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Fredrick W. Boling -- Writing Western

Author of novels, short stories and articles about America's Frontier

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Writing Western Fiction

Fredrick W. Boling

Published in 2002 by American Western Magazine.


     The Western genre accommodates virtually every category of fiction. Adventure, mystery romance and historical saga are all easily adapted to a Western format. In fact, some or all of the elements can be combined within the same novel or short story. The genre had its genesis in 1860 when Erastus Beadle, of the Beadle and Adams publishing company, issued the first Dime novel. The adventurous West, remote and intriguing, became the setting for Dime novels.1

    For a period of over thirty years, various publishers churned out more than thirty Western series of these Dime novels.2 They were quite popular with the Eastern public, and some of the series had as many as three hundred titles. Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok were but a few of those characters who were jettisoned into the shrine of Western folklore. They became larger than life with little resemblance to the real heroes of the West. The cowboy rode to prominence in Dime novels during the 1880s. No longer was he a mere herder of cattle. He was depicted as a gun-slinging gunman fighting outlaws and Indians.3

    The Dime novels yielded to the pulp magazines during the 1890s, but they were merely slicker versions of their predecessors. The turn of the century gave birth to the first Western novel, The Virginian, by Owen Wister whose plot became the accepted, tried and true "formula Western", wherein good battled evil and gallantry typified manliness. Formula Westerns became a staple for writers like Zane Grey who was an Eastern dentist turned novelist. His Riders of the Purple Sage remains the most widely known Western of all time. Grey was soon joined by Max Brand and Ernest Haycox. Their works are a direct link to contemporary writers, such as Louis L'Amour and Luke Short. Both of these writers produced works that are still published and read several years beyond the author's deaths.4

    A. B. Guthrie introduced a new sub-genre of the Western with his novel, The Big Sky. He skillfully crafted a work that introduced the Old West in a more literal way, stripping it of its myth. He was soon joined by writers such as Vardis Fisher and Frederick Manfred. Their novels are generally considered to be quality literary works. With their appearance, the Western genre had evolved from Dime novel/pulp-school potboiler to classic literature that received recognition for its worth.

    The Traditional Formula Western is characteristically a novel dealing with the mythology of the Old West. It usually is around 65,000 words in length with a single story line. It has few or no subplots and few characters. Zane Grey's works were considerably longer, and were not typical of the Traditional Formula Western. He utilized more subplots and a greater number of characters; however, he adhered to a single story line. In Riders of the Purple Sage, which was published in 1912, he spins a saga depicting the struggle between Mormon and Gentile settlers in the 1870s. This novel was one of his most read and popular works.

    Houghton Mifflin published Jack Schaefer's Shane in 1949. It is a classic example of the Traditional genre.5 The story pits ruthless cattle barons against nearly defenseless sodbusters. Shane was an assassin that lived by his gun. Schaefer brilliantly tells a story which introduces this mysterious man to the reader. Shane was obviously trying to outdistance his past, to hang up his guns and fade into the sunset. But the plight of the sodbusters evoked moral outrage within this wandering gunman. He takes up their cause and turns his jaded persona into a hero, a contemporary Sir Galahad. The story has a historical basis, even though it is purely fictional. It was taken right out of the era that produced the Johnson County, Wyoming Cattle War in 1892. Schaefer uses a unique beginning and ties up the ending by a mirrored image of the opening paragraphs. He rode into our valley in the summer of '89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father's old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.

    In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.

    Schaefer comes full circle at the end as he writes: I felt the horse move away from me. Shane was looking down the road and on to the open plain and the horse was obeying the silent command of the reins. He was riding away and I knew that no word or thought could hold him. The big horse, patient and powerful, was already settling into the steady pace that had brought him into our valley, and the two, the man and the horse, were a single dark shape in the road as they passed beyond the reach of the light from the windows.

    I strained my eyes after him, and then in the moonlight I could make out the inalienable outline of his figure receding into the distance. Lost in my loneliness, I watched him go, out of town, far down the road where it curved out to the level country beyond the valley. There were men on the porch behind me, but I was aware only of that dark shape growing small and indistinct along the far reach of the road. A cloud passed over the moon and he merged into the general shadow and I could not see him and the cloud passed on and the road was a plain thin ribbon to the horizon and he was gone.

    All of the Traditional Formula Western novels penned by those writers who came after Jack Schaefer followed similar paths in their works; however, few of them accomplished an opening and closing as simple as he in their novels. Louis L'Amour is a classic example of a TFW novelist. His prolific and successful career produced nearly a hundred novels, many of which are still in print.

    A. B. Guthrie is credited by many for having introduced the historical Western genre in 1947 when he wrote The Big Sky. The first edition was published in 1952 by Houghton Mifflin Company. It is an epic adventure novel of America's frontier which, at the time, reached from Kentucky across the Mississippi, the great plains and over the Rocky Mountains. His principal character, Boone Caudill, is a genuine mountain man who leaves home as a young man to find adventure in the West. He is an untamed spirit which only the beautiful daughter of a Blackfoot chief dared to love. Guthrie's prose can only be described as a magnificently crafted work that holds the reader like a snake-charmer's flute. If you haven't gifted yourself by reading this classic, don't delay another day before you embark on A. B. Guthrie's literary adventure that he penned in The Big Sky.

    Terry Johnston vaulted into the publishing world with his mountain-man sagas, Carry The Wind, Borderlords, and One-Eyed Dream. The first one, Carry The Wind, was completed in 1977 only to be rejected 19 times before it was accepted by Caroline House Publishers and published in 1982. So, you can see, persistence pays off. Today, he has many more historical Western and mountain-man novels to his credit. His works are well researched and are well crafted. All of them are a good read.

    Win Blevins is another contemporary author of historical Western Fiction who deserves recognition. One of his latest novels, Stone Song, received a Western Writers of America Spur award in 1997. He lived with the Lakota (Sioux) Indians in Montana for a year while researching their Sundance religion, oral history, customs and mythology. Stone Song is a novel about Crazy Horse, the enigmatic Lakota warrior who helped defeat Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn in 1876. He artfully reveals the Lakota spirit which was exemplified in the life of Crazy Horse. Win critiqued a portion of my novel, Incident at Crazy Woman Creek, in 1990 when I attended a University of Wyoming workshop in Jackson, Wyoming. He is a sensitive, but absolutely frank evaluator of fictional works. I found his advice to be most helpful.

    Novels of the West is yet another category of the Western genre. These are mainstream novels with a Western setting. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, a Pulitzer Prize for literature winner; Richard Wheeler's Sierra, which won the Western Writers of America Spur Award in 1997; and John Byrne Cooke's Snow Blind Moon, a winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award in 1984, are but a few examples.

    All short stories, regardless of their genre, have fallen on hard times. Most print publishers that publish Western fiction have ceased to exist. L'Amour Western Magazine, which was a national publication devoted to short stories, ceased publications about three or four years ago. However, there is good news now for all writers and readers of Western short fiction. E-zine (electronic magazine) magazines devoted to Western fiction, non-fiction and poetry, such as Read West Magazine, are beginning to appear on the Internet.

    Most remaining Western-oriented magazines publish only nonfiction articles and stories. There are several of these publications that continue to do well in the nonfiction market.

    Why do I write historical Western fiction? It's because I love it. I have long been a student of American history. The Civil War and the West are my favorite eras. My first novel, No Lesser Measure, which remains unpublished, has its setting in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the battle that has been termed, The high watermark of the Confederacy. It is a brutal, yet tender story about a young South Carolina boy, who is severely injured during Picket's Charge on July 3, 1863, and a daughter of the president of Gettysburg College. My second novel, Incident at Crazy Woman Creek, is a story based on the Johnson County, Wyoming Cattle War in 1892. It was published by Bighorn Publishing in 2000. My third novel, Wakan Man, was published by Bighorn Publishing in 2002. It is a story about twin Scotsmen who immigrate to the U. S. in the 1860s. They serve the Union during the Civil war, one as a surgeon and the other as a chaplain. Following the war they find themselves in the West. They meet again at Fort Laramie where one brother is the garrison surgeon and the other is traveling to the gold fields in Montana where he will become a missionary to the miners. The failed Fort Laramie peace parley in 1866 and the ensuing war with Lakota Chief Red Cloud severely affects these brothers.

    How do you write Western fiction? There is no difference from any other genre except the setting must be Western. What is Western? It depends upon the era in which the story takes place. The West has always been America's frontier, a place westward beyond the populated regions of the New World of America. Jim R. Woolard, a winner of the coveted Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award in 1996, published his first novel in 1995. The Medicine Pipe Bearer Award is WWA's recognition for the best Western novel of the year written by a first-time novelist. His winning novel, Thunder In The Valley, had its setting in the Ohio Valley during the 1790s when it was the frontier of our new nation. It is a compelling story about the struggle early frontier settlers had with the Indians who populated the Ohio Valley. His story has nothing to do with the wandering gunman that is depicted in the Traditional Formula Western novel. His work is superbly crafted with a unique beginning and end. It is one of the best Western novels that I have read in recent years. Try it -- you'll love it.

    Western fiction, like any other genre, must tell a captivating story. After all, novels and short fiction are stories, not exercises in putting together scenes, no matter how well written, that don't tell a story from the beginning of the work to the end. We must be story tellers who write. A good story requires a good imagination that can build an idea into the final product, a story that captivates the reader. Like catching a fish, your story has to toss a baited hook into the reader's mind with the initial paragraphs. As John Byrne Cooke said in a University of Wyoming workshop that I attended, "There are three parts to a story: a beginning, a middle and an end." The end is as important as the beginning. It must tie up all loose ends into a resolution of the tension that you have built into the middle of your story. It has to leave the reader satiated as if he or she has just finished eating an extraordinary meal. Don't leave your reader pondering the way your story ended. It must come at the right time, the correct place, and with a final scene which pleases the reader. A story that ends with a catastrophic event might blow the readers mind, but he or she will darn well hate you for doing it to them. Such an ending can be pulled off, but the author had better craft it perfectly.

    What is the middle of your story? The following is a paraphrase of John Byrne Cooke's response to that question. It comes between the beginning and end. If it doesn't tie the two together like a filling between the top and bottom crusts of a pie, your story isn't a story at all. Your reader will never see your tremendous ending and will hate you for hooking him or her in the beginning. The middle of your story will be built with chapters which are composed of one or more scenes. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end just like the overall story. Tension must be created within its structure similar to that which is built into the overall story. It is resolved at the scene's end, leaving a remnant that continues to increase with each additional scene. That is how tension builds during the telling of your story. Resolutions have an impact upon your character, whether he or she is your protagonist or antagonist. The same principle applies to short fiction -- you just have less space to carry it out. Now, you may be asking, "What is tension?" The best reply I can give is taken from William Noble's book, Conflict, Action & Suspense. Before we have drama, we have conflict. It is the essence of story development, and whether we call it tension, discord, or a host of other synonyms, it means, simply, that the story contains someone or something struggling with someone or something and the outcome is in doubt. Conflict creates drama, and it establishes the focus of the action or the suspense to follow.

    Characters are vitally important to your story. Make them three dimensional, not cardboard cutouts. A character must have human qualities that will provoke an emotional response from the reader. Emotions empower fiction. There must be a compelling obligation to capture the emotions of each character as your story unfolds. A mere description of what they wear and how they appear won't do. You don't have to devote a lengthy discourse on description of your character. In fact, that is a no, no. Let your reader see and judge them through the eyes of other characters. This technique is demonstrated in a scene taken from my novel, Wakan Man. Joshua Leslie stood up, rolled down his sleeves and fastened each cuff while he and Bridger looked at each other. Joshua Leslie's eyes, piercing, called blue as the bonny sky by his mother, searched Bridger's face. Both men were tall, lean as two poplar trees. Bridger, now past sixty, his dark eyes set deeply within features wrinkled and bronzed, searched the younger man. He saw a squared jaw, shaved clean and set in determination. A lock of wavy black hair slipped across a broad forehead beaded with sweat. He saw a man trained in medicine at Edinburgh University, now seasoned by war. Blue eyes reflected the horrors seen at Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and days and nights spent amputating mutilated limbs. The experiences of closing lifeless eyes, the nauseating stench of gangrene, and faces blanched white by hemorrhaging wounds had aged his features beyond their thirty-three years.

    Dialogue reveals a lot about each character. Use it to flesh out each one of them. We often hear "show, don't tell" from authors who also teach others in the craft of writing fiction. Showing entails action and viability. Telling is like lecturing. It can put the reader to sleep. A certain amount of telling is required in narration, but it should be vibrant and entertaining so that information necessary for the background has life in it.

    Dialogue is the cement that binds narration together. Use it. Dialogue is written like people talk to one another. Long sentences of dialogue lose their impact and are laborious to read. Too often writers use it to convey information to the reader. As Leonard Bishop writes in Dare To Be A Great Writer: When the writer uses dialogue as a plant for information, rather than speech, the dialogue becomes unbelievable. The reader sees the information, rather than hearing the sound of people speaking. It won't fly. Don't do it. Incorporate reactions of the characters during dialogue. Anger, fright, love, hatred, and all of the other emotional reactions one can imagine are necessary to give life to your dialogue. Read Hemingway's works and you will see how a master of dialogue uses this modality. You don't need or want to attribute every piece of dialogue. Too much of he said and she said will eventually irritate your reader. Use it sparingly and only to keep who is speaking clearly identified. Be careful with using adverbial embellishments to your attributions. Loudly, sullenly, sweetly, etc. should be trashed. Instead use verbs that have punch to them. Watch out for profanity. Hemingway's comment on the subject is pertinent: Try and write straight English; never using slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time. I only use swear words, for example, that have lasted at least a thousand years for fear of getting stuff that will be simply timely and then go sour. Be careful about writing dialects. Too much phonetic spelling will often make dialogue arduous to read. An occasional contraction that is consistent with the speaker's dialect works well. The syntax can be altered to simulate a dialect such as Irish or German. Mark Twain got away with violating this rule in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and also in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it wouldn't work in contemporary writing of today. This is doubly important in writing Western fiction. Cowboy and mountain-man jargon can be easily overdone to the point of being almost impossible to read. Keep time-worn clichés out of your narration and dialogue. Make similes and metaphors original, unique to your style of writing. Finally, give your dialogue punch by adding action. An example from my novel, Wakan Man, illustrates this: Notes from the bugler's horn echoed across the arid plain as Bridger shoved open the infirmary door. With his voice sharp as a chisel, Bridger called out, "Major Leslie!"

    Major Leslie did not look up from his task, the examination of a man lying on an infirmary cot. Bridger removed his hat and fingered its brim. "Mister Bridger, ye may wish t'wait on the porch," Major Leslie said, his attention riveted on the sweating patient. "This is a very sick man."

    "What's he got, Doc?"


    "The hell, you say," Bridger said, stepping backward.

    Of course, there is a great deal more to crafting a story, whether it be a novel or short story. One should strive to read all of the good and bad works in whatever genre he or she writes. Use this tool to learn what it takes to write a good story. Don't worry about style, nor do you want to copy another author's style. Your style should and will be unique. Don't adulterate it by aping another writer. Write about what you know. Research your story well before you write a single line. Research is vital. Don't underestimate your potential audience. You can use literary liberties in crafting your story, but be careful about altering history. It can be done provided you are open about it. Don't try to hoodwink your reader. This is especially important in writing historical fiction. One example of a history altering novel is The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer by Douglas C. Jones. It is a fantasy purporting Custer's being court-martialed for his blunder at the Little Big Horn Battle. Jones lets the reader know that the story is fantasy from the beginning, but it could have happened if Custer had survived.

    Now, you are probably thinking: What has this got to do with writing a Western genre story. Everything, is my answer. Writing Western accommodates virtually every category of fiction.6 Writing Western fiction is no different from writing any other genre of fiction, except with one difference. The setting must be Western. What is Western? It depends upon the era in which the story takes place. The West has always been America's frontier, a place westward beyond the populated regions of the New World of America. Crafting a Western novel or short story is no different from the rules that govern the writing of any other genre. The stories are different, but the craft going into them is the same.

    Finally, write about what you know and love. If that happens to be the great American West, research your subject extensively. Remember, it's the story that is important. Telling it well is the author's unending task. Keep writing!

1. How To Write Western Novels by Matt Braun (1988);7,8
2. Ibid., 8
3. Ibid., 8
4. Ibid., 8,9
5. Ibid., 11
6. Ibid., 7
Copyright © 2002 Fredrick W. Boling. All rights Reserved.