Saturday, October 3, 2015

John Nesbitt, Cowboy Poet/Novelist

John Nesbitt not only writes western novels , he composes cowboy poetry. His poems often place him outside the traditional cowboy poetry form because some of them don’t rhyme and he doesn’t  have them memorized. He enjoys the work of Mark Todd and Laurie Wagner Buyer as well as gatherings that are “less dogmatic about poetry.” He especially likes to take part in events that feature western songs and songwriters such as Mike Blakely, John Chandler, W. C. Jameson, and Wyoming’s Kevin McNiven.
John’s first cowboy poem, “You are the Pearl of My Mountain Oyster,” had been “kicking around” in his head “and needed to get out.” Published in one of his short stories in West Wind Review, it received the best short story award and was reprinted in his collection, Antelope Sky.

An instructor of English and Spanish at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington, he has participated in the Cheyenne Cowboy Symposium as well group and solo readings. “Because I have a full-time teaching job, I write whenever I can find time in the evening, weekends, and during breaks.

The poet has been published in several genres. His literary articles and book reviews have appeared in Western American Literature, South Dakota Review, Journal of the West, and other journals. His fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines, including Wyoming: The Hub  of the Wheel, The Dakotah, Owen Wister Review, and West Wind Review. They have also appeared in Roundup Magazine, and other publications.

The author has more than a dozen traditional western novels to his credit, including Gather Your Horses. His writings also include his doctoral dissertation, a textbook for basic writers courses, manuals for composition and literature courses as well as a booklet about Robert Roripaugh, a former Wyoming poet laureate. He’s most proud of his long narrative poem, “When My Pony Sheds again,” a fun poem to read aloud.  Although the work is over 200 lines, it appeared in Adventures of The Ramrod Rider, a medley of fiction, poetry satire and parody.

“Readers love the cowboy poetry genre because it is simple and direct. It often speaks to the reader’s experience and reaffirms the reader’s values. People like it because  it is not highly intellectual—and is often anti-intellectual—because it’s often sentimental, and because it often contains clean humor. Another way of saying it is that people like cowboy poetry because it’s safe.”

His poem “Nebraska Girl” follows:

I’ve got a girl back in Nebraska
With sparkling eyes and long, dark hair,                                                A voice that rings with golden laughter,                                               And lips that brush away all care.

When I last saw her in Nebraska,                                                    Beneath the springtime moon so bright,
She whispered words demure and tender,                
‘And held me in her arms so tight.

The golden moon above Nebraska
Lit up the prairie with its glow—
And showed to me a scene of wonder,
A dark-haired goddess here below.

I had to leave her in Nebraska,
But I’ll be back when roundup's done,
And meet her on the golden prairie
Beneath the smiling autumn sun.

And when the winter in Nebraska
Gives way to prairie flowers in bloom,
We’ll walk together slow at sunset,
And watch the rising of the moon.

And when the moon over Nebraska,
Lights up the evening warm and free,                                                  
We’ll pledge our love in moonlit whispers,                                           My sweet Nebraska girl and me.

John is featured in yoming's Cowboy Poets and Their Poetry. (See side panel)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Remembering Frank Waters, Part II

Frank Water's writing day always began at seven each morning and lasted until around noon. "Then I'd go out and chop wood, run errands and in the evening I'd do my research reading." His trilogy research was confined to the mining industry and his books were peopled by his own family, his grandfather in particular. He was a lovable old character, "and not quite the crackpot I made him out to be."

His first six or seven manuscripts were written in ink on legal-size paper, then mailed to his sister to type. The routine had to change when he was asked to write a motion picture script for Hollywood in 1941, which necessitated the purchase of a typewriter. Waters learned to type with two to four fingers.

"I still use the little portable Olivetti," he said, "and when that breaks down, I'm going to have to stop writing. I'm not mechanically-minded and I've never even owned an electric typewriter." A word processor? "I don't want one. They just confuse me."

When asked whether characters or plots are more important, Waters said, "I never make up a blueprint because I found out that when you plot a book, like an architect who takes a plan of a house  he's going to build, and just adheres to it--if you plot a book and then sit down to write, there's nothing more to do. You've already done it. A story has an organic growth of its own, and you just have to let it flow at its own pace. I know about what I want, about where I'm going, but how to get there I don't know. So I just sit down and let it come.

"I never sat down consciously to write a novel. It is so frightening. I'm just too scared to do that. You think of so many things. You've got to have a plot. Then you've got to have characters and you think of all the ones you've got to develop. Who's to be important and how will I do that, and then the  writing and the mood and the place. And all this is in your mind and it's just a frightening thing. So you sit down and say, 'Well, I can't pull all this stuff together, but I'll just write a few pages to see how it might go. And then you write a few more pages.'"

Waters leaned back, his fingers drumming the table as he continued: "But the thing to guard against is when you sit down to do that first page over and over again so it will be perfect. And you think of all these things you want to articulate, so that it will be a good beginning. But you never get to the second page 'cause you want that first page so perfect. So you can't be afraid. You just have to jot down anything as it comes without worrying how it will sound until you get it all down--without worrying about punctuation. And then when you revise it, you use the other part of your brain, the analytical part. Then you can throw out a page or rewrite it."

The author never had a strict working schedule. He wrote until "the well is empty. I don't try to force it. I just leave it until the next day when the well will be filled up again."

His books required an average of two years to write and  he was never completely satisfied with them. He wasn't one to plunge in immediately into another book the moment the previous one was in the mail to his publisher. "I work so hard and long on a book, I'll just not do anything for a while. But I find out in a very short time that I feel lost without working on something, so various ideas start to pop up."

Some writers enjoy writing. Waters found it "a chore, a real job, but you do get a little satisfaction and you feel good that you are in the creative process. It's confining and you're never free of it. It bugs you all the time. But I always try to forget it. That's the best thing to do. But I'll think I should have worked an hour later and carried on with "How will I do it?" I try to forget it, reminding myself that the well is dry."

Waters stopped jotting down notes of inspiration after he'd had a few drinks because "everything looks so rosy and you rush to the desk to write down those beautiful lines and then you get up in the morning cold sober and see that it's rotten and has to be thrown away.

His first Hollywood scripting job was to write the screenplay from his novel River Lady for a producer named Selznick in 1941, which was then scrapped when Pearl Harbor was bombed that year. The motion picture was to star Clark Gable, but was later produced starring Dan Duryea and without Waters. In 1956 he was commissioned by C.V. Pitney pictures to write the development of the American Space Flight Program, which evolved into the history of transportation.

"I went back to the first transport vehicle in American history--those big wagon trains though the Cumberland Mountains, then into covered wagons across the great plains, and the Studebaker wagons and Studebaker cars, and so on."

Waters and  his fourth wife Barbara traveled to Mexico, Central and South America for research. "I like the people," he said, "the Indians and the Spanish. It's an old land with the feeling of richness that we don't have here." The Waters lived in Taos, New Medico, during the warm months and in Tucson during the winter. The author lived in the mountains above Taos for more than forty years and made friends among the Pueblo Indians and descendants of Spanish conquistadors. His friend White Bear was instrumental in having the author adopted in his tribe's Coyote Clan, an unusual occurrence because Native Americans guard their ancient secrets from outsiders.

The ceremonials of the kiva and other traditional customs are neglected because of social and economic pressures as well. "The kids want what white kids have and they leave the reservations to get jobs. They don't want to stay and grow corn in the old ways."

 Mystery reading was his favorite pastime, but he only published one of his own, based on an old murder case involving some of his Taos neighbors. "You've got to have a good tight plot and I just couldn't concoct a detective story to save myself--planting clues and all that. I've got two or three favorite authors and one of my favorite series is about a detective named Napoleon Bonaparte, a half-breed--half white, half aboriginal--in Australia's outback. They're all fabulous stories, written some fifty years ago with some of the old aboriginal religious customs and mental telepathy, the same as the Indians in this country. They're just now beginning to be published in England and the U.S. If you can find them, they're worth reading."

Frank Waters was also fascinated by the Mexican border region during  his eighteen-month stay in Calexico during prohibition. "It was an interesting place in turmoil, the meeting ground of the Mexican and American cultures, and it epitomized the difference between the blending of the two."

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Remembering Frank Waters


Western writer-philosopher Frank Waters is considered one of the world's greatest authors. The lanky, quiet-spoken novelist resembled a rancher more than a literary god, and his fascination with mother earth went far beyond her agricultural roots. His books are journeys into multi-levels of depth and space where few western writers have ventured. Waters generously sprinkled his work with American Indian mystics, Eastern religious beliefs, and various metaphysical subjects.

Despite widespread acceptance from the literary community, Waters remained a little-known commodity on the open market. His work  has been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but few readers of popular fiction know his name.

His first books deal with family and his childhood in Colorado, which he said are "part autobiographical and part fiction." His grandfather migrated as a young man from the South to Colorado, where he  became a building contractor, but succumbed to mining fever during the early 1890s when gold was discovered at Cripple Creek. His wealth poured down one mining shaft after another until it was gone, and he died destitute during the 1920s. Waters' father, a Cheyenne quarter-breed, was also a victim of the Sylvanite Mine. He died of pneumonia from Pike's Peak's harsh climate when  his son was only twelve.

"We didn't investigate his past too thoroughly," Waters said, "because Indian weren't very  respectable in those days."

Young Frank then had to work as a Fred Harvey newsboy and redcap at the train station to help support his mother, sister, and grandparents, while attending school. Fortunately, one of his teachers took an interest in the boy and encouraged him to write.

"Miss Wattles was good to me," he said, "and I admired her. She used to read us  mystical stories--fairy tales at the end of the day, if we were good, and we all looked forward to it. Then they started a little school paper for the seventh and eight grades, and the first thing I ever wrote and published was in the Columbia (School) Sayings and Doings."

Waters managed three years of engineering school at his hometown college before striking out on his own. He worked briefly in the Salt Creek oil fields of Wyoming and as a lineman for the telephone company on the California-Mexican border. Finding himself alone at night and on weekends, he began writing, although he had never taken an English or literature course. His first attempt was a romance of the border-desert region entitled Fever Pitch, written when he was 23 and published in 1930.

"The book was not very good, but the Liveright Company thought it  merited publication. They had a policy of publishing two or three new writers each year, hoping they would eventually recoup their investments. Publishers now rarely invest in untried authors, Waters and his peers lamented. "Books have to be just right."

Liveright took an option on Waters' next three books, which led to his Colorado mining trilogy. Two years after he sold Fever Pitch, he quit an engineering job and moved to Cripple Creek, where he rented an old minter's cabin and settled in to do research He remembers some strange characters lurking about the camp and later "some pretty good reviews" of his books, although they didn't sell well. He decided then to "really work" on his writing and read voraciously, studying the techniques of Conrad, Steinbeck, and other important authors.

Waters later taught writing courses at Colorado state University and said, "the only way to learn to write is to read. I don't think you can teach anyone to write. I think writers can learn from experience, and in talking with other writers to see what had helped them and what they found advisable to adopt or avoid. It's just a process of growth."

During the more than fifty years of Waters' writing career, he had to supplement his freelance income by working as an editor for a weekly newspaper in Taos, New Mexico; an apple picker in Washington state, a consultant for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, a screenwriter in Hollywood, and report writer for the Atomic Energy Commission from the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas. During the Second world War, Waters went through boot camp when he was nearly forty, but was soon released from the army to work in Washington D.C. as an analyzer of enemy propaganda in South America.

(Continued next week . . .)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Visit with Michelle Black

Michelle Black was a lawyer when she moved to Colorado's high country in 1993. Deciding to change careers, she bought a bookstore in the small town of Frisco, and wrote her first novel, Never Come Down. The story was set in an old mining ghost town and there were many where she lived. She's since written five additional western historical novels. 

Michelle, why your interest in the Victorian West?

I define the Victorian West as the Old West from a woman’s perspective. I think I came to this genre out of a childhood frustration that the movies and TV shows I grew up with so rarely featured women as main characters and virtually never told stories from their point of view. When I first heard about the creation of a new group called Women Writing the West at a Colorado Gold Conference in 1994, I realized for the first time that I was not alone!

What is the Steampunk phenomenon?

The Steampunk phenomenon is my newest obsession! It’s so fun. Silly, fun and gorgeous to the eye. I learned of this subculture through my husband who is a voracious reader of  “cyberpunk” novels—authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson. When these and other sci-fi authors started writing novels set in the Victorian age (rather than some dark, dystopian future) they coined the term Steampunk.  My husband thought my next novel, S√ČANCE IN SEPIA, had Steampunk elements. It is more of a Gaslamp Mystery, but I like to think of it as “Steampunk adjacent.”

Steampunk, though, is a much broader phenomenon than just a literary subgenre and that is why I am so involved in it. It is an aesthetic which spreads into art, drama, home decor, fashion, and music. I recently wrote a feature article for True West Magazine on the topic of how the Steampunk movement is giving fans of the West—whether they enjoy its literature, art, or music—a whole new way to celebrate their interest.

Last November, I spoke at Steamcon, one of the largest Steampunk conventions in the country and the experience was amazing. Nearly 2,000 Steampunk lovers converged on Seattle for a three-day party. Next year’s Steamcon will be the same weekend as the Women Writing the West Conference and I hope some folks will check out both.

I read your novels, Uncommon Enemy and its sequel Solomon Spring, and I'm impressed with your extensive research of the Washita Massacre. How much of the story is factual and how much is dramatized?

I extensively researched the Washita incident and tried to create an accurate picture of what happened there and its interesting political aftermath. My main character, Eden Murdoch, was a fictional creation, but she was inspired by a remark Custer made in his field notes about the Washita. He claimed they found the body of a white woman at the camp after the battle. Though this mystery woman was never identified nor ever mentioned by Custer again, she was used as “evidence” that Black Kettle’s band was “hostile” rather than peaceful, therefore justifying Custer’s attack on the sleeping village. His superiors defended the actions of the Seventh Cavalry based on this slender evidence when called before Congress during its investigation of the matter.

My fictional starting point became: what if the woman had been found alive and what if she told an entirely different story than the Army spin doctors wanted to be told?

How long does it usually take for you to research and write an historical novel?

I enjoy research and tend to research my novels far beyond what actually ends up in the story. I have been known to read an entire book and use the information gained to inform a single paragraph in the finished manuscript. Is this necessary? Probably not, but I love the research journey and can’t get enough.
I am very careful about what I say when using a real person in a fictional story. In an Uncommon Enemy, for example, all the “real” characters—Custer, Sheridan, Wynkoop—speak and act based on words they actually said or opinions they actually expressed. I am proud to say that no one has ever criticized my fictional portrayals of real persons.

Now that Forge/Macmillan has cut back on its western historical line, what will become of Victorian West novels?

That’s a good question. I think if there is an audience, someone will step in to fill the void. With the rise in digital publishing, niche publishing becomes a viable economic model and small, independent presses are popping up everywhere so I am encouraged.

Who most influenced your own work and why?

When I was twelve, I read two novels that set the tone for all the books I would read and love the rest of my life: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte and Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I loved Bronte’s fierce and poetic prose and I loved Mitchell’s seamless integration of large historical events into a fictional narrative that was both entertaining and educational.
My friend, Larry Yoder, recently described historical fiction as “setting history to music so the truth can be heard.”  I love that description.

What's your writing schedule like?

I don’t really have one. I have always lacked discipline, I guess.

Advice to fledgling historical writers.

My best advice would be, you can never do too much research. Hopefully, a historical novelist loves research anyway or they would not have chosen this genre. I think the ultimate goal of all historical novelists is seamlessness—that the real and fictional characters blend and interact so well, a reader can’t tell them apart.

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.