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23 March 2012

The Romance of the Rails


When I was growing up, family vacations always consisted of visiting the relatives. Well, that was the official story, anyway. In reality, they were just a thin excuse for my father to meet another one of his great passions – steam trains. We’d drive for hours through high mountain passes, above steep precipices, along tumbling rivers, over narrow logging roads – just to catch a glimpse of one of those beauties, sailing along, her whistle caroling out across the wilderness.

My father always stopped to watch and listen. Oh, he’d talk to the engineer and the fireman, too, about their magnificent example of a bygone era. But he didn’t need to inspect their innards or get his hands on the wheel. He wanted to ride them, wherever they went for as long as possible.

He grew up during the Depression in a boarding house his mother ran for college students. The only man in the family, he faced a lot of hard work, while he listened to the trains passing through the great railroad yards only a few miles away. Never the most articulate of men, his face would light up decades later when he talked about his first long train trip, the one that took him away from that college town and the boarding house.

Other men are probably better at talking to little girls. But some things don’t need words. The first time I stood beside him and heard a steam engine’s whistle, the same thrill of pure joy ran through us both. I looked up at him and smiled. He grinned back at me and took my hand.

I’d written three western historicals before The Northern Devil and traveling by train was included, as a matter of course. I’d always treated it as matter of factly as we’d discuss driving our cars. But I wanted to do something else, something more intense, more passionate. The feeling got stronger with every book, as if my father’s ghost was pushing me harder and harder. He didn’t want the facts put down on paper – but the sheer delight.

Lucas and Rachel’s story is a marriage of convenience, where marriage pushes them together and intensifies their conflict. I wanted their surroundings to be just as tight and passionate as their relationship but how?

The idea hit me: a stream train in winter. Hot and steamy, capable of burning your skin off if you’re unwary enough to touch it. And how incredibly beautiful a private car’s interior could be, too! But frigid and dangerous, a barren waste of a landscape, like Lucas’s arrogant exterior and the wreck of his family life.

I wrote The Northern Devil’s train scenes for my father. I know his ghost was beside me all the way.

Reader, what books have reminded you of a loved one?

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3 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I don’t know about your question, but I’m now wondering if you’re watching Hell of Wheels. There’s a lot of trains and steam and wonderment at the idea of train travel on that show.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Isobel - haven't caught Hell on Wheels yet but absolutely should. Back in the 1860s, 25 moh was fast! And being able to just buy a cross country ticket truly did change things. Indians found some unbelievable pitched battles to stop tracks being laid in Kansas.

Okay, I admit it: I'll still go out of my way to hear - or see - a steam engine.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Rachel Donnelly said...

Thanks for sharing this beautiful story about you and your dad, Diane. I'm always looking for great resources about trains when writing a western.

5:39 AM  

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