Designing Doc Holliday

Designing Doc Holliday

One of the last—but most important—elements of book publishing is the design of the cover. A self published author may have complete control over cover design, while a traditionally published author (like yours truly) has a whole art and marketing department to do the work. With many creators taking part in the process, the final product may not reflect the author’s first intent, while still satisfying bookstore buyers and distributors.

The World of Doc Holliday History & Historic ImagesSuch is the case in the cover of my new pictorial biography: The World of Doc Holliday: History & Historic Images. In my mind, since the book was inspired by Doc’s railroad travels across the country, a cover featuring an antique train would have been perfect. The first mock-up of my own suggested design combined both a train on a high trestle and a photo of Dr. John Henry Holliday taken in Prescott, Arizona, shortly before he moved to Tombstone, and sent to his family back home in Georgia—an elegant image of a traveling man in the era of the iron horse.

The Life and Legend Doc HollidayOnly problem with my design suggestion was that the photo had already been prominently used on Dr. Gary Robert’s seminal and scholarly biography, Doc Holliday: The Life & Legend. The publisher didn’t want to confuse bookstore buyers or readers, so we had to let that great photo go. But what to use, instead?

Doc HollidayThere are only a few well-documented photos of Doc, and none from his time in Tombstone or after. The only other family photo with clear provenance (trail of ownership) had been taken in Philadelphia when he was in dental school in 1871-72. Often referred to as the Graduation Photo, there is no actual indication of when during those years the photo was taken—it may have been when he first arrived in the city or anytime between then and when he left. And as a cover photo for this book about his adventures, he looks a little young and inexperienced for our well-traveled Doc.

Doc HollidayAnother option might have been this photo that claims to be Doc in Dallas in 1873 and is one of my favorites: a much retouched and darkened image of a mustached man with the Holliday-family-trait attached earlobes and a penciled notation on the back, “J.H. Holliday, Dallas, 1873.” The photo comes from the Vincent Mercaldo (1850-1945) collection of more than 2,000 classic Western images, now housed in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Mercaldo was an artist as well as a collector and could have done the retouching/darkening on this photo himself. The photo has no other provenance besides that penciled ID on the back, but was accepted for years and certainly could be him—though one family member declared that it positively was not Doc with no proof other than her own word for it, and she lived a couple of generations after him and never actually saw him.

Doc HollidayAn image lacking provenance but with a good chance of being the real deal is this famous photo of a mustached man that appeared with a Bat Masterson article about Doc Holliday in “Human Life” Magazine in 1907. The photo appears to have been cropped for the article, and may have come from a larger, group photo. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know who was in that group? Unfortunately, we don’t know the whereabouts of the original, but the fact that Bat allowed its use with his article lends credence, and the fact that Wyatt’s later biographer, Stuart Lake, also used the photo in his Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, makes it even more likely. Lake captioned it: “This photograph, made by C. S. Fly in Tombstone, 1881, was the only one Doc Holliday ever had taken.” Lake may have been right about the Camillus Fly attribution (making the photo even more historic) but he was wrong about it being the only photo Doc ever had taken.

Kansas Historical Society Doc HollidayJohn Myers Myers Doc HollidayThis retouched version of the C.S. Fly photo comes from the collection of Texas photographer Noah Rose (1874-1952) who made images of the people and places of the Southwest and added to his own work photos from other collections. By 1930, he was selling prints of his collection and supplying images to magazines. His Album of Gunfighters contained 300 pictures of outlaws and lawman of the West—including this image. Called the “Rose Photo,” it adds a curl to Doc’s now-dark hair, a narrow-trimmed mustache, and a drawn-in suitcoat. This is the image that inspired the cover of John Myers Myers 1955 bio, Doc Holliday.

John Meyers Meyers Doc Holliday1950 RPPC Postcard Reprint Photo of Doc Holliday DentistThe English edition of Myers book, published in 1957, used an artist-drawn full-length version of the Rose Photo, with Doc wearing a side-slung holster and an ivory-handled pistol. Another artist-rendered version of the Rose photo shows him in the same pose as the English Myers book, but now holding a derby hat instead of fingering a pistol. And it was that drawing that my publisher’s design team chose for the cover of my new book, The World of Doc Holliday: History & Historic Images. Although it’s not a photograph of John Henry Holliday, as I would have preferred, the drawing was inspired by an actual photograph accepted by both Bat Masterson, who knew Doc personally, and by Wyatt Earp’s first biographer. So, with its own historical lineage, the image now seems a fitting choice for a book filled with historic images from the world of Doc Holliday. And, happily, the cover design still includes an antique train!

The World of Doc Holliday History and Historical Images


Interesting Links:

Buffalo Bill Historical Center:
Doc Holliday by Bat Masterson:
Doc Holliday Live/Doc Photos:
Camillus Fly: Frontier Photographer


Talking Doc!

Talking Doc!

Doug Dahlgren Artist First Radio Network

Thanks to author and radio host Doug Dahlgren for having me on his show on the Artist First Radio Network! We spent a lively hour discussing all things Doc Holliday, from his romantic connection to Gone with the Wind to who played the best Doc in the movies. Here’s some highlights, and a link to listen to the whole show!

Holliday House

“It was the greenest place I’d ever seen…” said Doc Holliday, reminiscing about his Georgia home in the film “Wyatt Earp.” How did a Georgia house lead to the writing of the Saga of Doc Holliday books?

Mattie Holliday

“She was all I ever wanted…” said a dying Doc Holliday to Wyatt Earp on the film “Tombstone.” The girl he was talking about was his cousin, Mattie Holliday. What’s the truth behind the romantic story?

Lunger Club Sign

“You ain’t nothin’ but a skinny lunger…” said an angry Ed Bailey to a coughing Doc Holliday over a game of cards. What was Doc’s disease—and was it really the reason he left Georgia for the Wild West?

Val Kilmer, Dennis Quaid, Kirk Douglas

“I’m your Huckleberry…” said Doc Holliday to Johnny Ringo in the film “Tombstone.” Who played him best in the movies? And which movie script got closest to the real Doc Holliday?

Click here to listen to the whole show!

The Power of Point of View

(Guest Post on Sarah Johnson’s “Reading the Past” Blog 2013)

Sarah Johnson’s wonderfully written review of Inheritance, the first book in my historical novel trilogy, Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday points out one of the challenges in writing fiction set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction: the difficulty of dealing with the “inherent racism” of the time. Although the Southern Confederacy was fighting for more than slavery in its war on the Federal government, the perpetuation of the “peculiar institution” was at the core of the fight. So a writer telling a story set in the Old South has to acknowledge the central issue of the era, even if that issue isn’t a central theme of the book.

It would be tempting to insert one’s modern perceptions into the narrative, commenting on or criticizing the racist attitudes of the times. Such editorial comment, however, puts a distance between the reader and the characters and detracts from the sense of time and place of the story. How, then, to accurately show the social ills of the Old South without seeming to approve of them? Without some negative commentary the story might seem to celebrate the institution of slavery.
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The Power of Story

(Keynote Address at the Blue Ridge Writer’s Conference 2014)

He was Georgia’s best-known Western legend, infamous in his own time and famous in ours for the part he played in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, becoming a celebrity in literature and film, with his character featured in more than 70 movies and TV shows. She was Georgia’s first superstar, her every activity chronicled in newspapers and magazines, with crowds of admirers camping out on her lawn. At Davison’s Department Store, where she’d gone to buy a dress for a big premiere, she was followed into the dressing room by fans who pulled at her hair and tore off her clothes as souvenirs. Yet neither of them was looking for notoriety; they just wanted to live ordinary lives. It was the power of the story that make their lives extraordinary. And amazingly, Doc Holliday and Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind had a family connection.  And to explain that surprising bit of Georgia history, I first need to share some of my own history.  You might call that the story behind the story. 

And my story starts here with my own Mormon pioneer ancestors who crossed the Great Plains in covered wagons to settle the American West in the days of the real cowboys and Indians. One of my grandfathers became president of the Cattleman’s Association in Portland, Oregon. The other left the silver mines of Eureka, Utah behind to mine a different kind of fortune in early pioneer Hollywood.  And that’s when my mother’s cousin came to stay with the family and became a film actress, costarring in a series of movie Westerns, like Silver on the Sage and Hidden Gold with cowboy actor Hopalong Cassidy. Her name was Ruth Rogers—that’s her on the right playing the pretty but plucky love interest. She even did a film with a young John Wayne in The Night Riders.

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The End?

Finishing the manuscript is just the start of the Business of Writing. (From a blog post for

So you’ve finally finished your masterpiece, read and edited and proofed and reread the carefully typed manuscript, and now it’s ready for the two most wonderful words in a writer’s vocabulary: The End! And soon, you’ll be querying agents and sending off submissions, receiving an offer of representation, and watching a bidding war between all the top publishers in your genre. Hey, it could happen!

But before it does and before you type “The End” at the bottom of your final page, you’ve still got some work to do. Because finishing the manuscript is just the start of the business of writing.  Now you have a synopsis to write, and you may find it even harder than writing the work on which it’s based. And doing it right may mean the difference between landing a book deal and languishing in the slush pile of an agent’s office. Even if you’re intent on self-publishing, a synopsis is elemental to the success of your book.

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Why Doc Holliday Killed Johnny Ringo in “Tombstone”

Why Doc Holliday Killed Johnny Ringo in “Tombstone”

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday challenges Johnny Ringo in their last duel.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday challenges Johnny Ringo in their last duel.

It’s the dramatic final duel between Doc Holliday and his alter-ego nemesis, Johnny Ringo, in the classic Western film “Tombstone,” as Doc shoots Ringo dead and comments wryly, “the strain was more than he could bear.” Although that’s not what really happened (Doc wasn’t even in Arizona when Ringo died), there’s a reason screenwriter Kevin Jarre wrote it that way: this is drama not documentary, and the rules of

Screenwriter Kevin Jarre who wrote “Tombstone,” and Val Kilmer.

Screenwriter Kevin Jarre who wrote “Tombstone,” and Val Kilmer.

Westerns demand that the sort-of good guy kill the bad guy in the end.

And in this Western, Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo have not just one, but three duels—and all of them portray Doc as the defender of his one-true friend, Wyatt Earp.

Lego version of the Doc and Ringo cup duel

Lego version of the Doc and Ringo cup duel.

DUEL #1: In the first duel, a faro-dealing Wyatt is threatened by the cowboys, until Doc steps in and bests Ringo in a fast-draw contest: Ringo’s gun versus the drunk dentist’s whiskey cup.

DUEL #2: In the second duel, a drunk Ringo challenges Wyatt on the streets of Tombstone, until Doc steps in and announces, “I’m your Huckleberry, fightin’s just my game,” and the cowboy backs down. (For what the famous phrase means, see my blog post here.)

Doc’s famous line, now appearing everywhere.

DUEL #3: In the third and final duel, Wyatt is on his way to meet Ringo in a shooting match he will surely lose, until Doc steps in and finishes off the cowboy with one bullet to the head. Three times Doc Holliday has defended Wyatt Earp from Johnny Ringo, showing his loyalty, while fulfilling the “good guy kills the bad guy” rule of Westerns. And it’s only fair that Doc gets to kill Ringo, as Wyatt kills his own nemesis, the cowboy leader, Curly Bill Brocious.

Ike Clanton, the real boss of the cowboys.

Ike Clanton, the real boss of the cowboys.

But that, too, is just movie reel drama—in the real world, Ike Clanton was the cowboy leader (a much smarter man than the film’s character) while Curly Bill was just a junior associate. But Wyatt didn’t kill Ike (who got away to be killed another day by another man), he killed Curly Bill, so Kevin Jarre smartly made Curly Bill the head bad guy to be killed by head good guy Wyatt. Which is one of the reasons we all love “Tombstone”: it’s good literature as well as good drama, with all the characters doing just what we want them to do and right winning out in the end. “Tombstone” isn’t history; it’s Historical Fiction, a drama based on historical events but telling a literary story.

Which is also what Doc fans will find in my award-winning historical novel trilogy The Saga of Doc Holliday which dramatizes Doc Holliday’s life from his boyhood in the Civil War South to his dealings in Tombstone and beyond. It’s a history-based retelling of Doc’s adventures, bringing the past to life like “Tombstone” brought the events surrounding the O.K. Corral gunfight to life, becoming a classic Western. Isn’t that a daisy?

Fun Links:
Read True West Magazine’s tribute to screenwriter Kevin Jarre.
Watch the Lego version of Doc and Ringo cup duel .
Buy the “I’m Your Huckleberry Poster” . 
Read the “Tombstone” script.

Order The Saga of Doc Holliday from your favorite bookseller.


Why Doc Holliday Went West

Why Doc Holliday Went West

According to popular legend, Doc Holliday left home and went west because he was diagnosed with consumption and told that he had to go to a kinder climate to save his life. And that’s partly true. He was eventually diagnosed with consumption (though when or where, we don’t know) and he did go to the western Territory of New Mexico for his health. But that was years after he left Georgia, after he’d already made a name for himself in several other states. The first place he went after leaving home was Dallas, Texas, which is in the South, not the West, and which did not have a kinder climate. The Dallas weather was much like Georgia, hot and humid in the summer, cold and humid in the winter. It had also been recently closed down by a yellow fever epidemic and was famous for being the second least healthy place in the country to live, right behind the bayous of Louisiana. No one would go there for his health.

Withlacoochee River

So what was it that made John Henry Holliday leave home? The more likely cause of his western exodus wasn’t sickness, but a shooting—a story told in various versions by people who knew him personally, most notably by lawman Bat Masterson. As Masterson tells it, near to the South Georgia village where Holliday was raised ran a little river where a swimming hole had been cleared, and where he one day came across some black boys swimming where he thought they shouldn’t be. He ordered them out of the water and when they refused to go, he took a shotgun to them and “caused a massacre.” In the troubled days of Reconstruction, his family thought it best that he leave the area, so he moved to Dallas, Texas. The village, of course, was Valdosta, and the river was the nearby Withlacoochee. Continue reading

Doc Holliday: Before the Legend

Doc Holliday: Before the Legend

No one knew when John Henry Holliday was born that he would die as a legend called “Doc Holliday.”  So no one bothered keeping the kind of records that his future chronicler would need to bring his story back to life.  The facts that were noted were nothing more than would appear in any old family Bible.  But if you mix together the few recorded facts of his life before he became a legend with details of the lives of his family and set it against the background of the Southern world in which he lived, the history begins to look something like a story…

John Henry Holliday Baby PictureHe was born on the 14th of August in 1851 in the little city of Griffin, Georgia.  His father, Henry Burroughs Holliday, was a businessman and clerk of the county court.  His mother, Alice Jane McKey, was the musically talented oldest daughter of a cotton planter, set to inherit some of her family’s fortune.  There was another boy in the Holliday household when John Henry was born — a teenager named Francisco Holliday Family PhotosHidalgo who’d been orphaned during the Mexican War and brought to Georgia by Henry Holliday in his bachelor days.

Before long there were girls coming to join the family: Alice Jane’s younger sisters Eliza and Ella and Margaret, given into Henry Holliday’s guardianship when their father William Land McKey died.  But there were no sisters or brothers for John Henry.  His parents’ only other child, a baby girl they named Martha Eleanora, had died six months after her birth and nearly two years before John Henry was born.Continue reading

The Mysterious Dr. Holliday of Dodge

The Mysterious Dr. Holliday of Dodge

Doc Holliday arrived in Dodge City, Kansas in the spring of 1878, and opened a dental practice at the Dodge House Hotel. The town was lively that summer, keeping the local police force occupied with arresting drunks and cowboys who carried their pistols with them over the “deadline,” the boundary between the red light district south of the railroad tracks and the business district north of the tracks. Wyatt Earp had arrived back in Dodge soon after Doc got there, and took back his former job as Assistant to Marshal Charlie Bassett. Bat Masterson was in town, too, as the new Sheriff of Ford County, and it was there that he first met Doc Holliday. As he later wrote of Doc during his time in Dodge:

Bat Masterson & Wyatt Earp, Dodge City

He was slim of build and sallow of complexion, standing about five feet ten inches, and weighing no more than 130 pounds.  His eyes were of a pale blue and his moustache was thin and of a sandy hue.  Dodge City was then very much like Dallas and Denver, only a little more so, and the doctor did not express regret at having come.  It was easily seen that he was not a healthy man for he not only looked the part, but he incessantly coughed it as well.  During his year’s stay at Dodge at that time, he did not have a quarrel with anyone, and, although regarded as sort of a grouch, he was not disliked by those with whom he became acquainted. Continue reading

Doc Holliday’s Family Affair

Doc Holliday’s Family Affair

“I was in love once. My first cousin. She was… We were both so…
She joined a convent over the affair.
She was all I ever wanted.”

Doc & Wyatt's Last Game

Doc & Wyatt’s Last Game

Those are Doc Holliday’s words in his tragic but touching final scene from the film “Tombstone,” the cult classic that made Doc lovable and relatable again after a generation of his being cast as a movie villain. In Kevin Jarre’s brilliant version of the West’s most famous gunfight, gambling dentist Doc Holliday is lawman Wyatt Earp’s most loyal friend – and the heart of the whole story. Partly that comes from Jarre’s own script which gave Doc so many quotable lines. Partly that comes from actor Kurt Russell’s generous editing of the filming script that cut out many of Wyatt’s lines in favor of a focus on Doc. For as every follower of Westerns knows, if you have a sympathetic Doc Holliday, you have a hit movie.

But what about that iconic final scene, as Doc confesses his young love and then dies? Was that Jarre’s dramatic invention or Russell’s addition? Or was it based on something from Doc Holliday’s own life?

Ashley & Melanie: The fictional Doc & Mattie?

Ashley & Melanie: The fictional Doc & Mattie?

According to old Holliday family stories, the young romance between Doc and his first cousin really happened – and may have been one of the reasons he left Georgia. The girl was Martha Anne “Mattie” Holliday, daughter of Doc’s uncle Robert Kennedy Holliday. Doc (then just John Henry Holliday) grew up in the little city of Griffin, Georgia, while Mattie grew up in Jonesboro, thirty miles or so up the road. Although the families were a bit separated in those horse-and-buggy days, they gathered together whenever they could, often at the home of Doc’s medical doctor uncle, John Stiles Holliday, in nearby Fayetteville. Mattie was eighteen months older than John Henry, but the two were close as children and remained close – and reportedly even had a romance when they were teens. While we might not consider cousins as appropriate sweethearts, in 19th century America cousins did sometimes fall in love and marry. As Margaret Mitchell says in the classic novel of the Old South, Gone With the Wind: “The Wilkes and Hamiltons always marry their own cousins.” She was referring, of course, to Ashley Wilkes (Scarlett O’Hara’s crush) marrying his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.Continue reading