|Author Sandra Neil Wallace|
In the mid 1990s, long before I met my husband or knew I’d become a writer, I spent my spare time in a musty historical society near an ice cream parlor in Jerome, Arizona—a town that was once the richest mining community in America.
I was working as an ESPN reporter covering WNBA games in Phoenix and horseracing events in the east—which made for five years of cross-country plane trips four times a week. But the truth was, all I really wanted to do was write, and those times spent at the historical society became my lifeline, as I forged my way from TV to writing.
The problem was, I still hadn’t found a story. Then one day, the archivist told me of a box that had been donated to the society. On the top layer were yearbooks and snapshots of people picnicking in the Gulch one hundred years ago, but then dozens of letters tumbled out—all written by young men to the principal of Jerome High School. The poignant letters were mostly written by Mexican-Americans and spanned nearly three decades, from 1930 up to the Korean War. Some were written from the bunks of battleships on their way to Iwo Jima, while others spoke of segregation in the town of Jerome itself. I stayed up all night reading those because I knew they were too important to let go of.
But no matter how dire the letters were, they always signed off with hopes of a Muckers football victory. So I connected the yearbooks to the local papers and the local papers to the state papers, and discovered an incredible sports story—the 1950 Jerome Muckers fought through impossible odds including racial tensions, the closing of the mine, and playing on a rock field (there is no lawn in Jerome), to vie for a state championship.
I feverishly began writing my historical novel Muckers, creating characters inspired by those letters and my own time in Jerome. I read old newspapers on the streets where I imagined my characters lived, trekked into the Barrio and spent nights in frigid temperatures to get a feel for living in walls so paper-thin, they were no match for the desert wind. I wrote chapters sitting on the ledge of the once-segregated swimming pool, drained long ago.
The players still living from that 1950 team helped me discover what it was like to play on that final football squad. I wrote much of the novel in their abandoned high school and on the rock field itself. (Now a parking lot.)
Writing historical fiction takes on a much deeper meaning when it’s based on a true team and a town, but it also made crafting my own characters and weaving so many crucial socio-political elements, challenging. And I kept relying on my movie-playing mind, and seeing the characters’ journey unfold like a film, then writing about what I’d envisioned.
While luck found me that day in Jerome, my life took many different turns before Muckers became a novel 15 years later. But luck found me again in Wyoming on the release date of the novel, as I spoke about Muckers at a luncheon speech in Cheyenne. After my talk, a librarian raised her hand and started crying. “I grew up in that Muckers town,” she told me. “And you got it all right. I can imagine everything you said.”