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 . . .)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Conversation with Jeanne Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continued next week . . .)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bill Gulick Interview Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Excerpted from MAVERICK WRITERS, Caxton Press.)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Remembering Bill Gulick, Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers, Caxton Press) 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Remembering Bill Gulick, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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