Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Gads, gut hooks, and grapplin’ irons.

Cowboys call them by all kinds of names—gads, gut hooks, and grapplin’ irons among them. Then there’s can openers, rib wrenches, and buzzsaws. And more.
But the official name—if there is such a thing in Western lingo—is spurs.
Spurs are a common cowboy tool, in everyday use wherever horses are saddled. But Western Writers of America borrowed the name and attached it to something uncommon and not everyday. As the organization puts it, “Western Writers of America annually honors writers for distinguished writing about the American West with the Spur Awards.”
Winners of the 2018 Spur Awards were announced recently, and I am honored to know several recipients and their work. And I am especially honored to once again be counted among them.
“Lost and Found” is a short story published last year in Saddlebag Dispatches that tells of a modern-day cowboy who loses a piece of his thumb in his dallies while gathering strays on a remote range, and finds the body of a dead boy dumped in a dry wash.
The judges somehow found it worthy and named it the Spur Award winner for Best Western Short Fiction.
Also published in Saddlebag Dispatches, my poem “The Knowing” was named a Finalist for the Spur Award for Best Western Poem. My friend and fine poet Marleen Bussma won the Spur for her poem, “She Saddles Her Own Horse.”
All thanks to the late Dusty Richards and to Casey Cowan who elected to publish the story and the poem in their magazine. And appreciation to the Spur Award judges who bestowed these honors.
I am more than happy to pound a couple more nails in the wall.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Rawhide Robinson trades cows for camels.

(Note to readers: We will return to our usual literary nonsense following this brief commercial message.)
Don’t worry. Giving up horses and cows is only a temporary aberration for Rawhide Robinson. Just as our ordinary cowboy hero traded cattle for cats in Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail, in his latest adventures(s), we find him delivering dromedaries.
Rawhide Robinson Rides a Dromedary: The True Tale of a Wild West Camel Caballero is loosely—very loosely—based on the US Army’s experimental use of camels as pack animals in the southwestern deserts. And if you think herding longhorn cattle and Chicago alley cats is fodder for fantastical escapades, wait till you read about our cowboy’s exploits on the high seas and at Levantine ports of call.
As usual, Rawhide Robinson spins tall tales as easily as a loop, and sailors find his stories every bit as entertaining as cowboys do.
Western Writers Hall of Fame member Loren D. Estleman says the book is “rich in color, texture, and relentless forward movement.” Booklist says, “Rawhide’s over-the-top storytelling is complemented by Miller’s slapstick humor and verbal gymnastics.”
Rawhide Robinson Rides a Dromedary is hot off the press. Watch the short video for a taste of what’s inside the covers, and visit RawhideRobinson.com to read an excerpt. And, of course, buy the book.
End of crass commercialism. Tune in next time for something altogether different.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Wisdom from Down Under.

Unless you’re from Australia, you might not recognize the picture above as a $10 bill. I have one just like it, courtesy of outstanding bush poet, reciter, and storyteller from Down Under, Jack Sammon, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the National Cowboy Gathering in Elko, Nevada. I’ll probably never get to Australia to spend it. But I wouldn’t anyway, as I consider it a work of art. In fact, it is framed and hanging on the wall in my office.
The portrait on the note is of A.B. “Banjo” Paterson. Few would disagree that he is the finest poet Australia has ever produced, and his work is known the world over. Here in America, he is especially loved by aficionados of cowboy poetry.
You’ll notice the running horses and horseman on the bill. They’re illustrative of one of Paterson’s most famous poems, “The Man from Snowy River.” The first two lines of the poem appear along the bottom. And, if you have a microscope, you can read the entire text of the poem in microprint on the note as a security feature. You’re probably familiar with the poem and its celebration of courage and daring and what we would call “The Cowboy Way.” Clancy, a central character in the story, is also the subject of my favorite Paterson poem, “Clancy of the Overflow.” And he wrote the Australian folk anthem, “Waltzing Matilda,” which is also featured on the bill.
But I digress.
The promised wisdom?
Jack Sammon talked about the $10 bank note before reciting “The Man from Snowy River” at the Gathering. He said, “We’re kind of backward down in Australia compared to America—instead of politicians, we put poets on our money.”
Who do you think is backward?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 43: Read Aloud What You’ve Written.

Some writing instructors advise aspiring writers to read aloud what they’ve written. They say doing so will reveal awkward phrasing, faulty rhythm, poor word choice, and other sins.
It’s true. Sometimes.
Reading aloud is particularly apt when writing poetry, especially if that poetry is to be recited. But reading prose aloud isn’t always a good idea.
Having written a ton and a half of advertising copy over the course of some four decades, I learned long ago that writing words to be vocalized—as in radio or television commercials—is altogether different from writing words to be read—as in printed advertisements.
That’s because the brain is much more adept than the vocal cords.
Your mind can wrap itself around more complex sentence constructions, accept more assonance and consonance and alliteration without getting tongue-tied, easily switch rhythmic patterns to follow dialogue, fill in the blanks purposely created by ambiguity and other techniques to involve readers, understand sentence fragments, and on and on and on.
The written word and the spoken word are entirely different things. Different languages, almost. The trick, in both cases, is using words well. Go ahead and read your work aloud. But don’t believe for a minute that your mouth is a better arbiter of what’s right in writing than your brain.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Cowboy Poetry with Pickles.

Last week I had the good fortune to once again attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. As usual, a good time was had by all. How could you go wrong reconnecting with old friends, meeting new ones, and sitting through hours (and hours and hours) of the best cowboy poetry and music the world has to offer?
This year brought an unexpected and unusual treat.
Fans of the “Pickles” comic strip know that on a few occasions, the curmudgeonly Earl Pickles has dipped his toes into the waters of cowboy poetry. As it happens, Brian Crane, the author and artist behind “Pickles,” is an old and dear friend and coworker and business partner. For some 40 years we have been close friends, if usually distant neighbors. When Earl was infected with poesy, I had the opportunity to work with Brian on some of his character’s poetic efforts.
Brian came to his first Gathering with, of course, Earl in his pocket, to breathe the rarified air at cowboy poetry’s heights. Not only was it good to see and spend time with Brian again, I got a big kick introducing him to friends and enjoying their shock and surprise then smiles when I told them what he did to earn his daily bread, as so many of them are “Pickles” fans. (It often embarrassed Brian and he wished I wouldn’t brag on him, but he well knows I am not to be trusted.)
I will be surprised if Earl’s poetic proclivities weren’t inspired by his time in Elko, and expect the funny papers will be seeing more of his versifying in the future.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lest we forget.

January 29 is a dark day in the history of the American West. Early on that morning in 1863 the United States Army attacked a Shoshoni winter camp on the Bear River, just across the Utah border in what is now Idaho. As the sun climbed to its zenith, the soldiers slaughtered somewhere between 250 and 350 people, most noncombatants and many women and children. Witnesses also reported torture, rape, and mutilation.
The Bear River Massacre was the first big Indian killing by the army in the West, and it was the worst—more victims than Sand Creek or Wounded Knee or other better-known incidents. And yet it is largely forgotten, seldom finding its place in history books, and accounts are often erroneous.
We visited the killing field on the anniversary again this year, joining with the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation to commemorate the massacre and celebrate the survival of the Band, most of which was wiped out that day.
For many years, the Bear River Massacre has intrigued me. How such a pivotal event in our history can go unnoticed troubles me. I have written about the massacre in a song with Brenn Hill, “And the River Ran Red,” in poems, in short stories, in a chapter of The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, and in a history book, Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten.
Never should such heinous actions by our government be forgotten. They remind us of the depravity we were—and are—capable of. Mark your calendars, and join us next winter on that hallowed ground on the banks of the Bear River.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Trail gone cold: Dusty Richards.

The world lost something big last week. And in that part of the world known as the American West, the loss looms even larger.
Dusty Richards died January 19 from lingering injuries suffered in a traffic accident. Dusty’s death means we’re short one of our finest Western writers, a long-time rodeo announcer, and a lively auctioneer. As if that weren’t enough to fill a lifetime, Dusty also had a successful career in agribusiness, taught school, and broadcast farm reports on television. He served as president of Western Writers of America and was founder and executive editor of Saddlebag Dispatches magazine. And 150 or so Western novels are filled with Dusty’s words. Some of those books have his name on the cover; many he wrote using other names.
Besides all that, and more important than any of it, Dusty was friendly, sociable, kind, and helpful to any- and everybody, anytime. You couldn’t begin to count the number of aspiring writers Dusty helped along the way with encouragement, advice, introductions, referrals, recommendations, and more. I count myself among those he helped, and couldn’t count on all my fingers and toes all the times he went out of his way to show me how to be a writer.
It bears mentioning that Pat, his wife and friend and constant companion, is also lost to us owing to the same accident. We can take comfort in the fact that they are back together after a brief time apart.
And we can rest assured knowing that Dusty is, at this very moment, no doubt bending the ear of Saint Peter—and anyone else within range of his big voice—with an engaging story about the West he loves.