Troy D. Smith
Western Fictioneers is a professional organization for authors who produce fiction about the West (bet you didn’t see that coming.) It is not affiliated with Western Writers of America, Inc., but neither are the two mutually exclusive. Many of us are members of both groups, in fact. Why, then, the need for two different writers’ organizations, both centering on the American West? The answer to that question lies in our focus, I believe. WWA covers a lot of different kinds of writing: popular history (the kind you find in such excellent magazines as True West and Wild West), academic history (the denser, analytical stuff one finds in equally excellent journals such as Western Historical Quarterly), songwriting, poetry, children’s books, screenplays, teleplays- including documentaries, biographies, and, of course, fiction. Even under the umbrella of Western fiction, though, there is a lot of variety. WWA got its start, in 1953, mainly promoting the types of traditional Western stories one could see regularly at the time on the silver screen. Eventually, though, WWA authors were just as likely to be producing other Western or frontier-themed fiction: stories set in 1770s North Carolina, or 1740s New York State; stories about wildcatters in the oil fields of 1920s Oklahoma; cowboys in the 1940s; modern-day Cherokee law officers solving mysteries; truck stop waitresses looking for love in 1970s Montana. All these forms, in my opinion, are equally valid and equally entertaining. In recent years, though, those of us who also write the good old-fashioned traditional Western stories that were once the backbone of our genre have begun to fear that our kind of tale –still loved not only by us but by our readers –was in danger of being squeezed so far to the margin that it might fall right off the edge. So we formed this group, in order to promote not just our work but the traditional Western in general, in a more focused way than broader groups such as WWA are able to do.
I decided to write this essay extolling the traditional Western because I, like many of us represented here, wear many different literary hats. I have written a lot of articles for popular history magazines and books, and earn the lion’s share of my bread and butter as a professional historian, writing for academic audiences. I also write poetry, and other types of fiction (mysteries, for example.)
But there’s something special about Western stories. They are one of our primary forms of national myth, for one thing; like England’s Robin Hood and King Arthur stories, Japanese samurai tales, or Scandinavian countries’ Viking sagas. They also provide an ideal setting for generating drama, the backbone of good storytelling. For a truly stirring paean to the Western, see Jory Sherman’s entry that has appeared on this very blog site- I couldn’t possibly improve on it or add to it.
What I would like to do in this space, however, is talk about how Western fiction differs from Western history. I don’t favor one over the other, but I take a radically different approach with each. When dealing with historical fiction, it is very important to know and understand the history in which you choose to weave your story. Nothing drives me crazy as quickly as careless anachronism- a story about Civil War guerrillas that has them using cartridge-loaded Peacemakers, or about Republican Texas with Rangers using lever action repeating rifles. I am also annoyed by the use of words or phrases not in the vocabulary of the time, or stories that reference historical figures or events in an incorrect timeframe. Several of my WF friends can testify that my compulsive historian’s need to make sense of the Gunsmoke timeline strains not only my own sanity but also that of any poor souls forced to endure my tirades about it. Despite all that, I have made my share of historical errors in my novels, and I’m sure all my WF colleagues have done so as well –and I’m sure they all have stories about readers who immediately jumped on those errors, leaving us sheepish (a feeling no self-respecting cowboy should experience.)
Obviously, the need to get one’s facts straight is even more important when writing actual history. This, however, is where the difference between the two, and my diverging approaches to them, comes in. You see, in historical fiction the facts are important, but they are not the most important. First and foremost, you must have a good story. So, then, whereas an author does not want to make the kind of careless historical errors I described above, he or she may consciously decide to –well, make stuff up. Say you were writing a novel about Johnny Ringo. You might choose to consolidate 4 or 5 of Johnny’s real-life friends into one character, just to make the story easier to follow. You might combine several similar shootouts into one scene. Perhaps there is a legend about him that historians have demonstrated is probably untrue –but it’s a fun legend, and you want to use it anyhow. You are not married to the facts. I’ll give you a couple of cinematic examples. The movies Tombstone and Wyatt Earp came out around the same time, and covered the same subject. Wyatt Earp was more historically accurate, and more detailed. Tombstone, however, was a better movie –because it told a better story.
It is also an author’s prerogative to intentionally change some historical facts in order to make their story more effective. Larry McMurtry tends to do this. If you are familiar with Texas history, and read McMurtry, he will mess with your mind. If you read Dead Man’s Walk and think “a-ha! Bigfoot Wallace! I know about him, and I know what becomes of him,” or do the same when you encounter Judge Roy Bean in Streets of Laredo, you will be lulled into a false sense of security. Then, when those characters meet fates you did not expect, the scenes will be shocking and powerful –and that was the author’s intention.
I have done a lot of research about the Civil War guerrilla Champ Ferguson. This resulted in a novel and a history article in Civil War Times Illustrated. In the article, Troy Smith the historian was obliged to tell exactly what really happened, as best it can be reconstructed (a word at odds with old Champ.) But in the book, Troy Smith the novelist had two goals: 1) tell a good story, and 2) do my best to show what it was like, and how it felt, to be in war-torn Civil War Tennessee. I could do both these things better by tweaking the facts. Very often, fiction allows a writer to tell a story that is ultimately more true than nonfiction could be. The facts are tools to be used by the artist, whose goal is to strike a chord in the reader’s heart that rings true whether they have experienced the particular circumstances being described or not.
I would like to close with a quote from Oakley Hall’s introduction to his classic 1958 Western novel Warlock. Hall’s words resonate with me, even though I would clarify one point: I think that history, too, is a search for truth beyond mere facts, as the professional historian’s job is to explain facts, not just list them. Here, then, is how Hall described his novel, and how I would describe any of mine:
“The fabric of the story … is made up of actual events interwoven with invented ones; by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened. Devotees of Western legend may consequently complain that I have used familiar elements to construct a fanciful design, and that I have rearranged or ignored the accepted facts. So I will reiterate that this work is a novel. The pursuit of truth, not of facts, is the business of fiction.”
Or, to quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the facts become legend, print the legend.
(Unless you’re a historian.)