Lori Hodges is a professional emergency manager and freelance writer. She was born and raised in Colorado and currently lives and works in Fort Collins. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver with a master’s degree in Political Science and Public Policy and from the Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in Defense Studies. She has published several articles related to her field.
She is the descendant of ranching pioneers in Colorado and Wyoming and is the family genealogist. While researching the family history, Lori became intrigued with the lives of her pioneer grandparents, Michael and Sarah Mullen. Her first novel, “Sweet Twisted Pine,” follows their timeline and reveals their pioneering spirit. Lori is currently working on a non-fiction book about her grandfather as well as a memoir about her life working disasters.
The following is an interview with the author.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
I had been working on a genealogy project and became interested in my ancestors’ journey from Ireland to Philadelphia and, later, to Wheatland, Wyoming, where they were among the first settlers in the county. My great-grandparents were ranchers, and on my wall, I have a photo of Patrick Mullen with his three sons that looks like it came straight from a scene of “Bonanza.”
Patrick’s father, Michael, started out in Philadelphia and later moved to Colorado to mine gold, but the smallpox epidemic led him to abandon that effort and to move with the rest of the Mullens to their ranch in Wyoming. Sarah Donnelly, my great-great grandmother, was known as the Mother of the Prairie. She was an exceptional woman who held poetry nights at their home and who delivered children up and down the valley as a midwife.
I had always wanted to write a novel and found that Michael and Sarah gave me the inspiration that I needed to begin. I kept their basic timeline of events but otherwise created a fictional story about ranching, gunfighting, and the power of family. Many of the names in the book are either people from my life or names of ancestors I have studied while conducting more genealogical research. Once I began writing, I found that the characters began to chart their own path and I allowed the story to unfold based on their wishes.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
I selected this specific part of the book because I had a lot of fun writing it. I wanted to illustrate how out of place Michael was in the West and how foreign the land would be to someone who grew up in a large city. I also wanted to show a human side to both Michael and Sarah and give them a chance to get to know one another better.
Michael had just arrived by train from Philadelphia to Colorado to seek help in finding his sister, who had been taken several days earlier. Michael met Sarah on the train, didn’t think much of it at the time, and later learned that her family had a connection to his own. Sarah and Michael are traveling by horseback to Sarah’s ranch to meet her brothers, who will hopefully help Michael in his search for the man who took his sister.
While writing the book, my German Shepherd, Sulley, decided to get into a fight with a porcupine. I did everything I could to get the quills removed from his face, but they were well and truly stuck. I ended up having to go to the vet who had to sedate my dog and remove the quills. That is when I learned that they have the barbed ends that make them difficult to easily remove.
I’d like to say that my dog learned his lesson, but instead, he sought revenge on the poor animal and was attacked much worse the second time. After that, he realized the error of his ways. But the experience gave me the idea of Michael in the woods running into a porcupine.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
Since my inspiration came from my ancestors, and since they were among the first settlers in Platte County, Wyoming, I was able to visit the area and learn more about their lives in the local museum. I also knew a lot about my great-great-grandparents from their writings and their timeline, but I did not really have a lot of knowledge about the West in the 1800s.
Therefore, I took some time while thinking about the book I wanted to write, and I read books about the time and from the time period. I really enjoy firsthand accounts, so I read journals and autobiographical works from the same time period. My ancestors also wrote a lot about their lives, which really helped me to get to know them.
Then, after getting a feel for the time, I had to research the technology of the time, the mannerisms and phrases used. I didn’t do a great job the first time around, but after hiring a professional editor, she helped me to see the areas that needed work to make the book more authentic. Finally, once the book was fully written, I went chapter by chapter and added in small details and verbiage of the time.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Other than needing to learn more about the 1800s and the West, one of the biggest challenges I encountered was developing a writing style. I had begun the book in third person, but at some point, my main character, Michael, decided that he wanted to tell the story.
But there were pieces and parts that did not involve Michael, so I struggled with how to tell the story from both a first person and a third person perspective. While writing the book, I went to the Tattered Cover Bookstore for an author reading event with Diana Gabaldon. In her question-and-answer session, I told her that I had always been told to never mix first and third person – pick one and use it.
But she had successfully mixed the two in all of her books. I asked her about this when it came my time to ask a question, and she told me to never let anyone else tell me how to write. If I want to write in first and third person then I should do that, but I should do it well. I took her advice, and from that point forward I just allowed myself to write and I worried about the editing and final product later.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
I actually wrote this book about 20 years ago when I worked as a paramedic on an ambulance service and as a volunteer firefighter in the Colorado mountains. I lived in a fire station as a resident firefighter and worked 24-hour shifts for the ambulance service. Back then, outside of busy ski season, we had some down time during our shift. This is when I first started writing my ideas down and later started writing the chapters of this book.
I am the opposite of most people. I need noise around me to concentrate. If it is too quiet, I cannot think. Writing while on shift was a great opportunity for me. I wrote whenever there was an extra moment between calls and at quarters after completing any required tasks for the day.
Also, the work of a paramedic and the people I met provided a lot of great ideas for the book. It took about five years to complete, although the majority of the writing occurred in the first year.
What’s your next project?
My next project is a memoir about the lessons I have learned as a paramedic, firefighter and as an emergency manager. Each chapter begins with an actual call that I ran, followed by memories and the lessons I learned that have made me who I am today.
The book is called “Bad Things Happen: A Life in Chaos.” The key theme of the book is that each and every one of us will face difficulty in our lives, but it is often the most difficult of times that teach us the greatest lessons and it is through our connections to others that we are able to rise through the ashes and begin again.
I hope to have the first draft completed by the end of 2020, a fitting time to end a book about learning from the bad things that happen.