Writing of warriors, romance and the West

Arnold novelist to speak at women's organization convention

  • Novelist Lucia St. Clair Robson of Arnold appears in the room where she writes. Behind her to the left is the filing cabinet where she keeps her research.
Novelist Lucia St. Clair Robson of Arnold appears in the room… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
April 30, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Lucia St. Clair Robson's first and biggest selling novel opens with an Indian raid on a small settler outpost in 1830s East Texas — page after page of killing, scalping, torture, bondage and rape during which the 9-year-old female protagonist is carried off by the Comanches. Robson has since written about the American Revolution, and further war and occasionally other massacres in the American West, in Florida, Mexico and feudal Japan.

And yet, nearly 30 years and nine published novels later, the Arnold resident is somewhat puzzled to find herself often grouped with writers of "women's novels," and even "romance novels," although she means no disrespect to these categories. She writes about women and romance, but her chief preoccupation is usually considered a more manly pursuit, and her main characters are men and women.

"I think of myself as writing about war," said Robson, who is scheduled as the keynote speaker for the annual convention of the Maryland Federation of Women's Clubs at the BWI Airport Marriott Hotel on Monday. "I try to get away from war, but I can't. War forces ordinary people to behave extraordinarily."

For her focus on women, though, she was chosen to speak to the convention, said Audrey Batchelor, the Maryland Federation's literary chairwoman who suggested Robson as the speaker.

"In almost every one of her books her main character is a very strong woman, which we all think we are," said Batchelor, who lives outside Annapolis. Robson's women are "the kind that we would like to relate to."

Besides, Batchelor recently heard Robson speak at the Heritage Harbour Women's Club and said "she is so entertaining."

Born in Baltimore and raised in Florida, Robson, who is 68, has been entertaining readers since the early 1980s, when she published her first novel, "Ride The Wind," now in its 26th printing with nearly 700,000 copies sold. The book made The New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists, and won the 1982 Golden Spur Award for best historical novel from the Western Writers of America. This year, "True West" magazine's "Best of the West" list named Robson "Best Living Fiction Writer."

As Robson tells it, she stumbled on the writing life and the American West in the course of her work as an Anne Arundel County librarian, a position she held for eight years.

She was preparing a talk for students on romance in literature and for reasons she cannot now recall opened a Time-Life book on Indian chiefs. There she found a short item on Cynthia Ann Parker, the white woman who stayed with the Comanches, married a Comanche man and had children with him after she was abducted as a little girl during a raid on her family's Texas settlement in 1836.

Parker's story hooked her. Robson started researching and writing, and soon had enough material to send to an editor she met through her romantic partner, the late science fiction writer Brian Daley.

Since then, she has found subject after subject in the margins of history, which is part of the reason why she has come to focus on women.

"My subject is people who have been passed over by history, and the people who have been passed over are women and minorities," Robson said. "Or if they're Indians, they're shown from the white point of view."

Some of the people she's written about actually lived, others she invented. In either case, Robson builds her fiction on research conducted through travel and reading. She pursues obscure materials online or finds odd items in used book stores and yard sales that catch her eye for historical detail, anything that might help create the texture of a world gone by.

"I don't know, I pick these up," she said.

She pulled from a bookshelf in her office a copy of Michael Lesy's 1973 book, "Wisconsin Death Trip," an eccentric compilation of photographs and newspaper clippings recording the toll in suicide, murder, illness and mental illness of a severe economic depression of the 1890s in Black River Falls, Wis.

Then there's "Humors of Falconbridge: A Collection of Humorous and Every Day Scenes" by Jonathan F. Kelley, published in 1856, which Robson said she has used in a few books to capture some of the humor and conversation of the time.

Next to the bookcase stands a wooden cabinet with 24 drawers that looks like something you might have seen in a library decades ago, or perhaps in an old apothecary. The drawers are marked with the names of her novels or characters in the novels and crammed with indexed notes.

She pulls open a drawer marked "Lozen," the name of a main female character in another historical western novel, "The Ghost Warrior," and reads a few of the index tabs: "social relationships, puberty, death, quotes...:"

With enough detail, Robson hopes she can fairly represent the past, but she's keenly aware of the fugitive nature of historical "truth." First-hand accounts of events conflict, dates don't match, names change spelling from one version to another.

She said she expects to talk about these complications of historical writing at the Maryland Federation convention, a talk she usually calls "Predicting the Past." The phrase makes sense, she said, "because none of us was there."

In the blend of fact and imagination she hopes she can capture an authentic glimpse of a time that goes beyond what can be done in even the most rigorous scholarly history, which she said she doesn't read. She prefers the first-hand accounts of those who were there, the voices that feed her imagination.

"Sometimes fiction nails it," she said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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