necessarily mean the tub was freshly filled for each bather.

There is a hilarious scene in Monte Walsh, starring Tom Selleck, where the cowhands could no longer tolerate the cook’s pungent, nose-stinging body odor as he leaned close, serving them at the table. They grabbed him and dumped him in the water barrel and scrubbed him, clothes and all. Well, <grin> Cookie bided his time and got his revenge. Moral of the story? Never rile the hand that feeds you.

Hollywood has produced some realistic movies with mud, muck and mire to give us a glimpse of the dreariness of being poor in olden times. The vivid depiction of the wretched living condition makes me shudder and appreciate my modern-day life.

The rich had their carriages to traverse the filthy streets that had gutters with horse dung and sewage running down the middle. Chamber pots were emptied from upper-story windows with little or no warning to unfortunate pedestrians below. Can you imagine the stench? Small wonder the elite held pomanders of oranges studded with cloves to offset the unpleasant vapors. They also doused themselves in perfume instead of bathing because bathing was considered unhealthy.

Research reveals that most women, for fear of catching a cold, didn’t wash their hair for weeks, just wore wigs. One can only imagine how many little critters nested there. Realism is good, up to a point, but one never wants to turn off the modern-day reader—at least when it comes to our hero and heroine. Sadly, (unforgivable) squalor still exists today in many cities around the world. This just proves human nature hasn’t changed with the times; only the window dressing changes.

Another thing a writer has to take into consideration is travel. Realistically, a horse cannot gallop non-stop for twenty miles when an outlaw is pursued by the hero or a posse. How far can a stagecoach travel in a day? And consider the passengers who cannot escape the dust seeping around the blinds covering the window openings, kicked up by the hooves of a team hauling a stagecoach.  

Does your heroine make an unrealistic glamorous exit (as often seen in Hollywood movies), or is her hat askew on her messed hair as she brushes the dust from her  clothes? It is the little touches that add texture to a story and brings it to life. If we have never bounced around or been wedged between smelly, unwashed passengers in a stagecoach or ridden a horse, how do we know what that feels like?

While on the subject of smells, I had an aha moment years ago when I visited a working pioneer village in New Brunswick. We had a gas furnace on the farm, so I never experienced the effects of a wood-burning fireplace (I always thought they were romantic). The fireplace was the hub of the home where meals were cooked and people warmed their hands or backsides.

The fire was seldom allowed to die out because often a stew pot  was nestled amongst the embers and ashes to cook food and keep it warm. A kettle hanging from a tripod kept water hot. In some cases more food was added to that same pot the next day or more and one would never know what all was lurking at the bottom.

Therefore the smell of burning wood hit me the moment I entered the cabin. I realized wood smoke never really leaves a home: it permeates curtains, bedding, and clothes. People are so used to those smells they are nose-blind and accept them without thought as part of living. I have noticed the smell of wood smoke in my home the morning after we had enjoyed a firelit evening watching television. Unlike in earlier times, we do not burn a log constantly (for cooking as well as heat in the winter.) Perhaps that’s why potpourri was used in the Victorian homes of the wealthy to offset the odors.

This first picture is one of Sam Kelly’s cave, which is located on private land. I actually stood inside this cave, smelled the dirt, and imagined living for several hours or days in this earthen cave. This is the size of cave I used in Beneath A Desperado Moon. In existence for well over a century, this cave has had support beams added to frame the entrance from caving in. (Photo from Wikipedia)

The second picture I begged to use from fellow western author, Charlie Steel, because it gives the reader a better visual that a couple horses could be tethered inside this much larger cave. (Photo property of Charlie Steel)


I wrote about Sam Kelly and outlaw wolf caves in a blog last year: and in my books, and also on my website:

I had a eureka moment, actually two of them, while writing Beneath A Horse Thief Moon. By changing just one word, it stopped my hero from becoming a bitter young man  and let him remain the tender, caring man he was born to be.

The second aha moment in the same book took much longer. It was a fight or flight situation in the first chapter where my heroine has captured an outlaw. Shaking with relief, she kneels on the prairie, thinking about her entire life. Then one day as I reread the scene, I literally slapped myself upside my head when I realized that I, the author, was in Sara’s head, telling the reader backstory instead of showing Sara’s fear and relief over what had just happened. The latter would have been realistic; the backstory was not.

For years, backstory early in a book (for the reader’s benefit) was how many romance books were written and thus that’s what I did, too. But after that break-through aha moment. I prefer to start with action and when it suits, throw in a sentence explaining the character’s thoughts and then continue with the plot. There will always be a time, when the reader needs a bit of a breather from the action, to give her some backstory. When I deleted those five or so pages of backstory, it made all the difference in the flow and pacing of the story at that point.

Getting inside the hero and heroine’s head is so important. In my very first historical that I wrote many years ago, another unpublished writer friend and I exchanged critiques. I remember her writing comments in the margins. Forgive my language, but it underscores my point. She wrote asshole (meaning the hero). Then a little further on, she wrote it again. I also remember her writing it twice, in darkened letters and heavily  underlined at another place.

My hero’s actions were ticking her off because she didn’t know why he was acting so thoughtlessly toward the heroine. She only knew what was written on the page. I, on the other hand, knew why he acted or said things because my mind automatically filled in the words that weren’t on the page. Deep pov doesn’t have to be long—just a sentence or two to explain the action so the reader knows it, too. One of these days I’m going to find that manuscript and retype it and truly add that deep pov.

A little bit off topic, but I’d like to share something else I try to reduce in my writing—dialogue tags.  I’ve noticed way too many unnecessary dialog tags in books when it is quite obvious who is talking. I remember reading books where every person’s dialogue ended with he said, she said, etc, or joined by an adverb, he said angrily.

When there are only two people in the scene, a dialog tag is seldom needed. I like using what I call pingpong dialogue, (short sentences, usually one line) because they complement a heated or witty exchange, plus they also create lots of white spaces on the page. This makes for a quicker read, especially since a solid page of narrative seems to slow the read down (besides also being somewhat intimidating to read because there are no breather white spaces). <grin> One doesn’t have to worry about dialog tags in the first draft—that’s for the edit stage.

Being true to myself also includes the heat level in my books. I admit I prefer reading and writing stories that leave the bedroom door open, or at least ajar. <grin> That said, when I write love scenes they are driven by my hero and heroine’s history, their reaction to each other, as well as their experience level.

In Beneath A Horse Thief Moon, Chase and Sara have a history, were lovers until certain events separated them. When they meet again, chemistry sizzles, tempered by caution and mistrust.

In Beneath A Fugitive Moon, I have an entirely different relationship—that of two young, inexperienced people who are feeling their way through the complicated dictates of the heart, mind, and body. Therefore the heat level is low until….

In the third book Beneath A Desperado Moon, we again have a couple whose chemistry goes through the roof. Each love scene evolves from the situation they are in and (hopefully) moves the story forward either with action or emotions. Action and reaction. My love scenes are never gratuitous. They evolve naturally while introducing a new phase in the hero/heroine relationship, or the story.

Everything happens for a reason, in fiction as in life and that is how I try to stay true to myself in my writing. The characters drive the story and the heat level. I have to be true to my characters, their history that shaped them, and their aspirations in life.

Excerpt: Beneath A Desperado Moon

Buckshot slammed his meaty fist on the table. His mug bounced, spilling beer onto the playing cards. “Yer a liar. Ain’t she, Josh?”

Josh? Molly’s heart lurched. She knew only one Josh. Josh of the smiling green eyes and killer kisses. Surely Fate couldn’t be so cruel to bring him here, playing poker with Buckshot just like he had back in Pine Coulee before all the trouble started.

For the first time she glanced at the other man at the table. Broad shoulders stretched the fabric of his black shirt neatly tucked into black denims. He didn’t look like the usual smelly, dusty outlaws and saddle tramps who bellied up to the bar. There was even a hint of bay rum as if he’d just shaved, noticeable despite the reek of cigar smoke and spilled beer that mingled with the stench of unwashed bodies. Long-fingered hands held his cards, the nails trimmed short and dirt-free. The wide brim of his dusty black hat shadowed his face.

Please look up. As if he sensed her thoughts, he glanced up. Right into her eyes. Josh. Her breath hitched. Her knees went weak. I’m dead in the saddle for sure.

Tilting back on his chair legs, he looked her up and down, his gaze burning green fire over her face, her chest, her hips, and started a different fire deep within her belly. How could just a look from this handsome English rogue melt her insides like candle wax?

She stopped breathing. Would he expose her? After all, he’d been there at the Leaky Tap, helped her and Jolene out the window just before the men pounded up the saloon stairs. He’d taken the blame for shooting Buckshot’s partner, yet here he sat with the outlaw, playing poker. Had he succeeded in joining the gang?

Goosebumps pebbled her skin. She wasn’t cold. Far from it. Josh’s green eyes crinkled at the corners, showing he knew the effect he had on her, the charming scoundrel.

“You deaf, Duke?” Buckshot snarled into the silence. “She’s lyin’.”

Josh shook his head. “Not bloody likely, old chap. This lady’s eyes are warm as cinnamon, not blue. That woman up in Canada had red hair, too, but this lady’s hair reminds me of rich Burgundy. She also had a big mole on her neck. This lady’s neck is white as sweet cream. Has a nicer bosom, too,” he added with a devilish twinkle in his eyes.

Molly went weak in the knees. Oh, my...he talks like he’s wooing a woman into bed. And he called me a lady...three times. Relieved, she clenched her skirt to stop her hands from trembling.

Buckshot gaped. “That rotgut yer swillin’ must be makin’ ya blind. No two wimmen kin look like two peas in a pod.”

Josh lowered an eyelid in a deliberate wink at Molly before glancing at Buckshot. “Remind me to take you down to Cheyenne, Buck. The Thompson twins can make you swear you are seeing double.”


Beneath A Desperado Moon


  1. A fascinating insight into your process. I so agree with you about going straight to the action and peppering in the details to build the picture. Fabulous excerpt.

    1. Thank you, Christine, you're always so kind and supportive. I am always learning and like to share in case something I've learned gives an "aha" moment to another writer.

  2. Elizabeth!

    Lot of words there to absorb. Some places it waxes darn right intellectual. I agree about the dialogue without name markers getting in the way. The reader can tell who is speaking just by the subject matter.

    The stuff about the past being a stinky world is true and can be used for realism and perhaps even humor in a story.

    I do wonder if we can escape the real world totally in going back to the past. We try our best. The plot and the story and how the writer leads the reader through it, I think is what really makes the story work. Of course we all try to be historically accurate and REALISTIC.

    Everyone has their own way of writing and develops their own style. There is a lot to absorb in this article and no doubt, you are a writer.

    (I'm going back to my cave now.)
    Charlie Steel

  3. You always make me smile, Charlie. Thank you for sharing your photo and for your kind words. I love it when my Muse beckons and runs away with me to my "cave".

  4. Well said on two levels, Elizabeth. Absolutely the first thing to greet us is the smell, so why not say so. Secondly, absolutely the last person to realize it is the one who smells. Those are two edges of a mighty sharp sword! It makes for pungent prose. In real life, I can corroborate Elizabeth's point. I attended elementary school out in the country where my classmates, their clothing, books, paper, everything, reeked of wood burning stoves. If we put all of this together, it breathes life into Elizabeth's observation about "to thine self be true," doesn't it? The trick is how to make the smells come to life on a dry page without an info dump.

    1. I like your thoughtful comments, James. And I agree with you about info dumps. They are tricky, as are character descriptions. One wants to set up the scene to include the five senses as much as possible to pull the reader in without putting the reader to sleep. Thank you for stopping by. I missed the experience of attending a one-room schoolhouse as the country kids were bussed to town the year I started school. But I enjoyed a lot of Saturday night dances there when I was older.

  5. Well, if I had any illusions about hygiene or smells, or filth they certainly have been dashed. Due t the writer's sense of dignity, truth does get swept under the proverbial rug sometimes. I have read several statements that Native Americans had much better hygiene than the Europeans who migrated here. That's probably true.
    Those Medieval times must have had some pretty stinky lovemaking. Ugh!
    We always had a busy fireplace in my growing up years and I still like them today (except I have a gas fireplace now.) I always liked the smell of a crackling fire and the type of wood burning in it made a difference in the smell. Thing is, cresol builds up in the chimney if it isn't properly cleaned and then the smell does, indeed, permeate the house. I only ran into this once at a B&B in Nova Scotia. The house was an old Victorian and the fireplace must have been used frequently without benefit of a good, periodic cleaning. I could smell that cresol buildup in the house. When I got to the next B&B, which happen to be in a modern house, I took a very long shower, but I'll never forget that smell. I have flashbacks.
    This was certainly an eye-opening post, Elizabeth. I wanted to soak in a tub with scented soap just reading about it.
    As a;ways, I wish you all the best and tremendous success with your new release.

    1. I love a crackling fire, too, Sarah. I appreciate your comment about the cresol build-up in the chimney, that it contributed to the "woodsy" smell, because I didn't realize that caused it. I just knew chimneys had to be swept regularly to prevent a fire there. One has to take pity on those poor chimney sweeps, as they surely must have suffered from respiratory issues. I have often said I was born a century too late because I love long gowns and elegant parlors, but I love my modern conveniences far too much, so I just live Victorian times vicariously through books and writing. I enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks for stopping by Sarah. You are always so kind.

  6. Excellent blog, Elizabeth! I'll be back to mine some gems from this.

    1. Awww, thank you Tracy. Glad you liked it, even though it was longer than I intended. I always worry that I'll bore people, but I do like to share my experiences in the hope that something may be gleaned for a writer struggling with a ms. I would love to mine some of your "gems" because I love your stories. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Very thought provoking piece. Such details. Thanks for the valuable insights.

    1. Thank you very much, Ruben. I like to share what I have learned in case it can help a person starting out on their writing career. It's pay back for the people who have shared their time to help me in my writer's journey. I wish you lots of success with your new release, Murder on Black Mountain. It sounds like a great story. Thanks for stopping by, Ruben.

  8. Love the fascinating information about cleanliness. Thanks for this. I would like to add that hair was often washed once a year and, as a very elderly woman explained to me many years ago, the natural oils kept it glowing and healthy. Also, the less you wash, the more your body gets used to regulating its protective layer: that means, you really don't smell. I once spent time in the Sahara where there was so little water available, that taking a shower or bath was equivalent to a criminal act. People "washed" with sand. We didn't smell, our bodies adapted. Therefore, I don't think our heroes and heroines would have been very stinky. Write on!

    1. Fascinating information, Arlene. I found it hard to wrap my head around the idea of not washing hair for six weeks, just wearing a wig (no pun intended), but a year absolutely boggles my mind. Therefore I really appreciate your input and knowledge. I know hair could be shiny from brushing one's hair a hundred strokes every night because that no doubt distributed the natural oils. And of course the people became used to the body odors, to a certain extent, when they all had the same habits. Interesting about "washing" with sand in the Sahara. I can definitely see why that would be almost a sin, wasting water for bathing. Thanks for stopping by and sharing this neat information, Arlene. One can never stop learning.