Monday, August 6, 2018

Obsessed with Real-Life Characters: On Writing Miss Etta

Obsessed with Real-Life Characters
On Writing Miss Etta

Deanna Lynn Sletten

The obsession began over twenty years ago. While watching a favorite movie—“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”—I began to wonder, what were the real outlaws like? Thus began a long research project that turned into an obsession and two novels.

At first, I began reading every book I could get my hands on about the two outlaws. Surprisingly, there were many. An amazing pair of researchers had written two books and two of the outlaw’s relatives had written books also. Butch’s own sister, Lula Betenson, had written a book about her brother, Robert LeRoy Parker, even though she’d been a baby when he’d left home at the age of eighteen. Every book added a new piece to the puzzle of who the outlaws were and how they lived their lives. And while I found the two men interesting, what fascinated me the most was how little anyone knew of the beautiful, educated, charming Miss Etta Place.

A mystery. My obsession grew.

In 2001 (and then 2011) I published a middle-grade novel titled Outlaw Heroes about a twelve-year-old boy who is swept back in time and joins in on the escapades of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In doing so, the young boy learns a few life lessons. Etta Place played a small but important role in that book. It’s a fun adventure, and so far, has been enjoyed by those who have read it. But after writing that book, I knew I wanted to write more about these characters. Particularly, Etta Place.

The Wild Bunch - November 1900
Left to right front: Harry Longabaugh, Ben Kilpatrick, Butch Cassidy
Back: Will Carver, Harvey Logan

In the years that followed, I continued to research each character from every source I could find. From the well-known books by Butch and Sundance researchers to the obscure—even Captain William French had written a book about his life including his W S Ranch and his friendship with the outlaws. I found old newspaper clippings that pertained to the two wily outlaws. While on vacation, several times, I stopped at places they had robbed — the bank in Winnemucca, the Tipton sign on a deserted stretch of railroad in Wyoming. I wanted to get a feel for them having been there and see what they saw. I had copies of the Wild Bunch photo and the one of Harry and Etta in New York framed on my desk. I obsessed.

And still, who was Etta Place?

I created a timeline of the dates and places Butch and Sundance were, both together and separately. From the first known moment when Etta appeared in Sundance’s life in the winter of 1896 in Robbers Roost, to the last moment when she was no longer mentioned in their life in South America. Taking that information, I weaved her story in among known facts about Butch and Sundance.

Still, where did she come from? Who was she?

No one knows that answer. It is believed that she worked for Fannie Mae Porter in San Antonio as prostitute and that is where Harry met her. One account said that Etta was Butch’s girlfriend in Robbers Roost before being Harry’s. Other accounts say she was a teacher, a music teacher, or she was his cousin. Looking into her young, unlined face in the photo taken of her and Harry in 1901 tells its own story.

New York City, NY - February 1901
Harry Longabaugh and Etta Place

I doubt that Etta was a prostitute. She doesn’t have the hard, used look as most women of that occupation did. She was thought to be nineteen in 1896 when she first was seen with Harry. She looks very young in the 1901 photo too – five years later. I also have my doubts that Harry would have taken a prostitute as a wife or girlfriend. Despite being an outlaw, Harry was raised in a respectable family. He had looked up to his elder sister, Samanna, who was dignified and beautiful. I believe that when choosing a life partner, Harry would have wanted someone he could be proud to bring home. A woman with an education, with manners and grace, and who was lovely to look at. But as an outlaw, he needed to have a companion who could follow him anywhere, living both high and rough, and able to manage both. That is what makes Etta so fascinating.

I gave Etta an interesting past that would have enabled her to ride a horse well, shoot as well as any man, yet be able to charm the most dignified guest. That is how many people who’d known her described her. And she must have loved Harry very much, to follow him around the rugged west, and all the way to Argentina to start their lives over again, without knowing what lay ahead of them. She was lovely, yes, but she was strong.

The story of Etta, Harry, and Butch lives on because it is such an interesting one. No one knows for certain what became of them. They lived as outlaws in the United States, tried to go straight in South America, but had to go back to crime when the authorities hounded them. They had a moral code unlike most criminals of their day, and even a sense of humor about themselves. They lived, loved, and laughed a lot, but in the end, we have no idea if they made the greatest escape of all or died bloody and were buried in unmarked graves. All I know is that after writing two books about these characters, I doubt that I’ve laid them to rest.

I’m still obsessed.

I hope you will be too.

Miss Etta: A Novel

My historical women’s fiction novel, Miss Etta, is available or preorder and will release on September 4, 2018. The paperback will be available for purchase on that date as well, and the audiobook should be available by November. Here is more about Miss Etta.

Book Description:

She rode with the most famous outlaws of her time. Then she vanished.

In the fall of 1895, Etta Place falls in love with Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid. She gives up everything to follow him and his partner-in-crime, Butch Cassidy, in their outlaw life across the continent and beyond. Breathtakingly beautiful and every inch a lady, Etta can also ride and shoot as well as any man. As their fugitive life begins to crumble, she finds herself alone and living in a convent with her newborn son. Knowing she can’t hide away forever, she moves halfway across the country to begin anew. Etta prays her past won’t catch up with her.

In 1911 Emily Pleasants steps onto the train station platform of Pine Creek, Minnesota with a teacher’s contract in hand and a secret life she’s fled. A young widow with a small son, she’s searching for a safe place to raise her child where no one will recognize her. She meets Edward Sheridan, a successful merchant and bank owner, who quickly falls for her beauty, intelligence, and kindness. Still, she worries her notorious past will threaten the one thing dearest to her—her son.

From the deserts of Texas to the sweeping vistas of Wyoming, the refinement of New York City to the lush valleys of Argentina, Etta followed the outlaw men she loved so dearly. And then, she disappeared.

One woman, two separate lives. What became of the elusive Etta Place?

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(Article copyright 2018 Deanna Lynn Sletten. May not be reproduced without permission.) 

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