by Kathleen Kent
In the world of Dallas writer Kathleen Kent, the past is always present. She hit the New York Times bestseller lists with her first book, The Heretic’s Daughter, based on the historic trial and hanging for witchcraft of her several times great-grandmother, Martha Carrier, followed by its prequel, The Traitor’s Wife. Her latest tale, The Outcasts, forsakes seventeenth century Salem for nineteenth century Texas.
Despite Salem ancestry in her mother’s family, “My father was a Texan and I was raised in Texas,” Kent told her full house audience at Dallas Heritage Village last week to explain her storytelling leap from East Coast colonials to Texans. “My father would say that all the witches in the family came from my mother’s side, but all the horse thieves came from his side. “I think the closest thing we have to Greek mythology is the Western classic.”
She made the decision to set her book in 1870, during the Reconstruction period, “because what fascinates me is not no much what happens in a war, but what happens after a civil war. How do you recreate yourself?”
Naming fellow Texan Cormac McCarthy as an influence was enough to tell Kent’s listeners they wouldn’t get a story of gentleness and reconciliation in The Outcasts. The level of violence after the war, Kent said, led Reconstruction governor Edmund Davis to disband the Texas Rangers, which he considered too loyal to the fallen Confederacy and institute the new Texas State Police, “the first police force to hire men of color and men too young to have fought in the war.”
It was from among this younger generation of lawmen that she drew the character of Nate Cannon, assigned to track down murderer William McGill.
While Nate follows the outlaw, young Lucinda Carter flees a brothel in search of a new life, relief from her epileptic seizures, and the chests of gold rumored to have been hidden decades earlier by sometime pirate, sometime war hero, Jean Lafitte.
The challenge in researching historical fiction, Kent said, is “to imagine what life was like in another era.” For sources, she called on the help of local historians, one of whom introduced her to alligators during their searches for treasure sites, and old maps to document towns and landscapes that have often changed dramatically over the course of the centuries.
And of course, there were the guns. “You can’t have Texas history without guns,“ she said, but found it was one thing to use guns occasionally in hunting and “a different thing to live with guns day in and day out."
Despite the violence and gun play, “the book, at heart,” she said, “is a story about kinship, the kind we chose to make with other people.”
For more about Kent, her books and her research on outlaws and other scoundrels, see
Kent’s appearance was as historic as her book. She was the first speaker of the newly-inaugurated Nancy Kay Farina Lecture Series sponsored by Dallas Heritage Village to honor the memory of the late Nancy Kay Farina. Find more information on DHV at www.dallasheritagevillage.org/.
(Next Monday, Wordcraft looks at nonfiction historical writing, as John Barry discusses the world’s most horrifying epidemic at the Literature + Medicine conference.)