Now that Lead is out in the world and The Brazen Bulls MC series is complete, I thought I’d take some time and reflect on writing that series, and on writing three (so far) related biker series that crossover with each other the way Signal Bend, Night Horde SoCal, and the Bulls do.
This is mostly just me thinking aloud. I needed to get all this out of my head, and then there it was, down in words, so I figured I might as well post it. It might not be remotely interesting to anyone but me, though. Also? It’s sort of rambling and stream-of-consciousness-y, so beware.
The origin of the Bulls series came about in the spring of 2016. I had written Nolan and was getting ready to promote it, and I was lamenting with the Freaks that I was already homesick for Signal Bend and wished I could write more. I wanted to write stories for Gia and Bo, and Loki, and Lexi and Ian, but the year is freaking 2030 at the end of Nolan, and I just COULD NOT imagine trying to get even further out in the future with these books, so I was stymied.
In that discussion somebody (I don’t remember who, but it was probably Cat—she’s the Freak Fixer) asked, “How about a prequel? Go backward instead of forward.” Which sounded great, until I remembered that it was already well established that, before Lilli arrived, the Horde wasn’t exactly teeming with healthy romantic relationships. Everybody in the past was single or divorced, or an abusive bastard who’d driven their wife to suicide (that Big Ike was a real prince, yeah?). Showdown was married, but that first marriage didn’t go so well. A Signal Bend prequel didn’t have the wheels for an MC romance series.
But then I thought, “Wait—what about the Brazen Bulls?” They’d been key secondary players in both Horde series, and I freaking loved the club name (another thing Cat had helped out with) and I got excited at the idea of being able to use it in earnest and really flesh that club out. So, I started thinking about when I’d set it in the past, and what the club would be.
My rationale for opening the Bulls’ series in 1995 was all about the Horde. That first scene in Crash, when Rad sees the Horde leaving the truck stop, and notices that “Little Ike” has a new scar? That’s why the series starts there. Still deeply involved with my Missouri guys, I loved being able to see Isaac as a young patch, and get into his relationship with his father from an outsider’s perspective. And we can see Signal Bend start to die, and how first Big Ike, and then Isaac, work to save it.
But I wasn’t telling stories about the Horde, so I had to figure out who the Bulls were, as a club and as individuals.
A few things I knew as I started thinking seriously about this series:
1) I knew I wanted to find a different angle and make the Bulls distinct from the Horde. Outlaw MCs have a lot in common, in reality and in fiction, and a lot of the same personality types, aesthetics, conflicts, etc., recur across real clubs and across the genre. I always want my stories to stand out in their genre, of course. But I also wanted the Bulls to stand out from my own body of work—to feel as different from the Horde as possible and still be allies and a (quasi) realistic outlaw MC.
2) I knew Becker, who is the Bulls’ president in the Signal Bend series and someone Isaac admires, would have the final book in the series, but wouldn’t yet be president when the series began. I didn’t know what number his book would be, or what would happen in the series to get us there, but I knew his story would be the conclusion.
(BTW: for those who’ve read all my MC stories, including Lead, and are now trying to do some math and figure out when the Big Fight with the Perro Blanco cartel happens in Leave a Trail, it’s September 2018. I answered a question on FB a couple days ago from memory and gave a wrong answer to this [bumping it out by a year and a month], but I’ve re-checked my old notes since, and September 2018 is the correct date. So a little more than 16 years after Lead opens.)
2) I knew that the series story would have to dovetail with the Signal Bend series and reconcile continuity throughout, and since the Bulls are instrumental in getting the Horde involved with the Perros, I had an opportunity to signal how that happened.
3) I knew I wanted the series to end at least five years before Move the Sun begins (2012), to leave a little room for the continuity to find its tightest fit off the page. Lead’s epilogue ends right there, in 2007.
Before I started Crash, I made a list of Bulls actually named in the Horde books. Beyond Beck and Eight Ball, there are only a few (most of whom have made it into the club by the epilogue of Lead), and they are mentioned only once or twice, so that gave me a lot of freedom to build out the club, and will give me freedom to move forward, when I’m ready, with a next-generation series.
4) I knew the Bulls were a much more hardcore outlaw club than the Missouri Horde ever were. The Horde got into outlaw work almost accidentally, and they always struggled to operate in that dark world. That’s basically the story of the Horde in Signal Bend—they are in waaaaaaay over their heads. The Bulls, on the other hand, are real professional outlaws, and comfortable (sometimes more, sometimes less) in that place.
5) Because the Bulls are based in Tulsa, I knew the location wouldn’t stand out so much as a character in and of itself. Tulsa is a major city, and though of course it has a vibrant personality, it’s too big and rangy for me to get my hands sufficiently around it to build it the way I built Signal Bend or Quiet Cove or Jasper Ridge. Unlike my invented towns, Tulsa is already a thing, with a life of its own. BUT Tulsa has a complicated history, and I was able to engage that history thematically in the story.
Note that I don’t mention Madrone (from the Night Horde SoCal) as one of my settings that’s also a character, though it is one of my invented towns. But I designed it not to stand out as a character. Madrone is based on the teeming horde (haha see what I did there) of small “bedroom communities” that pepper the Southern California Inland Empire, a place I lived for several years. Like those real communities, Madrone doesn’t have much of a personality distinct unto itself. It’s strip malls and office complexes, boxy subdivisions and gated developments.
The Inland Empire has a personality. Southern California has a personality. The natural geography of that part of the country has a huge personality. Most of the individual towns of the Inland Empire, however, sort of blend into the desert. That’s what comes through, I think (hope), in the SoCal series.
The SoCal charter, too, is different from its Missouri mother charter, because the members come from all over. They don’t share a history; they didn’t grow up together. Madrone is just a place. The SoCal charter is the family they’ve made together, but they are wildly different men, and their conflicts and friendships reflect that, just as the conflicts and friendships among the Missouri Horde reflect their lifelong shared experience and familiarity.
The Bulls turned out to fall sort of in the middle of those two extremes. The Bulls don’t necessarily share similar histories, and they’re not all from the same place. Most of them are from Oklahoma, however, and they have that grounding. Most are from rural or exurban homes, too. But different things have brought them to Tulsa and to the Bulls, and they each express their brotherhood and their sense of family and home differently.
Or that’s what I hope I achieved, lol.
As I said, I decided to open the series in 1995 because that lined up with when Isaac’s father attacked him and cut his face. A purely selfish and fictional reason. But 1995 turned out to be a powerful time to start a series in Oklahoma, and The Brazen Bulls MC stories ended up touching on some key, and traumatic, real events—most significantly, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and, of course, 9/11 in 2001.
Questions of race also became central to several individual books and the series as a whole, and I did not set out intentionally to take that terrifying task on. But as the series developed, and the Bulls told me their stories, and I learned more about Tulsa (a place I’ve only visited a few times, though my hometown of St. Louis shares quite a few key traits—including racial tension on a stark black/white, north/south “line” that’s almost literal), I saw that I had to take on race and the racism going on in the Bulls.
That didn’t fly with some readers, who didn’t like the “heroes” of these stories exhibiting even the passive racism of unacknowledged prejudices and preconceptions, but I don’t see my outlaw bikers as heroes and never have. They’re killers, and they decide who deserves to die and who doesn’t according to their own rules. In the parlance of RPG (Role Playing Game) alignment, they are, ideally, “chaotic good.” But sometimes, they’re just chaotic.
I see them as essentially decent men who do a whole lot of bad things, and have shaped the world they live in to their liking. They don’t see their own flaws until those flaws blow up right in front of them. Because they’re essentially decent men, though, once they see where they’re wrong, they work to change. That’s what interests me, and why I love these people. I guess they’re antiheroes, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that label, either.
It turned out to be serendipitous, too, from a story standpoint, that race blew up in the Bulls clubhouse when it did, because it aligns with the time in Tulsa’s reality that the city finally began to face a horrible event in its past: the Tulsa Race Massacre, when a mob of white people stormed into the Black community of Greenwood, burned most of it to the ground and killed hundreds of innocent people. It happened in 1921, but it wasn’t until 1996, seventy-five years later, that the horror was officially acknowledged, when the state legislature formed a commission to study the event and its consequences. At that time, newspapers like the Tulsa World began to write about it and finally bring the story to light. Whole generations of people in Tulsa had grown up not knowing the massacre had even happened.
So when the Bulls burned a school in Greenwood, right around the time Tulsa was first facing this event in their history, where white people had stormed that very same Black community and burned it down, they didn’t have a sense of the resonating impact of the act, and they had to face what they’d done in ways they hadn’t expected.
So did I. I learned about the massacre well before I’d published Blaze but after I’d written the club burning the school. Writing Blaze, I’d started to see something emerging that I didn’t much like—that my mostly-white MC was fighting with a Black gang, and, by the simple nature of the Bulls being my protagonists, I’d put most of my characters of color in the “bad guy” spot. I hadn’t meant to do it, I’d only been trying to be realistic to the demographics and conflicts of the outlaw world and to Tulsa’s racial demographics and issues, so similar to St. Louis’s, but when I saw what was happening, I pulled back and thought it out.
I decided I had two choices: I could back out of that storyline—not even Slam had been published yet, so I had time for a course correction into less controversial territory—or I could grapple with race and racism in the story, go deeper into it rather than take a detour around it. Obviously, I chose to go deeper.
My reasoning was that, one, it was a more authentic story, situated in the reality of its location, with flawed characters who have to confront their failings and do better, and two, the more challenging storyline resonated with our current world in ways I thought would be cowardly and irresponsible to avoid. Racism is Tulsa’s history, and the US’s history. It’s the world’s history. It’s our present, too, sadly, and it certainly is part of MC culture. So I went there.
I went there with Ox’s Mexican heritage and Caleb’s experience as a citizen of Osage Nation, too. I try not to let my own worldview overshadow any story I’m telling or the experiences of my characters, but I also try not to shrink away from doing my best to be authentic and honest in building my worlds and giving my characters the voice and story that suits them best–and that represents and reflects the real world.
As a white woman sitting on a boatload of privilege, I try to tread very carefully whenever I write characters of color. I want my stories to represent people and places as they are. I don’t want to always build worlds where everybody is like me and experiences the world as I do, but I am vividly aware that from my place of significant privilege, when I write about a character whose experience of the world is significantly different from mine, I am operating from the position of an observer. I can only do my best to shut up and listen, to learn as much as I can, before I even begin to write, and when I do write, to be as respectful and true to the real people whose experiences my characters represent as I can be.
This is embarrassing, but I’ve been sitting here trying for a while to figure out a graceful way to shift from that heavy topic to something lighter, and I am coming up empty and getting tired of fretting over it. So I’m going to lean on that “stream-of-consciousness-y” caveat I made earlier and just change the subject. Because, actually, the whole reason I started writing this post, if you can believe it, is that I wanted to talk about Delaney’s Sinclair! Ha!
It might seem trivial, but Delaney’s is super nostalgic and important to me. My grandparents owned a Sinclair station in St. Louis when I was just a little bean. They lived right across the street from the station, and my parents and I lived right across the alley from it when I was born. Many of my very first memories are of sitting in the station, watching my grandma and grandpa talking with their employees, and with the neighbors who came in for gas or service, or just to visit. There were always people hanging around to gossip and while away some time.
My grandparents both passed more than a decade ago, and they retired from the station and moved out to rural Missouri (can you say Signal Bend?) in the 1970s. But Delaney’s is a tribute to them, and every time I wrote about it, I was thinking about Orville Neff Auto Service and reliving those good memories.
AND the incident at the station in Lead was directly inspired by something that happened to my grandpa’s station. They actually sold the business and retired not long after a similar accident in 1976.
I didn’t exactly replicate the situation (the fictional one is much worse), but the whole time I was writing the series, I had the real-life accident in mind, too, and wondered if I’d find a way to work it in, and what it would mean for the Bulls if I did. Lead was the perfect place, and it served the perfect purpose, so that it was more than just a plot point in the story. It became a metaphor for the trouble that was creeping in under the Bulls’ feet during D’s last years in charge, and gave Becker a chance to have a truly clean slate to begin his tenure as president.
When Lead ends, the Bulls are the same club they’ve always been and, at the same time, something wholly new. That’s the conversation Becker and Maverick have, and what Becker thinks in the epilogue—it’s the men, and their families, who make the club what it is. What they learn, the way they grow, the choices they make, that’s the club. The clubhouse, the kutte, the patch, those are all only symbols.
Okay, whoo. Like I said, my thoughts are rambling, and probably not all that interesting. But I have Still More Thoughts, and I’m going to go ahead and be totally self-indulgent and post them, too. In a few days, I’ll put up my musings about writing MC romance in general, why I’m going to take a hiatus from the endeavor, and what I’ll be doing in the meanwhile.
Thanks for hanging with me!