Contrast and Community
Western romance writer Vivian Vaughan loves the unexpected Texas -- the contrast between the forests of east Texas and the arid landscape of popular imagination. She relishes the letters of a 19th century New York matron who reported with great relief that her Texas relations did indeed dress for dinner, even if their shirts were a bit dingy. The story makes such a good counterpoint to the Shakespearean sonnets written by Vaughan's great-grandfather, the Texas Ranger.
Vaughan's romances reflect her home state's surprising diversity. They also reveal a finely honed understanding of the impact community and family can make on the love between a man and a woman. Shortly before the release of Catch a Wild Heart, Crescent Blues talked to Vaughan about contrasts, community and what it takes to capture the infinite riches of Texas in the pages of a little book.
Crescent Blues: You didn't start your writing career until after your children were grown. How do you feel your late start affected your writing?
Vivian Vaughan: My immediate thought is that it left me with fewer years to pursue my career. Aside from that, I hope I've been able to bring to my stories a broader sense of the many factors involved in making relationships work. From another perspective -- my own perspective -- my writing career began years before Zebra published my first book in 1987. A writer friend, Dona Vaughn (no relation), and I used to joke about holding a workshop for writers titled "Suddenly, twenty-five years later…" A lengthy learning and struggling period is fairly common among writers in general.
Crescent Blues: What are the pluses and minuses?
Vivian Vaughan: Other than years lost, I see only pluses. Every year we live we learn more about life. By midlife a person 's thinking and ability to assess situations generally comes from a broader base of experiences. This can only help in writing fiction. As far as writing goes, I feel that the years I spent trying to learn to write everything from dramas to mysteries to children's stories helped make me a better technician. Studying and working in various genres also broadened my outlook and approach to storytelling. Since I didn't come to my career with a background in either writing or reading romance novels, I tend to look at my books in a general way, as simply stories. If there's a minus in all this, it would be here, of course. Unschooled in romance novel conventions, I have sometimes used too heavy or too light a hand.
Crescent Blues: What impact (if any) do you feel starting later had on the stories you tell and the way you tell them?
Vivian Vaughan: By midlife a person's perspective on and experiences with romance are obviously different from the perspective and experiences of someone in her twenties or thirties. I was 48 when I wrote my first romance novel. I had been married 28 years to the same man. My sons were in college. I feel that the most obvious impact starting my career later has had on my stories is in the way the romance between the hero and heroine is always impacted by a whole community of relationships -- parents, siblings, townspeople, coworkers, and of course children. In my novella "A Wish to Build a Dream On" (St. Martin's anthology Cherished Love, 1997) not only the heroine's young son, but also every member of the trail drive crew have a hand at matchmaking. Another case is the hero's daughter in Chance of a Lifetime.
Crescent Blues: Children play a major role in the action and romances of several of your books. What inspired you to bring them to center stage?
Vivian Vaughan: Perhaps, like we discussed earlier, the perspective of writing romance from the vantage of midlife after I had spent many years as a mother, aunt, den mother, 4-H leader, you name it. Beyond that, in historic times families were larger. Children were everyplace.
From a writing standpoint, children offer several advantages in creating fiction. As characters children are like other people, except their various stages of maturation are more distinct. A child's perception of right and wrong, fear and security, trust and distrust is guided by innocence, inhibition, and lack of experience and knowledge, all of which differs at every stage. Children have great imaginations that have yet to be squashed; they tell secrets, make judgments based on their innocence and on raw emotions like joy, sorrow, loss, pain, and generally cause havoc.
They're great tools for the writer, and a lot of fun to use in stories. And of course since children are so vulnerable, a writer can characterize an adult character by the way he or she acts and reacts to a child.
Crescent Blues: How do you get into the mind of a child like Keturah, in Chance of a Lifetime, for example? What experiences or research do you draw upon?
Vivian Vaughan: Keturah's character, like that of an adult character, begins with the favorite writer's question, "What if…?" What if a child saw her mother murdered? Could she learn to trust the type of people who killed her? What if she then fears losing her father to such a person? How would she react? I've certainly never known anyone who had such a disastrous childhood, but we've all read about children in developing and war-torn nations. My characters are survivors, so I read biographies of people who are survivors. Journals of the settling of the West provide situations and people that can be combined to create characters.
One of the basic requirements for fiction writers is, I think, an innate curiosity about why people do the things they do. For many years I have studied "arm-chair psychology," meaning that I read all the self-help books that come along. They really help when delving into the minds of (i.e., in creating motivations for) children and adults.
Crescent Blues: Can you tell Crescent Blues readers a little bit about your new book, Catch a Wild Heart? Doesn't it feature some of the characters from Chance of Lifetime?
Vivian Vaughan: Most of the major characters from Chance of a Lifetime play pivotal roles in Catch a Wild Heart, the second book in The Tremaynes of Apache Wells series. (Let me hasten to say that each book stands alone; you don't have to have read one to enjoy the other.) The first book, Chance of a Lifetime, was the love story of Sabrina Bolton and Tremayne.
Set ten years later in 1878, Catch a Wild Heart features Keturah (Tremayne's half-Apache daughter) as the heroine and Blake Carmichael, son of Tremayne's archenemy, as the hero. Blake has come to the Fort Davis area to work with his father, whom he knew only slightly while growing up in Washington, D.C.
Keturah, meanwhile, has wanted little to do with her father since he married Sabrina, although she has subconsciously patterned her life after his, becoming skilled at tracking, shooting, riding. Also like her father was before he met Sabrina, Keturah is a loner, trusting no one. She feels she belongs in neither the white world nor the Apache world.
Keturah and Blake meet when she rescues him along with her half brother and his best friend from a band of Comancheros. Blake and Keturah are drawn to each other by passion and nothing else, they believe, until they realize that in spite of their vast differences, they share a past that marked them and in the final analysis heals and unites them.
Crescent Blues: Were the books always planned as part of a series, or did Keturah's book grow from writing Chance of a Lifetime?
Vivian Vaughan: In a way Keturah's book came first. My agent suggested that I create a "kingdom" somewhere in Texas in which to set a series of books. I decided to use the breathtaking Davis Mountains west of the Pecos River.
Before I had much of an idea for the books, my husband and I attended a gallery showing for Penni Anne Cross, a Wyoming artist who paints Native American women. Her latest work at that time, The Bounty Hunter, was of a beautiful, sexy woman, striding down a canyon that looked a lot like the Davis Mountains. She wore a filmy sort of garment, crossed bandoleers, and led two rider-less horses. I knew I would write a book about her. When I figured out who she was in my story (Keturah is not a bounty hunter.), I knew the first Tremayne book should be about her father.
Crescent Blues: The psychology of your characters plays a key role in your books and stories. What do you like most about getting so deeply into so many people's heads?
Vivian Vaughan: In a sense every character is a part of myself; I know my characters better than I do most, if not all, my friends. I may even know them better than I know myself. Every time I create a character I learn something about myself and about life.
Crescent Blues: Has this ever presented any problems either in terms of writing or when you need to emerge from the writing fog?
Vivian Vaughan: Like most writers I feel a real letdown after I finish and mail a manuscript. I try to spend that day cleaning my office, packing up and storing research material, outlines, drafts, and notes from that book. It's a giddy but somber day. I've never analyzed this before, but it's sort of like when a child goes off to college and you know you'll see him or her again, but you also know it will never, ever be quite the same. I hate reading my books, because there are always so many things I want to change. Even so, I eagerly look forward to correcting galleys, because it gives me a chance to revisit my story and characters.
Crescent Blues: Who do you feel were your most compelling characters? What did you find so special about these characters?
Vivian Vaughan: I love my characters. I can't think of one I don't truly love. But Trace Garrett in my second book, Texas Twilight (Zebra, 1987) is my favorite hero, simply because he is so much like the men I grew up with -- the ranchers who were dedicated to their land and to making things work in the face of adversity and never complaining about it. Trace loves Clara with all his heart and had loved her for years, but the one thing that stood out about him was that in the final analysis he knew and she knew that he could never give up ranching for her.
My favorite heroine is Serita Cortinas from Texas Gamble (Zebra, 1990), probably for the same reason. Her strength came from her ancestral lands, and she was willing to do anything to save her ranch.
Crescent Blues: Do your readers agree, or do they have their own favorites?
Vivian Vaughan: I think of all my characters, readers have loved Giddeon Duval (also Texas Gamble) the most. He was an adventurous sea captain who loved the sea the same way Serita loved her land. When he lost his ship of illegal cargo in the Gulf of Mexico, he immediately struck up a card game to win enough to salvage it; instead of money, however, he won Serita's ranch from her desperate father.
Texas Gamble was the first of the Texas Star Trilogy; the second book in the trilogy, Texas Dawn took place on the Texas Gulf Coast (location of the Cortinas' ranch) during the Civil War. Giddeon (now father of the heroine) and cohorts ran the Union blockade, and I decided he should die in one of the battles. My husband argued with me about that. He said readers would never forgive me if I killed Giddeon.
We compromised and I had his leg shot off -- below the knee, as my husband insisted, so he could wear a peg leg. I was really glad. Readers who learned this story agreed that they would never have read me again if I'd killed Giddeon. As things turned out, he made a fabulous (and romantic) grandfather in the third book, when his granddaughter salvaged his ship and saved the ranch yet again.
Crescent Blues: Which comes first for you, character or plot? How does a story grow from there?
Vivian Vaughan: There is no one answer for this, except to say that since most of my stories have been series, I've known going in whose story I was telling. Beyond that, I often begin with a time and place; I then investigate (research!) to learn who lived there during that period, what they were doing, etc.
One book in the Jarrett Family Sagas (Secret Surrender) began with a scene that flashed through my mind a year or two before I wrote the book. In it the heroine stands on the steps of a dilapidated old boarding house shouting at a man walking up her path: "It'll be a cold day in hell before I hop into bed with you again, Rubal Jarrett." To which the man replies, "Wait a minute, ma'am. There's been some mistake. I'm Jubal Jarrett, not that no-'count brother of mine."
When it came time to write the book, I had to decide where to set the story. I chose East Texas because I'd never written a book set in that part of the state. One visit and I fell in love with the magnificent forests; I researched history, customs, occupations, and legends…and decided to have the story revolve around a series of timber theft cases. (That's when a thief comes in at night or while the owner is away, clear cuts the land, and sells the timber.) My hero was a Texas Ranger, so that worked beautifully.
After that, to create the conflicts between hero and heroine I played the game of what if… what if the mother of the fatherless family has died, leaving the heroine to provide for her younger siblings by running a boarding house in this East Texas timber town? (In the eighteen hundreds a single woman would tarnish her reputation by boarding single men.) What if as a consequence the local Ladies' Aid Society is threatening to place her siblings in foster homes to get them away from this wanton sister? What if the only way out seems to be to marry the local banker who has generously offered for her hand in spite of her lack of virtue, a man she doesn't love?
What if into this rides the hero, and thinking him his brother, in spite of her dreadful need, she tries to throw him out. But what if he has the one thing she knows she cannot keep the children without… cash for his room and board? It takes a lot longer than this, but basically that's the beginning of story creation. In a sense, this is a process whereby character and plot emerge together.
Crescent Blues: How much do you control your characters and vice versa?
Vivian Vaughan: If anything controls character, it's the story, because what you are telling is a slice of a particular character's life. Author Dona Vaughn puts it this way: "If you plan your characters well enough they can't change the story, for it is their story."
Texas Gamble, mentioned earlier, is an example of how I tried to control my characters once, but the story wouldn't let me. Toward the end of the first draft my outline read: Hero kills villain. I didn't know how it would happen; I didn't care how it would happen. When I worked up the outline I knew only that at that point the villain's story would come to an end; he would have to be taken care of somehow.
Well, I tried for a week to write that scene; every morning I sat down and wrote it a different way, but it never worked. I could never make the hero killing the villain believable, not even to myself!
Then I realized something…