Monday, December 26, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 35: Nobody reads anymore.

A lot of the advice you get as a writer is discouraging: Writing a book is hard work. Publishers won’t read your manuscript. Self-published books don’t sell. Bookstores won’t stock your books. Nobody reads anymore.
There’s an element of truth in all those disheartening claims.
Except the last one.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that nobody reads anymore. It’s usually attributed to all the other distractions competing for former readers’ time: TV, movies, music, video games, social media, and so on and so on.
But, the fact is, according to the Pew Research Center, 73% of adults in the United States read a book in the past 12 months. And that hasn’t changed much over the past five years. Most of them—65%—read a printed book, 28% read an ebook, and 14% listened to an audiobook. Not only are people reading, they’re reading (and listening to) multiple formats (which is why that adds up to 107%).
How much Americans read is also holding steady. Readers read an average of 12 books a year, with the “typical” reader getting through four books. Obviously, readers like me are pushing up the average—in the past year I’ve read somewhere around 60 or 70 books.
There’s no doubt people are still reading.
I only wish they were reading my books.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Road trips.

If I were to wake up tomorrow and discover I had become wealthy overnight there’s not much I would change about my life.
Except one thing. I would travel. A lot.
There are many, many places around the American West I have yet to see but would like to. There are Civil War sites in the Southeast. Things in New England I’ve missed out on. I’d like to go back to England sometime, and Australia beckons, but other than that I would be content to stay within the States—mostly those Out West—save an occasional foray into Canada and Mexico in pursuit of history.
Most of my travel would be behind the wheel of a car. I like road trips. My wife tolerates them. She has what she calls “carcolepsy”—a condition that puts her to sleep when a car exceeds 40 miles an hour. She doesn’t think she misses much. Me, I like most everything I see through the windshield.
Way back when, there was a short-lived television show I liked called Then Came Bronson. It starred actor, songwriter, and singer Michael Parks as he rode around at random on a motorcycle. I still hear the theme song he wrote for the show in my head. The first two lines, in particular:

Going down that long lonesome highway
Bound for the mountains and the plains

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.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 2


Long, long ago in a year that had a nine and a seven in it, I was working at a small television station in Idaho. I was a master control switcher, directed newscasts and interview shows, put together local commercials, dubbed videotapes, and performed various other production tasks. One day a coworker, who worked downstairs and wrote local commercials, left for a job in radio.
“You have a degree in journalism,” the boss said. “You must know how to write. Do you want to write commercials?”
I said yes. But I knew nothing about advertising—how and why it worked, who did it, where, how, or any of that stuff. Learning that stuff seemed like a good idea, so I visited the library and started home-schooling myself.
One of the books I read was From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by an irreverent and accomplished New York City advertising agency copywriter (and later agency owner) named Jerry Della Femina.
He made the advertising agency business sound fun—and frustrating, challenging, annoying, and exasperating.
But mostly fun.
The book led me to pursue work as an advertising agency copywriter. I’ve been at it nearly forty years since; now part-time. While not as glamorous as Madison Avenue, working at agencies in Idaho, Nevada, and Utah has been much as Della Femina described it in that influential book I count among my favorites.
Besides all the fun, the job hasn’t involved much heavy lifting and seldom requires breaking a sweat. And, somehow, it led me to wonder—after writing advertising for some twenty years—if maybe I could write a poem.
Now look.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 32: details, details, details.

Many writing instructors encourage, and many writers practice, descriptive writing rife with details. They’ll tell you descriptive details of people and places and things that involve all the senses make stories more interesting and help readers create mental pictures. I’ve heard “critics” in critique groups complain about lack of description of characters in the writing of others, and say that details about characters’ appearance and manner and such will help us “get to know them.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
There’s another approach—one I prefer—that gives lie to that norm. It is summed up admirably by these two simple rules:
“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” That rule goes on to advise avoiding such descriptions “unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
I put those rules in quotation marks because they’re not mine. They belong to the late, great Elmore Leonard—author of many best-selling novels and winner of numerous literary awards, including the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from Western Writers of America and induction into the Western Writers Hall of Fame. Leonard’s Western works include Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, and “Three Ten to Yuma.” He was also a giant in crime fiction, with several prize-winning novels (many that became movies) to his credit.
His sparse, bare-bones style appeals to me. And, beyond avoiding bringing a story to a standstill with detailed descriptions, Leonard’s approach is more involving for readers—it allows us to participate in the story, to create our own mental pictures of people and places and things, rather than have them handed to us.
In his award-winning and best-selling novel All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy—despite his ability to write florid descriptions—provides not a single clue as to the appearance of the book’s main characters, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins.
We could go on.
The point is, there’s more than one way to write about people, places, and things. So don’t believe everything they tell you—at least not in every detail.
There will be further discussion of this topic—in greater detail—to come.

Monday, September 5, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 1.

Readers—and writers—are often asked to name their favorite book. The question leaves most of us, it seems, struggling for an answer. Here’s why.
A friend sent me an article a while back in which a writer was asked to write about her favorite book. She concluded that there have been several books that were her favorites at various times of life.
That sounds right to me. And I would add that most of those favorites remain favorites. There are books I read decades ago that I go back to and enjoy all over again. There are others that stick in my memory that I haven’t re-read, but plan to someday. And there are books I enjoyed at the time, but not enough to be my “favorite.”
Back in my high school years, perhaps as early as junior high, I engaged in what we would now call “binge reading” the short novels of John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men. Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat. The Red Pony. The Pearl. I read those, and others, back then and I have read them over and over since.
Later, I likewise enjoyed his longer books—East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels with Charley…. I have read those and others more than once, and will likely read them again.
Steinbeck is, perhaps, the first writer I read whose way of writing I noticed. Beyond the stories, beyond the characters, I enjoyed the words he chose and the way he assembled those words into phrases and sentences that, despite what they said, were engaging all on their own and a joy to read.
They were then, and they still are.
Given all that, I guess my favorite book is Tortilla Flat. Or The Red Pony. Or something else by John Steinbeck.
Or maybe something else altogether. It all depends.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Sitting in judgment.

Literature is art. And art is, to some degree, subjective. What’s good and what isn’t is very much a matter of taste.
That’s why I am always surprised when asked to judge a writing contest. To think someone, somewhere, thinks my literary palate is refined enough to pass judgment on a passel of poems or collection of fiction always astonishes me.
But they ask. I’ve been asked over the years by organizations as various as a cowboy cultural society from Canada, the outfit that runs the National Finals Rodeo, statewide writers’ groups from at least three states and a double handful of smaller groups from various localities, an international society of professional writers, and more than a few poetry performance competitions. What’s more surprising is that many of them ask me back.
It isn’t always easy trying to be objective about something so subjective. But there are certain standards that ought to apply—basic things like spelling, syntax, structure, grammar, form, composition, communication, and such. Poorly proofed and edited works are easily discarded.
After that, it can get tough. A story that grabs and won’t let go. Clever use of language. Word choice. Originality. Rhythm. Pace. Use of literary technique. And on and on, into demonstrations of skill that are hard to define—but you know them when you read them. It’s a pleasure to reward creativity, skill, effort, and accomplishment.
And while it is never pleasant to quickly cast aside an entry that doesn’t measure up—sometimes mere pages past the cover—you do what you have to do. As my friend Dusty Richards says, which he says the late, great Elmer Kelton said: “You don’t have to drink a whole bottle of whiskey to know it’s bad.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Two-gaited horses.

While growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we watched a lot of Westerns on television at my house. Dad, who was an inspired horseman and worked as a cowboy as often as not, got a kick out of them. He more or less saw them as comedies.
The stereotypical characters and guns that never needed reloading and repetitive stories were part of that. But, mostly, it was the horses. While he never said so, he probably believed the casting directors who hired equines must have specified that only two-gaited horses need apply. 
A brief explanation: where we come from out West, horses travel with four basic gaits—walk, trot, lope, and run. (Elsewhere, lope and run are often referred to as canter and gallop.)
But if you believed what you saw on the screen, horses have only two gaits: walk and run. Sometimes, a “cowboy” (which, on television, included all kinds of characters who wouldn’t know which end of the cow gets up first) would mount up in town and walk his horse down the street (about the only time TV horses were seen to walk). But more often, he would swing into the saddle and lay the spurs to his horse and race off down the street at a dead run raising a cloud of dust. And he would run his horse nonstop along wagon roads, up mountain trails, across wide deserts, through streams, and everywhere else he went until reining up in a sliding stop at his destination.
It’s likely that horses with stars in their eyes back then rehearsed the walk only briefly and ignored the trot and lope altogether, concentrating on the endless run in order to secure a part in a television horse opera. Real horses, if they watched their on-screen counterparts, probably grinned at their high-speed antics like Dad did.
The lengthy horseback sequences in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit are among many reasons I admire that movie. Endless plodding (at a walk) across the landscape might seem tedious for some to watch. But it doesn’t hurt to give viewers a taste of the monotony that traveling horseback can be.
Of course, folks who know horses know you can (and do) trot or lope at times to change things up a bit—you just won’t see it happen on TV.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 31: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I lied in the title. 
No one knowledgeable, to my knowledge, tells writers to ignore the essentials—small stuff—like spelling and grammar and basic facts in manuscripts and books.
But as often as those things are ignored nowadays, you’d think it was part of the curriculum somewhere. Time was, it was so difficult to find a spelling error in a published book that it was noteworthy.
No longer.
With the advent of do-it-yourself self-publishing, the proliferation of small presses who can’t afford copy editors and proofreaders, and even the staff cutbacks at major publishers, errors of the simplest kind now slip through regularly.
As I write this I am in the middle of a novel I was asked to review, and on several occasions the author has called those leather straps you use to control a horse “reigns.” It’s a homonym, sure, but it’s such a ridiculous error there’s no excuse for it. Likewise his saying a just-planted wheat field had been “sewn.” That one had me in stitches.
Then there are incorrect facts, if such an oxymoron exists. Some time back I read a novel by an author who has written many, many paperback Westerns for major publishers. And yet he continually referred to the “traces” on a harnessed team as if they were the lines (or reins, if you’d rather, but lines is the more common term). “Traces” are something else altogether on a harness, and he ought to know the difference—or not use the word if he doesn’t.
We all make mistakes. But there are mistakes, and there are mistakes.
Sometimes writing instructors will tell you to blow by that simple stuff in the initial draft in order to get the story down. But that is with the expectation that you’ll go back and fix it. Unfortunately, too many authors—and publishers—don’t fix it.
And that shows a lack of respect for readers. Of all things, a writer ought to be literate.

Friday, July 22, 2016

I’m trending, I’ve gone viral, and I broke the Internet.

Well, not really.
But since those phrases are tossed around like rice at a wedding, I figure they may as well apply to me as the next guy.
Besides that, they have no objective meaning that I’ve been able to discern or ever seen quantified. Which means, in the end, they are nothing more than what’s long been known in the advertising business as “puffery.” Or, to abbreviate the term I am more likely to voice, BS.
Such vague and nebulous (and meaningless) superlatives are easily assigned to anyone or anything at any time by anyone. Some people will be fooled by them. Most will ignore them. And rightly so.
Even extreme claims with some factual basis can be meaningless. For instance, in the book world, “best seller” and other such rankings are often accurate but still worthless. Years ago, in the days when Amazon ran a short-lived program of selling short stories online, I had a couple of stories that, for several weeks, were listed as either the top or number-two selling Western stories. But they never sold enough copies to accumulate enough royalties to result in a paycheck—and the threshold was pretty low, as I recall.
Still and all, I guess it gives me the right to claim being a “Best-Selling Author!” After all, I am the guy who broke the Internet. Not to mention “trending” and having gone “viral.”

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers Part 30: Write the way people talk.

Sometimes, some writing teachers teach people to mimic the way people talk when writing dialogue.
The truth is, it doesn’t work.
Our last installment of “Lies” addressed trite words we use in conversation (“incredible,” “awesome,” “amazing”) that are mostly useless on the page.
Then there are those other little clichés that creep into and out of our mouths. Just for fun, get yourself a notebook and make a mark every time you hear someone start a sentence with “So.” It’s an affectation of epidemic proportions these days. Imagine what your page would look like if every other or third or fourth line of dialogue started like so:
While you’ve got that notebook in hand, keep track of the abuse of “like.” You know what I mean: “He’s, like,” “I’m, like,” “it was, like,” and the like. Likewise, “I mean.” 
Sometimes writers try to mimic the speech of young people (where most of these language trends start) in an effort to sound “cool” (another word rendered useless to the point you dare not use it, even correctly). It doesn’t work. It’s usually overdone. It sounds phony. It sounds like the author is trying too hard. And it doesn’t fool anyone.
The same holds true when unknowing writers try to mimic the way cowboys talk. Or doctors. Or sailors. Or the lingo of most any other assemblage of folks with a language partly their own, including dialects. As the late, great Elmer Kelton used to say about writing dialect and slang: a little goes a long way.
Fear not. You can write good dialogue. You can create conversations that are realistic, informative, reveal your characters, advance the story, and entertain. It’s not a matter of simply recording the words people use. It requires hearing—listening beyond the affectations and clichés and hearing the characteristics of conversation that define the speakers and capture their lingo.
Then, rather than filling pages with the phony-baloney twaddle a recording device hears, you can write dialogue that sounds like people talking rather than writing the way we really talk. Your readers will thank you.
So, uh, I mean, give it a try. It’ll be, like, um, awesome, y’know.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 29: To learn to write dialogue, listen to people talk.

Writing dialogue is one of the most difficult things writers do. That must be the case, because so much of it is so awful. Think of all the times you’ve looked wide-eyed at a page or the silver screen and thought, no one talks like that!
To cure this ill, many writing instructors encourage students to eavesdrop on conversations and mimic that kind of speech.
Don’t do it.
Writing the way people really talk just might be worse than the stiff, stilted stuff that sometimes masquerades as dialogue.
Think about it. If you write the way people talk, your page will be peppered with “um” and “uh” and “I mean” and “y’know” and other fillers that are as natural as breathing to most people.
Then there are the useless, overused words we use. Decades ago, when I started paying attention to such things, some—many—people used “incredible” to describe anything and everything that struck their fancy. While the word is still overused, “awesome” eventually replaced it in the mouths of many. Nowadays, “amazing” has clawed its way to the top of the hackneyed heap. (Never mind the fact that the way we use those words has little to do with their actual meanings.)
Imagine your characters repeatedly using “amazing” to describe things—almost everything, really. Readers would never know if the object of their amazement was, say, delicious (or tasty) beautiful (or easy on the eyes) or smooth-gaited or soft or hard or warm or fast or thought-provoking or melodious or whatever. The generic descriptions people use in actual conversation—like “amazing” and “awesome”—make for dull, meaningless dialogue.
The trick isn’t to write like people talk. It’s to write dialogue that sounds like people talking—it’s more vivid, more descriptive, more “real” than the real thing. But it sounds like the real thing.
Stay tuned for a future installment on writing dialogue.
It will be amazing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

“Goodbye, Old Paint…

…I’m leavin’ Cheyenne.”
Truth be told, unlike that classic cowboy song lyric, I’ve already left Cheyenne. We were there last week for the annual Western Writers of America convention.
As usual, the WWA convention was a good time. I saw lots of fellow writers who’ve become friends over the years, and I met some who likely will become friends. I sat in some interesting panel discussions and presentations and visited some interesting historic sites in the area. And, to repeat myself, my novel Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: TheTrue Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe received a handsome certificate as a Finalist for the Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Fiction, a book suitable for readers from junior high age to geriatric.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the convention was the acceptance of a Spur Award for Best Western Storyteller by young author JoJo Thoreau, author of the illustrated children’s book Buckaroo Bobbie Sue. Calling her young is not an exaggeration—JoJo is nine years old.
Which is certainly a novelty.
But her book and her Spur Award are no novelty. She’s an honest-to-goodness writer and Buckaroo Bobbie Sue is an honest–to-goodness book. It‘s the colorfully illustrated rhyming story of a young girl’s wish to, as we say in the cowboy trade, “make a hand,” and her rise to heroics at the right minute.
I played a small role in the making of the book and am pleased as punch that JoJo (who’s too young to know better) trusted me help out.
Leaving Cheyenne wasn’t easy, but at least as we rode out of town “leading Old Dan” we left with saddlebags full of fine memories—including meeting in person the budding—but already accomplished—author JoJo Thoreau.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Another campfire tale from Rawhide Robinson.

Rawhide Robinson, the ordinary cowboy who often finds himself in extraordinary situations, has news. This time—unlike his usual campfire anecdotes—it’s true from beginning to end.
Western Fictioneers, an international organization of professional authors who write about the Old West, recently announced the winners of their 2016 Peacemaker Awards. You may recall that earlier, I wrote that Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: The True Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe—was named a Finalist for Best Western Novel for Young Adults, and I promised an update if there were any developments.  
Well, it won.
That sentence probably deserves an exclamation point, but I try to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice and limit myself to two or three for every 100,000 words of prose. But don’t let the lack of a punctuation mark fool you—I am surprised and stunned and happy and honored to have a book I created win an award named after Samuel Colt’s most famous creation. Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: The True Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe is available in hardcover and e-book and will make enjoyable reading for book lovers from junior high school to geriatric age.
Finally, since cat videos are so popular on the Internet, I’ve posted the little promotional video for the book. Click on it and take a look. (Spoiler alert: it does, in fact, include cats.)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

New news (sort of) about the Bear River Massacre.

According to recent news reports, archeologists from the state of Idaho and Utah State University have pinpointed the site of the 1863 massacre at Bear River. Which is not really big news, as the site has always been known, if not down to the square inch, by Shoshoni descendants and historians.
But farming, floods, railroad and road building, and a shifting river course have altered the terrain beyond recognition of its appearance in 1863. A map by a soldier—whose account also cemented the fact that it was a massacre rather than a battle as official army accounts claimed—helped in locating the Shoshoni village site, along with “modern technology.”
The massacre at Bear River was the first massacre of Indians by the military in the Old West, as well as the worst, with a body count surpassing Wounded Knee and Sand Creek and other better-known tragedies. While 400 to 500 Shoshoni deaths are often reported nowadays, those numbers are inflated and based on accounts with little credibility. Still, the more realistic number of 250 to 350 Shoshoni deaths at soldiers’ hands remains unsurpassed in Old West history.
Still, it is largely forgotten. Few people—even historians—know much, if anything, about the massacre. And that’s unfortunate. You can learn more about it in a chapter of my book The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, and in greater detail in my book Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Brenn Hill makes more music.

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows I am a fan of Brenn Hill. As songwriters go, he’s one of the best in the West. And he’s a talented singer and skilled musician.
I first heard Brenn’s music back in the late ’90s at a festival in Cache Valley. I don’t think he was shaving with any regularity back then, but his lyrics already surpassed the standard cowboy clichés to reveal facets of our Western world we all recognize but see with fresh eyes through his songs.
His debut Rangefire album has been in my collection since way back then, and it has spent more than its share of time in a succession of CD players over the years. Several years and a dozen or so outstanding albums later comes How You Heal. Sixteen songs, all Brenn Hill compositions, range from celebrations of cowboy work and Western places to songs that seem inspired by the writer’s maturity into his middle years.
“Middle Age Cowboy,” a story of a cowboy who clings to the life despite pressures to relent, will be familiar to all who reluctantly moved on to other pursuits. “Twenty and Cowboy” is a wistful reflection of years gone by. My favorite track just might be “Fair Weather Cowboy,” a rollicking revelation of a reality many experience but few will admit. The other songs on the album are remarkable for reasons of their own.
If you’re a Brenn Hill fan, you’ll like adding How You Heal to your collection. If you’re not, you ought to be.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The cat is out of the bag. Sort of.

Western Fictioneers, an organization of authors who write novels and short stories about the Old West, recently announced nominees for their annual Peacemaker Awards. The awards, named in honor of the Colt revolver, are bestowed upon the Best Novel, Best Short Fiction, Best First Novel, and Best Novel for Young Adults or Children.
I’m happy to say that Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: The True Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe, is nominated in the latter category. Winners will be announced June 15 and if there is further good news I will pass it along.
This recognition, along with being named a Western Writers of America Spur Award Finalist, is high praise for my latest novel.
If you haven’t read Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail, you can order a copy through your local bookstore or online, both in hardcover and e-book. There’s a short video about the book on my Amazon Author Page and out there elsewhere. Whether young or old—say from junior high school student to senior citizen—you’ll get a grin out of the extraordinary exploits of an ordinary cowboy.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 28: Writing is a Lonely Life.

You’ll often hear it said that writing is lonely. It takes hours, days, weeks, months, years spent alone at the keyboard (or typewriter or notebook) to spin a story, write a novel, sort out history, create a poem, construct a magazine article, or whatever it is you write or intend to write.
Which is true, sort of.
But I would use a different word to describe writing time: solitary.
That’s because while I am usually alone when I write, I don’t find writing lonely. I spend that time conversing with characters, getting inside their heads, reading their thoughts, understanding what makes them tick, waiting to see what they’ll do next. That’s a lot of what makes writing fiction fun.
Even when writing nonfiction—a magazine article, or history—it usually comes down to living with people in your mind and attempting to understand why they do what they do or did what they did and how that fits into the big picture.
Poetry, too, requires immersing yourself in a world of words, of sounds, of rhythms, of ideas, of images. Which is anything but lonely. In fact, it can get right crowded and noisy in there.
Finally, if you want to know the truth, sometimes—oftentimes—the “loneliness” of spending time in those other worlds is more enjoyable than living in the real world.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bye-Bye Byline: Ranch & Reata, for the last time.

The new issue of Ranch & Reata is out. Unfortunately, it’s the last of what has been an outstanding publication. For more than five years, the magazine has covered a lot of interesting people and places from all around the West. I know, because I had the opportunity to write about many of them.
While I didn’t have a byline in every issue, it was pretty close—and, in a few, I had two stories. That’s the case with this final issue.
“The Top hand and the Tenderfoot” compares the experiences of two poets at the 2016 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering—Wally McRae, who has been there since the beginning more than three decades ago, and Marleen Bussma, who made her first appearance this year. It’s an interesting look at what has become a fixture in the world of Western culture, seen through the eyes of a pair of participants.
Also in the magazine is “Ninety Percent Off,” a story about War Paint, the legendary saddle bronc horse of the ’50s and ’60s who bucked off about nine out of ten of all the rodeo cowboys who stretched a cinch around his middle. Among his victims were the best bronc riders in the business, including world champions. The article was inspired by and quotes Idaho cowboy Bob Schild, who got on—and off—War Paint twice in his career.
I’m sorry to see Ranch & Reata go. It has been a real pleasure to pen stories for them.