I've always had a soft spot for Westerns, but for a while there, they scared me. I hate to admit it, but when the Holmes on the Range series kicked off six years ago, I didn't want to be seen as a Western writer. I hate to admit it because (A) it was cowardly and (B) it was dumb.
Westerns haven't been hip or hot since the Johnson administration, yes. The genre's been declared dead more times than Jason Voorhees, yes. The Holmes on the Range books are mysteries first and foremost, yes. But most of them are Westerns, too, and it was silly -- and ultimately pointless -- to pretend otherwise.
(Essay for another day: I also didn't want to be seen as a writer of Sherlockian pastiches. Silly2 x pointless3 = ridiculous unto infinity.)
I'm over it now. You can call my Holmes on the Range stories Westerns, call them pastiches, even call them Wild Wild West slash fanfic for all I care. Just don't call them late for dinner. By which I mean, please read the darned things.
(Actually, I take that back. Don't call them Wild Wild West slash fanfic. I shouldn't have even thrown it out there as a joke. Oy, the Google searches that are going to start bringing people to this blog post.)
It took me too long to stand tall when it came to Westerns, but fortunately not everyone's as lily-livered as I. Western writers are a brave bunch, I think, because they've proudly stuck by a genre New York publishing started turning its yellow-streaked back on decades ago. Will the dawn of epublishing bring a brighter day for the Western? We'll see. In the meantime, as part of my ongoing (and extremely sporadic) series of Q&As, I asked 10 Western writers one question: Why write about the Old West? You'll find their answers below.
Oh, and if you're wondering how I picked the participants: These are friends or friends of friends. But though I only cite a few titles for each, most of them have published more Westerns and won more awards than I could easily list. So I didn't try. If you're a writer of Westerns yourself, don't feel badly that I left you out. Just drop in a comment telling us why you keep returning to those thrilling days of yesteryear....
Bill Crider, author of A Time for Hanging and Galveston Gunman: I grew up before the Old West was nearly as old as it is now, and I heard a lot of stories about it as a kid. I grew up in Limestone County, Texas, about 10 miles from Fort Parker, where Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted by the Comanches. People still talked about that, and school kids went on field trips to the restored fort. My grandmother used to tell me stories about Bigfoot Wallace. John Wesley Hardin taught school at Pisgah, where my grandfather was born, and killed a couple of men in Limestone County. I lived later on in Brown County, where Hardin shot a sheriff's deputy, an event that led to the hanging of his brother and two cousins. The big movies when I grew up were Shane, High Noon and The Searchers. How could I not want to write about the Old West? It's a part of me in too many ways to ignore.
Judy Alter, author of Cherokee Rose and Mattie: I enjoy writing about women of the Old West because they showed such spirit and courage and optimism. Their motto was "Come Spring...." They were always sure "come Spring" things would be better, and they had some great adventures along the way. And some of them were such fascinating characters -- Libbie Custer, Jessie Benton Fremont, Lucille Mulhall, Etta Place.
James Reasoner, author of Death Head Crossing, Longarm and the Pine Box Payoff (under the name Tabor Evans) and Trailsman: Seminole Showdown (under the name Jon Sharpe): I like to write about the Old West because the history of that era is so rich it will support any kind of story. Comedy, tragedy, romance, adventure, mystery...all of them are embodied in the Old West. Plus, for someone who grew up when I did, reading Westerns and watching them on TV and in the movies, the mythology of the genre is etched so deeply in my brain -- and in my heart -- that being able to contribute to it myself is very satisfying. Most of all, writing about the Old West is just plain fun for me, and I hope the readers enjoy it as well.
Richard Prosch, author of Devils Nest: It seems counterintuitive, but I think the West remains largely unexplored by Western genre fiction. For example, when I was growing up in Nebraska, less than a half hour from one of Jesse James' alleged hideaways and practically on top of the Ponca Trail of Tears, I never thought the characters in Westerns, on page or screen, acted like real people. Everybody was a type, and every scenario had been played out before. Eventually I found more verisimilitude in literary fiction or nonfiction, but in those venues you lose the sense of escape. Hey, if I want absolute authenticity, I'll visit my relatives. So there's got to be a balance, and I'm having fun exploring that,trying to find the authentic situations of my past in the history and challenges of the genre. Happily, I think fiction across the board is discovering that balance, maybe thanks to the demands of more sophisticated readers and writers, maybe thanks to more dedicated and vocal consumers period.
Ann Parker, author of the Silver Rush Mystery series: Why write about the West? The loooong answer is: As a young-un, I got hooked on TV westerns (Have Gun -- Will Travel, Rawhide, Bonanza, etc.), and, later on, The Wild Wild West (the TV show, not the movie) and spaghetti Westerns (think Man with No Name, Ennio Morricone music and lots of dusty scenery that definitely wasn't backlot Hollywood). However, even then it was clear to me that, no matter what the storyline, the guys had all the fun. What about the women? It just wasn't fair.
Fast forward any number of decades. I found out from my Denver-born-and-bred uncle that my grandmother had been raised in Leadville, Colo. My stunned response to this news: Leadville? What the heck is that? My uncle encouraged me to investigate this mining town's history, saying, "Ann, I know you've been thinking of writing a novel. I think you could write a novel set in Leadville."
Result: my historical mystery series set in 1880s Colorado, during the heyday of Leadville's Silver Rush, when folks came West to reinvent themselves and everyone was dying to get rich. (Hey! Just like today!) The books feature saloon owner Inez Stannert, a woman of uncertain moral compass. And yes, I make damn sure that Inez gets to have fun, just like the guys!
Larry D. Sweazy, author of The Coyote Tracker and The Scorpion Trail: The westward expansion is unique to America, and in my mind, that makes Westerns as unique a genre to our country as is jazz. Writing about the West offers the chance to explore stories about redemption, reinvention, justice and the pursuit of something larger than one's self. The landscape is dangerous, hostile and unwelcoming. And then there are the people, indigenous to the land, and the seekers, the pioneers, the settlers, that offer continual conflict to explore. As amazing as the West is, there are countless stories about betrayal, greed and shame that have yet to be told.
Loren D. Estleman once told me, "Genres don't die." I believe him. But like any genre there are a range of Western novels that fall below par. There are, however, other Western novels that are still being published (by living authors) that offer some of the best writing and storytelling to be found.
The possibilities of the West are endless. The scope of human stories, from romance to revenge, is without borders. The wide open spaces and the opportunities, good and bad, are the allure. That's why I write about the Old West.
Edward A. Grainger (a.k.a. David Cranmer), creator of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles Western noir series: When I was growing up, my dad watched all the old shows like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, etc. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies were always on, and it became part of my upbringing. My dad's love for the genre was passed down to me and I do my best to make him proud.
John D. Nesbitt, author of West of Rock River and Coyote Trail: I write about the Old West because it is in my blood.
I like to reduce life to its essentials of human nature and the natural setting, so I don't do much with the technical details of firearms. Most of my stories are about a main character's experience, and my characters don't think much about make and caliber and the kind of bullet or cartridge. I put myself in the character's situation. If I am going to shoot at a deer or antelope, I have some awareness that I am using my .270, but I don't think about the brand of the rifle, the nature of its magazine, the brand of the scope and so forth.
The same goes for horses. I've had a few and have ridden a few. When I saddle a horse and climb on, I don't think about its gender. I perceive its color, so I have my character do that. He saddles a bay or a sorrel or a palomino, and he swings aboard. He doesn't think about it being a gelding.
So that's it. No phones, no computers, no helicopters, no explosions or train wrecks. No encyclopedic information. Just men and women, guns and horses, prairie flowers and wildlife, with what I hope is some thought-provoking interaction. The Old West allows me to do that.
Phil Dunlap, author of the Sheriff Cotton Burke Western series: I think it was ordained from the beginning. As a youth, I felt an overwhelming compulsion for two things: flying airplanes and writing Westerns. Can't say why, but these occupied my mind from when I was old enough to walk to the movies by myself. I'd always been fascinated by the old Westerns shot amongst huge boulders with narrow dusty trails winding through them. And who could deny the excitement of outlaws holed up in mountain hideouts? The way the good guys always won the shoot-out set my moral compass firmly. However, I didn't start writing about the West until I'd actually gone to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota and Colorado. Once I saw, touched and smelled what the desert really was -- a world entirely different from where I grew up -- well, I was naturally hooked. Watching movies planted the seed, of course, but climbing the Superstitions, hiking the Sonoran desert, riding horseback through narrow canyons, coming face-to-face with a sleek coyote eyeing me amongst the cacti ultimately caused that seed to sprout and grow strong. And now I can't imagine doing anything else (with a special salute to Sky King, who tied it all together for me).
Elisabeth Grace Foley, author of The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories: It's such a rich, varied setting. You've got over half a century of time and thousands of miles of locations -- plains, mountains, forest, desert, remote towns and growing cities -- where you can put any kind of character and write any kind of story you like, with a wealth of historical incidents and details to provide inspiration. Beyond that, I think it has something to do with "romance" in the old-fashioned sense of the word -- to me there's always a flavor of novelty and adventure somewhere about the West, no matter what kind of story I'm writing.
Steve Hockensmith, author of On the Wrong Track and The Crack in the Lens: What they said.