On Retreat in the Huachuca Mountains

portraitArletta Dawdy writes from Northern California but her heart is in the 19th century American West. When immersed in the stories of strong, independent women, she has been known to get lost in their adventures. Arletta’s social work background lends itself to character development. Her extensive travels in the Southwest add believability to her settings. HUACHUCA WOMAN and BY GRACE are the first two books in The Huachuca Trilogy.

On Retreat

by Arletta Dawdy

A time for contemplation.  Time to recharge my batteries.  Time to take inspiration from the setting.  A time to let go of daily issues, routines and people. Such were my goals in heading to southeast Arizona on a six week retreat of my own design.

I write about the Huachuca Mountains. My stories were born here on vacation and research trips by living in the area, breathing in its history and beauty, listening for the tales of bygone people.  Over the years I photographed, kept journals and wrote the first two novels of the Huachuca Trilogy while in the locale and away from it. Every so often, I had to return to engage my muse, sharpen her perceptions and find the voices of my characters once again.

The story ideas found roots and growth on the high peaks washed by wind, rain and snow. Songbirds, butterflies and sixteen varieties of hummingbirds gave color and sound among the ancient oaks and silvered sycamores. Following Ramsey Creek opened the doors to my imagination with Chiricahua Apaches, Buffalo Soldiers, miners, loggers and homesteaders peopling the canyons, cliffs and desert floor.

In returning to the Huachucas this past spring, I immersed myself in the timeless domain where wandering deer and courting turkeys came to my doorstep several times a day.  Turkey gobbling heralded each new morning.  Late afternoon found a young deer tackling the hanging bird feeder, standing on his hind legs and snatching seeds from the rim. He honed his talent as the days went by. Three peacocks owed their existence to a sixty year history of ancestors introduced by a local rancher. No doubt his bride instigated the idea. These will be the last for all three are male, one of whom favored sitting on the carpenters horse at the edge of the driveway.

Arriving home one evening, a javelina escorted me to the cabin.  Also called peccaries or skunk pigs, javelinas are native to thehuachuca woman cover Americas, have a harsh odor and sharp tusks. My apprehension built as he neared the cabin and I worried that he’d go for the scattered feed or otherwise take up residence at mine! Instead he continued on his way, heading for the creek without a look back.  The next day, the javelina demanded a presence in my work; a fearless young boy appeared in Rose of Sharon, my WIP, seeking a “doggie” from a gathering of javelinas.  The child has no apprehension about the animals but the adults who gather fear for his safety and it is Rose who first knows of his danger and saves him.

Watching spring fill trees and bushes with new leaves and blossoms renewed my sense of place with deeper connectivity and intensity. Walking about the mountains, kicking at mineral-laden rocks led to a scene in which White Buffalo makes a bracelet charm for Rose. These story threads hadn’t occurred to me sitting at my computer at home in Northern California. They took off from my retreat experience, thoughts and dreamtime in the quietude of the setting.

My manuscript had been dragging with a lack of focus and motivation in the heroine. I knew, in my head, the conflicts she faced,  but they lacked the energy and vitality of well-written prose. It was as if, at home, I couldn’t feel these things and, therefore, my character couldn’t.  My words were flat, lacking affect, and so I had come up empty for long blocks of time.  The connectivity I sought evolved from “getting into the skin” of my characters and opening myself to convey who they truly are. That happened on retreat.

Written during a three-day retreat at the Russian River, close to home.

How do you recharge your writing batteries?

Meeting and sharing with other writers?

Going to nature and solitude?

HUACHUCA WOMAN is a work of historical fiction set in Southeast Arizona from 1886 to 1961. A veranda rail breaks. Barn filth is turning to dust. A rattler’s nest needs clearing. Peeling paint on the old house demands attention. At 75, Josephine Nichols hasn’t been up to caring for the Lazy L Ranch. She’s thinking of selling out when spring break 1952 brings the Nichols cousins to the ranch and its matriarch. Recording the treasured stories of border life as only Jo can tell them, they get more than they dreamt of, bargained for or knew. Jo’s love of the land and family are keys to her life-story. She tells of lost loves; of fears and fights against abandonment; dangerous bouts of depression threaten her stability; and guilt walks with her through too many years. The stories are framed against borderlands events and characters: Pancho Villa, Geromino, Mexican Revolution and WW1. A pact develops between the threesome to insure that the ranch endures. Nine years later, as Jo is put to rest at Sentinel Rock, The Lazy L Historical Ranch is a vibrant learning center for the preservation of the history, cultures and legends of Cochise County, not the least of which is of the HUACHUCA WOMAN.

BG Cover photoBY GRACE traces the heroic journey of young Grace Pelham as she travels geographically and psychologically into the Far West of the late 1890’s. Following her father’s death, she leaves Albany on a quest to find her vocation and stumbles into unexpected troubles and rewards. Thrust out on her own, she must escape the threat and murderous accusations posed by her benefactress’ nephew. With changing identities, fearsome obstacles and personal challenges along the way, Grace profoundly affects and is affected by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a married man and his family, a lost child, Jane Addams, a male-dressing horse woman/prospector, a rigid minister and his tightly corseted wife, the Irish mob, and Chinese friends. When her nemesis confronts her in a syphilitic haze, threatening to kill her and a loved one, Grace prevails. Her signatory “By Grace” is applied to her jewelry designs. The Blue Opals of southeastern Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains promise opportunity and a new life.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dear Heidi,
    I can’t thank you enough for this extensive exposure to your readers! It was fun to pull together my thoughts about this phenomenal experience. I hope to repeat it either this fall or next spring.
    Meanwhile, your move to Arizona makes for one long retreat in that beautiful state. I hope it inspires you in your writing.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Arletta. I find that being out in nature does “refill my creative well” and help me to write.

  2. Thank you for featuring Arletta! I love her books and love that she needed to get back to “the place”, a feeling I am having more and more! Well done!

    • Hi Roni,
      Given that we live in such beautiful country (Sonoma and Mendocino Counties) it’s almost odd that we need to get out of town. Yet, the magic that special settings work on our hearts and our writing can’t be replaced. I hope you return to your special place…and thank you for your kind words about my books.

  3. Arletta – oh how I relate to your words. I’ve always had to physically transport myself to new surroundings in order to jump start my story-telling engines. There is a newspaper clipping taped over my desk…terribly yellowed by time…don’t even remember who wrote it (my bad!) except that the person was/is a writer. This is what I underlined: “….one has to leave in order to regain a stronger sense of self and purpose …..” It is when I leave home and spend long, long hours of alone-ness that I find the well of my imagination, my “purpose.” As social as I think I am, I treasure the times I can be completely alone for a week? two weeks? especially if I’m in a location close to nature.

    Thanks for sharing and thank you too, Heidi.

    • Hi, Karen,
      I’m glad this piece struck a chord in you! I can see so many apps for the line “…one has to leave in order to regain a stronger sense of self and purpose…” Leave geographically or leave a job, a relationship, etc. Thanks for that.
      I was alone for much of the six weeks on the retreat but interspersed it with people contacts…just enough to ground me and send me back into retreat status. Here’s to finding the “well of our imaginations.”

  4. Loved Huachuca Woman and look forward to reading the next. I had a short residence in Portal back when we were hippies and looking foward to founding a new town and electing all our own officials. It feel apart as those things do. Arlette, did you ever run into Jeanne Williams in Portal? She has many many western books, mostly focusing on women, and was one of the founders of WWW.

    • Carolyn, I’m very happy that you enjoyed HW. I haven’t explored Portal or other sites east of the Chiricahuas and I’ll have to check out Jeanne Williams. It sounds as if you have a rich history there. My hippie years were spent on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts and a couple of my short stories reflect the time and place. Thank you for visiting.

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