Saturday, August 29, 2015

Remembering Nellie Yost


Nellie Snyder and her three younger siblings received most of their schooling at home from their mother, a former teacher, but earned their high school diplomas in the village of Tryon. The pretty, four-foot-eight inch bookworm graduated from high school as valedictorian of her class in 1923, which ended her formal education.

She was “bashful about meeting strangers,” and read “everything I could get my hands on—books were not too plentiful in our isolated home. But I loved to study and was a good student. My major was pedagogy or teaching.” A rural school teacher for a year in McPherson County, Nebraska, she rode six miles to work on a horse. Her next two years were spent in Salem, Oregon, where she was employed in the Miller Department Store office. In 1929 she married David Harrison Yost and the couple moved to Maxwell, Nebraska.

During the 1940s, Nellie sold several feature articles to the Omaha World-Herald, and concentrated on pioneer stories that had been told to her by her parents. “I was a rancher’s wife,” she said, “so I ran my house and helped a good deal with ranch work. My writing was in addition to that, so I had to make time for it.”

She sold her first book, Pinnacle Jake, in 1951 to Caxton, followed by ten additional nonfiction books including Buffalo Bill, His Family, Friends, Fame, Fortunes and Failures. All but her first book remained in print in Bison paperbacks by the University of Nebraska Press.

When her son Tom became an adult, Nellie was able to devote more time to her writing and kept regular hours at a seven-foot desk specially built for her diminutive size. “I like to start writing as early in the morning as possible,” she said. I used to be able to write all day if I had the time. Now I find it hard to work in the afternoons, so I usually sign off at noon. I can turnout a good deal of work, typed pages, in that time. Then I do research and reading the rest of the day and in the evenings.” She considered writing exciting and challenging, rarely a chore.

“Since my work is all factual and as authentic as I can make it, I do a lot of research—reading and interviewing—which necessitates a long period of thinking about the project before I actually do much of the work. I use the library a great deal, all the personal interviewing possible, and I visit the locations and familiarize myself with them as much as I can.”

She stared at the beginning of her nonfiction projects and waded right into the subject. “The problems always revolve themselves under that treatment. When I have the material organized I may change the way I handle it, or put it together, but that’s the way I start.”

Nellie advised other writers to get started on their ideas and keep at it. Persistence is more than half the battle. “If the talent is there, the ability will develop if the writer keeps at it. Nothing will happen if he doesn’t. In today’s overcrowded market, income or reward will most likely be small, if any, for quite a while. But by frequent submissions, editors will begin to recognize a mane, and if the work shows promise, the editor will realize thar here is a consistent, persistent writer—and perhaps will give him a hand up.”

She also told fledglings to have confidence in their work and to be convincing in their approach to any subject.

Part II next week . . .  

Monday, August 10, 2015

Remembering Gordon Shirreffs


Gordon Sheriffs published more than 80 western novels, 20 of them juvenile books, and John Wayne bought his book title, Rio Bravo, during the 1950s for a motion picture, which Shirreffs said constituted “the most money I ever earned for two words.” Four of his novels were adapted to motion pictures, and he wrote a “Playhouse 90” and the “Boots and Saddles” TV series pilot in 1957.

A former pulp magazine writer, he survived the transition to western novels “without undue trauma,” earning the admiration of his peers along the way. The novelist saw life a bit cynically from the edge of  his funny bone, and described himself as looking like a “slightly parboiled owl.” Despite his multifarious quips, he was dead serious about the writing profession.
He said, “Sometimes I’m like Zorba the Great, when asked by Alan Bates: ‘What work do you do? ’Zorba replies, ‘I have hands, feet,  head . . . let them do the work.’ I somehow have that faculty. I can work on a detailed model, gun, or whatever and at the same time work out a writing problem.”

Sheriffs handled writer’s block by painting his house, going fishing, building and sanding at his work bench, all the while allowing his subconscious to work out a solution to a writing problem. “Some day or hour it will work itself out, never exactly the way one wants, but close enough.” Another Shirreff’s truism was that he had yet to write a novel or story exactly the way he intended.

Not one to remain static, he went back to school during the 1960s and ‘70s to finish the education he had interrupted 30 years earlier, earning his master’s degree in history at California State University while freelancing full time. Shirreffs always had a thirst for learning. A precocious lad, he read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while he was ten years old, polishing off the year with Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

His middle class parents had been too busy rearing five children and earning a living to “bother much with encouragement” in the creative arts, although he went through the gamut of  music lessons, including learning to play the drums. “In Chicago during the twenties and early thirties, children were advised to learn a trade. But like many Scots, the written word and education were paramount.” (Shirreffs’ parents emigrated from Scotland shortly before  his birth.)

The novelist was active in R.O.T.C. during high school and beyond, winning the Beals Medal for expert rifle marksmanship, and was a member of the National Rifle and California Pistol associations. He also had a “generic love of the water and watercraft,” and began building model ships when he was big enough to man the miniature riggings. .He continued his hobby well into his senior years at his Granada Hills, California, home, but the ships were decorative, not seaworthy.

During his teenage years in the midst of the great depression, he shoveled snow, worked as a delivery boy, and left  home at seventeen to work as a farmhand in Minnesota. He also sailed several summers as a paid crewman aboard racing yacht's on Lake Michigan. Among other odd jobs he was a “pearl diver—washing dishes in the kitchen of a tea shoppe under State Street in Chicago,” as well as a stock boy before attempting to join the navy in 1935. Despite his expert marksmanship, he was unable to pass the eye exam, but found employment at a tank car company while an evening student at Northwestern University School of Commerce. His national guard regiment was then called to active duty just prior the Second World War.

Shirreffs freelanced for pulp magazines while serving in the army during the war. His first sales were in 1943, stories of his experiences in the Aleutian Islands Campaign, which sold to Blue Book magazine for twenty-five dollars each. The title of military historian-researcher-writer was assigned to him during the last six months of the war, after he had co-authored The Road to Victory, an account of the North Africa Campaign, for which he received captain’s pay.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Richard S. Wheeler Revisited

Award-winning novelist Richard Wheeler left journalism to write more than 70 books: westerns, historicals, biographies and nonfiction. 

Richard, which project presented the greatest challenge? 

      Books featuring deeply controversial figures posed the largest difficulties because the historical record is riven with inconsistencies and the rankest sort of partisanship. My novel about Major Marcus Reno was one; my novel about Thomas Francis Meagher was another; and a third was my novel about John Fremont. These people were demonized by some of their contemporaries, loved by others.

      One of your novels, Snowbound, concerns John C. Fremont’s fourth, ill-fated expedition. What led you to write about him and how did you go about researching the expedition, with so many conflicting reports written about it?

      A novel about Fremont was proposed to me by my publisher, Tom Doherty. I found myself up against a major bestselling novel, Dream West, by David Nevin, and needed to approach Fremont in some other way. As I began research, I gradually realized that an entire dramatic novel could be drawn from a single ruinous expedition, so I chose that.

     How much research do you conduct before starting a new book, particularly those based on actual people such as Fremont? And do you adhere to historical facts without  dramatization?

     Historical novels vary from pure fiction, with invented characters, set in a time and place, over to dramatized history with real people. The Fremont story is one of those, in which all the characters are as accurate as I could make them, and events are all grounded in the journals of the men on the expedition.

      What prompted you at the age of 50 to begin writing novels after a career in journalism?

     I wasn't a successful journalist, being a born wimp, and kept losing my job. I thought I would set a record for the most-fired newsman in the U.S. I worked as a book editor after that, and I was more at home in that field, but I kept getting laid off during recessions, or when companies were unloading employees for other reasons. My resume listed so many brief jobs that I had become unemployable, so I turned to fiction in desperation.

      You’ve won many writing awards and are respected and admired by your peers. What about your writing career has brought you the most pleasure?

     That is a good and piercing question. My deepest pleasure lies in being a good journeyman. For centuries, the skilled trades had apprentices and journeymen, with the journeymen being the experienced and steady tradesmen. Several things happened. One was simply that I made a living from writing, and haven't had a paycheck for twenty-five years. Another was the realization that I'm no one's favorite novelist; my works are on no best-ever list. I do not have any title on the all-time best western novel list published by Western Writers of America. And all this led me to a deep satisfaction in being a competent journeyman in my trade, able to earn a steady living, but not anyone who has written breathtaking or brilliant or wildly popular books. I admire those people greatly, but my career has been molded from different clay.
     What was it like living in Hollywood during your youth, taking acting lessons and attempting to become a screenwriter? What prompted you to leave to become a journalist?

     I was trying to become a playwright in the mid-50s by studying at the Pasadena Playhouse. But then I drifted into Hollywood and the rough and tumble world of the Sunset Strip, joined an acting class, and wandered around hoping to spot movie stars in Schwab's Drugstore. (The only one I ever saw was Angie Dickinson, and she was still in a training bra.) I worked in a record store and as a freelance photographer. Eventually I came to my senses and got out of there, embarrassed that I had squandered two years of my life pursuing foolish dreams. I learned a few things, but nothing anyone would find in textbooks.

Why did you decide to write Western novels and who most influenced your own work?

     During one of those periods when I was jobless and desperate, I thought maybe I could write westerns because they were all badly written and, therefore, easy to do. Western fiction was obviously the most primitive storytelling of all. If I couldn't write a western, I couldn't write at all. The only influence any author had on me was to encourage the belief that I could do a lot better. Much later, I did discover authors I admired, but none who influenced me.

      How important is humor in Western novels as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your fictional characters?

      I'm no good at humor because I lack a sense of the ridiculous. Apart from a few inebriate efforts at wit, my novels are stern and sober and full of puritanism. Puritans don't laugh. I come from a family descended from early New England puritans, so I am inclined to consider laughter a sin.

      What’s the biggest mistake most writers make (from your former editor’s viewpoint)?

      Boy, that's hard to answer. I could usually tell whether a writer had read much; the ones who were well read seemed to have a command that the others lacked. I would say that those who had a broad liberal arts background, especially in history, biography, and English literature, were apt to produce better stories than those who were narrowly expert in western lore.
     Advice to aspiring writers of the West?

      Don't write westerns at all. Write mysteries set in the West, or romances, or thrillers, all with a western setting.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Remembering Don Coldsmith


Don Coldsmith wrote western historical novels during stolen moments from his medical practice as well as his Emporia, Kansas, horse ranch chores. The physician-novelist-horse breeder gave his fictional characters a thorough mental examination before committing them to paper with pencil. His secretary then transcribed his first and only draft into manuscript form.

"There are several weeks at a time when I'm not able to put down a single word because of my schedule," Coldsmith explained. "I paragraph and reparagraph in my mind, and the first time that it appeared on paper it's finished copy. I don't do much rewriting because I have rewritten it dozens of times in my head."

Coldsmith did some of his best writing while cleaning out horse stalls, chopping wood or repairing a fence. When he wasn't tending his prize Appaloosas, he was treating patients and attending births. During the weekends when he was on call, he wrote while waiting for the phone to ring, and composed "some fairly decent prose" in the middle of the night on hospital order sheets while waiting to deliver a baby. The most difficult part of writing, he said was finding time to do it. Coldsmith dabbled in various professions before he began writing, and had a dappled bag of experiences to draw from. Following briefly in  his father's calling as a Kansas Methodist minister, he served as a Congregational preacher, disc jockey, taxidermist, gunsmith, World War II army mule skinner, piccolo player, YMCA director, and a member of a semi-professional singing quartet. There were other jobs along the way, including a medical general practitioner.

Although always an avid reader, Dr. Coldsmith didn't begin writing professionally until he was past forty. "We were raising horses and taking a lot of horse magazines," he said. "I came to the conclusion that there were people who knew horses and people who knew how to write, but that they were not necessarily the same people." His first article was published in the Appaloosa Breed Journal--"a freebie that was well received." Following articles sold to Western Horseman and other equine publications he began writing a weekly newspaper column called "Horsin' Around" in 1971, which was syndicated across the country.

His warm and witty columns about rural people, places, and horses were adapted to book formi in 1975,  and titled, "Horsin' Around." and "Horsin' Around Again" in 1980. His first publisher went bankrupt shorty after the book was published, and the author was court-awarded a pickup truck load of his books in lieu of royalties.

His first novel, The Spanish Bit, began a series for Doubleday, after Coldsmith attended a Western Writers of America convention in Oklahoma City, where he met editor Jim Menick. Writer and  editor found that they shared an interest in sixteenth century Indian life of the great plains, and the doctor wrote an average of two books a year for the series. "I thought  my first novel was historical fiction, but Doubleday regarded it as a western and put it in their Double D series."

Bantam began reprinting the series in June 1987, reclassifying it "historical fiction." Coldsmith also  wrote one of Bantam's River West series books, on the Smokey Hill.

The laid-back, soft spoken Kansan said he didn't aim his work at a specific audience, and received fan mail from a wide age group, from youngsters to seniors. "Teenaged girls seem to be reading my books in libraries, and they criticize  and make suggestions," he said. "They even berate me for the way I handle a character." Elderly people, however, experienced a certain amount of nostalgia in both  his newspaper columns and his books, "the stories about things that reminded them of their childhood, and this is very flattering to me."

(Part II next week . . .)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Makah Indian Reservation Islands

The Tatoosh Islands

I was invited to Tatoosh by my brother Bob, a career coast guardsman, who was in charge of the small island group collectively named for a chief of the Makah Indian nation. The three small islands are the most northwesterly point of the continental U.S. and located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, half a mile from the coast of Neah Bay, Washington. The lighthouse, Cape Flattery, is located on Tatoosh's main island.

My vacation to Tatoosh was an adventure from the start. My first plane belly-dived onto the runway in Stockton, California, because the landing gear failed to release. A rough landing but, fortunately, no one was hurt. It did, however, result in a six-hour delay before a replacement plane arrived. So my fellow passengers and I arrived sy Seattle-Tacoma airport at about 4 o’clock in the morning. At 6:30 a.m. I learned that I was to fly the remainder of the trip on a three-seater, single engine Cessna--no larger than my car--over the Olympic Mountains to Neah Bay. By the way, it was my first ever trip by plane.

Seated behind the pilot and another passenger, I could see the mountain peaks protruding through the clouds and I’ve never been so frightened in my life because air currents had us falling dangerously close to the peaks. When we reached the tiny airport some miles from Neah Bay, the landing strip looked like a narrow, cracked sidewalk with weeds growing between the cracks.

My brother wasn’t there to meet me, so I hitched a ride with the other passenger, who was stationed at the military base located on the Makah Indian reservation at Neah Bay. Halfway to the base we noticed a car parked along the road with a long, familiar pair of legs hanging out the door. It was my brother Bob, who was sleeping it off from a night at the club on the base the night before. It had been two months since he had been off the island. 

We then proceeded to the base where we waited for a small boat to come from the island to pick us up. When we reached the main island of Tatoosh, an inexperienced coastie was operating the crane that lowered the boatswain’s “chair” to the ocean to pick us up. The wooden box was about two feet square and six inches high and connected to a cable. I was lifted from the boat up a sheer rock face that appeared to be a hundred feet high. I screamed like a wounded water buffalo. When I reached the top, the box was swung to a wooden platform, landing hard enough to nearly break both my ankles.

Did I mention that the airline lost my luggage?

Cape Flattery on the main Tatoosh Island

I wore my brother’s coast guard uniforms, with the sleeves and pants rolled up for the week, and,  fortunately, one of the coasties had a pair of tennis shoes that fit. The fog horn woke me repeatedly during the night although the other inhabitants of the island said they were able to sleep through it.

I loved the lighthouse at Cape Flattery, located at the western end of the half mile by quarter mile island. It was built in 1857 and the island has alternatively been inhabited by Makah Indian fishing parties, the coast guard, weather bureau employees and the navy. The guest book was fascinating to read and I wish I had been able to photograph some of the entries. It told of 19th century fishermen and explorers who visited the island by climbing the rocks. Some of their companions drowned or were killed from falls in the process.

I nearly lost my own life when I volunteered to mow the jungle-like undergrowth which threatens to take over the island. The tractor slid backward down an embankment and nearly went over the edge onto the rocks below. Once was enough. It still gives me chills thinking about it.

A bird sanctuary is located adjacent to the main island (upper left in top photo) and I watched a variety of colorful sea birds take off and land, as well as seals and other marine life swimming nearby. Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca is Vancouver Island, Canada, which I could see on a clear day, and that wasn't very often. When I wasn’t watching sea birds and visiting the lighthouse I enjoyed playing pool with the coasties and watching films in their small basement movie theater. 

We were fogged in the morning I was scheduled to leave so I was able to stay two extra days. The morning I left, a small coast guard cutter arrived with my luggage, so I dressed like a civilian and boarded the cutter for the trip back to the mainland. Five minutes later, a wave swamped the boat and I looked like a drowned rat when I boarded the small plane for the trip back to Seattle. During the subsequent trip home, my plane left without me in Stockton, so I waited again for another plane.

I'd been expected to start my first newspaper reporting job several days before I returned home and was nearly fired before I began. The publisher said he'd traveled to northwestern Washington several times and had never heard of Tatoosh. Thankfully, I was able to whip out an island postcard, which saved my job. I also wrote a feature story about the trip.

The island is no longer inhabited and no coast guardsmen or weather station employees remain. Tatoosh has become one of the  most intensively studied field sites for marine life in the world. Studies have discovered how various species are linked to one another through a network of interactions and how environmental changes resulting in the extinction of certain species have affected the marine life food chain.

Anyone who now wants to visit the Tatoosh islands must ask permission from the Makah Indian Reservation officials at Neah Bay on Washington’s beautiful Olympia Penninsula .

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Treasure Beneath the Alamo

by Landon Wallace

Historians and Alamo devotees have long speculated that a substantial treasure was buried beneath the Alamo just before the Mexicans laid siege to the mission.  The idea that this treasure still lays hidden somewhere under the fortress some 180 years later intrigued me to do more research.  When reading the many detailed accounts of the Alamo battle and the men who died defending it, I was struck by the fact that these deaths left the treasure mystery all but unanswerable.  This sole survivor of the battle of the Alamo was a slave named Joe. A modern day descendant of Joe inspired my novel.

The fictional characters in my novel grew out of Joe the slave’s story. Brewton, Alabama had a prominent role in the real post-Alamo life of Joe and once I’d decided the first hints of the mystery would unfold in that town, I constructed my protagonist, Nat, in and around that environment.  His companion in the search for the treasure, Renee, needed a background that leant itself to the pursuit of a mystery as well. Her character evolved from that key consideration.
The other characters in the fictional modern day pursuit of the treasure have a piece or two of their lives connected to real history.  For instance, Angelina de Zavala Gentry, a key adversary of Nat and Renee, is a fictional descendant of the real-life Angel of the Alamo, Adina de Zavala.

The historical characters in the story, on the other hand, were heavily researched and their actions follow naturally from the real events that unfolded in their lives. Each of these characters had some possible role in secreting the treasure and protecting it from the Mexican invaders.  My goal was to share their thoughts and motivations in doing so.                               

The Alamo has been written about so many times that the most difficult part of my research was deciding which accounts to rely upon when describing the historical elements of the novel.  In the end, I looked to as many source documents as possible, a majority of which were compiled in my most valuable resource—the Alamo Reader by Todd Hansen.  Much of the writing about the long-speculated treasure of San Saba (otherwise known as Bowie’s Treasure) could be found in the works of renowned Texas writers like J. Frank Dobie.
The story revolves around the events of March 6, 1836, the date the Mexican army stormed the Alamo and killed every one of the defenders except William Barret Travis's slave Joe. A fearful Joe then escapes away in the night while the Mexican army is celebrating, carrying a prize far more valuable than anything inside the creaky Spanish mission.
The present story ramps forward to September 2013.

Joe's modern descendant, a 93-year-old World War II veteran living alone in Brewton, Alabama is dying after being attacked by intruders. With his last breath, the old man defiantly shouts, "Come and take it!" And with his demise, the last living person who knows about Joe's prize is gone forever. While investigating the old man's death, grandson Nat uncovers clues about a long-hidden secret dating back to the Alamo. With the help of a beautiful history professor named Renee, Nat begins to unravel the mystery of his grandfather's murder, and in the process discovers another mystery of far greater scale. 
The great thing about creating characters is that you never know what they might do next. It’s possible that Nat and Renee show up in another mystery in the future.  Many unanswered questions remain about Santa Anna’s life even after he was defeated and captured by Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto.  Maybe Nat and Renee need to figure out why.

 I’m a native Texan and trial attorney with a penchant for telling stories inside and outside the courtroom.  I currently live in North Texas with my wife, children, and two dogs.  Come and Take It is my first novel but I’m busily working on a second with a scheduled publication date in early 2016.

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Visit with Leon Metz

A former WWA president, Leon Claire Metz is an historian, author of 17 books, television documentary and radio personality as well as a lecturer on the Old West. His programs have been presented across the nation, primarily in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and his television documentaries include A&Es "The Real West" series, which is also shown on The History Channel.

Leon, how and when did your radio show and weekly column in The El Paso Times come about? Also your apparance on the BBC?

Frankly I am uncertain as to when any of these started. Both the radio show and the Times column have been going at least 15 or 20 years. As for the BBC piece, I only vaguely recall that one.

 Why have you found southwestern history fascinating enough to write 17 books and countless articles about?

 I am fascinated by history.  It was so different than what I grew up with back in West Virginia where I completed high school.  The history here is different, unique, often individualistic.  And  there is so much of it.  It is history that so much of the world has no idea about.

 Your most notable books are about gunfighters. Which one did you find most interesting and/or difficult to research?

The most interesting piece of history--and most difficult to research--was the biography of  gunfighter John Wesley Hardin.   By the time I had finished with that story, I was on tranquilizers.  During my sleep, I thrashed about so much in bed during the night, my wife sometimes laid across me at night to keep me from falling out on the floor. I was chewing and swallowing tranquilizers during that Hardin writing period....and finished up a nervous wreck.  I've written about other bad guys, but I just shrugged them off and went to sleep. Hardin turned me into a nervous wreck. That lasted a few months.

 Who served as your mentor and how did the relationship come about?

My mentor was Doc C. L. Sonnichsen, a professor of history himself at U.T.E.P., then Texas Western College. He taught me how to do research, and how to write.  After reading one of my history pieces, he looked up at me and said, "Leon, you can say  "done went," and sometimes you can get away with it. But you cannot write "Done Went," and expect to get away with it.

 You’ve served as WWA president and were awarded the Saddleman Award, among others. Which meant the most to you and why?

Gads, being President of Western Writers of America and later getting the Saddleman Award was the greatest and most helpful thing that ever happened to me during my writing. Would I have thought that I would ever get recognition such as that? NOT AT ALL. How I won those two awards, I still don't know.  I'm still flabbergasted.

What do you foresee for the future of the western genre?

I don't really foresee anything in terms of the future of the Western genre.  I just hope the Western genre will continue.

Advice for aspiring western writers?

As for aspiring writers, I would advise then to do the best they can, but never be afraid to ask for advice, to ask for help, to ask someone who you have confidence in.  Even the great writers originally had mentors.

Never be afraid to ask someone--especially someone who knows their business of writing--to read something of yours and give you an analysis.  One may not agree with it all, but somewhere in that evaluation, you are going to say, "I"m sure glad he (or she) caught that!"          

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Remembering Elmer Kelton


One of the West's most congenial writers, Elmer Kelton received the 1977 Saddleman Award from Western Writers of America for outstanding contributions to Western Literature. He had already won four Spurs and two Wranglers by the mid-1980s as well as the Texas Institute of Letters McCombs/Tinkle Award for continuing excellence.
Among his best known novels are The Time it Never Rained, The Day the Cowboys Quit, The Wolf and the Buffalo, and The Good Old Boys.  A life-long Texan, Elmer was born on the Five Wells Ranch in Andrews County, the son of a cowboy, R. W. "Buck" Kelton, who spent the best  of his life in the saddle, some 36 years as wrangler, foreman, and general manager of the McElroy Ranch Company near Crane, Texas.  Buck's son, Elmer, later used the McElroy name as a pseudonym. 
When Buck retired, he and his wife acquired a small ranch of their own in Brown County, where Elmer's mother lived until she was 80. The former school teacher taught her four sons to read before they started school in Crane, nine miles from the ranch. Elmer, the eldest, skipped the second grade, which, he said, made him the "runt in every class for many years. When they chose up sides to play football, I was the odd one that the unlucky team had to accept, and I usually got run over early in the game. So I spent a lot of time on the sidelines reading."
Kelton was near-sighted and excelled in reading, spelling and composition, "which made a boy suspect in the oil patch of Crane." Myopia handicapped his athletic abilities, but enhanced his communication skills. "The only area in which I could beat the other boys was in the use of words, and I capitalized on that."
He credited his mother with his voracious reading habits because she read to him before teaching him to read for himself. When he was nine, he contracted tuberculosis, as did several of his schoolmates, and spent nearly a year in bed. "That," he said, "no doubt added to my introversion and detracted from any athletic tendencies I may have had."
The youngster wanted to write as soon as he could read, and volunteered to create themes, beyond those assigned, instead of doing his math. Before he was ten, he was writing short stories, and by twelve had outlined the plot for the great American Western novel, which he said he never wrote. His readers would undoubtedly disagree.        
His mother encouraged him to write, as she did herself with pencil on lined paper. "It must have been contagious," he said. "My father was an outdoorsman who never understood why I wanted to write, but he came to accept it after a while. I was not a good cowboy, which bothered him more than a little. Writing to him seemed a semi-honest way to earn a living, on a par with law and politics. Work to him was something to be done on horseback or with a pail and shovel. Not behind a desk.
“While a senior in high school I finally confessed to him my long-held ambition to attend the University of Texas and study journalism. He gave me a cotton-killing stare and declared: "That's the way it is with you kids nowadays—you want to make a living without having to work for it!"
The cowboy sent his son to talk to the ranch's Norwegian bookkeeper, a worldly soul by rural Texas standards, in the hope he could talk Elmer out of his foolish notions. But tales of sobering up O. Henry so that he could meet his deadlines, and of other hard-drinking newsmen did little to squelch the budding writer's enthusiasm.
"He gave up when he saw that he was encouraging my folly. 'All right, Elmer', he said. ‘If dats vat you vant, go ahead. But vun ting remember: vriters are alvays drunk, and dey are alvays broke.' Over the years I have found little quarrel with the second half of his admonition."
Upon discharge from the army following WWII, Kelton needed three semesters to earn his degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He returned to school in Austin, where he spent his spare time and some study sessions writing short stories for submission to magazines. "I suffered through a great many rejections before making my first sale in 1947, during my final semester at the university. My first sale was to Ranch Romances, edited by Fanny Elsworth, who will always have a special place in my heart."
Fanny Elsworth had rejected a number of his previous stories, but took the time to write him letters, telling him what was wrong with his work as well as making suggestions. "Everyone else was simply sending printed rejection slips," he said. From that point on, he wrote most of his stories with her publication in mind, but it was a year before she bought a second one. "That one acceptance made up for dozens of rejections and gave me enough faith and hope to keep trying."
Kelton assumed that after his first sale he would soon become a full-time, highly-paid author. Meanwhile, he would work as a journalist. He began his career as a livestock reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, expecting to hold the job for six months to a year until he could establish himself as novelist. Twenty-five Western novels and forty years later, he remained a newspaperman. He also continued to do a limited amount of nonfiction freelance writing for various publications. He spent fifteen years as a farm and ranch reporter for The Standard-Times before progressing to editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine as well as associate editor of Livestock Weekly.

Part II will be featured next week . . .

Friday, February 20, 2015

Writers of the West Will be on Hiatus Until Further Notice

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 Westerners: Candid & Historic Interviews)

© 2013 Jean Henry-Mead

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Marlboro Man, Part II

Darrel Winfield refused to discuss the pros and cons of smoking, saying it was up to individual to decide for himself. And as most cowboys have traditionally done on the job "for safety reasons," he chewed tobacco. While working on location, however, he lit up two or three packs a day during a full day's shooting, although they were tossed away and a fresh one lighted for each new take. 

He averaged ten takes for each scene filmed, "but if everything goes well, if myself or the other cowboys or the cameraman don't goof up, it will snap right along."

The cowboy changed clothes often during a day's filming. Shirts and coats were frequently discarded with different colors worn in each setting. During the summer months the crew spent some nights on the open range, rising early to help the rancher move a herd of livestock. Winfield took his own horses on location whenever possible. His favorite was Olen, a sorrel quarter horse he once traded but soon changed his mind.

When Winfield was at home on his forty-acre spread near Riverton, Wyoming, he liked to "lie around the house," do some team roping with his partner, Bill Young, at the Old Timer's Rodeo; trade horses, ride everyday--weather permitting--and collect old saddles, bits and spurs. Winfield and his partner won three of six team-roping championships, competing with as many as 50-100 teams, but called himself an average roper. He rode a modified association saddle made in Montana and collected antique saddles, the oldest dating back to 1906.

The Winfields bought their small ranch in 1974, a year before they moved onto it, and imported his parents from Oregon to serve as caretakers. When the Marlboro ad campaign became lucrative enough for him to quit his cattle foreman's job a year later, they settled into the rustic log house  and found it a better location from which to commute.

Lennie Winfield's husband was gone four days to three weeks during the latter years, and she occupied her time with ranch chores as well as eight grandchildren who lived nearby. "I know it's his job, and I'm just about to get used to his being gone so much," she said. "I pack his clothes and send him off with a big hug and a kiss, and he calls often so we always know where he is."

The couple was invited to a Marlboro company party in Chicago shortly after he hired on as their lead cowboy in 1968. A picture of her husband stretched across four lanes of traffic on Ohio Street, taking Lennie by surprise. When asked how she felt about his image plastered across the country, she replied: "It's kind of exciting to know that it's him, and I know him and he's mine--at least part of the time.They keep him away from me a lot."

Darrell Winfields' five daughters were scattered from Wyoming to California, next door and a teen still at  home at the time of the interview. Their only son worked as a heavy equipment operator for the City of Riverton. Most of the neighbors were aware of the Winfield-Marlboro connection but he wasn't a celebrity in his own community, nor did he want to be. Although he earned a "comfortable living," the cowboy still drove an old Dodge pickup and lived much the same as his pre-celebrity days. Seeing his face staring back at him from billboards and ads welled him with pride. "That's because I'm working for a first-class outfit," he said. "And they, in turn, portray you as a pretty good-looking and macho guy. I think something would be wrong with you if you didn't feel a little bit proud."

(Excerpted from Westerners: Candid and Historical Interviews, Medallion Books.)