In her new historical novel, Hour Glass, Michelle Rene draws readers into the wild town of Deadwood, South Dakota, where a boy named Jimmy Glass and his little sister, Hour, seek help for their father, who has fallen dangerously ill with smallpox. In Deadwood they encounter the notorious Calamity Jane—but this is a very different Jane from what readers might expect. Rene shares a look behind the characters that breathe life into this Wild West tale.
The rough draft of Hour Glass was written in 16 days. Yes, you read that correctly. That is not to say the research took that long, just the writing itself, but most people don’t believe you can write anything of value in that short amount of time.
The book was a desperate outpouring of emotions molded into a concise story. I had recently lost my grandmother, who is named in the dedication, and her passing filled me with a litany of emotions. Inside my journey of grief, I discovered sorrow, beauty and even humor. The loving family that surrounded me was my lifeline and a big inspiration for the book.
Why write about Calamity Jane? I’ve been fascinated with her for a long time, the buckskin-wearing woman of the West who could drink like a cowboy and swear like one, too. If you look back through history, we are drawn to stories about women like Jane. Those brave souls who bucked tradition and blazed their own path in the world. Calamity Jane did so with a pistol in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.
There are not many hard facts about the woman, which made my job both challenging and liberating. The way of the Old West was that of oral history, and the exploits of legendary characters like Calamity Jane were often exaggerated, especially by Jane herself. This is liberating in that I had more artistic license with her story, but challenging in that I desperately wanted to paint an accurate representation of the time. To write such a woman as brazen and drunk would be only part of the story. The other side, one that Jane rarely spoke of, was her kindness. She was known to be charitable, and the city of Deadwood credits her for selflessly caring for the victims of the smallpox epidemic of 1876. Who better to represent my story than a generous soul who fought mightily and could laugh in the face sorrow?
On to the subject of my title character, Hour. As far as I know, there aren’t any autistic characters written into Old West stories, and I believe they deserve representation. Of course, that is not the only reason for writing a character such as Hour. My own son is autistic. When I wrote the first draft of this book, he hadn’t been diagnosed, but we were seeing the signs, and doctors were preparing us for what was next.
Hour is not exactly like my son, but Jimmy’s love and fear for his sister represents what I was feeling at the time. He desperately wants to protect her from the world, knowing it can be a harsh place, unfeeling toward her temperament. Many of the rewrites came after my son’s diagnosis and after the shock of it wore off. Those of you who have faced a team of psychiatrists who are explaining your beautiful child is on the spectrum will understand the barrage of emotions that follow. The fear, the love and, yes, even the relief to finally know the truth. It wasn’t until I stopped reeling from the diagnosis that I was able to go back and flesh out the amazing girl that was Hour and not just focus on Jimmy’s love for her.
Though Hour Glass is about Calamity Jane, Jimmy Glass and Hour, the deeper theme is family. Even in the rough and tumble world of Deadwood in the 1870s, a loving family can grow with the most unlikely of people.