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Thursday, 23 September 2010

Want to write a western?

Solstice Publishing are still actively seeking western novels for their new western list - I, along with several others,  have the honour of serving as editors for the new line - a line we are determined to see grow into a trusted source of quality western fiction. At the end of this brief article I'll tell you how submit your work for consideration, but for now let's talk a little about the western genre!

Firstly, what is genre?

Colourful adventure is promised by this illustration
Genre is a means by which the reader brings a foreknowledge to a story, a preconceived idea of plots, themes and structure. It is the writer's job to work within the confines of the genre but at the same time create something new from the old conventions. It is no use to ignore the rules of genre all together, for to do so is to cheat the reader who parts with their money in the expectation of experiencing an enjoyable story with all the elements they have come to know and love. Of course even the above rule can be stretched and western fiction can, and often does, contain horror or science fiction elements but for the purpose of this piece I will concentrate on the traditional western.

The western is usually, though not always, set in the time period following the Civil War and up to the early 1890's - however many great westerns are set both before and after this timeline, but as a general rule the western should be set between 1865 and 1900.

The hero or indeed heroine of the story should be someone the reader can identify with and the trials faced by he or she should propel the story forward in a logical and exciting way. Of course the hero doesn't have to be of the clean cut, square jawed variety - think of the anti-hero but even the most despicable of characters must have some redeeming features and an understandable reason to do what he/she does.
All kinds of stories can be told within the western genre - it is fluid enough to carry any kind of tale. Indeed the entire human experience can be explored within the genre. There are murder mysteries set on the plains, tender romances played out in the saloons and mining camps. There are tales of honest men taking on the corruption of big corporations or dishonest men being brought to justice by the courage of individuals.

Anyone wanting to write in the genre must first and foremost read within the genre. Pick up a western and read it firstly for the enjoyment of the story but then flip it back over and read it again, this time paying attention to how it is plotted. Pay particular attention to how the main character is developed throughout the story, Does the writer present big chunks of characterisation? Or is the character developed through actions and events? There is no right or wrong way but the main character must be credible and remain of consistent character throughout.

Farmers, cowboys, cavalrymen, miners, Indian fighters, gamblers, outlaws, railroad builders, frontier women - all have a part to play in the western experience and the very best fiction can tell us a little about ourselves and indeed about our society today.

Some notable westerns that anyone wanting to write western fiction must read:

Lonesome Dove by Larry Mcmurtry - this is truly epic storytelling on a grand scale. Though it is the superbly drawn characters that make this novel live and breathe. It is also worth watching the excellent television mini-series made from the book.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey - this is in the public domain and can be obtained free from Project Guttenberg. Lassiter, the hero, is a chief strand of the DNA of every western character that has come since.

The Virginian by Owen Wister - Written in 1902 this book, more than any other, defined the western genre. Public Domain copies are also available of this title but the Oxford Library edition contains an essential essay by Robert Shulman that should be read by any would be western writers.

The Searchers by Alan LeMay - I'm including this because I read for the first time recently and as well as being a great story the author provides a master-class in creating the anti-hero with Amos Edwards.

Six Bits a Day by Elmer Kelton - pretty much anything by Kelton is essential but this sequel to The Good Old Boys provides a thrilling look at the cowboy lifestyle.

Hondo by Louis Lamour - as with Kelton, it is worth studying any of Lamour's westerns but this one offers a good example of the mysterious loner. The movie's pretty damn good too.

Edge: The Loner by George G. Gilman - to my mind the best of the adult westerns. Any of the Edge novels are worth studying as examples of the more extreme westerns but The Loner is where it all started and it's currently available as a spanking new eBook from Solstice Publishing.

Shameless self promotion
Arkansas Smith by Jack Martin - OK, I wrote this one but I make no apologies for throwing it into this list. I think it's a damn good western and by tossing it in here I may get another sale.

So if you still think you've got what it takes to take on the genre that truly is too tough to die then get writing and email us your work as a WORD or RTF file Ideal wordage is between 40,000 - 90,000 words but we will consider work that is longer if the story merits such length. Double spacing will make your work easier to read and is most desirable.

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