Saturday, July 24, 2010

Writing the West When You Don’t Live There

By Larry D. Sweazy

I didn’t grow up in the West. There were no mountains with snow-capped peaks outside my window, or streams brimming with cutthroat trout, or elk grazing on the moraine. I didn’t know what a moraine was when I was a kid.

Instead, there were corn fields. Miles and miles of them. Acre after acre of giant, tall grass, always reaching for the sky during the day, and aching and moaning as it grew at night. Beyond the corn fields was a park. Mounds State Park. I could see Indian burial mounds from my back yard. We hunted for arrowheads in the fields after it rained.

There were shallow rivers and creeks that ran high and fast in the spring, and low and dry in the summer. No cascading waterfalls, no deep glacial lakes. The land was as flat as a pancake. You could see a storm coming from miles away. Still, there were trees; maple, oak, sycamore, elm, towering to great heights in what remained of a once great and endless forest.

White-tail deer were an uncommon sight, and the only animals we saw regularly were squirrels and chipmunks. Eagles were on coins, not in the sky. And the only cowboy I ever saw was Cowboy Bob who came on TV at 3:30 in the afternoon to introduce a half hour of cartoons; original Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Popeye.

The West came into our house, at night, like a welcome guest, offering a pleasant relief from the trials of the day. Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Big Valley, and The Wild, Wild West, were in their first-runs. Marshal Dillon, Ben Cartwright, and James West were indelibly imprinted on my young mind. And then there were the movies, westerns all day on Saturday with Audie Murphy or John Wayne, or at the drive-in on Saturday nights. We made grocery sacks full of popcorn, sat under the stars, stared up at that big screen and learned how to dream.

It didn’t matter that Monument Valley was not outside my window...the entire West was alive and well in that little black and white box that sat in the corner. TV was not an idiot to me, it was a window to the world.

And later, though not that much later, the West came into my house by way of books, another window, and escape. I was lucky to grow up in a house where books were welcomed, traded back and forth among friends and family like little gifts, intended to make life a little better. Stories shared together were treasures, that were far and few between, otherwise.

Paperbacks were often worn, creased and dog-eared, the books fully used up before they were put on the shelf for the final time, generally Scotch-taped together. I was lucky that what I read was not censored. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Mandingo was out of the question, but Raymond Chandler and Jack London weren’t, and I tackled them at a younger age than I probably should have. Elmore Leonard was an early influence, too. Imagine my thrill the day, years later, when I got to pick up the phone and call the man, and spend almost two hours talking about his books and writing. Talk about a full-circle moment.

My first big trip as a kid was when I was 14, and I went to Austin, Texas, to spend time with my sister and brother-in-law who had been transferred there. Texas, I tell you, was the promised land. Big hats, big boots, big everything. I expected to see John Wayne saunter around every corner. It was like home, except the grass felt different on my bare feet, and the air was not as heavy, just hotter. Hotter than I had ever experienced before. And holy crap, you could drink Dr. Pepper and eat Moon Pies, and it meant you were normal. Folks where I lived turned their noses up at Dr. Pepper. Leaving Texas was hard, because I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see on that trip. No Alamo, no Chisum Trail. No Texas Ranger. Next time. It would have to wait.

And it wouldn’t be long. Basic Training for the U.S. Air Force took me to Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Back to Texas three years later after that first trip. This time I was 17, and I wasn’t on a sightseeing tour. Then off to North Dakota, Lewis and Clark country, and then back to Texas for four more years.

And then back home. East of the Mississippi. To plant roots. Settle in. Grow up and start chasing the dream.

I would always feel part Westerner, part Texan, part wanderer. Books, TV, and Movies went with me everywhere I went. A.B. Guthrie, Owen Wister, the classics, as well as the paperbacks that hit the book racks at the 7-Eleven every month. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age, knew I wanted to tell stories about quests and adventures, but that’s another story. It’s not a mistake that I ended up writing westerns, it just took me a little while, and a big nudge from the universe, to figure it out.

I’ve been back to the West many times since, traveling, sightseeing, but never putting my boots under the bed for very long. Someday, I may live there again. Retiring in Texas has a nice ring to it. I have a feel for the land, know the people, and the past a little bit. That helps, I think, to be comfortable.

The West still comes into my house. Movies. Books. Art. And from books that I write myself, now. I may sit at a desk and view the West from a distance, but I’m about as close as one can get without being there.

I miss the West everyday, but I get to ride the Hill Country alongside my protagonist, Josiah Wolfe, a Texas Ranger in 1874, trying to make a life for himself. The red-tail hawks soar overhead while the jack rabbits scamper for cover. Rattlesnakes ready for their prey on the shady side of a rock, and rooter skunks dig for food for their young. I listen for the fight for survival that will surely ensue, and I swear I can hear the whimper of death as the skunk succumbs. Leander McNelly lives in my world, and Juan Cortina and John Wesley Hardin, too, along with a host of made up characters, but all true Texans, I promise you.

I don’t apologize for writing about a place I don’t live in. I’ve been there, spent time there, and I go there everyday in my imagination, and with the extensive research I do for each and every book that I write. The cool thing is, nowadays, I get to bring people along with me.

Larry D. Sweazy ( is the author of the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger series (Berkley). THE RATTLESNAKE SEASON and THE SCORPION TRAIL are available at bookstores everywhere. The third book in the series, THE BADGER’S REVENGE, will be released in April, 2011. He lives in Noblesville, Indiana, with his wife Rose, two dogs, and a cat.


  1. This is a fine essay, Larry, with so much I relate to in it. You and Josiah have taken me on guided tours of Texas twice now, and I look forward to the next one, in April. And many more following that.


  2. I, as your wife, still marvel at you everyday. Your writing, your lifetime dream, amazes me. You have a gift for storytelling, and it should never be left in your mind's eye, it was meant to be shared with the world.

    Onward Rose

  3. Beautifully written. Thanks. The West is a landscape of the imagination, as well as a great big area on the map. As someone who also grew up amid flatland cornfields, I understand how the two deepen and enliven each other. You describe that experience well.

  4. Very nice piece of writing. I live in the west and enjoy every day of it. I write and read about the west but don't believe one needs to live it to write well about it.

  5. Lovely and interesting post. Thank you guys

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