The following is an interview with Randi Samuelson-Brown, author of “The Bad Old Days of Colorado.”
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
As a child, my father used to make it a point to tell me the history of locations as we drove through Colorado and Wyoming. Some of the stories seemed almost fantastic – but they stuck with me. As I got older, my love for Colorado history never left me.
As more people come into the state, it started to occur to me that not everyone had a father who knew the history of Colorado to act as a history tour guide. So I decided to write a history book from a native’s viewpoint – warts and all. I wanted accounts that my grandparents and great grandparents would recognize.
That said, when I really started looking into events and accounts, often I found differing versions than what I originally expected. As for what my great-grandparents would have said – well, they would have probably asked me why I didn’t write about the honest, hard-working people instead of the more notorious citizens.
Randi Samuelson-Brown’s roots go deep in Colorado. Born in Denver, she grew up in Golden and returned to Denver as an adult. She has a BA in History, with a stint in post-graduate research at Trinity College, University of Dublin. One of her favorite past times is exploring old Colorado towns, mining camps, assorted other historical sites and riding horses. Her book “Bad Old Days of Colorado” was featured on C-SPAN.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
This excerpt is taken from the first chapter, after the introduction. Of course, the entire chapter didn’t fit, so I had to parse it a bit. I think one of the main points that struck me upon writing “The Bad Old Days” was just how hard life used to be.
Colorado was difficult and dangerous to reach and a hard place to survive upon arrival. In the modern day, it is almost impossible to fathom just how remote it was. I selected this excerpt because the best place to start in a history book is at the beginning. That way context is provided for what comes later.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
Just growing up and living in Colorado, to be honest. I love to travel around to remote locations – and I always want to know what happened in those places. After decades of pestering people for regional histories and accounts, it started to come together in my mind. I really wanted to preserve history for the future – just the way I think historical buildings should be preserved.
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.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
I knew a lot of the assumptions in Colorado history – but the question, “Why are we saying that?” proved very useful. For example, everyone always knew there were many more men than women in the pioneer/settlement days. But upon looking in the census – it was amazing!
In 1860, Colorado returned its first census – showing 32,654 inhabitants in the territory – and a whopping 31,077 were men. That left only 1,577 women. Upon looking at the ages (which included children and babies), it quickly became obvious that there weren’t enough dance partners to go around!
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
One of the surprises and/or challenges was unravelling accepted fact. In other words, not to “fall” for widely accepted stories – such as Horace Tabor and Elizabeth (Baby Doe) McCourt’s scandalous wedding. A noted historian in the 1950’s didn’t let fact stand in the way of a better story – and let’s just say one of Colorado’s most accepted legends isn’t strictly true.
As to surprises – Colorado attracted a veritable “Who’s Who” of Wild West characters. For the most part, you name them, and they at least passed through our state. What else I found surprising is how many people’s paths intersected time and again – and how heroes could become villains and vice-versa.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
So far, the most prevalent comment is that they “had no idea.” And I consider that mission accomplished on my part.
As time rolls on, the character of Colorado will change, and I think it’s important to understand the how/why and wherefore we came to be. Even the horrific events had consequences that reverberate to this day.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Honestly, it depends on whether I am writing non-fiction or fiction. For non-fiction books, a book proposal is prepared prior to acceptance by the publisher. That book proposal guides the chapters and content – so I spend the majority of my time doing research and writing about the results.
For fiction, I try to write every day, and follow the voices of the characters and the images that pop into mind. In both instances, I write at home for the most part. The idea of writing in a coffee shop sounds fun, but there are too many distractions for me to be able to concentrate.
What was one thing that surprised you the most in your research?
Probably the fact that cannibalism was recorded prior to Alferd Packer. It stands to reason, given the distances and disasters that could befall travelers – but I started getting the feeling that it happened more than we currently imagine. It just wasn’t publicized/discovered or discussed in most instances.
Tell us about your next project.
I am finishing up a novel titled “On the Fringes” – Colorado-based historical fiction. It is about a clairvoyant, a mining swindle and a fresh start that takes place in Cripple Creek.