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Thursday, October 22, 2015

On Confederates, Conquistadors, Crusaders, Carolingians, and Centurions

Christopher Columbus

As an amateur historian, I sometimes find it disingenuous to ascribe labels of "good" and "evil" to the motivations of people in the past, especially to demonize the heroes of those eras in order to promote political agendas of the present.  

For example, in my novel Harper's Donelson, Lieutenant Jamie Harper fights to restore the Union and is, at best, neutral towards the issue of slavery and a member of Bedford Forrest's staff quotes from the Bible as the justification for slavery.  In the same vein, Katie Malloy is a teen-aged prostitute who, we learn, would rather commit suicide than be forced to lay with a mulatto.  Are these views to be held against them by a modern reader?  I think not. 

Slavery has been part of the human condition since before civilization began and is still with us. The common morality in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, the era of Manifest Destiny, justified slavery under the belief that all non-whites were inferior species and not alternate races of the same species. Some religious denominations actually preached this belief from the pulpit. How can we expect the common man of the era to believe differently?

Yes, it is true that there were abolitionists who violently opposed  these views, but they were a minority.  Neither Jamie Harper or Katie Malloy pay attention to the politics of the abolitionists.  They are focused on the travails of their own lives.

So, are Jamie and Katie good or evil?  I believe they are an accurate representation of the values of that age.  They are people of their time.  I won't condemn them for not caring about the evils of slavery based on our twenty-first century values .  They don't live in my century.

The people of the past lived under different belief systems than we do in the present. I find it difficult to believe than most modern persons would behave any differently than they, had they lived among popular ideologies of the past.
Sean Gabhann

What are your thoughts?

Harper's Donelson is available from Amazon, Barnes and Nobel e-store, Smashwords, and Kobo.

Sean Kevin Gabhann is a Vietnam-era combat veteran of the US Navy.  He first became interested in American Civil War history during the centennial celebration and he owns an extensive library of primary and secondary material related to Civil War.  He especially wants to write about campaigns in the West because of a fascination with the careers of U.S Grant and W.T. Sherman.  Gabhann lives in San Diego, California with his wife, four sons, two daughters-in-law, three grandsons, three dogs and a cat named Pepper who sometimes thinks she’s a dog. 


Saturday, October 17, 2015


How often have you been enjoying a book, felt yourself drawn into another age and time, only to have the whole illusion shattered by an expression, an action or a reference to something that you know is of the modern time, but not of the age of the story.

An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency. If you know your subject, they jump out at you and often that will be it as far as your further enjoyment. The credibility of the story is lost and you may end up tossing the story aside. As a writer, especially a writer of historical works like western novels you have to protect yourself against this ailment. And indeed, ailment it is, since once you get used to letting them slip into your writing, you will tend to do it again and again.

Write about what you know
Every writer hears this at the start of their career. I certainly did, but I tended to misinterpret it. As a doctor I thought that it meant that I should write about medicine and surgery. If I wanted to write a crime novel then I should set it in a hospital, or have doctors as the main characters. The thing was that although I worked in medicine I certainly did not want to write solely about medicine. I wanted to write westerns, crime novels and historical stories for youngsters.

After several false starts and the usual rejections, surely the common coin of aspiring writers, it finally clicked with me. I didn't have to deal solely with the things I knew about, but I should use that knowledge in the story. So I wrote westerns and crime stories and used medical facts and descriptions in the tale, but not as the whole tale. I found that gave my writing a sense of authenticity. And I could then drip that authenticity into other areas of the story by good solid research.

And so, my advice is to put plumbing details in if you know about plumbing, or baking if you like to bake, or bungie-jumping, if you are so adventurous as to enjoy hurtling head downwards from tall buildings at great speed. you just t don't have to make it the whole point of the book or story. Think of it as the veneer of authenticity that makes the reader believe that you know your subject.

But check, whatever you do
Although I have a great interest in medical history, I still check if things are plausible in particular times. For example, I know that blood pressure was only starting to be appreciated at the end on the nineteenth century and that sphygmomanometers  (blood pressure measuring machines) only started to be use in the early twentieth century. It is a mistake to have a frontier doctor use one in the 1870s. Similarly, a doctor before the Civil War would not use a binaural stethoscope, that is a stethoscope with two tubes. He would use a single tubal device, like the other doctors of the time.

Two tubes would be wrong

One tube would be right

Get your psychology right
We tend to use words like depression, as if they have always been used. Yet in the nineteenth century the label melancholia would be used more frequently. A doctor would not pronounce about a patent's mental state in terms of ego, for Sigmund Freud did not come up with his model of the ego, id and super-ego until 1923.

This was all very much in my mind when I started out writing a monthly blog for Western Fictioneers. The aim was to write posts that my fellow writers could use to get medical and surgical facts right in their books. Then after some writers asked about whether certain injures could be treated in a certain way, or whether a disease could be fatal, or other things like how long it would take to die of thirst in the desert, it was suggested that a collection of such posts could be a useful resource for western, romantic and historical novelists. The result was my latest book The Doctor's Bag- medicine and surgery of yesteryear. I hope that it will help the writer avoid medical anachronisms in their tales.

As for anachronisms about weapons, clothing, things to eat, well I am continually looking for other posts to keep me right.

Keith Souter is a part time doctor, medical journalist and novelist. He writes westerns as Clay More and crime as Keith Moray. He is the current vice-president of Western Fictioneers. His latest book The Doctor's Bag has just been published by Sundown Press.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

#NewRelease -- THE DOCTOR'S BAG: Medicine and Surgery of Yesteryear by Dr. Keith Souter -- #Giveaway!

Write about what you know - that is the old piece of wisdom handed on to all budding writers. I am a doctor and have pretty well followed that advice throughout my writing career and find that it works for me.  I don’t mean that I only write about medicine and doctors. Apart from my medical and non-fiction writing I write fiction in four genres, but in them all I introduce some medicine or  surgery into the tale. It gives me an opportunity to give my stories some authenticity and credibility in telling what diagnoses and  treatments a doctor might give, or what injuries would be plausible.

When the Western Fictioneers started a blog I volunteered to write a  monthly post on 19th century medicine and surgery. The aim was to tell my fellow western writers about medical and surgical practice and provide information that they could use in their own novels and short stories when a character was shot, wounded or injured. Another aim was to show what things were not plausible, perhaps because certain instruments had not been invented, or because medical discoveries had yet to be made. In a nutshell, how to avoid medical anachronsms in their fiction. 

It has given me much pleasure to help my fellow writers with aspects of medical practice that they needed to include. There are all sorts of questions that crop up when we as writers put our characters into those tight corners. For example, you may want to know how to dig out a bullet or an arrow, or how to deliver a baby. And just why is the husband always sent off to boil some water, or why do you wait expectantly for that slapping noise in the other room before a newborn baby cries.

It was suggested to me that these posts should be collected as  a reference book for writers of historical and western fiction.  It was a suggestion that I could not refuse and I hope that the book may prove useful to my fellow authors.

“Bleed, blister and purge.”
Those words just about sum up the practice of medicine in the early 19th century.
The Doctor’s Bag is a compilation of posts on the medicine and surgery of yesteryear, written by western writer Clay More (under whose hat can be found his alter ego Dr Keith Souter, a medical doctor for almost forty years). The posts show the state of medicine and surgery in the 19th century, by delving into the doctor’s bag to look at what instruments, medicines and techniques were available back then.
In this book you will find information not readily available to writers and readers of historical fiction. You will find out exactly how a doctor would dig out a bullet or arrow, set a broken leg, perform an amputation, or deliver a baby. You will also find out about famous surgeons like Dr George Goodfellow, the surgeon to the Gunfighters as well as learn about snake-oil salesmen, phrenologists and some of the more exotic diseases that folk were subject to. 


Part 1    ARROWS
     Out on the frontier a doctor would have to be prepared to deliver babies, splint and fix broken bones, and dig out arrows and bullets. Tough work, if you then had to go and play poker and drink a little whiskey.
     In many a western a doctor is either called upon to dig out a bullet or arrow. He usually does so with some ease, depositing the missile in a tin bowl with a resounding clunk, a wipe of his brow and the message that “he’ll be all right now, once I patch up the wound.”
     But of course, in real life things are not quite as simple, so in this post I’m going to look at digging out arrows. In a later post we’ll talk about digging out bullets.

Dig it out, Doc!
     One of the best sources of information about arrow wounds in the modern era comes from a paper by Dr Joseph H Bill, an MD and Assistant Surgeon, published in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, published in 1862. He wrote this paper from his own experience as a surgeon on the frontier. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army.
     He begins by describing how arrows are made, which is really crucial to the understanding of the problems involved with arrow wounds. Basically, the arrow has a shaft and a head. The shaft would vary in size from two to three feet, generally being made from dogwood. The head would be inserted into a slit and lashed to the shaft. The head would be made of iron, glass, obsidian or flint. It would vary in size from half an inch to two and a half inches in length, and about half an inch to three-quarters of an inch in width at the base.
     The lashing was done with tendons, which were tied tightly and allowed  to dry to tighten them further. This is also of importance to our understanding, because once an arrow penetrates the body the tissue fluids and blood would cause the lashing tendon to swell and come loose. Any attempt to pull the arrow out, as people were wont to do, would simply cause the shaft to come out, leaving the potentially lethal arrow-head inside the body. 
     Doctor Bill describes the relative frequency of arrow wounds. Wounds to the upper limbs were the commonest, because you could see an arrow coming and attempt to fend it off, only to sustain a wound, probably hitting and lodging in bone. Then came abdominal wounds, then chest, then lower limbs, then head, and lastly neck. Multiple arrow wounds were common, since a bowman could fire off six arrows per minute and once a person was hit once, they would be easy targets for the second and third.

Native American arrows
     The first thing to be assessed in Doctor Bill’s view was the depth of the arrow. He suggested that the length of the arrow shaft should be measured, so that this measurement could be deducted from the total length of the arrow. Navajo  and Utah arrows were made to two and a half feet. Apache, Comanche, Arrapahoe, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Pawnee arrows were made to two feet and three-quarters.

Treatment of arrow wounds
     In the initial examination  of the wound, with the arrow in situ, he would firstly assess whether the arrowhead was lodged in bone or not. To do this he would…..

Well, I’m sure you get the drift.

If you would like to be entered into a drawing to win a free ecopy of THE DOCTOR'S BAG, be sure and leave a comment.