I have found the creative nature of writing to be akin to a cyclone, picking up bits of detritus as it moves across the landscape. For me, the elements of a story are found as I travel through the western states where my stories sink their roots. It was true for the character of Dawn Fairburn, and it was true for Luke Brennan, the artist my imagination discovered in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I'm writing today about the origins of the latest novel from the Sawtooth Range, A Portrait of Dawn.
Along the road to McCall, Idaho, the character of Dawn emerged as a woman quite different from the protagonist in this novel. The daughter of a Basque shepherd, she was to become the love interest of an artist and, like Dawn, handicapped. Unlike the Dawn in my final story, that young woman lost her arm to a cougar as a child. Confused? That's the way of creative winds; they blow away one idea and replace it with another. It's the reality that can make plotting a novel both challenging and thrilling.
I liked the idea of creating a handicapped character, someone who might not normally be considered as the heroine of a romance. So, that part of the discovery would transfer to the new Dawn. The Dawn who finally emerged as the protagonist was born with one leg three inches shorter than the other. It would be just enough to affect her self-image and cause challenges. In spite of her affliction, she's a confident woman who has found her strengths and through the course of her story, discovers even more.
That same car trip took us farther east to Wyoming and the #GrandTetons. While touring #TheNationalMuseumofWildlifeArt in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Luke Brennan stepped onto the stage. Filling one room, were the works of wildlife artist, #CarlRungius. Much about him fascinates me. While known for his art painted on the American frontier, he was not native to our country, but a German immigrant who became captivated by our wilderness lands. The display brilliantly explains his art's evolution from the formal studio style to the naturalism that eventually brought him notoriety.
The following "Three Billies" was painted in 1940, demonstrating his work at its peak of development. I really liked this painting for multiple reasons. As an art teacher, I can appreciate his use of color and shading, but my emotional response to these creatures delights me even more. There is an amusing story here, don't you think? The billy in the middle must be the protagonist, and he has some definite opinions.
It was also fascinating to see a display of the art materials used to paint outside of a studio. Try to imagine hiking through wild country with not only your survival gear but your art materials strapped to your back. The photo below is of a small study he made of The Grand Tetons in 1895.
Those creative winds must have blown through the museum about that time, because it was as though he appeared on the other side of the display case. It wasn't Carl, but the fictitious Irish illustrator and frustrated artist who would become Luke Brennan, the love interest of Dawn Fairburn. From there, it was easy to imagine him traveling to the Hartmann's new guest ranch where he would find Evan Hartmann a willing guide to the wilderness. Like Carl Rungius, he would fall in love with the western wildlife.
That's where the story began, on that road trip from Idaho to Wyoming. It's where I discovered both Dawn and Luke. Want to learn a little more? Here's an excerpt.
A Portrait of Dawn
“The greatest thing a human being ever does in this world is to see something . . . to see clearly is poetry, prophecy, a religion all in one.” John Ruskin
June 24, 1890
For a future yet to be written, an unbridled imagination is a dangerous thing. Although Dawn held to such philosophical convictions, as she turned to her slumbering father sitting beside her, she allowed herself to travel that treacherous path leading her thoughts to notions of what might be.
Even in sleep, with his chin nodding gently against his chest in easy rhythm to the rocking motion of the train, he looked dignified and even—presidential. Dawn smiled to herself, pleased by the notion. She considered her father’s pleasing features, his strong, square jaw, the touches of gray giving him that suggestion of experience and wisdom that could build confidence in his constituents. She pressed her lips together and lifted one eyebrow a slight degree higher than the other. Why not? Her skin prickled at the image. If he could go from legal counsel to the next U.S. Senator for New York, why not President? And she would be the one to help put him there.
Dawn shifted in her seat, frowning. Mr. Pullman’s train cars were a definite improvement from those wooden seats of early years when she and her father traveled from New York to Washington. But comfortable, they were not. She envied his ability to fall asleep so effortlessly—the benefits of a man with a clean conscience.
She reached down to retrieve her father’s brochure from the floor, the one he’d read to her with such enthusiasm moments before he’d fallen asleep. Now, with the campaign before him, did he insist on this trip into Idaho Territory? They needed to be planning, not traipsing off to the frontier for . . . Reading the advertisement again, she felt a scowl pinch her brow. Come to the Hartmann Ranch where you can experience the frontier ranching life.
As the train rounded a bend, the view from her window shifted to the east, the direction from which they’d been traveling since yesterday morning. Streaks of palest yellow heralded the break of day. It should have cheered her as it usually did, but unlike her usual day of ordered routine, this one held too many uncertainties. She looked down at the twisted brochure still gripped in her hands. The word adventure peeked between her fingers. It wasn’t a word that often appeared in her vocabulary. Adventure conjured up images of safari hunters in wild, foreign lands.
Careful not to disturb him, Dawn lowered her head to her father’s shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of his pipe tobacco and starched collar. How could she ever remain impatient with him? With a skill she’d honed since earliest childhood, she focused her thoughts on this moment. In this moment, she was blissfully content. Tomorrow was yet to be. With luck, she would see the adventures only from the windows of a rolling train.
From the train window, the indistinct reflection appraised the serious young woman with green eyes. Dawn had been told often enough they were the same shade that made her mother so attractive. But unlike her mother, Dawn lacked the golden locks. Her brown hair favored her father’s, as did the firm line of her jaw. And like her father, her thoughts rarely strayed from her duty to support and serve.
Luke Brennan sat rigid in the straight-backed chair, prepared for the worst, as his employer squinted at him through a dense cloud of cigar smoke.
The barrel-chested man behind the desk pursed his lips as he studied Luke’s most recent drawing. “It isn’t the quality of your illustrations, Luke.”
Luke tried to interpret the editor’s tight, pained expression, uncertain whether the man was commiserating or experiencing another bout of chronic indigestion. He suspected the latter. Empathy was not among Mr. Carrington’s virtues.
The older man leaned back and shoved the cigar between his lips, taking one long draw and puffing another fetid cloud in Luke’s direction. “It’s business, purely business. The St. Louis-Dispatch is foremost designed to make money for our publisher, Mr. Pulitzer.” He waved his hand, and the cigar sent a thin smoky trail, spiraling to the ceiling. Luke imagined how he’d capture smoke with his pen. Of course, he’d need to consider the limitations of the engravers.
Luke followed the ribbon of smoke curling back upon itself and watched it transform in width as it drifted to the ceiling.
“Luke, are you listening to me?” The editor leaned forward, resting his arms on the edge of his desk, a scowl lining his brow.
Luke cleared his throat and brought his gaze back to the man.
Apparently satisfied, the editor went on, the pained expression deepening. “It’s a problem of speed. You submit half as many illustrations as everyone else on my staff.” His lip lifted into a sardonic smile. “Personally, I like your work. You have an eye for humor, like the drawing you made of the governor last month—the one where the woman’s hat is covering his lip.” He demonstrated with his cigar, posing with it close to his upper lip. “Looked like he was wearing the peacock feather right there! Brilliant!”
“Are you giving me notice?”
“What? No! You’re good. I just wish you could turn yourself into a photographer. As soon as we can figure out how to print the darn things cheaper and faster, no paper will waste time with illustrations. As much as our noble publisher would like to kick us into the twentieth century, we aren’t ready. But the writing is on the wall, so to speak, or should I say in the typeset? Or should I say, engraving?” He cackled at his own poor attempt at humor. “Illustrations will soon be passé. We are moving into the modern era of photographic journalism, at least that’s the term they’re using in the windowed offices down the hall.”
Luke had yet to understand fully his tenuous position, and his patience was growing thin. “Are you telling me I’m not covering Idaho’s statehood?”
The editor tapped ash into his coffee cup. He pursed his lips. “Yes, and no.”
“I’m still sending you to Idaho, but not to the capitol. We’ll be assigning someone else for the bigger event. All the political posturing will happen in Boise City or. . .” He glanced at the paper on his desk. “a town called Hailey. I want you to go to Ketchum to capture the—let’s call it, the more prosaic side of the occasion.”
Luke imagined this Ketchum would be less a city and more fitting to a setting for some Western dime novel, filled with saloons and drunken miners. If he was lucky, maybe he’d see his first street shootout. His mood made a radical shift. Perhaps, this wouldn’t be so bad. He’d have a chance to encounter some real wildlife, the bison, the antelope or even the bears he’d only seen in zoos.
“We have some patrons who are investors in the Philadelphia Smelter in Ketchum. They’ll be attending the celebration.” The editor unhinged these positive thoughts with the realities of his assignment. “You might do well to figure them prominently into any illustration you make for the paper.” A cunning smile inched across his face. “I’m certain that our financial department would be appreciative.”
“Good!” The big man waved a hand to the door. “Miss Turner has your train tickets for you. Oh, and I’ve arranged accommodations for you at a place called the Hartmann Guest Ranch. Seems some couple has opened their ranch for people interested in—” He picked up the same paper from his desk. “Experiencing the frontier.” He wagged his head and raised a bushy eyebrow. “Can’t imagine why anyone would want to. But see if you can ferret out a good story without getting scalped.” He let out a loud guffaw, adding, “Although, that would make a topnotch story.”
When the man stuck his cigar back between tight lips and began shuffling through the mess of papers on his desk, Luke assumed he was being dismissed. He left the office feeling more hopeful than he thought he’d be when walking through the door minutes earlier. The wild western frontier, a ranch, and real adventure might be just what he needed. His excitement tempered as he glumly realized that it might also be his last assignment.