Monday, July 31, 2017

The Western Conundra

When I first floated the idea of writing a Western a few years ago I thought of it as a lark. Something fun to shift my imagination from the steady diet of crime fiction. After a while it occurred to me that it should also be, you know, good. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, mostly of a certain type, but I’d never immersed myself in the culture as I have with crime. I have very little good to say about writers who decide to dash off a book because they kind of like a certain type of story but have no knowledge nor understanding of their canon. The results are so superficial a decent high school teacher would toss them out.

This led me to 2017 and my Summer of Western Research™. I set aside all other writing projects and read Western fiction and non-fiction and watch Westerns. Not just any Westerns. What some would call “revisionist” Westerns, though what was revisionist fifty years ago is pretty much the mainstream now. Basically I stayed pretty much away from what I half-jokingly refer as Westerns where no one needs a haircut. I like setting and tone to be as important to what I write as the story, so I’m as interested in how the story is told as I am in what it is.

This has led me to a far more interesting place than I had imagined when I set out on what I thought would be a relaxing summer. It’s not that the research has been a burden. Far from it; I’m having a ball. It’s just that what I’ve read and seen has provoked long conversations with myself and placed me in a situation exactly opposite where I expected to be. Where I at first wondered what I could put into the story, now my primary need is to decide what to leave out, as the elements that interest me have become so broad one book can’t contain them, and I have no intention of writing an epic, anyway.

I have already discarded my original germ of a story idea and tentatively replaced it with a story drawn from the memoirs of a Texas Ranger. The story idea suits all of the questions I have still open, though I have much yet to decide. Among the decisions on the table:
  • When will the story take place? My idea of a Western falls into a window of approximately 1870 – 1900, but when exactly? It matters. Technology and living conditions changed rapidly. The physical location of the story will be bound to the date much more than a more contemporary tale.
  • Speaking of physical location, where exactly? Or does exactly matter? I’m thinking eastern Wyoming or Colorado, maybe even Nebraska, but how far west? Depends on the date setting and what kind of story I choose to tell. Use a real town, make one up of whole cloth, or base a fictional town on a real place, as I have with Penns River?
  • Language and style of writing. This may be the hardest decision of all, and one that will most directly affect the actual work. The examples to choose from range from David Milch to John Ford to Elmore Leonard to Zane Grey to contemporary accounts. All have pros and cons, whether considering dialog or narrative.
  • Point of view. Should the story be told by
    • A real historical figure passing through it
    • Real people in supporting roles
    • Real person as the main character
    • Narrator serving as a Dr. Watson for a real person
    • All fictional
  • Should the story itself be
    • Creative non-fiction, or, as the disclaimer at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reads, “Much of what follows is true.”
    • Pure fiction
    • Fiction loosely based on a true story.
    • Facts woven into fiction, as if the Western were written by James Ellroy
  • The relative importance of female characters. The closer to the frontier one got, the more likely women were to be prostitutes. That’s a fact. Still, not all of them would be, even on the frontier itself. How to handle this without becoming stereotypical, but also not becoming unrealistic, requires considerable thought
  • What prominence to accord minorities, whether referring to Blacks (likely freed slaves or their children), Mexicans, or Indians. Again, time and place are key. I don’t need to worry about treating Indians too much as bloodthirsty savages if the story is set in a town off the frontier ion 1895. That’s a more delicate line to draw if it’s in the Dakota Territory in 1877.
  • Criminals and law enforcement, including
    • Weapons available
    • Techniques of each

As I said, I’m not looking to write an epic. Seventy-five to 90,000 words is my fifteen schnitzengruben. Trying to be too inclusive in a single work is worse than making too many trimming decisions, as the book will wander and eventually be about nothing. That’s okay. This is a book I’ll likely write in fits and starts over time as I can work it in without falling behind on the schedule Down & Out might like for me. It may evolve more be written. It may also be the only Western I ever write, so I’m going to want it to be something I’m proud of, even if others may disagree with some of my decisions.

Comments not just welcome. They’re encouraged. Have at it.

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