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Sunday, 20 February 2011

Thoughts on writing a western

The following article is reworked from a piece I wrote for the Archive back in 2009.

"One of the most vapid and infantile forms of art ever conceived by the brain of a Hollywood film producer." ...Dwight Macdonald, The Miscellany 1929

"The western remains, I suppose, America's distinctive contribution to the film."...Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Show April 1963

Geographically and historically the concept of "The West" is very loosely defined, when associated with the literary and film genre of the western. With the possible exception of the Eastern Seaboard almost every part of the USA had been called "The West" at some stage in the country's history.

The federal government defines "The West" as including the following states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada,New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. But from the movies and books both Kansas and Nebraska can be added. And maybe Hawaii and Washington should be removed. The West of popular imagination usually contains those areas associated with the final frontiers of American settlement - anything West of the Mississippi River. An area associated with cowboys, Indians, outlaws and lone lawmen.

Amongst the earliest western literature with artistic merit were the works of James Fennimore Cooper, his most famous works being 1826's Last of the Mohicans - though by the true definition of the genre none of the author's works are strictly westerns. The books were set in colonial America and featured the British rule and true westerns are set in independent America.

EZC Judson, writing under the pen name Ned Buntline was an early writer of traditional westerns. He earned himself the nickname of, 'Father of the Dime Novel' and turned Buffalo Bill into a figure of mythic proportions. However the first western with the classic ingredients was Owen Wister's The Virginian in 1902, which largely invented the guidelines that western writers still follow today.

The names Louis L'amour and Zane Grey have dominated the genre for many years and still do to some extent. But an early European champion of the genre was Karl May with his popular Shatterhand books. He wrote over 60 books but Shatterhand is his most famous character. Indeed Shatterhand was revived by B.J. Holmes in a series of books for the successful UK western house, Black Horse Westerns.

The cinema has always had a love affair with the western and during the silent era there were many hundreds of westerns made. Most of these have been lost to history but there are still some prime examples of early westerns to be sought out by fans.

Some of the most important silent westerns that still exist and can be found on DVD or in many cases for free download from include: The Iron Horse (1924) directed by John Ford
The Covered Wagon (1923) directed by James Cruze
Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914) directed by D W Griffith

In cinematic terms there is little doubt that the Golden Age of the western took place between the years 1940 - 1970. There were many classics before and since but during these years there was never a time when most major studios didn't have at least one western in production.

During the Fifties and Sixties in particular the western also dominated the small screen with many western TV series being aired. Among the most well known are:
The Big Country
The Virginian
The Rifleman
Have Gun will Travel
Wyatt Earp
Wanted Dead or Alive

The modern era has also seen many classics of the genre, both on the screen and between the covers - Lonesome Dove, Sons of Texas, Blood Meridian, Tombstone, The Unforgiven to name but a few.

The Western truly is THE GENRE TOO TOUGH TO DIE. Kevin Costner is working on a new western, there are remakes in the works of both  Butch and Sundance and The Big Valley. American greats like Dusty Richards and Larry McMurtry continue to write quality western works. And America can also lay claim to Corman McCarthy who may not write western in the tarditional sense, certainly carries the spirit of the western in his work. British western house, Black Horse Westerns are continuing to bring out new western fiction written by writers from all over the world. Among these you will find such loved writers as Lance Howard, B. J. Holmes, Ben Bridges, Jack Giles,Nik Morton, Mathew P. Mayo, Chap O'Keefe and Jim Lawless - And that's not to mention old Jack Martin but I'm too modest to name him; self publicising hack that he is.This is just a small selection of the writers producing all new traditional westerns under The Black Horse banner. To list them all would take up a post in itself. And I may try that one day.

The western provides a form of escapism, a comfort zone that is becoming more and more important in the frantic world we live in today. There is an endearing quality in taking the imaginative leap to a time long gone and finding that the issues facing people were remarkably similar to those we face on a daily basis, it is inspiring to read about people facing up to life's trials and tribulations and standing resolute against anything thrown at them.

The western as a literary genre had its golden age sometime around the middle of the last century and indeed the writers of that period are still widely read today - L'amour, Zane Grey. But to find the roots of the genre you have to travel further back, much further - in fact to the Old West itself when hack writers were mythologising the West even as it was going on around them.

And we continue to mythologise the West and we will forever more. I like to think that in my own small way I have added to the myth of the West with my own novels, and maybe I've learned something since Tarnished Star was first published back in 2009 and maybe some of my tips listed below will prove useful to anyone wanting to write a western.

SO WHERE DO I START ? Research is very important in the westerns. You must get the details right, particularly with guns and location. I've often been enjoying a book and then I notice some mistake the writer has made and it drags me out of the story. Even minor mistakes can ruin a story. However the aspiring western writer should take heart in the fact that mostly everyone knows what the west would have looked like. This makes the writers' job that much easier and with the advent of the internet any required information is usually only a few key-strokes away.

THE ACTUAL WRITING. There is no one way to do this. Some writers like to rush through the first draft and then take care of structure, style and plot problems in the re-write. Others are more cautious and will plod along, revising as they go and when that first draft comes out it needs very little tweaking. I hop between both camps but I do like to keep the story moving along, to give it pace and I actually look forward to the revising once the first draft is complete. For me the first draft is a necessary evil and getting it out of the way is all important.

CHARACTERS. It is good characterisation that can turn a good story into a great one. Try and put yourself in your characters mindset and think what you would do in a given situation, however it is important to put modern inhibitions aside. You would have been a very different person had you been alive in the 1880's. Perhaps the single most helpful piece of advice for creating characters is READ, READ AND READ. Only by studying the work of writers you admire can you ever hope to understand the process involved in creating realistic people to populate what is after all an outlandish fictional landscape.

STOP PROCRASTINATING AND GET DOWN TO IT. The biggest thing is to stop talking about it and get on with it, as difficult as it can be to find time in our hectic lives it is important to be stubborn and get down to the actual writing. You must make time - no matter what- or your creation will always be a pipe dream. Remember it is no different writing a western to any other form of genre fiction and the tools used will always be the same. Behind every successful (define successful as professionally published)writer is a person who was pig headed enough to get on with writing no matter what was going on around them.

THE BEST ADVICE. And here it is, the best advice anyone can give someone wanting to write for a living, anyone wanting to hone their craft and create readable prose. It's nothing mythical. no arcane knowledge belonging to a select few. It is this - READ. Read everything you can get your hands on, devour every western that comes your way. Pay attention to the accepted masters of the genre and read classic as well as modern westerns. Look at what contemporary authors are doing with the genre. Just because the lone gunfighter is becoming a cliché doesn't mean you should forsake him or even her as the case may be. There are certain conventions the western fan demands and only by being familiar to the genre can the writer hope to recognise what these are.

So get writing, you've an arduous trail ahead of you but with stamina and a self belief as wide as the prairies you can do it.

My third western novel, The Ballad of Delta Rose will be published this coming July by Black Horse Westerns is available for pre-order now - CLICK HERE. Pre-ordering is the best way to ensure your copy and no monies will be deducted from accounts until the book is ready to be shipped.

The large print, trade paperback of my first western, The Tarnished Star will be published next month and is also available for pre-order - Click Here


Davieboy said...

I'm a great lover of Westerns, and I think I somehow get my fix in these days of cowboy-less TV and movies by listening to certain musical artists.
My current faves are the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Ryan Bingham, John Fogerty, the late Johnny Cash & Hank Williams etc. They could all have been cowboys (in fact Ryan Bingham was a rodeo-rider).
The clear link can be seen in movies such as last year's Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges - also Robert Duvall's "Tender Mercies". Do you have any thoughts on this?

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

And add Willie Nelson to your list - I think a lot of these singers reflect the western spirit. I see what you mean about Crazy Heart -a great movie. And although he's not really a singer Clint Eastwood's much underrated Honkeytonk Man is something you might enjoy. The down on his luck singer Eastwood portrays is ever but the cowboy. I think the thing with most of the singers you named is that they were all individual and didn't follow the Nashville trend of schmaltz. It's an interesting subject for a future post - oh and Johnny Cash wasn't only all western but he was the bad guy given voice. A true outlaw

Davieboy said...

Amen to Wilie Nelson & I'll raise you a Kris Kristoffersson. Looking forward to the article.
And here's another starter fotr 10 - what do you do in your day-to-day life to honoiur Western culture.? Me, I wear my Indian-head nickel belt (flip side is a buffalo head, as bought in Wyoming). I wear it rain & shine, at work and at home, coz I'm a cowboy right? Also sometimes wear my Marshall's badge, but only when I'm really feelin' 'onery.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I guess I just live and breathe the western spirit. Mind you I do wear the hat from time to time and I darn wish I had a Colt.

old guy rambling said...

And add Chris LeDoux to the list of cowboy singers—being a Wyoming guy I might be prejudice. On your list of states I would add South Dakota. I really enjoyed this post, good stuff.
Right now I am reading Owen Wister's Lin McClain --fun read.

old guy rambling said...

Or that would be Lin McLean --sorry.