More than Just Gunfights: Writing the West #1

I grew up on Westerns – movies, television, books, toys. 

I played Cowboys and Indians in the woods of upstate New York and in the snake-infested scrub of South Florida.  I was just as likely to pretend to be a gunslinger as a brave.  The scenarios I dreamed up tended toward last stands, ambushes, and suicide attacks.  I died a lot back then, and loved every minute of it.

Even as a kid, I preferred the grit of Clint Eastwood to the stiff-legged swagger of John Wayne.  Wayne’s one-liners rang false.  Eastwood’s one-liners sizzled.  For better or worse, Eastwood taught the boy how to talk like a man.

Summer days meant re-runs of Bonanza and Big Valley.  I preferred Bonanza all the way. My identification with Little Joe led me to Little House on the Prairie.  My outlaw self-image softened, began to work the farm, raise a family, do right.  Yet, below the honorable lifestyle lurked a man who could take violent action if need be.  I became Pa Ingalls with a wild past.

At times it seemed as though Western novels were everywhere, too.  There were boxes and boxes of half-inch thick paperbacks at every flea market and thrift shop; there were shelves and shelves of Westerns at the local bookstore.   Heck, there were whole sections of the bookstore dedicated to the literature of the West.   Even the school library had Westerns!  (For some reason finding Westerns at the school library shocked me, seemed somehow scandalous.) 

My parent’s both grew up in Cooperstown, NY, the village founded by James Fenimore Cooper’s father, and I spent a lot of time roaming the woods and hills up there.  Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales were more reality than fiction to me.  And because my father told the stories to me, they took on an even deeper meaning.  Each re-telling carried the weight of a father’s lesson to his son and served as a guide along the wooded trails to manhood.

Leatherstocking, also known as Hawkeye and Natty Bumppo, is a white man who lives among the Indians.  He is a loner.  Though raised to be an Indian, he ultimately remains connected to but alienated from the white villagers.  Like a lot of creative kids, I felt misunderstood and marginalized.  I identified strongly with Leatherstocking, took solace in his skills and wisdom.

In college, I would learn to connect the dots between Leatherstocking and Owen Wister’s Virginian and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield and beyond.  Everything I read seemed to come back to Leatherstocking.  And, deep down, I felt like I was Leatherstocking

I spent weekends of my junior year sprawled on the floor of my brother’s apartment chewing through stacks of novels set in the West.  More and more, I’d find myself enthralled with the description of the landscapes and less and less with the gunfights.

The words formed in my head one morning while reading Last Stand at Papago Wells by Louis L’Amour: “There’s more here than gunfights.  So much more!”

Sure, a good shoot-out can still get me so excited that I have to read while walking around the room, but what really gets me are stories of honor, loyalty, and of trying to do the right thing in a violent world.   And I still prefer stories of last stands and lost causes, no matter what genre or category I am reading in.**

Nowadays, the pickings are slim.  We get a Western film every couple years.  Now and again a network tries out a new Western series then drops it just when the actors are getting a good feel for their characters.  The Westerns section at the local Barnes and Noble does keep shrinking, though we will get an extra couple feet of shelf space whenever there’s a major motion picture set in the West. 

For the most part, each passing year seems to mean fewer and fewer new titles. 

Tell you what, though.  It might be harder and harder to find Western novels in the chain stores, but there are still plenty of great Westerns being written.  Publishers might be releasing fewer original titles and bookstores might be stocking the bare minimum, but the quality is higher than ever.  Head over to the Western Writers of America website and look around.  You’ll see what I mean.

There are a lot of great writers writing the West, which means that there’s also a lot to learn about writing from Westerns. 

This week I will be talking to a variety of writers who write the West.  The line-up includes Johnny D. Boggs, Thomas Cobb, Jane Candia Coleman, Russell Davis, Cameron Judd, Max McCoy, James Reasoner, Lucia St. Clair Robson, and Susan K. Salzer.  The interviews are short and to the point.  And the “point” is to get you re-evaluating the literature of the West in terms of what it can offer you, your writing and your creative life. 



* This sentence originally read: “Eastwood’s one-liners sizzled like burning fuses into my cerebral cortex where they exploded in the still forming language centers of my brain.”  I cut it because it struck me as laughably over-wrought.  It also struck me as ironic to over-write a sentence when talking about the influence of the ever-laconic Eastwood.

** My favorite last stand novel is David Gemmell’s Legend.  Gemmell, a British fantasy novelist, cites Louis L’Amour as an important influence on his writing, especially L’Amour’s ability to capture a character in just a few sentences.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

6 thoughts on “More than Just Gunfights: Writing the West #1

  1. Thanks for such a nice piece. Although I have to say that it's ironic that with country-western culture coming off of a massive peak of popularity (possibly, I don't follow it that closely) that the western novel is dwindling quicker than the frontier it is so in love with. Perhaps, it just doesn't resonate as strongly as it used to, or maybe its target audience simply doesn't read as much as it used to. Still, it's good to see that someone somewhere out there is writing about it.

  2. Great article!

    I started getting into Western films four or five years ago, and am LOVING every minute of them. Incidentally, I was just talking with my husband the other day about how there aren't any good Westerns being released on a periodic basis. I know the why, but I don't have to like it. Maybe we'll see a resurgence in a decade or two.

    Anyway, I've yet to crack a Western novel. Would you mind suggesting a few good titles for a newbie? I'm open to any type of story and level of violence/intensity (I'm currently reading THE PREACHER graphic novel by Garth Ennis, if that gives you any indication…!)

  3. Looking forward to this. I've been reading western nonfiction and "literary" fiction set in the West for many years and am just discovering genre fiction. Link that to a rejuvenated interest in western movies, and it's been an exciting time.

    It also helps to be talking to others who have the same enthusiasm – especially to writers who want to add to the canon. Do I want to write a western? A while ago I would have said NO. Lately, it's a thought I let cross my mind. I'm especially looking forward to your interview with James Reasoner. He is cool.

  4. JD — thanks for the kind words! Said in a playful tone: The frontier is NOT dwindling! It's just changing locales… cypberspace, space, medicine, the human brain. Sometimes, too, I feel like the western is everywhere except in the Western section of the bookstore. The genre has been absorbed into every other genre. The themes of the west are hard-wired right into Americans.

    Heather — Johnny Boggs (who helped come up with the list of writers interviewed in this series) and I tried to choose writers who'd be good for readers new to the genre. I also added writers whose novels (or teaching) taught me something about the craft of writing.

    I agree with Cameron Judd who recommend's Loren D. Estleman. He's a favorite. Larry Sweazy has a great new series that starts with Rattlesnake Season. The prologue will to Rattlesnake will knock you flat. Susan Salzer's book is wonderful. More itnerviews and more recommendations to come…

    Ron — Everytime I see a Western movie I want to write a Western novel. Of course, I pretty must always want to write a Western novel…

    Matthew — Thanks! And do stick around… there's lots of good things to come!

  5. Random comments. I don't agree about Wayne v. Eastwood. Wayne may have turned into self-parody later in life, but THE SEARCHERS is still the best movie extant about white racism. (Or are we talking Ford v. Leone?) THE BIG VALLEY was an obvious steal from BONANZA, but Stanwyck was a tall stick in the road compared to Lorne Greene, and BONANZA became utter treacle after Pernell Roberts left. I think you can argue that Cooper, pedestrian a writer as he is, invented not just the Western, but the American novel. Nor do I think the Western, as a genre, is moribund. Johnny Boggs being but one example. I'm not crazy about Cormac McCarthy, say, but aren't they Westerns? Inviting comment, not trying to start a quarrel.

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