I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with my home state. I think this is due largely to the fact that I’ve always had a healthy case of wander lust, but too few opportunities to satisfy it. I have as a consequence lived my entire life in Oklahoma, a state which tends to be the butt of jokes and redneck stereotypes. To be fair, the things we often make the news for aren’t really things to be proud of. It has a certain amount of culture, but it’s also sorely lacking in important things like Ikea and In-N-Out Burger and truly excellent pizza. The weather here is subject to unpleasant extremes, which provides for pretty good conversation-starters but isn’t all that fun to live through. But on the other hand, it’s quite a pretty state, especially up here in the Northeastern corner of the state where I live. There’s a reason they call this part of the state Green Country.
I grew up in a rural housing addition nestled atop a set of cliffs overlooking Oologah Lake, just a few miles across the shore from the birthplace and boyhood home of Will Rogers. Yes, that Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher, vaudeville entertainer and movie star, the one with the Broadway show about his life, who never met a man he didn’t like. About eight miles up the road from my neighborhood in the opposite direction sits the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, where he and his family are buried. Growing up halfway between the man’s birthplace and final resting place, it’s kind of hard not to know a little bit about him.
I was fascinated with Will Rogers as a kid. Trips to the ranch where he was born and the memorial museum were both regular outings that I always looked forward to. As I got older, the fascination wore off, and trips to either museum became a study in boredom and teenage eye-rolling. I eventually stopped giving him much thought, as much as it’s possible to stop thinking about him as long as you live in Claremore, what with the constant reminders that he was the biggest celebrity my hometown ever produced.
Still, I think Will Rogers is as much a part of my heritage as Claremore and the rest of Oklahoma, woven into my subconscious and helping to shape me into who I am.
I wasn’t consciously thinking about Will Rogers a few weeks ago when, for some reason I can’t even remember, I suddenly felt a need to know the current population size of the town where I grew up. A quick Wikipedia search gave me the answer, and also led me down a rabbit hole of learning things I didn’t know about the history of Claremore’s beginnings, which as it turns out are pretty darn fascinating. Fascinating enough that I began to wish that I was the sort of writer who wrote historical fiction, because late nineteenth/early twentieth century Claremore seemed like a great background for a story. What kind of story, I wasn’t certain, and so I shrugged and dismissed the idea.
My subconscious, however, kept working it out, and wondering how such a story could go in a sci-fi/fantasy direction that would keep me interested and entertained. And all of this is why, sitting at my kitchen table one Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of breakfast, I exclaimed to myself, “Oh my God! Steampunk Will Rogers! YES!”
And that, my friends, is why my next novel is going to be Radium Town, a steampunk Weird West adventure set in an alt-history turn-of-the-century Claremore, Oklahoma, starring Will Rogers and his future bride, Betty Blake.
Because that, apparently, is how my brain rolls.