I’m happy to welcome a fellow lover of history to the interview hot seat today. Cinch into your chair for a ride with author Lynn Downy and her debut novel set on a dude ranch! Let’s take a look at her bio and then find out more about her and her inspiration.
I’m a native California writer, historian, and archivist. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but didn’t get paid for it until 1985, when I started publishing articles and books about the history of the West. I was the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco for 25 years and wrote the first biography of the founder, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World. And my grandmother’s experience in a TB sanatorium in the 1920s led to Arequipa Sanatorium: Life in California’s Lung Resort for Women, which won a WILLA award from Women Writing the West. My next book is a history of dude ranching, American Dude Ranch: A Touch of the Cowboy and the Thrill of the West, which will be released in March of 2022. I’m obsessed with the dude ranch, which is also the setting for my first novel, Dudes Rush In, a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion Award. I’m the Vice President/President-Elect of Women Writing the West, and a member of Western Writers of America. I live in the northern California wine country with 4 cats and a Pinot Noir vineyard in my back yard.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Lynn: I have been writing books and articles about history for over 30 years, and I love to read historical mysteries. In 2012 I was reading one of Donis Casey’s wonderful Alafair Tucker mysteries, and when I finished, I thought to myself, “Gee, I’d love to write a historical novel.” Well, I had to grab pen and paper because as soon as I had that thought, the characters and plot of a story started running through my head as though someone had turned on a movie projector.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Lynn: My main character Phoebe McFarland, and the woman who wrote the diary that she discovers, Ellender Shepherd, both came to me almost fully-formed. They are very different, in back story, looks, and time period, and that actually made it easier for me to flesh them out as I worked on the book.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
Lynn: I’m fascinated by the concept of the dude ranch, which is the perfect setting for a novel, especially a mystery: an isolated location with its own language and customs, filled with people from different places with unique back stories of their own. Stick everyone together in the ranch house, throw in cowboys, horses, and beautiful scenery, and the drama will happen.
Betty: Which character(s) were the hardest to get to know? Why do you think?
Lynn: It was hardest for me to get into the head of the male characters. I think this is partly a function of being a woman, and partly being a first-time novelist. Luckily, I had a wonderful editor at my publisher, Pronghorn Press, who helped me get those details onto the page. The men in my book were a little two-dimensional, which I needed to fix.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Lynn: Historical research is my profession and my favorite thing to do, so I dived into the history of dude ranches, focusing on the 1950s. I have stayed at a few dude ranches, and I was able to translate those experiences into the book, making sure I stayed true to the decade in which my story is set. My fictional town, Tribulation, is based on one of my favorite places in the world, Wickenburg, Arizona, and I used aspects of its history for both plot and setting.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Lynn: I wrote 2 drafts of my manuscript before it was picked up by Pronghorn Press. Annette, the publisher and editor, liked my story but she made many editorial suggestions to strengthen the narrative. I ended up reorganizing some chapters and doing a lot of rewriting, all of which I started as the COVID pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020. I spent the entire first month of the lockdown working about 5 hours a day on my manuscript. It was a great way to distract myself from the horrors, was the hardest work I’ve ever done as a writer, and was also a great joy.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Lynn: Dudes Rush In is my first novel, and I started it when I was still working full time. The germ of the idea came to me in the summer of 2012, I semi-retired in 2014, worked on it exclusively in 2018, and the book came out in the fall of 2020. I call that a long time! I’m working on the second book in the series now and I expect it to come out next year or the beginning of 2023. That’s certainly an improvement.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Lynn: I always listen to music, and it has to be music that’s pertinent to whatever I’m writing. When I was working on Dudes Rush In, I listened to a lot of Western swing and theme music written for Western TV shows and movies. And I threw in some 1950s jazz, too.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Lynn: I have a passive voice problem. When I edit—whether non-fiction or fiction—I have to go through the manuscript and fix limp, lifeless sentences.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Lynn: One of them is writer Donis Casey, whose work not only inspired me to try fiction, she was also personally supportive to me when I made a tentative beginning. Her family history inspired her books, and I also use my own family as a starting point in my novel. She is one of those authors who believes in lifting up others as they travel their own paths.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Lynn: I write on my computer in my home office, and I cover the walls with photos, pages from magazines, and other artifacts that pertain to what I’m writing. I surround myself with these visuals so that I’m immersed in whatever world I am trying to create. Sometimes my office looks like those rooms on TV crime shows that stalkers or serial killers have filled with the objects of their obsession. But it works for me! I like editing on paper in a bustling coffee shop, but that was out of the question for a long time in 2020 and 2021. So, I take my printed pages into my living room, sit on the couch and put on some music, hoping one of my cats won’t bat the pen out of my hand.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Lynn: I’m a consulting archivist and historian. I work with companies, museums, and libraries to organize their historical materials, and I write everything from social media posts to books for my clients. I did this work full time until 2014, when I decided to move into the world of consulting, which allows me to choose my projects and gives me more time to write. History and historical archives are my profession and where my heart lives.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Lynn: Being persistent and true to my stories. I sent the manuscript of my book Arequipa Sanatorium: Life in California’s Lung Resort for Women to a publisher I had worked with before. It was rejected (with extreme prejudice) and I was in such despair I almost gave up on it, but the book was something I had wanted to write for over 30 years. I had to keep going. Then, a historian friend introduced me to an editor at the University of Oklahoma Press, who looked at the manuscript, made some suggestions for improvement, and then saw it through to publication. As I mentioned earlier, the book won a WILLA award from Women Writing the West. I believed in my story and dug in and worked hard to make it happen. It’s a lesson I think about whenever I write something new. And the University of Oklahoma Press is also publishing my next book, so this connection has been personally and professionally fulfilling.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Lynn: I would love to chat with historian and author Heather Cox Richardson, who has a unique perspective on how the American West helped to shape national history. And she has a clear-eyed way of looking at modern politics through a historical lens.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Lynn: Success for me is getting better at what I do, and writing the best version of whatever book I’m working on. Because it’s all about the story, which means it’s ultimately all about the reader.
In 1952 San Francisco, restless war widow and aspiring writer Phoebe McFarland decides to change her life and spend six months on her sister-in-law’s dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona, called the H Double Bar. She has enjoyed many vacations at the ranch, she loves the desert, and is happy for the opportunity to spend time with her late husband’s family. In exchange for room and board, she helps out in the office and hopes to finally finish the novel she is working on. When a group of magazine writers comes to stay, including an attractive single man, Phoebe sees a chance to connect with the professionals. But Tribulation soon lives up to its name. When Phoebe finds an old diary hidden in her desk, she stumbles onto secrets from Tribulation’s past that collide with a shocking revelation of her own, leading her down a trail to both discovery and danger.
I enjoy stories with horses and cowboys, so this one is going on my ever-growing TBR list. Thanks for sharing, Lynn!
P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!