Tuesday, December 6, 2016

History meets humility.

History is a messy subject. It’s never as simple as it ought to be. We tend to view history in black and white terms—good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, virtue and evil, right and wrong.
That’s particularly true when it comes to the history of something or someone near and dear to our hearts—our country, our people, our families. And it doesn’t stop there. This simplistic view of history devolves to the point that all semblance of actual knowledge gives way to belief, even wishful thinking.
And intellectual laziness. I read somewhere that instead of attempting to know what happened (which is no simple task), we cling to what we think happened, even what we wish had happened (which is much easier).
I once heard a radio interview with British actor Hugh Laurie. (House, Stuart Little, Jeeves and Wooster, Black Adder.) I remember only one thing he said, and it’s something I will never forget: “We must be humble in the face of facts.”
That bit of wisdom certainly applies to history. The facts of history—such as they are—are often uncomfortable. They sometimes contradict what we think (or wish or hope) happened. We squirm. We sweat. We tie ourselves in emotional knots. Our hearts and minds rebel.  But, eventually, we must come to terms with a revised reality.
Facts, in fact, can change our entire way of thinking—as they should, like it or not, if we follow Hugh Laurie’s advice.
What happened back when happened. We ought to know the facts of the matter as much as we can, with the knowledge that more facts may come to light and alter our understanding.
But that’s what humility is all about when it comes to history—basing the knowledge we have on facts rather than beliefs, and knowing that what we don’t know always outweighs what we do.

Friday, November 25, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 4

Plenty of historians pooh-pooh Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, complaining, among other things, it’s one-sided.
Two things about that.
First of all, Brown’s stated intention was to present the history of westward expansion from the perspective of the Indian tribes, which he did.
Second, it’s not as if the histories scholars had given us until that time were in any sense balanced. In fact, virtually no historian gave a fig about the Indian side of things until Brigham Madsen started researching and writing about it back in the 1950s. And very few followed suit until Brown’s book popularized the approach.
All that aside, Brown’s book opened the eyes of many Americans when it was released back in 1970. It certainly opened mine when I read it a year or two later while in college. (I wore out the mass-market paperback I bought back then and years ago upgraded to a trade paperback edition.) It was—and is—fascinating reading. Engaging, certainly, and informative. Even entertaining, though not in the traditional sense.
If you haven’t read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee do so. It’s still in print and readily available all these years later.
And don’t worry if you find it not exactly balanced—there are shelves full of history books that upset the scales in the other direction.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 34: Descriptions, Details, and Depictions.

Be descriptive. Use adjectives. Depict people and places in great detail. Be specific. Writers hear those instructions all the time. We covered character descriptions a few “Lies” back, and this edition continues the theme. “Descriptive writing” is not necessarily bad advice, but a common mistake inexperienced writers make is listening too well and overdoing it as a result.
From time to time I am asked to judge writing contests. Some entries suffer from a malady I call adjective cancer. In prose suffering this condition, few nouns escape without carrying an adjective and some are burdened with compound adjectives.
Here’s an excerpt from a story that demonstrates the diagnosis:

The six-foot-two guide knelt in the rear of the fourteen-foot dark green canoe, his well-developed body rippling under his soggy white t-shirt while he worked the paddle. He shivered in the early morning air, the icy rain numbed his face, and water dripped off the bill of his blue UCLA cap. The neoprene gloves kept his hands from freezing.

I changed things up a bit to protect the patient’s identity, but not enough to treat the disease or relieve the symptoms. That’s what it reads like. Really. For page after page.
Now, I have no formal training in creative writing. Fact is, I’ve never taken a class in the subject. It’s altogether possible, then, that I am up in the (dark and dreary) night. But the kind of writing I prefer uses adjectives sparingly and allows the reader to participate in painting the picture. Abuse of adjectives not only excludes readers from imagining the scene, it bogs down the story.
Strunk and White say it best in The Elements of Style: “Write with nouns and verbs.” I’ll buy that. Give me spare, clean writing without a lot of adjectives every time (he said, using adjectives).
Don’t even ask me about adverbs.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A pair to draw to.

There’s a long list of pairs who displayed a certain chemistry on the silver screen. Bogie and Bacall. Hope and Crosby. Bert and Ernie. Brad and Angelina. Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
But for my money, the most enjoyable acting duo has to be Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Without them, I think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would be just another ordinary, everyday Western. But their rib-tickling repartee and witty quibbling made the characters come alive. They were likable, engaging, and altogether enjoyable. I suspect screenwriter William Goldman got a big kick out of seeing those two bring his words to life on the big screen.
I still watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from time to time, and it’s as good today as it was back in 1969 when the world was a whole different place.
Newman and Redford did it again in The Sting—an altogether different kind of movie and every bit as remarkable. Too bad they didn’t make more movies together. As a pair, they can’t be beat.
Then again, there’s always Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call….

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 3.

When my wife and I married lo these many years ago, included in the union was her full set of the Time-Life series The Old West.
Now, many historians pooh-pooh the books, and there are some inaccuracies and exclusions and such. But when it comes to an overview of pretty much every aspect of the history of the American West, with volumes covering most major topics, the series is hard to beat. Over the years (and even now) I have spent many an hour both browsing the books at random and researching a particular subject. While the series may not be a good place to end your research, they represent a fine place to start.
Included are works on cowboys, Indians, pioneers, ranchers, frontiersmen, Forty-Niners, Texans, trailblazers, gunfighters, Spaniards, and so on—more than twenty-five volumes in all, including a one-volume index that covers the whole set. 
The Old West isn’t the best thing my wife brought to our marriage, but it’s certainly one I’ve enjoyed—enough to be included among my favorite books.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 33: The “Western” is dead.

Ever since I started paying attention to books and such from a writer’s perspective, as well as a reader’s, I have heard over and over again that the Western is dead.
This point of view, I think, results from the dominance of Westerns for decades, not only in books but in magazines, television series, and feature films. During the early to middle years of the twentieth century, Westerns—mostly of the shoot-’em-up variety—were everywhere you looked, and the genre dominated entertainment like no other has since.
Folks who remember those days decry the lack of Westerns nowadays and mourn the relative dearth with predictions and forecasts of doom and gloom about the future (or lack thereof) of entertainment based in the American West.
Don’t you believe it.
While it is true that Westerns don’t dominate the market like they once did, and the popularity of Western stories in the traditional style has waned somewhat, there is still plenty of writing about the West out there.
One element that keeps the Western alive and thriving is a more expansive—and realistic—view of the West among writers, publishers, and producers. And readers. Female characters have emerged into more prominent roles. Beyond horseback good guys vs. bad guy plots are stories about towns, trails, trade, and more.
And the modern-day West has become the setting for stories that rely on the unique aspects of the region.
Then there’s the fact that nonfiction about the West—both historical and contemporary—enjoys widespread popularity.
Another factor is the spread of Westerns into other genres. You’ll find more and more mysteries, thrillers, romances, even science fiction set in the West. 
All in all, things look pretty good Out West, whether you’re a writer or reader who enjoys the landscapes, climates, economies, cultures, and history that make our region the defining facet of our country.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Rawhide Robinson Rides On.

Rawhide Robinson—that ordinary cowboy who often finds himself involved in the extraordinary—has been good to me.
In his first appearance, Rawhide Robinson Rides the Range: True Adventures of Bravery and Daring in the Wild West, he won a Western Writers of America Spur Award. For his second novel, Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: The True Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe, he was a Spur Award Finalist and won a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award.
I’m happy to announce that our cowboy hero will be back. I recently received signed contracts from Five Star Publishing for Rawhide Robinson Rides a Dromedary: The True Tale of a Wild West Camel Caballero.
As you no doubt discern from the title, the adventure that’s the basis for this book has to do with camels. It was inspired by and is loosely—very loosely—based on the US Army’s attempt to acquire and employ camels in the southwestern deserts back in the nineteenth century.
In its pages, Rawhide Robinson finds himself sailing the high seas, experiencing exotic Levantine ports of call, and forking a camel in the Texas outback. Of course Rawhide Robinson wouldn’t be Rawhide Robinson if he didn’t spend time around the campfire spinning tales about his supposed adventures and escapades.
No release date as yet. I’ll keep you informed.