Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Conversation with Doug Hocking

Doug Hocking is an independent scholar and novelist who has completed advanced studies in History, Ethnography and Historical Archaeology and lives and breathes Way Out West. His principal interest is in New Mexico Territory from the Mexican War up through the Civil War. It was an exciting period when the land was new and isolated from the rest of the country and violence ran at its high mark. Following leads from source to end he is learning about the Santa Fe Trail, the Fur Trade, the Mexican and Civil Wars, the Apache, the Penitentes and percussion cap weapons.

Doug, tell us about your latest, book.

Massacre at Point of Rocks is an historical novel set in New Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail in 1849. I’ve recreated the New Mexico of that era and closely followed historic events, exploring the change in understanding of our fathers and heroes that come with growing up at the same time looking into what it means to be a hero in the real world. James White, bringing his wife and infant child to Santa Fe, separated with two wagons from their caravan. Encountering Jicarilla Apaches, the men were soon dead and the woman and child captive. There were numerous failed rescue attempts until Kit Carson was enlisted to guide a mixed battalion of dragoons and volunteers. The heroic scout discovered and followed trail by then a month old. A cavalry charge and a blizzard cap the tale.

Do you write about Arizona exclusively?

I write about New Mexico, southern Colorado and Arizona. I feel more limited by time than by place having, I hope, mastered the 1840s and 50s and understanding the surrounding decades I try to bring them to life for my readers. Tools–including weapons–change, trails change, politics and economics change. I strive to get the geography right, so that places a limit. Fortunately, there are hundreds of great stories within these limits. I’m trained as an historian, historical archaeologist and ethnographer. Shining a light into the cracks and crevices of history, I’ve found that the history we thought we knew is almost always wrong when compared to the primary sources. Too many people become violently angry when you try to correct their vision of the past. I live near Tombstone and know the town and its history well, but I avoid writing about it. It’s easier, and safer, to tell the truth in a novel.

Which came first, writing or photography? And which do you enjoy most?

I won my first photography award when I was 7. By the time I was 10, I was shooting slides to illustrate talks for supporting churches for my parents’ mission to the Jicarilla Apache. I’ve shot many great photos, but what I really do is tell and illustrate stories. That carries over into my writing. Editors and friends have commented on how vivid the descriptions are in my writing. It’s been compared to watching a movie. I see the world through my camera lens and it carries over, but I love writing the best. The camera has limits.

Has your digital camera improved your photography?

The new cameras do everything for you and have an unbelievable range for light and distance. This is both a blessing and a curse. You have to find out what the camera is doing and why and then fool it into doing what you want. The new cameras will take brilliant, in focus, perfectly lighted completely bland photos. Imperfections in lighting and selective focus make for great photos. I’m glad I learned on a film camera; the techniques carry over. But film was expensive and it took forever to come back developed. 
When and why did your start writing?

My mother was always pushing me to write. Her ancestors, who were theologians and college professors, had been writing since Colonial times. My great-aunt was a poet whose love affair with the publisher nearly brought down McClure’s Magazine. The staff became suspicious because her poetry was so bad they couldn’t believe he was publishing it. I didn’t care for her poems, either. I had an obstacle to overcome. My writing was heavily criticized throughout high school and I didn’t think myself much of a writer. In college and the Army, I had occasion to discover that my skills were better than any of those around me. After that, it was a matter of finding circumstances where I had time to write. Army retirement helped with that. Now it has become a matter of having something to say and the need and ability to say it. I want to revive American heroes. Our nation needs them and my heroes have always been cowboys.

Which western writer influenced your own work, and why?

I’ve read and enjoyed a great many Louis L’Amour tales and consider myself a storyteller first as he did. I hope I do a better job than he in getting the terrain right. I wish I could write like Tony Hillerman who did splendid work revealing other cultures. I see people I knew in his writing. It is wonderful how Hillerman can tell us what a Dineh is thinking without making him a white man. One of my favorite scenes is at the end of a ceremonial. A white man has violated ritual and the Pueblo cause him to disappear. When you’ve lived with these people, you know the edge of danger that exists. My favorite though is James D. Doss who writes with a wonderful, dry sense of humor that I’d like to emulate. My writing reflects elements of all of them. I’d be remiss not to mention writers like Will Bagley and Marc Simmons. My bookshelves are crammed with works of history, archaeology and ethnography. These are my inspiration for stories.

Do you foresee resurgence in western book sales? And have ebooks contributed to an increase?

I pray for it every day. Without our heroes we are lost as a nation. It is up to us to create new heroes and bring old ones back to life. Two years ago I watched Inglorious Basterds with a group of college kids. They laughed at the most hideous, gruesome and unforgivable murders. I asked one afterwards why he had laughed. “Killing Nazis is funny,” he said. “But they were only German soldiers,” I told him. “All Germans are Nazis!” This ill-favored mish-mash of history coming from a college graduate is frightening. It’s the reason I think giving a Spur Award to Tarantino is bad for all Western Writers. His work destroys much of what is good and leaves behind a slimy film of lies and misrepresentations. Science Fiction is doing a better job of reviving the western with western heroes fighting with ray-guns on the frontier of outer space. Joss Whedon ought to get a Spur Award for Serenity and the Firefly series.

eBooks are the future. My wife, whose dream is to be left totally alone to read for the rest of her life, is on her second Kindle. Smashwords looks like the best deal for writers even if it doesn’t have Amazon’s distribution.  eBooks are too convenient and you can have an entire library with you all the time. They are going to be less expensive. Smashwords says their average price is between $2.99 and $4.99. You can read in bed without a light and without your wrist cramping from the weight.

Advice for fledgling western writers?

If you’re not already famous, strive to become so. Murder, mayhem and bank robberies sell books. Bill O’Reilly’s books aren’t best sellers because he doesn’t flog them every night on national TV. In the end, you are responsible for promoting yourself and your book. Write everything you can for publication, promote yourself on social media and the Internet, take every speaking engagement you’re offered. I started doing the Facebook Page for my corral of the Westerners who have proven a wonderful source of information and contacts. I’ve posted announcements of community events for every town in southeast Arizona and it’s paid off in more contacts and invitations to speak. Start thinking early about who is going to read your book, why they’ll read it and where they’ll find out about it. Marketing to the world at large is a recipe for disaster.

Thanks, Doug. What are your social media outlets?

I’ve got my own web site and blog, Update the blog constantly with interviews and stories. Use photos to attract attention. The Internet notices the activity and raises your position on search engines. is the Facebook Page for the Bisbee Corral of the Westerners. Take a look at the kinds of things I post and repost. If I’ve got an important story, I share it in other groups after a day or so. Each time I share, it comes back to the top of the Newsfeed and Timeline. is my business, or writer’s, Page. I avoid politics and religion on this page because I want the broadest possible audience. I post at least twice a week with photo albums of places I’ve been and things I’m working on. I’m a member of over 100 groups and thus have lots of places to share things if I think they group will be interested. Watch the Timeline and find the best times of day to post. Accept lots of new friends.

I have a YouTube account so I can post videos. Many items on Facebook have been linked from YouTube to my Web Site. That gets people to the rather than just posting them on Facebook.
I don’t Tweet. Too many women of ill-repute were following me. What can I say? I’m a handsome guy.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Visit with Anne Hillerman

Anne is the author of the award-winning Tony Hillerman's Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn as well as seven other books. Her newest book, a collaboration with photographer Don Strel, is Gardens of Santa Fe. She worked for more than twenty years as editorial page editor for the Albuquerque Journal North and the Santa Fe New Mexican, and as an arts editor for both papers. She's been the Santa Fe restaurant reviewer for the Albuquerque Journal since 2001 and works as a writing coach on fiction and nonfiction projects. In addition to working on a new book, she's a director of Wordharvest Writers' Workshops and the Tony Hillerman Writers' Conference: Focus on Mystery, both of which she helped to establish in 2001.

Anne, your father must have been pleased that you inherited his writing talent. Has being the daughter of Tony Hillerman helped you in your writing career?
As the eldest of Tony and Marie Hillerman's six children, and the only writer in the mix, I have been lucky to have received some of the residual good will my father built up over his long career as a journalist, teacher, writer and lover of the West.  The name gives me a great ice-breaker at writers' conferences!
What does your book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape entail and what prompted you to write it?
Tony Hillerman's Landscape is a visit to the country my father loved with selected quotes from his mysteries, photos of the places he uses as settings, and my own recollections. The idea came from Dad, with a tip of the cap to New Mexico mystery author Michael McGarrity.  McGarrity was keynote speaker at one of our Tony Hillerman Writers Conferences.  Photographer  Don Strel (my husband!) suggested a slide show of the places McGarrity writes about and offered to take the photos. When Dad saw it he said, "Why don't you do something like that for me?"  That suggestion led to the book.
You’ve written a number of award-winning books. Which was the most difficult to research and write, and which did you enjoy writing most?
Gosh, I've enjoyed them all. Each had its own challenges and its own pleasures. Tony Hillerman's Landscape was fascinating because it involved re-reading each Navajo detective novel, and visiting the Navajo reservation to find  those places where Chee or Leaphorn had to pull over because the scenery is so stunning. I had to examine my own memories of time spent with Dad, and make the book personal as well as informative, something that my journalist self initially resisted. Gardens of Santa Fe, my newest book, involved deciding which of the beautiful gardens to include and then pruning my interviews with the wonderful, outspoken gardeners to stress the uniqueness of each.
Have you considered writing Western novels?
Well, sure. I've got a decent first draft of a historical novel set in Oklahoma, complete with horses and a family farm. My other experiment with fiction is a mystery in progress set in Arizona and New Mexico. It's not a "Western," but certainly flavored by the landscape and people of the Southwest.
Tell us briefly about your Santa Fe-based  Wordhavest Writers Workshops  and the Tony Hillerman Writer’s Conference.
Wordharvest began as a way to celebrate New Mexico's writers. Instead of paying to hear out-of- state experts, why not use our own experts and let out-of-staters come to hear them? My business partners and I quickly expanded to draw on regional talent such as Margaret Coel and Sandi Ault (who live in Colorado but have family in New Mexico) and Arizona's J.A. Jance.  Wordharvest 's first weekend program featured Tony Hillerman. When we decided to do a conference,  Dad said we could name it after him (as long as we did the work). He also agreed to sit on a panel and be our first keynote speaker. The conference started with "Focus on Mystery" as its subtitle, but now we focus on good writing in general. The 2011 dates are November 10-12 in Santa Fe.
What prompted you to create the $10,000 Tony Hillerman Prize for best first mystery novel set in the Southwest?
We were looking for another way to promote our conference and to offer encouragement to writers. I went to the well-organized  Pikes Peak (Colo.) Writers Conference to steal some of their ideas. We were thinking of adding a session with agents/editors and I wanted to see how their model worked. They had invited Peter Joseph of St. Martin's Press.  I told him we'd like to work with St. Martin's and he suggested a  writing prize. After more brainstorming, the Hillerman Prize was born.  
You’ve received a number of honors, including “Outstanding Woman Author” by The New Mexico Chapter of Women in the Arts. Which means the most to you and why?
The honor that touched me most was being invited by the New Mexico Library Association to be their keynote speaker and present our slide show on Tony Hillerman's Landscape at their annual conference.   Don Strel and I did a lot of benefits for libraries in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California as part of our book launch. My Dad was a staunch supporter of libraries, as are Don and I.  I was also thrilled and honored when the legendary Barbara Peters hosted us for our first Hillerman's Landscape signing at Poisoned Pen in Scotsdale.
Briefly tell us about your journalism background.
After several years of dillydallying, I earned a degree in journalism from the University of New Mexico.  My dad was the head of department there--and he was tough on me! I worked in a variety of jobs, some  in television and radio, but mostly for newspapers and magazines. I was the first woman to head the editorial page at the Santa Fe New Mexican, one of the oldest newspapers in the West and still an independent, family-owned operation. I also started the opinion page and wrote the editorials for the Albuquerque Journal's Northern New Mexico edition. I currently work as restaurant reviewer for the Journal. That job lead to my book Santa Fe Flavors: Best Restaurants and Recipes, which won the New Mexico Book Award.
What’s your fondest memory of you father?
That question is too hard! I think of my Dad every day and miss him tremendously. I'm grateful for his sense of humor, his curious mind, his gentle kindness, and his absolute passion for skillful writing and well-told stories.  And that he had the good sense to find and marry my mother.
Advice to fledgling writers off the West.
 Read voraciously. Keep writing. Do your best and don't stop because you can't yet live up to your own standards. Only you have your voice and your stories. Be brave.
 Thanks, Ann, for your visit.
You can visit Anne at her website:  
and her blog site:

© 2011 Jean Henry Mead

Monday, November 16, 2015

Ron Bishop, Part II

Ron Bishop wrote more than 200 pilots during his script and screenwriting career, and formed his own production company with Merlin Olson, among them a number of western projects. He wanted badly to produce a TV documentary about Ed Cantrell, the disgraced Wyoming lawman who shot his undercover agent between the eyes in the backseat of his patrol car. Cantrell was later exonerated but most people to this day question whether he was guilty. Bishop doubted that any of the television networks would air the production because they would shy away from firearms and guns during the 1970s.

His association with his friend Merlin Olson began while Olson was still playing football. "We decided to have the business together and have fun doing it. If we weren't having fun, and we found ourselves with knotted stomachs, then we'd quit."

Bishop said that he didn't get credit for many of his motion picture scripts, and that the most difficult part of screenwriting is when "your script has been changed by eight or nine different ideas of what was  salable.And the idea that you start with is something in which you have a great deal of enthusiasm, but it never comes out the way you want. It's a helluva challenge and it's not the money so much as it's the idea that sooner or later you'll get one done the way you want. And that leads to all sorts of guys who get tired of being manipulated, and take on the mantle of director themselves.

"I'd work at it for two or three yeas and then just get furiously annoyed with the kind of people you'd be around, and just leave for a year or two. Then somebody would say, 'We'd like for you do to something, or I'd come back myself to do something that hadn't been done before, not realizing that there's nothing that hasn't been done before."

Between writing jobs, Bishop worked as a stunt man and wrestled professionally on the TV circuit during the 1940s when the sport was immensely popular. "In those days you'd earn fifty grand and if it was a three-fall match, you could bet your first fall any way yo wanted, but the other two had to be manipulated. It used to be some kind of brutal things. And then I was jumping in an air circus and making twenty-two hundred a week . . ."

The big guy admitted that he frittered away most of his money, with the exception of buying some land. "I really didn't pay much attention to it as an adult way of life. It seemed that I was around people who were totally frivolous and actually scared about everything they did. I've never been around people in a business where there's less courage and more manifestations of pseudo-courage in an executive capacity--particularly as the money gets harder to substantiate. You'll find people who are seeming leaders--who, when you know the snow off--haven't got nothin' there."

Bishop wrote "Gunsmoke" scripts as well as one "Bonanza," which,  he said, Michael Landon didn't like. He also wrote for "Wagon Train" and "Rawhide," as well as others during the golden age of western programming. "I'd usually go up in the mountains and just take a dog and a pack by myself for a while to try to get the thing out of my mind--let my subconscious work. And get an idea and come back and have a go at it."

When asked about the perils of screenwriting, he said, "Almost all beginning scriptwriters write too much. You've to to pare everything down. You can't have people standing around--the worst thing you can do to an actor is to give him a lot of language in which he's trying to figure out how he's going to be moving on that set to get all that crap out you've given him. You need to pare it down to the most succinct things. Give it the most dramatic edges. You have to have an ear. I depend almost entirely on whether a guy likes music. If he likes rhythm, then he knows the poetry that goes into word cadences, so those words are said just a little bit differently, and it makes it seem like fresh statement.

"Anybody interested in screenwriting should get Bill Goldman's book, Adventures in the Screen Trade.  That's a must because it will tell any writer who has had some kind of maturation in this business that he's not alone in all those agonies he has suffered, [which are] shared by all of us, and it's not petulance. It's kind of an academic torture that you allow yourself to go through. I don't think that it's vastly different from what executives in business go through, except that we do create the baby, and if you don't have the baby out there, you have no population."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Remembering Award-Winning Western Screenwriter Ron Bishop


Born on a train passing through Toledo, Ohio, award-winning western screenwriter Ron Bishop spent his formative years on his family‘s sprawling Arizona cattle ranch. He attended Beverly Hills schools during his teens, and roamed freely through southern California’s back county, including the town of Bishop, which was named for his grandfather. After four years with the marines and the American Field Service in Burma and India during World War II, he studied briefly at Stanford University under notable writers such as Wallace Stegner.
Unable to adjust immediately to civilian life, the young veteran was asked to leave Stanford, but he remained in the Bay Area, where he befriended John Steinbeck and John Cheever. Steinback, he said, had also been expelled from Stanford. Some fifteen years later, Bishop won an Emmy for the televised version of Steinbeck’s Red Pony, which he wrote according to the author’s wishes. Ernest Hemingway was another friend during the infamous writer’s last years, and the two men occasionally celebrated their mutual birthday, July 21, at the Hemingway home in Ketchum, Idaho.
Bishop’s first published work was sold in 1946 to literary journals. His lusty western stories earned him $75 apiece, and were gleaned from his ranching background. During his first attempts at freelancing, the writer worked for the Alaska Steamship Company, laid pipe for the state’s railroad, and dog-teamed supplies to Fort Yukon while living in the bush country. When he returned to the lower forty eight, he impersonated San Francisco 49’ers right offensive guard Jim Cox for half the 1947-48 season, splitting the $4,000 annual salary with his gridiron look-a-like.
He also worked as a Hollywood stunt man, professional wrestler and ghost screenwriter. A former “Gunsmoke” scripter, he divided his time between his family home in Pacific Palisades, California, two ranches near Solvang, California; Ketchum, Idaho, and a mountain retreat in Cody, Wyoming, until his death in 1988. Writer-producer Ron Bishop was interviewed at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, where he was a member of the governing board.
I asked how he happened to get into screenwriting, and he replied that he had been doing some stunt work, and from that gradually began to understand the business of screenwriting. ”Writing for film, that is, because that encompasses TV and motion pictures. The whole process came to me in an offhanded way because guys would come to me, and I don’t know what their problems were, but they had to have a script finished. They really wanted additional dialogue—something to spruce up a character.”
 He was paid cash anonymously for his work and he wrote most of the dialogue for a number of scripts that he was proud of, for both television and film. When asked if he ever found out who he was ghosting for, he said, “Later, I learned who I had been writing for when I watched the films.
Why didn’t he write his own scripts instead of ghostwriting early in his career? “’Cause I liked to write and I didn’t know any better. It was just plain for the money. “

(Continued next week . . .)
Copyright 2013 Jean Henry Mead (also born on July 21)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Customs Around the World

Halloween isn't just an American holiday. It originated in Ireland, where it was originally known as Oiche Shamhna or Samhain Night. The end of summer's Agricultural Fire Festival was held for the deceased who were said to revisit the earth on that night. So the practice of building large community bonfires was enacted to ward off evil spirits. The name Hallowe’en evolved from All Hallow’s Eve, and the holiday was imported from Ireland during the 19th century. Halloween spread to other countries, including Puerto Rico, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well as the rest of the British Isles.

In 837, Pope Gregory decreed that All Hallows, or All Saints Day, previously known as Feast of Lemures, would be held every year on November 1, in the name of the Western Catholic Church. Previously celebrated on May 13 in other countries, it coincided with the Irish Samhain. During the 9th century, the two holidays were celebrated on the same day because the Church decided that the religious holiday would start at sunset the previous night, according to the Florentine calendar. All Saints Day was celebrated in northern European countries, and was a day of religious festivities. Until 1970, it was also a day of fasting.

The jack-o-lantern originated in Europe and was carved from turnips and rutabagas. Small candles were inserted in the hollow vegetables and they were used as lanterns. Because the human head was believed to contain the spirit, the Celts carved the vegetables to represent heads to ward off evil spirits. According to Irish legend, a hard-drinking farmer named Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, where he was temporarily trapped. Farmer Jack then carved a cross in the tree, which condemned the devil to wander the earth at night with a candle inside a hollow turnip.

Carved pumpkins are a North American custom, originating with the fall harvest, and known to have preceded the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, were not associated with Halloween in this country until the mid 19th century.

In Scotland, the embers of huge bonfires built in the villages were taken home to form circles. A stone for each family member was then placed inside the circle. The Scots believed that if one of the stones was displaced or broken by the following morning, the person it represented was doomed to die within a year. Northern residents of Wales built bonfires called Coel Coeth in every village. Members of each household would throw white stones into the ashes bearing their names. If any stone was missing the following morning, that person was destined to die before the following Halloween.

The village of Fortingall in Perthshire held a festival of fire, or Samhnag. Every Halloweeen they danced around the fire in both directions. As the fire burned low, young boys grabbed embers from the flames and raced around the field, tossing them in the air and then dancing around them. Later, they would have a jumping contest over the collected embers. When finished, they returned home to bob for apples. They also practiced divination, the art of foretelling the future or interpreting omens.

Halloween wasn’t celebrated in Mexico until around 1960. Our southern neighbors have followed our customs of costuming their children and allowing them to visit neighborhood homes, seeking candy. When they knock or ring the bell, the children say, "¡Noche de Brujas, Halloween!" which means "Witches' Night, Halloween!" Young people have Halloween parties and the holiday lasts for three days prior to All Saint’s Day, which is also the start of the two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In the Netherlands, Halloween has become popular since the early 1990s. Children dress up for parades and parties, but trick-or-treating is rare because the holiday is so close to St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin’s is the day when Dutch children ring doorbells and sing a song dedicated to the saint, in exchange for small treats.

Romanians, regardless of age, party and parade in costumes not unlike North Americans, but the holiday focuses on Dracula. In the town of Sighisoara, where countless witch trials were once held, parties are held in the spirit of Dracula. Actors also reenact the witch trails on Halloween.
Some South American countries, influenced by American pop culture, celebrate Halloween, which has caused consternation among a number of Christian groups, who deplore the lack of attention to the more spiritual aspects of All Hallows Eve. But businesses profit from the sales of costumes and candy, so the holiday has been allowed to remain a favorite of young people. The same is true in Japan, Spain and Germany, among other countries.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Remembering "Doc" Sonnichsen, Part II

Doc Sonnichen’s humor and refreshingly honest look at the West’s most colorful characters were in sharp contrast to the work of other writers during the waning years of the depression. His most appealing attributes did little to convince publishers to produce his books.

He said he reacted with “misery and dismay” to his first rejection, “but kept on trying. I found, after further assaults on New York, that I was better at nonfiction than fiction, and that my long wind was better than my short wind. My first book sat on the desk of a New York agent for five years, after which I took it back and sold it to Caxton Printers. They kept it in print for twenty years, and it is still in print with the University of Arizona Press,” he said during our interview in 1986. The agent wrote, more in sorrow  than in anger, that she ‘always had great hopes for that book.’”

The best part of his writing was getting a letter of acceptance, the easiest part revising. “The worst is reading the report of an academic referee—who has not read the book and knows only that if he had been doing it, it would have been different and better.”

Sonnichsen spent an average four to five years researching his books before he began to write, although Pass of the North required thirty years of digging for the facts. Maintaining files on various subjects while he worked on others, he sometimes found that even fifteen years’ worth of research had just scratched the surface. “I worked intensely on the book for another five years, making it thirty in all,” he said of his El Paso book. “Tucson took only five years because time was getting short for me and I had to work as fast as I could. I go along with J. Frank Dobie, who said that it takes ten years to write a good book. It takes that much time to make sure one has all the facts and has had time to mull them over and draw conclusions.”

Doc didn’t follow a fixed schedule and had no idea how much time he spent on his work in progress.  He told budding writers that the secret of success is cultivating the ability to use fifteen minutes,  if that’s all they have. “I try not to give general advice. Each case is different. Much of my effort is spent in persuading people with something to say not to give up because [a major publisher] does not regard their work as suitable for the mass market.”

The Western market, he said, experienced its most dramatic change from the romantic view of the West—pulps, Zane Grey, and formula Westerns—to “stark realism on the one hand and sex-and-violence on the other. This is reflected in nonfiction. The winning of the West is now the raping of the West. The pioneers were not ‘bringers of civilization’, except in Louis L’Amour’s novels and a few survivors. The Indians are not painted demons and screeching savages. They are pre-industrials and in most ways superior to their conquerors. Geronimo has changed from the worst Indian who ever lived to a prophet and priest and savior of his people—George Washington J.C.  Geronimo.”

Sonnichsen composed most of his work on his typewriter, unless “I have to be careful. Then I start with a pencil draft. I do not use a word processor. I want to tinker with what I write and am not interested in turning out the finished product faster. My real reason, I suppose, is that I don’t want to be bothered with learning something new."

His kind of writer seldom worked under contract, rarely with an agent, and was pleased if his publisher produced three thousand copies of his books, paying him modest royalties. The retired professor said he never wrote for money, unlike the West’s “leading pornographers.”

The historian’s most difficult books concern Texas and New Mexico feuds. He traveled the Texas feud belt during World War II, talking to people who resisted his efforts to interview them, and ran “the risk of getting shot” for his efforts. “My salvation was the fact that I knew I was having difficulties or was in potential danger. My honest face and intentions saved me.

“The picture has changed for me. I started writing about feuds because I was puzzled by such patterns of conduct, foreign to my nature and upbringing. Feuds involved all kinds of people and they were interesting for different reasons. I rather like the reasoning of the French in the seventeenth century, who believed that human nature was the same in all ages, and dressed Alexander the Great as a courier of the court of Louis the XIV. I don’t think that any one group of people is more interesting than another,  and they are interesting for different reasons.

C. L. Sonnichsen retired from teaching in 1971, but not from writing. After forty –one years in El Paso, he moved with his wife to Tucson to become a senior editor of the Journal of Arizona History,  more than twenty books before his 90th birthday in 1991.

Referring to himself as an historian, he said academic critics add the word “popular” to his title, “which is a reproach. I am convinced, however, that it is possible to be scholarly and readable at the same time.”
(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers, Caxton Press) 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Remembering C. L. "Doc" Sonnichsen


Charles Leland "Doc" Sonnichsen was a humorous and grassroots historian who specialized in frontier feuds,  folklore, gunslingers, gamblers, cattlemen and prisoners. Although he was born in Iowa in 1901 and grew up on a Minnesota farm, he considered himself a Southwesterner.

Sonnichsen was a good student, particularly in English, but math and science were subjects to be tolerated. “My brother and I were chief patrons of the local library and kept the part-time librarians busy. We liked long books because they didn’t have to be taken back so soon. And we read everything,, including the The American Boy and The Youth’s companion. Clarence Budington Kelland wrote a series for one of them, focusing on the activities of a fat boy named Tidd, who was smarter than anybody and overcame all obstacles. We had series books in those days, and I kept up with Englishman Henty and Horatio Alger, Jr.”

Although his farm hovered just above the poverty line, he was able to enroll at the University of Minnesota, where he majored in English literature and creative writing. “I was bookwormish and studious, but I got on well with my contemporaries.” He graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1924, and his first job was assistant mastery of St. James High School in Minnesota.

"I had things published in the university magazine and newspaper and I thought about reaching farther, but I never did until I was in graduate school. Then I showered the wrong magazines with poems and short stories and had them promptly returned, to the great benefit of my modesty.”

Sonnichsen migrated to Texas with sheepskin in hand. There he was hired by the Texas College of Mines  in El Paso, following two years at Carnegie Tech. His specialty in English literature was of little use to him at TCM, for he was expected to teach American and Southwestern literature. He wondered if the latter actually existed. Frustrated  in his attempts to pursue his interests in English literature, the young man decided to make the best of his situation. He joined the Texas Folklore Society and was immediately elected president, a turning point in Sonnichsen’s  career.

The young college instructor soon learned why he had been chosen. “For a long time the society had been wanting to hold a joint meeting in El Paso with the New Mexico group, but they needed somebody on the  ground to run the show. The first man from El Paso to show up at the meeting was going to be president, whether he liked it or not.” Sonnichsen had fond memories  of the Texas Folklore Society meeting in 1935, but has been wary of accepting presidencies ever since.

He became well saturated with sand, sun and Southwestern folk tales. Hooked on his new environment, he immersed himself in his research and the Mexican language. His humorous quips and societal tolerance  made him one of the more popular teachers on campus, where he was head of the English department within two years of his arrival. Sonnichsen drew on his musical ability and previous experience as a touring tenor with the Harvard glee club, and generously sprinkled his students’ Mexican-American history lessons with border ballads.

During his teaching career, the wiry professor wrote books of the Southwest. His first, Billy King’s Tombstone: The Private Life of an Arizona Boom Town, was written in 1935, but he was unable to find a publisher until eight later.

(Next week: The conclusion. Excerpted from Maverick Writers, Caxton Printers.) 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

John Nesbitt, Cowboy Poet/Novelist

John Nesbitt not only writes western novels , he composes cowboy poetry. His poems often place him outside the traditional cowboy poetry form because some of them don’t rhyme and he doesn’t  have them memorized. He enjoys the work of Mark Todd and Laurie Wagner Buyer as well as gatherings that are “less dogmatic about poetry.” He especially likes to take part in events that feature western songs and songwriters such as Mike Blakely, John Chandler, W. C. Jameson, and Wyoming’s Kevin McNiven.
John’s first cowboy poem, “You are the Pearl of My Mountain Oyster,” had been “kicking around” in his head “and needed to get out.” Published in one of his short stories in West Wind Review, it received the best short story award and was reprinted in his collection, Antelope Sky.

An instructor of English and Spanish at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington, he has participated in the Cheyenne Cowboy Symposium as well group and solo readings. “Because I have a full-time teaching job, I write whenever I can find time in the evening, weekends, and during breaks.

The poet has been published in several genres. His literary articles and book reviews have appeared in Western American Literature, South Dakota Review, Journal of the West, and other journals. His fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines, including Wyoming: The Hub  of the Wheel, The Dakotah, Owen Wister Review, and West Wind Review. They have also appeared in Roundup Magazine, and other publications.

The author has more than a dozen traditional western novels to his credit, including Gather Your Horses. His writings also include his doctoral dissertation, a textbook for basic writers courses, manuals for composition and literature courses as well as a booklet about Robert Roripaugh, a former Wyoming poet laureate. He’s most proud of his long narrative poem, “When My Pony Sheds again,” a fun poem to read aloud.  Although the work is over 200 lines, it appeared in Adventures of The Ramrod Rider, a medley of fiction, poetry satire and parody.

“Readers love the cowboy poetry genre because it is simple and direct. It often speaks to the reader’s experience and reaffirms the reader’s values. People like it because  it is not highly intellectual—and is often anti-intellectual—because it’s often sentimental, and because it often contains clean humor. Another way of saying it is that people like cowboy poetry because it’s safe.”

His poem “Nebraska Girl” follows:

I’ve got a girl back in Nebraska
With sparkling eyes and long, dark hair,                                                A voice that rings with golden laughter,                                               And lips that brush away all care.

When I last saw her in Nebraska,                                                    Beneath the springtime moon so bright,
She whispered words demure and tender,                
‘And held me in her arms so tight.

The golden moon above Nebraska
Lit up the prairie with its glow—
And showed to me a scene of wonder,
A dark-haired goddess here below.

I had to leave her in Nebraska,
But I’ll be back when roundup's done,
And meet her on the golden prairie
Beneath the smiling autumn sun.

And when the winter in Nebraska
Gives way to prairie flowers in bloom,
We’ll walk together slow at sunset,
And watch the rising of the moon.

And when the moon over Nebraska,
Lights up the evening warm and free,                                                  
We’ll pledge our love in moonlit whispers,                                           My sweet Nebraska girl and me.

John is featured in Wyoming's Cowboy Poets and Their Poetry. (See side panel)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Remembering Frank Waters, Part II

Frank Water's writing day always began at seven each morning and lasted until around noon. "Then I'd go out and chop wood, run errands and in the evening I'd do my research reading." His trilogy research was confined to the mining industry and his books were peopled by his own family, his grandfather in particular. He was a lovable old character, "and not quite the crackpot I made him out to be."

His first six or seven manuscripts were written in ink on legal-size paper, then mailed to his sister to type. The routine had to change when he was asked to write a motion picture script for Hollywood in 1941, which necessitated the purchase of a typewriter. Waters learned to type with two to four fingers.

"I still use the little portable Olivetti," he said, "and when that breaks down, I'm going to have to stop writing. I'm not mechanically-minded and I've never even owned an electric typewriter." A word processor? "I don't want one. They just confuse me."

When asked whether characters or plots are more important, Waters said, "I never make up a blueprint because I found out that when you plot a book, like an architect who takes a plan of a house  he's going to build, and just adheres to it--if you plot a book and then sit down to write, there's nothing more to do. You've already done it. A story has an organic growth of its own, and you just have to let it flow at its own pace. I know about what I want, about where I'm going, but how to get there I don't know. So I just sit down and let it come.

"I never sat down consciously to write a novel. It is so frightening. I'm just too scared to do that. You think of so many things. You've got to have a plot. Then you've got to have characters and you think of all the ones you've got to develop. Who's to be important and how will I do that, and then the  writing and the mood and the place. And all this is in your mind and it's just a frightening thing. So you sit down and say, 'Well, I can't pull all this stuff together, but I'll just write a few pages to see how it might go. And then you write a few more pages.'"

Waters leaned back, his fingers drumming the table as he continued: "But the thing to guard against is when you sit down to do that first page over and over again so it will be perfect. And you think of all these things you want to articulate, so that it will be a good beginning. But you never get to the second page 'cause you want that first page so perfect. So you can't be afraid. You just have to jot down anything as it comes without worrying how it will sound until you get it all down--without worrying about punctuation. And then when you revise it, you use the other part of your brain, the analytical part. Then you can throw out a page or rewrite it."

The author never had a strict working schedule. He wrote until "the well is empty. I don't try to force it. I just leave it until the next day when the well will be filled up again."

His books required an average of two years to write and  he was never completely satisfied with them. He wasn't one to plunge in immediately into another book the moment the previous one was in the mail to his publisher. "I work so hard and long on a book, I'll just not do anything for a while. But I find out in a very short time that I feel lost without working on something, so various ideas start to pop up."

Some writers enjoy writing. Waters found it "a chore, a real job, but you do get a little satisfaction and you feel good that you are in the creative process. It's confining and you're never free of it. It bugs you all the time. But I always try to forget it. That's the best thing to do. But I'll think I should have worked an hour later and carried on with "How will I do it?" I try to forget it, reminding myself that the well is dry."

Waters stopped jotting down notes of inspiration after he'd had a few drinks because "everything looks so rosy and you rush to the desk to write down those beautiful lines and then you get up in the morning cold sober and see that it's rotten and has to be thrown away.

His first Hollywood scripting job was to write the screenplay from his novel River Lady for a producer named Selznick in 1941, which was then scrapped when Pearl Harbor was bombed that year. The motion picture was to star Clark Gable, but was later produced starring Dan Duryea and without Waters. In 1956 he was commissioned by C.V. Pitney pictures to write the development of the American Space Flight Program, which evolved into the history of transportation.

"I went back to the first transport vehicle in American history--those big wagon trains though the Cumberland Mountains, then into covered wagons across the great plains, and the Studebaker wagons and Studebaker cars, and so on."

Waters and  his fourth wife Barbara traveled to Mexico, Central and South America for research. "I like the people," he said, "the Indians and the Spanish. It's an old land with the feeling of richness that we don't have here." The Waters lived in Taos, New Medico, during the warm months and in Tucson during the winter. The author lived in the mountains above Taos for more than forty years and made friends among the Pueblo Indians and descendants of Spanish conquistadors. His friend White Bear was instrumental in having the author adopted in his tribe's Coyote Clan, an unusual occurrence because Native Americans guard their ancient secrets from outsiders.

The ceremonials of the kiva and other traditional customs are neglected because of social and economic pressures as well. "The kids want what white kids have and they leave the reservations to get jobs. They don't want to stay and grow corn in the old ways."

 Mystery reading was his favorite pastime, but he only published one of his own, based on an old murder case involving some of his Taos neighbors. "You've got to have a good tight plot and I just couldn't concoct a detective story to save myself--planting clues and all that. I've got two or three favorite authors and one of my favorite series is about a detective named Napoleon Bonaparte, a half-breed--half white, half aboriginal--in Australia's outback. They're all fabulous stories, written some fifty years ago with some of the old aboriginal religious customs and mental telepathy, the same as the Indians in this country. They're just now beginning to be published in England and the U.S. If you can find them, they're worth reading."

Frank Waters was also fascinated by the Mexican border region during  his eighteen-month stay in Calexico during prohibition. "It was an interesting place in turmoil, the meeting ground of the Mexican and American cultures, and it epitomized the difference between the blending of the two."

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Remembering Frank Waters


Western writer-philosopher Frank Waters is considered one of the world's greatest authors. The lanky, quiet-spoken novelist resembled a rancher more than a literary god, and his fascination with mother earth went far beyond her agricultural roots. His books are journeys into multi-levels of depth and space where few western writers have ventured. Waters generously sprinkled his work with American Indian mystics, Eastern religious beliefs, and various metaphysical subjects.

Despite widespread acceptance from the literary community, Waters remained a little-known commodity on the open market. His work  has been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but few readers of popular fiction know his name.

His first books deal with family and his childhood in Colorado, which he said are "part autobiographical and part fiction." His grandfather migrated as a young man from the South to Colorado, where he  became a building contractor, but succumbed to mining fever during the early 1890s when gold was discovered at Cripple Creek. His wealth poured down one mining shaft after another until it was gone, and he died destitute during the 1920s. Waters' father, a Cheyenne quarter-breed, was also a victim of the Sylvanite Mine. He died of pneumonia from Pike's Peak's harsh climate when  his son was only twelve.

"We didn't investigate his past too thoroughly," Waters said, "because Indian weren't very  respectable in those days."

Young Frank then had to work as a Fred Harvey newsboy and redcap at the train station to help support his mother, sister, and grandparents, while attending school. Fortunately, one of his teachers took an interest in the boy and encouraged him to write.

"Miss Wattles was good to me," he said, "and I admired her. She used to read us  mystical stories--fairy tales at the end of the day, if we were good, and we all looked forward to it. Then they started a little school paper for the seventh and eight grades, and the first thing I ever wrote and published was in the Columbia (School) Sayings and Doings."

Waters managed three years of engineering school at his hometown college before striking out on his own. He worked briefly in the Salt Creek oil fields of Wyoming and as a lineman for the telephone company on the California-Mexican border. Finding himself alone at night and on weekends, he began writing, although he had never taken an English or literature course. His first attempt was a romance of the border-desert region entitled Fever Pitch, written when he was 23 and published in 1930.

"The book was not very good, but the Liveright Company thought it  merited publication. They had a policy of publishing two or three new writers each year, hoping they would eventually recoup their investments. Publishers now rarely invest in untried authors, Waters and his peers lamented. "Books have to be just right."

Liveright took an option on Waters' next three books, which led to his Colorado mining trilogy. Two years after he sold Fever Pitch, he quit an engineering job and moved to Cripple Creek, where he rented an old minter's cabin and settled in to do research He remembers some strange characters lurking about the camp and later "some pretty good reviews" of his books, although they didn't sell well. He decided then to "really work" on his writing and read voraciously, studying the techniques of Conrad, Steinbeck, and other important authors.

Waters later taught writing courses at Colorado state University and said, "the only way to learn to write is to read. I don't think you can teach anyone to write. I think writers can learn from experience, and in talking with other writers to see what had helped them and what they found advisable to adopt or avoid. It's just a process of growth."

During the more than fifty years of Waters' writing career, he had to supplement his freelance income by working as an editor for a weekly newspaper in Taos, New Mexico; an apple picker in Washington state, a consultant for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, a screenwriter in Hollywood, and report writer for the Atomic Energy Commission from the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas. During the Second world War, Waters went through boot camp when he was nearly forty, but was soon released from the army to work in Washington D.C. as an analyzer of enemy propaganda in South America.

(Continued next week . . .)