Plot or Not? On with the Story! Hoofprints
Jack Giles in New Territory
A Revolver for Its Time New Black Horse Westerns
dead or alive" was the line on the classic western dodger. Today, readers
of the Black Horse Western novels would prefer their series "alive" rather
than "dead". They want newly written westerns appearing reliably.
The dwindling stocks of westerns in long-discontinued paperback series
can be tracked down on eBay or through online used-book dealers -- and
are, enthusiastically, despite often being in only "fair" condition or worse.
Black Horse Westerns can similarly be bought online, and while you won't find them
new on bookstore shelves, a dedicated bookseller will order any book
specified. But because BHWs are fine hardcover books produced at increasing cost, most
readers living in Britain and Commonwealth countries depend on borrowing
them from a public library. Thus several reports from reliable sources are a worry.
From Australia comes word that the best state for sales of westerns is Queensland,
but an insider with a measure of control over distribution was "intrigued"
by minimal sales in the Northern Territory, where tastes would be similar
to Queensland's. A search in Canberra for that elusive person the acquisitions
librarian led finally to an online enquiry officer based at a small regional
library in southern New South Wales. She couldn't tell for sure how books
were bought, a situation generally encountered with counter staff.
in Canberra, a phone enquirier says he was "put through to a bloke who knew
how things worked. He said that some libraries ordered individually and some
worked on a centralized system. Finally I extracted the information that
he bought books for 'some' Australian Capital Territory libraries. It would
have been easier to find out Osama bin Laden's address."
In New Zealand, a city library buys BHWs -- one copy of each -- on
standing order, then spreads them around the library's eight far-flung branches
inconsistently, making it difficult for borrowers to follow any one author
or recurring story character.
From Britain, the report is, "It does not much matter what publisher, reviewer
and indeed the individual reader thinks . . . the public libraries are the
only customers for westerns in the UK. These public libraries are in turn
supplied by just three companies, and the libraries themselves have been
formed into consortiums, so that in general decisions to buy or not are made
by a very small number of people. . . . Consequently it behoves both author
and publisher to tread very carefully indeed."
The last sentence is intended to warn that the publisher of the only series of new westerns
still appearing in Britain must now vet closely material intended for adult
reading. The books don't have "literary pretensions" and "the average
librarian is well aware there is nothing to stop children borrowing these
This was discussed by two established BHW writers. The fear was that a
story like that of the recent, award-winning and commercially successful
TV movie Broken Trail (two wranglers save a wagon-load of
kidnapped and abused Chinese girls from prostitution), might be unacceptable
to UK libraries: "You can keep the horses but those gals have to go!"
of the writers said, "I don't think any Mrs Grundys will be as big a problem
as today's readers leaving westerns on the library shelf because they are out-of-tune
with the present taste -- which I figure is for realism as opposed to romanticism.
Nor do I think librarians should have to act in loco parentis."
For BHWs, the extremes of TV's Deadwood, it was agreed, would be
impossible: "Festooned with sex, sadism, sudden death, rampant profanity,
and mud, mud, mud, Deadwood was not your father's 'cowboy'
show," declares a Web summary. But, with that recognized: "The series, about hard-bitten men
and hard-living women in a gold-rush town, drew huge ratings and enthusiastic
critical plaudits. . . ."
What is the message here for readers? Simply that if you want your local
library to stock BHWs, you must make it known by requesting and reserving
the kind of "alive" books you enjoy, be they stories written by an elderly
gentleman with his young grand-daughters in mind, or something more rugged.
As harsher economic times reduce libraries' book budgets still further, this
becomes increasingly important.
Your comments and western news are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
|The secrets behind the gunsmoke. . .
PLOT OR NOT? ON WITH THE STORY!
Bayes: Play does not go on? I don’t know what you mean:
why, is not this part of the Play?
Smith: Yes, but the Plot stands still.
Bayes: Plot stand still! why, what a Devil is the Plot good for,
but to bring in fine things?
Smith: O, I did not know that before.
George Villiers, 1628-1687
"PLOT or not?" That was the question, and in our last edition historical-mystery
writer C. S. Harris (Candice Proctor) gave her answer, firmly declaring
herself in the camp of writers who plot their books before they begin,
rather than those who don't but trust to instinct, experience, natural talent
-- whatever -- to produce the right words and a cohesive story as they go.
This time, we discuss the same question in depth with a panel
of four Black Horse Western writers: Jake Douglas (real name Keith Hetherington,
and who is also Tyler Hatch, Hank J. Kirby and Clayton Nash), Greg Mitchell
(P. J. Gallagher), Walt Masterson (Christopher Kenworthy) and Chap O'Keefe
Black Horse Extra: Welcome, writers, and thank you for agreeing
to share your thoughts.
For many years, fiction writers were virtually required to outline
proposed novels and scripts in advance. This may not have applied in the
Victorian and Edwardian era, when lady and gentlemen writers with other
callings dabbled in producing fiction for the emerging popular press as
a sideline. It almost certainly didn't apply to Beadle's dime novelists
who churned out westerns at the rate of a thousand words an hour for twelve
hours at a stretch, albeit to a formula.
But it did apply for many decades
of the last century -- the "journeyman" era. Certainly by the 1960s "submit
a synopsis" was invariably an editor's first requirement, even of the established
contributor. TV and movie scripts were as much as a five-stage assignment:
the premise, the treatment, the step outline (or scenario), the first draft, the
Then markets shrank, and producing revised MSS -- going back
and changing finished work -- became much easier with the computer replacing
the typewriter. Significantly also, payment plummetted in relative terms.
Like it or not, the wheel has come full circle. Most fiction writers
are back to being, like many Victorian forerunners, hobbyists, part-timers.
As BHW publisher John Hale has pointed out, "I am only too well aware
of the low rewards to authors on these westerns, particularly in the light
of continuing inflation. However, the sad fact is that if we had to pay
more we would have to stop publishing them. Writing westerns for us really
has to be regarded as a labour of love."
This said and accepted, any pragmatic author's methods of working
for "love", rather than money, must surely be geared to extracting the
greatest of pleasure from the process. How do you go about this?
Walt: Do I plot each book carefully beforehand, or do I
just leap into the saddle, whack in the spurs and let her rip? Well,
the answer is that I always do both. One of my favourite stories about Louis L'Amour concerns his family
calling him to the dinner table when he was writing one day. "Later," said
Louis. "I want to find out what happens." Well, that's me, too. I always
want to find out what happens.
Greg: Possibly if I had a tidy mind I would carefully plot
my stories before starting. But things get a bit chaotic between my ears
at times, so I just muddle along in the way that suits me. If I find a
better method I might change in future, but at present I am comfortable
with things the way they are. By not sticking to a strict outline I find
the flexibility to introduce new people or change the roles of some of
the other characters.
BHE: Can you mention for us how this has worked in some of
Greg: In Outlaw Vengeance, the petty thief Frank
Rydell was originally introduced just for the purpose of informing the
outlaw of the hero's whereabouts. Having done that, he could quietly
have faded from the story. But then it occurred to me to put a bit of
criminal ambition and murderous intent into his character and he was
ideally suited for making more important events happen.
In Killer's Kingdom, the bandit Murray Halloran
was initially intended to be just another of King Lesley's henchmen. Then
I saw that his role could be extended to provide a more stable lieutenant
for the increasingly alcoholic Lesley and by the end of the story he is
the real brains behind the gang.
My latest book, Range Rustlers, features a half-breed
named Chico. I planned for him to have a very limited role as a tracker
for the sheriff's posse. Then I realized that he could take a much more
important part and eventually provide a surprise twist to the story.
Chap: I can appreciate how new ideas occur as stories unfold
and characters develop. But I can also relate to your comment, Greg, about
the chaos between the ears. Life increasingly produces that, which may
be why I cling to the synopsis-first routine.
That way, I don't paint myself
into an impossible corner or end up with the embarrassment of forgotten
loose ends. Also, after dealing with the tax return, the house painting,
the family occasion, I can return to writing my book any time and pick
up the threads from the outline I prepared weeks earlier, before the actual
The plot outline is both a crutch and a safety net. Moreover,
I preface it with notes on my six or seven main characters. This is not
so much to avoid changing the colour of a character's eyes or their name
-- I've seen it happen! -- as to be sure I know what drives each character,
what he or she has done previously and will seek to achieve.
Another reason I suspect I stick with outlining is because it was
the way I was told to work in the beginning, way, way back when I was
writing scripts for 130-frame British picture-libraries [graphic novelettes].
In those days, why waste heaps of typewriting time and paper on a story
an editor or publisher wasn't going to want, an artist never draw? It was
best to know first that you were working on something that could bring in
a worthwhile cheque.
Today, I still submit outlines for BHWs before writing them. They've
always been given a go-ahead with amendment seldom requested, and that
takes care of the basics. You know you're not going to be told there's
something majorly wrong with your novel's plot and storyline after you've
written it, though you may be asked for a change of emphasis -- for example,
to tone down sex or violence.
Most writers with the ability to edit their
own work are ready to comply with reasonable requests for alterations, as
long as they aren't going to destroy a book that will carry their name or
Unlike in the pre-computer days, modest rewriting doesn't involve
having to retype thousands of words. . . . So, yes, you could say certain
reasons for working to very tight outlines have gone, that there should
be more freedom.
BHE: Jake, we mentioned TV scripts in our introduction.
Now as one who has written for drama series in Australia, like Homicide
and Matlock Police, how has that shaped your approach? Are
you a plotter?
Jake: At one time, I worked from such detailed plots that the
writing of the book required little more than filling out the notes with
appropriate prose. It suited Cleveland, my then publishers for westerns
by Kirk Hamilton and Brett Waring, as they required very detailed plot
lines for upcoming stories.
But when I went to Crawford Productions,
they explained tactfully that while my scene breakdowns were great, they
read like a novel. A definite no-no where these TV scripts were concerned.
Most times locations as envisaged by the writer didn't match up with reality
and improvisation had to be the name of the game. So, instead of a nicely
rounded description of a scene, it was reduced to "car chase", "fist
fight", "cops in foot chase" et cetera -- and labelled "director's sequence".
Of course, the directors loved this: it gave them free rein to use their
The long-winded point I'm trying make is that the ruthless paring of
hard-written scene outlines, reducing them to a couple of descriptive
words, paid off when I returned to writing westerns. So much so that
now, while I believe I'm writing from a plot, what I'm actually doing
is writing from a series of plot points. I have an outline of the story and characters, but the incidents are
only briefly mentioned: ambush by Black Pete; hero wounded; bad guy
gets his comeuppance . . . and so on. I find this is enough and doesn't
restrict me as long as the details fit the main story.
Hmm. That sounds like you know what you'll be driving at
before you start. A plotter who keeps it reduced to essentials, perhaps .
. . the things you must have.
Whether you work from a plot ot not, there is one thing
you must have -- a good opening -- in fact, a damned
You're in the business of getting the reader to keep turning the pages,
so grab his interest right from the "go".
I like to grab the reader as
quickly and as firmly as I can. Action is much better than launching into
a leisurely description of someone riding into town. Any western reader know
what a western town looks like, so a very brief description, if any, is all
that's necessary. I like to get the people
moving into the story,
featuring the hero if possible.
This is a hangover from my TV scripting. All Crawford shows had a "teaser"
before the titles and at one time at least one of the four main stars
had to be featured in this. After a while, Hector Crawford realized how
it restricted the writer, so he made it that one of his stars should appear
as soon as possible after the first commercial break. But I've hung on to
the idea that introducing the reader to the hero straight away pays off.
I admit I don't always do it -- there are good reasons not to sometimes,
depending on your storyline.
Having mentioned the descriptive opening, I recently opted for a version
of this in Silent Wolf
. I decided to build up the atmosphere
and as I began to write, I realized I was introducing a note very close
to mysticism. I'd never done this before and, intrigued, I kept it going
and built up quite an eerie feeling with wolves howling in the night, nervous
nighthawks and an imminent cattle stampede -- before my hero, literally,
drops in. You'll have to read the book to find out what I mean by that!
Most times, I work on the first sentence. Those few words that open
the story can make the difference between instant reader interest or lack
thereof -- even, perhaps, between publication and rejection. To my mind,
the way I write, the opening is as important to the story as the plotline,
whether sketched out or written down in detail.
BHE: As the author of not tens but hundreds of books, can you
give us some illustrations of how you think a western should open, and how this ties
up with plotting?
Jake: I've opened many a yarn with a gunfight imminent or in
progress. A chase sequence also gets the blood pounding right from the start.
Fist fights are always good. The hero doesn't necessarily have to walk away bloody
but victorous -- he may lose this one and it can become part of his motivation
for going after the other feller later in the story. Experiment. Use the
ideas you want to incorporate in the story. By that I mean relate your
opening to something that's coming up later. No need to go into heavy explanation.
If the story's written well enough, the reader will know the whys and wherefores,
anticipate them, and keep turning those pages, just as you planned all
Walt: When I started Mogollon Rim Rider, I had
a series of ideas in my mind and one very vivid picture: a hunted man on a
tired horse riding down one of the precipitous canyons which plunge
from the Rim a thousand feet to the Tonto Basin, where places like Deadman's
Mesa and Hardscrabble Mesa awaited him. I constructed a reason for him
to be there, a reason why he was both pursuer and pursued.
But the same thing always happens with my well-laid plans. I find I
have left something out -- in this case, the love interest supplied later
by Lady Sarah, lost and in danger because she wanted to be independent. Anybody
who doubts there are such women never met my late mother-in-law: she always
wanted to go west on a wagon train. If she had, it would have got there!
Settling on a grabbing opening is as good a starting point
for your planning as any. But mostly I prepare a plot by listing the characters
and their aims, then look for the scenes. Maybe that's why so many of my
titles have ended up with the "and the" formula. The Sheriff and the
, The Outlaw and the Lady
, and so on. Lazy man's
approach to titling, too, perhaps!
I have only a rough idea of a story when I start out,
mostly just the hero and the villain. Then I figure a way to bring them
into conflict. In this process it's necessary to introduce other characters
to move the story along. If the scene is in a town, what is the local
lawman, if any, doing about the situation? Is this the right time to
introduce a heroine? I find that the need for new characters becomes apparent
as a plot starts to take shape.
Sometimes the introduction of a seemingly minor character opens
opportunities to add further to the plot. It might not have been originally
intended, but suddenly an opening is there. For example, the barman in
the saloon sees someone familiar walk in, a sinister character from the
past. The story expands. Why is he where he is? What is the barman's connection
with the newcomer? With a few words a character originally destined for
a minor role can have a strong bearing on the plot.
A chance word might suddenly trigger a new idea. At other times
a bit of background research into a new situation might indicate that
my original intention really did not fit and there could be a better
way of telling the story, even if it means a radical departure from what
I was thinking. By putting characters in certain situations, I can play with
their reactions, be they courageous, cowardly, romantic or just plain dumb.
One thing can lead to another and sometimes my stories end differently to
how I had originally intended.
Walt: My trouble is that my writing always outstrips my planning.
This doesn't matter, because by the time I realize that I'm running
too fast, the characters have usually taken over.
Back when it was my
business to interview authors instead of being one, I would hear them
complain that the characters seemed to go their own way of their own volition.
I'd give a patient little smile to show I was willing to listen to this
tosh, but didn't have to believe it. Now I know better. When you create
a real character, at some point he or she takes over and begins to breathe
It is at this point really that he or she also begins to mould the storyline.
Would John Best in Guns Along the Gila allow the Wheatley
family to set out from Maricopa Wells to Fort Yuma across the Sonoran Desert
by themselves, knowing the Apaches were out? No way! He laid plans to
deliver his messages and come back to guide them -- vainly as it turns
out, but he did his utmost.
In Sidewinder Flats, Carnigan set off to reclaim his
stolen horses. I had no plans to make him the sheriff of a thieves' kitchen.
He did that all by himself.
Tombstone is a time capsule, and I fully intended to set the whole of
the story of Tombstone Lullaby within its streets. You
can walk where the Earps walked, drink in the saloons, eat at Nellie
Cashman's, see a "gunfight", visit the Birdcage Theatre where the girls
used to practise the oldest profession, see the OK Corral, even visit
the courthouse. But Mart Donohue had to go off and seek that darned Mexican
beauty, and I found myself trudging up Apache Pass to see Fort Bowie where
he started his search.
Apache Country was a straight rescue story of a family
during an Indian uprising, until a bunch of outlaws hijacked the story
and the wagons, and drove them into the hills south of Tucson.
BHE: Chap, as a plotter, don't you envy Greg's and Walt's
freedom to head off in pretty much any direction? To enjoy the surprises
that will also entertain their readers?
Chap: I like to think my planned plots do contain surprises
for the readers. And I find plenty to concentrate on, and enjoy tackling,
while writing the book . . . like the book's shape and pacing, which
I assess as I write. For instance, I don't decide in advance where the
curtain will fall to end a particular chapter.
Plot and characters, or rather their motivations, dominate in the
preliminary outline, possibly making its few thousand words dense and
confusing to an outsider. Since action is a prime ingredient of the books
we write, the impression this gives can be misleading, because like Jake
I miss out the detail of action sequences. Whole intended scenes which I
think of as "set-piece" are regularly reduced to a sentence or two of cause
Mr Hale commented
on the outline for A Gunfight Too Many, coming out in July:
"I have read the synopsis and as you say it is pretty complex. Nevertheless,
I am sure it will work out very well as it always has done in the past.
I note that the ending is satisfactory rather than happy."
To which I replied: "I will try to find space along the way to work in suggestion of a romance
between the deputy who is crippled, Clint Freeman, and young Sarah. Consolation
for both at the end . . . 'Some months later, Sam was best man at the wedding
of Sarah and Clint Freeman. It was good to see Sarah was over the bad times.
Sarah kissed him after the ceremony, and said they would ask him to be the
godfather of their first-born. Sam got to thinking again about retirement.
. . .' Something along those lines to inject the bit of happiness."
And Mr Hale
said simply: "Many thanks for your email and your very acceptable proposal
of a happy ending. Splendid." After which I got on with writing the book,
adding in the new material. Since my complex main plot was already down
on paper for reference, any distraction this introduced during the storytelling
wasn't fatal in the sense of causing some other, essential detail to
Most of my variations from outline are the result of new and better
ideas that occur to me as I write the novels. It would be hard to list
a fraction of them, let alone remember them all, since there are some
in almost every book.
BHE: Perhaps you could name examples in some of your BHWs
reissued recently by the Ulverscroft companies in large-print editions.
Chap: In Ghost Town Belles, significant additions
and departures involved the bear that raided M'liss's garden, the river
sequence and the clue of the family Bible.
In Misfit Lil Gets Even, most of the changes centre
around the order in which some events are told, and the intercutting
of scenes, including a key chase, to heighten suspense. But importantly,
Sheriff Hamish Howard is introduced. In the synopsis he is no more than
Silver Vein's unnamed "new, weakling sheriff". In the book, he is much
more. Also, it became clear to me that he should go on to appear in later
In The Lawman and the Songbird, Joshua Dillard's cover
is blown by a sneaky deputy called Steve Wye, a character who didn't appear
at all in the synopsis. "Wye considered himself a cut above other men
in Cox City of greater experience and probity. . . . But his high opinion
was backed merely by a badge." The stagecoach holdup that opens the second
part of the book is also entirely new, injecting some extra action I judged
was needed at that point.
Having a clear plot before you begin your book doesn't mean manacling
your imagination. In fact, I think you're freed to put more of it into
Duke of Wellington
BHE: We get the picture. So, closing thoughts anyone?
Jake: More often than not, the writing will diverge, apparently
of its own accord, from the original storyline, but usually it's the
characters and the environment that dictate this. I might have a shootout
planned in a dead-end gulch, but when I reach that point in the writing
I recall one of my characters earlier mentioned in passing that there
are abandoned mines in the area -- sounds like a good locale for a dramatic
gunfight, and maybe a chase down into the bowels of the earth . . . especially
as one of the characters is claustrophobic. Sadistic s.o.b's, we writers!
Doesn't require much changing to bring this about -- though it may
also change something that has already been written or is about to be. A little
juggling usually accomplishes this and any boo-boos can be picked up
and attended to in the editing. As long as I arrive at the original conclusion,
I'm happy enough to add the new stuff and, perhaps more satisfactorily,
write in those lovely words "The End".
Walt: Really, I suppose that what I do is make myself a map,
but I'm prepared to go off my planned route if I see some promising vista
opening up just off the road. My only justification is that I seem usually
to get there in the end -- and the trail is so much fun.
Greg: People often say, "There is only one way to do something
and that's the right way." In reality what is right for one can be wrong
for another, and many things can be effectively done in a variety of ways.
The trick is to find what works for you, but that does not mean that the
other person is wrong. When the Duke of Wellington was asked the difference
between his and Napoleon's plans, he said that the latter's plans were
like a very elaborate harness that could all come undone if a small strap
broke. The Duke likened his plans to a rope and if it broke, he simply tied
another knot and continued. His idea sits pretty well with the way I work.
Jake: Basically, if I'm asked do I plot or not, I have
to say I'm a switch-hitter -- whatever pleases me at the time -- as
long as I'm happy with the result. If not, the story won't see the light
of day or smell printer's ink until I am. And that's the bottom line: if
the result is satisfactory, it doesn't really matter how you reached trail's
end . . . by following a detailed plot -- or not!
Angel's last shot?
|A new set of western tracks
BHW publication of Duel at Cheyenne has
completed the reprinting, in collectable, hardcover editions, of the Frank
Angel series by Daniel Rockfern. The books were written in the
1970s by "Piccadilly Cowboy" Frederick Nolan under the pen-name Frederick
H. Christian. First published in the UK as Sphere paperbacks, the Angel
books reappeared in the US under the Zebra and Pinnacle imprints, mostly
with the titles that have been used for the BHW editions. In the last to
be issued, Frank Angel is detailed to deliver a $250,000 ransom to George
Willowfield -- a seeker of easy money who has stolen a train and asked
the US Government to pay up to get it back. No government likes to be held
up and Angel, special agent of the Department of Justice, is there to
see the debt paid -- one way or another! Fred Nolan is considered one of
the foremost authorities on the life and times of Billy the Kid and
the history of the American West in general. He has appeared in TV
documentaries dealing with the subject, as well as lectured to historical
societies in the UK and US.
Wilkes University, Pennsylvania, figures students and graduates love
the music of the western movies. It offered -- "Exclusively!" -- bargain
tickets to a pops concert by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic.
The orchestra was to perform Frank Oden's Cowboy Jamboree
"For only $10, you can enjoy high energy, good ol', down-home fun with
music from all of your favourite westerns. . . don't miss out! Hope to
see y'all there!" Oden writes and performs lyrical concert programmes merging
poetry, humour, drama and education with live symphonic performance. His
has been an audience favourite with the
Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and at the Vail
Valley Music Festival. We're told the "journey westward" includes scores
from The Magnificent Seven
, Ghost Riders in the Sky
, and more.
Frank Oden knows the score.
| Purr-fect for Pete.
Sad about Saddlebums. . . . After about six months
of entertaining operation, the online Saddlebums Western Review
lapsed into what looked like a state of suspension. Co-owner Ben Boulden
announced a Spur award to Max McCoy
at his other blog, Gravetapping.
He explained: " I started a new job at the first of the year, and with all
the stress, time pressures, and blah of life Saddlebums has been neglected,
and neglected badly. I hope that we can get it running again, and hopefully
add a little help into the mix. It is a surprising amount of work and realistically
Saddlebums is a little more than two working stiffs can handle. Although
I enjoyed doing it, and I especially enjoyed the author interviews. I always
felt inadequate going up against many of my writer-heroes -- Ed Gorman
, James Reasoner
, just to name a few." Gravetapping's
mascot, Pete "Black Jack" Ketchum
the cat, will no doubt be purring louder
now that his "lap" is no longer regularly whisking itself away to ride
Hoofprints has commented before on how western movie-making has
encircled the globe. Dead Man's Bounty
comes with the tagline
"The First Polish Western" and has Val Kilmer
playing the role of
a dead body. IMDb says Kilmer "worked for a significantly discounted salary"
and "signed on was because he was impressed with the director's vision".
Video Business, reviewing the DVD release, described the Lionsgate movie
as an oddball homage to Clint Eastwood
and Sergio Leone
"The film . . . is the world's first sagebrush saga shot in Poland. As
odd as that sounds, the film is even odder, helmed by artist and first-time
director Piotr Uklanski
. The plotting is sketchy and the visuals
ugly but colourful, as a stranger (Karel Roden
) and a drunken sheriff
) square off over a dead body (Val Kilmer)
and a barmaid (Katarzyna Figura
). There are lots of Sergio Leone-esque
close-ups and hallucinatory camerawork, a shrieking score punctuated by
a couple of American songs (one by Lorne Greene
) and lots of blood
and shooting that will keep western fans hanging in — even while scratching
their ponchos." The VB Shelf Talk verdict? "There's undoubtedly still an
audience for westerns (3:10 to Yuma
, The Assassination
of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
) and neo-westerns (No
Country for Old Men
) these days, so a congenial reception for this
truly one-of-a-kind confection is not totally unexpected." The film "best
resembles some of the weirder examples of the genre" and is rated R for
mature themes, language, violence and sexual situations.
Kilmer. . . plays dead.
Sorbo. . . plays drunk.
As reported in Hoofprints last year, companies associated with the
legendary movie-making brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein
have embarked on a series of westerns for TV and DVD. Online at Rough
Edges, James Reasoner tells us the first movies have now been shown
in the US. "Prairie Fever stars Kevin Sorbo and Dominique
Swain, and while the production values aren’t just top-notch, it’s
not a bad little film, with a more interesting script than I expected. Sorbo
plays an ex-lawman who gave up the badge and became a drunk after a tragedy
during a shootout with a bank robber. Needing money, he agrees to take three
former mail-order brides to the railroad so they can go back east. It seems
that all three women have come down with 'prairie fever' – or gone plumb
loco, as characters in my books tend to say. One of the women constantly
quotes Scripture, another is mortally terrified of the sun, and the third
plays a piano that isn’t there, when she’s not trying to strangle every man
who comes within reach, that is. . . . Things are complicated by outlaws
with a grudge against Sorbo’s character, the husband of one of the crazy
mail-order brides, a beautiful but somewhat crooked female gambler, and
her murderous husband, played by Lance Henrikson, who gets stuck with
one of the goofiest-looking hats in the history of western movies. Various
shootouts ensue along the way, as the characters all struggle with their
own inner demons and try to achieve some sort of redemption."
But what happened to the ubiquitous, simpler TV western of the '50s and
'60s? J. Fred MacDonald, author of Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the
Television Western, tells how it deteriorated to the point
where it was irrelevant and meaningless. It had been "an American genre of entertainment and communication
whose symbols and rhetoric helped define American society", he says. He
ties the western to the
political innocence and confidence of the Cold War years and suggests that
the social re-evaluations that began in the 1960s undermined its believability
and entertainment value. "In the halcyon years, from the late
1950s until the mid-1960s, the genre projected a world of danger. Frontier
robbers and killers were a threatening breed. . . . In addition,
there were natural calamities -- fire, storm, flood, drought, and the like
-- that on occasion undermined the harmony of western existence. It was within
these parameters that TV western characters operated."
| In another age.
Ed Gorman, whose long bibliography includes BHWs,
is better known for his mystery and suspense novels. BHW publishers
Robert Hale have been reissuing his series of books with pop-song titles
from the '50s and '60s. The latest of these is Everybody's Somebody's
Fool, in which struggling lawyer and sometime private eye Sam
McCain finds himself, not unusually, hauled into a case by the incorrigible
Judge Esme Ann Whitney. Jealous husbands, philandering spouses, jilted
girlfriends, outraged parents, a long-suffering wife -- Sam does not want
for suspects. Ed admires many of the novels of the late John D. MacDonald,
which were also first published in UK editions by Robert Hale. One of them,
in 1959, was The Executioners -- later filmed twice as Cape
Fear. Ed recently picked up this book "for bedtime reading and read
to page 102 before turning out the light". His verdict contained a famous
tip, as applicable for westerns as other fiction: "This is a virtually perfect suspense novel. MacDonald wisely hews
to the Hitchcock rule -- suspense comes from knowing that the bomb
is under the chair. MacDonald plants the bomb in the first chapter and then
slowly lets the wick burn lower and lower. Several lesser incidents anticipate
the final explosion."
At his Bear Alley site, researcher Steve Holland recorded the pioneering
merchandising boom for westerns that accompanied William Boyd's adaptation
of the Clarence E. Mulford character Hopalong Cassidy. Steve's
insightful observations began, "Westerns have always had something of a
cyclical success in the UK. Hugely popular in the 1930s, the 1950s and 1970s,
they've gone through a variety of downturns; in the mid-1950s, science fiction
grew in popularity, exploring the frontiers of space rather than the frontiers
of the wild west; the boom in grim and gritty westerns began with the arrival
of George G. Gilman's Edge novels in 1972 and came to an end a decade
later, although Gilman's novels continued to appear until 1989. Just as
Gilman's Edge and Steele novels came to an end, there was a small surge
of interest in literary westerns around the time of Kevin Costner's Dances
With Wolves (1990), and movies such as Brokeback Mountain
(2005) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007) have proven that the western
can be as diverse a genre as any."
Trail to skid row.
Public Lending Right (PLR) enables authors in some countries to receive
payment under legislation for the loans of their books by public libraries.
A British writer told Writers Talk
a publication from the British PLR organization, "Dwindling royalty earnings,
thanks mainly to high discounting, have greatly increased the value of PLR
payments and made them, for me, an important part of core income." Other
research findings published by the organization were: A typical professional
author has seen income drop by £3000 a year since 2000. A typical writer
earns an average of £4000 a year -- less than a supermarket check-out
assistant. The top 10% of UK writers earn 50% of total income; in other equally
skilled professions the bottom 50% earn almost 40% of total income. Nearly
80% of UK authors need a second job to survive.
|Paul Wheelahan is known to BHW readers as authors Ryan Bodie, Matt James and Ben Nicholas,
but he earlier had a memorable career as an artist in the days when Australia
had a comic book industry. In an interview appearing at OzComics.com,
Paul told how, at age 20, utterly disillusioned by his lack of artistic
success in Sydney, he went back to live with his family in Armidale, New
South Wales, and found a job on the Oaky River Dam
project, where he worked as a jackhammer operator, tree cutter and powder
monkey. "A powder monkey stuffs with gelignite the long, deep holes drilled by men operating
wagon drills," Paul said. "He attaches fuses and blows out huge chunks
of mountainside. I worked with a certifiable maniac who was unbeaten in countless
street fights and who was probably the most vivid personality I ever knew. Sometimes we would put much more explosive down a hole than was
required. We did this one day and a chunk of rock the size of
a Holden car sailed high over where all of us were taking shelter. It came down
through the iron roof of a workshop, missing a migrant worker by a
whisker. Next day, I was back on the jackhammer and the Dutchman, named Steve,
was en route for Sydney and Amsterdam!"
Marines' "never enough westerns".
"Are you a reader of westerns?" Trudy W. Schuett asked. Trudy
is a contributing editor to the blog Dean's World and works in the library
at the Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, Arizona, where her husband teaches
marines how to fix their cars. Answering her own question, Trudy said,
"If you are, you probably realize new books in this genre are in short
supply. These days, they are the 'poor relation' of the publishing business.
Take heart, though, the indie publishers haven’t forgotten the dedicated
readers of western novels. . . . At the library, we have a surprising
number of dedicated readers of westerns who check 'em out by the armload.
This makes our collection look about 30 per cent smaller than it actually
is. Their major complaint is that there are never enough new ones. Mainstream
publishing has largely deserted this genre, which I find surprising since
they are so often read -- at least by the military."
Prices for new BHWs rose in May to £12.25.
Such is the inflationary world we all live in. . . . All, it might be added,
except for the books' writers whose work must largely be its own reward.
It has not been possible to raise the authors' payment for at least 15 years,
or from the days when a BHW sold for £7.25. Readers who buy their BHWs,
rather than borrow them from the library, tell us they search out good, secondhand
bargains at auction sites like eBay or through online used-book dealers.
Web explorations and comparisons one day in April showed BHW prices ranging
astonishingly from $1 or 50p, for titles like Ernest Haycox's Gun Up
("good condition, cover
slightly worn"), to $83.75 or £42.10, for Chap O'Keefe's Doomsday
("valuable title in great condition"). For new books, attractive
discounts can be found at www.halebooks.com
, the publisher's official site.
Price reductions are 30% and sometimes more.
Writer's strange journey of rediscovery
JACK GILES IN NEW TERRITORY
Tom Ford, the sheriff
of Stanton, was gunned down while trying to keep the peace between the hands
of rival ranches. Accusations of corruption against the sheriff were rife
and the way things looked a range war was about to erupt. News of Tom Ford's
death reached his son, Chris, and Marshal Sam Ward while they are hunting
down a killer.
With both men out of their jurisdiction and receiving no assistance from
the local law, Chris returned home to face his past and to find his father's
killer. The only way he could do that was by taking up his father's badge
-- only to discover that not everything was as it seemed.
In the Hoofprints section of our last edition RAY FOSTER, who began writing
westerns for Hale as Jack Giles in the 1980s, told how a stroke in 1999
effectively disrupted his work as a BHW author and he "lost" almost thirty
years of memories. Now he has recommenced writing westerns after going through
the unusual process of rediscovering his own bygone books. We told Ray we
thought his latest news would make a fascinating BHE article.
Ray said he had to rely on his wife to give her recollections for the
missing years, and that he didn't think his new western fitted in with what
Jack Giles wrote before. "But the fact that it has been accepted means
I can afford to gamble. Well, to some extent . . . and I can draw on my
own experiences. Another advantage of starting again is that I can experiment."
Our thanks to Ray for sharing another chapter in his absorbing comeback
story. . . .
HOW my new Black Horse Western, Lawmen
, was started is quite
My wife said that I couldn't just go off and do something -- to which
I replied that I could. At the time I was taking off my three-quarter-length
plaid jacket. And that is the opening to the book, complete with said red
plaid jacket. The story then took over. . . .
Lawmen contains a murder mystery line within it. It also
approaches old age and deals with a dysfunctional family. So, not exactly
the Jack Giles territory of old.
Poseidon Smith: Vengeance Is Mine and The Man From
Labasque were both written more than twenty years ago as books with
an eye on the Piccadilly Cowboys paperback market of the time. Two follow-ons
were also completed -- one for each.
has PC elements -- but the ending is pure fact.
When I watched the Civil War movie Gods and Generals
, I half
expected to see my characters burst out of the trees.
|Hell's teeth," Sam Ward exploded. " You can't just go swannin'
off. We got a job to do."
" The hell I can't," his companion
retorted. " Figure I can just do what I damn well want. This is family
business -- an' where I come from that's what comes first."
In contrast are Leatherface, Coalmine and
Duggan. In those three books I found a far more serious depth.
Duggan is a town drunk who gets the opportunity to redeem himself only
to discover that nothing really changes and that war produces no winners.
When Gareth Lloyd commits suicide in Leatherface, the
people think he has done something gallant. In reality, he can't live with
himself after he has been so badly burned.
Coalmine has an unnamed hero (until towards the end) but
it was the sub-plots that held my attention. Perhaps, of them all, it is
this book that showed that there was a definite look at a new direction.
Maybe Lawmen will be seen as fitting in with them after all.
I have to say that if circumstances had been different, I would have
collected the Jack Giles books as a reader. If there's a duff book, then
it has to be Ten Thousand Dollar Bounty. It has some good
sections, but I did find myself thinking that it could have been better.
Maybe I'll do as Howard Hawks did with Rio Bravo and remake
Finally, there's The Fourth Horseman. I loved it and I've
read a review of it. Like the reviewer, I thought it great, with Death
weaving his way through the storyline disrupting everybody's plans. There
is a moment when Death walks into a saloon and a man approaches him. And
Death says: " I haven't come for you." A magic moment.
What is strange to me is that I wrote those words. It is a very
weird experience, to read them, and cannot really be explained.
|He could not understand how any
man could accuse his father of accepting bribes. For all his faults, Tom
Ford had always been an honest man who had dealt fairly with other men.
From two half-finished books I've also read, it looked as though Jack
Giles was looking at new things to write about. One had a lot of research
notes; the other had nothing. The backgrounds to both were real but one
began with a funeral in New York. So some experimental work seemed to be
under way, was being attempted, was evolving.
I have said I think Louis L'Amour and George G. Gilman were my writing
influences. But now, as I can see back into my childhood, Frank C. Robertson
looms large. The first western I read was Horn Silver, which
Collins published in Britain. I've managed
to locate a copy and it now sits in my bookcase.
Another early memory . . . at the age of 14 I was the butcher's boy who
delivered meat to a certain Margaret Thatcher!
|"My deputy has gone home," he explained.
"Tom Ford was his pa."
Carrick's jaw dropped: "Tom Ford's
boy? Chris? The one that beat seven bells out of his father? You have
to be kiddin' me."
The first time I attempted to write a book was back in 1965. It was called
and was about the Rockers. Everything I wrote in it was factual right down
to the infamous Battle of Brighton where the Mods and Rockers clashed.
Yep, I was one of those people who rode a motorbike. Yet agents and publishers
rejected the book on the grounds it was unrealistic. So much for following
that maxim about writing what you know about.
I believe 1968-69 was an interesting period. I was "persuaded" to join
the Young Conservatives -- even though I had no interest in politics. One
thing led to another and I found myself writing again. Each week a speaker
would come down and the chairman thought it would be a good idea if someone
did a write-up. Nobody volunteered, so doing a bad Yul Brynner impersonation
I said, "Oh, hell, I'll do it."
For about a year I had a regular two-inch piece in the local newspaper,
the Orpington & Kentish Times -- my only foray into journalism. I did
get offered a job, but deadlines and me do not mix. The pieces I did do
had to be in by Tuesday, which gave me four days to play with.
|All the rage, all the feelings that Chris
hoped he would never experience again were in the punch that lifted Charlie
from his feet and sent him sprawling. Unlike their father, Charlie did
not get back on his feet.
Today, Lawmen can be looked at only as "book one" to me.
The next will be in contrast, for it establishes from the start that the
"hero" is not a nice person. It is, probably, the first time that I've
known what the end will be -- but the journey will be the most interesting
When I was at school, the teacher would put a sentence up on the board
-- for example, "The guard blew his whistle. . . ." and it was up to us
to finish the story. It still tends to happen. I get an opening and haven't
a clue where the story is going until I reach the end. This time I had
both the opening and an ending of sorts -- but not The End.
The work process I use is that the morning session is cleaning and polishing.
Evening session is to get a minimum of 500 words down. If I'm having a
good day, then I might do an extra writing shift. Using this system saves
having to edit the book after it's complete. The final polish means that
it's ready to go.
I think that's all I can tell . . . but if there is anything else you
would like to know, just ask. If I can't answer a question, I know someone
who can. I met her at the Young Conservatives!
|Design favoured by Blue and Grey|
A REVOLVER FOR ITS TIME
GREG MITCHELL describes another gun that shaped the history of the Old
West, the Whitney .36 Navy Revolver.
IN 1858, the E. Whitney Corporation, of New Haven, Connecticut, brought
out a very good revolver. It was chambered for the .36 Navy cartridge but
was used by both the Union Army and Navy during the American Civil War.
The gun was a six-shot, percussion revolver with a seven-inch barrel.
The Union forces purchased 11,214 of them. Others were bought privately
by officers and they gave good service. Officially, the Army calibre was
.44, but the Navy .36 was also popular with land forces. Though lacking
the power of the larger bullet, the .36 Navy was considered adequate and
was liked for its accuracy. By today's standards the .36 would be considered
marginal as a man-stopper but it was not to be taken lightly and notched
up its share of victims.
The Confederate government selected the weapon to copy for its own forces
and had approximately 1,450 made by the firm of Spiller and Burr. The frames
of these were partially iron and partially brass. Thousands more were required
but the South did not have the facilities to supply them.
The Confederates were not the only ones to copy the Whitney. The design
of the highly successful Army Colt .45 of 1873 was said to have been inspired
by the Whitney. Certainly there is a resemblance between the two guns.
Some Whitney Navy .36s were exported. The South Australian Mounted Police
used Whitneys and some expressed the opinion that they were superior to
the Navy Colt that was favoured by certain other colonial police forces.
The Whitney was also cheaper to buy, costing only £4.10s. (about $US18 in
the currency of the day).
The founder of the Whitney company, Eli Whitney Sr (1765-1825), is best
remembered as the inventor of the cotton gin, but he also developed the concept
of mass production of interchangeable parts and the assembly line.
His son, Eli Whitney Jr, was only five years old when his father died. The armory at
New Haven was operated by two uncles, Philos and Eli Whitney Blake. When Eli
junior came of age in the early 1840s, he assumed enthusiastic control of the
family business, expanding the complex to include three factories along the
Mill River. Before he retired in 1888, he had totally replaced the west bank
structures built by his father. The use of machines and the specialization
of labour begun by Whitney Sr after 1798 were extended. A workforce
of 40 to 60 grew to about 200.
Westward expansion had boosted a demand for guns, both for civilian and
military purposes. To diversify output from muskets and rifles to hand guns,
Whitney contracted with inventor Samuel Colt in 1843 to manufacture the
first of his revolvers for the Texas Rangers. With profits from the sale
of these Whitneyville Walker Colts, Colt set up his own armory in Hartford.
(See BH Extra, March 2007.)
Whitney also profited from the Mexican War (1846-48), during which he
sold armaments both to federal and state governments.
Eli Whitney Sr
Eli Whitney Jr
The manufacture of handguns
was a new venture for the Whitney Armory and it consolidated the younger
Whitney's reputation as an entrepreneur. The Colt contract gave Whitney the
chance to broaden the family firm's product, once again making it effectively
competitive. By 1850, the armory was building revolvers
of its own design. In 1851, it received a major contract
from the Navy for the production of 33,000 revolvers.
The company's website records that in
1867 alone, the company manufactured 11,000 guns of various
types at a cost of $76,764 and with return on investment
of $17,785. "This activity rendered a healthy profit of nearly 25 per cent."
After the Civil War, the company name was changed to the Whitneyville
Armory Manufacturing Company and specialized in small rimfire weapons in
.22 and .32 calibres, said to be of good quality.
Chief Sitting Bull, the nemesis of General Custer, was known to carry
a Whitney Navy.
The Whitney Navy never survived the change to metallic cartridges, although
a few were converted by private gunsmiths to fire .38 cartridges. Had this
weapon made the transition to metallic cartridges, it probably would have
proved popular in the West. Instead, it ended its days as an obsolete percussion
-- Paddy Gallagher, aka Greg Mitchell, whose next
Track Down the Devil, will be published in September.
Chief Sitting Bull
Published by Robert Hale Ltd, London
|Gunfight at Dragoon Springs
||0 7090 8546 1
7090 8565 2
7090 8575 1
|Riders from Hell
7090 8579 9
|Last Chance Saloon
7090 8580 5
|Hoke John's Land
7090 8589 8
7090 8577 5
|Showdown at Dane's Bend
7090 8596 6
|Last Man Riding
7090 8615 4
7090 8612 3
|Two for Texas
7090 8611 6
|The Dakota Deal
7090 8610 9
|A Gunfight Too Many
7090 8456 3
|Kill or Be Killed
7090 8555 3
|Last Mile to Nogales
7090 8609 3
|The Revenge of Iron Eyes
7090 8608 6
|Jeff Sadler & B.J. Holmes
7090 8619 2
|Hank J. Kirby
7090 8633 8
Horse Westerns can be requested at public libraries, ordered at bookstores,
and bought online through the publisher's website, www.halebooks.com, or retailers including Amazon, Blackwells,
WH Smith and VinersUK Books.
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