‘Blood and Silver:’ Tucson author takes hard look at old Tombstone | Books

Bill Finley Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Predictably, perhaps, since her mother taught English, Vali Benson has always loved to read and write. “I won a writing contest in the third grade,” she laughs, proudly. She was still writing short stories and long letters in college. But just as she moved on from tie-dye fashions and big hair, Benson eventually walked away from her prose de ella, too.

She married, moved to Tucson, and started a family. Vali and her husband, Jon, ran a local jewelry business for 20 years. She later opened Ship and Mail Xpress on West Grant Road.

So imagine her surprise when the writing bug returned 10 years ago.

“I’ve always liked to write,” she explained. “Even after I stopped, I always had stories running around in my head. When I retired, I realized some of them wanted to get out.”

If we might cut to the chase here, one of those stories did get out. It came to be called “Blood and Silver” and is now available online from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The book was self-published two years ago through Tellwell Talent in Victoria, BC

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Self-published literature is booming now — half of all titles released in the US last year were self-published — and every author has a back-story to tell. Benson’s goes like this:

“I don’t know when it started, exactly, but every now and then I’d read a book and think, ‘I could do that,’ she said. “Six or seven years ago, I figured it was time to find out if I really could. I signed up for an online writing course. I submitted some samples and got feedback. I was mostly self-taught, for sure.”

Benson heard that writers should focus on what they know; things in their own backyard.

“At the time, one of the stories in my head was about life in old Tombstone,” she recalled. “So I decided to start there.”

Tourists today think of Tombstone as if it’s a movie set, but Benson had met residents whose parents and grandparents were there in the 1880s.

“It was a big, booming, vibrant place,” Benson said. “We’ve all read about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, but I wanted to know what life was like for the women and children.”

She read. She researched. She scoured old newspapers. In 2018, she began writing her story down with a pencil and pad. It featured a 12-year-old girl who befriended China Mary’s daughter, and ultimately approached Mary to help with … let’s say a family matter. OK, the girl’s mom worked in a brothel.

“I wanted to write fiction,” Benson said, “Since my story would be about a young girl, I decided to write it for young adults. China Mary was a real person. Some of the things I write about actually happened. So the book became historical fiction for teenagers.”

She was surprised to learn that at some point the book began writing itself.

“Once I really got into the story and inside the heads of the characters, they told me what was going on,” Benson confessed. “I didn’t see that coming.”

Her son Robert transcribed the hand-written narrative onto a computer and became Benson’s editor.

By November 2019, they had a fully-edited, ready-for-review draft. Now what?

“That’s what I said,” Benson recalled. “I never thought Simon and Schuster would come knocking on my door. I knew I’d have to publish it myself, but I had no idea where to start.”

Asking that question online ultimately led her to Tellwell, and a $5,000 package of services that would turn Benson’s Word file into a volume that might go beside Fredrik Bachman in your family room bookcase.

Tellwell provided a professional edit, a cover, interior design and a registered ISBN. The company built a digital version that is now available for Kindle and Nook. It established a print-to-order portal both for paperbacks and hardbacks.

“It was a lot of work and a lot of money, but it’s hard to describe the feeling I had when I saw the first completed copy of my very own book,” Benson said. “It was amazing.”

“Blood and Silver” won several awards, including the Arizona Authors Association’s Best in Fiction prize in 2021, but it was not blessed with good timing.

It released April 4, 2020, just as Americans began locking down because of COVID. Bookstores were closed. Schools and libraries were functioning only online. Sales were hard to come by, but the author was not dissuaded.

“People are asking me what happened to Mary? What happens to the girls? I think we may need a sequel,” Benson said with a smile.


• Tombstone was founded in 1877, shortly after silver was discovered nearby. By 1885, it was the third-largest town in the Arizona Territory. It had 15,000 residents, four churches, three newspapers, two banks, a bowling alley, an ice cream parlor and 100 saloons lining Allen Street.

• Sing Choy, who was known as China Mary, was one of 200 Chinese who lived at the south end of town. She controlled the opium trade and directed an employment service that provided workers to various businesses in town. She was the best-known and easily remembered woman in Tombstone and is buried on Boot Hill.

• Changing the subject entirely and moving 24 miles up the road to Benson, the Singing Wind Bookstore is still open. Shoppers may browse by making an appointment. Singing Wind has plenty of books about Tombstone and hundreds of other places in the American Southwest. To set up a time to visit, call 1-520-586-2425.


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