Friday, October 24, 2014

Loren Estleman. Part II

The quiet, somewhat cynical writer occupied the second floor of his parents' ancient farmhouse where he lived and worked in an unheated bedroom and study for many years until he bought120 acres across the road, built a house and moved in with his bride.

"I didn't see much of my parents while living at home because I spent so much time up (stairs). I lived in my study and didn't have much of a private life. It revolved around my writing and other writers. I was a young man with a horn who lived and worked."

Estleman spent most of his time in the 1867 farmhouse, the youngest of two sons born into a working class family, with an interesting background. A distant maternal ancestor was a general in the Austrian army and a great uncle was hanged by Mussolini for helping downed American pilots during World War II. His grandmother was a gambler during her youth, and her daughter--Estleman's mother--was a frequent visitor to gangster Al Capone's gambling casino from the time she was an infant. His grandmother nearly married a member of the Purple Gang.

A few of his early novels sat for years in a stack between ancient stove uprights in his former study. He said, "I've left instructions to have them incinerated upon my demise." After his California Punk novel sold to Major Books, his editor suggested that he get an agent and write western novels. So he pulled a manuscript from his slush pile that had been written while he was a student at Eastern Michigan University, majoring in English. The Hiders was  rewritten and polished, launching his Doubleday western line.

The writer worked for twelve years as a news reporter while writing his novels. After working for daily and community newspapers in his home state, he tried cartooning for a while. "But I looked around and discovered how many better artists there were, so I went back to writing. I still doodle from time to time but I no longer paint. My artist's eye helps me polish my books.

Serving as a police reporter in the Detroit area while it was known as "Murder City," he never covered a homicide until he returned to  his hometown of Whitmore Lake, population 1,300. Two weeks after he had gone to work for the local newspaper, a supermarket clerk killed his neighbor over a borrowed chain saw. He later covered a lot of murders, trials and manslaughters "and they never quite looked like murderers," he said. "I'm not quite sure what a murderer is supposed to look like, which is why the killers I use in my mysteries, and sometimes my westerns, tend to look like the guy down the street moving the grass."    

Estleman is more attuned to this nation's past than he is to the future, "because western writing is going to be around forever. It's America's sole, unique contribution to literature. Where the western has to go is historical accuracy, and the term that I've almost coined is 'sense of reader,' which means entertainment.

Booksellers dictate  public reading tastes, he said. "They decide a book's shelf life and how long it will remain in print. This is where the bookseller decides whether it's literature, a classic, or not."

Loren Estleman's take it or leave it approach to selling his work may have had editors shaking their heads in the past, but they've been competing for years to publish his work. He writes entirely on speculation. "I'm probably one of the few writers who still do. I've never published an unfinished work, and I would have trouble selling from sample chapters because I don't work from an outline and don't know where the book is going. My book is a morphous organic thing that grows and derives from characters. And that doesn't happen to me in a ten or fifteen page synopsis. It's got to do that during the period of time it's growing in my mind.

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers, Caxton Press.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Conversation with Loren Estleman

Loren Estleman is one of the most talented writers I’ve known. As a young writer of both mysteries and western novels, his work often created bidding wars among competing publishers. Although his novels have been evenly divided between both genres since he began publishing in 1976, Loren’s cops have paid off much better than his cowboys.

“For me,” he said, “a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

Loren wrote six Amos Walker mysteries for Houghton Mifflin and nearly a dozen Double D Westerns before he was discovered by other New York publishing houses. His novels had been selling moderately well while critics raved about them. It wasn’t long before sales caught up with the reviews.

His biggest project was an in-depth look at the shootout at the O.K. Coral, a novel titled Bloody Season, which he wrote “without the blinders of folk-heroism.” He said, “If some cherished myths fell along the wayside, that’s secondary to my intention to examine the late Victorian morals at odds with a wilderness on the defensive.” Three major publishers expressed interest in the book before it was begun, with Bantam the winner in the bidding war. The novel was released in hardcover in 1988.

Loren had never been west of his home state of Michigan until he traveled to Santa Fe to accept a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. He had always been fascinated in the westward expansion, particularly the era he called “the death of the West, the period between the closing of the frontier and the beginning of World War I, when progress for good or ill was making its way westward.” He said there was then no place where a man could go to prove himself, or redeem himself, because the East had taken over the West.“There’s sadness and pathos to that period and locale that moves me to this day.”

Shy as a child and an avid reader, he remembered devouring the works of London, Poe, Chandler, and western authors O’Rouke, Short, and Shirreffs. He wrote his first short story after he was expelled from his high school band. A gangster yarn called “Mad Man Wade,” it returned with a printed rejection slip from Argosy magazine. Loren said he was “crushed, disappointed, and mad,” but he sat down and wrote another story. For years Argosy was the first magazine he submitted stories to “before it folded. I just wanted to crack it,” he said, “because that was the place to start.”

He worked as a news reporter for twelve years while writing his first novels. Eventually working as a police reporter in Detroit, he said, “I covered a lot of murder trials and manslaughters, and [the defendants] never quite looked like murderers. I’m not sure what one is supposed to look like, which is why the killers that I use in my mysteries, and sometimes in my westerns, tend to look like the guys you see mowing the grass down the street. They’re ordinary people, and we’re all potential murderers. That’s the theme in my writing that I work with.”

(Continued next week . . .)

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Jory Sherman Remembrance


The nephew of B. M. Bower and author of more than 500 published books, Jory Sherman was one of the West's most prolific novelists as well as one of the most helpful. Dusty Richards said of the Pulitzer nominee: "Jory Sherman is a walking encyclopedia on how to write fiction. He helped more folks become successful writers than any living man I know . . ."

Jory, which of your many books do you consider your best?
I think my favorite is Song of the Cheyenne, originally published in hardcover by Doubleday.  Tor published it in paperback. I liked it because it told a true story of the Cheyenne and I did not use any white eyes terms to tell the story.
 What’s it going to take to bring the Western genre back into vogue?
If publishers realized that Western writing is exclusively American literature and promoted western fiction and nonfiction as mainstream books, there would be a change for the better.  Even our language is circumscribed by uniquely western terminology.  But, the Western has always been a bastard child of the publishing industry.  Yet, the writers of westerns are among the most accomplished artists and offer great stories that deserve to be read by the general public.  Westerns should be labeled American and promoted as such. 
Are you writing in other genres?
Yes.  I’m writing a mainstream book now, in fact.  Over the years I’ve written in several genres.
Who, in your opinion, was/is the best Western writer on the planet? Were you influenced by his/her work?

I think Loren D. Estleman is right up there at the top, past or present.  I am impressed with his use of language, the power of his characterizations, his gritty use of imagery.  I am influenced by a number of writers, living and dead.  I read a great deal and study how writers portray a time, a place, a history of fictional lives.  I am legally blind, so I can no longer read printed books.  But I subscribe to and I get a lot of audio books from Books for the Blind.

Which novel was the most difficult to write and required the most research?

For some reason, I had trouble writing the prequel to Winter of the Wolf for Walker, a book called Horne's Law.  I had written Winter as a single title and it was difficult to create a backstory and flesh it out into a full-length novel.  Grass Kingdom and the subsequent novels in the Baron saga required a great deal of research into such ranches as the King, XIT and others.  The series, for Forge involved 3 ranching families  and had no central hero.  But it was the book that launched the Forge imprint and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature.  Annie Proulx won it that year.

Why the Western genre? Were you influenced by your background? 

My dad, Keith, was born in Pierre, South Dakota, and broke horses as a kid and knew many Lakota people.  He learned their signs and some of their language.  My great aunt, Bertha Muzzy, was a western writer who wrote under the name of B.M. Bower.  We had all her books and my father used to read them to me and my sister, Kay.  We also had The Virginian by Owen Wister and many Zane Grey novels.  Later, I read Louis L’Amour and began a correspondence with him long before we met and became friends. 

I stumbled onto writing westerns when I was sitting in the editor’s office at Major Books in North Hollywood.  The art director came in with a book cover. The book was Gun for Hire and he said that the writer had a block and couldn’t finish the novel.  The art director, Wil Hulsey, had painted the cover.  I jokingly remarked that I could write the book just by looking at the cover.  I went home to Big Bear Lake in California and forgot about it.  Two weeks later, the editor called me and asked if I were serious when I made that remark. I didn’t recall that I had said such a thing, but she said she’d send me the cover and asked if I could write the book in two weeks.  I wrote it in a week and a half and that book went through multiple printings for higher and higher cover prices, launching me as a writer of westerns.

Describe your writing schedule? Do you outline and meet a word quota each day?

I don’t have much of a schedule now that I think about it. I don’t write much each day nor for very long.  But, I’m a fast typist.  I see a book as completed and in print with a cover and title long before I start to write.  I use my subconscious a great deal and meditate a couple of time s a  day and at night before I go to sleep.  I think of a title and a main character and a first scene, then just let the story unfold.  Publishers wanted outlines for many years so I wrote them, but seldom followed them to the letter.  These plot summaries, outlines, or synopsis served as a skeleton or a guidebook to the novel.  I do not adhere to a quota each day, but usually write five to ten pages in less than an hour and when pressed, I have written 25-35 pages per day and taken somewhat longer to do that many pages.  I’ve never missed a deadline. My mind knows where to go with a book and I never question my writing.  Nor do I rewrite or edit my novel after it’s finished.  Most of my editors have left my prose untouched except for time conflicts, character ages, etc. 

What’s the worst thing a writer of the West can do? And the best? 

To me, the worst thing a western writer can do is set a novel in a real town that did not exist at the time of the story.  I have seen this occur more than once in novels I’ve read.  The best thing a writer can do is to capture the feeling of the land and the people in a bygone era, to make the reader see and feel and hear and smell whatever occurs in a given scene.  I feel the writer of westerns must take the reader back in time and paint the truest portrait of the people and the landscape as he or she can with the power of language.  English is the richest language in the world and the best writers know how to bend and shape the words into a special language that conveys the majesty and grandeur of the West and bring their fictional characters to life.

Advice to aspiring writers?

My advice to aspiring writers is to read and to write.  Write every day.  Don’t read books on how to write a novel or short story.  Instead, read Christopher Vogler’s book, based on research by Joseph Campbell, The Writers Journey.  Read the masters, all the way back to Homer, and get a feel for the music of language from Shakespeare’s plays and by all means read Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and most particularly, Vladimir Nabokov.  Read contemporary authors, too, but retain the magic the great writers bring to their prose.  Finish each book or story and do not ever give up the dream of becoming a  writer. Persistence overcomes many obstacles.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Remembering Louis L'Amour


Louis Dearborn L'Amour (La Moore) was not only the West's best-selling storyteller, he was the consummate Western man, a pattern for the white-hatted heroes he wrote about. Hardworking and soft-spoken, he was proud of his accomplishments, yet despite rumors to the contrary, he was often shy in his remembrances. L'Amour literally elevated himself by his proverbial boot straps, and in the process, left footprints in the marketing landscape that few writers will be able to fill.

Luck had nothing to do with his success, he said not long before his death in 1988. "Nor have I had any connections or breaks that I did not create for myself. I just tried to write the best I could about things I knew."

There are realities that writers must consider, he was quick to add. "No publisher is going to do anything for you that you don't earn. They simply can't afford to. Once a writer proves he can make money, they will often extend themselves. There's no magic, just hard work."

The work ethic was instilled in L'Amour as a child by his parents in Jamestown, North Dakota. His father, a veterinarian and farm machinery salesman, was involved in local politics. He served as alderman of Jamestown's largest ward for many years as well as deputy sheriff, but he lost his mayoral race. "People in small towns doubled in brass, you might say."

Young Louie enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians, and roughhoused in the family barn, which doubled as his father's veterinary hospital. He did more than his share of reading, particularly G. A. Henty, an Englishman who wrote of wars through the nineteenth century. L'Amour said, "It enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn't have about wars and politics."

 The L'Amour family library encompassed some five hundred books, among them the works of Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow, and Poe, as well as popular American and English writers. The youngest of the L'Amour children, Louie remembered reading a five-volume Collier's History of the World while he was small enough to sit in his father's lap.

 "I think all things you read influence your writing to some degree. And if you don't learn anything else, you learn something about living and the use of words."

 His serious reading began at twelve with a collection of biographies titled The Genius of Solitude. "The only one I remember is Socrates, the first chapter, but I remember it well." A book of natural history followed, which he tried unsuccessfully to locate years later for his children. During adolescence, L'Amour immersed himself in books of chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and the history of aircraft.

 His concentrated self-education resulted in boredom with school. "I was just spinning my wheels," he said, "so it was no real hardship for me to leave. I had to go to work to find myself a change." L'Amour left school and Jamestown at fifteen, after completing the tenth grade. Since crop failures were common in North Dakota, and his father's livelihood was linked to the farming community, he decided to find his niche elsewhere. By hitchhiking and riding the rails, he arrived in Oklahoma City to visit an older brother, who was the governor's secretary, but he soon moved on.

"By then I was broke and I got a job in West Texas skinning dead cattle that died from a prolonged drought. They had been dead a while. Some fellow was trying to save the hides and it was the most miserable job, but I learned a lot." The young man's boss was a seventy-nine-year-old wrangler raised by Apaches, who had ridden on war parties with Nana and Geronimo. "He was a very, very, hard old boy but I got along with him fine. He was the first to teach me about tracking and using herbs."

L'Amour left his odorous job, after three months sleeping on the ground and staying downwind from passersby. He had helped skin 965 head of cattle by staking their skulls and tying their hides to the bumper of an early model pickup truck.

 His next job was baling hay in New Mexico's Pecos Valley, across the road from Billy the Kid's grave. He visited the Maxwell home where Billy had been killed, and talked to the woman who offered the outlaw his last meal. L'Amour remembered her as "a pretty sharp old lady who still had all her buttons." He then talked to Judge Cole in Ruidoso, and got to know some thirty former gunfighters, rangers, and outlaws in the area. He regretted not knowing about a number of others.

While wandering about the West, he joined a circus in Phoenix, leaving three weeks later in El Paso. He then hoboed his way to Galveston, Texas, where he hired on as a merchant seaman. His first cruise was to the West Indies, his second to the British Isles. He tried his hand at writing during his travels, but his scribblings didn't include events as familiar as his Western heritage.

 L'Amour's family history is rich in frontier adventure. His maternal great-grandfather was scalped by the Sioux while a member of the Sibley Expedition, following the Little Crow Massacre in Minnesota. Both his grandfathers served in the Union army during the Civil War, and his maternal grandfather taught him military tactics by drawing battle plans on a blackboard.

    The novelist was especially proud of his mother's ancestry, beginning with Godfrey Dearborn, who arrived in this country in 1638, an antecedent of General Henry Dearborn, who marched with Arnold to Quebec. He also took part in the second Battle of Saratoga, Monmouth, Sullivan's raid on the Iroquois villages, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the surrender of Cornwallis, among others. Some of the general's diaries were published, and he and his wife corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, exchanging garden seeds.

General Dearborn's son, of the same name and rank, published half a dozen books, but L'Amour was only able to locate one of them, a biography of William Bainbridge, commander of "Old Ironsides." The book was published posthumously by Princeton University Press.

 L'Amour stressed the fact he had never taken a creative writing course, and that his post tenth-grade education had been earned from voluminous reading. While in Oklahoma City, L'Amour assisted Foster Harris and Walter Campbell in their creative writing courses after he began to publish. He later lectured at more than forty institutions of higher learning, principally the University of Oklahoma. He was also a featured speaker for the National Convention of Genealogists in San Francisco.

"I get many questions about people mentioned in my stories—people looking for relatives or family histories—or about conditions at the time, or to clarify some point on which they lack understanding. Few people realize how much language and word usage have changed. Half the nonsense written about Shakespeare would not have happened if people knew more about the language and customs of the time. For example, they write of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which in those days meant bawdy men."

L'Amour's constant research turned up the little known fact that Wild Bill Hickok's ancestors were tenant farmers on the property owned by Shakespeare. He insisted that credit for the factual unearthing go to English writer, Joseph Rosa.

The novelist's first published story sold to True Gang Life, and a few of his poems were featured in The Farmer's Stockman, an Oklahoma-based magazine. He also wrote boxing articles for a newspaper, sans payment, after meeting two pretty young news reporters in Oregon, who gave him a byline. He was fighting professionally at the time, and knocked out thirty-four of fifty-one opponents during his light heavyweight career. He first stepped between the ropes at age sixteen, and fought more heavyweights than those in his own weight division.

His first short story sales concerned the West Indies, football, rodeo, "detective yarns," and a few Westerns. "I'd grown up in the West and absorbed live background, but I was too close to it. I wanted to write about something far away, you see." He spent ten months in China, and bicycled across India during his twenty years in the merchant marines.

 L'Amour's first big sale was Hondo, originally published in short story form by Collier's Magazine. "Dick Carroll of Fawcett Books asked me to come in, and he said, 'There's a novel here, and I'll buy it.' So I wrote it, and he bought it. Then John Wayne made a movie of it, and suddenly, everyone wanted Westerns."

 The writer had an important decision to make. "Westerns have always been regarded in this country as second rate literature. I didn't agree with that. I never have. The paperback book was regarded as third or fourth rate, and I didn't agree with that either. So I sat down and had a very serious talk with myself. "Do I take the ball and run with it, or do I stay the same course I'm on?

 "I decided to hell with it, that I was going to write damn good Westerns and I would make them accurate. I would show them that Westerns could be history, that they were important. Because to me, this was the most important phase of American history. The Western period, the pioneer period, did more to form American character than anything else done in this country. It should be taken seriously, and more attention should be given to it." The main difficulty he encountered was Eastern prejudice—those in the publishing business raised in the East, with little understanding of life west of the Mississippi River.

 L'Amour did not come into his own as a writer until mid-life, much like English novelist Joseph Conrad, who also spent years at sea before settling down to write. While L'Amour lived in Oklahoma City, he realized "there was something drastically wrong" with his writing. "The short stories I sent out came back like homing pigeons. So I got a bunch of short stories and studied them to see how they were written. I found what I had been doing wrong and that's when I began to sell."

 L'Amour's long-term association with Bantam Books began after his disillusionment with Fawcett, his first publisher, which only produced one of his novels a year. He said, "I have had, all the way along, to lead my publishers, sometimes by the nose. It hasn't been easy."

 Saul David, a Bantam Books editor, told L'Amour he could write three books a year, but it took some persuasion on the writer's part, who liked "to write fast." He admired David's courage and his ability to "swim against the tide. If you told him something could not be done, he'd do it."

 L'Amour maintained the schedule he had worked for years until just before his death, at 81. "I'm not rigid about it," he said. "I work every day, seven days a week, and that's not a problem. However, if something comes up and I want to take a little trip, I do it. I come back and go to work again."

 Rising at 5:30 or 6:00, he'd read two Los Angeles newspapers and The Wall Street Journal before breakfast. His work day then began. At noon he sometimes stopped for lunch, often meeting friends at a restaurant. He said he occasionally went alone at an off-hour to make notes for a forthcoming novel, although he was rarely known to use them. "But, I can discuss it with myself, and the direction the book will follow."

He usually returned to his IBM Wheelwriter after lunch for an hour, or he used that time to read. He would also file mounds of research material crowding his large office. Three-foot stacks of paper neatly flanked three sides of his desk. He had no secretary and didn't want one, because "it would keep me busy finding work for her to do." Only he knew where to file research material so that he could find it. He also answered his own mail, but only a small percentage of some 5,000 letters that arrived annually.

His personal library contained more than 10,000 books, with hinged bookcases revealing floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the visible ones. He also left behind map drawers, much like those on ships, with geographical charts of every country on earth. The world was literally at his fingertips.

 Little physical research was done during his latter years because he had already been there. "Usually I write about places I've been," he said. "I knocked around the world for twenty years, and one of the things I did was file a claim on a mining camp where I had to do a hundred hours work a year to hold it. Sometimes I hired somebody to do it, or miss out on a good job."

Although he only two-finger typed one draft, he admitted to rewriting on occasion. "Usually if I find something wrong, I rewrite the whole page. Occasionally I reread the previous day's work, and that's only when there's been a break in continuity. My feeling is that if one plans to rewrite, one is careless, figuring to pick it up the next time around. I wrote for the pulps and to make any money, one had to produce a lot. I drilled myself in getting it right the first time."

His wife Kathy proofread his work, checking for typos and redundancies. She rarely found misspelled words and no one changed his work, "not even editors. They never have, not since that first sale when the editor sent my story back and said to cut 1,500 words. I thought, 'Ah baloney, I just don't know how I could possibly do that. I hate it." Chuckling, he added: "Now when I look at it, I wonder where all the words went."

 During the mid-1980s, his novels crowded book store racks along with adult Westerns that he hated. "Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Brontes, Checkov, Thackeray, and many others, who used sex, did it with wit and charm," he said. "Sex in current books is clumsily done, indicating that most writers really know very little about it. They write like a bunch of small boys out behind a barn. They are crudely lewd. There's no fun in their sex and nobody appears to be having a good time."

 L'Amour advised fledglings to read and write "everything you can. Keep writing, putting words on paper and learn to express yourself. One difficulty I find of people who write is that they don't read enough. And our schools aren't giving enough background in American literature. I think you should have a pretty good idea what's been done before you try to do it. And you can learn some valuable things by writing. I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant."

 A sentimentalist, L'Amour adopted a white dove before his first novel sold. The dove had taken up residence in the novelist's garage and was brought into the house and named Rama-Cita after two deities of East Indian mythology. The name was later shortened to Rama when the bird was found to be male. The dove could be heard throughout the L'Amour's large Spanish-style home as though in an echo chamber, and outlived most of its species as the writer's "good luck mascot."

 Louis L'Amour was visibly proud of his children. His son Beau, at the time of the interview, was a film producer's creative consultant, who wrote in his famous father's wake. His pretty younger sister Angelique also writes. Both L'Amour offspring planned at the time to produce biographies of their father, in addition to the one he was writing at the time of his death. L'Amour wanted to be remembered as a storyteller—a man who told the American story, or one version of it."

 Among his legion of books, Walking Drum, a twelfth century adventure, was the most fun to write. When asked which had been his favorite, he said, "I like them all. There's bits and pieces of books that I think are good. I never rework a book. I'd rather use what I've learned on the next one, you see, and make it a little bit better.

"The worst of it is that I'm no longer a kid and I'm just now getting to be a good writer. Just now."

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers and Weserners: Candid & Historic Interviews)

© 2013 Jean Henry-Mead

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Remembering Peggy Simson Curry, Part II

Peggy Simson Curry had no regular writing schedule because she taught in the Wyoming Poetry in the Schools Program, which she helped instigate in 1970. Traveling the state in her four-wheel drive Jeep, she taught primarily in outlying areas, dispensing juvenile verse and stimulating smiles, even from sixth-graders who considered poetry “sissy stuff.” She initially captured their interest by  reciting a silly poem about frogs and toads.
Adults attended her evening creative writing classes at Casper College for more than thirty years. She also taught a writing class each summer at the Blind Camp on Casper Mountain. Her students were told to write what interested them, because she felt there was nothing sadder than a would-be writer with nothing to say. She told them to “relate your inner world to the world around you.” Some of her advice must have rubbed off on her son Michael, who earned his living as a public relations writer in California.
Curry’s writing techniques have reached around the world with her nonfiction book, Creating Fiction from Experience. She wrote, “Writing is a way of life. At best it's a rewarding combination of creative experience and creative expression. One cannot exist without the other. Memorable writing can happen only out of memorable living. How much authenticity and vitality appear in the written word is directly dependent on the writer himself. He is the fountainhead of all his fiction.”
A.B. Guthrie was her favorite western author. She enjoyed his “realism and writing skill,” and shared “the feelings he has for the natural world.” Reading exceptional authors of varied genres in bed at night was the way she liked to end her day.
The imaginative, emotional author said she wrote whatever happened to turn her on, “when I ride in the car, get up in the night, walk by a lake. I do work hard hours at the typewriter when an article, poem, or story takes over my imagination. But writing is never a grind in my life. I find great pleasure in being inspired to capture meaningful existence in words.”
When the impulse to write arrived, she used pen, pencil or her typewriter, whatever happened to be on hand. “I carry notepaper everywhere I go whether I’m fishing, hiking or having lunch with friends. I simply follow my impulse to capture what excites me, regardless of time, place or dream.”
Often one draft was sufficient, but at other times she wrote several . “Sometimes I know the conclusion of a poem, article or short story but many times I don’t. Characters do take over in fiction and are as alive as people I meet, listen to and see clearly. I record anything and everything that interests me—scenery, aspects of people, vagaries of weather, voices of the wind, history . . . I enjoy just recording things I’m interested in. It makes me aware of the relationship of my inner word to the world around me.”
(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Remembering Peggy Simson Curry

Peggy Simson's western research began 95 years ago when she migrated with her parents from Scotland to North Park, Colorado, where her father had been hired by the Big Horn Cattle Company. By the age of twelve, she had learned to drive a hay rake and help her mother cook for a twenty-man haying crew. As a youngster, she was taught by ranch hands to hunt, fish and trap small animals along sandy river banks, and to appreciate the beauty of nature.

Long before she was honored as Wyoming's first poet laureate, she filled her novels, short stories, articles, and poetry with early experiences, written primarily from the male point of view. Two of her short stories won Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and the honors and kudos heaped upon her over the years--including "Peggy Simson Day" in Walden, Colorado, every April 13 until her death in 1987--could have easily filled the old barn in North Park.

When Peggy was nine, her father insisted that she leave the ranch to "get educated in town." She  said, "I wrote my first poem that first day in Walden School, expecting to be kicked out of class, but my teacher got it printed in the local newspaper, and I saw my name in print. The poem consisted of: 'I hate school. I hate school. I want to go back to the ranch, my horse and the red fox in the meadow.'" She felt she had been banished to the small town where she had been boarded with the local sheriff and his wife, who had no children of their own.

Later boarded with a number of Walden residents for her fourth through ninth semesters, she spent summers on the ranch, cooking and performing chores. Her last two years of high school were in Denver, where her short stories and poetry won her on-campus essay prizes and sales to various newspapers. Majoring in journalism at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, she wrote and performed in a play for her creative writing teacher. When her talents were discovered, the university staff went out of its way to help her by carefully reclassifying courses so that she could take advantage of them.

She made her first sale to a major magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, after she married Bill Curry, an English major at the University of Wyoming in 1937, and moved to Illinois for his first teaching assignment. At that time, unknown poets were required to prove they had actually composed their work by submitting character references. So the Currys trekked downtown to gather affidavits. During the years that followed, Peggy sold quite number of short stories and poetry to the Post without the verifying statements, and later understood the Post's policy when one of her poems was plagiarized on air at a Casper, Wyoming, radio station.

She submitted her first short story to Good Housekeeping magazine, and received a nice rejection letter saying that although it was well done, it was not a GH story. "They said I should send it to a romance magazine, so I sold it to one. It was a silly story about a cowboy, and it contained phrases like 'cows don't breed in too much heat.' The editor wrote back and said, 'We can use it if you will change some of the dialogue. There's nothing romantic about cows breeding.'" Peggy revised the story and was paid forty dollars. "Not bad in those days."

She considered her second novel, So Far From Spring, her best. Somewhat autobiographical, the protagonist is a liberated nineteenth-century woman rancher by the name of Monty. The storyline follows a young Scottish man as he leaves his homeland in 1830 to immigrate to North Park, Colorado, to work as a ranch hand. The writer interviewed a number of old-timers in her childhood territory, and based some of the characters on people she had known.

After her husband had begun teaching in Casper, and their son Michael was born, she wrote a novel aptly titled, The Oil Patch, which, with her earlier book, was translated into eight languages. Her juvenile book, A Shield of Clover, is an historical look at ranching and preceded Red Wind of Wyoming, a book-length poem of the Johnson County War.

(Continued next week . . .)

Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers, Caxton, 1989)

Friday, September 12, 2014

The People by Harlan Hague

I’ve always been fascinated with the what-ifs of history. What if Elizabeth I had been assassinated?  What if Hitler had found success as a painter during his Vienna years? What if the South had won the Civil War? Anyone interested in the American West must at some point have pondered: what if the western Indians had put aside ancient hostilities and formed a confederation to oppose the encroachment on their lands by the U.S. Army and settlers?

In my imaginative retelling of the frontier story, they do precisely this. The confederation of The People is led by the Beothuk. Never mind that the tribe was declared extinct in 1829. In my story, the Beothuk withdrew from their homeland in eastern Canada and settled in the American western plains among the Lakota who welcomed them. Howahkan, the principal chief of the Beothuk, recognizes that the world is changing and begins a dialogue with the commander of the local army post.

At Howahkan’s request, the post commander sends a young officer to the confederation as an ambassador of sorts. There, the lieutenant meets Kimimela, who has been assigned to teach him Beothuk ways and answer his questions about the confederation. Michael listens, is impressed and falls in love. In this alternate history, with a touch of sci-fi, the young Kimimela is better educated and speaks more languages than her soldier lover.

The People have some advantages. They have superior weapons supplied by a shadowy Asian people called the Celestials.  The People pay for the weapons with gold from mines that they control.

Enlightened leaders on both sides appear to be making progress toward a new understanding and accommodation, but they are thwarted by malcontents on each side. A messiah-like leader calls on followers to reject the leadership of the cowardly Howahkan and follow him. He will make them impervious to the enemy’s bullets.

On the other side, a new commander, who bears a striking resemblance to Custer, vows to destroy the confederation and open their lands to settlement. When the Celestials, who are motivated by profit rather than ideology approach the army commander, conflict is inevitable.

Gradually Michael has learned Beothuk ways and is intrigued by their lifestyle, but he is still an officer in the United States Army. He witnesses battles between the army and the confederation and feels that he is being ripped apart. When he raises questions with the new army commander, which show that he sympathizes with the Indian view on certain points, the commander tells him that his views border on treason. 

 Michael’s affair of love and politics with Kimimela does not always run smoothly. Their relationship is a parallel to the stormy relations between The People and the United States.

There is a twist at the end that raises questions.


Harlan Hague is a native Texan who has lived in Japan and England. His travels have taken him to all of the continents except Antarctica and on a circumnavigation of the globe. He has written history and biography, including the co-authored Thomas O. Larkin: A Life of Patriotism and Profit in Old California, which was awarded the Caroline Bancroft Prize. He also writes travel, fantasy and screenplays, including a screenplay based on The People. His novels range widely in subject, from Japan to the American West. Hague lives in California. For more on what he has done and what he is doing, see his website at 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Big Drift by Patrick Dearen

     I’m the grandson of a nineteenth-century cowboy, but I can’t ride, rope, or brand.  I’ve never seen the “stompede devils” possess a herd, or felt my bronc’s heart beating against my leg as my animal gave chase.  After the single occasion that I spent a half-day on a horse, I couldn’t sit down for a week.            
     So how could I expect to write believably about the Texas range of 1884-85, the setting for my new novel from TCU Press, The Big Drift?            
     One word:  research.            
     Between 1983 and 1995, I recorded interviews with 76 men who cowboyed before 1932.  Born between 1892 and 1915, they represented the last generation of cowhands who plied their trade exclusively on horseback.  I learned of the old-time cowboys’ character, their earthy language, their dedication to their jobs.  I heard tales of horse wrecks and draggings, storms and stampedes, cattle attacks and roping mishaps.            
     As I selectively transcribed my tapes, I found unfolding before my eyes a thousand pages of priceless material otherwise destined to be lost.  These were not cowboys of the urban or celluloid or Dallas variety, but honest-to-goodness cowhands who rode through a golden moment in American history. 
     I supplemented my study by delving into diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts, and 148 archival interviews housed at the N. S. Haley Memorial Library, Colorado Historical Society, and Library of Congress.  The latter collection includes seven interviews with cowhands who either had once been slaves, or were first-generation free men.           
     I would never be a cowboy--not even one who rode short in the saddle--but I came to understand and appreciate the kind of men who would ride for the brand for a dollar a day.            
     I approached other aspects of The Big Drift in much the same manner.  The true-life big drift of 1884 was the greatest mass migration of open-range beeves in history, a 600-mile journey from the blizzard-struck Great Plains to the Devils River in Texas.  This astounding event is 130 years in the past now, but interviews in the Harley Library allowed me to experience it through the words of cowboys who actually lived it.            
     Still, my research for The Big Drift was far from over.  I always immerse myself in my story’s setting as much as possible.  In this case, it meant hiking the landmarks of the Devils River, where 200,000 exhausted beeves finally halted and grazed the banks bare.  The big drift gave way to the big die-up of 1885, and not even 300 cowhands with a 1,000-horse remuda could save them all in the ensuing roundup.            
     I would never be able to traipse through the Devils country of 1885, but at least my exploration gave me a common frame of reference with protagonists for whom I had already found prototypes in interviews.  One character is black, and the other is white, and both are haunted by memories of racially charged episodes rooted in actual history.          
     I may never dig my boot into a stirrup and ride hellbent-for-election after a stampeding herd, but perhaps I can still bring the Old West to life in my own way. 
     The author of twenty-one books, Patrick Dearen was born in 1951 and grew up in West Texas. He earned a bachelor of journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and received nine national and state awards as a reporter for two West Texas daily newspapers.  His twelve novels include To Hell or the Pecos, inspired by actual events on the Butterfield and Goodnight-Loving trails, and Perseverance, set along the rails in Depression-era Texas.  He has been honored by Western Writers of America, San Antonio Conservation Society, Will Rogers Medallion Awards, West Texas Historical Association, and Permian Historical Society. A backpacking enthusiast and ragtime pianist, Dearen makes his home in Midland, Texas.

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 . . .)