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July 30, 2006


Big Red

As the fellow who *wrote* the book, I figure I oughta weigh in on this, too.

I just wrote down what happened. Folks said what they said.

But then again, I did do a little of what you might call sanitizing. Cowboys talk as salty as sailors, so there's cussing aplenty in the book. But I didn't -- nay, *couldn't* -- include every profanity I heard while at the Bar VR. If you've seen "Deadwood," you know what I'm talking about. There's cursing, and then there's CURSING.

So I suppose I could've danced around what you moderners call "the 'n' word." And maybe I should've. I don't know.

By the way, you won't find "the 'n' word" in the next book. But there is an important Chinese character in it, and some not-very-admirable folks use the "c" word -- "ch--k" -- when talking about him. So I guess I can look forward to more complaints after that one comes out. Damn.

How about if I invite all y'all to start calling me "the kraut" instead of "Big Red" from now on? I know it can't even come close to evening things out, but at least maybe it'll show I've got my heart in the right place....

-Otto "The Kraut" Amlingmeyer
a.k.a. Big Red

John "The Wop" Schramm

Red, I know Schramm is a German surname. Our original family name was Demaio.

I've alwasy been nervous about using "N: in any fiction for just the reason you mention here. Though I can understand the libraians feelings here, I have to come in on the side of the author(s).

As Stephen King, and many other gurus of fiction, say: "The number one rule in fiction is to tell the truth."

To do any different is just ... wrong.

As for me, I watched the first two Godfather movies and I wasn't insulted one iota for all the Italian slurs (guinea, wop, dago, greasy olive oil bastard) I heard.

Steve "The Wasp" Hockensmith

Interesting that you bring up The Godfather, T.W. I was going to mention Blazing Saddles, which Big Red wrote about a few months ago. The "n" word isn't just sprinkled throughout that movie: It's shoveled on in great, heaping mounds. But since Blazing Saddles is largely *about* racism -- and making racists look like idiots -- I always figured that was O.K. (It also helped that Richard Pryor was one of the screenwriters.) But now this discussion has got me wondering. It's obvious some people would take offense, big time. But I don't know -- is offending a few people such a bad thing as long as you do it for what is (in your mind anyway) a good reason?

One thing's for sure, anyway: Our librarian friend should *not* watch that movie! The poor woman would be scarred for life.

-The Wasp

The Wop

When it comes to offending people, I think people need to consider intent. I believe that your intent was not to offend anyone, and the librarian should see that.

You might want to check out Keith Snyder's blog for another side of this "issue." I also posted there guiding folks to your site.


The Cracker

Thanks for the free plug on Keith's site, T.W.! And I did check out what he had to say about the "tar baby" mess. I agree with his take on it, for the most part.

Is Mitt Romney a racist for using the term "tar baby" to describe a sticky situation? Of course not. But was his choice of words unwise and unfortunate? Of course.

As you point out above, T.W., sometimes people have to take intent into account...and lighten the hell up.


The Cracker

On second thought, let me retract the phrase "lighten the hell up." I always hate it when reactionaries counter a legitimate criticism with, "Awwww, lighten up." It implies that that if *they* don't care about something, no one else should either.

So here's my rephrasing: "As you point out above, T.W., sometimes people have to take intent into account...and go out and buy a copy of Holmes on the Range at their nearest independent bookstore."


Cap'n Bob

Steve, As another satisfied reader of HOTR (and your many short stories), I'd like to say that you were perfectly right to reflect the language and attitude of the times. To tiptoe around it would have been dishonest. I have no truck with those who would attempt to censor histoical facts. As long as you aren't advocating racial slurs, you're on solid ground.
I'm reminded of what happened to plastic model kits in the 1970s. Nazi planes, tanks, etc, suddenly lost their swastikas on the cover art/photos, and the decal sheets omitted them lest they offend someone. Modelers were aghast. How can you build an accurate Stuka without the swastika? Just another example of the cultural bullying that goes on in the world of the sensitive p.c. crowd.

Steve Hockensmith

Thanks for the back-up, Cap'n! That thing with the model airplanes is bizarre. If someone objects to accurate models of World War II aircraft...well, they shouldn't buy the things. End of story.

Some folks definitely have a hard time differentiating between art that *acknowledges* objectionable things and art that *endorses* objectionable things. There's a huge difference between "Triumph of the Will" and "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," just like there's a huge difference between a Skrewdriver album and a model Stuka.

If we can't tell the difference between a depiction of evil and a celebration of it, we're in big trouble.


Brian Thornton

I recommend that the lady who was offended by the use of the "N" word in "Holmes on the Range" refrain from reading Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," because the original British title of that classic bit of mystery writing was none other than "Ten Little N*gg*rs."

I hate that word, but I'd rather see it used in context, as Steve does in his novel, than avoided entirely. Are hip-hop songs and youth street slang conversations the only places where we're supposed to hear this word these days?

And by the way, this is conversation that people who are currently teen-aged won't have when they're in their 30s and 40s. Why? Because the word has become mainstream for them. In class the other day, I heard a couple of my students (both 13) talking, and one of them referred to the other as "My n*gg*r." The student in question was Asian, and the student to whom he was referring was white.

I wonder what your librarian friend would make of that?

Susan Krzywicki

This is difficult. I am sure as an author, you were trying to be straightforward. I am reading the books, now, in 2017, and it just isn't working that well. I feel like it is encouraging people to positions that are way off your intent to be true. It will simply encourage people of less upstanding views to start using this as justification. The word is fraught, and we can see this in our past week's news.

In the days past, authors used to use the familiar form of XX______ to indicate a term or a date or the name of a person that they did not wish to insert. I think this still works.

Judging by the subject material and the "handles" of your posters, maybe my view is not in alignment because I am female. And sensitive. And desirous of seeing a society that encourages the best in all of us. Using this term, I am afraid, allows those with less-than-loving aims to feel justified. They do not use differentiation or subtlety when they say, "Well, HE used that term." They don't see that you have put those words in the mouths of the people who do not reflect what is best in us.

And, I notice that most of your respondents are basically saying, if I may paraphrase, "Don't be such a crybaby." I don't think that is what you want to encourage, is it? I hope it is the opposite of what I think you want, which is: to shine a light on our past, to offer some entertainment in a positive way and to show that discernment and education are such fabulous gifts!


Thanks for your comments, Susan. It is interesting to return to this question a decade later. A lot has changed since then...mostly, alas, for the worse.

My thinking on the use of *that word* in "Holmes on the Range" has shifted: If I could take it out now, I would. When people try to ban "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" because they don't like what those books depict, I think they're misguided and myopic. But "Holmes on the Range" ain't "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's supposed to be a fun mystery/Western romp that anyone can enjoy. *That word* isn't needed.

I'll have to face this question again eventually, though. For years I've been thinking about a Big Red/Old Red story that would overtly address racism against African Americans in the Old West. Several of the characters would be racists of the most virulent and violent kind. Would it be possible to write that story without a character using *that word*, which was once thrown around so casually in everyday American speech? It would be a stretch. I'm not particularly fond of the "n*****" solution, but perhaps that's the approach I'll have to take. We'll see. I think it would be a shame to decide that I can't write the story at all because there's no way to depict the harsh reality of the past without being misinterpreted in the present.

Susan Krzywicki

If you seriously want to take action on this, don't look to me - a white woman - for much deep perspective beyond this simple comment. I think that you need to delve straight into it and talk this out - deeply - with people of color who can help you work through it, right?

Our perspectives are still going to be a bit off and even if you are sincere, which I don't doubt, it is still easy to be what people are now calling "tone deaf".

I wanted to weigh in because I am now on your third novel and it has been a bit harrowing.

I think your good buddies (of whom I hope there are people of color and of different genders and whatevers) will listen to your ideas and help you get to the best possible place on this.


I have discussed this with both African Americans and Asian Americans. (If you're on my third book, you know that racism against Chinese immigrants is a major theme of "The Black Dove.") No one has objected to the way I've used historically accurate language. It was a small sample size, to be sure, but then again this is an exceedingly small part of the books (except, as noted above, in "The Black Dove").

I could have avoided all this by doing what most Westerns have done: pretended that people of color weren't an important part of the wave of newcomers (some would say "invaders") who moved into the North American West in the late 19th century. (Good luck finding an African American on "Gunsmoke.") Instead I chose to depict the West in my books as diverse. I also chose to have the attitudes of most of the characters be more or less true to the times. (My heroes are an exception: They are, if anything, unrealistically open minded. But even that I've tried to justify through back story.)

It's possible to write historical fiction that offers a prettified, simplified vision of the past that allows modern readers to avoid unpleasant truths about what we used to be (and what we still are). The "Holmes on the Range" books being genre entertainment, some writers would probably have gone that way. It's all about the fun, right? Why bring in the messy stuff? Yet I chose to present something closer to reality: a world in which certain groups of people were treated badly, were limited in their options, and were described using words we today find objectionable. You find this "harrowing." I'm sorry. But what I was striving for, at least in those first five books, was something in the neighborhood of "accurate."


I'll be going to Facebook and Twitter this morning to ask for more viewpoints on this. Maybe I will indeed discover that I've been tone deaf on this matter. We shall see....


In general I'm with you on this one, Steve. I don't enjoy reading racial slurs, let along writing them. I also don't think it does any good to prettify things, or write the characters as modern people in funny clothes, or avoid the subject entirely. How that translates to the experience of a non-white reader, I'm not qualified to say, except to hope that we could agree that you can't fight racism without confronting it.


Well put. There was a lively discussion of this over on Facebook, and at some point someone said, "I don't remember the n word being in 'Holmes on the Range' at all. Where was it?" As I described my recollection of it -- it's used once or perhaps twice by a thick-headed, do-nothing sheriff when he comes to look into the killing of an African American ranch hand -- I remembered why it's there in the first place. Because the sheriff is a racist butthead, he's not interested in investigating the murder. This forces my heroes to take matters into their own hands. So it (A) shows how racism pervaded society and could pervert the course of justice and (B) gave my heroes a challenge to overcome and more motivation to forge ahead. In short, it served a purpose and was a clear indictment of racist thinking. Could I have done that without using the n word? Yes, and I'll still consider removing it when I control the book again. But I'm not so sure where I land on this issue now -- except that I'll continue to tread carefully when it comes up.

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