From the get-go, I was determined to tell a true story about the last years of the old West and the Yukon gold rush. I wanted to write a character-driven tale about the intrepid men and women who traveled from one newly civilized frontier to a place that remained excitingly dangerous, a fierce and lawless land. I wanted to tell a story about people so squeezed by the economic hardships of the times that they were willing to do or try about anything to fill their lives with the prospect of something better. I wanted to tell an engaging tale that contained both high drama and a perplexing mystery. And, oh yeah, there still was that one big ground rule: I wanted to tell a true story, to boot.
To complicate the challenges even further, I knew I was entering a deep and murky historical swamp. Yarns and tall tales are the stuff that has helped keep the Wild West and the far north alive in our imagination. Part of my literary goal was to shape a narrative that paid tribute to this proudly inflated yet iconic heritage. I wanted to wade knee-deep into the morass of fanciful yarns, self-serving fabrications, and, too often, blatant lies.
And yet, as I said, I wanted to emerge with something that was true.
How could I pull this off?
The answer is — I got lucky. I found the literary tools that allowed me to portray the three main characters in my book and what they were doing, saying, and even thinking with accuracy and vividness. And at the same time I could still stick to the facts.
Charlie Siringo, the cowboy turned Pinkerton who is the central character of The Floor of Heaven, wrote four first-person accounts of his life. They are remarkable documents: folksy, witty, suspenseful, and perceptive.
Soapy Smith, the head of a criminal empire in the far north, was shot down before he could fulfill his often-made promise — or threat, considering the secrets he knew — to record his life story. But nearly all his letters, diary entries, legal records, and albums of newspapers clippings have been collected by his great-grandson Jeff Smith and made available in a smart and exhaustive biography published by Klondike Research in Juneau, Alaska.
As Fate would have, in 1957 James Albert Johnson discovered an apple crate in a secondhand Seattle bookstore filled with the papers of George Carmack, the man whose find on Bonanza Creek had set off the Yukon gold rush. The crate was a treasure trove: decades of letters from George to his sister Rose, handwritten descriptions of his prospecting days, pages of his own romantic poetry, and family photographs. Johnson bought the crate and its papers and then willed them to the University of Washington. They're now part of the University Library's Special Collections Division, available for anyone to see.
So, I had primary sources. And, in addition, I read. I made my way through piles and piles of books, articles, pamphlets, and monographs. They were all spread out for years across the floor of my long, light-filled writing room. The more relevant sources I used and consulted are listed in "A Note On Sources," which is included at the end of The Floor of Heaven.
And even with the help of all these sources, I knew I was setting out to make my way across a narrow literary tightrope. To keep my authorial balance, I set some rules. Let me share them.
When dialogue appears in quotes, these are words that can be directly attributed to an actor in this drama. They are taken from either one of the principal's own writings — books, letters, diaries — or a contemporaneous newspaper or literary account. When I describe what someone is thinking or feeling, these are thoughts and emotions that were confided by the individual in their own writings. And when a location or an incident is described in this story, the details are grounded in my research.
Yet, I concede, I didn't write a scholarly historical tome. Nor did I have any desire to. I didn't want to disrupt the flow of the large story I was offering up with a litany of caveats squawking that while one authority say this is what happened, another source begs (or more often insists) to differ. I made some choices. I stuck to what I thought seemed the most reasonable, what made the most historical sense.
And in the end I came up with what I'm convinced is a true story. Or at least a bit of history that's as close to truth as is possible.