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, 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.


#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


[(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).


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…)


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