The Laramie Series has been for me the quintessential labor of love. Not just loving the finished product – though in varying degrees, depending on the book, I do – but loving the process itself: growing absorption in a story, watching characters come to life and scenes play out in my mind, creating a believable context for what should be an unbelievable event. [Could you really fall through Lake Michigan ice in the dead of winter dressed in a heavy ball gown and survive? Really?] I’d said from the start that the series would be six books, and the first five books arrived in a timely fashion and without a lot of fuss and bother. The book I planned for #6, however, was a problem child from the start. The characters didn’t interact properly, not with each other or with me! Three starts to the book and none of them a go. The series finale had to be exactly right, that was important to me, yet the book I started and started and started again, wouldn’t come together. I even traveled to France looking for inspiration. (Wonderful croissants. No inspiration.) That book remains a good story with solid potential, and I’ll go back to it later, but it’s not a fit for The Laramie Series. I passed the time and scratched the writing itch with this year’s Breakthrough Novel contender The Dangerous Thaw of Etta Capstone but always in my mind was the puzzle of The Laramie Series : How to conclude it in a way that would satisfy readers and as importantly satisfy me?
Then last Saturday, a cold and blustery Ohio afternoon, I plopped down in front of the tv, flipped through the channels, and found Anthony Zerbe. More accurately, I found “Gunsmoke,” a tv show of my childhood and the kind of show that was my mainstay for a lot of formative years. Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. Violence but no gore. Love but no instruction-manual sex. All foreign to today, of course, and I’m not necessarily saying better than today, but just fine for a dreamy kid in the mid-1950’s.
You’ll recognize Anthony Zerbe (his face if not his name; put his name in your browser & hit Enter.) In that particular “Gunsmoke” episode he was a quick-draw bank robber saved from a life of crime and an ignominious, lonely death by the pangs of conscience and the love of a good woman. I know, I know, I know. I can spell cliche’ as well as the next person, but the story worked for me. I watched it start to finish and enjoyed it in an oddly heartfelt way. No plot surprises, but I’m a sucker for a good love story and a redeemed hero. “Gunsmoke” and the shaggy-haired Zerbe with his gap tooth and distinctive voice led me straight to Book #6 of The Laramie Series.
In 2014 I will bring out a 2nd edition of Lily’s Sister, the book that started the series, from a new distributor able to offer it in both hard copy and as a Kindle book (a format not available in its previous publication.) Lily’s Sister was set in 1880 western Kansas in the fictional small town of Blessing, and I realized that the as-yet-unnamed concluding book of the series must take place there, too, but forty years later in 1919 at the conclusion of The Great War. Blessing has changed a lot through the intervening decades – as has the country – shifting from sod houses and rowdy cowboys to the Model-T, Prohibition, national women’s suffrage, and the shock of a worldwide war, but in certain core respects the Kansas prairie town hasn’t changed at all. Several of Blessing’s characters from Lily’s Sister will reappear and the parentage of both my hero and my heroine will be familiar but the story, on the edge of America’s Roaring 20’s and spinning relentlessly into contemporary life, will be fresh. If soldiers returning from war and the changes in American society and culture aren’t enough of a plot line for you, I’ve spiced it up with a dramatic murder mystery, besides.
So I’m immersed in Kansas history, early 20th-century American technology, the great flu pandemic of 1919, and the emerging power of labor unions, in Henry Ford and Flo Ziegfeld and Woodrow Wilson. I’m in the trenches along the Western Front and hurtling across the Great Plains with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. I’m searching the quiet heart of a young woman that longs to see the world and the weary soul of a former soldier, older than his years, that’s seen too much of it. They’re meant for each other, I think, but that could change anytime before the Epilogue. What an adventure I’m having with this book! And I owe it all to Anthony Zerbe.