Author Robert Winter shares his perspectives on his writing process, his personal connection with historical events and more.

Many of the characters in Sheriff Winter’s story are recreations of real people including some of his own family who settled first in Guilford County, North Carolina where his own 4th great-grandfather was a colonel in the British occupational army, leading the British forces against members of his own family in the American Revolution.

Later in the family history, they settled in the Carson Valley leaving their mark in both of those places. One product of 2rd great-grandfather Ben Jones’ handiwork can be seen in the Mormon Station Museum in Genoa, Nevada, and the ‘town’ of Spurgeon, Tennessee was named for some of Bob’s own ancestors.

a hill toward home book cover

Author’s Historical Roots to the Story’s Location

Bob’s connection with the regions discussed in his work are more than mere coincidence. Some of his own family settled first in North Carolina during the 17th century and were granted land in East Tennessee for their efforts in the American Revolution. Others migrated with the Mormons to Mormon Station (now Genoa), Nevada and put down roots there. Ben Jones, Bob’s 3rd great-grandfather and one of the characters in the book, was a Welsh locksmith turned blacksmith, and some of his handiwork (a huge single-blade plow) is on display in the museum there in Genoa. Ben had been evangelized with others in his family and migrated from Wales with the Mormons in 1849. Several of Bob’s ancestors are buried, both in Genoa, and in the small family plot in Jacks Valley, just north of Genoa, where the family established a cattle ranch.

Some locals and historians ascribe the ‘Jacks Valley’ name to Jake Winter, one of Bob’s antecedents.

Historical Research – Freemasons of Elizabethtown, Tennessee

A Freemason, himself, Bob’s research has included much about that institution, and the incidental references to that group are authenticated by information he has gained from that interest. In the book, the principal character joins a Masonic lodge in Elizabethtown, Tennessee.  Bob’s research showed, from the lodge’s current number, that the present lodge could not have existed during the Civil war. Fortunately, he was able to contact other Masons in that region who enlightened him on the fact that the original lodge (with a much lower seniority number) did exist in Elizabethtown, Tennessee but had to surrender its charter during the Civil War for its inability to pay its per capita obligations to the Tennessee Grand Lodge. Owing to the financial strain imposed on the members by the war, they couldn’t pay their dues and the lodge failed. It was resurrected about forty years later under a new name and a contemporary number.

At times Freemasonry played a significant role during the Civil War. ‘Brothers’ from both sides of the conflict often found it preferable to relieve one another’s distress than to impose the demands of the politics of their allegiances on each other.

Character Dialect Inspired by Author’s Own Childhood Experiences

The vernacular, or dialect we see assigned to various members of the cast stem from Bob’s own experiences and his exposure to friends and acquaintances in his own life. Raised in rural Santa Clara County during the great depression and the ‘Dust Bowl’ phenomenon in the Midwest, he saw the migration of southern and southwestern families to the promising fields of California and was impressed by their manner of speech. To hire ranch hands, Bob’s father had only to visit the local railroad depot, select one or two of the most promising ‘tramps’ that had alighted from the freight trains passing through, and put them to work. Some of these folks stayed on the ranch for years, some took more promising jobs in the area, and some moved on, but their persona he put to work in his story.

American Civil War Provides the Perfect Setting

As the forward in the book points out, the American Civil War provides the perfect setting for a story in which human drama, history, geography, and dedication to one’s principles are involved. Though we now know, the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery was being phased out across the planet, in the American south there was abundant rationalization for its retention, and through the course of the story we see members of our cast of characters altering their allegiances for a variety of reasons.

As pointed out in several places, gradual decline of the southern economy was ongoing and inevitable given the existing mindset. What seems most tragic today, is the effect the war had on that decline, primarily caused by the inflexibility of the politicians and some of the landed gentry to accept change.

Though it isn’t material to this story, students of the Civil War may wonder, as I did, why it was so difficult for General Grant, with all the strength of his Army of the Mississippi to invade and conquer Vicksburg, Mississippi. Confederate General Pemberton made repeated pleas for reinforcements for his position there, but not getting any help, he still held out for months. Why was that?

A visit to Vicksburg reveals the reasons. The prevailing winds, there are from the west, picking up dust from the vast expanse of the plains. Then, crossing the Mississippi, where moist air rises and traps the particles of dust from the air, those dust particles are randomly deposited east if the river, resulting in hills and valleys so steep that they can’t be scaled without great expenditure of time and effort. As a result, the terrain surrounding Vicksburg is so steep that resisting any assaulting army is like shooting fish in a barrel . . . virtually!

Siege and starvation were Grant’s only effective means of succeeding, and he used them wisely.

My Inspiration for the Characters in A Hill Toward Home

The principal character, Jesse Logan is a product of necessity. The name was borrowed from Bob’s great grandfather, Jesse Logan Winter and his personal characteristics are borrowed partly from his son, Lt JG Robert Winter, Jr., a Coast Guard pilot who was killed in 1981.There was also the need for a distinctive appearance that could give overly enthusiastic news reporters some descriptive material, and the intelligence gatherers of the day a basis for tracking his activity.

Several of the other characters are replications of people Bob knows or has known in his own life. In writing the story, Bob found that he could usually plot the path that the various members of the cast were to take, but occasionally he found that they would proceed in unanticipated directions and all that the author could do would be to follow along and write it down.

Pursuit of History

Retired Sheriff Bob Winter’s interest in history and family tradition began at an early age when his father related the sad story of his own father’s death at the hands of a neighbor. It started over the fact that the neighbor’s brother was implicated in the theft of some cattle, and ‘Johnny’ Winter had sent for the sheriff. Newspaper accounts and court documents provided abundant and often conflicting information on the incident, and Bob set out to learn the true story.

His interest in history was further inspired by high school and college courses, and though his college degree is in Public Administration, his fascination with family history never wavered. Bob’s family tree, and that of his wife Carolyne, number in the thousands, dating back to European royalty and ultimately to William the Conqueror, Robert the Bruce, and Charlamagne. Their family lines intersect at the Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1620 and other various points in history.