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 civilization.
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 their saddlebags.
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 campfire.
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 spotted pony.
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 1800's.
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 train west.
Copyright 2001 Time Warner Bookmark
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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