Sunday, September 25, 2016


Humor me if you will. Or, rather, be humored yourself by a true master.

During those times when the creative well is running a little low and the plot lines lie flat on the page, I try to prime the pump with some good reading. There are several contemporary authors who inspire me but I also enjoy reaching back into the archives to see how the old guys did it.

One book that I never tire of revisiting is Roughing It by Mark Twain, based on his stagecoach journey to the west and subsequent adventures in silver prospecting, real estate speculation, and (after a side trip to Hawaii) newspaper reporting in San Francisco. During these years of 1861-1867, he honed his rough-hewn, almost madcap, style of writing into the Twain style that forever set him apart: sharply satirical (as in The Gilded Age) but capable of tender character portrayals as well (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). For spot-on, wry descriptions of the mundane, Twain is hard to beat. I’d like to share a few of my favorite excerpts from Roughing It.

First off, the western landscape provided Twain with all sorts of writing fodder and I love this meandering passage that manages to work in references to sagebrush, mules and anthracite coal all in one sitting:

“Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner.”

From the stagecoach, he observed this forlorn creature:

“The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.
He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”

In Carson City, Nevada, the young Twain is caught up in a romantic desire to own a horse and is tricked into buying one at an auction, described to him in a secretive whisper as a “Mexican Plug.”

“I did not know what a Genuine Mexican Plug was, but there was something about this man’s way of saying it, that made me swear inwardly that I would own a Genuine Mexican Plug, or die.”

As you can imagine, the partnership between horse and tenderfoot does not last long:

In the afternoon I brought the creature into the plaza, and certain citizens held him by the head, and others by the tail, while I mounted him. As soon as they let go, he placed all his feet in a bunch together, lowered his back, and then suddenly arched it upward, and shot me straight into the air a matter of three or four feet! I came as straight down again, lit in the saddle, went instantly up again, came down almost on the high pommel, shot up again, and came down on the horse’s neck—all in the space of three or four seconds. Then he rose and stood almost straight up on his hind feet, and I, clasping his lean neck desperately, slid back into the saddle and held on. He came down, and immediately hoisted his heels into the air, delivering a vicious kick at the sky, and stood on his forefeet. And then down he came once more, and began the original exercise of shooting me straight up again. The third time I went up I heard a stranger say:

‘Oh, don’t he buck, though!’

While I was up, somebody struck the horse a sounding thwack with a leather strap, and when I arrived again the Genuine Mexican Plug was not there. A California youth chased him up and caught him, and asked if he might have a ride. I granted him that luxury. He mounted the Genuine, got lifted into the air once, but sent his spurs home as he descended, and the horse darted away like a telegram. He soared over three fences like a bird, and disappeared down the road toward the Washoe Valley.”

You can view the first edition of Roughing It in its entirety online, along with the wonderful original illustrations at:

I'd love to hear about some of your go-to Western books!

All the best,

2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist, Short Fiction
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist, Short Fiction

Keep up with Vonn! 


  1. Like for you, this is my main one. Absolutely love it. I also like "The Blue Hotel" by Stephen Crane and MCTEAGUE by Frank Norris. My copies are very well worn.

    Thanks for another great essay, Vonn!

    1. Thank you, Peter! I'll have to check out those Crane and Norris books.

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  3. I'm a Louis L'Amour fan myself ... love the Sackett stories but I've never read anything of his that I didn't like.

    1. L'Amour was mighty good at crafting an engaging and believable story. He's high on my list too.

  4. You had me at Twain. Having grown up in Sam Clemmons/Mark Twain country, I've always admired his wit and style. While other authors, both new and old are great reads, Twain is in a class by himself. Doris

    1. Yes, he has never come close to being imitated.

      I love sweet little Hannibal! Thanks for your comment.

  5. Nice! Twain's descriptions are marvelous. I just finished re-reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. If I could just combine the two and write like that....

    1. I wish I could mind-meld the way some of those guys write. Thanks for the recommendation, Vicky!

  6. I was never a Mark Twain fan when I was younger. I've written about this before--I think that our school system tries to teach material that is "beyond" the scope of the age group the textbooks are meant for, in many cases. Many kids just don't have the vocabulary or life experiences to understand what the subject is in some of the literary pieces that are being taught--and if they don't have a good teacher (or parent) who is willing to explain things to them--it goes over their heads. I have never understood why this is the case in school/textbooks/reading material--but it seems to be this way for all ages.

    HOWEVER, that being said, I love Mark Twain's writings now--now that I'm older and wiser. LOL But in school? Not so much. Excellent post, Micki, and I really enjoyed these passages you picked out to share. There will never be another Mark Twain.

  7. I didn't always enjoy the school-selected books either but, fortunately, I worked in our school library. That opened up a whole world to me! One of my duties was typing those reference cards for the now-archaic catalog drawers. Whew!

    I'm with you. I enjoy Twain much more now than I did when I was young. Thanks for your comment, my friend.

  8. He was an American original. Thanks for your comment, Charlie!