Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cotton Smith Revisited

Author, historian and artist, Cotton Smith has been praised for his novels' historical accuracy as well as their unexpected plot twists and memorable characters. Readers enjoy his insightful descriptions of life of that era, and for their adventure.

I have to ask: how did you acquire the name Cotton?

Native Americans had it right; they were named after actions in their lives.  Probably that’s why I like nicknames so much.  Cotton is a nickname that goes back to my father and was his nickname first. I am blond, so was my Dad. He was a Southern Missouri boy and said the moniker came from the Texas tune, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” So I’m actually Cotton Jr.  It has been the only thing I’ve been called for a long time; the only time I’m called by my legal name is around hospitals and such – and then I have to stop and think if they’re really calling me.  Thankfully that isn’t often.

You have an impressive background in advertising as well as a marketing consultant. Who were some of your clients and were any of them writers?
I spend my working life in marketing and advertising and was co-owner of one of Kansas City's top creative advertising agencies. Over the years,I created a number of marketing planning aids, including the Positioning Map, the Strategy Compass and a manual on marketing strategy, MarketNavigation: Set Sail With the Wind.  Our agency’s work generated international CLIO creative excellence recognition three times, the "Oscars" of advertising, as well as over a hundred other honors for creative excellence regionally and nationally. 

Some promotional clients included Folger's Coffee, Sprint, Martha Gooch Pasta, Kansas City Royals, Missouri Tourism, Jason Binoculars, Unitog, Gulf Adhesives, United Country, Lee.  The only client/writer I can think of is Joel Goldman, an exceptional attorney who writes wonderful mysteries.

How have you applied your marketing techniques to your book sales? And would you mind sharing some of them with us?

The key is to see yourself as a brand.  And position the brand accordingly.  Find ways to extend and reinforce the image of that brand – speeches, talk show participation and the like.  Remember that media, in general, aren’t overly excited about talking about your latest book – unless you are already famous.  They are more likely to want to interview you if you have a certain background, a special historical niche, a special perspective.  Book signings are certainly okay, but usually will not be as productive as you might wish. Again, unless your book is famous or you are.  Planning is vital here – and so is determination.

Tell us about your next western novel, Shadow Crossing.

My next book comes out in November. Shadow Crossing from Leisure Books is a story about U. S. Deputy Marshal Sell Hoback growing up knowing the Colorado mountain wilderness and loving it.   His brothers and sister -- and his father, a U. S. Deputy Marshal -- saw to it that he learned well.  The family even had a secret bear claw initiation built around a three-day wilderness trek when each child was fourteen.  Each Hoback wore the bear claw on a leather strand around his – or her – neck as a mark of pride. 

When his father is murdered by an unknown assailant, Sell Hoback becomes a deputy marshal in his place.   It was something he had wanted to do since childhood.  During the Civil War, Sell was decorated for bravery; his older brother, Court, won the Medal of Honor, but became a known gunfighter afterward, an outlaw some said. A third brother, Matthew, died in the conflict. His oldest brother, Jamison, became a teacher and his sister, Katherine, became a successful horse rancher.  Lots of fun!

What constitutes a good western? And how important is character development, the use of actual history in fiction writing, and plot development?

A good western is a good story. Stretch your thinking beyond the “traditional” story. Remember, the reader must relate to the main characters, must care about them – or the book falls flat. Therefore, I think character development is right at the top of the list. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t need to incorporate actual history – as such, but you’d better know what was going on – or the reader will be turned off. All of my stories are character driven.  So I start with my main character and a general sense of the story I want to tell.  Then I look for some dramatic point to begin, something to stop the reader and make him want to know more. Sometimes, I find that my first chapter in my first draft becomes my eighth or so.When the writing is finished. The trick is to get right up against a critical point of action or mystery.

Simply describing a character is not making him so. The reader must see him through his actions and his speech.  Consistently. Go back and reread the first Sherlock Holmes novel and see how it’s done. Remember, villains have a good side, too. In fact, try turning your next villain into a hero and see what happens.  Or change him into a her.

 When writing about actual historical characters, is it important to carefully research their traits and quirks? And who was the most interesting historical character you’ve written about and why?

Absolutely.  That research will likely give you the magic you’re seeking.  If there aren’t any traits and quirks worth writing about, you’re either not researching well enough – or don’t have the right person. The favorite historical character that I’ve written about is Crazy Horse. I find him almost magical in his beliefs and his leadership.  Messiah-like.  Study him and one will understand much about the Native American.

My book, Return of the Spirit Rider, is set in 1876, a most distinctive year. The hero, Vin Lockhart, encounters Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok as well as other real folks of the west. The book shows Crazy Horse in several chapters, including the front end of Custer’s Last Stand. Even though I write fiction, I do a great deal of research.  Still, it is important to know what it’s really like on a Texas cattle ranch in winter . . . the specifics of certain weapons . . .  handling new horse . . . and so on.   These details add interest and value and make the story convincing.

What’s the best way for western writers to promote their genre?

Write memorable stories.  Absolutely nothing beats that.  When you are eligible, join Western Writers of America.  It is a terrific organization of writers of the west in all its forms. 

You’re active in a number of civic organizations, including the boy scouts. Have you written about those activities?

Yes, I’m proud to say I’ve written two books about Scouting.  Trail To Eagle tells the story of the Boy Scouts in Kansas City.  Tribesmen Arise is the history of the unique brotherhood of leadership, a special honor society, that has built the Heart of America Council into the council with more Eagle Scouts than any council anywhere. As mentioned above, my newest novel, Shadow Crossing, is a, in effect, a YA offering, with a young boy learning how to live in the wilds – and I like to think of it as my tribute to Scouting. 

 Advice to aspiring western writers?

Remember the West is alive today. Wonderful stories are out there waiting for you to tell them.  Just about everything.  I think the West is essentially the soul of America.  It is what we want, down deep, to be.  Independent.  Brave. If you love to write, don’t let anything stand in your way.

There is a tendency among inexperienced writers to create too much back story at the beginning of their books.  That can be deadly.  You want the reader to experience the story, not read about it.  If you need all this back story, start your novel there.  My fourth novel, Spirit Rider, was actually my first, although it was never published in the way it was originally written.

Don’t let anyone read your material, except someone who can buy it – or someone who has sold their own work.  Well-meaning folks can get you off-track.

Be an observer of people.  Keep notes.  It’s good to keep a small memo pad with you at all times.  Good ideas need to be written down, right then and there.

Write a little every day. No excuses.  Don’t submit something until it is your best, then go after it. 

Thanks, Cotton.

You can visit Cotton Smith at his website:   


  1. Welcome to Writers of the West, Cotton. It's good to have you join us here.

  2. Good interview! I especially like this observation: "I think the West is essentially the soul of America. It is what we want, down deep, to be. Independent. Brave."

    Thanks for nurturing that soul.

  3. Excellent interview, but of course, Jean's always are. And Cotton has plenty of good advice.