Saturday, April 30, 2016

No Bluebonnet Sue

Anne Schroeder writes memoirs and women's fiction set in the West. Past president of Women Writing the West, she's won awards for her writing, including the 2012 LAURA Award for short fiction. Anne makes her home in Southern Oregon with her husband and two dogs. Fortunately, she said, they all share a passion for out of the-way places.

      Anne wrote the following about women in literature: 

Sam Peckinpah was fond of saying, “I hate women in westerns. Women stop the action.” Sounds harsh, but in “real westerns,” the whore/stoic wife/spinster stereotypes allow women a minor role while the cowboy rides off into sunset to fight another day. Now the ladies are demanding their due. So why the stereotypes in the first place?

In the sparsely developed West, social roles were narrowly defined. Fear of being ostracized was very powerful. Gossip kept men and women socially separated from each other, single women, especially. Teachers could be fired for perceived lapses of rather rigid rules.  

Old daguerreotypes reveal a lot about attitude. One famous photo shows two miners’ wives standing in the Leadville, Colorado muck, staunchly determined to rise above the mud and the flies, the scarcities and solitude. They’re wearing starched lace dickeys and serviceable hats they’ve brushed and mended, and bedecked with a fresh quail feather from last night’s supper bird.  

Defining women by their dress may be an effective cinematic tool, but writers need to question the obvious. Was abandoning the corset the slovenly act of a down-and-out whore? Whalebone stays, so easily available in the East, became expensive at the trading posts. Did women simply get tired of trying to farm in one?

The first time a prairie wind blew a woman’s dress over her unmentionables, western-bound women began to modify apparel to fit their needs. They taught each other to stitch buckshot into their hemlines and to remove hoop skirts that dragged them under wagon wheels and caught fire in the coals. They shortened their hems so they didn’t drag in the manure or mud. They donned bloomers not out of fashion sense, but because it made it easier to ride a horse astraddle. The western hills were simply too dangerous for a side-saddle. A woman’s hair was her glory. Even when she had to comb it for vermin, rinse it with rain water and coil it in the dust of the trail? Doubtlessly, some women chopped theirs off and wore a hat.

Women were physically small. (A woman boasted in an 1887 letter that she was 87 pounds, and no slouch.)  Some had grit and physical strength, but others didn’t. Some were tall, or fat, or masculine in appearance. Some woman had to “pass” to survive. Those who wore britches and handled shot guns like a man could become a folk hero (Annie Oakley.) Muleskinners and soldiers were found on their deathbeds to be women. Charley Parkhurst, the noted stage driver, was not only a woman, but she secretly bore a baby. Ironically, the rebels made it into folklore, not the Sunbonnet Sues.   

Many women didn’t have a vote in the decision to “go west.” Church-goers biblically followed husbands who had land or gold fever. Did she become bitter when her children died of disease or accident? Did she pine for family and household goods left behind?  Think of how we would feel if our sister-in-law helped herself to whatever wouldn’t fit into a 4x10 foot wagon after our husband had packed everything he needed for farming, along with food enough for the family and the animals. Women went insane on the Oregon Trail. Sometimes they sat down and wept, and wouldn’t get up again.

Back in the day, children were expected to support their parents. Many families sold homely daughters as twelve-year-olds to brothels for a few dollars to spare the cost of feeding them. Beauty wasn’t perceived in the same way we see it. Cowhands fell in love with women who made them feel good. (Remember “Little Heifer” in Lonesome Dove?) Whores were pock-marked from their mercury face powder, small pox and beatings from customers and pimps alike. According to Wild West Tech, prostitutes began their career at age 13, and only about 18-19 when they succumbed to tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, drug overdose or suicide.  Life was grim. On their paydays, a young girl might service from twenty-four to forty men. She worried more about a cowboy’s spur ripping her sheets (which she had to pay for) than she did about her body.)  

Thankfully, today’s western writers can go beyond the Martha Starchbottom stereotype  and create intriguing and unforgettable characters.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Nellie Yost Remembered

Nellie Yost 's goal was to capture history and get it down on paper before it was lost. She strived to write all the accurate history possible of the Great Plains pioneers, the only era in which she felt competent. She especially enjoyed the challenge of setting the record straight, as she felt she had done with her Buffalo Bill book. Much of history is distorted and exaggerated, she said, with each succeeding writer repeating the mistakes of his or her predecessors. Much research and rewriting needs to be accomplished.

An article sale to American West magazine about the origin of the F.B.I. reminded her that "there's an unlimited supply of history yet to be told, and that needs to be told, written, and published, before it's lost forever. I feel an obligation and a duty to keep on researching and writing as long as I can."

Yost admired creative persistence, originality, humor, and a flair for words. "Words are our tools, and new and better ways of using them are always needed." Through the use of words a writer develops his style. In time one can recognize a writer's work before he ever sees the by line." One of her favorite authors was B.M. Bowers, who knew Western ranch life and people and generously sprinkled her stories with humor. "I have tried to incorporate cowboys or western humor with my own work whenever possible. It's needed. Cowboy humor is the funniest there is. People need to laugh more, so let's put more fun and less shooting into western stories."

Nellie Snyder Yost was 1965 Grand Marshal of the Old Glory Blowout in her hometown of North Platte, Nebraska, the only woman to be so honored. She had written the "Fort McPherson Centennial Pageant" that year, and was justly rewarded for her efforts. Quite a few honors came her way over the years, among them the WWA Saddleman Award of 1975, two Spurs and two Stirrups from the organization she served as secretary-treasurer for nine years. She was also appointed a colonel of the Cody Scouts of North Platte, served as president of the board of directors of the Nebraska State Historical Society, and was a governor's appointee to the Fort Robinson Centennial Commission as well as Nebraska's poet laureate among many others. 

Her Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame for her Buffalo Bill book led to a full page spread in the Chicago Tribune, and an appearance on "Good Morning America" with David Hartman in 1980. An honorary colonel in the Nebraska National Guard and a member of the Little Big Horn Association, she traveled extensively to deliver lectures and programs about her work. Among her last honors were inductions into the Ak-Sar-Ben Western Hall of Fame in Omaha, and the Nebraska Foundation Pioneer from her store legislators.

"I believe you have to be thoroughly familiar with the West in order to write about it authentically," she said. "This feeling can be inborn, or acquired by growing up or living in the West, or by a great deal of reading authentic books. I was born and grew up in it, so it's a part of me."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Visit with Carol Crigger

Carol Crigger's ranching background stood her in good stead when she began writing Western novels. As C.K. Crigger, she writes the Gunsmith series as well as award-winning standalones.

 Carol, did growing up on a wheat ranch on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation influence your later writing in any way?

Oh, you bet it did. Writing a book means shutting yourself up in a room by yourself and letting your imagination guide your fingers on the keyboard. And not just for one day or a week, but day after day after day. I grew up without playmates, my older brother and sister too old, and my younger sister too young. I don’t remember ever playing with other kids until I went to school, and even then, I often went the entire three month summer vacation without seeing another kid. So you see, I’m well-suited for a solitary life. But the influence is much more than just that. It’s also dust and horse apples and wind and sun and all the wild elements of nature and country life that I can draw upon for setting.

You have an unusual plot in your novel, Letter of the Law. How did it evolve?

The plot to Letter of the Law came into being when I read a paragraph on the duties  expected of the wife of the local sheriff. In small, old west towns (and eastern ones too, I believe), it often fell to her to see to the prisoner’s meals. In most cases the prisoners ate what her family ate. Often a trustee might chop her firewood in payment. If her husband had to be away overnight, then she might also have to watch the office, do paperwork, and perforce, come in closer contact to the prisoners. It was a short step from reading this single paragraph to concocting a whole “what if” plot.

Which of your Western novels was the most difficult to research and write?

I don’t think any of them were particularly hard to research, but The Winning Hand was most involved. Although I set most of it in the Okanogan country, I’ve never actually been there, so I had to study the maps for old trails and look at tons of period pictures in trying to get the look of the area right. Part of the story takes place in Fort Steele, BC and I have been there, several times. From my first visit I knew I’d set a book there sometime.  

Black Crossing holds the most emotion for me. I found it easy to imagine Ione Gilpatrick’s grief and rage when her young son was hanged.

How did you come to write the Gunsmith series? And how many have you written?

You know that thing people say about “I had a dream”? Well, I had a dream. As it turns out, the dream wasn’t practical for my story purposes, but it did start the wheels turning. I do tons more research for my Gunsmith series than for any of my other books, because I’m not any kind of expert on guns. Far from it! Book#2, Shadow Soldier, takes place in WWI and I not only had to research the guns, but the whole war thing. I’m still fascinated by the Great War. I love the Gunsmith series because I can put my heroine in any place and in any time that strikes my fancy. I’m just finishing up the fifth book and will soon have it ready to hit the submission trail. Hint: It’s a bit Steampunkish.

Do you adhere to a strict schedule and do you outline your novels in advance?

I adhere to a strict schedule in that I try to get something written every day. In a perfect world, I’d do one thousand words daily, but sometimes “it” just isn’t there and I don’t reach that goal. I don’t write to an official outline. I keep a notebook and jot down names and characters, plot ideas, and try to have a handle on the end. Mostly, I’m a seat of the pants type writer. Before I go to bed at night I try to jot down in my notebook at least one sentence to start the next day. I guess I’m hoping it’ll poke my subconscious into thinking up something good while I sleep.

Which writer of the West influenced your own writing and why?

I don’t think any particular writer of the West has influenced my writing. Maybe all of them did. My folks read tons of westerns back in the old days, so of course, I did, too, including those Ranch romance type magazines. I still have an old beat-up issue around the house somewhere. I wish I’d rescued more. Strangely enough, although I read constantly, I’ve never noticed my own writing take on a hint of another author except one. Reading anything by Barbara Hambly will cause me to become more wordy and write more description. Then I usually cut a bunch of it. Isn’t that hilarious?

What are the best and worst aspects of writing?

The best aspect is in the creation and completion of a story conceived in my imagination and brought to the page.  The worst aspect is in the submission process.

How do you feel about the future of Western literature?

Historical literature of any kind is cyclical, or so “they” say. I wish westerns weren’t so pigeon-holed and could become as mainstream as history set in other areas of the country. Of course, to do that, we need to quit writing that old time rootin’ tootin’ stuff.  The westward movement was much more than cowboys and Indians, Wyatt Earp and George Armstrong Custer. They’ve all been done to death.  In my part of the country there weren’t many cowboys. We go more for loggers, farmers, miners, sawmills, even bankers.  One reason I admire Johnny Boggs’ writing so much is that his stories often branch out into other areas, such as Tribal Police or stageline way stations. These are the kinds of stories that can attract new readers.

Advice to fledgling Western and historical writers?

Write what you love—always. Cross genre if you like. Western-historical mystery/suspense; western-historical romance; western-historical science fiction/fantasy. You get the idea.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Visit with Mike Kearby

Mike Kearby, a retired high school reading and English teacher, is the author of 17 novels.and has been honored in Spur Award competitions by Western Writers of America. 

Mike, what prompted you to establish the Collaborative Novel Project for teen writers?    

  Elmer Kelton, James Ward Lee, and Judy Alter spoke on their involvement in a collaborative novella published by TCU Press. The novella was entitled, Noah's Ride. A few days after the event, I spoke with James and Elmer about collaborating with other professional authors in such an undertaking. After those conversations, I thought it would be a great vehicle for kids who dreamed of becoming writers. As the concept evolved, I came up with two take-aways for participants in the project. They were: 
(1) Students will understand that schools can meet and collaborate without being involved competitively.
(2) Small town students will understand that they possess the ability to write as well as their counterparts in larger schools.
 I think the project has proven its value. In 2010, The Western Writers of America took over the collaborative novel and re-branded it as the WWA Youth Writing Project. During its first year under the WWA umbrella, I was project coordinator. Our 2010 novella was entitled, Anthology. This fall, WWA members Linda Jacobs and Sherry Monahan will take the reins and drive the project to new heights.

Are your books written for young adults?
I write both adult and young adult novels.
Tell us about your Will Rogers Medallion winner, A Hundred Miles to Water.
A Hundred Miles to Water is an historical fiction account of the Olive family of Williamson County, Texas. The Olives were ranchers who trailed cattle during the cattle drive hey-days. They were a violent family who delivered their own brand of justice to anyone who crossed them, including two Nebraska farmers, Luther Mitchell and Ami Ketchum. The book was written to show that historical events often come blurred as to right and wrong. One of my favorite lines from the book comes when antagonist, E.B. Gunn and protagonist, Pure Reston meet on opposite sides of the Rio Grande. The encounter comes after Pure has raided a bandit hideout slaughtering all inside. After the gunplay, Pure hollers across the river demanding to know how E.B. knew he would attack the bandits. E.B. responds, "Because Pure Reston, you and me . . . we ain't all that different are we?"  The book, while violent, portrays the fruits of such violence. In the end, all of the characters lose. Some their lives, some their health and wealth, and for Pure, he loses the most - which is his inability to look into the mirror each day and like what he sees.

Why don’t most young people like to read for enjoyment? Are there too many video games competing with books? And have kids discovered e-readers such as Kindle? 
Great question. During the mid-eighties, when parents wanted to relax from a hard day's work, they came home, and stuck a video game or movie in their kid's hands and said, "Go watch a movie or play a game so Daddy and Mommy can have some quiet time."
 It worked really well.

Too well, in fact, for soon after those same movies and video games sat prominently on the kid's bookshelves. And the books dwindled in number until they were gone. As is the case with most ills in society, the adults are usually the ones to initiate the problems. The kids simply observe and follow the examples they are given.

 During my time as a reading teacher, the prevailing thought regarding reading was if a child had books available at home, and if the parents read in front of the child, then one day that child would read also. If every school in the U.S. would allow one hour per day for students to read, and by read, I mean read whatever they want, then in less than a decade, we would see a huge difference in our kids enjoying the learning process and best of all seeking out knowledge. You can still maintain required reading, but every child needs time to read what they enjoy - be that Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, the Sunday paper, or a graphic novel. And here's why, we know that a child who reads and associates reading with pleasure will continue to read throughout their life. The pleasure comes from reading something that interests their minds. Over time, the brain will ask that child to read something more challenging. The graphic novel about The Alamo becomes easy, and the child turns to the biography of David Crockett or Juan Seguin. It's really a simple process that unfortunately, we adults have messed up.
It does take time and varies by child, but then not all children walk at the same age, talk at the same age, etc…
And why is reading so important? Reading is the foundation for all learning, from science to math. A child who reads well is a confident child. Most discipline problems in our schools can be traced back to a child who does not read at their grade level. It is much easier to be a problem than be exposed as "that dumb kid who can't read."
As far as reading on Kindle-type devices, what I see is that kids will probably never join the electronic reader revolution. Today's kids and the generations to follow only want to have one device. And that device will be a phone-like device that allows them to read, watch movies, purchase merchandise, etc… While iPhone type devices do much of that today, I see another device arriving over the next three years that will obsolete today's smart phones. I think the Kindle and Nook are an interim step for the generations of the 50's 60's and 70's. The newer generations will be reading on "one device does all" handhelds.

What prompted you to begin writing in 2005 and how have you been able to turn out nine books since that time?

In 2005, I looked up and asked myself, "Where did all the time go?"  I sat down with my wife and told her I was going to sell my business and do the one thing that I had wanted to do all of my life, and that was - write. I didn't want to go another ten years and regret having not tried. As far as "churning" out the novels, I decided early on in the process that in order to enjoy any success, I had to "go to work every day." I am an early morning person, so at 5:30 a.m. each morning I am at my desk writing. I usually finish by 8 a.m. and then edit the morning's writing in the afternoon. 

Are all your books set in Texas, or do you travel to other areas for research?
Currently, all of my work is set in Texas.

What do you tell young students that can fire them up to read?
I always begin my school talks with the question. "What is the most important muscle or organ in your body to exercise? The one good thing about today's kids is they exercise. The exercise might be skateboarding, playing sports after school, or walking, but most kids do it. So the normal response is to shout out, "Your heart!" Then I ask, but what organ or muscle tells your heart to beat, and your lungs to breathe? Then, they understand. Once I tell them that exercising your brain will not make them sweaty, or tired, or in need of a shower, and that it makes them smarter without studying, I get their full attention.  Since peer pressure can be intimidating within some student groups, I always encourage kids to read at home before they go to sleep at night. Before I leave any speaking engagement, I extract a pledge from the students that they will read thirty minutes every day on whatever interests them.

Who most influenced your own work?
I grew up reading Ray Bradbury. His books fueled my imagination early in my reading life. Western-wise, I read Clair Huffaker, Louis L'Amour, and, of course, Elmer Kelton.

Advice for fledgling writers of the West?
I teach writing classes for several organizations. The first handout every student in one of my classes receives is my "writing ante" page. I'm sure everyone knows that ante is a poker term that describes the initial contribution a player makes before any cards are dealt. I tell my students that a writing ante is their "stake" or what must be paid to be allowed in the writing game. My ante is three-fold.
(1) I will be a voracious reader
(2) I will write every day
(3) I will always present a perfect manuscript to my publisher
I go on to tell the students that they need to decide what their writing ante will be. And then build up that ante so they can sit down at the writing (poker) table.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Visit with Randall Platt

That Platt woman--award-winning author, Randall Platt--has a varied background, from actress and screenwriter to a humorous western series and young adult novels. Some of her books have been filmed or optioned for film and she's also quite a handball player, despite her diminutive size.

Randi, why did you decide to write about cowpoke, Royal Leckner?

As with all my novels, it begins with a voice in my head. (Get the net, she's hearing voices again!) Actually, this sounded just like Jimmy Stewart. Turns out it was Royal R. Leckner, foreman of the Four Arrows Ranch in Eastern Oregon. I heard this ol' cowpoke yapping and yapping about this and that and thought, oh okay, I'll give you an outing if you'll just slap shut. Before I knew it, he was spilling his guts about his long, weary life.

How important is humor when writing the Western genre?

Incredibly important to me in all the genres I write. Some of my more 'dramatic' books have several humorous scenes in them. That's just my style in writing as in life--which is why I seldom get asked to give eulogies. My goal is to have a reader laughing and crying--perferably at the same time.

How did your Fe-as-ko series come about?

When I sold the first in the series, The Four Arrows Fe-as-ko, to Catbird press, it got great reviews and a nice outing and was eventually filmed as "Promise the Moon" by Sullivan Entertainment out of Toronto (it plays all the time on Encore). Well, I mention above about Royal's Fe-as-ko in which he is far off his home range--a cowpoke in Hollywood in 1915. Then, he comes back and wants to know if I ever heard about the time the owner of the Four Arrows Ranch (who is mentally challenged) traded the proceeds of the cattle sale for a team of washed out, Z league baseball layers. Off we went on another wild ride!

Congratulations on your award-winning YA novel, Hellie Jondoe, published by Texas Tech University Press. Tell us about it.

It's a young adult novel set primarily in the historical west. I'm very honored to have received the Willa Literary award and the Will Rogers Medallion Award, as well as two other nationally recognized awards for young fiction. I have several works in progress, as most writers do. I am shipping another YA off to Texas Tech today and have five other YA novels on back burners. (I have a big literary stove.) Additionally, an earlier YA novel, Honor Bright, has been optioned and we are putting the finishing touches on the screenplay.

How important are organizations such as Women Writing the West and Western Writers of America?

Very important. Groups such as these offer an immediate network, no matter where one is on their writer's journey. Writing is a lonely occupation.Networking is essential to me to know that I'm not alone out here. Whenever 'here' is at the time.

What in your opinion is the best way to rejuvenate the Western genre?

I think we all need to get the word 'western' out of our vocabularies. It sets up an immediate correlation with many people (such as agents and editors) of the classic 'shoot-em-up' western . . .which as we know has not reemerged with the gusto that we always hope it will. Instead, I have been calling the western genre 'stories of the west.' And to me, that includes the 20th century which now IS historic. That's a whole century of stories.

What's your writing schedule like?

I begin at four a.m. usually every day, including the weekends. I write until 11, eat, nap, work out, do idiot work--my term for the other professional writing jobs other than creation--return emails, letters, filing, research, networking. I am asleep by nine, so don't call me unless you want me to call you when I get up at four.

Who influenced your own work?

Bill Gulick was and remains a mentor. As a kid, I was influenced by Steinbeck, Michener, and playwrights such as Neil Simon and Arthur Miller. Film directors such as Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder. You can learn a lot about writing novels by reading plays and screenplays and watching good film.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Again, stay away from the word 'western'--or at least, cross-pollinate your novel with other genres such as romance, mystery, humor. My advice is to get out of the Little Big Horn, the OK Corral and where ever the heck Billy the Kid ever went and other such overdone settings. If a writer is lacking good story fodder of historic west, read there months' worth of old newspapers from any town, (including the obits) and they will have ideas for years to come. Or read journals or diaries or WPA Writers' projects or other memory collections which are all online. To me, it's the smaller stories that make compelling fiction and characters--not the big ones.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

JoAnn Levy Revisited

JoAnn Levy has been writing and talking about California's gold rush women for more than 25 years. She's the author of They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, a book that was praised by the San Francisco Chronicle as “one of the best and most comprehensive accounts of gold rush life to date.”

Her second book, Daughter of Joy, A Novel of Gold Rush San Francisco, was inspired by the real-life Chinese courtesan Ah Toy and won the 1999 WILLA award for Best Historical Fiction. Her third book, For California’s Gold - A Novel, won the 2001 WILLA award.  Levy’s fourth book is Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California, a dual biography highly acclaimed as a "groundbreaking work." Her latest work, The Sutter Creek Chronicles: A Love Story, debuted this May.

JoAnn, your fifth book, The Sutter Creek Chronicles: A Love Story, sounds like a departure from your previous historically based work. You live in Sutter Creek, so how did this story evolve?

I enjoyed writing this book more than any other, a pure pleasure from start to finish, and yes, it's quite a departure. It's very personal and, I think, both entertaining and philosophical. The premise is, briefly, that a woman unexpectedly buys an old house in Sutter Creek after a New Orleans psychic predicts it, very specifically, as well as other stunning events that also transpire. And she has no idea why she buys the house. That part is absolutely true, and the other predictions quite astonishing.

The woman, quite unknown to me, knocked on my door and told me all the details. For the why and how and when, etc., well, I hope everyone will want to read this book (available on, if you'll forgive the immodest merchandising!). In it I alternate life in Sutter Creek as it was lived during the gold rush, which is, of course, my area of expertise, with life in Sutter Creek today -- utterly charming, incidentally, with a two-block annual parade that takes two hours because every horse and old truck in the county gets to be in it; a rubber-duck race charity event; a small-town council meeting where everyone gets involved; and a Memorial Day observance that was the most moving experience imaginable.

The gold-rush story within the modern-day story is a novel being written by a widow trying to find meaning and something to do by researching the local archives. A narrator is reading the novel and seeing parallels between the characters, presumably fictitious, with people she knows in the community, from the opera singer at the Memorial Day service to the hotel owner who judges the annual Italian Society parade.  It's both gold rush history and my personal love letter to the charming town where I've been fortunate to live for nearly twenty years.  Incidentally, the predictions were so compelling that I made a trip to New Orleans for a reading with the same psychic, and that's in the book, too. 

How did your interest in the California gold rush come about?

In 1981, while living in Southern California, I read a book review in the Los Angeles Times that piqued my interest.  It was J. S. Holliday's The World Rushed In, a history of the California gold rush. As I had lived briefly in Folsom, California, where the dredgings from gold mining still littered the landscape, I had become particularly interested in that aspect of my home state's history. I bought Dr. Holliday's book and remember vividly the moment I turned to the index to look for the word 'women.'  It wasn't there.  I said aloud to myself, "These are the eighties. Women get included in history now." And I made a pilgrimage to the Los Angeles County Library to look for a book on the subject. 

It didn't exist. But I found four accounts of the gold rush written by women participants.  I was hooked. I spent the next eight years researching women who had been in the California gold rush and eventually wrote the book I wanted to read.  They Saw The Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, published in 1990, is still in print. The title comes from a catch-phrase, "seeing the elephant," that attached to the great emigration west.  In brief, it means to have an extraordinary experience at great cost.  The expression arose when circuses first started featuring elephants, and the story went that a farmer, hearing the circus was coming to town, and included an elephant, hitched up his wagon, loaded with produce to sell, to go see the elephant.

On the way to town, he encountered the circus parade, led by the elephant, and was thrilled because he'd never seen an elephant before. Neither had his horse, which bolted and overturned the wagon, spoiling the produce.  The farmer is supposed to have declared, "I don't give a hang, for I have seen the elephant." Thus, a great experience at great cost.  Gold rushers painted the phrase on wagon covers, printed it on letterheads, and wrote home saying they had "seen the elephant."

How difficult was it to research your Willa award-winning novel, Daughter of Joy? 

Much of my purpose in writing about women in the gold rush was to dispel the myth that they were "only prostitutes."  Best estimates make the case that only about 20 percent of women heading west, immediately following the discovery of gold, were prostitutes. That would have been in 1850.  So even that early, most of the emigrant women were wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters.  That said, I did discover the impressive  Chinese woman known as Ah Toy, who intrigued me because she was not only on the frontier in 1850 but knew nothing of the language or culture and yet made a place for herself in the only way open to her.  She represented, for me, a symbol of courage and determination, characteristics necessary to all the women who made a place for themselves in an extraordinary time.

After spending eight years researching women in the gold rush, I spent another three researching the participation of the Chinese.  More than 20,000 emigrated in 1853, and it was this number that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The reason I wrote this story as a novel was because of the dearth of primary documentation. I relied on newspaper accounts, where Ah Toy's court appearances were detailed, and references to the Chinese in various diaries and reminiscences.  And I wanted to recognize, to acknowledge and celebrate, the accomplishments of another minority participating in an event generally believed to have been the purview of Caucasian men.

You’ve spoken to a great many organizations and groups about women in the gold rush. What’s your usual theme?

I want people to know that women participated in this great American story, that they came west with families, and alone, that they journeyed overland by wagon, and around the horn by ship, and across the Isthmus by mule and canoe.  They endured horrendous experiences, and they conquered their own fears, and they achieved potential they likely didn't suspect they possessed.  Many of them were very financially successful.  I hope to dent the presumption that 19th-century women were hot-house flowers staying home and weeping, while the facts show that a great many were as adventurous as men.
Tell us about your background.

I've been in love with language and books since my grandmother gave me my first "Little Peppers and How They Grew" book as soon as I could read something more sophisticated than Dick and Jane. Harnessing one word to the next, like a train, to convey an idea from amorphous thought to specific meaning, the actual building of a sentence, gives me enormous satisfaction. I won my first writing contest while a junior in high school.  From adulthood, I've always been involved in words one way or another, whether writing freelance travel articles or serving as an editor to a couple of magazines.  My first book was written "for hire," a history of the Coldwell Banker Company, back in 1980. And it was the following year that I read Dr. Holliday's gold rush book and found my calling.  My four books devoted to the women of the gold rush I always thought comprised my "purpose in life."  But this latest book is perhaps where it was all leading...  Play spooky music here.

Have you witnessed a resurgence of interest in the historical West?

I can only speak for interest in California's gold rush, as that has always been my focus.  I find that the subject continues to enthrall, and expect it always will.  It was such a spectacular national enterprise, and the fact that women participated makes it always a fresh topic.

What advice do you give fledgling western historical writers?

Write the book you want to read.  And don't give up.

Who most influenced your own work?

The gold rush diarists who took the time, and made the effort, to share their experience of a historic moment in history.  Those people, of course, lived in a California quite different. They tell me how it was here in 1849, how it looked, who they knew, how they lived, what they did. And because it was such a remarkable time, and because they were generous enough to think others might want to know about it, they wrote.  And because they wrote, and I read, I can live in that time too, in my imagination. Like them, I hope, as a writer, to convey something of a time and place with enduring significance.

Your social networking links?

Alas, I'm a Luddite as yet.  I don't tweet, nor do I have a Facebook account.  That said, I was the first person in Sutter Creek, indeed in my entire county, to get online, back in 1994.  It took me and my Internet Service Provider, aptly named, located in Angels Camp in adjacent Calaveras County, in the very town Mark Twain made famous with his story about the Jumping Frog, about three weeks to accomplish that miracle.  They put a server in a garage in Jackson, and we kept tweaking things until one or the other of us shouted "Eureka!" Or maybe just Yahoo....  

Thanks for taking part in the series.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Visit with Craig Johnson

Bestselling author of the Longmire series, Craig Johnson works and writes on his home ranch near Ucross, Wyoming.

Craig, have you always been a writer?

Nope, my father says I just come from a long line of bullslingers and I’m the first one to be smart enough to write them down… Honestly, I came from a family of readers and I think it’s a short step from there to writing books. I built my ranch myself and finally settled into the life with the thought that I’d always wanted to write a novel. I guess what basically happened was that I ran out of excuses. 

When and where did you make your first sale?

Viking/Penguin picked up the first in my Walt Longmire series six years ago, and it’s been off to the races since then. Kathryn Court, the president of Penguin USA shoved a copy of The Cold Dish (a novel I considered to be a standalone) across the lunch table in New York and said, “We’d like some more of these…” Do you believe I argued with her? Thank goodness she won. My agent asked me who I wanted to be with and I thought of all those Steinbeck books I’d read as a child (and still do) and chose Viking/Penguin. It’s been pretty wonderful working with a literary press that gives me a lot of leeway. My last two contracts stated that the books had to be mysteries and have Walt in them… That’s a lot of freedom.

What made you decide to settle in Wyoming to write your first book?

I grew up in the Midwest, but my grandparents lived in Kansas and New Mexico, so I wasn’t completely unaware of the American West. When I was eighteen I loaded up an old Army pack, a thousand bucks and lit out for the territories. I think Louis L’Amour would’ve approved. Anyway, in my journeys I was working for a rancher up in Montana and delivered some horses down to Wyoming where I inevitably built my ranch near Ucross.

Your Western contemporary mysteries and articles have received quite a few awards. Which means the most to you?

Getting pulled over by a highway patrolman between Basin and Otto in the Red Desert and being told, “I read you books, Mr. Johnson…” He let me off, so I guess he liked them. I get a lot of emails from law enforcement telling me that they think I get it right, and that means a lot to me.

You latest book tour encompassed quite a few towns and events. Do you enjoy meeting readers and talking about your books, or do you prefer to stay at home on the ranch and promote your work via the Internet? And which methods of promoting your books have been the most effective?

Oh, I like living on the ranch and writing or else I wouldn’t have chosen this as a livelihood. I like meeting people and talking about the books though. They say that print ads, commercials, Internet and all that sells books, but I still think the old hand sale buzz of somebody saying, “Hey, have you read..?” Still works the best. Maybe it’s because the nearest town to my ranch has a population of 25, but I genuinely like people and enjoy talking to them about my books. I also think that the booksellers are the best friends an author can have. I do events in every one-horse bookstore on the High Plains because those people are important not only in the sense of sales, but their ability to tell me where I got it wrong and where I got it right. It’s an occupational hazard in living in a state with only a half-million occupants, that folks recognize characters in the books.

What do you enjoy most about writing and what chaps your hide?

 As stated above, I really enjoy the isolation of writing. Heck, in any right-minded country they’d lock me away for sitting in a room by myself and typing about my imaginary friends. Dislikes..? Oh, people who I meet that proudly proclaim, “I don’t read.” That just worries me… Somehow I bet they find time to sit in front of a television for four hours a night. I think reading is a good habit for your mind, it keeps you alert and engaged unlike a lot of other activities.

What’s life like on your ranch near Ucross, Wyoming, and what’s your writing schedule like?

Well, I have a ranch so I get things sorted out at daybreak, make a big pot of coffee, and sit down to write. Sometimes I break for lunch, sometimes I don’t. I came to this wonderful life in my mid-forties, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them find out I shouldn’t be doing it. I attempt to only work six days a week, but I eventually end up in my writing loft with ideas that can’t wait, or trying to fix up mistakes I’ve made.

Tell us about your protagonist, Walt Longmire? And how much of him is autobiographical?

More than I’d be willing to admit. Walt’s probably who I’d like to be in about ten years, but I’m off to an incredibly slow start. In my experiences with law enforcement, I tried to put together my version of an ideal sheriff. Not that Walt’s perfect by any means, but the kind of guy I’d want pulling his cruiser in behind me; kind, patient, tenacious, intelligent and with a sense of humor. He’s no Captain Marvel, but he’s very good at his job. I think the humor is important, anybody that’s ever done the job knows how important a sense of humor is in getting you through the day.

Advice for fledgling western mystery writers?

Keep it real, do your research, and be honest to the place you love. Don’t have your protagonist running around on a cruise ship. One of the things I try to do is pull the seminal information for my novels from local newspapers, which keeps the books grounded in the social and cultural problems my neighbors and I face. I could just come up with wild plots, but I think that’s a disservice to the modern mystery reader, they tend to be looking for something more than just a ‘who dunnit’. There’s so much out there that needs addressing, I don’t think you have to go off looking very far away. That’s the advice I’d give.

Craig's website:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Cowboy Poetry

"The Mean Old Cow of Mine"
by Ada McDonald

Came upon this old cow,
who was bogged down in the mud,
It seemed she'd hit it running
and it stopped her with a thud.
Eyes wild and bulging,
she lay there in the bog.
The way she fought that mud,
she reminded me of a hog.

I waded out to where she lay.
She eyed me with all fear.
I put the loop around her head,
by grabbing a muddy ear.
She blew snot in my face,
and bellered loud and mean.
Old Mighty stood upon the bank,
a-taking in the scene.

Took my dallies on the horn,
and Old Mighty pulled the slack.
The leather creaked and Mighty strained,
to free that bony rack.
The old cow how she struggled,
She gave it all she had.
Her neck stretched, her eyes rolled.
And things looked pretty bad.

Finally with a forceful tug,
the one that did the trick,
and she came out a-sliding,
right into the creek.
I went up to her muddy head,
my rope to retrieve,
and as my hand pulled on the rope,
to take it from her neck,
She gained her feet and ran me down,
And stomped me in the creek.

I called her every dirty name,
that I have ever thought.
Thank God for Old Mighty
for he still had her caught.
She fought the rope and wrung her tail,
And tried to gore my horse.
But Old Mighty he out-danced
that mean old cow, of course.

I finally got on Mighty,
back in my leather throne,
and he hits the rope a-running,
and my horse he gave a groan.
Maybe she'll have a heart attack,
and this I kind of hope,
thinking that's the only way 
I might regain my rope.

Old Mighty he keeps working,
as the sweat shows on his hide.
I finally get my bearings,
and we gave that cow a ride.
Dragging and a-bellering,
now this may calm her pride.
Her eyes are shut, her tongue is out,
And she's heavin' in the sides.
She finally settled down some,
and I decide to try again,
But this old gal is determined
that she is gonna win.

I fly into the saddle,
as her horns just graze my rear.
If I only had my rifle,
I'd shoot her in the ear.
Maybe if I cut the rope,
and let this old beast loose,
with some luck an eastern hunter
Will mistake her for a moose.

Around and round we go,
until we three are spent.
She slowly goes down to her knees,
as if she will repent.
I see my chance to bail off,
and finally get my twine.
and ride away into the blue,
From that mean old cow of mine.

(Excerpted from Wyoming's Cowboy Poets.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Cowboy Poetry

"Blizzard" by Sue Wallis

Yup . . .

It's one of those bono fide
Wet and sloppy freezing plaster
Blowing horizontal

You gotta kinda conjure up survival
One reflector pole
At a time

(And trust your luck)

Thank all the gods
That you don't have to be a-horseback
or open buggy-bound for home

Think how two stiff drinks
and one hot bath
Will help your fearful clinching eyes

Blizzard-beaten mind
And your sore and aching muscles
Soften and relax
Then . . . you can laugh

At Old Man Winters dying blast
Howling futilely outside
With deadly

(And just be glad that you're alive)

Excerpted from Wyoming's Cowboy Poets, Medallion Books)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Classic B-Western Stars Ride Again

Darryle Purcell

Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, Crash Corrigan, William S. Hart, Tom Mix and other film-cowboy heroes from the 20s through the 50s have returned to battle Nazis, saboteurs and old-fashioned bad guys in the Hollywood Cowboy Detectives (HCD) series published by Page Turner’s Buckskin Editions in both Kindle and paperback versions.
Darryle Purcell, a long-time Mohave County, Arizona, resident known for his topical newspaper columns and political cartoons, has reset his editorial sights on historical western fiction.
Purcell said, “I grew up enjoying the B-western movies and serials made during the 1930s through the ’50s,” the former Mohave Valley Daily News managing editor said. “Many of those films were contemporary to the years they were produced.
Western heroes such as Col. Tim McCoy would board a train in the metropolitan east of, say, 1936 and arrive in the old west (quite often Arizona) to battle evil doers. We all remember films where the Three Mesquiteers fought the Nazis in the early 1940s.” 
Purcell is writing and illustrating the 1930s-contemporary western series, which embraces the adventurous world of pulp publishing while also saluting the great western movie serials of that era. The first publication, Mystery at Movie Ranch, is comprised of 12 cliffhanger chapters set in the San Fernando Valley area of southern California during the filming of the 1934 Mascot Pictures serial, Mystery Mountain, starring Ken Maynard.
“I do a lot of research on what was being filmed, where, by which studio within a specific time frame,” he said. “I then carve a window in the time period where certain people could have gathered together to deal with an adventure. There is a ton of research material available online and in print concerning old Hollywood, filmmaking, individual actors, directors and even locations. The most fun I have is during the preparation for these books when I am reading up on the wonderful people who worked so hard on the B-western films and serials. The movie cowboys were all real rodeo champs and the stunts were all performed exactly as they are seen on film.
“Film historians point out that close friends Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard, both rodeo champions and long-time real cowboys, were fun-loving wild men. They raced horses, cars and airplanes and loved to play tricks on each other. I try to capture that old-fashioned, cowboy camaraderie in the HCD adventures.”
Sean “Curly” Woods, former Los Angeles Examiner crime beat reporter and current studio flack, is Purcell’s main fictional character who appears in all HCD publications. In Movie Ranch, Woods’ assignment is to write fluff public relations articles about the serial and its stars and keep Maynard out of trouble while looking into the possible sabotage of the Mascot production.
“From a variety of sources, Maynard was also a temperamental alcoholic,” Purcell said. “Nobody’s perfect. He was still a skilled rodeo, circus and film cowboy idolized by youth from the 1920s through the ’50s.”
While helping Maynard battle his personal demons, Woods discovers real enemies are not only targeting the western production, but the American way of life. Joined by western movie star and World Champion Rodeo Cowboy Hoot Gibson, Maynard and Woods engage in a series of deadly encounters with an army of anti-American terrorists ruled by a sinister mastermind known only as the Viper. The Hollywood Cowboy Detectives deal with organized crime, a sniper attack, aerial combat against an experimental German flying machine, interrogation by a sadistic enemy scientist in an underground stronghold, an ungodly creature who is the product of evil experiments, and a variety of battles with those who would eliminate all who believe in freedom and justice.
The Kindle version of the Mystery at Movie Ranch can be purchased on Amazon for $1.99. But for those who still prefer books printed in ink on paper, a paperback version of Mystery at Movie Ranch can be purchased at for $8.99, which includes the bonus HCD short story, Mystery of the Murdered Badman. In that short story, Woods works to save Maynard from being charged with the murder of a western-movie villain and abduction and possible murder of a former silent-screen vamp. All HCD publications have color covers and black and white internal illustrations in the style of pulps and adventure novels of the 1930s.
The illustrated Mystery of the Arizona Dragon is also currently available as a Kindle download from Amazon. In that adventure, Woods is sent to a dude ranch, not far from where California, Nevada and Arizona meet, to investigate problems while the cast and crew of Charlie Chan Goes West prepare for filming. Hoot Gibson, Warner Oland and Keye Luke join the HCD hero as he attempts to track down the source of a variety of deadly incidents. It is also available as a paperback with the bonus HCD short story, Mystery of the Stuntman’s Ghost, in which Hopalong Cassidy-star William Boyd unites with Curly Woods to take on an evil from beyond the grave.
The HCD adventure, Mystery of the Matinee Murders is also available in paperback and on Kindle. In Matinee Murders, Woods, Gibson and Crash Corrigan are joined by Orson Welles and a radio-theater group on a studio-funded road trip to entertain children in hospitals and at Saturday matinee presentations. A mysterious assassin hounds the entertainers, leaving a trail of victims killed with cobra venom. Following a full-scale military assault, the Hollywood Cowboy Detectives are captured and taken to an underground fortress where an enemy power keeps an army of the dead. Cowboy star Ken Maynard joins the action in a final showdown with a Nazi terrorist who is about to unleash death and worse upon a theater full of young Saturday matinee western fans. In the paperback, Matinee Murders is joined by a bonus pulp-style mystery about a radio detective known as The Man of the Mist.
The HCD adventure, Mystery of the Alien Banshee is currently available in Kindle format. William S. Hart joins Hoot Gibson and Curly Woods in this sci-fi western adventure. When it is published in paperback, it will be accompanied by the bonus short story (currently available on Kindle), Mystery of the Kidnapped Cowboy featuring Bob Livingston and Glenn Strange. All short stories are also available individually on Kindle.
In the soon-to-be-published HCD novel Mystery of the Howling Angels, classic western stars Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson join Republic Pictures flack Sean “Curly” Woods in a race from Hollywood to the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma. With bounties on their heads, the Hollywood Cowboy Detectives are one step in front of murderous agents of the Congressional Shadow Caucus, an organization of federally elected officials who support an alliance with Nazi Germany. With the assistance of G-man Donovan Slate, the trio engage in shootouts on Route 66 in California, battles against an attacking force in Phoenix, Arizona, and on a passenger train in Texas, and aerial combat and ambushes in the wilderness of the legendary Hundred and One Ranch on the panhandle of Oklahoma. 
Warned by tribal spirits and dogged by visions from beyond the grave, the HCD heroes fight traitors who have chosen to carry the banner of evil against their own country. Tom, Hoot and Curly fight for their lives through the first week of 1939. Another Great War is coming, and, although they remain secret to most citizens, the first battles are waged in Washington and America’s great Southwest. Old friends and new unite in the struggle against fascist killers, some of whom consider themselves patriotic Americans.
When Howling Angels comes out as a paperback, it will be accompanied by the bonus short story Mystery of the Black Widow.
“My publisher at Page Turner’s Buckskin Edition Westerns is a real fan of old-time western and science fiction pulp publications as well as the B-movies of the same era,” Purcell said. “Buckskin is a perfect fit for my writing and illustration efforts.”
Purcell, a public information director for Mohave County, Arizona, from May 2005 until January 2013, had been managing editor of the Mohave Valley Daily News in Bullhead City, Ariz., for 12 years. The former editorial cartoonist spent a total of 23 years in daily newspapers as well as a few years illustrating and art directing educational comic books and young reader books, drawing gag cartoons for rock and roll and motorcycle enthusiast publications and working in layout and character design on some Saturday morning animated cartoons. During his newspaper years, Purcell garnered a long list of local and statewide awards for his written editorials and columns as well as his editorial cartoons.
“I reached into my work experiences as well as my time in the military, having served in the First Cavalry in Vietnam and the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions stateside, to create the characters and attitudes that appear in the Hollywood Cowboy Detectives series,” Purcell said. “The HCD series embodies the lessons of the classic B-westerns: Life is hard but good will triumph over evil.”
Some may believe that philosophy is out of date. But, according to Purcell, many of the B-western stars of the 1920s and ’30s not only portrayed the just-hero, they lived by the Code of the West. Most were Great War veterans. Some, like Tim McCoy served in both world wars. James Stewart, Clark Gable and many other western stars of later years left their film careers to serve in World War II.
“When I was a child, I thoroughly idolized the champions of B-western films,” Purcell said. “My schoolyard pals and I all knew that John Wayne, Hoot Gibson and Tim McCoy would never lie, cheat or steal. But then adulthood set in. After serving in a war that the politicians surrendered to the enemy, years in the newspaper world trying to keep political-machine fingers off editorial choices and then the grind of flacking for a government agency, I needed something to calm my cynical outlook on life. Those early B-westerns did the trick.
“I stepped away from the all-news networks and began to re-enjoy the refreshing world of matinee westerns where good always triumphed over evil; doing the right thing was its own reward; good people were kind to each other and their animals; and the individual always fought for his or her own family, property and dignity.
“Having enjoyed many years of writing humorous and political columns, I turned my writing efforts to western fiction as a way to share my love of what has been termed the Code of the West,” he said. “With this series, I hope to revive the lessons of the straight shooters while introducing a new generation to some of the great cowboy heroes of the past. Besides having served in the First World War, most of them had been working cowboys on ranches, rodeos and wild-west shows before joining the motion picture studio system. Often, their movie careers began as stuntmen for other, less-talented, film stars. The HCD series honors the hard work, amazing action talents and ethical lessons of the B-western film stars of the past,” Purcell said.

The illustrated book series can be found at by searching Books for Hollywood Cowboy Detectives.