Friday, 27 February 2009

The Pike's Peak Eclipse

I made substantial progress on The Miracle of Santa Maria this week when I realized this was a golden opportunity to at long last work the Pike's Peak eclipse of 1878 into a story. I've always been interested in trying to use an eclipse in a story while avoiding the traditional cliché of having the sudden darkening of the sky in the final chapter be a way for the hero to escape his fate.

Of all eclipses the Pike's Peak one is probably the best to work into a western as the time period is perfect. It also came at a time when travel had become easier so that many scientists made an especial effort to observe it. So some years ago I kicked off a story and wrote:

On August 7, 1869, Professor C. A. Young traveled from Princeton to Iowa to study a total eclipse of the sun. When he observed a green line crossing the corona's spectrum, he theorized that he had discovered a new form of gas, which he named coronium, although scientists later identified the line as being iron that had lost thirteen electrons.

So the professor was keen to further his studies by observing the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, which cut across North America from Texas to Montana and which was commonly referred to as the Pike's Peak eclipse.

The following fictional tale does not concern itself with what he discovered.

At the time I'd been all geared up to attempt a fairly serious historical novel looking at astronomers travelling West to observe the eclipse and then finding themselves caught up in a shoot-em-up story, but that final sentence bemused me. It was meant as a joke: boring the reader with tedious scientific details before the relief of finding the story won't be about how iron lost all those electrons. But having cracked a weak joke that probably only I understood I lost my way and the story never got warmed up.

But now, I've got warmed up again about the eclipse. So I now have around 12,000 words, Santa Maria has become a place and not a person. The nun still hasn’t got a gun, but I'm fairly sure the miracle that will happen will now involve the eclipse. Although I doubt those lost electrons will feature!


Steve M said...

Sounds like an interesting angle for a story. I've often wondered why more of nature's events don't feature in westerns, surely tornados appeared as often then as they do now?

I.J. Parnham said...

That's a good point. I've tended to shy away from doing this as I tend to prefer (or find it easier to write perhaps) conflict coming from people rather than from things. Whenever I've added bad weather I often feel like it's me forcing something upon the characters and situation rather than something that springs naturally from the story. Of course in reality natural obstacles were a key element of life and maybe having got over my phobia for them I'll do it again.

I can always remember that bit of advice of never start a story with a weather forecast, but to some extent I've taken that to heart and avoided having weather in any part of the story!

Steve M said...