Veteran iUniverse author Joseph Dorris discusses his new book, Salmon River Kid, as well as his Idaho Sheepeater series.
I was raised in McCall, Idaho near the wilderness of which I write. Had a large family. We were all skiers. Most of us went on to national and international levels. My four brothers are all bush pilots. Three still fly the Idaho backcountry. One flies in Maine. I was the exception, but I was the one that was hunting the ground for gems and minerals. I also enjoyed writing and painting from an early age. Today, my wife and three grown children follow in my footsteps. My business mines and sells gems and minerals all over the world. You might have watched my family on the Weather Channel’s program, Prospectors, which aired for four years. Much of it was filmed on our mining claims in Colorado where I now live.
I always enjoyed writing, even as a kid. I was always terrible with spelling and grammar, and probably still am, but I had a passion for trying to capture what I see and feel. I appreciate history and our Western way of life. As a former science teacher, I like to answer the questions why and so my writing tends to be descriptive as well as instructive. If you follow the examples of prospecting in Sojourner of Warren’s Camp, I guarantee you’ll have a good idea of how to find gold. I mostly write about the West—western historical fiction—but I base it more on real life and not Hollywood shootouts, although I do like a good shootout to keep a reader’s attention. I also like coming-of-age themes. Maybe it’s because of the teacher in me, but youngsters are more open to learning things than we old dogs are. They are also full of wonder and curiosity but a lot smarter than we sometimes credit them. I guess that makes me like the classics like Jack London and Mark Twain as well as a couple of contemporary writers that come to mind like Craig Lesley and Ferrol Sams.
Why I write: I grew up flying with my father over the Idaho wilderness. As a bush pilot and game warden, he knew the country better than any. As a kid I found myself fascinated with the history of this remote and mostly overlooked region of the U.S. When he pointed out places like the Sheepeater hot springs or the Rains’s Ranch, or when we landed on remote dirt strips lined with cobbles from the early Chinese and European miners, I was fascinated and hungry to learn more. I tramped throughout this country. I hunted, fished, and learned to prospect for gold. I talked with all the old timers I could meet. Their stories inspired me. I began writing them down and have done so since my teenage years. Recently, I began compiling them into a series that I’ve titled the Idaho Sheepeater series. The books are based on nineteenth central Idaho from when it became a Territory in 1863 and will culminate with the Sheepeater campaign of 1879.
The series isn’t a history course, however. I have created several fictional characters who begin as teenagers. It’s their adventures and coming-of-age in the early books. Forthcoming books will be harder-hitting novels as the main characters assume adult roles and become embroiled in conflict. In the first, Sheepeater: To Cry for a Vision, a Swedish boy, Erik Larson, becomes adopted by the Sheepeater Indians. In my second book, Sojourner of Warren’s Camp, Samuel Chambers, chases a lost gold deposit (quite common then and to this day). My third novel, Salmon River Kid, extends Samuel’s life to survival along the Salmon River amid claim jumpers and harsh conditions. It’s there while helping at a ranch that he meets the girl of his dream and his nemeses. It’s his drive to return to Warren’s camp with his father to prove up his hardrock mine that gravely endangers his life. He and his Chinese friend, Sing Chen, attempt to take out gold to Lewiston but while being pursued by highwaymen intent on robbing them (a common occurrence as well).
In addition to the fictional story, I’ve included numerous historical vignettes. For example, the events surrounding Warren’s camp were actual events from 1871 and 1872. Similarly, the community of Slate Creek and its role in the eventual 1877 Nez Perce war are historical accounts. I’ve used actual names, dates, and happenings wherever possible. The lost gold ledge that Samuel seeks is based on my own experience and knowledge of an existing ledge (Sorry. I’ve disguised some of the information). The river-run is based on an account of Chinese miners attempting to navigate the Salmon River on a raft with their gold dust tied in bags to the raft to thwart thieves.
All my novels are set within the history and geography of the region. I’ve illustrated them with my artwork to show how things were done and to recreate scenes for when cameras were scarce. The cover illustrations are also mine and depict the country as it was then and largely still is. The Idaho wilderness is the largest wilderness in the lower 48. I just happened to grow up on its western border and be lucky enough with a bush-pilot for a father.
My Message: As a writer today, I want to capture the diverse history of our foundation years in Idaho, especially the varied cultures and events surrounding them. For example, only a handful of Indians ever inhabited the Warren’s meadow area, but the ghost Indians, whom today we refer to as the Sheepeaters and who have faded into history, inhabited some of the most inhospitable canyons and mountains in America. In writing about Erik and in my forthcoming book, Katrine: High Valley Home, I learned Idaho was blessed with a rich Scandinavian heritage and culture. At one time, over twenty five percent of its population was Scandinavian. Similarly surprising, over a third of Idaho Territory’s population was Chinese. Idaho’s foundation was one of hunting, mining, logging, ranching, and farming to which all these people contributed. Men and women of Idaho are of the land. They appreciate and respect it and derive their livelihoods from it. I hope my series of books contributes to their understanding and appreciation of their roots.
I’ve published all of my books through iUniverse. I appreciate being able to select the services I want, especially those services for which I don’t have time or the expertise. I especially like their initial manuscript evaluation. I’ve also had great editors. The over-all product quality makes it worth it. Of course, the greatest feeling is having the final published book in my hands.
As for marketing, my problem is that I enjoy gifting my books. Otherwise, I market most of my books through direct contact with people at the trade shows I do on a continuing basis. Even though I sell mostly crystallized mineral specimens at these shows, there is a natural tie between people who collect rocks and stories about mining and the Old West. Find a trade show where your genre will do well and set up a table. Collectibles shows and gun shows are great. Remember the spouse might be looking for something he or she can buy, and it could likely be your book, especially if you’re the only one displaying. I’ve also found that by publishing a series, I’ve built up several hundred loyal fans who await each book. Of course I do book signings and place my book in shops back in my home town in McCall, Idaho. Try placing an ad in a local paper—not the main large city paper, but the small, neighborhood papers where you can place your books in a shop for sale. Try consigning some. In short, just do it. Work marketing several hours a week outside of the actual venues.
My advice for aspiring authors: Always remain an aspiring author. Never quit learning and never quit striving for excellence. In practical terms, I’ve joined an improvisation writing group which meets weekly where we get together and write about two hours. We use prompts and then take turn reading our work. There are no critiques. Talk about fresh ideas, word usage, and craft—it’s a great source of inspiration. I’ve also learned early on that there are two major aspects to the creative process. Create first and judge later. Let the ideas flow. Don’t apply judgment until you just can’t write anything more. Then go back and refine your ideas a little. Then apply some judgment. But not too much. You can easily overwork stuff, just like an artist’s canvas.