Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reading (and writing) Westerns

About six months ago, I decided that my next novel would, by necessity, be a Western. I’d never really had an itch before to experiment in that genre, but as the ideas and characters for it took form in my mind, I began to realize that it would only work as a Western.

I’d long been a fan of Western films, but when it came to reading Western fiction I was a total novice. If I was going to write one, I felt, I’d better damn sure make certain that I understood the genre better. And so, like a settler setting out on the long dangerous trail through Indian Territory, I saddled up and started off.

Here’s what I found along the way.

I read about eight or ten non-fiction books on the subject, the best of them being Dee Brown’s terrific and informative THE AMERICAN WEST. I highly recommend this book: it serves as a terrific launching point for further reading and gives you a clear understanding of chronology and themes that were central to the Western experience, from the perspectives of whites and Indians alike. And it was an absolute joy to read.

Exploring fiction, I read about 60 books total, from about 25 different writers, in that six month period. Here’s a round-up of the best of them—

Elmore Leonard. He’s a good place to start for the modern reader. Try VALDEZ IS COMING or THE LAW AT RANDADO.

Lewis B. Patten. His book DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER came recommended by Cullen Gallagher and Mike Dennis, two fellas who know what they’re talking about. And they were right.

Elmer Kelton. AFTER THE BUGLES and TEXAS VENDETTA were tightly written and compulsively readable.

Luke Short. VENGEANCE VALLEY knocked my socks off, and GUNMAN’S CHANCE was just as good.

James Reasoner. THE HUNTED and THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY were my introductions to Reasoner, who quickly became one of my favorites. Simply one of the best writers around in any genre.

Ed Gorman. Again, thanks to Cullen Gallagher. He sent me Gorman’s novel DEATH GROUND, a bit of hardboiled Western bravado that proved Gorman can do anything.

Loren Estleman. BLACK POWDER, WHITE SMOKE and THE BOOK OF MURDOCK are tight and fast Westerns that move as relentlessly as a steam engine.

…and a few things you should know:

I’ve never been a big fan of Robert Parker’s detective novels about Spencer, but at a friend’s recommendation I read APPALOOSA and was pleasantly surprised.

Edward A. Grainger’s two story collections about Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles were terrific, fast-paced actioners with heart and conscience.

SMONK, by Tom Franklin, was by no means a traditional Western, but I can’t remember the last time I had such bloody disgusting fun with a novel.

And—listen now, because this is important—if you haven’t read TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis yet, stop reading this and go get a copy and do it. Honestly, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.

And a bit of an addendum: Robert E. Howard's Western story collection, END OF THE TRAIL, is flat-out must-reading.

So the Western novel I started writing has taken a backseat in the meantime while I finish up some other projects. But I WILL get back to it within the next month or so, and it will be informed by a closer knowledge of the genre—which can only help.

In the meantime, I wrote my first straight Western short story a couple months ago, called “Blood Relations”. It appeared at Crime Factory.

That Damned Coyote Hill” was a weird Western featuring a vengeful gunman called Hawthorne, up against bizarre creatures in the remote Arizona desert. There are more Hawthorne stories coming.

And, most recently, I wrote “Miles to Little Ridge”, a longish short story featuring Edward A. Grainger’s character Gideon Miles.

Am I forsaking crime fiction/noir/hardboiled? No, not at all. It’s just that circumstances have led to me putting on the Stetson and mounting up for a while. And I’ve found that writing crime fiction and writing Westerns (weird or otherwise) are not much different. It’s the exact same approach.

Except that Westerns require a bit more research…


  1. Hey man, that's cool. You're experimenting with the pulp aesthetic. Looking forward to read MILES TO LITTLE RIDGE

  2. Man, talk about being in good company! All the other writers on your list are favorites of mine, and I'm honored to be in there with them. I love the Western because it'll accommodate any kind of story from farce to tragedy, but I do tend to the more hardboiled side of the genre, in both writing and reading.

  3. I've read a lot of Patten, Gorman, and Reasoner. Dee Brown also wrote the awesome, "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee," which is an amazing nonfiction western that one needs if you're going to include native Americans in your work. I have your "Miles" work and will start it today.

  4. Enjoyed this, especially after reading MILES TO LITTLE RIDGE. That story is nicely constructed. I noticed how you got a lot of its effect by threading two different storylines together and having them converge in the last section.

    I've been reading early westerns to get a sense of how the genre actually evolved, before reading deeply into the canon you mention above. They've been instructive in another way. And I recommend it, too.

  5. James, THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY was the second or third Western I read, and kept me going after the disappointment of Max Brand (sorry, Brand fans). And you probably noticed I stole the name Hawthorne...
    Charles, I read Bury My Heart years ago for a class and loved it. Brown deals with even bigger themes in American West, believe it or not.
    Ron, I'm so glad you liked Miles to Little Ridge. I'm a big fan of the "wild card" element in fiction, and that's what The Swede and Christian were.

  6. Max Brand is almost a genre unto himself. I like most of his work but certainly can understand why some people don't.

    By the way, if you haven't read REH's "The Vultures of Whapeton" and "Wild Water" yet, I highly recommend them. I don't recall if they're in END OF THE TRAIL.

  7. I very much recommend reading Ernest Haycox and the westerns of Donald Hamilton if you haven't already.

  8. I'll check them out, Yankee, thanks for the recs!

  9. Hi! Stumbled upon this blog while researching for my own 'western' novel that I am writing. Found this very useful. I plan to check out Dee Brown's book. I have also been reading lots of Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey.


  10. I love Max Brand, and there were only 2 novels of his that I found disappointing, the rest are fantastic. I also liked the character "Sudden" written by Oliver Strange, the 'Lone Star Ranger' by Zane Grey deserves a mention too for a look at the life of an outlaw. I love to write novels too (mostly fantasy though). The first three books I ever wrote were westerns though, and they still occupy my computer after over 20 years. I'd like to share them, is there any place for full-length western novels from unknown nobodies. I'd hate to have them die with me because they're not bad and someone out there might enjoy it. If anyone out there can suggest something, I'd appreciate it. I remember a T-shirt I saw on the back of a beggar that said "nobody is perfect -- I am nobody." It tickled me, so if you reply please refer to me as "nobody."