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! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Ask any writer where their titles come from for their work and you’ll get a thousand different answers from “It just came to me!” to “My publisher made me use this one.” As an author, I’ve had both happen to me, with several other scenarios for my titles scattered in between.

In my first book, FIRE EYES, the heroine’s name is Jessica—my own daughter’s name. She needed a name that she was referred to by the Indians, and my daughter had told me years earlier she wanted her Indian name to be FIRE EYES. So that was a given. And it worked out great! That story was the one that the title came easiest for, of all my books.

Fast forward to my first contemporary romance novel, Sweet Danger. The story takes place in a deli that has been taken over by a very dangerous escaped convict, Tabor Hardin, and his men. His hostages just happen to include an undercover police officer, Jesse Nightwalker, who put him away in prison—supposedly for life. One of the other hostages is Jesse’s neighbor, Lindy Oliver, who is the retired police commissioner’s daughter. They’ve just met and are minding their own business over a sugar ring when a hail of gunfire erupts and—well, y’all know how I love my wounded heroes, and Jesse is no exception. I had titled the story THE SUGAR RING. But I was told by my publisher that that title would have to be changed. Period. SWEET DANGER was born, and in retrospect, is a much better title.

Titles should stick with the reader, be memorable, and make readers want to know more about the book.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Who would do that?)
SWEET SAVAGE LOVE (Tell me more!)

SHANE (Who is this person?)
NOBODY’S DARLING (Maybe mine?)
THE GATES OF THE ALAMO (I’ve gotta know!)
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (Maybe I can learn something, here!)

TALES FROM THE OTHERVERSE (Where is this place, and what are these tales about?)
LOST SISTER (Who was she and why was she lost?)

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Who was he? Certainly not who we thought!)

The list goes on—but you get the idea. I know right now you’re thinking of titles you’ve read that have stuck in your mind—and the questions they’ve made you ask about those particular stories or books.

And I bet you’ve seen a phrase and thought, “That would be a great book title!” I know I’ve done that plenty of times. I’ve even written them down. Now, if I could only remember where I wrote them!
Another fun way to come up with titles is through a title generator. There are several of these online. They even have them for different genres: Sci-fi, westerns, fantasy…you name it. But they come up with some real doozies! Take a look at some of the ones a western title generator came up with for me:

These are mainly odd, funny titles, but the beauty of them is that they get your mind working in ways you might never have thought before—and adding and changing some of the words in some of these titles can make for a beautifully creative experience!

What are some of YOUR favorite titles, and why?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Wolf Creek #17: Comanchero Trail

Troy D. Smith

The newest Wolf Creek book is here -and it is intense.

Abby Potter and several of her soiled doves are traveling by wagon to the Breedlove ranch -to help the hands enjoy a barn dance -but they never make it. Kiowa war chief Stone Knife is back in Kansas, and he takes the girls captive, also killing several settlers along the way. Stone Knife takes the women southwest to the Llano Estacado to trade them to Comancheros.

A small rescue party from Wolf Creek goes after them: Ben Tolliver, Charley Blackhorse, Derrick McCain, Rev. Obadiah Stone, Jimmy Spotted Owl... and young cowboy Billy Below, whose true love Brandy is among the captives. Along the way they meet new allies: a Texas Ranger troop that includes Rangers Jake Blackwell and Jim Blawcyzk (from western series by Troy D. Smith and James J. Griffin). They also meet an enigmatic farmer, Tom Sallee, who is looking for the Comancheros for reasons of his own.

As I said at the outset, this volume is intense. In order to be true to the historical period and to demonstrate the stakes faced by women taken captive at that time, there are a couple of scenes that might be disturbing to some readers. The authors taking part, however, believe we have produced a powerful story.

Those writers are Jacquie Rogers, James J. Griffin, Chuck Tyrell, myself (Troy D. Smith), and John Neely Davis, in his first Wolf Creek appearance. If you are unfamiliar with our series, it is a Western Fictioneers production in which at this point almost thirty WF members have created their own unique characters who interact in collaborative novels. They appear under the house name "Ford Fargo." We have as much fun writing them as you do reading them.

Another Wolf Creek volume is coming along soon -in November -a short story anthology titled Hunter's Moon. It will feature events that will change the lives of several Wolf Creek citizens... watch for it.

Buy Comanchero Trail HERE

Wolf Creek: Comanchero Trail by [Fargo, Ford, Griffin, James J., Tyrell, Chuck, Rogers, Jacquie, Davis, John Neely, Smith, Troy D.]

Monday, September 5, 2016

Why did they go West?

Why did they migrate West? The third in my High Mountain Sheriff series, Founding Sheriff, tells the story of the man who apprenticed as a cooper in Bury, Lancashire, England.  He took his wife and five year-old son and moved West.  In the story, good fiction requires that the discovery of the reason be dramatized, not analyzed.  Here, in the first Monday blog, I invite you to work with me on the analysis to help me understand.  Why?

The question is an onion.  Keep peeling it and layers fall away but core questions remain.  “They” is anyone who went West. “When” for our Western Fictioneers concern covers the fifty years from 1840 to 1890, but the fact is emigrating West started in 1620 (or maybe earlier, if you do not date your consciousness of American settling to Plymouth Rock). Ohio, Midwest, illustrates this migration: 1800: 45,000; 1820: 580,000; 1840: 1,400,000.

Some research and a lot more time spent with my chin in my hand (Rodin, forgive me) lead me to four reasons, with a couple of sub- elements thrown in. Please join me in my brief discussion by adding your comments: more reasons, better explanations, lively examples.

First, a short digression into an understanding of the notion of emigrating.  It starts with the verb migrate.  1. to go from one country, region, or place to another. Synonyms: move, resettle, relocate.  Antonyms: remain.  There are other definitions less pertinent to our concern (to pass periodically from one region to another or to shift from one system to another) because our question is Why did they migrate? As in the title of the blog, Why did they go?

It remains to note that emigrate is to leave one country or region to settle in another and immigrate is to come to a country of which one is not a native.  So everyone who went West migrated by emigrating and when they arrived they were immigrants.  Doesn’t it make you wonder how the word “immigrants” was/is turned into a slur in some places and for some classes of people.  But that is not today’s blog.


Plymouth Rock may serve as the first major and visible symbol of wholesale emigration for the primary reason of seeking an amenable locale to practice the religion of choice.  Forgive me for not using the phrase, religious freedom. Neither that religion, nor the one that sought out Salt Lake City, nor the one that is seeking refuge in the U.S. today tolerates anything like religious freedom while they ask for the freedom to believe in the religion that organizes the people who are emigrating.

A few other groups went West to find a better place to practice their religion, some Friends, some Lutherans, and if you count Virginia as once West to someone, the Huguenots.  In our Old West, however, one force consistently strove to convert a desert with one tree and three trappers in 1846 into a state of 260,000 population admitted in 1896.  Beginning with its early flight from persecution to a place beyond the borders of the United States and through its missionary program that first created converts then preached the Gathering of Zion, the LDS Church had on its mind the creation of a Western Empire.

Indeed, the founding sheriff accepted his submersion in the local river and then removed his family to the arduous task of an overland trek.  But could belief alone create such motivation?


The motivation to escape provides no end of action-event sequences for our fiction.  Oppression, poverty, and trouble cover most of the reasons for escape I can think of.  Escape from oppression may often be the other side of the religious freedom coin, but it would appear two million Jews who escaped from oppression in Eastern Europe, mostly Russia, during our Old West years landed on U.S. shores.  One study identifies 154,000 who settled in the West.

Escape from poverty is the mirror of opportunity, so the most interesting escape reasons lie in escape from trouble.  Here all sorts of mayhem may be found.  I wrote a blog earlier this year complaining about random violence in Western Fiction, and I underscore the complaint was about random not violence.  Some young boys get in trouble because they breathe, some young girls, too; and, of course, the true creator of our Wild West was the Civil War.  Its conduct bespoke unfathomable violence, to some, its aftermath justified more.   The treatment of women may be overlooked, but should not be forgotten. Even in inexplicable violence, reason is the cause, not randomness.

Escape as one of the reasons for going West strikes me as a big reason for a small number.  This is, of course, why we write fiction and why escape stories are so engrossing.  Very few people need to escape the trouble they got into, but those who do travel uncertain and tortured paths.


The vast motivating opportunity was the chance to leave their status.  Except for 13,000 Chinese in 1862 and a lot more in 1866, the majority of Americans who went West were of European origin and most of them were working class.  That translated into three rigidly constricting facts of life: they were not rich, they were socially jailed, and they had no land.  Land and wealth represent what could be achieved, but the simple opportunity, the prospect of social mobility, the notion of not living inside rigid boundaries, all of those added up to the feeling and the pursuit of freedom.

Opportunity was certainly the major force behind the grand migration.  An organized religion moved only 260,000; a world-wide oppression may have moved only 150,000, and all the trouble in the nation probably moved fewer than a thousand (my guess, so yours is as good as mine). Yet from 1840 to 1890, while the entire country was growing from 17 million to 63 million, the West (not including Kansas or Nebraska as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854) grew from 450 thousand to 7.8 million.

In short, some seven million people probably emigrated West for the opportunity it afforded.  The concept of opportunity may often be very difficult to bring to life in fiction – how many store keepers have been conceived of as the leader in their community?  Remember the one in High Noon? Fortunately, social mobility is also opportunity and it exudes human feeling.


Land and, its nourisher, water are symbolic and tangible and given to great dramatic tension.  Some of this owes to the reality that it created wealth, and also, that it established empire, even if it was the family empire. The ownership of land held a symbolic importance almost as important as the right to practice a religion.

Almost the entirety of America’s immigrants arrived on these shores because they could not afford or were not allowed to own land.  Looking merely to the population numbers above, it follows logically that more than 10% of those immigrants kept going west in search of the promise of owning their own land.  The fulfillment of this promise, while euphoric, had its inhuman, even evil, underbelly: the treatment of the Native Americans from whom almost all of this land was taken away—even when purchased.


Gold provides the symbol.  Second, perhaps, comes cattle. But the list is very long: railroads, banks, mineral rights, mines, oil, and you can add to the list.  Perhaps nothing more than another example of the 1%, but the prospect drove and motivated many more than the 78,000 who made it. (I exaggerate by using that number. In fact, ample evidence suggests that income distribution in the West provided wealth for more than the 1% and a good life for disproportionately more than the rest of the U.S.)


All of the above are a form of adventure and any character thinking about his motivation to go west cannot help but see and feel the adventure in the immediate reason that drives him.  Still, my bet is there were some, mostly men, but even a woman or two, who went west simply for the hell of it. Because it was there.

A Very Short Summary

Once examined, the reasons for migrating west all merge into that big one, opportunity.  Somehow the symbolism strikes me as apt: The West is as big as it is because it is one big opportunity.

E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.