Searching for the Mother Lode; or, How Writing about Writing Reviews for Western Novels Is Like One Big Gold Rush

Mission: Craft  reasonably intelligent author queries to write reviews of two novels set in a western mining town (new trend?).

Focus: Mining towns. No idea, really, what they’re all about. I’m all gunslingers and cowboys. Miners are all gold and digging and claims. I think. 

Objective: Get back in the saddle and…research!!!

I mean, look, classic western towns are easy. Bank to be robbed. Bath house for bathing dusty cowpokes. Whorehouse for nonprocreating.

pioneertown

Pioneertown, one of the finest examples of storytelling around.

Monument Valley, ditto. Wagons. Apaches. Epic.

Monument Valley cowboylands

Wagons ho, John Ford!

Weird Lone Pine outcroppings, also. Bushwacking and ambushes–all you need to know.

Lone Pine Alabama Hills

From westerns to sci-fi…

But what about this subgenre of mining+town? Here, buckos, look at this example–what is up with it?

Gold Hill, Nevada Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan

Gold Hill, Nevada
Photo by Timothy O’Sullivan

Are those houses? Tents?  Where are the streets? Where is the center? Figuring out the essence of mining towns is crucial: like wrestling with a steroidal chicken-or-egg question, and–one would argue–more than any other genre–a writer of a western must dealz with this old chestnut:

what comes first, the setting or the character?

Or are there more important questions to ask: with western backdrops as well known and set-in-stone as false-fronted frontier towns and high plains and everything else John Wayne rode through, is it even possible to create a setting that doesn’t turn out to be cardboard thin? Or to create a rich character who can thrive in (or conflict mightily with) such a setting?

As usual, perhaps I am overcomplicating things. Characters need their settings. Settings require characters. Period. So stop stressing over some formulaic order of operations, right?

The (often) subconscious choice is probably a bit of both, in a simultaneous birthing that ends with heroes like Shane and Will Kane and the Stranger rising out from their environments like fully fleshed buckskinned, tin-starred Aphrodites.

Case Study #1: Shane, riding his way out of the wilderness to a small farm Eden–the snake, a rival Adam, or their guardian archangel.

opening sceneshane

#2: The Coop’s Will Kane penned by a town’s high walls–literally unable to see his way out of his predicament.

high-noon

#3: Eastwood’s Stranger, reborn to wreak revenge, tracing a thin, umbilical trail to a windswept mining town where it all began.

Stranger High Plains Drifter town

 

So it’s more algebra that formula. Not so much 

C + S = Story

as

[(Genre ./.  Subgenre) x (C + C + C) + (S x Th)] x Authorial Chutzpah  = Epically Awesome Western.

And to solve for “S”: The classic reel-life western town branded on our western subconscious  has one main street straight down its center, high-fronted buildings crowded together, a train depot not too far away, perhaps separated by a scenic stretch of corrals. Alleys and streets ray out from the backbone of the main road like ribs. (Actually, often real-life western towns along the railroads–despite being planned from afar in a comfortable East Coast office and imposed on a jumble of rocks and cactus–retained this sense of regularity.)

In many westerns, the theme becomes Individual against Civilization. And the author gets the story.

#1: Shane riding into his classic town–and ultimately unable to fit into its ordered streets and riding back out again, mortally(?) wounded.

#2: A stalwart Will Kane finding his moral bearings in the wooden trap of his classic town, rejecting its rotten heart, and leaving with his ladylove and morals intact.

#3: The suspiciously supernatural Stranger turning his classic town inside out and upside down (and red).

welcome-to-hell

And next to find the rules of the subgenre of mining westerns…

Mining towns were created around a discovery–a glimpse of silver or gold, a wide seam in the rock that could yield the mother lode. Instantaneous building ensued. Shacks and tents and roads extended out from claims, straggling around hills and along cliffs, beside rivers and inside valleys. Slapped up by miners and those who made money from miners, the structures were left vacant and creaking in the incessant wind as fast as good luck turns to bad. A few towns, like Virginia City, grew up enough to become a real-life organized town, but a number of mining clusters-of-shacks never made it past the wishing-for phase.

So, turns out, real-life mining towns do make sense, in a dynamic, impromptu, disorderly sort of way, and so I’ll be looking to see if these authors’ fictional mining-town characters do too. What will these characters complement/work with/react against/build/rebuild/destroy/reject? Are they as mercurial as their environments? Are they more superstitious than gunslingers? More romantic than cowboys? Are the villains more urbane or more rustic or more all-or-nothing?

Having poked through ramshackle ghost towns and abandoned mines, I know there will be danger ahead, perhaps shallow 2-D characters that collapse at a gust of skepticism or the gaping maws of incomprehensible plots. But in reading westerns, I’m like those unwashed, crazy-eyed miners: it’s the mere hope of discovery that keeps me going. Just stay off my claim, damn you.

Gold Mine Incline Photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan

Gold Mine Incline
Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan

(And O ye Writing Gods, why does everything end up reminding me about the dratted novel–the damn thing’s outline can and does stretch out as cardboard-cutout repetitious as a B-western movie set–and how I scrawl every little “discovery” with boom-or-bust enthusiasm??? More later–better ride this slippery slope into writing….it’ll probably all be fool’s gold anyway…)

 

Return of Bucko; or, Now That My Saddle Sores Have Disappeared I Have to Start All Over Again

Every once in a long while, there comes a time in a cowboy/girl’s life, when he/she has to stop drifting, stop gambling and whoring and paying for expensive whiskey, and pay down some bills. Hang up the hat a while and put on a clean shirt.

After all, if Shane could do it, so could I, was my reasoning.

I got teased some too. "How's the writing?" Grrr.

I got teased some too. “How’s the writing?” Grrr.

But really, this is just a long-winded way of saying yeah, long time no see. 

You see, what makes for a rather dull B-movie scenario is this paying-bills stuff, so hence the lack of blog. Unlike Shane, no evil rancher has been trying to stampede my farmer friends. It’s all been, well, quiet. Just working and bills and visiting the apple of my eye, the reason for laser-like focus on said bills:

my desert maison, where lizards and tarantulas and jackrabbits and roadrunners and coyotes and owls play and the skies are not cloudy all day–

(c)es2014

–unless it’s monsoon season and then there sure are some BIG goddamn clouds.

IMG_2446

(c)es2014

But the mind has been rolling, rolling, rolling (RawHIDE!) and there have been some amazing westerns to read…

Goodreads gives this one a thumbs-up.

Goodreads gives this one a thumbs-up.

such as Silver and Glorious, two books I’ll be reviewing…

cowboy heroes to mourn…

Herbert Jeffrey, who died at 100 (or so) years of age this week...

Herbert Jeffrey, who died at 100 (or so) years of age this week…

and westerns to praise and pan.

Best. Fight. Scene. Ever.

Best. Fight. Scene. Ever.

and dare I hope or should I just skip One Million Ways to Die in the West?

Or maybe I'll just read the book...

Or maybe I’ll just read the book…

In any case, pull up a stump. We’ve got a lot to catch up on…

Cowboy cutouts, Kanab, Utah, 2012. (c)es2012

Cowboy cutouts, Kanab, Utah, 2012.
(c)es2012

 

When the Legend Becomes Fact; or, The Sand Creek Massacre’s Inconvenient Truths

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

John Wayne Valence

That infamous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford, 1962) succinctly describes much of what lies behind sepia-toned country nostalgia and pumped-up cowboy-wannabe posturing: the legend of the West is bigger than its reality, and it’s a lot more interesting to watch with popcorn. 

But there is at least one instance when the facts trumped the legend. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1864 when seven hundred volunteers under Colonel John Chivington struck against a band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe camped at Sand Creek, in Colorado Territory, killing scores of them in what as at first called a pitched battle, scattering the tribes and effectively breaking tribal alliances in the area forever.

Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

From the Rocky Mountain News (1864): The Battle of Sand Creek!

Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results. . . . A thousand incidents of individual daring and the passing events of the day might be told, but space forbids. We leave the task for eye-witnesses to chronicle. All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.

Chivington, a Civil War hero and staunch anti-slavery advocate, was the stuff of legends again. White people everywhere drew a sigh of relief.
But pesky facts soon began to break through this narrative. Witnesses and survivors began to speak. The people in the encampment were mainly the elderly, women, and children. Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne and other chiefs had recently swapped land for peace. An American flag flew above Black Kettle’s lodge. The warriors were out hunting. A white flag was waved in panic when the soldiers swooped into the camp. Women and children were killed. Bodies mutilated.
At the Sand Creek Massacre

At the Sand Creek Massacre

 

From the Congressional testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, Washington, DC, March 14, 1865
Question. Were the women and children slaughtered indiscriminately, or only so far as they were with the warriors?

Answer. Indiscriminately.

Question. Were there any acts of barbarity perpetrated there that came under your own observation?

Answer. Yes, sir; I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces.

By Mr. Buckalew: Question. How cut?

Answer. With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.

By Mr. Gooch: Question. Did you see it done?

Answer. Yes, sir; I saw them fall.

Question. Fall when they were killed?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. Did you see them when they were mutilated?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. By whom were they mutilated?

Answer. By the United States troops.

Question. Do you know whether or not it was done by the direction or consent of any of the officers?

Answer. I do not; I hardly think it was.

By Mr. Buckalew: Question. What was the date of that massacre?

Answer. On the 29th of November last.

The “pitched battle” scenario did not hold up for long. Nine of Chivington’s men were killed; 148 of Black Kettle’s followers were slaughtered, more than half of them women and children. After the massacre, the Colorado militia returned and killed the wounded, mutilated the bodies, and set fire to the village.

How did a Civil War hero who fought against the spread of slavery ever get on the wrong side of history? The “destroy the savage for the Christian people” Force was strong in this one. A narrative that neatly dispensed with actual facts made the march across the West a Godgiven right for the betterment of all humankind everywhere, amen. But for once, facts seeped through this myth, bringing widespread disgust for and condemnation of Chivington’s actions and those of his men. However, no charges were ever brought against them.

This and other atrocities of the Indian Wars are an inconvenient truth that became relegated to sidebars in textbooks (and always weighing in on the side of inevitability). And as I’ve made scores of  paper feather headdresses and Puritan hats in my schooldays, celebrating communal harmony and a peaceful gathering of cultures, as stuffed as I am on turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie leftovers, I have to agree that Ford was right when he made his rather cynical Western: the legend always makes way better copy.

 

A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864

A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864

Justin America, Webisode 1; or, The Extreme Perils of Parting Ways

Justin America is just the average guy pursuing the American dream—although he’s doing it in a dusty red union suit, no boots or hat or clothes, and with a bullet hole in his side. But Americans always have that sense, rightly or wrongly, that they can do ANYTHING, so no worries! Right? . . . um, I said . . . right . . .?

JustinAmerica_inD_Show_Banner-1

Justin America is a new western web series that’s riding into town on the musical twang of spaghetti western–meets–The Magnificent Seven bombast. With the attitude of both—the humor is dark yet the storyline is classic—this pilot episode, “Parting Ways,” is as promising as it is dynamic. In the space of six minutes, we have hope, betrayal, and bloodshed. Cool.

First, the story. There’s been a power play in a tight-knit outlaw gang and all Justin (Myko Olivier) wants is to leave the gang, clear his name as an outlaw, and to “put a few dollars in [his] pocket the honest way.” A chance to start over is what practically every person on this earth yearns to do. Yet not everyone hides the—well, darn, don’t want to spoil it for you. You see, his boots are where he—okay, can’t tell you that either.

Anyway, Justin’s not some naive Eastern dud of a dude; he anticipates danger in his break from the outlaw gang so he’s craftily thought ahead and taken care of that problem. But what he doesn’t take into account is the fury of a broken heart from—okay, can’t. So forget the plot.

IMG_4304

Bloodthirsty killer or long-johned hero?
Co-Creator John Schimke (right) finds the shot with Myko Olivier (Justin, left).

Suffice it to say that the poor guy is bootless and in his red long johns and shot—all before the webisode’s six taut minutes ends. (There are more twists and turns in “Parting Ways” than in the total of How the West Was Won’s turgid 162 minutes.) Then our hero Justin is forced to hike into the wilderness and stumbles, literally, over what will become his biggest problem yet. Run credits…

And nope, not the end but a good cliffhanger, a “stay tuned for the next episode, when…!” And durn it all, they have me hooked. Check it out!

YouTube Preview Image

The two creators of the series, Jared Isham and John Schimke, ride comfortably in the saddle of Justin America, as familiar with horses as they are with scripts that call for outlawry on the 1880s frontier. This is the third western for Jared, the first being 2009’s Bounty, also a film about second chances, and Trail to Mercy, to be released later this year, about a man on a mission to fulfill a promise to his deceased wife. John’s credits range from thrillers to cowboy-hatted dramas, a matchup that kicks up some dust in this webisode. The spaghetti western twang that sets up the action is from award-winning Nolan Livesey (I love the quick switch from spaghetti to the sweeping  “let’s ride, buckos” chords).

IMG_4595

Aaron Lyons as outlaw Tanner (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

Jared was kind enough to take a break in the final week before the pilot of Justin America goes live and tell me about the making of what could be the shortest yet most complete western on earth. (And thanks, John, for your input too!)

Jared said that most of all, he and John wanted to tell a story about “someone who is striving for something good.” But to make a western, you just throw in some guns and horses and saloons, right? “The danger of making a western,” Jared cautions, echoing one his favorite directors, James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), is that “a western can become a movie about westerns rather than about character.”

So they focused on the characters first, spending five or six months on backstory, getting the lay of the land. “Once we did that,” Jared says, “we went to page one.” A true western tests the mettle of its protagonist, and so they made sure to throw plenty of mettle-making problems at our long-john-clad hero right from the first page. What does a guy who wants everything do when he has nothing? (And by nothing, they mean nothing, not even his boots, one of the primary tools of a cowboy out in the West, good for horseback riding, protection from snakebite—you can even drink water from them.)

What’s great about this approach to a western is that it shifts the focus from stereotypes to types—the outlaw leader, the woman gang member, the burly, gleeful bully, etc.—and then to characters ready to be breathed into life by actors. Over the course of John and Jared’s developmental work, the characters, as people tend to do over time, began to reveal themselves. The gang, the community that Justin is breaking from in the first episode, took on a life of its own, with a shift in hierarchy—a grim-faced Max (Mark Jeffrey Miller) as new leader—that makes Justin’s staying with the gang unbearable. As Max grits through his yellowed teeth, “You’re loyal or you’re dead.”

IMG_4077

Mark Jeffrey Miller as Max (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

The character of Audry (Samantha Colburn), the sharpshooter in this first episode, especially changed and developed over those months, says Jared. “Max is stronger and has more backing from the group [of outlaws],” he continues, “but Audry is smarter and able to manipulate people.” And she’s not the average 1880s woman. She takes her revenge in a short, sharp, and effective way and, I’m betting there’s a lot more to her that will come out. As the camera circled around the fight between outlaw thug Tanner (Aaron Lyons) and Justin, the glee with which Tanner beats up his former fellow gang member is beautiful to behold—and hints that he has a story too. In this western, it’s clear that all characters will get a voice.

Samantha Colburn as Audry (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

Samantha Colburn as Audry (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

It was also important to the co-creators to create a western that was historically accurate. To that end they were helped by the team at Caravan Western Productions movie ranch, with Peter Sherayko as technical consultant and all-around wrangler of all things western. (No stranger to the genre, Sherayko played “Texas Jack” Vermillion in Tombstone and has written prized books about the guns and gear of western films.)

Most of the cast had experience shooting guns and riding horses, so with Caravan’s help they trained in using period guns as casually as outlaws would, while keeping up with modern-day notions like safety. No doubt smartphones were turned off while the actors were in character, but one story I liked was about how one actor read Moby-Dick to get into the mood. (Of course! Man versus non-Disneyland nature.)

Aaron Lyons as Tanner (left) and Samantha Colburn as Audry (right) (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

Aaron Lyons as Tanner (left) and Samantha Colburn as Audry (right) (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)

There’s always a story in why a modern-day artist will choose to work with this genre—westerns are often viewed as fusty, dusty, racist, cardboard-cutout cheeseball fluff. (And yup, some of them are.) For Jared and John, watching westerns as kids gave them a familiarity with the bones of the genre and classic mid-century episodic storytelling. Jared grew up watching reruns of 1950s heroes Roy Rogers as well as Gunsmoke and The Long Ranger. Both John and Jared learned to ride horses early on (this seems to be quite the pattern for people who write/film westerns), but quick fact you can surprise him with if you meet him: he learned on a Shetland pony (aw!), graduating to a mustang when he was ready (classic!).

Justin America will eventually find his town and will get a chance to clear his name—just not the way he was planning. And there will be a bounty hunter . . . and a cattle drive . . . and Justin will cross the western region of the continent, from plains to desert to canyons to towns fueled by railroad expansion, along the lines of Deadwood’s den of iniquity (filmed at Melody Ranch, on the short list of possible set locations) or Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman’s town (filmed at Paramount Ranch, another on the short list of possibilities).

There will be at least one scene in a saloon (because, duh, a western without a scene in a saloon with a guy or gal huskily saying, “Give me a whiskey,” is not really a western). This the co-creators know well, but they also know their characters have hidden quirks and depths. When their grim-visaged man or woman glares around the saloon and orders something, they have a feeling it might not be “the usual.” Tea with sugar? Dynamite? Whatever it is, it’ll be unexpected, the way the real west always is.

Justin America is an American story in a distinctly American genre in a perfect western style, with a minimum of words. This is the first episode of what I hope will be many. Buckos and buckarettes, watch it, tweet about it, Facebook page like the darn thing! Because studios should know westerns have fans. And OMG I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.

Justin America’s pilot episode is just a click—and the ching of a spur away.

 

And more western trivia, because I had to ask

Favorite films??

Jared’s a John Ford fan, with The Searchers and Stagecoach high up on his list, which also includes 2007’s 3:10 to YumaTombstone, Unforgiven, and Once Upon a Time in the West. John Wayne’s 1973 western The Train Robbers, he says, was of particular interest in the creation of Justin America, as it also incorporates some fantastical elements of the west as well as typical western history and great John Wayne–worthy lines. John is a spaghetti western fan, appreciating 1966’s Django and the epic oater Once Upon a Time in the West, among others.

Favorite western wear???

Jared says cowboy hats while writing is key—also very useful for directing for the same reasons cowboys wore them since time immemorial—good against sun and rain, wind and dust. John’s trusty Justin boots see him through all tasks. (And I heartily agree. If you can’t do something in cowboy boots, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.)

paperback-western-spur-berg

Less Talk, More Action; or, The Gimlet-Eyed Beauty of Buying Cowboys

The silence of a cowboy-hatted western hero speaks volumes.

cowboy says little does much

This ad for billboards–discovered on a NYC avenue–says it all: if you have to explain yourself, you might as well herd toenail fungus for a living.

So the best of the best buckos never use more words when fewer will do.

In the best of the best westerns, just unadulterated looks could kill.  (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)

good bad ugly montage

 

(Although check this out–here is one western hero who talked for a living: Wyatt Earp sold his story–some of it true–for books and films.)

Wyatt Earp, age 79, 1923. Still a badass.

Wyatt Earp, age 79, 1923.

But he was unusual. Many western heroes were like the masterful cowboys that Gary Cooper played, able to melt women with a single glance. Remember: No Words!!!! They defeat the purpose of melting the womenfolk! (The Virginian, 1929)

 

Gary Cooper Virginian

 

Most just badassed their opponents with a cold, hard stare. Exhibit A: Woody Strode practicing before Harmonica gets into town. (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968)

woody strode

 

“Say your prayers varmint … dead rabbits tell no tales…“Say yer prayers ya long eared galoot!…Oooo … that gastronomic, epicure, culinary crepe suzette–I hate him!”

OK, except for this guy… But think about it: in the world of Rabbit versus Yosemite Sam, who always wins? Not the talker.

 

Bugs Bunny Rides Again showdown

 

So it’s clear that advertising has always known what it’s doing when it slaps cowboy duds on an ad campaign: You’re a winner! You make things happen in boardrooms and on the frontier!

(And good thing they used scare quotes so we know for sure that the cereal wasn’t actually shot from guns…)

puffedwheat2

 

And what got me on this tangent? Just an item I HAD to purchase. It  screamed “western hero!”

 

lunchbox end shooting cowboy

 

Because nothing says “I’m a big cocky superboss gunslinger with six-guns the size of Texas…

 

lunchbox cowboy side

 

…like a lunchbox with “Cowboy” on it.

 

 

Wild, Wildebeest West; or, When Wagon Train Jumped the Gnu

Sometimes it  takes just a split second to realize (or remember) that those peddling the western mythos in the middle of last century thought their audience–the common folk eating TV dinners on vinyl poufs–were idiots.

I know full well that our nostalgia for westerns and the monolithic western hero is only made possible by crafty screenwriting and well-rehearsed shootouts with blanks (and, one hopes, unionized labor for cast and crew). But I always believed that the mythmakers had at least some, well, respect for western fans. Especially those honchos behind TV’s classic Wagon Train, whose creaky scripts and stock footage of the same old crooked tree at the mountain pass yet again would’ve cancelled the show, but for  the wellspring of affection from the many Wagon Train groupies.

Speaking of groupie, let me just pause a moment for a Robert Horton moment!!!

shirtless_robert horton

I was settling in with a shot (ahem, or three) of whiskey, ready to soak up the bromance between Seth Adams and Flint McCollough–in the second season of Wagon Train they’re often spatting at each other, figuring out who was on top–when a buffalo was shot by one of the men on the wagon train, and my nostalgia was punctured like a proverbial balloon.

“Did you see that?” I asked my urban cowboy. He had not. I stepped the scene back a few frames and paused it.

“That’s a wildebeest,” he said. “Not a buffalo.”

And he was right. And the mystery that obsessed me, that snatched away my concentration from the strutting Flint and Seth, was the question of all questions: A wildebeest? Really?

“The Tent City Story” aired December 10, 1958. Seth Adams (Ward Bond), in his second season leading pioneers westward, had forbidden those on the train  to kill any game while crossing a warlike Native American tribe’s lands. Sure enough, one of them shoots a buffalo, sparking a confrontation that threatens to wipe out the wagon train, and, much more importantly, destroy the wonderful friendship of wagon master and scout, Flint McCollough.

Seth Adams shackles the man in irons, a harsh punishment that brings out the fire in Flint and causes the scout to leave the wagon train and fall into a job as lawman for a wild and woolly tent city. There’re pretty women (“Flint…that’s a nice name…”) and gunfire and a fight in the mud between a warrior chief White Eagle and Flint (whoo!). Slim Pickens has a short turn as a hapless man who’s also killed game on tribal lands, allowing Flint to show that he is less of a hardass than Seth Adams. All in all, it’s a fine episode that lets Ward Bond roar and Robert Horton grit his jaw and character actor Slim Pickens do a muted refinement of his schtick. Everything a fan can ask for!!!

But that wildebeest…dang, guys.

Scene opens, man gallops down trail. Smiles. (And sorry for the crappy screenshots–had to use Youtube…)

Wagon train man on horseback

Wagon Train Smile man on horseSees herd of bovids. (Least they had the family right.)

Wagon Train wildebeest

Shoots one. (Squeamish note: Animals were totally, utterly harmed in this stock footage from the wilds of Africa.)

Wagon Train shot wildebeest

A brief pause for a science lesson.

Connochaetes taurinus:

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Bison bison:

Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City

Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City

I thought their wagons had taken a wrong turn to another continent at Idaho? Or White Eagle’s tribe had taken to caring for exotic animals from a zoo? But then the man walked up to the dead stuffed buffalo, a bovid of North America, and I knew.

Wagon train stuffed dead buffalo

Viewers are kind of idiots.

Even in 2013. Example 1: there are TV shows where car chases through NYC landmarks are geographically impossible. Who cares? it’s all about the chase in NYC/Toronto streets. Example 2: Recently my urban cowboy missed the point of a movie because he was arguing about why the protagonist had driven from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon to Tucson–I told him just think “Arizona” and get back to the movie.

So who’s the idiot–the audience that goes with the flow, suspending disbelief, or the viewer who knows too much for his or her own good?

But a wildebeest?! I draw the line.

Did viewers back then notice the switcheroo? Did scores of families watching this not blink an eye at the sleight of hand with these massive land mammals? Did they not know the difference?

But can you really blame the creatives who made the scene in 1958? Bison had been protected for years, so there was probably no footage of a buffalo being shot that could be found for the lightning-speed-need of the TV production world. (A wildebeest being killed, on the other hand, was obviously far easier to find.) I pulled at my whiskey and brooded. Then thought, “Brilliant.” Clearly another directorial gem that allowed this episode to live in my brain far longer than it deserved. I downed the shot. Poured another. Toasted the wild western wildebeest and wild, wild Wagon Train.

Flint McCollough (Robert Horton): He’s yelled at me for the last time. I’ve got a little pride too, you know.

Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath): Between the pride you’ve got, and the pride he’s got, you both lost a good friend. You were good friends, you know.

 

 

 

The Wyoming Lone Ranger; or, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire Rides Again

There’s a branch of crime genre that’s set in the grizzled lands of the Wild West, its gumshoes/police chiefs in boots, spurs, and cowboy hats, as taciturn as any LA noir street dick–and as secretly well-read, as white-knightly, and as troubled.

Serpents Tooth cover

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire, in his gritty page-turner “Longmire series” novels, the latest being A Serpent’s Tooth (Viking 2013), strides along a Wyoming landscape even more windswept and stark and beautiful than the real thing if that’s possible (fiction does that). He’s not the silent stranger riding down from the hills to cure a western town of evil but a man-of-few-words widower who trades banter and affection with his comrades in arms. He’s so much a part of the town and lawman culture in the western states that he knows what’s happening in the bad guys’ heads before he can understand his own grief over his wife’s passing, his attraction for his undersheriff, and his penchant for getting into tough situations that usually end with his skin being punctured multiple times by a lethal weapon.

 

Robert Taylor as Sheriff Longmire in A&E's series Longmire

Robert Taylor as Sheriff Longmire in A&E’s series Longmire

The bad guys are as modern as our hero. They’re drug dealers and battle-scarred vets off their meds, pimps and roughneck extortionists with CIA backgrounds. The issues are never as white hat / black hat as B-westerns protrayed–in that Johnson tips his own broad-brimmed hat to the noir genre with its seething cauldron of social ills like drug use, poverty, big-money greed, and even bigger failings of human nature, a toxic stew flavored with antelope, buttes, and gimlet-eyed sheriffs and undersheriffs.

Refreshingly ever-present in the community of the western world of Longmire are Native American voices, notably Longmire’s best friend Henry Standing Bear, whose deadpan take on life wins him the “Best More than a Wise Native Sidekick” award. The love interest is the shoot-from-the-hip Victoria “Vic” Moretti, an Eastern transplant from the mean streets of Philly who brings her share of f-bombs.

I read Craig Johnson’s books like I read my zillion paperback westerns–with an eye to how the genre is shaped, prodded, provoked, and transformed in the hands of a masterful storyteller with respect for the genrethe plots make your pages turn, the characters are drawn skillfully, the setting is gorgeous, dark, and unsettling. His most recent novel, A Serpent’s Tooth, gathers Mormon “lost boys,” polygamists, and Joseph Smith’s very own regulator, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder–who just happens to have a yen for My Friend Flicka–into a high-plans high-speed scavenger hunt with the Teapot Dome scandal, shale oil profiteering, and the shadowy side of the CIA.

But most enduring is that Johnson is writing about more than shootouts and scuffed cowboy boots. “They are complex, those chambers of the human heart,” Standing Bear tells Longmire brooding at his desk about wrongs he cannot make right. Then he continues after a beat, “You do realize that it is simply a myogenic muscular organ, right?” The two agree.

The words of Craig Johnson follow the tried-and-true flexing of the muscular crime/western hybrid but they also hint at deeper undercurrents of oh-so-American genre fiction–not only how to find beauty and generosity in a brutal modern world but how to fight for it, one silver bullet at time.

Craig Johnson is the author of eight novels in the Walt Longmire mystery series, which has garnered popular and critical acclaim including the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year, and  a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Hell Is Empty, selected by Library Journal as the Best Mystery of the Year, was a New York Times best seller, as was As the Crow Flies. The Walt Longmire series is the basis for the hit A&E drama Longmire, starring Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Katee Sackoff.**

**Yes, Starbuck is salt-of-the-earth, sexy Vic!

western_showdown

 

What Would Dad Do?; or, Four Fundamental Reel-Life Lessons from My Father

I love reel-life tough, taciturn cowboy heroes, in case you haven’t guessed. But don’t try to make this into a therapy session about my real-life father figure, who was a generous, slightly nerdy guy who loved music and reading, The Muppet Show (yes, it’s true, eek), and walks in the woods. He taught me just as much as any of those mucho macho heroes, if not more. 

My hero!

This is not my dad. But Ward Bond’s character was like a father to many on Wagon Train.

To wit, DAD’S LESSONS (which–hey I never knew!–are JUST LIKE the lessons of Silver-Screen Western Heroes)

1. Say what you mean and mean what you say. 

My dad was a man of few words, but mainly because he understood the power of not talking, which allowed him to actually listen to people and to observe complaining teenagers, Giacometti sculptures, or rocks (he was a geologist). He was well spoken and polite but was known to take action without much chitchat beforehand. He was a little shy, so when he actually talked, it meant he either really wanted to say something or felt he had to say it. So people listened.

Tom_Doniphon John Wayne

This is not my dad. But most dads wanted to be like the Duke.

2. Work hard. Be dependable. 

The time 6:20 p.m. lives in my bones. That’s the time he stepped off the commuter bus from work and ambled up our drive to the front door for dinner. I think he would’ve liked to be the cowhand with the geopick, drifting along the continental divide and checking out core samples and metamorphic rock, but he had a wife, four kids, a house, and he was determined for his kids to do as well as he had.

Cooper, Gary

This isn’t my dad either. But if you want a responsible father figure who will do what has to be done, no matter the cost, Will Kane is the bucko.

3. Aspire. And make it happen.

He didn’t have to go to college but he did, at MIT, after a stint in the Marines that paid his way. That is some steely resolve. Whatever you want to do, he seemed to say, do it. Take the bad with the good, and keep trying to make it better.

randolph_scott

This is not my father. But it’s Randolph Scott!

4. Lighten up. Cheezus.
All this makes my dad seem a bit grim, like one of those pioneer fathers who make their kids shuck corn until their hands bleed. He was actually a bit goofy, fond of silly puns and odd juxtapositions of words and situations that revealed something startling and new, and were therefore, quite obviously to me then as well as now, funny. While I’m sure he drove my mom crazy–she was better at fixing sinks and building playhouses from scratch than he was–he also taught me it’s okay to let whimsy take over. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to “get” today, in my own driven pursuit  of this, that, and the other.

Nope, not my dad, although he shared a similar smile as Robert Horton’s, who played Flint McCollough in TV’s Wagon Train.

My father was/is my hero, although he couldn’t knock someone down with a blow to his fist (Dad? a skinny guy like him?) and he wasn’t a Moses-type charismatic leader (he led by quiet example, not by fire and brimstone).

He was my hero because he once wrestled with whether to be a priest or a scientist, a choice that brought home to me how much he revered the world–and how much it deserves to be revered. (He chose to study the rocks of the earth instead of the hierarchies of the angels, in part because my winsome mother flashed him a smile at the right time.) He’s probably why I’m drawn to the more introverted cowboy heroes, the James Stewarts and Randolph Scotts of the genre, whose soft-spoken demeanors also hid steely resolve.

I miss him every day–he would’ve loved Twitter and smartphones and the Hubble telescope’s photographs.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and happy heavenly fossil-hunting to you!

That's my dad!

That’s my dad!

 

Rescue Me, Flint!; or, Of Wagon Train and Writer’s Block

The wilderness of writer’s block is vast, dangerous, and difficult–if not impossible–to cross.

IMG_3244

Or is it just the packaging that makes everything look so vast?*

(*Image used with permission from the delightful Toy Soldiers Collecting blog, where adventure awaits after a click on the link…)

A writer never expects to get seriously lost in this wilderness; like the pioneers in their wagons imagining adventures they can safely escape from and tell their spellbound grandkids about, you picture yourself awesomely epically overcoming weariness, discouragement, boredom, frustration. And you will look damn-hot good doing it, like Wagon Train‘s Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) overcoming whatever has wounded him, from fire ants to dehydration to razor-sharp arrows. One after another challenge will waver and give up before your gimlet gaze.

Or just give the danger a killer grin, perhaps...

Or just give the danger a killer grin, perhaps…

But know this: writing is a savage business, full of blood and gore although planning to write a novel often starts out in a civilized place. Inspiration takes you far along that civilized, hopeful trail, for some people as far as the Promised Published Land. But for others, it’s easy to get take a wrong turn…

“I need to work on the first chapter again…and again…”

“I’ll just finish this job and then write the book when I’ve made enough money to get by…”

“[insert excuse here]”

(BTW, the excuses aren’t always lame—don’t ever get down on yourself for them; they are worthy reasons. Some are even necessary reasons—it takes a special brand of insanity to turn down a job to work on a novel that may or may not ever see another reader’s eyes.)

But before you know it, you’re lost in Death-to-Novel Valley, with the dreams of publication (and forget about completion), like the lemon-scented groves of California, far beyond your mortal reach.

Death Valley B&WDuring my own sojourn in the wilderness, I ride on other people’s novels. I edit their ideas and help them hone sentences. I listen to their campfire stories of finding an agent, completing several chapters in a rush of exultation, living their dream.

I could be an extra on that series, maybe the guy sitting in the shadows, scheming for the sweet, earnest pioneers to fall under a savage knife. Maybe the devil-may-care saddle tramp—there is no writing care in the world, if you don’t write–who rides in to share the warm fire then rides out, fast, as soon as someone starts mentioning they have this idea for a novel, it’ll get published, sure…

To counter the wilderness, I’ve been watching Wagon Train episodes as regularly as some people go to therapy.

Wagon Train openerI want Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond), wagon master, to care for me in whatever darkness I’m in. He’s crusty as well as trusty, and as John Ford used to pick on him (so rumor has it), I feel a special, er, bond with the big lug. He’s not the stellar John Wayne, but he is the guy who will put up his dukes to protect someone in his train–me, the loser! at the end!! who is about to get picked off by my own defeatism!!!!

My hero!

My hero!

Every moment buckskin-clad scout Flint McCullough swings by makes the long days a little brighter. He’ll find the pitfalls of the trail before I do and warn me to steer clear of them or get the rifles ready. He’s the fit-and-trim trail-savvy guy who will buy me a drink to cheer me after a bad writer’s group critique or take me to bed–whatever, as long as I don’t keep him from doing his job, helping Major Adams keep me safe.

Or he could go shirtless.

Or he could go shirtless.

I want to be wined and dined by Frank McGrath, the curious but brave coot of a cook who doesn’t care if I can’t finish–he just thinks it’s cool I started. And maybe I’d able to steal Terry Wilson as assistant wagon master Bill Hawks away from his wife, just for on more distraction on the yippi-yi-ki-yo trail.

He's just a regular guy...with a gun.

He’s just a regular guy…with a gun.

I’m not the only WT convert out there, although most people with a fondness for the hit series are a couple of generations older than I am. TV’s Wagon Train left St. Louis in 1957 and got the wagons to California (for the ninth and final time) in 1965, changing from black and white to color, like Dorothy’s POV in the Land of Oz, in the process. It was a hit with TV audiences, a long-lived morality play that would one day be turned into a space opera, Star Trek. Each episode told an different story of the member of the wagon train, from stalwart men who persevered to cowardly ones who learned their lesson, from sultry vixens who had it coming to good girls who found their husbands and, somewhat surprisingly for the time, Latinos and Native Americans who just tried to maintain their dignity in a world of prejudice. Sure there may have been, like, one or two black people in the first season, and you could always tell when a woman would die at the end of an episode (hint: she had sex with men she was not married to), but at least it was a start for mid-century families tuning into tales of melting-pot community.

Flint McCullough and Major Seth Adams to the rescue!

Flint McCullough and Major Seth Adams to the rescue!

I’ve got one episode left; having just viewed an earnest take on post-Civil War society wounds, with Robert Vaughn as a maybe-bitter Southerner and someone else as maybe John Wilkes Booth. Now it’s just the final episode wherein they will make it to California.

I’m assuming they will–much like when you start writing a novel and you’re supposed to finish it and get to the land of Milk and Honey and Hollywood. But really, who am I kidding? All throughout the episodes, the wagon train has moved through the same mountain pass, circled up in the same sunny meadow, crossed the same raging river. I wouldn’t be surprised if the California they make it to is the same as the land they left behind. Maybe it’s all because of a tight budget and sound stages and stock footage. Or maybe you end up where you started, circling the wagons.

Wagon Train series

Cue Robert Horton’s Flint again, the big-shouldered-trim-waisted scout who will rouse me from echo-chambered, blinker-visioned navel-gazing, even if he has to escape outlaws with a bullet wound in his handsome shoulder, drag himself over cactus for miles, inevitably leaving his shirt behind to show his pecs and brawny arms.

I remember this episode--it was a totally gratuitous and random bathtub scene. But a welcome one.

I remember this episode–it was a totally gratuitous and random bathtub scene. But a welcome one.

Then, once again, as Major Adams would say, “Wagons, ho!”

 

Enter My House Justified; or, Skirmish at the Old Homestead Cabin

The novel of the homestead cabin writes itself. 

It was a prologue of possibilities, of quails and tarantulas and Joshua tree groves and sunshine. Since then, its chapters, experienced at a 2,500-mile distance, waver between comedy and tragedy and tearjerker, with the love of my life, the cabin, being both beautiful and ugly, stoic and needy, a magnet and a caution.

The Conflict

Every western film or novel usually settles into its trail of conflict within the first scene or page of a chapter. Shane rides from the hills, buckskinned glory upon a horse entering farmers’ lands, signaling a story of the West versus civilization. A stagecoach and cavalry gallop beneath the wide skies of Monument Valley in Stagecoach, tiny under the vast skies of the West. Patrick Dearen’s To Hell or the Pecos centers on a man wracked with guilt for having caused the death of his wife, the scent of the desired/feared Pecos River territory dust sharp in the air, the weight of a gun heavy in his hand.

This new chapter in my life–West Coast pilgrim, landowner, glam writer’s cabin retreater–already explores a cornucopia of conflicts. But only one can be the primary conflict. Which will it be?

Human vs. Nature

“I was here first,” he hissed…

It’s a fire zone, near the San Andreas fault. Water washes across property lines and roads during flash floods. And I gotcher venomous arachnids and Crotalus scutulatus. Surely there is something here! But all this–except for the critters–had to be quantified and listed and accounted for for insurance purposes. It transformed into Human vs. Insurance Company, less a cinematic conflict than a tiresome faxing of documents. (Or was, until more efficient avenues of insurance were supplied–thank you, Farmers.)

Human vs. Human

A have-to-share novel–a modern western vampire story that will scare the boots off you

The possible conflicts of western-character-initiated themes run the gamut from traditional (cattlemen vs. sheepherders) to genre-busting (humans vs. vampires) to modern (there are meth houses in them thar hills). But knock on wood and potential threat of vandalism aside, there has been little to fear from surrounding and visiting humans. No cattle/sheep issues that I know of. No undead. No drugged-out thugs waiting for the East Coaster in the dead of night. Call this theme a no-go. The neighbors are OK. Can I say how happy that makes me? I may say.

Human vs. Self

Loves me, loves me not…

And here the flippant commentary dies out. The typing falters. Deletions ensue. After all,  has a western ever NOT been about Self?

  • Shane puts on the accouterments of the farmer but he has to decide what kind of man he is–the live-among-the-farmers type or the ride-alone-into-the wilderness-forever type.
  • All of the passengers of John Ford’s Stagecoach must face their own demons, from whiskey (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc) to daring to hope (Claire Trevor’s Dallas).
  • The aging cowboy Tom, riding through the hell of Pecos River territory, must rouse himself from the depths of self-pity to save a woman from bandits.

Human vs. Self sucks. You know what I mean: hubris, self-doubt, self-deception, greed, fear of death, fear of commitment, fear of love.

And windows. What sizes?

Doors. Placement?

Water main or graywater? Compost or septic?

Solar or grid?

Good Lord and the Lone Ranger too.

A certain, beloved literary agent will recognize my age-old conflict: INDECISION vs. DECISION. If I can’t figure out if the villain dies or not at the end of my novel, how can I possibly decide where outlets go?

But what’s the big deal? Who cares if a window is there or over here? A sink drain is next to the west wall or the east wall? Epic possibilities begin to arise. Maybe I am like the drifting cowhand/gunslinger, happy to do whatev. That’s all right–plenty of emulation-worthy characters to choose from. Any character based on Billy the Kid. Kirk Douglas’s Jack Burns in Lonely Are the Brave. Charlton Heston’s Will Penny. Except all three end up dead or lonely. Dang.

Change a-comin’

Resolution?

But there’s a reason why novels are so long. There’s possibility for transformation even in the first pages and it might take a thousand more to allow it to happen.

When the plans for a bath house (yes, separate, for that sexy cold-night bathroom break) created a threat to cut down a grove of Joshua trees, something happened inside me. They are perfectly formed Joshua trees, probably sprouting when Frankie Sinatra was singing down the road at Palm Springs. Their very branches say “West.” Should they be cut down for construction needs? I said NO. The word welled up viscerally. It was absolute. It was a boundary that would not be crossed. And, sorry to all you visitors, the trees will stand while visitors will traipse a little farther for their shower.

So I went all Randolph Scott about Joshua trees on the long-suffering, patient contractor who should receive co-star billing in the film of this book. But all I want is to enter my house justified–or at least without having to miss Joshua trees.

No, the resolution of my conflict isn’t the high moral path of characters like Shane–a knightly refusal to accept unfairness and harm to others. It isn’t Patrick Dearen’s Tom’s dogged determination to save a woman and redeem himself. I’ve just got myself to work with after all.

Five acres and 280 square feet is a vast land to conquer. But not as big as one’s psyche.