Don’t Shoot the Painter


by Donis Casey

When I write an Alafair Tucker novel, I work hard to authentically depict what life was like in the pre-World War I rural Oklahoma.  I decided early on that I wanted to try and evoke not just the events of the time, but the smells, the tastes, the sound, the hot and cold of it — the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other life of a farm wife with ten children. I love the language, too. When I was a teenager, my uncle walked into our house one day and said, “What in the cat hair is going on?” How could I let such a colorful way of expression fade into oblivion?

I’m very careful with dialect when I write, and often worried about it, too. The people in 1916 Boynton, Oklahoma, did in fact use terms and phrases that are now cliche. I know this is so because that is the way my grandparents talked, all four of whom were in their teens and twenties in the 1910′s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did. It’s a beginner’s mistake to try transliterate a character’s accent onto the page. But the choice of words used and the very way that those words are combined will evoke the time and place.

The trick to writing dialect is to simply give a flavor of the language by use of grammar, word order, rhythm of speech, and regional phrases.There is a very big difference between dialect, which is the meaning and use of words and phrases of a particular region or ethnicity, and accent, which is the way words are pronounced. That is, a native Oklahoman in 1916 would probably have pronounced the word panther as painter, oil as awl, and point as pint.  But I would not have my character say, “I just shot me a painter.”  Because you would look at that, Dear Reader, and say huh?

Sometimes writing dialect for the near past is trickier than for the more distant past.  Would my teen boy have said “jeepers” in 1916?*  How about, “I’ll be f—ed?”** How can I know? Sometimes it’s tough, but we do our best. Popular literature of the time and etymological dictionaries like the good old Oxford English Dictionary help a lot.

In my experience, persons of Alafair’s particular era and place spoke with an amazing blend of ungrammatical, nonstandard usage and beautiful, flowery phraseology that would not look amiss in Shakespearean dialog. Here’s a passage from the fifth Alafair Tucker novel, Crying Blood:

“You’re a spiteful heathen, McBride…There’s no stud in Oklahoma can hold a candle to yon stallion and well you know it.  Talk some sense into the fool, Shaw. I’d have to haul my mares clean to Tennessee to find another half so fine, nor could I buy another of such quality even if I could afford to scour the country to find him.”

Some of the words used in the paragraph are archaic, but not unfamiliar, such as “yon”, or the way the character uses the word “clean” instead of “clear”. And the word order is different from what one might hear these days.  But I didn’t write ‘Yore uh spotful haythun, McBrodd.”  I trust that you heard it that way in your head, anyway, Dear Reader.

I’m fairly well educated myself, and I grew up determined to speak English in as standard a fashion as I could. My parents were college educated, but OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtheir parents and older relatives weren’t, so I grew up around country people. My most schooled grandparent graduated from the eighth grade, which was as far as most people in that time and place could go. One grandparent only got as far as the third grade. But just because you didn’t get very far in school doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. Michael Caine, who is Cockney, once said that people too often judge your intelligence by your accent.

I fear I did that too often during my youth. Now that I’m not so young, I realize that my grandma knew a heck of a lot more about people and about living than I do, lack of advanced degrees notwithstanding.

Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, or worse, to sound like you don’t respect your characters. So most teachers warn students away from attempting it. Now that it’s hard to find strong dialect anywhere in America, I find that I miss hearing it. To me, an old Oklahoma way of speaking sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to lovingly convey a flavor of it in my writing.





Donis Casey is the author of six Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, Crying Blood, and the recently released The Wrong Hill to Die On. Her series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award and her books have been finalists for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. Read the first chapter of each book at Donis’ website.

Why Write a Memoir?

You may say, “I’m too young” or “My life is boring,” but you might be surprised.

What seems like mundane everyday life may very well be utterly fascinating to your grandchildren. For example, my grandmother rode steers in rodeos. That was a bit unusual, but still, when I found her journal from the 1940s that maybe listed only one item on a day: “Gathered seven eggs today” or “Rained today” or “Stayed in bed with a sick headache,” I felt like I’d gotten to know her a little better. I surmised she suffered from migraines. Having gone through a period of time when I had those terrible headaches, I could identify with what she went through.

A memoir is not the same as an autobiography. It can be a story based on one incident or one year or one decade of your life. It can have a theme, a storyline, a message, a lesson learned.

An autobiography is your whole life story, from beginning to end. Either version is important, because I see so much family history being lost. We don’t write letters anymore and I don’t know how many people keep journals. When I was young, I heard stories about my grandparents or parents when they were growing up and more or less dismissed them as just “that story grandpa always tells.” But after they had passed and I was older, I’ve so often wished I could hear those stories again and ask them more questions.

Even if you simply make a list of events or a chronological timeline of your life (or your parents’ or grandparents’ lives), that is something your descendents can draw on.

Image from Flikr Creative Commons via Scott Davies

Image from Flikr Creative Commons via Scott Davies

To start, I recommend writing down 5-10 ideas. That’s a great start. Continue to add to that list as you go about your day and your week. Keep a small notebook with you to jot down ideas, notes, impressions, descriptions, etc. Write down two or three quick phrases that come to mind. Keep the thoughts loose. Maybe just write, “Trip to Cape May with the cousins” or “Hunting snakes with Dad.” Maybe a few more will come to you – write those down, too.

One of those notes may start to take shape in your mind. Try to remember the specific details—the weather that day, what you were wearing, how you felt doing that activity or being with those people. Just keep writing phrases and don’t worry about making it feel like a story just yet. You might write, “Hot weather and lots of mosquitoes at the beach. Kids in the water all day long. Everyone got sunburned.” Later, you can fill in the transitions and descriptions that make this story feel like a whole narrative.

Another good way to get ideas is to go through old pictures or albums and make some of the same notes as you remember—what you were doing that day, why you were smiling and your brother wasn’t, etc.

Give it a try. You may get hooked on the memoir.

Published in: on April 20, 2013 at 5:28 am  Comments (10)  
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A Moving Experience

When I moved from Montana to Washington state 17 years ago and then made a second move from one town to the next within nine months, I said “NEVER AGAIN.” Well, as the sage once said, “Never say never.”

We’ve just completed our second move in three months, first from Mount Vernon WA to Prescott AZ, where we rented a cute but small cottage while we waited for our renters’ lease to be up on the house we already owned in Chino Valley. That day finally arrived and then we ended up waiting two weeks for our belongings to be delivered! (Lots of time for painting and doing minor repairs.) Apparently there had been some miscommunication with the movers, as we had understood our things would be stored in Phoenix and we just needed to give them 2-3 days notice. Not true. It was stored in Seattle, they had to wait for a truck to be available (about a week), then they made several deliveries along the way (another week). We were not happy.

Front view 2

But at long last, everything arrived last Wednesday and we’ve been busily shuffling boxes around so we can make room to unpack, finding places for everything, then rearranging…you all know how that goes!

I am so happy to be here! Our house is nice, very comfortable, and feels like home already. I wake up to sunshine with a big smile on my face, and go out to drink my morning coffee on the patio. No SAD for me this winter!

Happy retirement to us!

Published in: on April 16, 2013 at 7:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy

Jean Henry Mead’s newest historical novel, No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy, has just been released. Jean is a national award-winning photojournalist and author of the Logan and Cafferty mystery/suspense series as well as Wyoming historical novels, children’s mysteries and nonfiction books. She began her career as a news reporter and worked as a freelance photojournalist. Jean also served as a news, magazine and small press editor. Her magazine articles have been published domestically as well as abroad and she’s published 19 books.

No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy

By Jean Henry Mead

No Escape coverI began writing No Escape in my mind more than 20 years ago while I was researching a centennial history of central Wyoming. Reading old microfilmed newspapers, I was surprised by the contradictory reports about the hangings of a young Sweetwater Valley couple accused of running a bawdy house (called a “hog ranch) and accepting cattle in exchange for their services.

The six wealthy cattlemen responsible for the murders of Ellen Watson-Averell and her husband James claimed the murders were justified. But when they came to trial, all the witnesses had disappeared or were found dead. Therefore, the case was thrown out of court.

A Cheyenne newspaper, controlled by cattle interests, railed against homesteaders, whom they said were rustling the poor cattlemen’s stock, so vigilante law was a last resort. The Rawlins newspaper, however, said that James Averell was well thought of and considered a good citizen. Averell had been appointed postmaster and justice of the peace by Thomas Moonlight, the Wyoming territorial governor.

James’s wife, Ellen, had worked as a cook for two years at the Rawlins House and was known as kind and caring young woman. But the couple made the mistake of filing homesteads on Albert Bothwell’s hay meadow, land the cattleman had been grazing for years without paying it for it. And James wrote letters to the editor of the Casper Weekly Mail complaining that cattlemen were gobbling up homestead land for 75 miles along the Sweetwater River.

Because I didn’t want to end the book with the hangings (I hate sad endings), I decided to add another character, Susan Cameron, a young woman from Missouri. Susan is a composite of some 200,000 single women homesteaders who attempted to prove up on their own land. Some were successful, some not. Susan filed for land next to the Averells, placing her own life in danger along with her veterinarian friend, Michael O’Brien, and three boys whom the Averells had taken under their wings.

After their deaths, Ellen was vilified and called “Cattle Kate.” News of the hangings spread worldwide and the murder of a woman in Wyoming Territory was publicly condemned, yet Ellen’s own father believed the lies spread about her and forbade his family to speak her name again.

A number of films have been produced and books have been written about the outlaw, “Cattle Kate.” I’ve even read poems andJeanHenryMeadPhoto heard cowboy songs about her. The truth didn’t surface until George W. Hufsmith was commissioned to write an opera about the hangings and spent the next 20 years researching the subject. Thanks to George’s research and that of my own, I was able to complete my novel, No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy.

No Escape can be purchased on Kindle and in print.

Jean’s website:

Her blogsites:

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