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August 3, 2023

What I Wrote on My Summer Vacation

by Christina Lynch

Christina Lynch on a horse, a photo of an old building on Zapata Ranch, a guest post by Christina Lynch author of historical fiction

I’m a community college professor as well as a novelist, which means I usually spend my precious summer break from the third week of May to the second week of August fully immersed in writing. I’ll sneak off for some horse camping, but even then I take a notebook and sit in my tent scribbling when not actually in the saddle.

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After a grueling couple of years, this summer I decided (truth: was forced by my friends) to leave my own horse at home and take a full-on, carefree, dude ranch vacation. The plan was to gallop through sagebrush, survey vast herbs of bison, and gaze at stars. No laptop, no notebook, and above all NO RESEARCH. I would actually exist in the present moment, in my own body, and live my own life instead of imagining the lives of other people. 

As I say when asked to define historical fiction, that is what might have happened.  

I arrived at the stunningly beautiful Zapata Ranch in Colorado with the best of intentions, even though at the last minute I had slipped my laptop and notebook into my luggage alongside my riding helmet and chaps. The Zapata keeps you busy: up and eating a hearty but healthy breakfast by 8, and out for a ride by 8:30. Lunch is packed in your saddlebag and consumed under towering cottonwoods alongside bison, pronghorns, deer, owls, elk and coyotes. There’s barely time after the daily ride to learn to rope or craft leather and then grab a shower before a gourmet dinner. Then to bed in the bunkhouse and the viciously delicious cycle of leisure begins anew.  

“My knee is sore,” I claimed on day four. It was, but I had more craving than pain. I had been ambling over a wild landscape that our guide told us had seen twenty thousand years of human habitation, first by an offshoot of the Clovis peoples, then by nineteen different Native American tribes, Spanish and Mexican settlers, and then also by English-speaking families whose black-and-white photos graced the walls of the ranch buildings. We rode past abandoned homesteads where doors creaked and owls darted in and out of decaying smokehouses. The wranglers talked about ghosts, murders, noises in the night. I needed to know more. And I needed to write. 

My friends headed out on the trail and I dove into figuring out whose story I could explore in the few hours I had. One smiling woman peered at me from the wall of the living room, flanked by two men who looked like brothers, with three little kids on a very patient looking horse behind her. She wore a white linen dress, had bobbed hair, lumpy stockings, and jazz heels. Genevieve Linger, the caption told me. “Hello, Genevieve,” I said to her. She didn’t look like a Genny.

By the time my friends returned from exploring the giant sand dunes adjacent to the ranch, I had found census, marriage, and death records. I knew Genevieve’s maiden name (Vanderhoof), place of birth (Byron, Illinois, 1905), amount of education (one year of college), place and date of marriage (El Paso, 1926), names and birthdays of her children, and where she was buried. 

I knew from the photo captions that Genevieve oversaw the men logging and placing the trees that would become the walls of her house. But her own work was invisible, undocumented: how did she make this house a home? Historical facts like I found about her are the logs that frame my story, but my job as a novelist is to furnish them in a way that resonates with our own time. I pictured Genevieve standing in the exact spot I was, a young woman from a bustling and established town in the Midwest, transported by the vagaries of life to a place of howling winds, brutal winters, and hard physical labor. I wondered what she thought when her new husband, a handsome and wealthy cattleman whom she probably imagined living in a mansion in Denver, brought her to this desolate spot and said, “This is it.” No neighbors nearby, no city within a day’s wagon trip, just a vast amount of cattle and sagebrush and mouths to feed. 

Knowing my friends were clip-clopping back in my direction and my writing time would soon be over, I crocheted together true history and fiction at warp speed. Why was Genevieve in El Paso? Accompanying her prim mother, who had TB (fiction). Where did she and Albert meet?  A staging of “White’s Scandals” at the Texas Grand Theater, score by Gershwin, costumes by Erte and sets transported from Paris (true event, fictional meeting). I sent Albert down to El Paso to buy some Mexican bulls (fiction), which might harden his herd after Colorado’s three years of drought (fact). 

“We’re back!” my friends interrupted. They told me all about riding in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and I told them all about Genevieve, which they found confusing. “Did you read a book about her?” “No, I found the 1940 Census and I filled in the gaps.” “Oh.”

They wandered off for showers and pre-dinner cocktails. I joined them, but found myself half in one place, hearing about the adventures of summer 2023, and half in 1926, watching Genevieve cope with her first winter as a married cattlewoman. Were there blizzards, floods, runaway horses, and ornery hired hands? Rustlers? Was there malaria in this marshy area? Did any of her children die in infancy? Did Genevieve homeschool her children or send them away? She and Albert stayed on the ranch until 1947. Why did they sell it?

Part of why writing historical fiction about women is fulfilling is because we know so little about the lives of most women in the past. They weren’t considered worth documenting because they weren’t “important.” But we’re beginning to see history in a new way, a more inclusive way that acknowledges that what happened off the battlefields and the front pages was important. 

But, as in all things, the more you know, the less you know. While sneaking in a little late-night research on my phone, my whole sexy Texas Gershwin-scored meet-cute fell apart. El Paso was the rural county in Colorado where Albert and Genevieve married, not to be confused with the bustling Texas city of the same name.  So where did they meet? I found myself pulled into the rabbit hole of research, driven to find facts upon which I could weave fiction. I found that Genevieve’s father was not a lawyer, as I had imagined, but an otolaryngologist (!) trained in London and Vienna (!!). She grew up not in Illinois, where she was born, but in Colorado Springs, in an architecturally significant house that’s still standing (“asymmetrical massing, a corner tower, bays, multiple projecting gables, contrasting materials, shaped shingles, and a prominent decorative porch”). Her mother was not an invalid in need of care, but a nurse before marriage and a volunteer for the Red Cross later. Each fact I found erased a part of the fiction I had created, but suggested new fictions, and hardened others like sun-baked adobe: If Genevieve grew up in a fancy mansion in the middle of a city, life on the Zapata Ranch must have been daunting at times. Was there a moment when she questioned whether her love of the land was as strong as Albert’s? Did she want that life for her children? Did they?

The vacation ended, and now I’m back in California, with a novel I’m about to get notes on, and another one set in Venice that needs finishing. Will I continue to write Genevieve’s story? I don’t know. I do know that while staying in her home, walking through her garden, and riding over her ranch, I felt close to her. I attempted to straddle two eras, and probably didn’t fully inhabit either, but the attempt was like galloping across a sagebrush plain dotted with prairie dog holes: brief moments of ecstatic connection with just enough stumbles thrown in to keep things interesting. 

book cover of historical WWII fiction novel Sally Brady's Italian Adventure by Christina Lynch
June 2023;  St. Martin's Press; 978-1250286154
audio, ebook, print (368 pages); historical fiction

headshot of author Christina Lynch

Christina Lynch
is the author of Sally Brady’s Italian Adventure and The Italian Party, both from St. Martin’s Press. She teaches English at College of the Sequoias and lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

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