Sluts, Whores, and Slutty Whores

I was just thinking about the importance of a novel’s (or, to a lesser degree, blog post’s) title. We learn that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (nor, probably, its title), but we all do anyway. Doubly guilty. To explain the title of this post, I was thinking about the research I conducted for Heart of a Dove, which is after all a story about a former prostitute. I learned a great deal about the etymology of words such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore.’ ‘Whore,’ especially, is a loaded word with a long and prestigious history, laced with double meaning, negative connotation. It’s a word that, once applied, sticks, perhaps unalterably. An ugly demonstration of the power of words.

To me, the word brings immediately to mind Miss Lorena (a.k.a. the whore) from Lonesome Dove, who is arguably the strongest and most intriguing character in the series. In the book, the word ‘whore’ is used as both a matter-of-fact descriptor of her (the way you might casually say, “My mom is a professor”) and as a sharp-edged weapon meant to hurt her. From the time I first read Lonesome Dove, I have adored Lorena. (Other than Gus, she is my favorite character in the book.) The story would not be the same without her. And it’s BECAUSE she is a whore that she is so darn interesting. I want to read about her and her experiences because I truly feel for her. And because they are fascinating.

Lorena’s experiences give her insight into human nature that few possess. Hardship forming your character, that’s what that is; the reshaping, testing and eventual strengthening of a soul. Many of the books I’ve read featuring or mentioning a woman of “easy virtue” often go on to underscore the idea that not only are these women so much more interesting than other women, but that they have a deeper understanding of humanity. And probably they aren’t going to judge YOU. Further, when researching the lives of actual prostitutes (in my book’s case, women who lived in the 1860s-70s) I read about and then reflected upon the judgment heaped atop these women, the loathing directed their way; on the one hand, it wasn’t surprising (although it was grossly unfair and hurts my soul on some level), but on the other, it was so completely hypocritical.

Even to this day, a woman labeled as a ‘whore’ is often hard-pressed to shed the reputation that inevitably also attaches to her. As though she’s somehow tainted?In the 19th century, whores were vilified by various groups (can I also take a moment to reflect upon how much I personally loathe sanctimonious people) and relegated to the lowest levels of “polite” society. Why? Why were they so feared and hated? What threat did they pose? As though all of society just might come crumbling down if they were allowed to be acknowledged as having a place in it. It hurts me, the way in which prostitutes remain without a real voice in history, when so much of history was shaped BECAUSE of them. Like it or not, it’s true. They were there (willingly or not) in the building of cities and countries, through wars and human migrations, the settling of new lands. Besides, they wouldn’t have been kept in business without the male element of the population, but somehow the scores/droves/hordes of their male customers haven’t been likewise degraded.

We’re so quick to judge the women; maybe we should fuck off. I’m also reminded of a Dolly Parton interview I once read. Not because I think the word applies to her, but because she told a great story relating to it. Dolly spoke of her roots, of being a child in a small, southern community, where people attended church OR ELSE, no matter how you behaved the other six days of the week. She went on to mention a member of the congregation, a woman who the other (sanctimonious with a capital S) women gossiped about. Dolly’s words about this woman who dared to dress and act differently – “I liked her style.” Even though I don’t know this woman, I think I like her style too. I like that she dared to ruffle the feathers of that congregation. Nice work.

My current work-in-progress is Grace of a Hawk, book three in my historical fiction series. I am encountering a great deal of incredibly amazing characters as I write, and further pondering the strange and fascinating world of 19th century prostitutes. And illusionists and sexy, dangerous outlaws (“lean as a drought year” but with broad, powerful shoulders, my favorite male build) and fiddle makers and ruthless sheriffs and one-eyed seers and horses that are in some ways more human than their owners. Sun setting long and low over the prairie and love being made in secret desperation, risking everything. I’m so very deeply sunk into this world. And I love it. Had to take a break from writing to post my thoughts about whores and sluts. Thanks for reading all the way through. Don’t be so judgmental in the future, if you have been in the past. You just read a post called Sluts, Whores, and Slutty Whores. haha ­čśë

The Seductive Allure of History and Why I Love Writing About the Same Family

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Writing about the 1860s spins my thoughts endlessly, in countless directions. I am admittedly over-sensitive, apt to become too caught up in what I’m researching; since I was small, I have found myself almost (but not quite, because surely part of me must welcome this feeling) unwittingly ensnared by a bit I’d read or heard, and then I pine for something (a place, a time period, maybe) I can barely articulate, even to myself.

The first time this struck me hard (gaining my complete attention) was in third grade, after researching the Oregon Trail for an essay assignment. Lying in bed that night, my imagintion pinwheeling like the lights thrown from a county fair Ferris wheel, I kept circling back to one notion – I had been there. I had walked along the prairie once upon about a hundred fifty years ago. I could smell the scent of the tall grass broken by the tremendous weight of the onward-rolling wagon wheels, I had gathered wood through the day for the fires at night when the wagons circled up for safety, I had scanned the distance all through the long summer days and dreamed of the places over the horizon from behind the brim of my sunbonnet. Yep. Don’t accuse me of romanticizing or anything…

I don’t fully know how I feel about past lives. I would never discredit the possibility. There is so much more to the world than we could ever begin to understand. If someone tells you they have the answers, they are wrong, wrong, wrong. They don’t. No one does. It’s the speculation that makes life grand and heart-wrenching and rife with meaning, sometimes even outright stunning. Now, as an adult, I write with real passion for the late nineteenth century, where I still feel a piece of my soul belongs…remains, maybe. There is an allure to this era that I cannot shake. Maybe half the problem is that I can picture it so fucking perfectly, with all senses afire. It’s seductive, because when I’m “there” it seems real…I write characters, but truly they come alive and then the story unfolds around me. I may very well be typing furiously to keep up with the action, but often I feel as though I’m observing as you would when dreaming…there but not there. Watching events unfold and recording them, not creating them. Does that make sense?

I am so invested in the fictitious┬áfamilies I write about┬áthat it actually hurts a little (ok, significantly) to think there might come a time when their story is “over,” in that I won’t be writing it any longer, because it will have been told. The two storylines (contemporary and historical) interconnect in so many ways and I don’t want to be finished. For now, there is still so much to tell. And so thankfully I get to continue indulging myself in researching and writing about the 1860; I sink delightedly into the rhythms and textures of this world. And for now, I have no desire to surface.

Old West Prostitutes and Why I Can’t Write Without Music Playing

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They say that olfactory senses are most connected to memory, which I know to be true just from experience. Walking through the grocery store not too long ago, completely unawares, I caught the sudden scent of perfume and was snapped instantly back to the summer I worked in Park County, Wyoming, sharing a single bathroom with nine other girls in our bunkhouse. Was it Essence of Green Tea? I remember one of my bunkmates having that kind of body wash. Of course the name doesn’t matter, but I marveled that the faintest hint of fragrance so quickly transported all of my senses to another place and time.

I remember one of the ranch hands at the time snickering and telling the ten of us girls that Wyoming state law specified that when more than five unrelated females resided under the same roof, it was still legally considered a brothel. Oh, how we loved this designation. It was a huge joke from that moment forth. And yet, all teasing aside, it sparked in me a fascination with the very idea of prostitutes who had truly lived in Wyoming in another century. That summer I purchased a book called “Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West” by Anne Seagraves, a wildly intriguing examination of how these women survived in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The pictures range from mildly shocking to utterly heart-wrenching. By contrast, some of the gals actually appear quite happy. Over a decade and a half later, I am still drawn like a compass point to the north, not only to this particular time period, but also to the lives of these “working girls,” women who were shunned, degraded, cast aside, and essentially voiceless in history.

In writing my┬áhistorical fiction series that begins with┬áHeart of a Dove, I gave myself completely over to the first-person narration of Lorie Blake, a prostitute in the 1860s. I could not stop writing her story. In my own small way, maybe, I am allowing at least one of those long-ago girls a voice. If the sense most intensely related to memory is indeed smell, then I am going to guess that sound is a very close second. And this is why I cannot manage to write without music playing, ideally directly into my ear canals via ear buds. Music straight to the brain. I had no idea the ridiculous variety of wonderful stations I could create on Pandora. For example – Pa’s Fiddle Songs. That would be Pa Ingalls, of course, and about ninety percent of the time when I am listening, tears flow right over my face. It’s that moving. Civil War Songs is another gem.

The older I get, the more clear it becomes to me that my soul is probably misplaced here in the twenty-first century. At least, as far as music is concerned. I heard once that a violin mimics the human voice better than any other instrument, and though I am no musician, I believe this for truth. While writing about the nineteenth century, I listen to violin and/or fiddle music almost continuously. And so I finish this blog post with the hope that the girls with whom I lived in a legally-recognized (though non-practicing!) brothel will somehow stumble across my latest book and contact me. It’s been way too long.