With Intelligence, a Conscience, and the Ability to Act: John D. Nesbitt on Writing the West

“Reading a John Nesbitt novel,” said Larry D. Sweazy, author of the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger novel, “is like taking a Master Class in writing fiction, all the while being thoroughly entertained.”

And Sweazy’s right.  John D. Nesbitt is a master.

Nesbitt is the author of more than twenty books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  He tells tales of heroes acting their conscience.  Tales of dark-haired women.  Tales of “the wind and sun and sagebrush of that wide and open land”, of a land that judges neither the loner nor the murderous stranger who shatters a little boy’s life.  Nesbitt’s character-rich stories deepen with every action, every clip of dialogue, every beautiful description, page by page.

“John’s stories take their time,” added Sweazy.  “I don’t mean they’re slow, but each character evolves at the necessary pace, and his plots, which most of the time, are very complex, never lose focus, but build and build, like a good shot of bind weed, trapping you slowly before you realize it’s too late escape.  I don’t know that he considers himself as such, but I think John Nesbitt is as much a poet of the West, as he is one of the finest novelists of the West.”

Nesbitt followed up his novels Trouble at the Redstone and Stranger in Thunder Basin (consecutive Spur Award winners) with Not a Rustler, a story of mistaken identity and false accusations, and the forthcoming Gather My Horses, which he touches on below.

You teach at Eastern Wyoming College.  How are writing and teaching similar? Do the two feed each other? Do they drain energy from each other?

John D. Nesbitt: Writing and teaching (in my case, teaching various courses in English and Spanish) are similar in that one is constantly working with language and ideas.  Whenever I am tending to my teaching duties, I am in the same world as when I am writing.  It is not as if I have to make a switch between being corporate cut-throat by day and eloquent fiction writer by night, but I do tend to keep the activities separate in that I do my teaching and related work at school and my writing at home.

Teaching does tend to drain energy, as it requires a person to get in there and give it her best even when the audience is apathetic.  Also, grading papers drains energy at least on a short-term basis.  If I have to grade a set of essays that takes me, say, four or five hours, I don’t bounce back fifteen minutes later and write the best scene of the week.  Still, the two lines of work are compatible.  There are some lines of work that, when I think of them, I imagine as being very difficult for me to harmonize with the writing life–for example, real investment or bureaucratic administration.  I think those things would chew me up and make me ineffective as a writer; at the very least, they would require more re-charging than I need after a batch of student essays.

What do you love about writing the West? I mean, all it takes is a few sentences of your fiction to realize how much you love what you are doing!

John D. Nesbitt: What I love about writing the West is that I am writing about many aspects of life that have brought me meaning and pleasure–the land, the people, the animals, the weather, the music, the words.  The West for me consists of the historical or Old West, the contemporary West as I have known it for the past thirty years or so, and the West as I knew it when I grew up doing farm and ranch work in California.  In all of those settings, I see the good and the not-so-good, the rejuvenating and inspiring aspect and the not-so-pretty parts.

What does a reader expect from a traditional Western and how do you use those expectations to your advantage?

John D. Nesbitt: From a traditional Western, the reader expects to have a clear story line with clearly defined conflict and clear resolutions.  The reader expects the story to take place in a West that has very little modern technology–few if any telephones or automobiles.  I use these expectations to my advantage because I like to try to convey my ideas, my sense of life and human character, to a general audience.  That means I have to structure things clearly without dumbing them down.  As for the pre-modern technology, I use that to my advantage because I like to reduce life and its problems to basic terms.  Making characters deal with problems without the advantages of rapid communication and transportation not only helps structure a story, but it also fits my temperament.  I have heard that mode of thought referred to as romantic primitivism, and I find it a very enjoyable mode to practice off and on in my daily activities.  I try to keep in touch with real life by not relying too much on conveniences, and I like to convey that world view through the traditional Western.

Where does a Western novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether? And how do you develop the novel from there?

John D. Nesbitt: A Western novel starts for me in several places and not in any necessary order.  I squirrel away notes on various topics, including vignettes, images, characters, and story ideas (plots or parts of plots), and then I start putting notes together to make a story line.  Usually I have, early on, an idea of what kind of a character fits a particular kind of story line and where that story should take place.  Then I add notes on other things, as noted above, that seem to go with this story.  Little by little, a set of notes evolves and becomes my plan for writing the novel.  The notes include a cast of characters and a page or so of notes on each named character, a story line that becomes a chapter-by-chapter outline, and a section of general notes in which I rehearse with myself what I want to do with the overall idea and design.

What does a first chapter need to do and how do you do it?

John D. Nesbitt: The first chapter needs many things, some of which I may not be aware of and some of which I may not do very well, so I hope my theory doesn’t sound too distant from my practice.  But the first chapter should start with a scene in which the main character meets another character, either an ally or an antagonist, who will help shape the story all the way through.  So the first chapter should introduce two or more of the main characters.  Somewhere in the first chapter, the conflict of the story should become evident.  The first chapter should also establish the time, the place, the point of view, and the tone of the story.

How do I do it?  Well, I almost always write from the point of view of a single character, so I start by making everything the experience of that character.  Consequently, I don’t describe the character.  I have him seeing, hearing, and interacting.  I don’t describe the scene as much as I convey it as his perception.  And so on.

As for the conflict, I don’t think it is necessary to have a fistfight, a gunfight, or a dead body in the opening.  But the opening pages have to give an idea of what the main conflict is going to be for the rest of the story, and a very good way to bring that in is to bring in the person or entity in whom (or in which) the conflict is centered.  If that is not feasible, I try to bring in the problem.  In my most recent published novel, Not a Rustler, the story begins with the protagonist, on horseback, seeing another rider coming his way on a gallop.  Still on page one, the main character asks the other man, “What news?” The man answers, “Nothing good. . . . Someone’s killed the boss.”  One hopes that the reader now wants to know: who killed the boss? why? and how will this influence or draw in the main character?

What are the three most important moments in a Western?

John D. Nesbitt: The three most important moments in a Western.  Well, I want to be humorous with that question.  Every moment is important, but I guess the three most important ones are the one in which the protagonist meets the antagonist or becomes aware of the conflict, the one in which he meets the girl (either meets her for the first time or sees her for the first time in this story), and the one in which he realizes either (a) what kind of a mess he got into or (b) how all of the evil stuff comes together to help him make sense of the problem he is up against. The resolution or showdown is certainly an important moment, too, but I didn’t want to leave out the romantic element.

What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling western protagonist in particular?  I hear that the heroine in your forthcoming novel Gather My Horses is really something special.

John D. Nesbitt: For me, a compelling protagonist is a normal guy, not larger than life or super-endowed with muscles, wealth, or power.  He is a person with intelligence, a conscience, and an ability to act.  Some of my protagonists are wired for action, and some of them have to rise to the occasion, but they have to be able to follow through with what they think is right.  Also, my protagonists have a feeling for the land and animals.

For a compelling western protagonist in general, I have no criteria except that he should embody or be compatible with the values of the west: self-reliance, courage either physical or moral, and honesty.

As for the heroine in Gather My Horses, now that I think of it, she has the same qualities the protagonist has.  She is a normal person (she sews sacks on a wheat harvesting crew and lives with her father on a rundown ranch) who has intelligence and a conscience.  She knows her father is a loafer and a pack rat and that some of his pals are not brave enough to stick up for the protagonist even though he has stuck up for them.  She acts by helping him out when the bad guy gets the drop on him, and she also decides on her own how and when she is going to be with the protagonist.  She also has animals and has rapport with the protagonist’s horses.  My heroines always have dark hair, which corresponds to the natural world and the romantic primitivism I mention earlier.  The dark values are typically in contrast with the materialistic and self-serving values of the antagonist.

What goes into an antagonist?

John D. Nesbitt: The antagonist is not evil personified.  That is, I try not to write melodrama, but I may do it more than I realize because westerns have to be clear.  At any rate, the antagonist for me is a person who has the wrong values.  He believes in money and power, might makes right, and he doesn’t worry about whether his methods are morally defensible.  These warped values take different shape in different stories, but very often these people encroach on other people morally and psychologically as well as physically.  The physical threat is often an outward correlation to something deeper, and the antagonist often has henchmen who show this kind of evil on different levels.  So he doesn’t have to do it all himself and therefore personify all evil.

The more I have written, the more I have seen the value in killing the villain.  It’s like killing the wolf in the story of Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs.  You’ve got to deal with him seriously, and he always comes back.  Even if you kill the villain (or the wolf), you don’t exterminate evil.  You just deal with it in this story.

Any advice for writing action scenes?

John D. Nesbitt: Yes.  Get better models than my own.  Seriously, all scenes should be action scenes.  But I think you mean gunfights, fistfights, stagecoaches being pursued, stagecoaches capsizing in a raging river, wagon train emigrants fighting off the Indians.  I don’t do many of those kinds of scenes, but I do a few.  Generally, I think a person wants to pace them, not draw them out too long and not get them done too quickly.  Also, I don’t think a person needs the same kind of a scene twice in the same story.  Each scene should serve a different purpose, not just fill in with some action in and for itself, and it is a good idea to have a sense of progression from one action scene to the next.  The confrontation becomes more serious or dangerous, the stakes get higher.

For fistfights, I think it helps if the writer imagines himself or herself in the fight.  Be a participant, not a spectator.  For a gunfight, having it clear and ritualistic has great archetypal appeal, but having something go wrong is pretty good (for example, in one story I have a storekeeper throw a sack of potatoes at the bad guy, which throws off his aim and balance).  Action scenes with animals–bucking horses, dying deer–are good because things go wrong there.  With these scenes, it is again useful for the writer to imagine herself as being in the scene.  It helps to have been bucked off or to have had a dying wild animal go into a fury.

What role does metaphor play in your fiction?

John D. Nesbitt: By metaphor I think you mean figurative techniques that go by other names as well.  Metaphors are, by definition, non-literal.  Things that have literal value in the story (the heroine’s dark hair) and that have figurative value as well (vitality, fertility, independence, resistance to conformity) are called symbols, although that seems to be a pretentious term to apply to modest, unassuming cowboy books.  At any rate, I use figurative language and try not to be too heavy-handed about it, but in my experience as a reader, I have learned that a person can be bopped several times before he realizes that something is going on.  So if the writer is too covert, the method may go unnoticed forever.

On a larger scale, I think of most western and mystery stories as being metaphors themselves, or perhaps allegories, of our journey through life in search of truth, understanding, and fairness.  Thematic meaning is much more important to me than the make and caliber of a firearm, so I think the story and the structure and the organized details are more important than what I have learned to call denotative realism.

Any last words? Words of advice, encouragement, or caution?

John D. Nesbitt: Words of advice: Learn by reading (primary and secondary works, inside and outside the genre) and by listening to suggestions.  Do not belittle the importance of knowing and using standard English.

Encouragement: Believe in yourself as a writer, and don’t quit trying.  (I know everyone says this, but it is always worth hearing again.)

Caution: Know yourself and be yourself as a writer.  Don’t try to be someone else.  Anyone who wants to be the next Louis L’Amour is not going to be anybody.

Caution: Don’t write about things you don’t know about.  Learn either at first hand or at second hand.  This goes for guns and horses, languages and races, and dark-haired girls.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  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.


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