I write westerns because…

Update morning July 21 – Hi everyone! I’m still in my house and the fires not too far away from my little town have more or less behaved themselves over night. (I am not for now anyway, under evacuation alert, although I can see one of the fires, at some distance, burning down a mountainside towards town. The weather is expected to be unhelpful in the next little while, but as I type this little note, I can hear helicopters and planes flying over head to throw water and fire retardant around. Hopefully they can make good progress today.)

I fortunately pre-scheduled the remaining posts for this week’s Legends of Western Cinema Week, leaving me able to both fret and run around a bit like a headless chicken due to nerves, and get the blogging party done! Thank you for your concern! I will try to get back to people who have e-mailed or otherwise @’ed at me later today.

If you are so inclined, you could perhaps consider a donation to the Red Cross’s British Columbia Fires Appeal, or to other service organizations responding to fires across Canada and the USA.

On to the party!

This is the first in what may become an intermittently-appearing series of posts here on my blog in which I share thoughts. Not necessarily well thought out, particularly cohesive interesting or consistent thoughts. About westerns. I would welcome your thoughts as well. Or questions, if you’ve got questions. I don’t guarantee good answers.

This is also a post linked, a bit tenuously, to the Legends of Western Cinema Week!

I thought I should start this series with a little background about my history with westerns. It gets a bit… long. Not as long as it was at first, but it’s still long for a blog post. Sorry.

When I was a kid, I was introduced to ‘The Wild West’ through classic Hollywood films, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. I would watch these classic western genre films with my family, on the couch in the front room, after my Dad recorded them from the TV onto VHS tape.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – particularly the first few books in the series, which follow the adventures of a girl on the American frontier – were books my mother read aloud.

My mother also sometimes read adult short story westerns to us on road trips. (I suspect that she edited out some content.) More about these travels in a later post.

I do not remember ever having a western suggested to me as something to read by a teacher or a librarian or a friend, I do not remember, among all the books I was given, ever being gifted a western genre book to read (besides the Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I thought of as children’s books, not westerns.) By the time I was going by myself to the branch library in my city neighbourhood, I had developed the idea that kids didn’t read westerns. That reading westerns was really something that only old people did.

However, western films remained in the rotation of films we watched at home.

Quickly fed up with the drivel that was written for tweenaged girls I began to read ‘grown-up’ books. I read adult mysteries, I ‘experimented’ with fantasy and travel-adventure spy and thriller type stories. I read a few biographies, historical and literary fictions.

I remember standing several time in my city branch library, in front of the western genre “section.” It occupied two short shelves of an old dark wood shelving unit, maybe ten feet in all, at the back, past all the ‘serious literature’ and mysteries. The yellowing paperbacks with their men waving guns on the covers looked as though they were leftovers from a previous age.

I never got up the courage to take a western off that library shelf. I just couldn’t get myself to do something so ‘weird’ as trying a western novel or two as a young girl growing up in the inner suburbs of a mid-sized Canadian city.

I never saw anyone take out a western book from that branch library.

At home, we kept watching western movies. Other movies as well, but westerns remained regular features.

At school, we learned a bit about the history of Canada, which includes some rather ‘western’ incidents.

At home, later western films were added to the mix, films from the 60s and 70s and beyond.

One day I watched an employee at a thrift shop dumping a whole bookcase of second-hand western paperbacks into a shopping cart to haul away to the dumpster. (To make room for more murder mysteries and thrillers.) This reconfirmed to me that the western genre in novel form was not something of any value today.

I might have abandoned the western genre entirely, as a teenager, except that on the relatively rare occasion when a new western film was released to the movie theatres, I usually enjoyed watching them.

A few years later, as a newly adult adult, I found myself in another second-hand shop, in a strange part of town, and suddenly emboldened, I grabbed a couple of books that looked like they were westerns, bought them and took them home. (Without really looking at them, just going for it.) I was finally going to give reading westerns a try, and to heck with any real or imagined naysayers!

Unfortunately those books were… not good. They were, it turned out, published through an American evangelical publisher with strict requirements for proselytism and little concern for anything else, such as… telling an interesting story that would make sense to anyone who wasn’t a follower of their particular flavour of Christianity. In disappointment, I turned my back again on the western genre novel.

But I still watched western movies.

In the first decade of the 21st century, I discovered satellite radio – and re-discovered ‘Golden Age’ American radio plays, mostly from the 1940s and 50s. (I first heard dramatic radio episodes on AM radio.) Old time radio includes western genre radio series, such as The Six Shooter, Frontier Gentleman, Have Gun Will Travel, and, of course Gunsmoke. (Thanks to this and Dad’s classic movie nights, I can probably name more movies, radio shows, actors and actresses contemporary to when my grandmother was a teenager than movies, celebrities and TV shows contemporary to myself as a teenager. Oh well.)

Almost a decade ago now, I wrote the first draft of a western novel, essentially on the spur of the moment. I then shoved it onto my bookshelf and it was a couple more years before I was writing any more fiction in a consistent way.

I continued watching western films.

Every once and awhile, I would pick up a “historical fiction” novel which dealt with some western genre elements, or I’d sneak in a western though the “but this one isn’t genre, it’s literary!” side door, but it wasn’t until really very recently that I finally, finally, started to deliberately go out and read westerns, as a genre.

What changed?

I moved away from the city. Where I live now, in a small town, my local library has an entire row of shelving devoted to western genre books. Here, these books are treated as valuable. I overheard a conversation one day at the local thrift shop –  the manager was lamenting they didn’t receive enough western book donations to keep customers happy. In local writing groups, there are guys who write westerns. Westerns might be devalued in the city where I grew up, but they are perfectly acceptable here.

Yes, the people who browse the row of westerns at the library tend to be male, and well beyond retirement age. But they are still people. People seeking out westerns.

I also have been getting older, (I won’t say more mature) and more confident about some things. And I got an MP3 player and a Kindle, which allows me to read (or listen to) westerns sneakily, when I still feel a bit shy about it.

Most importantly, I started taking writing fiction seriously, as something I want to work at … forever until I’m dead. And westerns, I’ve discovered, are what I want to write most.

Most of the ‘western’ ideas in my stories are, of necessity, from the movies I’ve been watching since I was a kid. (The radio dramas have an influence as well, I’m sure.) Something about those stories the western movies told me as a child has lodged deep in my head and become part of me. For better and for worse.

I have, over the past five or six years, written a couple of dozen short stories in other genres, and played around in other ‘formats’ – a play or two, some poems. I am currently editing a cozy mystery, but my heart belongs to the western genre. That’s where I started writing stories as an adult, and that’s where I want to end.

Because I have decided that what I really want to do as a writer is write westerns, I need to learn, in part, by seeing other people doing, by reading westerns. And so, we have my commitment to read and review a western novel each month here. I know I have a lot of great western novels to catch up on. (I am always looking for recommendations.)

And I have a lot of western stories to write. One day, I am going to rewrite that western novel which started me along this western writing path.

Would I have come to be in this happy place today without the opportunity to watch classic western films as a child? I don’t know.

I do know that more often than not, when I see an opportunity to spend a few hours watching a legendary western film, I take it.

I write westerns because… I grew up watching western movies.

4 thoughts on “I write westerns because…”

  1. You have got to be you! The universe pulled you into the genre because that is where you were meant to be.

    Years ago at a Christmas gathering with my husband’s side of the family, hubby and his cousin shared a “look” as her husband and I shanghaied the conversation trying to top each other on our knowledge of western novels and movies. We were having a grand time. Can’t say the same about the rest of the group.

    PS: The cousin seemed genuinely bothered but hubby said he was rather proud of me (and my weird ways).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a fascinating story! I’m the opposite–I never watched Western movies (and still haven’t seen many), but I grew up reading Western novels, like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. Now I write Westerns myself, although they’re fantasy Westerns with magical creatures mixed in with the horses and cowboys. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also write westerns because I grew up watching western movies. Probably a lot of the same movies!

    I remember reading a few Zane Grey westerns as a tween, for sure Wild Horse Mesa. But I preferred watching cowboys on the screen to reading them on the page. I still do, to be honest — I love movies more than I love books. But I do enjoy reading westerns now, and have since my late twenties when I had kids and could no longer just watch a movie any time I had some free time. I still haven’t read loads of westerns, but I’m exploring! Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, Zane Grey, Jack Schaefer — I’m getting there, a book at a time. But I’d still rather watch them. If I could make movies, I would make movies, but since I can’t, I write books instead.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s