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…