The thing about setting out to write a novel about anything when you’re a fiction writer, is you usually—almost always—run into a topic you know nothing about. As a former newspaper reporter, I’m accustomed to this. I was expected to become an instant expert on a new topic every day. Sewer systems, zoning ordinances, AIDS, land appraisals, the hotel-motel tax, recycling, outhouses, homelessness, socks. Yes, I once wrote a story about the latest fashion in socks. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Writing fiction is no different. I love learning about new things in order to give readers that detail that brings the story to life and tells them they can embrace and trust this fictional world. It won’t let them down. I’ve learned about beekeeping, avian flu, farming, breaking horses, and canning, how to take a horse’s pulse and what laminitis is. My job is to not let readers down when it comes to getting the details right. In the case of The Saddle Maker’s Son, that meant learning how to make a saddle so Tobias and Levi could make saddles for their customers.
I watched several tutorials on Youtube that showed how saddles are made, but to tell this story, I needed to be able to convey how the shop looks, smells, and how the leather and tools feel in the saddle maker’s hands. To do that, I talked my husband in to driving about an hour and a half to Fredericksburg in the Texas hill country to meet former working cowboy and saddle maker Tom Kline in his small shop along highway 290.
Tom is a soft spoken big bear of a man with a bushy moustache and big cowboy hat. He works in a simple one-room shop crowded with the tools of his trade. He seemed a little uncomfortable being in the spotlight. The description of the shop readers find in The Saddle Maker’s Son came straight from that long, narrow, one-room building with bare Sheetrock walls and short, high windows covered by curtains made from Indian blankets. The work bench was covered with his tools and above it he’d hung horse shoes to hold leather strings and other implements, just as Tobias does.
Tom told me, just as Levi tells Susan, that he starts with a whole cow and a sheep. Then he led me step by step through the process. As he warmed up, he shared with me a long career of first working as a cowboy and then making saddles for cowboys who know that a custom made saddle will last them far longer than a manufactured one. They don’t mind paying more for a saddle that feels comfortable day after day of punishing, hard work.
They appreciate craftsmanship in a throwaway society. But it gets harder as years go by and there are fewer ranches and fewer cowboys, than there once were. Tom supplements his income with leather goods like belts, wallets, koozies, holsters, hunting kits, and shaving kits, just as Tobias and his family do.
Tom even showed me how to make leaves on the leather, another lessons I used so that Levi could teach Susan how to do it and at the same time start to court her. They exchange their first kiss with fingers touching a basket stamp. His hand guides hers and the pattern starts to appear.
The lovely thing about all these details garnered from a few hours spent talking to a real, live cowboy and leather man was that it also allowed me to delve deeper into Levi’s character to the heart of his beliefs and his faith so he could reveal more of himself to Susan, deepening their relationship. Saddle making becomes about more than just saddles. Here’s an excerpt:
“His gaze lifted and he smiled for the first time. She felt like a student receiving a good grade. “I think we’re like that leather in Gott’s hands. He keeps shaping us and shaping us, smoothing away the rough edges and cutting away the excesses. He has a pile of shavings around His feet and He keeps smoothing and shaping, thinking eventually He’ll see that honed character, that person He expects each of us to be.”
“I reckon you’re right.” Susan eased onto a footstool a full yard away from Levi. She cupped her hands in her lap, unable to take her gaze from his chiseled face. “Sooner or later, He’d like to look up and say, ‘It is good.’”
I hope God is looking down now, thinking this story and the lesson it tells are good too.
I also hope you’ll read the whole story of Levi and Susan (and Tobias, who is the saddle maker’s son, and Rebekah). Let me know what you think. I love hearing from readers.