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Writing along the Chisholm Trail

Before you decide to knock out a Western fast, you'd better understand
what it takes to make 'em last

by D. J. Herda

Thanks to the wonders of television--and now of re-issued DVDs, VHS tapes, ad nauseum--is there any doubt that every human being walking the face of the earth is intimately familiar with the modern Western genre?  Even before Hollywood began gobbling up western fare and spitting out true-to-celluloid reality, most Americans knew the genre as well as they knew their own names. 

Either they grew up cutting their literary teeth on the likes of Zane Grey and Brett Hart, or they thumbed through the slough of western fare in the form of pulp magazines and, later, comic books, novels, and Cliff's Notes.  In a way, nearly everyone is an expert on westerns...or everyone was, at least, until Larry McMurtry came along.

McMurtry rejuvenated and revitalized the steadily declining art of western writing by de-glamorizing the American West.  Unlike most of his predecessors, he didn't paint his characters or their surroundings with a broad brush swathed in black and white.  He created a canvas of what the Old West was really like, the real West, drawing on a palette of a thousand different hues. 

The good guys no longer wore white hats and rode stealthy Paints.  The bad guys no longer dressed in black and lumbered along on Chestnut geldings.  Suddenly, everyone was more complex.  You won't find a single John Wayne or Lee Marvin character among the hundreds McMurtry has created over the past half century.  With McMurtry's new brand of western writing, suddenly the Old West became more alive, more vibrant, more real, less predictable.  People of the West are a combination of good and bad.  Indians are trustworthy and dependable as often as they are savage and bloodthirsty.  Entire towns are built of sticks and old rotting boards and sod roofs that look as if they are about to blow away at any second.

That's the kind of western most editors are looking for today.  And the next Larry McMurtry is the kind of western writer they hope to discover.

So, what's a writer to do?  For starters, try research!

If your entire perspective of the American West has come from old films and older cliches, you're not going to make it as a writer of westerns in today's competitive marketplace.  If your knowledge of the West comes from painstaking trips to the library, thumbing through old National Geographics, watching History TV about the real characters of western lore, what they did, how they lived, and how they died, well, pardner, you just might have a chance!

Ditto if you've studied McMurtry's realistic western classics, such as his lauded Lonesome Dove mini-series, or read his books.  You recognize immediately the amount of research he's done on the Old West, beginning with his earliest writings and extending to the very twilight of his career.  You know in a heartbeat that this western writer is eons apart from those who came before him.

You can also research the Old West on some of the many educational Web sites on the Internet.  We think so highly of one PBS-associated site that we have it listed under our "Storyline Resources" page at the American Society of Authors and Writers Web site.  It's called New Perspectives on the American West, and it's worth a look even if you never plan on writing a western novel. 

Once you've done enough research to give you the confidence you need to start that very first Western, the rest should come easy.  Just remember to tell the story from your characters' own perspectives--the way you imagine they felt, acted, talked, and lived, warts and all.  Make your "good guy" characters likeable (or at least tolerable), make your "bad guy" characters multi-faceted (even bad guys do good things every now and then), and place them in relationships that would be similar to people living today--tempered, of course, by the restraints of the era.  After all, people are people, no matter where or when they lived.

Once you've completed your book, go back and read it out loud.  Edit it two or three times, read it aloud again, and sit back and smile.  Then go ahead and round up the usual suspects...a list of editors currently hot after realistic western novels.  (See our "Book Markets" page for editors currently buying western fiction.)  Finally, start cranking out those queries! 

And remember, if your book doesn't sell at first, try, try again.  There is an editor for every marketable property ever conceived.  It's only a matter of time until you find the one who's right for you.


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