Postcard from the Coker Settlement: Following long gestation, book finally due to arrive

haunting the graveyard

cover designed by Andréa Caillouet; cover photo courtesy of Virginia Heimer Ohlenbusch

Birthing a book can be a long process, but to say the gestation period for Haunting the Graveyard: Unearthing the Story of the Coker Settlement has proved elephantine is no exaggeration. A female elephant’s pregnancy only lasts two years. This birth has taken much longer.

But labor has been induced, and the hefty 400-page baby will be delivered at 5 p.m. for a signing/reading celebration at The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl on Tuesday, September 10.

A lady’s handbag was my first introduction to the Coker Settlement more than a decade ago. As I sat on the carpet of a conference room on the 30th floor of a downtown office building surrounded by stacks of ephemera-filled boxes, the purse was the first thing to catch my eye. So I opened it. The pocketbook belonged to Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker (1904-2000).

last farm standing on buttermilk hillMy nosiness was at the invitation of attorney Banks Smith, a trustee of the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund. I continued digging through those boxes for some time, uncovering the couple’s relationships with the dairy farmers clustered around them. That led to the 2010 birth of Haunting the Graveyard’s older sibling – Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park.

Many of those who lived around the Coker Settlement, including Minnie and Max, remained neighbors after their deaths. They were buried in intimate groupings under the spreading live oaks of the Coker Cemetery. The trustees of the Coker Cemetery Association approached me to write a prequel/sequel of sorts to Last Farm to chronicle the lives of more of these early residents.

I revisited the cemetery. Inconspicuously tucked away north of Loop 410 and in the shadow of Wurzbach Parkway, it appeared so peaceful. The Coker Cemetery contains the graves of more than 600 people, but I assumed I already was well acquainted with them from my work on the first book. So my answer was yes.

I failed to heed the obvious warning signs – several Texas Ranger and Texas Historical markers indicating this turf is fertile with tales. At first their “voices” were mere whispered tidbits here and there. As I poked through mountains of information and interviewed their descendants, more and more of the occupants of those graves seemed to be shouting at me to include them. I heeded the call of as many as possible while trying to remain sane.

So in the near future, expect an invitation to make their acquaintance.* You will encounter some heart-breaking tragedies, a bit of mayhem and even an unsolved murder as their lives unfold in Haunting the Graveyard. Whether focused on the good or skeletons that popped out of the closet, the stories are shared with love for the entire community of farmers I have come to know over the past decade.

haunting the graveyard photos
lila banks cockrell, phil hardberger, scott j. baird*In addition to availability at The Twig Book Shop at the signing, pre-publication orders are being accepted now at Material Media Press.

August 4, 2019, Update: An interactive companion index of people inhabiting the pages of this book helps readers understand how they relate to the family patriarch, Joseph Coker (1799-1881). The list can be accessed now for those who want to know if any information about their particular relatives can be found inside. To check the list, click here: http://cokercemetery.com/pdfs/coker_settlement_index.pdf.

Here is a shorter glimpse of surnames mentioned:

Footnoting historic fiction too cumbersome for me to handle

The historical novel requires an extra set of choices – what sources to consult, what shape to cut from the big picture – what to do when the evidence is missing or contradictory. Most of these choices are invisible to the reader. You must be able to justify you decisions to the well-informed. But you will not satisfy everyone. The historian will always wonder why you left certain things out, while the literary critic will wonder why you put them in. “Because I could” is not a good reason.

“Can These Bones Live?,”  Dame Hilary Mantel, Reith Lecture, BBC Radio, June 24, 2017, The Spectator

How to handle historic fiction. I’ve received all kinds of advice and foolishly continue to reject most of it as too cumbersome.

Recently, a published author told me I needed to classify my novel about Hedda Burgemeister, the woman who shot Otto Koehler more than a century ago in San Antonio, as creative nonfiction. Her approach to citing references, accepted for print as mine might not be, is that, as the lead characters once lived, everything in the book must be footnoted. Meticulously. She also added that everyone’s names must be changed – both to protect the innocent and to protect oneself from lawsuits.

Well, the names in An Ostrich Plume Hat need to stay put because of the very fact they belonged to real people. But I admit, this is just one of Gayle’s new rules.

As for footnotes? I recently completed a manuscript about the Coker Settlement – nonfiction – with hundreds upon hundreds of numbered, well-documented endnotes. It almost killed me. And I’m quite far into writing this unfootnoted novel upon which I have been working for more than a decade as time allowed.

Last week, my solution hit me. Will Cuppy. A few years ago, blogger Bluebird Blvd introduced me to his The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy wrote about real people. With great artistic license taken. He footnoted his text, but certainly not according to the Chicago Manual for Style. In fact, Cuppy’s footnotes are a pleasure to read and contain some of his most amusing lines.

So I have decided to tread water instead of drowning in footnotes. I’m electing to float somewhere between Cuppy and the Chicago Manual.

I’m creating Gayle’s own rules for documenting historic fiction with unnumbered endnotes. This requires me to honestly identify what is true, what is unknown and what is invented for the sake of the story. This is particularly important in cases where I violate Dame Mantel’s “Because I could” mantra from above.

As of now, Gayle’s rules for endnotes are somewhat fluid, evolving as I strive for consistency. I want to establish credibility with the reader.

Chapter Three’s endnotes include this:

Please pay attention to spare me from typing portions of the following over and over: Resemblance to actual persons, no longer living, locales and events is far from coincidental. For the majority of characters, almost everything included about them was reported in print during their lifetimes. If some of these so-called facts are gleaned from fake news, please direct libelous claims to the appropriate publishers of more than a century ago.

I hope you will go review and evaluate my approach to documenting the first three chapters.

Let me know if you think Gayle’s rules will fly. I need advice and value yours, but please don’t be offended if I am too damn hardheaded to listen to it.

 

Introducing Otto Koehler through a Prohibition politics caper of yesteryear

san%20antonio%20brewing%20association

Their voices circled me in the tub today, and I was so happy to hear them again. I was worried they wouldn’t return after being neglected for the past decade.

Last week, I finally hit “send” to submit the draft of a book on the history of the Coker Settlement to the book committee of the Coker Cemetery Association. I have been living with the extended Coker family since Banks Smith first asked me to tell the story of Minnie Tomerlin and Max Voelcker about nine years ago, resulting in Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill.

While the ghosts of more than 600 relatives of the Coker clan managed to haunt my baths enough to squeeze their way into the draft of the Coker book, they didn’t talk much. I wasn’t allowed to put words in their mouths; only hundreds of footnotes at the end of the chapters. Nonfiction rigidly based on historical facts.

But now I have returned to historical fiction, and, frankly, Hedda Burgemeister and Otto Koehler cannot keep their lips zipped.

I considered casting aside the first hundred pages of their story, An Ostrich Plume Hat, I wrote so long ago. One reason is no one has been clamoring for me to finish. My dialogue, despite how freely it spills out to me in the tub, probably only seems convincing to me. Counterpoint: I love listening to them.

The second reason is Joe Holley. His portrayal of Emma (Hedda) Burgemeister for Hotel Emma at Pearl describes her as a tall and blonde femme fatale. Counterpoint: Yes, Hedda shot Otto Koehler, but the nurse did not appear a sexy bombshell in her newspaper photos. The jury found her innocent of murder, and, through the years, I have grown to know her as a complex heroine of my story. I must rise to her defense.

The third reason is Mary Carolyn Hollers George. A serious historian, she is writing a book about Otto Koehler. Nonfiction, with no made-up conversations between the characters. She will surely send hers to press well before mine, if mine goes at all. Her truthful telling will make mine seem so frivolous. Counterpoint: None, except I am keeping myself entertained, and I don’t have to use footnotes.

Anyway, on the afternoon of the final exhausting presidential debate, I thought I would link you to some rowdy prohibition politics that I use to introduce to my version of Otto Koehler. This long-winded story is only for political history junkies. This is about an Austin caper much like the “killer bees” of more recent times. The tale is about 95 percent true, but was this truly Otto’s idea?

The diversion prior to debate will reassure you that politics of the past was often as messy as those clouding this election.

So, here is Chapter Three.