The Story Behind the Story

Since I love horses and will watch most westerns because of the horses, the films Tombstone and Wyatt Earp were a great escape for me. But it wasn’t the horses that hooked me, it was Doc Holliday. He was an absolute obsession. Both Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid did a wonderful job of portraying Doc’s character but I couldn’t help thinking that something was missing from the character. I wanted to find out what that was.

Scotland isn’t the best place to research Doc Holliday. My local library had one Old West book and that was it. I couldn’t even find a photo of Doc at first which drove me nuts. I even went to The National Library of Scotland but all they had was a Wyatt Earp picture book. Not the most helpful thing in the world but it was a start. Happily, there were plenty of books about gunfighters and the Old West so I read everything I could find about that.

Old West websites were my next resource. It was great to be able to discuss Doc with historians and other enthusiasts. One website was run by Brad Sandidge who after loads of e-mails, a long distance romance that lasted a couple of years and several trips to America, became my husband.

Once I was living in America with Brad we decided to take a trip to Arizona. We travelled to Tucson then down to Tombstone to see all of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s old haunts. The best thing about Tombstone is sitting on a bench in the morning and watching people going about. There’s a quote from John Clum, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph in the 1880s which pretty much is about the same thing. I think it’s wonderful to be able to connect to history like that. I went on a trail ride through the Dragoon Mountains. It really helped me with landscape details for the Tombstone portion of my book.

By Elena Sandidge

Elena Sandidge is a Scottish novelist with a passion for the history of the Old West and the life of the legendary gunfighting dentist, Doc Holliday. "A Gentleman in Hell" chronicles the adventures of Doc Holliday as he travels from Dodge City, Kansas to Tombstone, Arizona and on to his final home in the mountains of Colorado

11 replies on “The Story Behind the Story”

Hi – I contacted you on facebook re my Holliday research project, but I’d rather follow blog because I’m too old for facebook… Yes, as you said, your book should be very useful for my project. I just finished your first, and found your approach to Holliday’s illness fascinating and quite unusual – especially how you explore his experience living with disability in a violent society, and his dependence on friends when he was sick. Some conventional Western novelists don’t like to consider this. Well, the great thing about self-publishing is that it allows new voices to be heard!
PS – have you read the newspaper interviews with Doc himself?

Hi, thank you! I’m glad you’re finding it interesting. I would be really grateful if you would write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It would really help me get the book out to more people.

I feel that Doc was such a vulnerable character. I would never consider him to be an angel, he definitely had his faults but he was also stuck in a world where there were plenty of healthy, men that were used to doing extremely hard labour and could easily have beaten him to a pulp. Yes, I read the newspaper clippings. The thing I love about them was that by this time in his life Doc was really gaining such a reputation of being such a tough character and all the journalists say that when they met him in person they were surprised at how mannerly and soft spoken he was. He was really getting to the end of his life at this point too.

Thank you again.

That’s exactly what fascinates me too – the way reporters were so shocked meeting him in person.
Yes, there seems to be a fine line between portraying him as brutal/ inhuman/ totally self-destructive and portraying him as a pathetic innocent victim. I’d be interested to know how you decided to steer between those extremes.
BTW, do you like the Kindle publishing process?

I just really wanted to portray him as a human being. He had good days and bad days. He wasn’t an angel but he certainly wasn’t a monster either. I think it would be a mistake to portray him as a victim or weak as a character. He always came across to me as being quite a strong personality and I honestly think that any young man that had been through all that the civil war threw up during his childhood and then to have his mother and ‘brother’ die like they did and then to get sick and leave his family and have to start from scratch out West, had to be tough. Again not necessarily physically tough but mentally pretty resilient. I’ll have to go find it but there’s a quote from his father about Doc’s personality as a young man. It basically says about how he wasn’t the kind to have a quiet life. I can’t remember exactly the term used maybe ‘troublesome’. Anyway he was fiery and didn’t take crap from anyone. I don’t think he was entirely self-destructive though. Maybe I’m being too romantic but I think it would have been dishonourable for a Southern boy to commit suicide or drink himself to death. Of course it would be morally wrong too. Which sounds funny when you talk about Doc but I really think he cared about all of that, it was too deeply ingrained for him not too. I think honestly too as a gambler its hard to stay squeaky clean. Nearly everyone at the table is going to be armed one way or another and where there’s alcohol there’s going to be sore losers, so fights and things are going to happen one way or another.

I am enjoying the Kindle process. I’m on a bit of a learning curve but its been quite fun so far. I feel like I’m learning a lot too. Next up I need to try and work on getting a physical book done which ought to be interesting.

Sorry – I had to reply again because your comments are so interesting!
I think Doc’s biographer Gary Roberts would agree with you on so many issues. I am less certain about aspects of Doc’s personality, but I’ve just written an article on how Doc’s dandyism – the bespoke suits & immaculate grooming – proves he wasn’t totally self-destructive. Contrast that with Quaid’s grubby portrayal in Wyatt Earp movie: that film had such a negative, prejudiced attitude to disability.

If you ever do find the source of that quote from his father I’d be eternally grateful! I’ve only found one very indirect comment from him in a local newspaper c.1882. Reading between the lines, it sounds like they were not even in touch by then.

I suspect conventional publishing is a far steeper (and more frustrating) learning curve! The only negative I can think of for self-publishing is not having a professional proofreader to spot any glitches. In e-books they can be corrected, but once it’s in print, it’s forever…

Again, I enjoy talking to you about Doc so please don’t apologise. I liked Quaid’s portrayal, it is grittier and perhaps uglier too but there’s a tenderness in there and a sadness which does’t always come out in Val’s portrayal. On the other hand, what was up with the filthy hanky? They have him reasonably well dressed and then he has that grotty old thing. It looks too clean to have been through a haemorrhage and far to filthy to warrant any normal snot or coughing. Even if he’d mopped vomit with the thing I don’t think it would have looked that bad!

I totally agree as far as printing goes. I’m nervous about it. I used to work in magazine publishing and even after three or four people proofed a magazine there would still be errors that popped up when it went to print. It was a nightmare. As you said, at least with electronic versions there’s the ability to clean the copy and update it.

I haven’t had a chance to chase the quote, I’ll have to have a look for it. I’m sure it’s probably in Karen Holliday Tanner’s or Gary Robert’s book. I can’t remember which right now. I agree, I don’t believe they were really in contact at that stage. From everything I’ve read, Doc was closer to his Uncle than his father.

That’s so funny – I had a massive rant about the filthy rag in my article too! EVERY contemporary description of Holliday gushes over how clean and beautifully dressed etc etc – it was obviously a big part of his identity – but that film clearly had its own ideas that sick people are disgusting. People didn’t believe TB was contagious during Doc’s lifetime, but people were terrified of AIDS when that film was made, so maybe that’s it.
I agree re proofreading – I can correct students’ essays but my own are a mess.
Thanks for the tip on the quote – I have both Roberts and Tanner so I’ll find it.
Have you read Southern Honor by Bertram Wyatt-Brown? It’s a cultural history of the South. Apparently the pressure on sons to be exactly like their fathers was so strong that even minor disagreements could turn into a total estrangement. It was a culture that depended on grovelling to authority and unquestioning adherence to tradition – hence slavery.

Hey Elena, Imagine my surprise when I read a post from Sallie on FB this morning about your books. Had no idea we had been blessed with a published author in our family. Keep up with your family by pictures and little tidbits that Sallie posts about you guys, still had no idea you were doing a book series until today. Congratulations on your success! I will now have a new series of books to read and add to my collection, because like you, I love everything “old west.” Just so happens, I’m placing an order with Amazon today, so I will add your books and look forward to getting them. By the way, your little guy is such a cutie!! Please, tell Brad hello for me. Again, congratulations and continued success. love and best wishes, Maryanne

Dear Maryanne,
Thank you, I hope you enjoy the books! I will certainly say hello to Brad.
I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas!

Elena, what is with all of the necklaces Dennis Quaid wore in the movie? I don’t think Doc would have worn those.

He does wear a crucifix in a couple of scenes, along with his watch chain, but I don’t think there’s anything else apart from that. Doc may or may not have upheld some religious believes during his time out West. I think more in a modern sense than a Victorian. I have a hard time believing he was a regular church goer and I’m not sure that he would have ever worn a crucifix either, but it adds a little more depth to Doc’s character in the film, without it having to be mentioned directly.

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