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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Writing a Western - Part One the setting

Welcome to a short series of articles looking at writing a western. I don't claim that these ideas will work for everyone but this is how I do it. Over the series I will look at characters, plot and pretty much everything else, but in the first instance I wish to talk about that all important western setting.

I'm not sure how important location is to a western - I mean of course it matters but the beauty of the western is that everyone holds a mental idea how it looked, a billion squillion western movies have imprinted an image of the Wild West on our minds - a generic Wild West if you like. And so the writer has no need for elaborate descriptions and can instead get on with the job of telling the story. And it is story that is the most important part of any western -  Spinning a yarn and making sure it is good.

The town of Squaw was named after an old Indian legend in which the arid land was made fertile by the tears of a squaw weeping for her lover slain in glorious battle. Once the area had been desert but the discovery, and eventual re-excavation by an aging cattleman named Sam James, of a prehistoric canal system built by a long forgotten Indian tribe had created a fertile wonder in the middle of a once barren landscape.  The water originated from deep within the bowels of the Squaw Caves and seemed never ending. Some said the squaw was still there, far beneath the ground, weeping for all eternity.
The above comes from my first novel, The Tarnished Star, which still holds the record as my publishers fastest selling western in history, selling out of its initial print run on pre-orders alone. And Robert Hale have been in the business of publishing westerns since 1936.  Of course this was nothing to do with the quality of the book as no one had read it by this point, but more the fury of my marketing. I targeted my audience and then started a blog, this very blog, and pushed out information that I knew would interest western readers. The blog has been a huge success and to date has had more than half a million page views. But that's straying from the point, plus I'll be talking about this in the article on promotion, but I feel it is important to acknowledge the amount of work that goes into the blog which is, when all is said and done, a way to reach an audience.

But back to the point - the brief extract from The Tarnished Star holds very little actual description of the landscape but instead weaves out a legend, totally fabricated by the fiction writers mind, that does two things. Firstly it gives an image of this arid landscape and secondly it drags the reader into the mythical world of the Wild West. Take a look below at the opening sentences from my second Black Horse Western, Arkansas Smith.

Arkansas Smith carefully guided the sorrel down the steep incline that led into the valley. His heart was hammering in his chest and he wanted to spur the horse forward but it was too dangerous and he had to lean back in the saddle. Carefully, with each step, he took his time for both his own and the horse’s safety.
            Below, perfectly positioned besides the stream that snaked around the valley, the small cabin looked deserted, its door hanging on rawhide hinges and blowing in the evening breeze, the windows smashed. Outside fences had been torn down and whatever cattle the enclosures had contained had been run off or stolen.

Again it is action that drives the story forward and the reader is left to conjure up their own images of the western setting. So I think the actual setting is of vast importance but can be summed up in a few words rather than reams of text which will only serve to slow things down. For instance the following is the opening to Larry McMurtry's western epic, Lonesome Dove.

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake - not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it came across the pigs. They were having a fine tug of war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck and the shoat had the tail.

From just these few lines we envision a dusty and hot landscape. We know this from the rattlesnake and the fact that it had been searching for a shady spot. Now McMurtry is a genius and a far better writer than I will ever be, but the principle of the sentence is to get the story moving and to introduce the reader to the setting. That's not to say research into the setting of your novel is not important because it is - it is vital to know for instance how to get from A to B and what kind of flora and fauna will be encountered along the way. The writer must know these things but most of the research will not go into the novel but serve to allow the writer to believe in what he/ she is writing. If the author doesn't believe in his/her work then the reader certainly wont.

The following comes from my novel, The Ballad of Delta Rose and although it is a descriptive passage we are still very much in a  generic Wild West with the imagination of the reader painting the picture.

. He was up and about in time to watch the show as the sky transformed from the inky blackness of night to the purple patchwork of dawn, and then onto the brilliant blue of day. In the distance Delta heard the gentle cry of a hawk as it searched for a morning meal. It was a sight that only a man living on borrowed time could truly appreciate. With death peering over a man’s shoulder, its icy breath felt on the back of a man’s neck, everything was enhanced. The cobalt sky was saturated and the landscape vividly exaggerated. The sun, now rising in the sky, looked as if a child’s hand, smiley face and all, had painted it there.

It could be anywhere and look like any one of the landscapes in any one of a hundred or more western movies. I also think there's a certain surreal quality to the paragraph but then Delta Rose is often a surreal western and so it is apropos.

 And so if you're thinking of writing a western then don't worry too much if you've never visited those western settings - George G. Gilman wrote most of his bestselling Edge westerns before ever visiting the United States. And indeed my own knowledge of the western landscapes come largely from the movies I've seen and the books I've read. And that is important - watch and read as many westerns as you can for only by familiarity with the genre can you hope to understand how it works.

Next: Characters

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