Why We Write About the Old West

 

RemingtonWriters who write about the Old West are a different breed.

A majority of readers love romances, mysteries and/or thrillers, fantasy, horror, and a host of others.

In comparison, historical novels about the West (or Westerns) are not that popular.

Yet, we keep writing about Tucson and Tucumcari, Deadwood and Dodge, Indian fights and gunfights.

I’ve asked three other writers why they do it, and my comments are at the bottom.

Here are confessions by Patricia Grady Cox, Johnny Boggs and Anthony Whitt. 51QNuZeTswL._UY250_

Patricia lives in Phoenix, Johnny lives in Santa Fe, and Anthony lives in Austin.

Patricia – I once thought I would write a novel set in contemporary times. It started out in the city and then, next thing you know, the characters are all driving out to an old ranch the family owns. I think it was somewhere around Payson.

A monsoon strikes. A pregnant woman is discovered dead, obviously murdered. The phones are out – landline doesn’t work, no cell tower nearby. The arroyos flood, no way to drive to town for help.

photo by Johnny Boggs
photo by Johnny Boggs

There’s a plane but the wind . . . and, of course, the power goes off.

At about this point, I realized I had taken my city slickers and put them smack dab in the middle of the wilds of Arizona with no way to get help and nobody to rely upon but themselves, while somebody who wants to do harm is in the vicinity.

In other words, the old West.

I figured I may as well stick to writing historical fiction set in the American West, which is how I describe my novels, and which is the only time and place I ever wanted to write about. 

by Frederic Remington
by Frederic Remington

As in modern-day Payson during a monsoon, nobody is coming to help my characters out of whatever trouble they’re in. And there is always somebody (or something)–outlaw, Indian, revenge-seeking stranger, lawman, rattlesnake–who wants to do harm.

When I started writing novels, it didn’t even occur to me to write about anywhere else. Even when I try, that’s where I end up.

az_saltrivercanyonMy soon-to-be-released novel, Chasm Creek, is set in 1880 Arizona Territory, partly near the Verde River and Fort McDowell, partly on the Navajo reservation.

My second novel, in an agent’s hands, takes place in and around Prescott when it was the Territorial capital.

My third novel, just begun, is partly 1879 Flagstaff and partly modern times – but those modern times are set in a living history museum that portrays, yes, territorial Arizona.

Patricia Grady Cox
Patricia Grady Cox

And while a future novel, in a beginning draft stage, has a timeline that goes up to 1945, the heart of the book is in Camp Verde, Arizona, in the 1870s.

“Write the book you would want to read” is my north star. And what I want to read is a story that is set in the 1800’s American West.

Johnny Boggs – You want me to be honest? Quite a few of my early published short stories were contemporary Southern pieces, some of them partly autobiographical, certainly personal.

Johnny, with his son Jack
Johnny, with his son Jack

I just found it a lot easier not to piss off my family by writing Westerns, where I can disguise some of those personal or autobiographical elements.

511Lv+iR3sL._AA160_And, of course, I’ve always loved the West and U.S. history.

Besides, I’ve lived more than half of my life now in the West. It fits me better than the South, though I do love she-crap soup, shrimp and grits and vinegar-based barbecue pig meat.

Anthony Whitt – I grew up hearing about an Indian raid on my great-great grandfather’s homestead on the Colorado River west of Austin.

Horse Raid, by David Mann
Horse Raid, by David Mann

He was a well known Texas Ranger and sergeant in the Civil War.

The tale always fascinated me, and I set out to write a fictionalized short story about the event, unaware of where the decision would lead.

After receiving early praise, the short story transformed into a full-length novel that needed room to grow. As a result, the decision to write a short story became a life changing moment that gave birth to the Hard Land to Rule Trilogy.

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The allure of the Texas Hill Country has always exerted a strong pull on my imagination. I can still visit the old homestead and picture in my mind’s eye the Comanche lurking on the ridge overlooking the site of my great-great grandfather’s cabin.

Photo by Johnny Boggs
Photo by Johnny Boggs

If I listen closely, I can hear the men scrambling around the cabin in the early morning darkness while they prepare for the pursuit of the raiders.

There is still a sense of the Old West in the cut up canyons and cedar breaks where my grandfather used to point out the Indian trails he remembered seeing as a young man on horseback.

This harshness of the landscape intrigues me, makes me attempt to capture, in words, the character of the frontiersmen who carved out a living in those trying circumstances. 51Ew9Z54cKL._UY250_

Anthony Whitt
Anthony Whitt

The settlement of these remote lands created dramatic clashes between opposing cultures and tested the mettle of men in ways we now struggle to comprehend.

In short, the Old West possessed the perfect combination of conditions to illustrate both the good and the bad side of people caught up in the taming of a vast wilderness.

Julia Robb – I write Historical novels about the West because I didn’t enjoy the 20th century and I don’t enjoy the 21st. 

scalp_cover_FINALAmerican culture (I can’t speak for other cultures) is a peculiar combination of horror and boredom.

On one hand, armies behead their enemies, or crucify various and sundry, while disease threatens, and we fight each other to the death in the halls of Congress.

But this happens thousands of miles away (or in that snake den, Washington) while we sit in front of our TV’s watching twenty-four hour news and munching supper.

We don’t risk our lives, but fill the emptiness with Netflix, video games, sports, Mad Men or whatever poison happens to catch our fancy.

In the West, pioneers staked everything on a homestead in Indian Country, or a mine, or a saloon, or a battle at the Little Big Horn River.

del_norteIt was a bigger place than the one we live in.

Of course, this had its drawbacks.

It was so easy to die of cholera, or scream your lungs out while Comanche burned you to death, or just break your leg so far from the cabin you couldn’t get back before gangrene set in.

Personally, I would rather take my chances on the West.

And speaking as a writer, that’s just what I’ve done.

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