New York Times best-selling novelist SANDRA DALLAS, the author of seventeen adult novels, four mid-grade novels, and ten non-fiction books, was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue. Sandra’s novels with their themes of loyalty, friendship, and human dignity have been translated into a dozen foreign languages and have been optioned for films.
A journalism graduate of the University of Denver, Sandra began her writing career as a reporter with Business Week. A staff member for twenty-five years (and the magazine’s first female bureau chief), she covered the Rocky Mountain region, writing about everything from penny-stock scandals to hard-rock mining, western energy development to contemporary polygamy. Many of her experiences have been incorporated into her novels.
She is a three-time recipient of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Wrangler Award, a four-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur award, and a six-time winner of the Women Writing the West Willa Award. In addition, she was given the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award for Historical Fiction and was the recipient of the Eleanor Gehres Award from the Denver Public Library and the Frank Waters Award from the Pikes Peak Library District.
Sandra lives in Denver and Georgetown, Colorado, with her husband, Bob. She is the mother of two daughters, Dana, a lawyer in New Orleans, and Povy, a photographer in Golden, Colorado.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
The setting almost always comes first. Then the characters, and then I go looking for a plot. With Where Coyotes Howl (which comes out in April, 2023), I knew I wanted to write about Wyoming, about the vastness and loneliness of the country there. I had read a small autobiography of a cowboy who lived in Wyoming in the early 20th century and knew I wanted to write about him and how he fell in love. So Wyoming came first, and he came next. Then I spent about 10 years searching for my story. With my novel The Last Midwife, I wanted to write about Breckenridge, Colorado, and the gold dredging that took place there in the first half of the 20th century. The characters followed, and last of all, the plot.
How do you conduct your research?
What I love most about researching is going to the site of my story and soaking up the landscape and atmosphere. When I wrote The Diary of Mattie Spenser, I drove out to northeastern Colorado to see what it would be like to live on the prairie with one tree in sight. In fact, I went there more than once, especially when my character was unhappy. I wanted to capture the vastness and sense of loneliness she felt. I visited Butte, Montana, for my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café, and felt I was transported back to the 1940s. I knew that setting as well as my characters. I talk to local people whenever I visit a site. That was especially true when I wrote Prayers for Sale, which is about goldboat dredging. I talked to the old men who’d worked the dredges and to the women who worried about the hardships.
I’ve lived most of my life in Colorado and the West and wrote 10 nonfiction books, generally on the state’s history, before I turned to fiction. So I usually have a good idea of what happened historically in the time period of my book before I begin to write it. Then I research as I go along. I try to find books on the subject I’m writing about. I also spend time in the Western History Dept. of the Denver Public Library, which is a wonderful resource. I want enough history in my books to give them a sense of authenticity, but I don’t want the history to overwhelm the story.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I often start a draft without doing any research. Because I write about settings I already know about, I have a sense of place and time. The story is more important than the history. So I start the story, then research as I go along. With Little Souls, my last book, I read a great deal about the 1918 flu epidemic before I started the book, because I didn’t know much about it. But I already knew about Denver in 1918. I researched details of the setting as I went along. For instance, I knew about Denver’s Great White Way, the street illuminated by thousands of light bulbs on the first-run theaters. But I didn’t know the specific theater the characters visited or what movie they saw—“Tarzan,” as it turned out. I had to go to the Western History Dept. to find that out.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I don’t have to deal with cell phones and electronics. It seems with contemporary books, a crisis is when the character is out of cell phone range. I love bringing in historical items—food, perfume, cars. I want my readers—the ones as old as I am—to say, “I remember that.” And I want younger readers to learn the details of the past.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
You can’t alter the truth. I’ve read books in which the authors tell you they changed a date or place to make the reality fit the story. You can’t do that. You have to write within the confines of the truth. I’ve had to go back and change details of books because they’re wrong. I’ve taken out the names of songs and products because they weren’t around in my time period. I even changed a book title. The working title of Westering Women was Catalogue Women. Then I discovered the term wasn’t used until 50 years after my story was set.
Why is historical fiction important?
Historical nonfiction tells us the bones of history. Historical fiction is the flesh. We can read the history of the Civil War and find out about the battles and troop movements, but fiction tells us what people experienced, the conflicts with neighbors, the sacrifices, the tragedy and loneliness of death. Fiction tells us how people feel. With the 1918 flu epidemic, the setting of Little Souls, we learn through history books about the number of deaths, but novels tells us about the fear of the contagion, the horror of seeing someone turn blue, and the terrible sense of loss and of lives unfulfilled.