Saturday, July 19, 2014

Remembering Bill Gulick


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I was on my way."

Continued next week . . .

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My Almost Visit with Dorothy Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Contemporary Mysteries and Traditional Westerns: The Two Jeff McQuedes

Vickie Britton
Loretta Jackson

by (sisters) Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson

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

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

Our Latest Western with a Touch of Mystery

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

How modern-day Sheriff Jeff McQuede came about

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

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

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

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

Our Fourth Jeff McQuede Novel: The Executioner’s Hood

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

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

John Mantley, Part III (Conclusion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Remembering John Mantley, Part II

John Mantley played the lead on “Buckingham Theatre,” which was the most prestigious program on Canadian radio’s coast-to-coast network. “It was necessary to do half a dozen shows a week to earn a halfway decent living,” he said. “Therefore, we learned to do old voices and young voices and all kinds of accents that would come in handy later on.” Mantley won several provincial and national awards for acting and directing with the New Play Society, Canada’s equivalent of the American ANTA.

Returning to California, he performed as an actor at the LaJolla Playhouse.  “After that I went to New York City, where I starved.  But eventually, I got to play three leads in several shows that were produced by Harvey Marlow, and I got to be friends with him.” Manley assumed Marlow’s job as producer of the television station WOR, when his friend was named general manager. Among three half-hour shows, he produced “Mr. & Mrs. Mystery,” written by John Gay, who later won an Oscar for “Separate Tables.”  Mantley then wrote the half-hour series scripts and played Mr. Mystery, while his wife played Mrs. Mystery. For the original script and their combined performances, they received a grand total of fifty dollars in cash so they could collect unemployment insurance "in order to stay alive.”

The Canadian actor also produced the first foreign language television show in this country, starring an all-Italian cast, and had to change his name for the show to Giovanni Mantelli. It was during his years at WOR that he began to write for television, “because we didn’t have a budget, and I was doing all the things I had to do for a weekly salary of $103, barely enough to live in New York. We had no professional writers. We got our scripts from university students, and anybody who had an idea, and I had to fix them to make them work.”

Mantley spent four years in Rome, where he produced and directed a series of thirty-nine, half-hour  dramatic anthologies for American television, a pioneering effort which played in some two hundred markets and earned investors a good return on their money. “I learned a tremendous amount in shooting the shows in Italy because when we got there, the Italians had never shot live sound. They had no way to do special effects, or even fades and dissolves. All they could do was print film. So it was a great learning experience.”

The Mantley’s first child was born in Italy, “and we survived there because part of the time my wife did the voices—post synchronization of the voices of Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren and many others.” Mantley said he translated Italian films into English by the lip syncing process because American audiences would not accept subtitles.  “And because at that time the American motion picture industry would not sell their films to television because they were trying to destroy the media.”

Mantley borrowed the fare from his cousin Mary Pickford to return to this country, where he found that the entertainment industry had a short memory; no one remembered him or his work. It was then he began to write full time, turning out a number of short stories and articles. His first novel, The 27th Day, became a Book of the Month Club selection here and in England, as well as adapted to film for Columbia Pictures. “The book was somewhat of a minor classic in the science fiction field, I have to believe, because I just bought a first edition which cost me fifty-five dollars.” He subsequently wrote The Snow Birch, at the urging of his cousin, which was produced as the motion picture, “Woman Obsessed” by Twentieth Century Fox, starring Susan Hayward. Mantley recalls that “those books kept my nose above water financially until I began to write for television.”

His first freelance television script was for Desilu Westinghouse Theatre, for which he wrote five. He also wrote for “Harrigan and Sons,” “The Untouchables,” “Outer Limits,” “Kraft Theatre,” “Rawhide,” and nearly a hundred other shows. He freelanced scripts for “Gunsmoke” before he became executive story consultant, and held the same position with “Great Adventure.”

He produced “Gunsmoke,” the longest running dramatic show in television history, for the next ten years. The series had previously been produced on radio before it made the transition to television, and ran five more years.

(Next week the conclusion of the Mantely interview. He talks about what it was like to work with James Arness and much more.)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Remembering John Mantley


John Mantley was a writer, actor, executive story consultant and producer of the long-running TV series, "Gunsmoke." Mantley was almost predestined to earn his livelihood in the entertainment industry. Both parents were actors who encouraged him to write as well as act. Of his early movie star cousin, he said, "Mary Pickford and I were great friends, and I was deeply honored to do her eulogy."

The ambitious Canadian was born in Toronto eleven years after his sister, who still taught dancing in her late seventies. "She was the one who was born in the trunk," he said, "but strangely enough, I was the one who ended up being involved in television and films." His father, Cecil Clay Van Manzer, adopted the stage name Clay Mantley, and in later years operated a carnival. He was frequently away from home and his wife ran a number of concession stands in a park across the lake from Toronto. Excursion boats ferried hundreds of vacationers to the Mantley concessions where young John operated the candy booth and learned to make saltwater taffy. "I could throw three loops of candy onto the hook at one time, and I made candy apples, and cut and wrapped the suckers. It was great fun.

"As a child, I loved books and I can remember the excitement and my heart pounding when I rode my bicycle up to the library at St. Catherine's to get the newest book of James Oliver Curwood or Fenimore Cooper. Reading was a very big part of my young life."

Mantley attended a number of public schools in Toronto, but spent most of his teenaged years at St. Catherine's Institute of Vocational Training. "I wanted desperately to become an actor, so I persuaded a really splendid lady to open a dramatic society, and I became the first president and remained so through the years I was in high school. And therefore, I got to play the leads in all sorts of marvelous melodramas."

He also composed poetry as a child, "and I later wrote long, long letters to my cousin Mary from England, Italy, and India. And from this many years later came my first novel, The 27th Day." He then wrote the screenplay.

But it wasn't all fun and games. "Writing is pain, pain, pain, the hardest work I've ever done. The best part of writing is the money you take to the bank, and the first time you see a bookstore with a window entirely filled with your books. But other than that, there is no satisfaction from writing,  for me at least. 

Mantley was trained as a fighter pilot during World War II, and was sent to to England during the waning years of the war when combat pilots were no longer needed. His company was eventually sent to India, where they were trained as commandos by enlisted men. "They just about crucified us," he said, recounting the ten-mile runs with full packs--and further abuses. While on leave, he produced troops shows for the British Armed forces stationed in the Far East.

After the war he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he graduated cum laude. He earned his master's degree and performed in a variety of roles in the legitimate theatre as well as summer stock with Dorothy McGuire. Exhausted although exhiliarated from his Playhouse experience, his weight dropped to 118 pounds and his doctor advised him to take an extended vacation. He returned to Canada, and while recuperating, England issued a tax on American films.

"Hollywood went into complete chaos, and entire departments of all the major studios were dismantled and it was a really bad time for the film industry." Mantley had planned to work for Mary Pickford upon graduation from Pasadena Playhouse, but she sold her production companies when it appeared there was no future for the industry. 

"I was stuck in Canada, and I started to do radio shows with Lorene Green (of later "Bonanza" fame), and half a dozen actors who had made successful careers. Pay was terrible in those days in radio. . .

(Continued next week . . .)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

STEINBECK AND ME by Arletta Dawdy

John Steinbeck inspired many writers over the years, especially those with a nascent social conscience.

In December of 1947, I traveled from New Jersey to Florida by Greyhound bus with my grandmother and mother. My first exposure to racism happened in the border states when, at a bus stopover, I spotted a drinking fountain labeled “Colored Only.”  I’d never known water fountains that put out colored water. Nine year olds were much more na├»ve, innocent and unfamiliar with the ways of segregation in that era. At least it was so for this Northern child. By the time my Southern education ended six months later, I was wiser and took my objections to a soap box and two careers.

Reading about Jane Addams’ work at Hull House in Chicago when I was barely fourteen impressed me with lessons in social change and helping others to improve their lives.  Then, I found John Steinbeck and devoured his work, book by book, article by article. It helped to be a library monitor at Occidental College for the access to so much of his early work and that of Jack London, buried in the periodical stacks.

In June 1960, Steinbeck wrote to his editor and great friend, Pascal Covici: “I nearly always write─just as I nearly always breathe.” I graduated from OXY that same month, never believing I was capable of writing novels. Social work  called to my heart and off.
I went in Jane Addams’ footsteps.

I have to wonder if that long trek along the Atlantic coast by bus and then again out to California cemented my understanding of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. It is a book I returned to frequently and find its characters continue to teach me. Before the National Steinbeck Center opened in Salinas, I prowled Monterey’s Cannery Row, noted his friend Ed Ricketts’ lab, found his boyhood home, dreamed of his ventures around the valley, haunted the Salinas library exhibits.

Then, the Center opened sixteen years ago and my pilgrimages beganI also began to think a lot about GRAPES with its 75th anniversary celebration this year. One of the characters began to “speak” to the writer-me and the third book in my Huachuca Trilogy begged to be written…even if in fits and starts.  A forty year career in social work led me to write professionally about the human condition: in home studies; individual and family assessments; about group dynamics and program analysis; and in court reports. My hesitation over that first essay test in college was gone; I could write masterfully but could I write fiction? I started in the 1980’s and haven’t stopped.

Thank you John Steinbeck!

Writers, what writers have influenced your path to the printed page?
And readers, whose books have you devoured in the past…or present?
Everyone, what kind of books do you like to give or get as gifts?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rod Thompson's Saga of Jane Hicks

Rod Thompson spent the first years of his life on a small farm in South Dakota, where his grandparents had moved from Missouri in a covered wagon to homestead. Young Rod rode a horse to a one-room country school and his dad taught him to shoot by age five. He said, "I shot at my first rabbit by age eight . . . and missed.  My dad loved to tell stories and I loved to listen, so for years I sat at the feet of the master."  

Living a half day's drive from the Black Hills, he was raised on the legends of Crazy Horse, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. At fifteen he stood on the bridge looking down into Devil's Gulch where Jesse James jumped from his horse to escape a large posse. Asked why he decided to write, he said, "Because it's in me, and what could it be but a western?"

Rod, what inspired your characters and how do you see them evolving in the future?
It is said that writers should write about what they know, I knew how to be a country boy. I spent the first years of my life on a small South Dakota farm. Country folks are good people, and I wanted my protagonist to be a typical Dakota farm boy with a strong moral compass; an honest, hardworking, God-fearing man with a sense of humor and loyalty whose life was shaped by the events in his life, as was the life of the one love his heart would allow him to have. That’s the way things were back before divorces were given out like popcorn. They took their wedding vows seriously.

He wasn’t born a superman with wonderful skills and a desire to save the world. His ideals, love of life, humor, and loyalty were given him by his parents. The skills he had were developed through hard work, determination, and necessity, as were hers, and that is the thread that connects the thrilogy: two normal people of the time, separately together, struggling to find their way on the frontier and rising to each occasion. They did what needed to be done and were shaped by the doing.

The characters meet in The Black Hills, get married and are torn apart in The Saga of Jane Hicks, and I can’t wait to see what happens to them in the third book of the thrilogy (not a misspelling).

How do you feel about mixing the western and romance genres, and is there romance in this book?

Now that is perfect timing for this question.  I love romance in the western, romance of the times, romance of the Old West, romance between a boy and his horses, romance between a boy and girl—man and woman as long as it isn’t mommy porn.  I’ll leave that to others. My agent first described The Black Hills as an Americana filled with humor; a western action epic. My editor at Berkley added that it has a strong underlying love story. So yeah, I love romance and most readers say they like it and want to see what happens to them in the future.  I pray I can continue to do it justice.

What led you to become a writer?

Life…it was in me. Before television, movies, electronic games and sports bars with 3,000 television screens stole everyone’s imagination and creativity, people entertained each other with stories about their ancestors and travels and made up poems and songs and played fiddles, guitars and harmonicas.

My mother played piano, my father played fiddle and harmonica, and together they played at barn dances. He also loved to tell stories, some of which were even true. He loved to tell them, and I loved to listen. For years I sat at the feet of the master. The desire to write was never about choice.  It just was, and I am my father’s son.

Which authors have inspired you?

My father read Zane Grey while my hero is L’Amour.  A few readers have likened my writing to his. However, as fun as that is to think about, I am not now, nor will I ever be in his category.  He was nothing short of amazing. Just being mentioned anywhere near him is good enough for me.

Advice for fledgling writers?  
                                                                          Write.  And get two books released on the same day.  My first book, The Black Hills was re-released by Penguin-Berkley with a foreword written by James Drury, the star of “The Virginian” television series, who called to tell me it was the “best book of any kind he had read in years,” and thanks very much to an extra effort from Troy Smith, The Saga of Jane Hicks was released on the same day. Why? Because I could and it was fun. What a blast.  My daughter and draft editor, Rhonda and I, went out to dinner that night.                                                                                                                                             

Tell us about your first book in the series, The Black Hills 

                                                                                                            Cormac Lynch backs down from no man. . . and only one woman. Hoodlums who brutally murdered a farming family in the 1800’s Dakota Territory left a 14-year old farm boy for dead in the field. Huge mistake!  They were not prepared for Cormac Lynch's brand of Dakota vengeance, and he was not prepared for the hair-trigger temper of Lainey Nayle, the redheaded teenage Irish beauty he rescued in the process. Separately together, they face the dangers and anguish of growing into adulthood on the frontier with determination, horses, guns, petticoats, and the humor of the times in this historically correct western epic… and his two best friends are horses.
And The Saga of Jane Hicks?
Cormac receives a letter from a woman he has never heard of, Jane Hicks. She and her children are in terrible danger and need help. And the only man she can turn to is the one who killed her husband in a gunfight. Cormac has no idea of the threats that confront him as he crosses the Sioux Nation to reach Dakota Territory.

The first reader comment:  “OK! Cormac has no memory. He bluffs his way with seven men. If you let anything happen to that beautiful red-head, I am going to be very upset Rod!!!!

"Dang good book so I'm talkin like Cormac
Somebody needts to make this a movie!!! Great ending. There was relief put together very nicely...WELL DONE.”

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Walls for the Wind by Alethea Williams

Western history has been the greatest interest of Alethea William's adult life. The amateur historian has lived in Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon, and she's happiest researching various time periods and places in the historical West. While staying true to history, she tries not to let the facts overwhelm her stories. Story always comes first in her novels, and plot arises from the relationships between her characters. She says she's always open to reader response to her writing.

Alethea, tell us  how your book, Walls for the Wind, came about.

In the early part of this century, I came across an article about a work of fiction dealing with orphan trains. That was the first I had ever heard of the phenomenon of Eastern cities rounding up their homeless and unwanted immigrant children and shipping them out into the countryside to be adopted by the expanding nation’s farmers.

Indentured labor has a long history, as does apprenticeship. The poor were expected to work their way out of poverty and into a trade. After the Civil War, many religious organizations were springing up to help immigrants seize their individual portion of the American Dream, and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps was strongly encouraged. The placing out of children was the beginning of social services in this country, with the ultimate goal of doing away with institutional care entirely.

In my own family, my dad’s brother wrote a little family history booklet that mentioned his parents adopting a boy to come and live with them in their soddy. There was no explanation of where they got this boy, but I would be willing to bet he was an orphan placed by the nuns of a New York religious society with a good German Catholic immigrant family residing on the Kansas plains, following the example set by the founder of the Children’s Aid Society, Charles Loring Brace.

When I first started writing this book, there wasn’t much on the Internet or elsewhere about the orphan trains. In the years between the writing of the book and its sale, there has been an explosion of interest in these children, who were scooped off the streets and shipped out in the hundreds of thousands between 1854 and 1929. There are now many pages of books on orphan trains, a PBS documentary available online, and a museum and research center devoted to them at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas.

I write about Wyoming, so that’s where my fictional orphan train headed. The building of the transcontinental railroad has always fascinated me, as has the ephemeral nature of the Hell on Wheels town that followed the building of the road. My fictional orphans make it all the way to Cheyenne, Dakota Territory, although few actual orphan train children ended up in Wyoming.

Here is a short synopsis of Walls for the Wind: Can even an angel survive Hell on Wheels? When Kit Calhoun leaves New York City with a train car full of orphans from the Immigrant Children’s Home, she has no clue she might end up as adoptive mother to four children in rip-roaring Cheyenne, Wyoming. At twenty-two, Kit has spent most of her life in the Children’s Home. Now she acts as one of America’s first social workers, serving as liaison between the home, the courts, and the children of the streets.

Kit has little doubt she is easing the plight of the homeless children, until the transcontinental railroad begins to span the country and she is chosen to accompany orphan trains to distribute city children as fast as the rails are laid and farms are carved out of former Indian lands. Eastern cities are overrun with homeless children, their parents sick with consumption or dead of accidents and disease. The farmers who take in the children are required to sign a pledge to clothe, feed, and educate them in return for their labor. Is this distribution of urban children to rural environs beneficial, as the churches that sponsor the dissemination insist? Kit begins to have misgivings.

Family ties are deliberately broken so that single children will have a better chance of being placed. Even so, Kit swears an oath to a dying woman that she will keep her son and daughter together. But when their train passes beyond the last settlements in Nebraska, Kit is left with no other choice. Hannah and Helmut, and teenagers Connie and Thomas, become Kit’s sole responsibility.

The first time handsome Patrick Kelley lays eyes on Kit inside the Casement Brothers store where he works in Julesburg, Colorado Territory, he wants her for his own. But circumstances, and a spectral-looking demented gambler as well as Kit’s certainty no one in his right mind would want her cobbled-together family, conspire to keep them apart. When Patrick and Kit and her brood ride Hell on Wheels into Cheyenne, they’re all forced to leave behind everything they knew and find ways to survive and thrive in the raw new American West.

Buy links:

Whiskey Creek Press :

Twitter: @ActuallyAlethea
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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Dare to Dream

Heidi M. Thomas’s new novel, Dare to Dream (third in the “Cowgirl Dreams” trilogy), not only invites the reader into the western experience of ranching and the decline of women’s roles in rodeo in the 1940s, but it also shows the effect of WWII on family life in Montana.

The 1940s in Montana by Heidi M. Thomas

My grandparents, Otto and Tootsie Gasser, lived through tough times in the 1930s. They were trying to make a living raising their draft-cross horses while the gasoline engine was taking over farming and traveling. After the terrible drought of the early ’30s, the grasshoppers arrived, eating everything but the corral posts. Grandma, Grandpa, and Dad, who was six years old, had moved more than 20 times, finding grazing for their horses. In 1932, they trailed their herd 400 miles from Cut Bank Montana to Salmon Idaho over the steep mountains at Lost Trail Pass, to find feed for their horses. (This story is told in Follow the Dream.)

The 1940s ushered in a somewhat better time. The family sold their horses, leased a ranch at Ingomar, Montana, raised cattle and did some farming. The economy was still tough, however, and farmers and ranchers lived a hardscrabble life.

However, WWII, while bringing rationing and devastating losses to Montana families, also brought the end of the Great Depression to the state. The military needed lumber for building; copper for ammunition, telephone and telegraph wires; coal for heat, and oil for fuel. Between 1942 and 1945 the military bought about $25 million worth of Montana’s industrial and agricultural products.

The government became the biggest food buyer and purchased large amounts of Montana’s high-protein wheat and beef, and some farmers were excused from military service so they could stay home and produce food.

The long drought of the “dirty thirties” also ended and 1943 was the best year farmers had seen in a long time.

While my grandparents didn’t own their ranch and the ground was not the best in the state for raising crops, they were undoubtedly able to reap some of that profit from the military buyers. After a decade of wandering from one abandoned homestead to another, trying to feed their horses, they must have felt rich in comparison during the 1940s.

This decade was bittersweet, however, with the horrific battles and losses of the war. My dad enlisted in the army in 1944 and was sent to Germany where he served as part of the American Occupation forces when the war ended. I’m sure my grandmother must have been terribly worried—not hearing from him for weeks or months on end, with mail service by ship, and not knowing exactly where he was—if he was in the midst of battle or somewhere safe.

Dare to Dream describes that family drama, ranch tradition, rodeo disappointments and triumphs against the backdrop of WWII.

Montana cowgirl Nettie Brady Moser has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles on the journey toward her dream of being a professional rodeo rider. In the 1920s she struggled against her family’s expectations and social prejudice against rodeo cowgirls. During the Great Depression, marrying Jake Moser and then raising their son took priority over rodeos. And then she was devastated by the death of her friend and mentor in a rodeo accident.

In the spring of 1941, Nettie, now age 36, is regaining her heart and spirit, and she is determined to ride again at an event in Cheyenne, Wyoming. To her dismay, the male-dominated Rodeo Association of America enforces its rule barring women from riding rough stock and denies her the chance to ride. Her fury at the discrimination can’t change things for women—yet.

Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, who rode rough stock in Montana in the 1920s, this sweeping rodeo saga parallels the evolution of women’s rodeo from the golden years of the 1920s, producing many world champion riders, and shows its decline, beginning in the 1930s and ending with World War II in 1941.


Heidi M. Thomas grew up on a working ranch in eastern Montana. She had parents who taught her a love of books and a grandmother who rode bucking stock in rodeos. Describing herself as “born with ink in her veins,” Heidi followed her dream of writing with a journalism degree from the University of Montana and later turned to her first love, fiction, to write her grandmother’s story.

Heidi’s first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, has won an EPIC Award and the USA Book News Best Book Finalist award. Follow the Dream, a WILLA Award winner, is the second book in the Cowgirl Dreams series about strong, independent Montana women. Dare to Dream completes the trilogy.

Heidi is a member of Women Writing the West, Professional Writers of Prescott, is also a manuscript editor, and teaches memoir and fiction writing classes in north-central Arizona.
She is an avid reader of all kinds of books, enjoys the sunshine and hiking in north-central Arizona, where she writes, edits, and teaches memoir and fiction writing classes.

Married to Dave Thomas (not of Wendy’s fame), Heidi is also the “human” for a finicky feline, and describes herself primarily as a “cat herder.”