December 15, 2012 by Pamela Nowak
CHOICES was born in 1993, originally written in just six weeks. It was a labor of love and I thought is was the greatest story ever written. Then I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and learned how much work I had ahead of me before it could even be called good. I rewrote that manuscript seven times before it arrived at its present form.
It has always been a story of my heart. In the early years of my marriage, my late husband Tim and I spent much of our time doing historic reenactments. He portrayed an infantryman and I was a governess. At the time, Tim (an archaeologist for the Corps of Engineers) was researching Fort Randall in preparation for the Fort Randall Archaeological Project. I accompanied him to the National Archives and did my own research into the social life of the fort and the army in general.
I was hooked—completely and totally! I took copious notes. I acquired every book I could find on the social customs of the 19th century army. I collected memoirs of women who spent time at army forts. I lived and breathed the time period, intending to put the details into my reenactment character. Then, I decided I was going to write a romance novel.
The first draft flew out as I became acquainted with PC word processing (I think I used Word Perfect 4.0). There was not a doubt in my mind that I wanted Miriam to be an officer’s daughter and that Jake should be a rugged enlisted man. But Miriam changed over the course of rewrites. She was at first prim, proper, and very much like Harriet. As I came to realize no one liked her, she changed into a rebellious young woman and Harriet took on the uppity role.
Fort Randall existed much as I portrayed it. It was established in 1856 along the west bank of the Missouri River in what is today Gregory County, South Dakota. It was closed in 1892. Its layout in the 1870s consisted of a rectangular parade ground surrounded by living quarters with a chapel directly to the north and the post trader’s complex a bit further north, east of the chapel. The post hospital was to the south, between the parade ground and Suds’ Row, which lay along Randall Creek.
Laundresses’ lives were hard. The women were private contractors, most wives of enlisted men. As contractors, they were officially recognized by the military. The families of officers were at the posts unofficially and were technically camp followers, as were the prostitutes that settled near posts in “hog ranches”. Strict social rules governed the relationship between the classes. Regulations governed the interaction between officers and enlisted men. All camp socials were infrequent but did occur and I drew on descriptions of such events in creating the Christmas social. White Swan’s village did exist and there was a problem between the Ponca and miners en route to the Black Hills.
My hope is that this story comes as alive for you as it did for me, that the characters I have created involve you emotionally in the history of Fort Randall. If you’re intrigued, the South Dakota Historical Society Museum in Pierre, South Dakota can provide more details on Fort Randall and there are a host of books on life and manners in the army, army regulations, and army wives. Explore them and enjoy!