Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Conclusion of the Jeanne Williams' Interview

Jeanne Williams loves to write. She said, "Sometimes I have a hard time getting going, or with a particular stretch, but I just hack through it. Writing is hard, hard work," but she doesn't plan to retire. She was one of the first novelists to balance historical events with romance, and is known for her solid research. "I've always had a strong love story and usually a fascinating villain.The most important thing in a book is characters the reader can care about."

The Arizona writer's vacations have been spent, for the most part, in research that has taken her to various parts of the world. She rafted down the Amazon River and danced in Bahia's carnival for background atmosphere for The Left Hand Kingdom, her epic Brazilian novel. 

"I'm a lover of the wilderness and have camped in some pretty formidable ones," she said. Norway, Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Mexico and Belize have all been entries in her travel log, as well as her trek over the Rocky Mountains to research a book about the Mormon handcart travelers. 

"I have some writing projects that I've been thinking about for years, but probably won't get them all done. When I decide what to do next, I piddle around a few days making notes, thinking about people, reading--this takes longer if it's an unfamiliar subject. I read all I can, making copious notes, and then figure out some sort of story line. I never outlined my first thirty-odd books, but just began with an idea, characters and a loose bunch of things I wanted to include. In order to sell these longer books, some kind of outline is needed, but my outlines are pretty short, about ten pages. It's really easier for me to write the story than to outline, which I always deviate from anyway."

The novelist said she was "abashed at my temerity to write Cave Dreamers,  a 576-page, multi-generational saga," which preceded her Brazilian book. "But I'm getting used to that kind of challenge. There are always new areas to write and improve upon, which constitutes the job of writing. It can never go stale because you can never do it as well as you want to."

Williams advises fledglings to write constantly, and to find a qualified writer to critique their work. Emphasizing the importance of rewriting and revising their work, she said new writers should be as dedicated to their craft as a surgeon is to his. Determination is all-important, for first novels do manage to sell. "Write what you care about and give it your best shot and send your work to all possible markets, applying any suggestions editors make, seeking to improve your writing. Being thyself is vital for growth and satisfaction as a writer."

The best of writing for Jeanne Williams has been  the freedom to live where she chooses and to set her own working schedule. "Writing has been the main constant in my life. I cannot separate my life from it. I love creating people and places, and with my last books I've begun to have the pleasure of letters from readers who say that one of my books has been the best they ever read. I like the independence of being a one-person industry, operating out of my head, utilizing the knowledge and values I've acquired."

Learning to trust her own instincts has been an enormous plus in her life and has helped her grow as a writer.Years of not trusting and rejecting her subconscious feelings reversed and she relies heavily upon them. 

Her first husband, Col. Gene Williams, admired her writing, and her second, well-known English author, John Creasey, was a helpful critic, but he was so busy writing his own books that he had little time for hers. "If you want an identity crisis, try living and writing in the same house with the person who was at that time the most prolific writer in the world, with a constant flood of reprints and revisions coming in. That was probably the hardest part of my writing career."

Her third husband, Bob Morse, typed her manuscripts on a Kaypro at the time of the interview, but he didn't usually discuss her work in progress. "My daughter Kristin used to read all my manuscripts over my shoulder before she left home, but I've always preferred not to have a lot of comments from anyone while I'm working. It's distracting, creates doubts and is often not valid. I believe in doing the book and letting my agent and editor comment."

She composed all her work on a typewriter until Christmas of 1984, when her husband Bob "sneakily gave me an Epson micro computer with a simple sheet of instructors that I came to love." Refusing to use the Kaypro, she enjoyed composing on the smaller model, and her husband ran her final printouts before typing them them into the larger word processor.

"The romance [market] has gone to superromance and ecstasy, very  sensual stuff. There are still some good writers who tell a good story along with the obligatory love scenes, but most of the books I've looked at are truly awful." 

As for improving the literary market, she would have publishers bring out a wider line, "not flock like hogs to what looks hot at the moment. Build new writers instead of concentrating on brand names, stop buying from packagers and cut the series, develop ways of servicing small communities, and stop being provincial by catering to New York tastes.  We might buy more books out here if they interested us." 

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jeanne Williams, Part II

Married at 18 to a World War II veteran, Jeanne Williams wrote steadily while her husband attended classes at the University of Oklahoma. She pored over writer magazines and submitted short stories without success. After her first child was born in 1947, her manuscript mailings came to a temporary halt. “But I did write as much as I could between baby and household chores. My son Michael unthawed parts of me that had been frozen since my mother died,” she said. “And I’m grateful to my children for helping me grow up.”

During her child rearing years, she enrolled in the noted University of Oklahoma’s writing course taught by W.S. Campbell and Foster Harris. “I did the extensive lessons carefully. This would surely teach me how to write successfully. I think it was a pity I didn’t have someone to read and critique my manuscripts, which would have taught me a lot more. Actually, writing schools are upside down. A beginner learns by writing, then criticism and revision. Theory is worth nothing until one learns enough to know what to bear down on.”

After her husband was sent to Korea, she attended the University of Oklahoma, and was able to take manuscript criticism courses while majoring in history, reasoning that she could teach history until her writing began to sell. “Foster Harris was my mentor,” she said. “We had a personal tragedy before my husband left and I came to OU in miserable shape physically and emotionally. I wrote every moment when I wasn’t taking care of my son Mike, studying or doing the necessities.”

Harris assigned her a story each week “and half an hour with him taught me more than all the correspondence courses I’d read on writing.” Williams sold a short story she had written several years earlier to Ranch Romances in 1952, which kicked off her writing career. They moved to Texas upon her husband’s return from Korea, and most of her short stories were sold “along with the inevitable biographical and therapeutic novels.”

She stayed in contact with Foster Harris until his death. “Most of my early work was to make him proud of me. For me and many others he was an incomparable friend. Later, Leland Sonnichsen was an inspiration and made me examine what I was doing and define my aims.”

Calling herself “a real slave driver,” she made a conscious effort to spend as much time as possible with her two children. But she also did what Marcus Aurelius termed “the work of a human being.” Williams had been volunteering her time in a migrant workers’ clinic in Texas, as well as serving on the War on Poverty’s Community Action Program. She taught Sunday school, did church committee work, and was later involved in Tucson conservation and political groups. Because of her love of animals, she served four years on the board of the International Society of Animal Rights.

After her work began to sell, she devoted all her free time to writing, often churning out 200 pages a month during her fledgling years by spending six to eight hours a day at her typewriter. Years later, she was satisfied with half that amount, writing from breakfast until noon, with a couple of hours in the afternoon or evening.

“Call it six hours at the typewriter, research reading, lap revisions, and all the other tasks. I allow myself two days off a week in theory, but if there’s nothing I want to do I write, because trips and company put me behind.”

(The interview will conclude next week . . .)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Conversation with Jeanne Williams

A pioneer of Western historical romance novels, Jeanne Williams wrote her first in 1956, when no one was buying them. It wasn’t until 20 years later, after Marilyn Durham’s novel, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, and Rosemary Rogers’ western settings plowed a rich new field for women writers that she was able to publish a western romance of her own.

The Saddleman winner and past WWA president said. “The first book I wrote was turned down as being too western to be historical and too historical to be western, and unpublishable in any case because it was written from a woman’s viewpoint. Though I wrote many books that were set in the West, it wasn’t until A Lady Bought with Rifles was published in 1976 that I could finally sell the kind of book I had always wanted. In my western-woman novels I’ve tried to show how it really was and depict little-known historical events while telling a good story.”

The petite, dark-haired writer kept busy during the two decades between her first romance novels. Her premier juvenile book, Tame the Wild Stallion, won the Texas Institute of Letters Cokebury Award in 1957, and was republished by TCU Press in 1985. The book was written as J.R. Williams, as were the 12 that followed. Among them, her Horsestalker won a Spur Award in 1962.

Between 1953 and 1973, she sold over 60 short stories, novelettes and articles to a variety of women’s publications from westerns to fantasies. The majority of them were written during a four-year period when she first began selling her work. Once she turned her attention to book-length projects, gothics and light romances emerged under the names Jeanne Creasy, Deidre Rowan, and Kristin Michaels, and long historical novels as Megan Cassel, Jeanne Foster and Jeanne Williams. She published over 50 books during the following 30 years.

The novelist’s persistence and dogged determination to establish herself as a writer were traits established early in life. Jeanne Kreie was born on a wheat farm on the Kansas-Oklahoma border during the Great Depression, the youngest of three children. Her parents lost their land during the dust bowl era of the 1930s and her father eventually owned a grocery store. Young Jeanne idolized her mother, whom she said was so good that “I felt sinful in comparison.” She died of cancer when Jeanne was eight.

Jeanne’s father became so distraught over his wife’s death that he became a “terrifying stranger and the only thing that saved me was going to live with my mother’s parents in the Missouri Ozarks. I loved the country and my spirit healed.

Williams taught herself to read before starting school and loved books and writing from that time on.  Her favorites were the Oz books, fairy and folk tales before she discovered Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the Jungle Books, Just So Stories, and the complete works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. She remembers devouring historical fiction and “just about everything else in the library.”

Her writing began soon after she learned to read, with short stories and poetry illustrated with family cartoons. She excelled In English and history in a one-room country school, and said math was not her strong point. Aside from her literary interests, she swam Missouri creeks, explored mountains and caves, and rode horses when she wasn’t helping her grandparents with farm chores.

“We had to attend church three times a week and any revivals, and I was allowed to read the hymns or the Bible during the sermon. That was when I memorized the Song of Solomon and other parts I liked. We also had Bible readings morning and night. If you’re going to have one book drummed into you, the Bible is better than most. I read Dante’s Divine Comedy when I was in fifth grade and that’s when I began writing my most ambitious book, a retelling of the Bible. I gave out at the Tower of Babel and the Volsung Saga, which I didn’t complete." She said it would be fun to compare her early work with her Viking epic, The Heaven Sword, published in 1985.

Williams was a published author before she was ten, when paid for a poem printed in the Sunday school paper. “Everyone thought it was fine if I wanted to write, but no one knew how to do it, or sell it.”

(Continued next week . . .)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bill Gulick Interview Conclusion

Not unlike a great many other writers, Bill Gulick feared having his manuscript destroyed before it was completed. He said, “I have this fetish about the house catching fire, a nuclear bomb dropping, or Mount St. Helens blowing again.” Before computers were in general use, as soon as he finished a chapter, he mailed a copy to Penrose Library, Whitman College, where his wife once worked.  He also sent copies to his agent and publisher in case lightning or other disasters hit both places at once, “so I won’t have to go back and do that work again.”

His accumulated research of the Northwest found its way into many of his books, and he admitted that his wife Jeanne had done most of the research for him. The former librarian enjoyed digging for facts, and all he had to do was point her in the right direction. The couple would also travel the targeted area before Gulick began each book.

“In Chief Joseph Country, we traveled as far as St. Louis because that’s where the fur trade started. The Nez Pierce Indians were there on their quest for the white man’s book of God in 1831, and were captured and taken into Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where they were kept for five or six years. So the Indian archive center has a great deal of material.”

Since Jeanne Gulick was familiar with librarian’s techniques, she and her husband were able to canvass a library, making notes and going through historical pictures, covering four times as much territory as he could have done alone. The writer’s wife also helped by typing the final drafts of his manuscripts.

Although he said most publishers treated him well, he resented “the slowness of the corporate mind.” He recalled “the great days of the SATURDAY EVENING POST, when no manuscript that came from a reputable agent or even the slush pile took more than 48 hours to reach a decision. And the POST would send an editor out to Seattle or Portland or Los Angeles or San Francisco, wherever I wanted to meet him once or twice a year to spend half a day with me. And he would say, ‘Any problems you have, call us collect, and we’ll try to help.’

“In the days when the story wasn’t quite right, they’d say, ‘If you change this we’ll take it.’ I always did. It’s been difficult for many experienced writers to get used to new publishing policies, especially when even though you’d been with an Eastern publisher for many years they have to send your new idea, if it doesn’t fit into a category such as the Double D Westerns—which I’ve been trying to get out of—to 78 of their salesmen to get an opinion in order to say three months later, ‘We can’t use this as a big book. Why don’t you send it to Double D Westerns?’ This irritates me a little bit but I’ve reached the point where I can say no if I don’t like the idea. I don’t have to write for a living.”

Stanley Vestal used to tell student writers, “You can come to me saying ‘I know how to write—teach me how to sell.' And I say to you, ‘You’ve got holes in the wrong end of the stick. I can teach anyone how to sell but you’ll be almost the rest of your life learning to write.” Gulick considered the statement “good advice because out of a hundred books that are published, ninety of them are probably bad. Ten of them I would give passing grades, maybe five of them are fine books. There are a lot of garbage books being published."

Gulick took a month off after completing a massive 1,144-word page historical manuscript, which he cut from 308,000 to 208,000 words for Doubleday. He reasoned that after 44 years of writing, the book would probably be his last. But a month of leisure left him dissatisfied and he decided to attend a Western Writers of America convention in San Antonio to talk to editors about another nonfiction historical book.
When he returned to his ranch near Walla Walla, he had three stage plays to get on the boards, as well as his Northwest Destiny historical trilogy. He was also composing lyrics for a song on his eclectic mental typewriter.  

(Excerpted from MAVERICK WRITERS, Caxton Press.)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Remembering Bill Gulick, Part III

The Gulicks bought a small ranch near Walla Walla, Washington, where the author researched the area’s history. “I was never crazy about straight action westerns,” he said, “but I did like the mountainmen stories and the Oregon Trail.” He was particularly interested in the inland Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River, the Snake, and innermountain region—the backdrop for most of his books. The exception was Showdown in the Sun, a paperback original set in Arizona and northern Mexico, where he and his wife had spent winter and spring vacations.

Gulick was a hard man to label. His work runs the gamut of nonfiction articles and books to novels and short stories, plays and television scripts. “Several times I thought of getting my feet wet in the Hollywood scene because I discovered if I sold a published story to TV, they would pay the man who adapted it three or four times more than they paid me. But each time I got down there, ready to go to work, the writers went on strike, or my favorite producer got fired, or something came up, so I got the  message that this was not for me.”

He dabbled in playwrighting as a result of his wife Jeanne’s interest in Little Theatre. He wrote an outdoor drama, “The Magic Musket,” for the Washington State Territorial Centennial in 1953, and “PE-WA-OO-YIT: The First Family Treaty," two years later. His Trails West Drama, which covers the period of Lewis and Clark through 1855, became a major project with Gulick getting involved in building a half-million dollar amphitheater as well as the production end of the play. When the coordinator quit, the playwright was drafted into the job and became “the  general flunky to put all the pieces together.” The drama opened in 1976 and was performed again the following summer. He said it was quite an experience but not one he cared to repeat.

Snake River Country, his second book, went into its fifth printing in 1986, and was one of his favorites. He couldn’t imagine why the Snake had been left out of the Rivers of America series, because it ranks sixth in size and drainage area in the country. After he had drawn up a 30-page outline, which he sent to his agent Carl Brandt, Jr., he learned that no one was interested in publishing his book. “They didn’t know where the river was and when they found that only 750,000 people lived in the area, they said facetiously, ‘ How many literate sheepherders, Indians and cowboys have you got out there?’”

The project was shelved and collecting dust for three years when Bill Gulick met Gordon Gipson of Caxton Press at a WWA convention in Medford, Oregon, where the two men discussed the book. Eighteen months later, Snake River Country became a reality, complete with color photos and a $25 price tag, which soon escalated to $35. The Gulicks and a photographer were then sent on a  Northwest publicity tour, which resulted in a sellout of 10,000 copies within six weeks.

When the writer settled down to write, he found the experience both pleasurable and hard work. He said “the hardest part is getting started, but I learned a long time ago to go to the typewriter right after breakfast, whether anything comes or not, I stay there for three or four hours. If you do that five days a week, you can take Saturday and Sunday off—not always. Pretty soon your conscience will say, ‘Well, he’s not going to let me off so I might as well get to work.' And sometimes it’s not that great. If it’s not, I look at it the next day and throw it away and start over. But eventually something comes out and it’s surprising how much copy you can turn out in a steady four hours every day.”

Wednesday and Saturday afternoons were set aside for golf or gin rummy at the club when the weather was bad. Sometimes he went back to work after lunch. Gulick averaged four pages of finished copy per day, and on exceptional days he turned out as many as 14. But he was satisfied with 20 pages a week and 80 a month. “That’s eight hundred pages a year with a couple of months off, and time to do some editing.”

Bill Gulick’s interview will conclude next week . . .

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers, Caxton Press) 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Remembering Bill Gulick, Part II

Bill Gulick earned his living from freelance writing, except for a brief period when his brother-in-law talked him into a shopper newspaper partnership. He hadn’t completed his college education because he reasoned that if he had a degree to fall back on, he probably wouldn’t get much writing done. He did admit, however, that his creative writing courses set him on the right trail.

“Foster Harris (at the University of Oklahoma) would read your manuscript and critique it,” he said. “He would really slash it apart and might say ‘You have a good story here, but unfortunately, it doesn’t start until page six so throw the first five pages away and write a couple of lead-in sentences, and begin your story.’ Or, ‘You’ve described a beautiful sunset here. Why don’t you cut that and put in an asterisk saying that anyone who’s never seen a sunset can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and we’ll send the description. Otherwise, it has nothing to do with the story.’”

Harris would also quote an old Chinese philosopher who said, ‘The wheel has thirty spokes, but its utility lies in the emptiness of its hub.’ Gulick recalled how the instructor would smirk at the class, his pipe bobbing up and down as he nodded his head. “And people would leave the class wondering what he meant. It took me a long time to understand that no matter what you do with words, it’s the feeling that those words convey what’s important. You can write almost the same words, one way or another, and with one writer the words are wooden and dead, but with another the words are very much alive.”

There are basic elements to writing scenes, plots and general mechanics of the story that writers would do well to learn, he said. He recommended taking an advanced course in English grammar, as he did, because learning to diagram a sentence was not only fun but it helped him analyze his work.

Gulick suffered a mild form of polio when he was 29, which left the muscles in his left hand partially restricted, ending any chance he had to play professional baseball. But he was able to overcome sufficiently to write before he began selling to the pulps. Within several years he progressed to better paying markets including Adventure, Argosy and Bluebook.    

The former Kansas farm boy spent nine months in Greenwich Village during 1943-44, where he was close to his magazine sources. There he met Kermit Selby, a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers magazines. He told Gulick that he needed an agent, and introduced him to Nancy Parker. “She took me on through the mail and I was with her from 1941 until 1950. She got me into Liberty and I was a regular to the magazine. On the strength of being there and contributing a couple of stories a month at $750 each, I took my bride to New York to live.” The Gulicks arrived in New York just as the magazine was undergoing a drastic change in an attempt to remain solvent.

“I never sold them another story,” he said, “so it was back to the pulps. Gulick then wrote a story of the Oregon Trail, aiming it at The Saturday Evening Post, but his wife wasn’t happy with the ending and persuaded him to change it. The result was increasing the wordage by ten thousand. The writer was then sure the magazine would reject his story and he agonized over it through the Christmas holidays when their funds were running low. The story did sell for $750, however, and he was invited to meet with the Post’s editor.
Gulick considered the invitation akin to meeting the queen of England, and was asked to write a serial about the Pacific Northwest. So, as soon as Gullick arrived home, he began researching The Bend of the Snake. The long historical piece was subsequently rejected by the magazine because it contained too much history. But soon it sold to Houghton Mifflin and, retitled Bend of the River, was adapted to film by Universal Studios in 1950. With his first novel out of the way, he began writing another historical piece that was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers and continued next week . . .)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Remembering Bill Gulick


THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL led Bill Gulick to a literary summit. The Saddleman winner's novel earned him a writing award, motion picture adaptation and a play performed at Dirty Jack's Wild West Theater in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Film rights to a number of his novels over the years and his short stories also earned him Spur awards. 

His Hallelujah Trail was a chance happening. Gulick unearthed an 1867 news article about 80 wagons loaded with champagne and whisky leaving Julesberg, Colorado, for Denver. Assuming that the shipment accounted for Denver's entire winter drinking supply, he wondered what would have happened if Indians had known about the contents of the wagon train, or the militia when they arrived to escort the wagons into Denver. 

There was also the Women's Temperance Union to contend with. Would they have attempted to stop the wagon train and destroy the cargo? 

He figured it for a short story but it soon took on the shape of a novelette. Before long it was a full length book, which practically wrote itself. He finished the novel in 60 days--a record for Gulick--and it was accepted by Doubleday. Since two of his novels had been adapted to film, his Hollywood agent wanted to know if the story was something he could sell to a film studio.

Gulick sent him a carbon copy and the agent was so sure of a sale that he circulated 25 copies among the film studios. Within a week the agent had eleven offers, which he played one against the others. United Artists won the bidding war with $85,000, and produced the film in 1965, starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick and Bryan Keith.

The author said he was treated well and invited on location for a week on the Navajo Reservation at Gallup, New Mexico. He also attended the filming of interior shots in Hollywood as well as the movie's premier.

By that time Gulick was an old hand at filmmaking. His BEND OF THE RIVER and THE ROAD TO DENVE,R were projected on the big screen during the early and mid-1950s. He had long since decided that he had made the right choice in 1940 when he switched from economics to the School of Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma.While a sophomore, his poetry won a statewide competition, which was published in statewide newspapers, and he took a lot of "ribbing" from his fellow baseball players.

Not long after, Gulick went to work for a construction crew stringing power lines across the state. There wasn't much to do during off hours, except "drink beer and chase girls, and that got old, so I read quite a bit and got to fooling around with writing--particularly stories for pulp magazines." Two years later he found himself out of a  job so he returned to school. The University of Oklahoma was well known for its excellent writing courses, taught primarily by Foster Harris and William S. Campbell, who wrote under the pseudonym Stanley Vestal.

"They felt that the only reason to write was for money," he said."You could find out if you were a good writer because there were a lot of  magazines that were buying a lot of words. They didn't pay much but they did pay. So I decided to give it six months because that's all the money I had  If I didn't make it by then, I would go into some other kind of work."

Before the end of six months, Gulick had a $30 short story sale to one of the popular pulp magazines and a couple of more to the state peace officers' publication for $10 each. 

"I was on my way."

Continued next week . . .

(The italics function is currently not working on my computer.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My Almost Visit with Dorothy Johnson

While  interviewing for my book, Maverick Writers, Dorothy Johnson died a week before my planned trip to Montana to visit her. I still have two of her letters tucked away as keepsakes, written on humorous stationery picturing Dorothy mounting a horse, her dog covering his eyes with his paws.

Miss Johnson is best known for three short stories that were adapted to film: “The Hanging Tree," which starred fellow Montanan Gary Cooper; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which partnered John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart; and “A Man Called Horse,” which was so successful that several sequels followed.

A prolific writer of stories set in the frontier West, she also wrote novels, non-fiction books and articles. “Lost Sister” won the 1956 Spur Award from Western Writers of America as “Best Short Story” of the year. Well known for her painstaking research of the pre-1890s West, she often said she preferred the 19th century to the 20th, “because we know how it all came out.” In her novels of Plains Indian life, Buffalo Woman and All the Buffalo Returning, she wrote about the changes of both landscape and lifestyle that resulted from white settlement of the western U.S.

While a senior at Whitefish High School, class of 1922, she began her professional writing career, serving as a stringer for The Kalispell Daily Inter Lake. She attended Montana State College, later renamed Montana State University, to major in pre-med until she realized that she would have to dissect a cat. Transferring to the University of Montana, she majored in English and was taken under the wing of Professor H.G. Merriam, who founded The Frontier, a campus literary magazine, for which Dorothy contributed articles throughout her college years, switching form poetry to prose. She then worked for nine years at Gregg Publishing Company before joining the staff of The Woman magazine as managing editor and contributor under a number of pseudonyms.

In her free time she continued to write fiction. Her first sale was in 1930 to the Saturday Evening Post, which paid her $400 for a story about Bonnie George Campbell. It was eleven years before she sold another.

In 1950 she resigned her editorial post with The Woman to return to hometown as a reporter-photographer for The Whitefish Pilot, but confessed that her reporting skills were inadequate because she was too shy to interview people she didn't know. But during the years she served as secretary-manager of the Montana Press Association (1953–1967), her successes as a novelist continued to grow. She was also teaching at her alma mater as an assistant professor of journalism. She later worked in New York for 15 years as a magazine editor before returning to Big Sky Country in 1950, where she taught magazine writing at the University of Montana.

A 1982 Writer’s Digest article written by Kathy Crump described Dorothy Johnson as “Petite, animated, witty, crusty and feisty” as well as someone who didn’t "fit the rough-and-tumble image of a teller of tales about outlaws and Indians and cowboys," although she kept a pistol nearby when writing western short stories.

“There’s something about a Colt .44 beside the typewriter that inspires me,” she said. Branching out into novels and historicals when the western short story markets began to dry up, she sold her antique pistol collection, including her Colt .44, but kept a .38 “hawg laig,” loaded with scattershot, which she used to clear snakes from her land in Rattlesnake Gulch on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana.

Not all her books were about the West. Three of her later books were about Greece, which she called her "heart's home." She visited the country five times and said she was "just mad about it." She was speaking in Athens, the city of Pericles and Socrates and Plato, and was overwhelmed by the reception she received. "Of course, (the famous Greeks) weren't there anymore, so Athens had to take what it could get," she said, laughing. "A kid from Whitefish, Montana."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Contemporary Mysteries and Traditional Westerns: The Two Jeff McQuedes

Vickie Britton
Loretta Jackson

by (sisters) Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson

We are asked many times why we choose to write in two different genres, westerns and mysteries. This is the result of a long process, one that evolved over time.

We launched our co-authoring career with a mystery novel.  Later we decided to try our hand at writing a western, but we couldn’t quite leave the element of mystery behind.  We became interested in gambling in the Old West, and that led to our three-book series: The Luck of the Draw.  In this series Sheriff Jeff McQuede is a side character interwoven into the stories.  He is suspicious of our hero, Drew Woodson, but has a sense of frontier justice and helps him solve crimes.  He is not above breaking the rules when he feels it’s justified.

Our Latest Western with a Touch of Mystery

The early day sheriff, Jeff McQuede, inspired the westerns that followed.  Our new western, Rails and Aces, although not part of the gambling series, carries on the western gambling theme, as does our single title, Death Comes in Pairs.  In Rails and Aces lawman Sheriff Deakin might be involved in the local train robbery ring.  Our hero, Jace Keeler, a free and easy gambler, falls in love with Deliah Cade, a mysterious woman he meets on a train slated to be robbed.  He discovers Deliah is the “intended” of the much-feared outlaw, Jonas Grisby.  Jace must face his wrath as well as a gang of outlaws who suspect him of taking the missing money from the recent train robbery.

How modern-day Sheriff Jeff McQuede came about

The contemporary Sheriff McQuede began as a character in a short story—the first one in our anthology, A Deal on a Handshake.  A trip to the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous in Riverton, Wyoming, inspired us to use the rendezvous as a background for our story.  Its history is intriguing.  In 1838 and following years, rough and tumble traders gathered in Riverton to barter, to swap stories, and have a good time.  We found the modern day rendezvous a great place to contrast the concept of Old West values with new ones.  The story called for a contemporary sheriff, and because we liked the standards Jeff McQuede represents, he became the hero in several more short stories and of the novel, Murder in Black and White.  Since we wanted to write another novel about Wyoming and further develop our lead character, we created the High Country Mystery series.
Our inspiration for these novels came mainly from living in Wyoming and South Dakota—Vickie, in Laramie, Loretta, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  This gave us a deep interest in both the contemporary and historic accounts of the West.  We wander from museum to museum, research in libraries, and, most of all, talk to the local people.  For example our Jeff McQuede short story. “Never Trust a Coward,” was written after we heard how after committing a robbery two criminals had actually checked into a modern Wyoming motel as Frank and Jesse James.  Needless to say, they were quickly found and apprehended.  Many of the stories in our anthology, A Deal on a Handshake, concern the difference between justice in the Old West and justice today.

These stories are set in the fictional, rugged Black Mountains, near an Arapaho Reservation and a coal mine.  While writing Murder in Black and White and the short stories, the fictional towns of Durmont and Black Mountain Pass, Wyoming, began to take form, as real to us as any actual place.  The characters also became real to us—Jeff McQuede's girlfriend, Loris Conner, curator of the local museum, his close friends, Professor Barry Dawson, and Nate Narcu, who runs Nate's Trading post, as well as the two rascals the sheriff is never quite able to convict, Ruger Larsh and Sammy Ratone. 

In our High Country Mystery Series, contemporary sheriff, Jeff McQuede, is fascinated by his early-day relative, a local legend whose picture and history are displayed in the local museum.  He tries to live up to his namesake’s common-sense code.  When faced with a problem, he remembers a quote of the old sheriff, “When you think you have the answer, it’s time to go back and take another look.” 

McQuede finds that the code of the Old West still exists in the minds of many people, some who aren’t above a shootout and still believe in vigilante justice.  But unlike his namesake, he is sometimes conflicted about what he wants and how to achieve his goals as the sheriff of Coal County.  He wants to be a good, fair sheriff and stay within the boundaries of the law, no matter how tempted he is to cross them as his namesake had no qualms in doing.

Our Fourth Jeff McQuede Novel: The Executioner’s Hood

Our latest book in the Jeff McQuede series, The Executioner’s Hood, is a blend of both worlds as McQuede embarks upon a case where a highly respected judge, Phil Grayson, is found murdered—an ominous hood placed over his head.   Among the judge’s many enemies, one in particular, Darin Keefe, had been given a harsh sentence and has just been released from prison.  Was the killer seeking revenge, or was the judge murdered by a robber wanting some item from his macabre collection of Old West law items, among them a priceless death mask and valuable guns from famous outlaws?  Or is his murder a conspiracy to cover up a crime committed by Durmont’s city commissioners fifteen years ago which surfaces now in the form of modern-day vigilantes?

Because both of us love the rugged West and the characters who inhabit it, we will continue working on the High Country Mystery series.  At the present time we are beginning a fifth novel. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

John Mantley, Part III (Conclusion)

"Gunsmoke" producer John Mantley said of  the show's star, "I can tell you it was great fun to work with James Arness and the entire cast. They were a sheer delight and some of the best professions I've ever had the pleasure to work with. I wrote "Gunsmoke" scripts but I was far too busy producing the show to write many of them. And to be honest, I have never really liked to write. 

"Most of what I have today was earned with words, but I never actually enjoyed the process of writing. I've found it the hardest work I've ever done."

Mantley received five consecutive Western Heritage awards,  and shared honors with Calvin Clements and Earl Wallace for the 1978 Spur Award for "How the West was Won." He was also a recipient of the William F. Cody Award. 

He felt that the  networks should stay out of the creative process. During the golden age of television, "the only people who looked at your rough cuts or your manuscripts were advertising agencies to protect their clients. They came to rough cut screening to make sure you didn't ford a river if you were sponsored by Chevrolet--as in "Bonanza." As a result of that, in their 13-year history, characters in "Bonanza" never forded a river, they crossed it. On the other hand, we at "Gunsmoke" forded a lot of rivers, but I was fond of saying that 'we never chevroleted one.'"

Mantley operated his own production company for a number of years and was loaned out to produce "Wild, Wild West," "Dirty Sally" and "How the West Was Won," among others. 

Heavily involved in show business politics, he served on the board of directors of the Producer's Guild, and hosted the earliest meetings of the caucus of the Producers,Writers and Directors in his own backyard. He also co-chaired the organization in his later years, which was comprised of some 175 members "who between them are responsible for the majority of all prime-time television entertainment."

Mantley advised fledgling script writers to "Write, write, write. The more you write, the more you learn. " But that doesn't offer much encouragement in the declining freelance market. "Yes, you do have to be thick-skinned to survive as a script writer, because having your work rewritten by producers is bad enough, but you also have to expect to have it rejected for the most inane reasons."

Having apprenticed in two of the most highly skilled but lowest paying jobs as actor and  writer, Mantley said, "I did all kinds of things to support my acting career--liquor store clerk, dishwater, parking attendant, bus boy--and as far as acting is concerned, I really never had much problem. But after I sold those two novels, I sort of wrote steadily until I got to producing and then I was able to get away from writing, which was a consummation devotedly to be wished."

Mantley was back in Dodge City as executive producer of "Gunsmoke" during the fall of 1987. Filmed in Calgary, Canada, the two-hour CBS television movie, featured an aging Marshall Matt Dillon back in the saddle again.

(This interview was excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers.)