Monday, April 7, 2014

Born to Write Westerns

I've read and enjoyed Westerns for as far back as I can remember. Zane Grey, Max Brand, the Hopalong Cassidy novels by Clarence E. Mulford, I read 'em all. When I was a kid, I watched more Western TV shows and movies than anything else. John Wayne, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hoppy, Matt Dillon, Paladin...those were my heroes.

But when I decided I was going to be a writer, my first goal was to write mysteries, because I read even more of them than I did Westerns.

So I did. I became a regular contributor of short stories and novellas to MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, and the first novel I sold was a private eye yarn set in Fort Worth, TEXAS WIND. A few years went by, and
I had written and sold more than a million words of mystery fiction.

Then the door sort of slammed in my face. I had written four or five novels—TEXAS WIND, THE EMERALD LAND (a historical novel written in collaboration with my wife Livia Washburn), and several ghost jobs that are still shrouded in secrecy. But my proposals went unsold, my short story markets didn't pay much, and I needed a fresh start. I saw an ad in WRITER'S DIGEST for a company called Book Creations Inc. They were looking for writers. The company was owned by Lyle Kenyon Engel, whose name was familiar to me because he had packaged a number of book series which I'd read. I sent him a letter and enclosed copies of the two novels I could claim.

Lyle must have seen something he liked in those books, because a few weeks later the phone rang and he was on the other end, offering me a job writing for BCI. It didn't take me long to say yes. Lyle said one of the editors would call me when they had something for me to write. Another few weeks went by before I got a call from Paul Block, a writer and editor who worked for BCI. He introduced himself, then asked if I could write Westerns.

What do you think I said? Of course I can write Westerns, I told him. I'd been reading them all my life.

Paul said they needed a book for a series BCI was doing called STAGECOACH STATION. I had seen the books around but hadn't read any of them. I took care of that pretty quickly, racing through half a dozen of them to get the style down, then I wrote an outline for a novel called PECOS. Paul wanted some revisions in the outline, but we got that worked out without any trouble, and I wrote the book (which is actually sort of a mystery novel, too, no surprise given my background) and had a great time doing it.

BCI had a couple of quirks in their house-style: you couldn't use contractions in narrative, only in dialogue, and you couldn't end a chapter in the middle of an action scene. If you started a fight, you had to finish it before the next chapter break. Neither of those rules bothered me, although I haven't followed them in anything else I've written, only in my books for BCI.

Everyone was pleased with the way PECOS turned out. Paul asked me to do an outline for another STAGECOACH STATION book. Sticking with a Texas setting, since that's what I knew best, my next one was called PANHANDLE. I had finished the manuscript but hadn't sent it in yet when Paul called and asked how it was going. One of BCI's other writers had failed to turn in a book on schedule and they needed to rush mine into production, he said. He wanted me to send him however much I had done so they could start working on it.

I said, "Paul, I'll send you the whole thing. I just finished it."

That must have impressed them. They wanted more books, as quickly as I could get them done. So one after the other I wrote TAOS, DEATH VALLEY, and BONANZA CITY. Paul asked me if I would be interested in writing a Texas Ranger series. He had created one and planned to write the first book himself. It was going to be called VICKERY'S LAW. After Paul wrote the first book I would take over the series with #2.

As it turned out, Paul wrote only a couple of chapters before he decided he didn't have time to do the book after all. He sent those chapters to me, told me to use what I wanted and throw out the rest, and oh, by the way, could I come up with a new name for the hero, since they'd decided they didn't like Vickery after all. I kept the basic plot, rewrote those two chapters, and changed the hero's name to Sam Cody, so the series became CODY'S LAW. Vickery became the name of the captain of Cody's Ranger troop.

During the same stretch of time, Paul created and wrote the first book in another series, ABILENE, and that one I actually did take over with #2, writing the rest of the series. In a switch on that process, I wrote the first book in a series about a railroad detective called FARADAY, and then other authors took it over. All this work meant that I was writing books as fast as I could in several different series, all of them Westerns. Without realizing it—I was too busy to even think about it—I had become a Western writer. And I was having a wonderful time doing it, too.

Most of this happened more than thirty years ago. Since then I've gone on to write several hundred Westerns, in more series and under more different pseudonyms than I can keep track of. I've even written quite a few under my own name. Although I've always written other things—thrillers, war novels, men's adventure, hardboiled mysteries—I've done more Westerns than anything else and most people think of me as a Western writer. I'm fine with that. I love the genre, and for me as a reader, a well-done Western novel packs more pure entertainment value than anything else. Looking back on it now, I realize what my answer should have been when Paul Block asked me that question all those years ago.

"Can I write a Western? I was born to write Westerns!"


  1. James,

    Fascinating stuff! You must be very proud of such a legacy. If not, you certainly should be.

    Thank you for sharing this writing journey of yours.


  2. It is amazing - and wonderful - how these things happen.

    No question about it, James. You were born to write Westerns.

  3. I agree, man. You're certainly one of my favorite western writers. I even gave you a nod over in my interview on Prashant's blog.

  4. Truly an inspiring story. A man finding his calling and doing it so well.

  5. James, you were just born to write, period (and so was your lovely wife, Livia). That you kinda-sorta stumbled into writing westerns has been a great gift to readers and the genre itself. :-)

  6. This is great. I always wondered about the particulars of how to came to write those series. Fascinating.

  7. Thank you for the insight into your writing career. Inspirational, sir!


  8. Love the anecdote about answering the BCI ad. I still look askance at all ads of those types --but admit that my first published writing came from answering a similar post in the Comics Buyers Guide. Thanks for sharing this!!

  9. Way to go, James. I still have my copy of the original TEXAS WIND, and all those Mike Shaynes. You and Livia have been true mentors for all of us.

  10. It's a great feeling to get to know your fellow writers. The depth to which you have gone here is an inspiration, although completely daunting. I wish I could write as fast as you, but...

    Phil Dunlap

  11. Thanks for an inspiring article! It's always great learning how fellow authors got their start.

  12. What a fascinating article, James. I admire you! The sheer speed with which you write is something I will never acquire. Very interesting, and very inspirational! Thanks for sharing your writing journey with all of us!

  13. What an inspiring article. I just learned of a whole bunch of books to add to my reading list.

  14. The more I read about James Reasoner the more I realize how much of his work I have read and admired. Thanks for cluing us in, James!
    Jim Meals

  15. Stories, well written can be any genre, but like you say, the Western seems to lend itself to great action and stories. Thank you for a fun and informative post. (And yes, I've read a lot of those books you mentioned. *Grin* ) Doris

  16. The number of books you've written is just staggering. I've always thought I would love to write mysteries, but I was chicken. I thought for sure I'd scramble up the clues and I don't know enough about police procedure to make a mystery believable.
    I was taken back by the specifications of the company you worked for about contraction use and action scenes being completed in the same chapter, Interesting stuff.
    I enjoyed reading your post. All the best to you, James.

  17. James, I hope you post this on your ROUGH EDGES blog and WesternPulpmags group. I'm sure many of your readers would want to read it.

  18. Thanks for sharing how you got started, James.

    Now get back to the keyboard. :)

  19. James is the one who got my writing started. I owe him a lot, and learned from the best.


  20. Thanks for the comments, everybody. I've been writing all day (what else am I gonna do?) and was very pleased to see all of them tonight.

  21. What a great article. I guess you really were born to write westerns and, mostly, born to write.

  22. You record of achievement certainly proves you learn writing by writing. In your case ... writing a lot. Great post and fun anecdotes about your career, James.

  23. I love this post as a testament to the commitment of the fiction professional. Jim, you've been a champion in all genres, and your dedication to the page is the reason why.

  24. Sorry I was late to this. You truly are one of the greats, James. A mentor to many.

  25. I just came across your article. I hope you know how much I enjoyed working with you back during my BCI years. I had forgotten the contraction rule (which came from my boss, not me). My favorite story from back then was when a group of us attending a Western Writers convention in Jackson Hole took an old-time photo of ourselves, then made a back-story about each of us in the photo, which you then turned into a BCI western series -- Judge Earl Stark -- published by Pocket Books. The portion of the photo with you as Judge Stark was even used to create the cover. -- Paul Block

    1. Thanks, Paul. That Jackson Hole convention was a real highlight. I've posted that picture on my blog, as well as some others of the group of us (plus Gary Goldstein) on top of Snow King Mountain. I had a great time writing all those books.