Folks often ask if I always wanted to grow up and write books about cowboys. Nope. Not me. I never wanted to be a writer. But I did grow up on a California farm in the San Joaquin Valley and dreamed of being a cowboy. I had Roy Rogers PJs and curtains and a plastic statue of Trigger on my dresser.
However, as a lad, I only read a few western novels. My aunt and uncle had a box of dusty dime novels in a room next to their garage. I’d go to sleep reading them when I got a chance. Not much different than kids in the Old West. They had dime novels, most written by men who had never gone west. They invented many of the clichés and stereotypes that linger today. Think of them as old time supermarket tabloids and you get the picture.
But what really caught my fancy was history. I liked the nonfiction accounts of life in the Old West. I learned to grab all the University of Oklahoma and University of Nebraska titles that I could find.
After I married and started raising kids of my own, I read lots of western fiction. One birthday my mother gave me some Zane Grey stories. Then, I picked up novels by B. M. Bower, Owen Wister, Will James, Luke Short, Ernest Haycock, Elmer Kelton, Vardis Fisher and, of course, Louis L’Amour. Somewhere in the middle of the 63rd
L’Amour book, the idea struck me … I can write one of these.
By then, I had a dozen nonfiction books to my published credit, so I knew I could fill the pages. But I didn’t know if I could spin a tale people would want to read.
One summer, wife Janet, our youngest son and I camped in the Beartooth mountains, south of Red Lodge, Montana. I took along an old typewriter and wrote my first western novel, The Land Tamers. Since I had no idea if I’d have the chance to write another, I tried to pack every scene I ever imagined in that one book. An editor commented, “It moves about as fast as the movie, Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” She meant it as a critique. I took it as a compliment. At least it held all the elements of the western genre.
A traditional western differs from a prairie romance or a mountain man novel, though there’s similarities. A classic western’s an adventure story set west of the Mississippi, between the Civil War and World War I. Good triumphs over evil. The characters include a man with a horse, a gun, a life-threatening situation and strong women, who do what’s right, not because they’re forced to, but instructed by a Code written in their hearts.
As it turned out, The Land Tamers
(which was re-released in 2009 in hardback),
was just one of many tales I’ve been privileged to publish. Folks often ask me where I get my ideas. They come from everywhere. . .the history I read, the miles I travel on dusty western roads, the incidents I hear, and from my memory. I haven’t run out of ideas yet. Here’s a quote from book #102, a June 2010 release, Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon:
For Granddaddy and his cowboy pals, History was real. You could see it in their cowboy eyes. You could hear it in their stories. You could touch it when you brushed against their Colts or Winchesters, chaps or Stetsons. You could taste history’s fine dust ever’ time a dirt devil swirled off the hills and down Central Avenue. And on that day in 1954, I could smell history in the 2nd story hallway of the Matador Hotel.
The 10-year-old narrator in 1954 heard all these tales from his granddaddy and his old cowboy partners. This is not my story. However, I was 10-years-old in 1954 and I did hear accounts about the “olden days.”
The main challenge of a western novel: the rhythm of the dialogue. I had to sit very still and listen to each character speak in order to get the timing right, along with the vocabulary. I could draw upon the people I knew as a child and at the rodeos I’ve gone to and the ranchers I’ve befriended over the years.
I love the Old West and the men and women who made it great. Like the senior cowboys in my books, I’ve never met anyone who pined to return to the days of hardships like outhouses. Indoor plumbing is a blessing sent straight from heaven. But sometimes readers think that sort of lifestyle was ancient history, especially with the turn of a new century … 1880 seems a long shot back from 2010. And if you pressed the characters in my book, they’d say their lives had been routine. A cowboy on the trails or in the drives meant nothing special or historical to them, except it was a life they greatly missed.
Some say western history is distorted, slanted, even fabricated, to portray the West as the author wants it remembered. The same critique could be used on modern historians. The difference? The old-timers were there. They lived it. The wildest thing most modern historians have done is order a triple-shot for their espressos.
Cowboy for a Rainy Afternoon reminisces about real cowboy lives, much the same as Andy Adams’ book, The Log of a Cowboy, written in the early 1900s. Author’s suggestion: this book is best read aloud, as though around a campfire, by someone with the rhythm of the language. Then, the old men will start to feel like part of your family.
Cowboy for a Rainy Afternoon unfolds more than windy stories. Sit in the Matador lobby with Quirt, Bronc, Thad, Shorty, Coosie and Pop and listen to their oral history. Quirky characters packed the Old West and these guys met most of them. They even knew the infamous Stuart Brannon, “the toughest sober man” whom they never saw flinch, even in a fierce gunfight. Along the way, you learn lessons for contemporary life too.
Old guys have a habit of wanting to digress when telling their tales. My challenge as a writer was to be true to their nature and sympathetic to my readers. Spend a morning near the old-timers booth at the Pine Tar Café and you’ll know what I mean.
On one rainy afternoon in 1954 in Albuquerque, Little Brother sits with the six men, listening to their tales, and their romps through past memories. They delighted in this captive audience. Meanwhile, a drama unfolds; a story brews in the lobby that propels them into one last cowboy stand. After all those stories, Little Brother gets to be part of one himself.
All history is filtered through the eyes of the beholder. That’s one of the joys of being a writer … filtering through your own world view. Everyone does it.
Jim Bridger called his stories ‘stretchers.’
Cowboy Philosophy: “Ain’t that fer sure,” Shorty blurted out. “History books are written by people who weren’t there but think they know ever’thin’.”
Some books written by people who were there: Charlie Siringo and Andy Adams.
For me, history is not the story of grand ideas or broad sweeps describing movements, events or social progress. History is the story of individual people. Not all are famous, but all do help define who we are today … and why think and act the way we do.
Cowboy for a Rainy Afternoon proved to be an extra fun story to write, sort of like a memoir for me.
My favorite things to do when the weather threatens and I can’t play golf: oil the saddles, clean the Winchesters, or write a novel about the Old West.
For your chance to get a copy of Cowboy for a Rainy Afternoon, just comment on this or any post during the Blyfest. (Be sure to put your email address in the post or sign in using Blogger or Gmail so that I can contact you if I pull your name.)
The Blyfest Blogfest schedule for the month of June is: