Dorothy Garlock discusses the western novel genre and the art of writing a 'western'.
THE WESTERN : WHAT IS IT?
The Romance novel has been around for a long, long time. Only lately has it
been classified as such. Many of the great classics are romances. For instance, Gone
with The Wind, Wuthering Heights, and Lorna Doone are all classic
tales of romance. The romance genre is a strong force in almost all of Frank
Yerby's books, as well as Anya Seton's Dragonwyck and Foxfire.
Remember Rebecca and Jamaica Inn? The movie The African Queen
was an historical love story.
I love writing romances. It's satisfying to hear from a reader that they got
lost in one of my pioneer stories and for a while forgot their problems.
The Western novel, as we now know it, seems to be any story set west of the
Mississippi during the last half of the 19th century.
The land west of the Mississippi was overwhelmingly vast, both beautiful and
brutal, a land of promise and pain, a land of unbelievable hardship and
unbelievable riches. The people who came west were people of noble strength and
virtue and some of the meanest SOB's to leave a mark on the face of American
The Old West is uniquely American. Nothing like it exists anywhere in the
world. Other lands may have had their wild and rowdy histories, but the Old West
belongs only to America.
As written in the Time/Life books of the Old West, the colorful drama of the
West unfolded quickly and ended within the span of a single long lifetime-
barely eighty years. Yet in spite of it's brief life, the Old West left a
permanent legacy-tales of remarkable people; Indians, mountain men, pioneers,
soldiers, settlers, cowboys, gunmen, and townspeople.
The Western Romance genre could well be split into such categories as the
Indian Romance, Cowboy Romance, the Trailblazers, the Railroaders, the Loggers,
the Miners, and so on. It seems appropriate to me that we should pay individual
tribute to all the people who settled the land west of the Mississippi instead
of lumping all of them together in something called THE WESTERN.
In Will Henry's Best, written by Dale Walker, he quotes Henry, the
author of No Survivors and Tom Horn, as saying, "The Western
is a native American literary genre that receives very little respect from the
literary world. In some cases that disrespect is justified." Henry deplored
what he called the present trend toward imposing the political and social stain
of our own times upon our pioneer ancestors. He said, "God knows the
pioneer days were cruel enough to the Indian and the other non-white groups
competing in what was essentially a white man's world. There is no need to
transfuse today's social diseases into the simpler bloodstream of yesterday. The
very idea of depicting the Indian or black man of frontier times as the same
Indian or black man who lives today is obscene."
In Will Henry's West, the heroes were flawed and blundered often.
Villains had greed for the excuse of being the way they were. Yet they seldom
mistreated their horses or a good woman. The Indians in his stories were neither
dim-witted, bloodthirsty savages, nor all-knowing, courageous underdogs with
twentieth century morals.
Louis L'Amour, the most respected of all the Western writers said, "The
West was wilder than any man can write it, but my facts, my terrain, my guns,
and my Indians are real. I've ridden and hunted the country. When I write about
a spring, that spring is there, and the water is good to drink."
To call a Romance novel a Western, it should be deeply and truly a Western.
You may exaggerate, romanticize and idolize, but you should not distort and
present a false picture of our recent past.
I THINK I'LL WRITE A WESTERN
So you're going to write a book--an historical romance. You tell yourself
that Westerns are selling now, and you know about Westerns. Heavens! Didn't you
watch Gunsmoke for years? Wasn't John Wayne your favorite actor? You wouldn't
even have to research the type of clothing worn during that time or the food.
Everyone knows that they ate beans and cowboys carried around cans of peaches in
The heroine will wear a calico dress or tight britches and a shirt opened to
show cleavage. Never mine that only coarse women such as Calamity Jane
wore britches in those days. Her hair will hang down her back to her waist and
will always be squeaky clean, free of tangles, twigs and lice. It will never
catch on a branch and pull her off her horse, or catch fire as she cooks over a
The hero will wear jeans tight enough to show off his . . . ah . . . manly
endowment. He always wears a cowhide vest and a bandanna handkerchief tied
around his neck. His hat is white and his mustache a-la-Tom Selleck. His jaw
is firm, his eyes piercing. He seldom smiles, but when he does, his teeth are
white and even.
The Indian in the story will, of course, be shirtless, wear fringed doeskin
pants, and a feather in his hair. He speaks good English and is the guy on the
Sounds easy, doesn't it? Think of all the time you'll save not having to
research your book.
Speaking of a realistic view, the Western seems to be leaning toward the
fantasy novel. Consider a few of the favorite Western plots--A white woman
falls in love with a handsome Indian. Never mind that their life styles up to
now have been completely different. She goes with him to his village, refuses to
be rescued, and they live happily ever after. This situation is not any more
realistic in that time period than it would have been for a southern belle in
the 1800's to fall in love with a black man and live with him in the slave
quarters. White men, however, during the early fur-trading days, took Indian
wives for sex and companionship. At the same time, they would have held contempt
for any white woman who took an Indian for a husband.
Cynthia Ann Parker was the only white woman I can recall (there may be more)
who fell in love with an Indian and wanted to stay with him. She was taken from
her family as a small child and grew up with the Comanche.
At that time the two cultures were so different that it would seem impossible
for a woman raised in the ways of the whites to be happy to spend the rest of
her life in a nomad existence, walking behind her husband, carrying the teepee
while he rode the horse. In today's society, the two cultures are not that far
apart and society accepts mixed marriages. But they were not accepted during the
To write an authentic Western, study the terrain in the area where you set
the story. There are NOT mountains between Dallas and Fort Worth. Cowboys did
NOT carry antiseptic in their saddlebags. The cowboys on roundups were NOT
served green-bean casseroles with mushroom topping. A cowboy would NOT go out
in a raging blizzard to get a tub of snow to melt in a make-shift fireplace in
a line shack because the heroine wanted to take a bath . . . (was this the only
way the author could think of to get her naked so they would make love?)
Another way to get a couple in the mood for lovemaking was to have them take
a bath together. (No one worries about pregnancy or getting the clap.) There
were more waterholes than streams in the real West and they were few and far
between. Waterholes, after the horses and cattle have stood in them, would be a
muddy, murky mess. The truth is if a woman got a full bath once a month, she was
lucky. Men bathed less often than that.
Consider this--the hero and heroine have been riding their horses through
hot, dry country for days, chased, of course, by the bad guys. They suddenly
realize that they are in love. Guess what? They stop beside the next nice flat
rock and have ORAL sex!
Names of characters in the Western are important. Never name your hero Jack,
John, Tom, or Bob--too common. Name him Hawk, Wolfe, Chance, Maverick or
Durango. The hero is on a mission of revenge when he meets the heroine.
Sometimes he wins her in a poker game, other times he finds her on a lonely
ranch, her family killed by renegades or Indians. She pleads with him,
"kill those who killed my family."
Sorry to say, fantasy Westerns are here to stay. So circle the wagons, folks,
and expect vampires, werewolves, and space creatures to be on the next wagon
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