June – August 2010
Jack Martin #2
Justice and the Western
Faith and a Fast Gun
Sex and Violence
Gold robbery mystery
Riding the Range
Blast to Oblivion
Tyler Hatch and Twins
December 2008All Guns Blazing
Jim Bowden & Co.
Revolver ConversionsSeptember 2008
Power of the Premise
West on Wheels
Plot or Not Debate
Plotters and Pantsers
More Horse Talk
Peace at Any Price
Artist Michael Thomas
Judging by Covers
The Schofield Revolver
The Walker Colt
Sydney J. Bounds
Jake Douglas & Co.
Facts for Fiction
Writers and Money
Putting Imagination in the Saddle Hoofprints
Last Word on Back-Cover Copy
Remington Revisited New Black Horse Westerns
The western genre is
categorized by Robert Hale Ltd, publishers of the Black Horse Western
books, as "light fiction". In the days of print catalogues, the BHW
list, like the publishers' Rainbow Romances list, was kept apart on
a separate sheet of paper. This gave only price, titles, dates of
publication and authors. Today, we have a Hale online catalogue where westerns and romances (especially historicals)
are better acknowledged.
But in an age when often fiction writing is seen as a
laudable occupation only if the material offers commentary of
wider social relevance, light fiction sits uneasily.
Westerns especially – notwithstanding Shane and Lonesome Dove –
regarded as inferior. They are trivialized as
non-literary, dated entertainment, not worthy of shelving
alphabetically by author name in many public libraries. Indeed,
authors are told library systems buy westerns only in a
job-lot, quota fashion on standing order. And when times are hard, the
shrinks on every arising pretext, which includes the mildest
complaint, sneer or unjustified slur.
Fay Weldon is an award-winning novelist, TV writer and professor of
creative writing at a London university. After participating as one of
a group of writers commissioned by the BBC to do updates of
Shakespeare's plays, Weldon later commented: "Free of the dead hand of
editors, and able the cite Shakespeare as their excuse, the writers
could write what was not politically correct or motivationally sound.
little in contemporary literature or drama surprises any more.
Literature is seen, as it was in Russia and in China and now
increasingly in the West, as a tool for the improvement of the nation:
that's why it gets so dull."
The "mass-market" paperback publishers have largely deserted the
traditional western, declaring it no longer a selling item. At one late
point they did make a futile effort to promote the genre as a sub-genre
of historical fiction, on the assumption this would endow it with broader
respectability. Books by writers like Louis L'Amour, T. V. Olsen and
Cameron Judd were reissued with new covers that, as well as having the
Historical Fiction on their spines, trumpeted slogans like "epic works
of historical fiction" and "an epic story of the building of our mighty
nation". It did not spark a revival in the western's fortunes.
So what will? No guaranteed answer comes to mind, but promotion
top-notch stories might help.
Promotion. . . While fiction writers generally have awoken to the
opportunity offered by websites, Black Horse Western writers – who
the number of different bylines suggests run into scores – have with notable exceptions not availed themselves of
the chance to bring their books, or their personal websites, to public
attention via this ezine. Invitations to contribute, forwarded by the publishers, go unanswered.
Without the profiles and views of a range of writers, a project such
a regular, quarterly Extra serves no purpose and is unlikely to
continue in its present form.
Top-notch stories. . . David Whitehead, an author of BHWs from year
one, 1986, presents below some excellent thoughts for your
consideration in his lead article, "Putting Imagination in the Saddle". One of our responses at
BH Extra, in addition to the suggestions Dave offers, is
that we could start with more attention to originality in titles. Too
many recent offerings cry out "old-hat" to even the newer and younger
No copyright exists in titles, of course, and nothing is inherently
wrong in re-using an old title if it's apt and appealing. But do we
need yet again the familiar like of The Vengeance Trail, Gun Law,
Rangeland Justice, Rough Justice, Two-Gun
Marshal and Gun Fury? Regardless of the contents of the books behind
them, all these tend to confirm the
general public's mistaken view that the genre offers nothing fresh or imaginative.
Old pulp magazine story titles from the 1940s, like The Devil Sent His Gun Angels! or Brand of the Mustang Queen or Mortgaged to the Dark Trail,
might be over-the-top, melodramatic and invite dismissal as "garish" trash.
But like the alluring cover paintings they graced, they do catch the
eye and suggest excitement and colourful characters. Escapism!
Another unhelpful canard is one that has been put about by
some of the writers themselves – namely, the plotlines of their
westerns number only a dozen which they repeat over and over. If this
is true, then they must be catering for an audience of constantly
changing membership. Consciously of otherwise, the modern reader seeks
more than the simplest variations on tried and tired themes and characters.
Novel twists and approaches are vital. The good Black Horse Western rewards the reader who spends his
or her precious leisure time in its world. But more on that from Dave.
. . .
Your comments and western news are always welcome at email@example.com
FREE excerpt here
|David Whitehead on westerns for changing times |
PUTTING IMAGINATION IN THE SADDLE
Texas Rangers sent Carter O'Brien south of the Border with orders to kill
a madman. It was said that his target – a murderous bandit named Salazar
– had the face of an angel and the heart of a demon. Given the choice, he'd
sooner have faced Salazar in a head-on gunfight than turn back-shooter and
kill him from hiding, but the only trouble with that idea lay with Salazar's
eight-strong gang of cut-throats. It was common knowledge that if you took
on one of them, you took on the lot – and even a professional fighting man
like O'Brien had to draw the line somewhere....
Shoot To Kill
of the things that concerns me more and more about the western is not only
how we’re supposed to keep interest in our beloved genre alive, but also
increase it. In the recent past we’ve seen a number of highly original online
initiatives designed to spread the word, but what happens after the word
has been spread, and potential readers rush down to their local libraries
or visit online bookstores to discover for themselves what’s so special about
the Black Horse Western?
It’s one thing to encourage readers to give the western a try, but something else entirely to keep them coming back for more.
There was a time when the western was a simplistic, straightforward story
of good versus evil: a classic morality play. And that was fine ... for the
times in which those books were first published. But today’s increasingly
sophisticated readers rightly expect more. They want a new take on the old
themes, original stories told in an engaging style, with strong, well-drawn
characters and plots that are almost impossible to predict. Certain factors
remain constant, of course – the hero must always win through and the bad
guy must always get his comeuppance. But it seems to me that too many writers
are reluctant to modernise their approach – and make no mistake about it,
my friends, we have to modernise or die.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a number of excellent writers working in the
genre, and their love of and commitment to the form is beyond question. But
what of the stories they’re telling, and the way they’re being presented?
Sometimes I think I’ll scream – or at very least loose off a strangled Apache
war-cry – if I read one more range-war story, or a tale about a man who spent
years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I’ve read all that, many times
over. What I want now – what I believe our readers want – is something different.
said, “Just how am I to supposed to stop this gang when the Texas Rangers,
the federales and the Guardia Nacional can’t even get near ’em?”
“Oh, that’s simple,” Taylor replied, and O’Brien
knew then that it wasn’t going to be simple at all. “As far as we’ve been
able to ascertain, the gang is about eight men strong. Half of ’em are mentioned
in the bible,” he said, referring to the comprehensive list of wanted men
that the Rangers updated and amended as the need arose. “The rest we’re not
“One thing we do know, however. That a common link
unites all of them. Destroy that link and they’ll break up, drift apart,
head for pastures new.”
not for one moment suggesting that we start producing stream-of-consciousness
westerns, or teen-market westerns, or using the genre to explore the frailty
of the human condition. There may be an art to writing a good western, but
let’s not kid ourselves here: the westerns we produce are not and should
not be considered as Art with a capital A. Our readers by their very definition
are highly moral, down-to-earth, no-nonsense types, and these are the people
we need to entertain, not alienate.
So what’s the answer? Since all the great western stories have been told, many of them more than once, where does that leave us?
It leaves us with a very tricky balancing act.
On the one hand, we must retain enough of the traditional to please long-term
readers. Take away too much of the traditional and then our westerns cease
to be westerns.
On the other hand, we have to go back to the history books and start winkling
out some of the lesser-known aspects of the period and creating new stories
around those. We need to work harder to make our readers feel the heat of
the deserts we describe, the biting cold of our snow-blocked passes, the
pain of a well-aimed punch or bullet-strike, and above all we need to make
our protagonists just as realistic as we can. After all, where’s the point
in following the exploits of a cardboard character who’s always going to
win through with hardly a smudge on his freshly-pressed shirt?
|O’Brien licked his lips. “And in this case, the link is ... ?”
“Their leader,” said Taylor. “Angel Salazar.”
O’Brien digested that. Then, just to be absolutely
sure there were no misunderstandings, he said, “So you want me to catch this
Salazar and bring him in alone?”
“To hell with bringing him in,” Taylor replied,
eyeing him steadily. “We want him assassinated, O’Brien. Understand me? When
you find him, we want you to kill him.”
need a greater degree of realism, then, not necessarily in our
portrayal of the period but certainly in the way we portray our
characters, and to this I would also suggest a greater emphasis on
Even if our plot isn’t necessarily the greatest, it will still succeed
in entertaining its audience if it’s told in an entertaining fashion,
with a clever and colourful use of language and dialogue.
the moment, the western here in the UK remains a much-maligned genre
– and, I have to say, with some justification. If we’re to turn that
opinion around and encourage the respect it so rightly deserves, we all
need to set our work standards higher, and finally move into
an exciting new era of storytelling..
beyond dispute that our readers want a good, original, fast-moving
tale. But likewise, we’ve got to move with the times if we’re to appeal
to the next generation of readers. By now all the classic themes have
been reworked many times over, and some of them, frankly, done to
death. We need to find new takes on old themes, but retain just enough
of the traditional to avoid alienating our older hands.
believe that one relatively painless way to modernise is to pay more
attention to our characters. As it stands, I sometimes think there’s
too much emphasis on historical accuracy and nowhere near enough on
character development. Speaking for myself, it’s never the promise of a
good showdown that attracts me to a western – it's first and foremost
an original twist on the old theme, followed closely by the style of
the writing and then the strength and credibility of the characters.
a recent interview for the Extra, author and Hollywood screenwriter Steve Hayes said he had
read a few BHWs that reminded him more of Hopalong Cassidy and Roy
Rogers than anything contemporary. This would be a compliment if it was
1950. But we’re now well into the new century, and so we MUST
modernise or wither.
rolled over, panic making her movements jerky and desperate. The rattler
went with her, loath to release its grip. As O’Brien surged across the ground
towards her, she shook her arm, hoping to hurl the snake away, but still
it clung to her, the black eyes beneath its fused eyelids curiously dead
as it whipped this way and that.
O’Brien estimated the snake to be at least four
feet long, with a thick, scaly body the colour of mud, black diamond shapes
and a distinctive black tail.
fact, Steve illustrates the point nicely. For why is it that I really
fear so much for the characters in his Gabriel Moonlight books? Why do
I care so much? It’s because they’re brought vividly to life by what
they say and how they behave, and the situations in which they find
I said a few lines back, we HAVE to drag the western and our approach
to it into the 21st Century. We have no choice if we’re to keep it
been reading westerns now for more than forty years. I love ’em. But
I’m starting to get a little sick and tired of hearing the same
response every time I mention the ‘W’ word. Without fail it’s always,
“Oh yes. My granddad used to read those.”
over the years have people STOPPED reading westerns in such numbers?
What is it about a good old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out,
head-’em-off-at-the-pass style western that has gradually fallen out of
favour? I guess it’s just that – old-fashioned.
the struggling girl, he thrust his right hand down at the spot just behind
the rattler’s flat head, grabbed it, squeezed –
The snake’s jaws opened at last.
Amidst all the chaos, O’Brien saw the thin holes
just beneath the knuckles of Maria’s left finger. The blood welled up from
them and the snake began coiling itself around his right arm like some sort
of bizarre living bracelet.
western has had a remarkable run. Setting aside the dime novels, the
western novel started with Owen Wister’s The Virginian 1902. The first
western movie, The Great Train Robbery, was shown in 1903. Staggering numbers of books
and movies have followed, some good, some bad and some downright ...
well, you get the picture. It’s a mark of the genre’s popularity that
it has survived all the rubbish.
thinking is not so much to produce “higher class” westerns, as westerns
of a higher standard. To me that means trying to turn all the old plots
on their heads and telling new stories with compelling characters in an
I said before, it’s a very difficult balancing act. But let’s assume
that the message is finally getting through to all those readers who
have never read a western before and finally decide, what the heck,
I’ll give one a try. Do we want him or her to say, “Well, I started
reading one and it was just as I suspected – white hats vs. black hats/
cowboys against Indians/ range wars/ lawman hunting outlaws/ cattle
drives/ cattle rustling/ delete as applicable.”
would we prefer them to say, “You know, I'd already decided I wasn't
going to like that book even before I started reading it, but actually
it was nothing like I expected it to be. In fact, I really enjoyed it.”
all well and good to promote the western, but attracting new readers is
only half the battle. If we’re to keep them then we MUST give them
tighter and better-told stories, featuring more interesting and well
rounded characters and more original, involving situations.
David Whitehead, aka Ben Bridges, Matt Logan and others.
His BHW Shoot
to Kill is republished in June
in a soft-cover edition by Magna Large
Lost and found.
|Impressions of a diverting kind
Guns, the June BHW by top-hand Queensland author Keith Hetherington
(aka Jake Douglas and several others) was on the verge of going no
further than chapter one in February of last year. Octogenerian Keith
had been super-busy reorganizing his office. Here's the story in his
own words: "The job included assembling a
ready-to-assemble desk. But who said it was ready-to-assemble?
lost in the translation, I think, between South-East Asia (read China)
old Oz. Finally I got it going, but only by using logic instead of
trying to follow the 'illustrated instructions'. Looked like
a four-year-old kid had done them. Anyway, modified things a bit,
adding an under-desk shelf where I can store my word
processor, rearranged the room and its contents and ... you guessed
couldn't find a bloody thing without a major search!" Mislaid items
included notes vital for Gideon's Guns. Keith had been "on a bit
of a run ... and after writing the first
chapter out of my head, I realized I didn't know where my plot book was
with all the info I needed so I could continue. Eventually I located it
on my chairside table in the lounge, buried under local papers and
current reading." Keith had no recollection of taking it there, but
"things were rolling again,
that's what's important." The novel was completed and "much enjoyed" by
publisher John Hale. By April 2009, the book contract had been signed and
was on its way back to London. The blurb tells us, "Gideon Kirk had lived on the edge of the law for ten years, above
and below the Rio. When he returned to Texas to take over his ailing
father's freight business, he believed it was the deal he
needed to shake off his past for good. But old enemies followed him and
new foes appeared...."
Blogger Richard Prosch
(Meridian Bridge) commented on the multi-tasking
difficulties faced by fiction writers. "Maybe we can’t be good at
everything. Should we even try? Where can we find inspiration? What
would Ernest Haycox
do?" We googled and came up with the following
about Haycox, several of whose genre classics were reprinted in the 1990s as
BHWs: "Haycox sought to eliminate
distractions, although he was not particularly successful at doing so,
being involved in Republican Party affairs, numerous community
projects, and the activities of his alma mater
the University of Oregon. At the time of his death in October 1950, he was
a trustee of the Multnomah Athletic Club, a director of the Oregon Historical
Society (where he was put to work writing informational highway signs), and
the immediate past president of Portland Rotary and the Oregon Dad's Club."
All these activities involved different skill sets from those employed in fiction-writing.
For most, they would easily have been not just distractions but killers to
doing creative work. Today, what used to be called "mid-list" novelists are
routinely expected to contribute, especially via Web activities, to promotion
of their published work. Sometimes the author's efforts seem about all that's
on offer. How, it was wondered, would Haycox have coped in the 21st century?
Haycox's busy life.
Art isn't spaghetti.
Italian composer and conductor Ennio Morricone
is best known to
western fans for his distinctive scores for director Sergio Leone's
groundbreaking movies A Fistful of Dollars
(1964), For a Few Dollars
(1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(1966) and Once Upon a Time
in the West
(1968). But the Oscar winner has composed and arranged scores for more than
500 film and television productions. Gearing up in April to conduct a programme
at the Albert Hall in London he was described by The Times of London as "the
81-year-old dapper don of soundtracks". The newspaper also said Morricone
preferred to call Leone’s classics "Italian westerns" and strongly disliked
the "spaghetti" nickname. He said: "It is impossible to compare something
that belongs to art with something you eat."
Much more goes into the making of a genre fiction line than a
liking by its staff for westerns, romances, SF or whatever.
Digital publishing advocate Angela James
was appointed executive editor
of the Harlequin publishing group's new e-book venture, Carina Press.
Putting together her editorial team, she said, "I
made some inroads into working through the copy editor tests and
developmental editor emails. I’ll be sending out some emails today, but
I’m still working on copy editors. Copy editors are actually much more
difficult to hire than developmental editors, for some reason. Part of
it is that, over the years, I’ve found that some people think they have
the chops for copy editing, because they pick out typos or missing
punctuation in the books they read, but the truth is that copy editing
is an incredibly multi-layered position and to be a copy editor, you
have to be highly skilled, very detail-oriented, know the ins and outs
of The Chicago Manual of Style
and grammar rules quite well, and be
able to remember details, timelines and other things in order to
compare and spot inconsistencies. In short, it takes amazing focus and
not many of us have that."
Truth about editing.
What do "outsiders" make of BHWs? Blogger Michael
Peverett reviewed Alan Irwin's Raiders of the Panhandle alongside a
Scandinavian translation of Chet Cunningham's Die of Gold (1973), which
had used the same cover illustration. Michael said: "In 1973 the
western was not a dead genre, nor is it now, but the transmutation that
produces Raiders of the Panhandle
(2000) is particularly odd. You may have noticed your local bookshop does
not brim over with unpretentious westerns. The Black Horse Western series
is published, moreover, in hardback and I suppose it is aimed entirely at
libraries, whose audiences will sometimes want to read what they would never
buy, and may include some who never normally read at all.... Irwin's
narrative is entirely functional and even its dialogue is of the plainest,
preferring indirection ('The rancher went on to tell Jim of the entirely
unforeseen catastrophe which had befallen the family on the previous day').
The extremely chaste courtship of Jim and Miriam ('I'm all in favour of that
idea of yours' – Jim kissed her...') seems comically out of synch with the
usual medley of knives plunged in the heart and multiple shootings. (The
villains, surprisingly, are carted off to be hanged by due process, somehow
a far more disquieting end than being gunned down in a shootout.) Atmosphere
and detail arise solely from Irwin's precision about hardware ('his old American
Arms 12-gauge shotgun') and about notating the action.... Remarkably,
something survives that we recognize, in a malnourished way, as the same
old genre with the same old power." A comment left at the blog pointed
out not all BHWs had relationships 'extremely chaste' or 'comically out
of synch' with blood-and-thunder, although this direction was allegedly now
favoured by libraries. Some writers still strived to meet the exacting reader's
requirement for atmosphere and detail, narrative more than functional and
dialogue more than plain.
Western authors have a quaint and longstanding habit of naming
characters in their stories after fellow writers. It was followed, for
instance, by the British coterie of the 1970s and '80s who became known
as the Piccadilly Cowboys. But here's a new twist. Lee Floren
(1910-1995) was a prolific writer for the pulps in the 1940s who later
moved on to supplying the mass-market paperbacks. Reprints of his books were among the earliest BHWs. His Black Gunsmoke
was published in 1951 by Star, then in 1968 by Paperback Library
and in 1987 as a Linford large-print. In chapter four, Floren
introduces Jack Martin, straw boss of the stage and freight line hero Mark Aswell
has just bought: "A burly man, red-headed and wide, sat at the desk,
filling the chair with his muscular body. His back was to Mark and Mark saw
the red hair on his freckled arms. The man wore a blue chambray shirt and
evidently he had once used suspenders, for the marks of the suspenders were
dark against the faded blue of the shirt.... The swivel chair squeaked around.
Mark saw a wide, almost ugly face, gross with freckles and red whisker stubble,
complete with a flat nose that either a man's fist – or a mule's kick – had
flattened ... a big young man, ugly and uncouth and smelling so strongly
of the stable...." Jack Martin today, of course, is the BHW
pen-name of writer, Tainted Archive blogger and good friend of the
Extra Gary Dobbs. We know he'll be smiling!
Floren's crystal ball.
Just call me Clint!
Actress-scriptwriter Emma Thompson's character Nanny McPhee, a
formidable and mysterious
governess with magical powers, is ostensibly based on the Nurse Matilda
books by British crime writer and children's author Christianna Brand. But the Australian Northern Rivers Echo
reported that Londoner and double Oscar winner Thompson's true
inspiration lies elsewhere. "Nanny McPhee is a western," Thompson said.
"It is, in fact, exactly the same form: she comes in and does the
job and then rides off into the sunset." Thompson's heroes weren't so
much Mary Poppins, but more the
gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood. She recalled growing up in London
and curling up with her parents on the sofa to watch film and TV
westerns. "The Virginian – I loved that, it was absolutely fantastic. I
just loved those forms and they are all about conflict and the
resolution of conflict by people using strange and unorthodox methods.
And that's who she is: Nanny McPhee is The Virginian for kids." Thompson's new movie is Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.
With computer technology, historical research for western novelists has
become a heap easier and faster. Putting a search engine to work
is often step one. Nonetheless, while some very senior writers bravely
adapt, reports continue of veteran and not-so-veteran BHW
writers unashamedly proclaiming themselves digitally illiterate. Says one,
"I'm too much of a Luddite. I don't have an email address – or even a
computer." Hoofprints remembered a letter written in 1941 by Ernest
Haycox (who has already featured in this set) to his editor, Ray
Everitt of publishers Little, Brown: "We'll let the reference stand.
Condensed milk was first processed in cans circa 1885 and is therefore
accurate enough in point of time for our story [The Wild Bunch].
Incidentally, what this country needs is a good reference book dealing
in the history and usage of our common, everyday articles. Take the
match, the lamp, the field of illumination. It is an all-day chore to
search out when the present phosphorus-tipped match came into current
usage, how long the sulphur match had vogue before it, when tinder and
flint gave way to the sulphur match. Take tobacco. When did the cigar
...." We can think of no better argument for computers than
reducing what in 1941 were all-day chores!
Nothing like baffling western fans! In the 1960s and '70s, Frederick Nolan (British novelist,
editor, sales director and much else) wrote 14 westerns as Frederick H.
Christian. Five were sequels to the Sudden series of the 1930s and '40s
created by Oliver Strange. These were published and reprinted over and
over as Corgi paperbacks and as library hardbacks by White Lion. Nine
others were stories of Frank Angel, troubleshooter for the US
Attorney-General, published in the US by Pinnacle and in the UK by
Sphere. In 2005, Robert Hale Ltd reprinted four of the Christian
Suddens as BHWs under new titles not naming Sudden. The first was
Beyond the Badlands (previously Sudden Strikes Back). BHW reprints of the Angel series began in December
2004, using Fred Nolan's anagrammatic pen-name Daniel Rockfern and some of the titles that
had been used for US reprints. Two of the eleven Rockfern Angels
reissued as BHWs were books ghostwritten by Mike Linaker and were new to
English readers, having appeared previously only in German
translations. The BHW series concluded with Duel at Cheyenne (previously Take Angel) in April
2008. But a fresh Daniel Rockfern title is listed for June 2010: Hell in the
Mesquites. Steve Myall, of the trusted Western Fiction Review blog,
tells us, "The new Rockfern book is the fifth Sudden book written by
some reason it's being put out as a Rockfern book rather than by
Christian like the previous four. Hale hasn't published the Sudden
books, or the Angel books, in the order they were originally published.
Some Angel books, and Sudden (I believe), had different titles given to
them in America. The
biggest problem with both series is the reading order is different to
the published order and this has caused great debate
with fans." Hell in the Mesquites was previously Sudden Troubleshooter.
Hoofprints stayed on the trail and discovered Sudden Troubleshooter has
been published twice before in library hardback under the Frederick H.
Christian name – by White Lion and Chivers (Gunsmoke Western). But more importantly it was
time to track down author Fred Nolan, who kindly gave the following
explanation of the new Rockfern/Sudden mystery: "Put simply, the answer is
'a cockup'. What happened was that Hale sent the contract to my agent.
He kept one copy and sent the other two to me to sign and return to
Hale. We were all so pleased – my agent and I because the forgotten
Sudden had found a home, Hale because they now had the full set – that
none of us noticed the author's name was Rockfern, not Christian. I
haven't bothered to tell Hale, because I imagine it's probably too late
to do much about it, but there is no hidden agenda."
What's in a name?
Ubiquitous no more.
asked, "Are more titles planned for the brilliant Black Horse Extra Book series?" Immediately,
no. But for the future, who knows? The intention was to offer today's readers
western fiction in a convenient, pocket-book format, like the slim paperbacks
of happier publishing times when they were seen on racks everywhere. It was also to
restore to writers a measure of freedom to work outside the constraints of
new restrictions on content (see the article "Justice and the Western"
in our previous issue). It wasn't to set up any alternative supply of books
for "free" borrowing from libraries who purchase with public-purse money on
standing order. That limited market is well catered for by the regular
Black Horse Western series. So far, the level of sales of the BHE paperbacks
doesn't make it feasible to extend the series to include more authors. We believe
the writers we would want to feature should be paid properly, whereas
the books on sale now are priced to cover only manufacturer's and sellers'
costs. If you want to see more original paperbacks – brimming with action,
interesting characters and new twists – more buyers are going to have to place
orders for the two titles already available! They are the universally well
Lil Cheats the Hangrope
and Liberty and a Law Badge
Where "say it again" doesn't work
LAST WORD ON BACK COVER COPY
RINGING the changes in storylines for genre fiction is crucial.
Rewriting what has gone before ad infinitum has already been
discussed in this edition. Mention has also been made of titles and – in
several previous editions – of generic book cover art only loosely connected
to text content. But what about blurbs?
What do readers and authors think about them? The blurb writer is
tightly confined by word count and clichés too easily become his or her
stock-in-trade. For example, a blogger recently noted, rightly, that
if mystery plays a part in your novel the phrase "tangled web" or
similar is likely to occur!
Candy Proctor (aka historical mystery novelist C. S. Harris and one
half of thriller writer C. S. Graham) also explored the subject at Candy's
Blog. As noted here before, her blog is an excellent meeting place for writing
and reading minds from all genres. She wrote:
"You know what cover copy is, right? It’s that little blurb on the back
of a paperback or on the inside flap of a hardcover dust jacket that
tells you what the book is about. A great cover might lure readers to
pick up a book in the store, but it’s the cover copy that usually seals
their impulse to buy. Some people are amazingly adept at reaching into
the heart of a story and distilling its essence in a way that is both
intriguing and profound; most people, quite frankly, suck at it.
"I suck at it.
cover copy and writing books are two very different arts. Good cover
copy is more like song writing or poetry; it's a skilful seduction
that uses key words and the emotions they evoke to tempt and woo the
reader. To quote one Internet guru, 'The words you place on the back
cover of your book are the words that
will either walk your book right up to the cash register or march it
back to the shelves. Your back cover is the final billboard, a
point-of-sale advertisement, and the last piece of promotional material
that hits potential purchasers on their way to pay. It can either lure
readers inside your pages with well-chosen words or knock the wind out
of your sales with faint and feebly-phrased copy.'
words, cover copy is scarily important. Did I mention the fact that
most people suck at it? Unfortunately, a lot of those people are
employed by publishing houses in what they call the 'copy department'.
"In the last week, I’ve had cover copy for both Where Shadows Dance and The Babylonian Codex land in my email box with notes from my books’ respective editors that
said something like, 'This just in from the copy department. It’s
awful! Can you fix it?' The problem is, an author is usually not the
best person to have writing cover copy. I mean, I just spent 100,000
words telling this story and now you want me to reduce it down to 250
words or less, in a way that will seduce readers into buying it?
"In the end, the final product is usually a mishmash
of what the copy department wrote and what I wrote, with some tweaking
by the editor. In other words, copy by committee. And you know how well
that usually works out."
In response, Melissa Marsh commented:
"I've written back cover copy for a major print-on-demand company (I won't
name the company to protect the innocent...or guilty, as too many of the
books are quite horribly written) for the past five years. No, it's not easy,
but after doing probably well over 1,000 of them (I wish I was kidding!),
I've found that there are some key tricks to making them work. One thing
is for sure – learning this process has certainly helped me in writing my
query letters for my own novels!"
Candy said: "Melissa, I think perhaps I am starting to get better the more
I do. Some research I did on high concepts seemed to help. But 1,000 of them?
OMG! I'd slit my own throat."
To which Melissa said, "Sad, isn't it? After you do so many, you can almost do them in your sleep!"
Charles Gramlich commented:
"Although I don't worry much about covers, I do indeed read and pay attention
to cover copy. I've probably bought quite a few books based on back cover
copy. I enjoy writing it myself, as I did for the Borgo Press books. But
it isn't easy. It's much much more like writing a short story, even a flash
fiction, than it is like writing a novel."
The "Internet guru" Candy quoted turned out to be Sari Mathes, of Llumina, one of
those friendly, print-on-demand presses that will issue a book once its author
has kicked in $799. Though this business method covers a press's back while
doing zilch for its credibility as a publisher, Sari has a website piece
neatly titled "Back Cover Copy is the Welcome Mat to the Front Door of Your
It gives some of the basics as follows:
"Authors often submit synopses when it’s time to develop their back cover
copy. No! Yes, you do want to give a tiny preview of what’s inside, a reader
should get an idea of what to expect, but please save the Cliff Notes versions
for the Ingram listings. Instead, take a lesson from the internet search
engine marketers. Good back cover copy should include significant details
that may incidentally appeal to your audience and make the difference between
sealing the deal and sending your book back to sit on the shelf.
"Giving details about your book without giving away the story synopsis-style should be your goal. Who-what-where-when is a good journalistic formula when used sparingly, but it should only hint at what’s inside."
Virtually identical advice was given several years ago by BHWs' own
David Whitehead. He said:
over-emphasize the importance of a GOOD blurb. I've read a number in
which the story is told, pretty much from start to finish. We all know
the sort of thing: 'Jim loses his job on the Flying Z ranch. He then
goes down to Arizona, where he becomes a Ranger. Here he foils a bank
robbery and becomes the governor's personal bodyguard. An attempt is
made on the governor's life, but Jim's quick wits soon bring the
assassin to justice. Then Jim tracks down the man who hired the killer.
It's Hank Franks, his old boss back at the Flying Z. Only when Jim
shoots Hank dead can he really be free.' What's that all about? If
anything, I tend to ask a lot of questions in my blurbs, hoping to hook
the reader. 'What was Bill's secret? Who was the man in black...?"
Steve Myall, of the helpful online Western Fiction Review, a reader and
collector of westerns for decades, said at the same time:
"If it's a writer I'm familiar with, and enjoy, then I don't read the
blurb; I'll be buying the book anyway. If it's a series book and it's a
character(s) that I enjoy reading about then, again, the blurb doesn't
"If it's a new author to me, then yes I'll read it. If there's a few
writers' work to choose from, I use the blurb to help decide which
storyline appeals the most. For instance, there seem to be a lot of
BHWs about range wars or lawmen of some kind, so if one had a different
plot I'd probably choose that.
"Also I don't want a blurb that gives too much away. Sometimes the
blurb outlines nearly all the events in the book, so it can seem
pointless reading the book. This has happened on a few BHWs and books
from other publishers. I remember David Robbins being annoyed by how
much of the plot was given away on Wilderness #38. To me, the blurb
should arouse interest not outline the whole story."
Publisher John Hale responded to an author's complaint with an
explanation of his company's policy on BHW blurbs:
"I am sorry not to have been able to agree to the inclusion of the
original blurb you wrote.... The reason is basically that we wished
to conform to a pattern which broadly comes down to a maximum of about
120 words compared with your 152, a proper beginning, middle and end, and
a blurb which does not reveal too much of the plot. Incidentally we
prefer the past tense rather than the present in most instances.
"As you are probably aware, most publishers seem not to consult authors
at all about blurbs but our policy in asking for authors to supply them
is to obtain a good indication of what the author would like and we then try
to reconcile that with our own format. We believe it is advantageous from
the point of view of sales that the blurbs follow a traditional pattern and
whilst I accept that your blurb was indeed unique I am not sure that this point
in itself has particular validity when it comes to sales."
This ultra-cautious approach continues to mirror much of the publishing
policy in general when it comes to novelty as a point of appeal in
westerns. Perhaps the libraries' acquisitions staff, or library supply
firms, do look for a blurb that doesn't require them to read the book!
authors also had their blurb moans, as authors will.
One said: "They asked for about 125 words. But for my first novel I
gave them exactly what they asked for and they rewrote it, doubling the
length. So, the next time I gave them about 250 words. They left it
alone – all except the last sentence, which was better the way they
edited it. I'd say to take your cue from other write-ups and, of
course, KISS it."
A second said:
"I've noticed Hale's sneaky tendency to rewrite blurbs with more words
than the author is supposed to use. I was appalled when I saw the
rewritten blurb for [the author's book], which had largely been turned into
a string of clichés, ending in a phrase along the lines of 'the shadow
of death overshadowing everything'. Not only was it terrible, but [the hero] had almost been
removed from the blurb, in favour of another character.... Anyone
reading the altered blurb would have been puzzled about why the book
was titled [with the hero's name in it] and not [the other
character's]! I was reluctant to interfere, but I hated the idea of
this dreadful blurb being stuck on the back of my book, so I toned it
down and asked if it could be changed. I was pleased to receive an
apology, and [the book] got a much better blurb."
The author who had complained originally to Mr Hale then said: "This
has happened to me a number of times.... They have really degraded some
of my blurbs, adding redundancies and even mistakes."
Yet another prominent BHWer said:
"I couldn't help but smile at the blurb for Bill Morrison's
Revenge Comes Late. I've often wondered
if any author has dared to write a blurb that was so general they could
stick it on the back of any novel and it'd still describe the story,
save themselves the trouble of ever having to write a new one. And this
has a damn good try. The first sentence rather ruins the effect by hinting at
what the story might be about. But thereafter it's a work of pure
"'When two young gaolbirds were at last released, they had but one
thought in mind: to seek revenge against the man who had betrayed them.
the flame of vengeance is fickle, and sparks from it can alight wherever
the tinder of resentment is dry and waiting, setting the land into a
sudden conflagration. So it was in that hot summer, when men raised
to see the dead past come alive into a terrible present, where old
wounds reopened, and guns blazed to settle old scores. Many were drawn
into the smoke and flame of the final battle. But such was the carnage
would emerge unscathed.'
"Now, try writing a western where you can't use that blurb!"
Joshing aside, this author also told us: "I always write a draft blurb
after completing the first full draft. As
my method is to not plan my stories in advance, that first draft often
a lot of loose ends and cul-de-sacs, so I use the blurb to answer that
all-important question of what the hell have I just written? The blurb
me to define what the point of my story is, and armed with that I can
on bringing out that point when I edit the next draft of the story."
Chap O'Keefe joined the debate with the observation that this was an excellent point "worth
its weight in gold to a fair number of writers.... Writing a blurb will
focus your mind on what the story is about: The main character(s), what he/she/they
want(s), what's in the way."
But the creation of all his books began with a fairly detailed working
synopsis, corresponding perhaps to a film script's scenario.
"Consequently, I could write my blurb before I ever set to work on the
book. Instead, I find it best to write it somewhere along the way,
usually around the fifty pages mark, because
– as [the other author] says – it helps focus the mind on the issues.
It's a double-check that I've not started to stray. Doing it last would
be a mistake for me, since I don't do second
drafts, only tidy-ups and the one printout for the publisher."
|Greg Mitchell on an artist's view of the Old West |
Part Two of a BHW novelist's examination of the paintings of
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
– world renowned for
life in the Wild West.
THE details in Frederic Remington's illustrations for books and magazines
lift the artist from the ranks of what some art snobs sneeringly call "simple
illustrators". His work is always more than just depictions of men and horses.
Consider his Harper's Weekly illustration In from the Night Herd
done in 1886.
Just a soldier on a horse ? Look again.
The trooper concerned is from K troop of the 4th. Cavalry. There are identifying
marks on his canteen cover. For some reason, man and horse have been having
some sort of disagreement. Possibly the animal became excited herding other
horses, but there are flecks of foam around the bit and the rider is using
a strong, sliding grip on the reins. This grip is never seen in show circles
but is commonly used by working horsemen dealing with fractious animals because
it gives almost instant control.
The 30ft (about 9m) lariat carried by cavalrymen can be seen and it is tied
in such a way as to prevent dangerous coils that might ensnare a rider if
an accident occurs. In my latest Black Horse Western, Murdering Wells
, the cavalry lariat came in handy when the hero captures an army deserter and goes after his comrades.
Every cavalryman carried a 30-feet lariat attached to his saddle in a tightly-wound hank.
Luke ordered his prisoner to lie on the ground while he
detached the rope and expertly hog-tied him. Then he used Sandy's bandanna
as a gag. "Now lie there quietly and someone will be along shortly to release
you. This is your lucky day."
But back to Remington's picture. The trooper's saddle is a McClellan but
it does not have the usual hooded stirrups. The Whitman saddle, used in limited
numbers during that period, had open stirrups but a McClellan is clearly
Was it just one man's preference or was K troop experimenting with a new
type of stirrup? The cavalry tried many experimental pieces of equipment
with the troops in the field.
The carbine raises another query. It is in a full-length scabbard and carried
on the left side, butt-forward at a time when carbines were usually carried
in a short socket on the right side with the butt near the trooper's hip.
Most of Remington's art shows the carbine on the right side until well into
the 1890s. By 1900 the full-length scabbard carried on the left was uniform
throughout the cavalry, but we know from Remington's art that it was adopted
By contrast his cowboys carried their rifles on either side and often across
the pommel, although Hollywood has deemed that rifles are always carried
on the right side.
The butt of a revolver showing behind the trooper's left hip tells us that
he is using a right-handed civilian holster that has slipped around on his
cartridge belt. If he was wearing the military holster, the butt would be
turned the other way and would not be visible. In its current position, the
man could only reach his revolver with his left hand and for a horseman that
would be impractical because reins are always held in that hand. Had the
artist seen such an arrangement or had he just shown the gun butt to make
the picture more colourful ? We will never know.
In 1902 Remington illustrated Theodore Roosevelt's book Ranch Life and The Hunting Trail
At first glance there is little unusual about the sketch of two cowboys hauling
a couple of reluctant horses along what the artist said was A Hard Trail
The noticeable feature is that both cowboys are not carrying traditional,
single-action, 1873 model, Colt .45s with their plough handle grips. The
birds-head butts protruding from their holsters show that the weapons are
later, double-action models, probably Colt Lightnings or Thunderers.
, done in
1883 for Harper's Weekly is a very interesting illustration. We see
two riders descending a hill, a civilian, possibly a Mexican, leading and
a soldier following. It is not known how they fit into the story, but the
foremost rider seems to be expecting trouble and appears to be carrying a
rifle in his right hand. He is either left-handed or is a two-gun man.
But the real genius is in how the horse is depicted. At first the rider appears
to have his reins too slack to be in any way effective but then the look
on the horse gives the game away. It has the high-headed, nervous look of
an animal with a mouthful of potentially painful ironmongery. A very close
examination of the sketch showed a spade bit. These are particularly hard
on horses and while it is argued that only the most expert riders can use
them, one wonders if such an expert would need one. The rider is keeping
the lightest possible pressure on the bit, hence the long reins.
Remington could have drawn an ordinary horse and rider and none would have
been any the wiser. The small details he includes show not only his artistic
skill but a true knowledge of his subject.
This artist's work varied greatly over the years beginning with simple sketches
and going through to elaborate oil paintings and sculptures. The characters
are all there, Indians, trappers, hunters, cowboys and soldiers.
We see glimpses of ranch life, the native-American tribes and details of
the last Indian Wars. Not all this art has universal appeal but it contains
a certain inspiration that could set a writer's ideas flowing and for that
reason alone I would recommend it.
– Paddy Gallagher, who writes his BHWs as Greg Mitchell. His
new book, Murdering Wells, was published on April 30.
Published by Robert Hale Ltd in May, June and July
|Owen G. Irons
||0 7090 8883 7
7090 8899 8
|Raiders of the Mission San Juan
7090 8900 1
|A Bullet for Ben McCabe
7090 8919 3
|Big Trouble at Flat Rock
7090 8920 9
|The Sunset Kid
|Michael G. George
7090 8921 6
|Joseph John McGraw
7090 8922 3
|The Killing Trail
7090 8898 1
|The Hunting of Lope Gamboa
7090 8925 4
7090 8927 8
7090 8928 5
|Hell in the Mesquites
7090 8929 2
|A. Dorman Leishman
|0 7090 8932 2
|The Treasure of Santa Maria
|J. William Allen
7090 8935 3
7090 8934 6
7090 8936 0
|Loner with a Gun
7090 8938 4
|Hideout at Mender's Crossing
7090 8939 1
|Robbery in Savage Pass
|D. M. Harrison
7090 8940 7
|The Broken Horseshoe
|0 7090 8946 9
|Return to Lonesome
|0 7090 8948 3
Liberty and a Law Badge
978 1 4452 3857 9
Horse Westerns can be requested at public libraries or ordered at bookstores. They can be bought online from the publisher at www.halebooks.com,
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IN PAPERBACK NOW . . .
"From the very beginning this book moves
at speed and then races along like a runaway train heading for a collision
and destruction. As Chap O’Keefe introduces more and more characters, so
the plot deepens through twists and turns, and all sides are brought together
for a final, exciting clash of wits, guns and knives.
"Chap O’Keefe’s writing style is very readable and soon sucks you into the
plot making this book very difficult to put down. There are plenty of strong
male characters and a couple of memorable women, namely Liberty and Sophie,
who take two of the leading roles in this tale. And if it’s action you want,
this story is brimming with it."
– Western Fiction Review
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