Mormon Artist

Victoria Wilcox

Victoria Wilcox is founding director of Georgia’s Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum, the antebellum home of the family of Doc Holliday. Her work with the house led to eighteen years of original research and inspired her novel trilogy, Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday. She has been advisor and contributor to other authors, has lectured extensively, and has appeared on various television programs relating to her work. A member of the Western Writers of America, Wilcox’s writing on the Old South and Wild West has been featured in such publications as True West Magazine and North Georgia Journal. Drawing on her lifelong love of music and theatre, she has written songs for Nashville recording artists and authored the musical Goin’ to Zion! along with numerous smaller theatrical works.
Photo courtesy Victoria Wilcox

Tell us a little bit about your background—where you’re from and how that has made you what you are today.

I am the descendent of pioneers—pilgrims who came to the Americas on the Mayflower, saints who followed Joseph Smith to Nauvoo and Brigham Young to Utah, Hollywood pioneers who helped to establish the movie industry. I have always felt those connections and a responsibility to honor that heritage and make my life a success. I was born in California, spent my college years in Utah, then moved to Georgia where my husband attended dental school. I started out a Southern girl from Southern California and ended up a Southern lady in Georgia. With my American heritage, I love American history and American stories.

Did you have any formal training?

Somehow, I always knew I was a writer. Even as a young child, I made up plays and poems and loved words and stories. In middle and high school I took creative writing classes and submitted songs to Hollywood record companies—and even scored an in-person audition at A&M Records in L. A. I was sixteen at the time with dreams of becoming a professional songwriter. The producer who met with me reviewed my work and said I had promise, but told me that I needed to add some grit to my songs. “Bring out your skeletons,” he told me. I told him I didn’t have any. I will never forget his next words: “There’s a fine line between love and obscenity, and what’s selling now is obscenity.” That pretty much turned me off to the L. A. recording scene.

Later I wrote songs for the cleaner country market and even had a cut on a hit album by an Australian recording artist. I had another song slated for a Reba McEntire album that was scrapped when her band’s plane crashed. I might have continued my songwriting career if I hadn’t met the Holliday House and my biggest writing project.

As for formal training, I majored in English at BYU and then did some work there as a graduate playwriting major. After moving to Georgia I worked as a technical writer at Emory University, producing computer user guides, and as a teacher of English and composition at Southern Crescent Technical College. But most of my creative writing training came from my own reading of everything I could find about writing. My college classes taught me about the history of the language, about criticism and genre, but not much about the actual art of writing or the business of publishing.

Image courtesy Victoria Wilcox

Describe the moment when you realized you could and should write the Doc Holliday story?

I didn’t set out to write about Doc Holliday, only to save his family’s home. I thought at the time that my life would be complete if my tombstone read “She founded a museum.” Mostly I told the story of the Holliday House and its connections to Doc Holliday and Gone With the Wind just to promote saving the house. But it seemed that every time I told the story to reporters, they got the facts wrong, and I got angry phone calls from Holliday relatives who thought I wasn’t getting my facts straight. So I made a fact sheet to hand to reporters, and they still got the story wrong. The fact sheet became an eight-page handout with names and dates and a family tree, and they still got it wrong. I realized that if the story were going to be told the way I wanted it told, I would have to tell it myself. I was a writer, after all, and had always hoped to write a book.

But what kind of book would it be? So one evening my husband and I sat at our kitchen table and discussed the project, debating whether it should be a straight biography or a historical novel, bringing the past to life. I had grown up on historical novels and loved how that genre allowed the reader to learn and be entertained at the same time. And of course, it had to include a love story. I decided on historical fiction because I wanted to write a book that everyone would read, not just historians. That was the start, and I thought it would be easy: I’d just use the several biographies about Holliday that were then available, and mix in the Georgia information and the Gone With the Wind connection that I’d learned at the Holliday House. But soon after I started writing, I discovered that those biographies didn’t agree and the facts they contained often couldn’t be proven, and likely weren’t facts at all. As his cousin Mattie has said, “He was a much different man than the one of Western legend,” and I would have to search to find the real man behind the legend.

If I’d known it would take me eighteen years of research and writing to finish the project, I probably wouldn’t have started at all. My thought through those many years was “line upon line, precept upon precept…” If the Lord had shown Joseph all that his simple prayer in the grove would lead to, he may never have taken the next step either.

What is your process for turning research notes into a story?

I start with the story I have, whether legend or fact, then go to the primary sources to prove or disprove the story. I have followed Doc Holliday’s trail across the country, delving into deed books and court records, scouring old newspapers, reading memoirs and journals. I take pictures of the places, breathe the air, get a feel for the location, write long notes to myself about my impressions. Then I compile all of that into a sort of chronological journal that falls into loose chapter divisions. When the actions in a particular section of the story get complicated, I make a huge timeline on poster boards and write in the facts using different colors for plot points and character actions. As I write, I review my notes as I come to them, sometimes doing additional research if needed. When I’m done with a scene, I cut and paste the notes into an “addendum” file—again, in chronological order, so I can find them later if needed. So what I end up with is a novel and another book of all the notes that helped me create it.

I’m a very slow writer, as I really like to get a scene just right before moving on, even though I know that I may do a lot of editing later. I wish I could get myself to do a rough draft and then polish from there, but my books of notes and scenes is the closest I get to a draft—although you could read through those notes and have a very good idea of the plot and the character development.

Toward the end of the book I do a personality analysis for each major character—what did they want, what did they get, what were their motivations? I also do a synopsis of the book when I’m done writing, taking it back to just the bare bones of plot to make sure there aren’t any loopholes that needed closing.

When all that is done, I proofread and then share the book with friends and ask pointed questions: Did you get lost? Did it drag anywhere? Which characters felt real and which did not? If you just ask, “What did you think?” you’ll usually get praise, even if undeserved. Asking direct questions that acknowledge the possibility of problems will usually elicit a truer—and more helpful—answer.

Then I revise, edit, send for reviews again. By the time I’m done, the book really is the best I could do. But I hope my writing is always improving and my best work is still to come!

What is a memorable experience where you discovered information on the Doc Holliday family you weren’t expecting?

One of my early contacts was a Holliday descendant living on an island in the St. Johns River in Florida. Turned out that he had joined the Church years before—the only LDS member of the family—and had compiled a careful family history, which he kindly sent to me.

But as I was reviewing his records, I noticed that someone important was missing. He listed as his relatives Henry Holliday and Alice Jane McKey Holliday and their baby daughter Martha Eleanora Holliday (the parents and sister of John Henry “Doc” Holliday) but he had left Doc off the chart. When I called him to tell him about the surely accidentally omitted name, he told me, “My grandmother told me we were no relation to Doc Holliday.” He was actually a first cousin, once removed! That’s when I learned that the Holliday family of Atlanta had disowned their infamous cousin as being not a proper relation for their very proper Southern family. So although there had been temple work done by his cousin for his parents and sister, Doc had been left out of his own family. He wasn’t disowned just in life, but in the eternities as well.

With his cousin’s permission, I submitted Doc’s name, along with the names of forty other family members whose work had not been done, and was rather surprised when it all came back approved. Doc had a history of violence and a couple of killings to his credit, and I had always understood that murderers could not be forgiven and therefore had no need of temple ordinances. That was an incorrect understanding. “It is not easy,” the scriptures say, for a murderer to be forgiven. But who more desperately needs salvation?

My ward did that work and had wonderful experiences of knowing it had been accepted. Then I was contacted by a descendant of the Dorsey family (the second family to own the Holliday House), who was not a member of the Church but was an avid family historian. She said that she had heard of the work we did for the Holliday family (meaning the temple work), and that her ancestors wanted the same thing done for them. She struggled for the right wording, saying that they wanted to be “connected, or tied up, or glued or something…” I said, “Do you mean sealed?” and she said, “Yes! That’s it! Can you do that for my ancestors, too?” I told her that with her permission I would be happy to submit the names of her ancestors for temple work. All I needed was a computer file of her family records. When I got the disc in the mail and popped it into the computer, it took several minutes to process—and then opened to a list of over 5,000 family records that she had collected. I submitted those names for her and for several years those were the names given to patrons at the Atlanta Temple. It seemed so appropriate that the work was done in Atlanta, as many of those people had been Georgians. I used to say that our stake had more dead members than live members.

How have you balanced research, running the museum, and raising your family?

I don’t know that it balanced, really. My family always came first—not because I felt compelled to put them first, but because I just love having a family and doing things with them. My family is the reason it took me eighteen years to finish three books! If I hadn’t had other things to take care of I might have finished the books much sooner, but they wouldn’t have been as rich and full of life experiences.

And happily, most of the things that I have done have kept me close to home, so I was never far from my family and often could have them come along with me. In the early years at the Holliday House, for instance, there was a lot of labor involved—tearing up carpet, cleaning old wood floors, pulling weeds in the yard, hauling trash. That was mostly done on Saturdays, and my kids got to help and learn about community service. When we held our Old South Balls as fundraisers, my daughters attended in antique-style gowns they’d helped to sew. How many little girls get to wear ballgowns? When I attended city council meetings, my little boy came along and had to quietly amuse himself to not disturb the grownups. It was a great education for all of them.

Those were very busy years, of course: directing the museum, beginning the books, spending a year teaching English at a local college. Some weeks the clean laundry piled up on the floor and never got folded or put away. My husband watched the kids while I taught my night classes, and was helped by a babysitter when I made research trips. I thought it was a fair trade for my putting him through dental school and being mother to his four children! A lot of my writing was done late into the night and (I shudder to admit) even while I was driving to class, with a spiral notebook balanced on the steering wheel. The story was just desperate to get out and couldn’t be stopped. After the city took over the Holliday House project and my kids grew older things got easier, as my writing was mostly done while they were in school. But on a good writing day, I’d sometimes forget to start dinner, so we had a lot of hot dogs and pizza over the years. I also took lots of writing breaks to drive to dancing lessons and karate practice, to attend school concerts and make costumes for plays.

During that time, I was asked to write a production for our stake’s celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Mormon pioneer trek. My husband was concerned that another project would be too much, but I really wanted to do that show and promised him it would take two months, max, out of my writing schedule. It actually took about two years, after my original commission to rewrite an old play turned into permission to write the book for an entirely new musical. The show was Goin’ To Zion!, which was produced as a full stage show at a local arts center in Georgia over two summers, and then had three runs as an in-concert performance. I was choral director and then producer, and my whole family took part, so I never felt that it was taking away from my time with my kids. Some of their best childhood memories are all-day rehearsals and picnics on the floor of the stake center. Although my Holliday book was on hold for most of that time, I wouldn’t have missed the experience of doing the show.

The music in the show was arranged and composed by my good friend Melinda Talley, but I got to add one song of my own, a hymn titled “O Lord, Make Us a Holy People,” which went on to have a life of its own. When a family member of the original cast sang it in a Relief Society meeting in Utah, Sisters Sheri Dew and Wendy Nelson heard it and loved it, then used it during their many firesides and other programs. Sister Nelson went on to write a book called, “What Would a Holy Woman Do?” based on her fireside talks, and included the lyrics and a link to my hymn in her book. “O Lord, Make Us a Holy People” is now available as a free download from Deseret Book. Maybe someday it will show up in the hymnbook!

Of course, there was always Church work. I’ve been a gospel doctrine teacher, a Primary chorister, a stake choir director, a seminary teacher. It all takes time away from writing, but at the same time enriches the writing. All of the things I’ve learned come back when I write and give me so much more to write about.

My kids have taken my creative life in stride—it was just part of me. When a young neighbor boy heard a tape of me singing one of my songs on the car stereo, he told my son with wonder, “Your mom’s on the radio!” My son was a preschooler at the time and said with some surprise, “Isn’t your mom?” It was just what I did, like other moms taught aerobics or canned peaches. I wrote things, and my kids often got to have a part in what I was doing. And now that they’re grown, they are all creative people in their own ways. For our family, my community work and writing were the center of our “wholesome recreation” and something that brought us together and gave us great memories. It wasn’t balanced—but it was fun!

Tell us about your writing process.

I’m sort of always writing, meaning that whatever story I am working on is always running around somewhere in my head. I never dream about my characters, but I think about them all the time, as if they were people I know and can gossip about. I don’t have any set schedule for writing, because family things just keep me busy. When I have a free day, I write. When I’m in the mood and the family has gone to bed, I write. When I have a deadline looming (like this interview!), I make myself write. I love words and I have fun putting them together, so it’s never tedious. I even love the feel of the keyboard keys, almost the way a pianist likes the feel of the piano keys. I love typing and watching words and sentences appear on a blank page.

But I’m not someone who could lock herself in a garret and do nothing but write. I like too many other things to do that. The only time I don’t like writing is when I can’t figure out what happens next in a story—that can stop me for days and weeks! Because I’m sort of always writing, I can write anywhere and at any time. I dictate paragraphs into my iPhone while I drive. I carry along a yellow pad whenever I travel and write while other people are reading or napping. I’ve spent many family vacation hours by the pool or on the beach or sitting by a campfire scribbling on my yellow pad. I used to take my laptop along when I drove my kids to choral events, finding an empty room to set up my writing desk. I went on a cruise with some girlfriends, and while they sunbathed on the pool deck, I scribbled.

The only time I ever gave undivided attention to writing was the week each fall when I’d travel to Mackinac Island, Michigan, where my good friends owned a vacation home which they let me borrow. I’d get up every morning and get to work, writing until lunch time, then writing again until dinner, then writing again until bedtime. When I’d first sit down at that laptop my world would seem so small and confined, just the size of the computer screen—until the story took over and my world grew as large as life. One of the things I dislike about being a published author is being so busy with book promotion that I don’t have time for my fall weeks at Mackinac anymore!

How do you assess conflicting historical accounts to decide what is the most probable history?

Because I write a story in chronological order, I have to see a logical flow of events. If something doesn’t fit the chronology, I question it. In Holliday’s life, so many of the things he was supposedly famous for just couldn’t have happened in the time frame of the facts of his life.

For instance, one of those legendary events that didn’t really happen was his killing of Johnny Ringo, shown very dramatically in the movie Tombstone. Problem is, Holliday was actually in court in Pueblo, Colorado, shortly before Ringo’s death and in Leadville, Colorado, shortly after. Without modern transportation, he couldn’t have made the trip from Colorado to the wilds of the Arizona mountains and back again in that short time span. It just didn’t happen.

I generally give most credence to the earliest reports of an event and the people who actually saw it or knew the people involved. Take the reason Doc Holliday left Georgia—the common story is that he discovered he had the lung disease called consumption with only a few months to live, so moved to the high dry plains of the Western plateau where he might be healed. But that story started nearly fifty years after his death and doesn’t make sense, considering the fact that no one could tell how long a consumptive had left to live, and his Western destination was Dallas, Texas, and not the high dry plains of the West. The story I believe is one told decades earlier by Bat Masterson, who knew Holliday in Dodge City and elsewhere—and gave a completely different reason for his exodus west.

Where do you draw the personality of your characters from?

I study the facts about my characters’ lives, read what was said about them by people who knew them, then imagine how they would react in the different settings of the story. Sometimes, I give them personality traits of people I know who seem similar to them in some ways. I try to picture how they’d stand, how they’d dress, what they would think about things. But some characters just sort of appear on their own without any seeming work on my part.

That happened with the book I’m writing now about the Caribbean pirate Stede Bonnet. He was born the heir to a Barbados sugar plantation in 1688, but was orphaned as a young boy and raised by his grandmother. I knew about his family but suddenly imagined up the African slave who became his nursemaid. Her name was Jerusha, the favorite of the governor of Barbados, and she just appeared in the story one day, full-blown and very determined to have her say. I’m kind of amazed that I’ve been able to imagine up so many different characters, and all so individual and unique. It’s a bit of literary hocus pocus that I can’t take credit for.

How has the gospel influenced your work as an author and historian?

When my kids were little, a friend commented on my conversations with them, saying, “Do you have to make everything a sermon?” I said yes, because I only had just so much time to raise these kids, and I had to give them all I knew as fast as I could. But the bigger truth is that, having been raised in and on the restored gospel, I see everything through a gospel filter. It’s just the way I think. My mind makes correlations between the mortal world and the spiritual one, between what is now and what was and what is to come.

So there is much of my own religious philosophy in my books, like a quote from a millionaire former slave in Denver who has just arranged for Holliday to be released from jail. “Then I am free?” says Holliday, and the black man replies, “My dear Dr. Holliday, you have always been free. You have only suffered from the consequences of your own agency. The only real prison is having no agency at all.” That concept of agency and consequence is essential to Mormon doctrine, and something that just came naturally to my writing. The first book in the trilogy even has an Enos-like scene of a night of repentence. And the last book has a quote from a Catholic priest counseling Holliday by saying, “Everyone can change. Even Saul, and even you.” Which was a riff on what I had taught my seminary students that year: “Everyone can change. Even Alma, and even you.”

I was blessed in the Holliday books that he was raised by a very religious Methodist mother and his closest correspondent was his cousin, a Catholic nun. That gave me a freedom to teach gospel principles through fiction, as I believe his life was filled with the religious teachings of his family. And of course, I always check to see if my historical characters have had their temple work done. So often I find people whose names and facts are only found in old deeds or wills, and were never listed on census or other such records, and so have never had their work done. My pirate and his extensive family are eager for their turn.

In my early days of working on the Holliday House project, after I had started exploring the family history but before I started thinking of writing a book, I had a strange dream. There was a young boy in an old-fashioned general store, surrounded by shelves filled with home goods and hardware. In one aisle was a row of those types of metal bins where you used to find nails or screws or other metal fixings. As I watched him, he seemed to be desperately searching in the bins for something—a key, I sensed, because he was lost and needed a key to get back home, to get to his father. Then my dream was disturbed by my baby son’s cry in the nursery, and as I woke up to take care of him, I instantly knew the meaning of the dream: the boy was John Henry Holliday and the key he needed was baptism so he could get back home, both to his earthly father and to his Heavenly Father. That was the impetus for my having his temple work done—that dream that made his plight very real to me. As it turned out, his baptism had actually already been done, his name picked up off a census record. But that was all that was done. He had never been confirmed, nor endowed, nor sealed to his parents. He was as lost and stuck as that little boy in the general store, looking for the key.

Many years later, as I was finishing the book with a scene about his cousin praying for his lost soul, I turned to the Catholics for help. Doc’s cousin was a nun and I wondered what prayer she might have offered for a family member who had passed away without the ordinances of that church. In her religion, he would have gone to purgatory to hope for a chance of salvation. She could say a novena on his behalf, offering nine candles and nine days of prayers for his soul, and ask the saints and angels to petition God for his release, but if God chose not to release him, in purgatory he would stay. I wanted a happier ending to the book and to her prayers, so I put the question to a Catholic priest on a nationally syndicated radio call-in show. Was there any way a man could be saved after death? I asked the host. His answer, given on air to a national audience of Catholics and others: “You’ll have to ask the Mormons about that. They’re the ones who teach about redemption for the dead.”

I was stunned, but not surprised. I had been to Rome, to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica with its many images of the keys of the priesthood—statues and paintings of Peter holding the keys, mosaic floors with designs of keys in the tiles. The Catholics believe in those keys, but don’t believe they have the keys to the redemption for the dead. We do. Our doctrine is ancient and astonishing, and my work, both in the temple for the Holliday family and in literature telling Doc Holliday’s story, could not have happened without it. My work is both informed by my faith and a testimony of my faith. My characters are real people who have lived and died, and are alive again to me.

How do you see your work building the kingdom?

I think it already has built the kingdom, if you consider those 5,000+ ancestors of the Hollidays and the Dorseys who have had the opportunity to accept the gospel. But I find that now, as I speak about my work at book events, my personal beliefs become part of the talk. Toward the end of my current presentation I say, “There is a spirit to this work. The people whose lives we are researching are dead, but not far gone, and they want us to get their story straight. Those of you who have done family history research know what I am talking about.” And the room gets hushed and there are tears in the eyes of my listeners, even in audiences full of those not of our faith. This feeling of family connectedness, of the continued life of those passed on—what we call the spirit of Elijah—is really a universal feeling. I just put it into words for my listeners and readers.

I had one reader write me a thank-you note saying, “I feel like there is something I need to learn from you or from your books, something essential.” I think that by creating excellent art that touches hearts and informs souls, people will be drawn to it and want to learn its source.

What are your plans in the future as an author?

I have several historical novels in the works. The first is Sailing: Being the True Story of the Pirate, Stede Bonnet. He was a real-life Caribbean pirate who started out a Barbados sugar planter, then fell in with the pirate Blackbeard. But like Doc Holliday, the truth of Bonnet’s life is much different than the pirate legends—he and his pirate companions were actually freedom fighters trying to overthrow the king of England—the first American revolutionaries.

After that, it’s The McIntosh Legacy, another true family saga that travels from the highlands of Scotland to the Indian Wars and the Trail of Tears. And I’d love to have time to write a historical novel about the life of my own great-great grandfather, who was in Carthage Jail with the prophet Joseph Smith. It would be the Mormon story for all my non-LDS readers, my testimony to the world. I hope I have the honor of writing it. ❧

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