What was your first Western novel or story and was it published? My first Western novel was Vulture Gold. I wrote it in 1979 and entered it in a Louis L’Amour write-alike contest. Didn’t win. Decided I wasn’t cut out to write fiction and continued as a journalist, magazine feature writer, copywriter, and corporate literature writer. I don’t remember why I dusted the manuscript off and input it (it was written on an IBM Selectric). But I sold it to Black Horse Westerns in 2004. It was published in 2005, and republished in 2011. It is now available in several eBook formats and in print. Originally, the book was about 70,000 words long. Now it is 45,000 or so.
What Western writer or writers of the past were the biggest influence on your work? A bunch. People have things to say about Louis L’Amour, but I read every book he wrote. I donated my collection of LL books to a university of foreign languages in Kanazawa, Japan, some years ago.
Gordon Sherriffs is a favorite. Clair Huffaker is a favorite. Richard Wheeler and Elmer Kelton are favorites. Will Henry, too. I’m also finding Elmore Leonard’s early stories very interesting and informative.
All that said, if I were to pick a writer to emulate, it would probably be Robert B. Parker. And if a genie came out of a lamp I’d rubbed and offered to let me write exactly like any writer I chose to, I’d choose James Michener and John Gardner and ask the genie to mix them into one for me.
What's the first Western you remember reading from cover to cover? Smokey the Cow Horse by Will James
Who is your favorite historical Western figure, and why? Commodore Perry Owens. He lived the life we all write about. Named for Commodore Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. Had to leave home in his early teens. Punched cattle for the Rogers (as in Will Rogers) ranch in Oklahoma, drifted into Arizona at the age of 31. Worked as the horse wrangler for Wells Fargo at the Navajo Springs station (I have a piece of wood from the original station, no longer extant, just a swale that was once a watering hole). Ran for sheriff on a law and order ticket and won over the incumbent Juan Lorenso Hubbel, who, it was said, was in cahoots with the outlaws that used the Outlaw Trail through Apache County in Arizona. He enforced the county law with the barrel of his gun, shooting it out with nine members of the Snyder Gang in Round Valley, riding his horse to death to rescue three Mexicans held prisoner in a bar in Winslow, and killing Andy Cooper in the famous shootout in Holbrook, Arizona, in 1886. He was a dead shot, wore his blond hair down past his shoulders as a challenge to the Navajos who were constantly trying to shoot him, and he wore his sixgun on the lefthand side for a cross draw. He married at 50 and moved to Seligman where he opened a saloon. He worked as guard for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. He died of a stroke at 61 and is buried in Flagstaff AZ.
How much historical research do you do, and how do you go about it? Depends on the novel. For the Snake Den, set in Yuma Territorial Prison, I went there and spent two days going through the prison, buying reference books, talking to the Arizona Historical Society people there, etc. Same kind of thing with Vulture Gold, which begins in Vulture City AZ, now a ghost town.
Revenge at Wolf Mountain is set in my own home country, which I know well. Most of the ranches actually exist, but I used a Mexican grant which does not exist in that area, although there are others in both Arizona and New Mexico. The same it true with Trail of a Hard Man. I create fictional towns at times, but often I use real towns as settings or as part of the narrative.
The Killing Trail takes place in a fictional setting, but is linked to Trail of a Hard Man.
Guns of Ponderosa takes place in the White Mountain town of McNary, which once was home to the largest sawmill and planer operation in the Southwest. I renamed the town, and shifted its founding back into history by about 40 years.
Hell Fire in Paradise is a prequel to Guns of Ponderosa.
A Man Called Breed is set in the desert area of southern Arizona, east of Ehrenburg and La Paz. The hero’s horse ranch is located in the Cherry Creek country just below the Mogollon Rim.
Dollar a Day begins in Sunset, which no longer exists, and ends up in Payson, again, just off the Mogollon Rim in the Tonto Basin.
These are all places I know, but I still use an Arizona flora and fauna book to make sure I get my trees and stuff right. Wouldn’t want the hero bit by a Gila Monster up in the Tonto Basin because they don’t get that high off the desert floor.
I do a lot of looking up on guns. One character in my current WIP carries a Baker 3-barrel 10-guage. The hero in A Man Called Breed carried a Rogers & Spencer pistol, which were considered very accurate. He also carries a one-in-a-thousand Winchester ’73.
I’ve got lots of books on history and fashions and whatnot. I try very hard to put my people in places and circumstances that fit the times I’m writing about.
How important is setting? How important is it to get setting right? What's the best use of setting in a Western as far as you're concerned? I think setting can and probably should be one of the characters. I’ve been reading some early novels and it seems there’s always a rain storm. People seem to forget that places like Show Low, Arizona, get a total of 8 inches of rain a year. Chances of an all day all night rain storm in most of the southwest at least are so close to zero it wouldn’t be worth figuring out the difference. I vote for getting the setting right. Have a look at the towns. There are plenty of photos. See any alleys? Not likely. Know what’s out back? Piles of rubbish. We have the data. No reason to get setting wrong.
James Michener’s Centennial is as good a portrayal of setting as I’ve read, I believe, but there are many good stories. Some of Elmore Leonard’s early (1950s) stories have setting as one of the characters.
How do you choose where to begin your story? Do you use prologues? I have not used a prologue yet. That does not rule out using a prologue at some time.
Most often I see a character and a situation. Most often the first chapter sets up a tough situation. Mostly I know how the story starts and how it’s supposed to end, and I write the story in between. Sometimes the ending changes.
Do you do all your research ahead of time, or as you go along? Both.
Which of your characters do you identify with the most, and why? Was there a role model for this particular character? I have a bunch of characters I like, which is why they show up as walk-ons in stories that have nothing to do with them. Ness Havelock is one. Real Lee is another. I imagine Falan “Wolf” Wilder will see more action. Lightning By God Brewster will be around, as will his sidekick Sparrow. I’m now writing the second Matthew Stryker novel.
Do you outline and plot your story or do you write as the inspiration or MUSE leads? So far, as I mentioned, I tend to have an opening and a closing in mind when I start. That said, I think I would write better stories if I thought them out somewhat more detailed in advance. I’ve not found myself adept at plotting. I think I need to learn that skill, but I’m not losing sleep over it. At this time in my life, I have no aspirations of writing the great American novel. I just hope to do a few more before I, like Robert Parker, die at my desk, trying to finish my last . . . .
Are you a conservative in your writing and stick with traditional ideas for your characters and plots or do you like to go beyond the norm and toss in the unexpected and why? I suppose I am conservative. I am in most things. I imagine my characters are much more black and white than the shades of gray that were actually the case in the times we write about. You’ve got to remember that writing fiction is a relatively new thing for me. James and Bob and others have hundreds of novels under their belts. I’m trying to hit a dozen. I write some fiction every day, but I write a lot more other stuff – everything from CSR reports to magazine articles. I have a lot to learn about writing and writing fiction. I’m constantly amazed at the young whippersnappers who brazenly purport to be able to teach people to write. How’s that for wandering far from the point? Yes, conservative, but not hidebound.
Do you need quiet when you write, listen to music, or have the TV on and family around? I tend to want the same environment every day. Doesn’t have to be quiet. Doesn’t have to be musical. Just the same. A number of my books were written at Starbucks. That’s probably why I can’t lose weight. The chocolate is totally sinful.
Have you experienced the "dreaded" writer's block and how did you deal with it? Writer’s block comes from two things, in my experience: One, a loss of confidence in your own ability to tell a story, and two, dead-ending in a story, that is, writing yourself into a corner. When your confidence goes out the window, as when you get especially nasty edits from someone, or when they tell you the story did nothing for them, you do something else. I suggest to others that they try Julie Cameron’s morning pages – three pages of handwritten whatever comes to mind first thing in the morning. Hand on paper with pen and ink tends to get your writerly blood flowing and tends to stimulate your frozen brain.
Who is your favorite fictional character that you have created? I suppose Ness Havelock is my favorite, as he’s showed up in a number of books, though only one as the main character. He was my first and so far only first-person narrator. I also like Shawn Brodie, the 14-year-old who was sent to Yuma Territorial Prison. I will pick him up in a new book if I live long enough.
Who is your favorite fictional character that someone else created? The one who sticks in my mind is Tyrel Sackett. No way you can figure out why, eh?
Do you address "modern" issues in Westerns? Racism. Feminism. Downs Syndrome. Mental disabilities. Genetic disorders. Sociopathy. Immigrant questions. Brutality. Pedophilia. Any more? Not sure if it’s an “addressing,” but often my characters have a disability. Garet Havelock, the half-Cherokee marshal of Vulture City, had a bad knee. Wynn Cahill, in Guns of Ponderosa, was a sadist sociopath. Loved to see things in pain. Judge Wilson in Trail of a Hard Man was a pedophile who “took in” orphaned boys. His pedophilia was not so much sexual as sadist. Squirly, in the present work in progress, is not very smart, but he takes care of Wildman Kelly, who is not “normal” by ordinary standards, but not violent either. I once did a story from the frist-person POV of Boo Radley. I imagine there was some PTSD following the Late Unpleasantness that is better known as the Civil War, too, but I haven’t seen a novel addressing it yet.
What are you writing right now? A story about a man who keeps the promise he made to the town drunk.
Have you found that being able to self publish through Kindle and Nook, that you find yourself writing more of what you want rather than what the agent, editor, and publisher wants? The biggest advantage, as I’m not a terribly prolific author, is getting books that have gone out of print, such as Vulture Gold, back out there so readers can find them. My second novel, Revenge at Wolf Mountain, will also reappear in the not too distant future in its original unabridged form at about 80,000 words instead of the 45,000 version published by Robert Hale Ltd.
Do you make a living writing? If not, what is your day job? Yes. But not writing fiction. I would starve on the proceeds from my fiction at the moment. That said, I get paid well to write advertising, corporate literature, web content, and non-fiction articles, many of them in narrative form. One article brings me nearly five times as much as one Black Horse Western book, and about the same as the advance for a paperback original, if I’m not mistaken. I also write non-fiction books under my own name. Seeing Japan is a perennial seller to visitors to this country.
What do you plan to write in the future? I have two “works in progress” outside westerns. One is a saga set in an alternative version of 10th century Japan, where all mythical creatures exist. The other is a gumshoe of an investigative journalist hero who searches for a missing woman in a Japan where a large amount of plutonium has been stolen from the Tokaimura nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Naturally, the kidnapper and the kingpin who wants a nuclear Japan are one and the same. Trouble. Trouble.
What made you decide to write Western fiction? I was born 100 years too late. Since I made the decision to make my living with my pen, so to speak, I also set my sights on writing a Western novel. I also joined the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History (now defunct) with a lifetime membership. The Louis L’Amour writealike contest came about three years after I started writing newspaper copy and then advertising copy, but got put on hold while I formed my own company, edited two magazines, wrote for Time and Newsweek and the Herald Trib, then became a stringer for two technology industry mags, but I kept the home fires warm, kept sending the re-edited versions out and kept getting them back. Until John Hale at Robert Hale Ltd. said he’d publish the book if I’d cut it down to less than 45,000 words. I’d already written the follow-up novel with the same protagonist. It, too, went under the knife, and was accepted by Hale. Here I am. I love writing about the West, partly as I knew it growing up in a ranch-like environment in northern Arizona, partly because I feel there was something in those people that we need to remember and emulate.