BEHIND THE BOOK – TERRENCE McCAULEY

Writing Thrillers and Westerns:  If It’s Good Enough for Elmore Leonard, It’s Good Enough for Me

 

‘Does anyone read Westerns anymore?’

 

‘Why would you waste your time writing one of those?

They’re so boring and predictable, not to mention racist.’

 

Those are only some of the questions I fielded after I told people I had the good fortune of striking a two-book deal with Kensington for a new western series. WHERE THE BULLETS FLY was published in September 2018 and the sequel, DARK TERRITORY, will be coming out in 2019. Both stories feature Sheriff Aaron Mackey and Deputy Billy Sunday as they attempt to keep the peace in the fictional Montana town of Dover Station, Montana. 

Since I’ve had the good fortune to have several books published in the crime/thriller genre since 2012, people were surprised that I wanted to try my hand at westerns. My response was usually the same. “If they were good enough for Elmore Leonard, they’re good enough for me.”

I hadn’t read many westerns until a collection of Elmore Leonard’s western stories came out in 2009. I knew he had started out in the genre, and as a life-long fan of his work, I decided to give his short stories a try. I was hooked right away. After finishing every story in the collection, I read his western novels, starting with The Bounty Hunters and working my way all the way through until I’d read them all. 

I hadn’t been published when I’d begun reading them, but the seed of a dream had been planted. I was going to write a western one day, too, whether or not it got published. 

I’ve gotten a lot of writing experience under my belt since the day I bought Leonard’s western short stories and I needed every bit of it to tackle a western. They’re not as easy to write as one might think. It’s not just a matter of taking a modern crime story, sticking a cowboy hat on the protagonist’s head and a horse under them and add in some lingo. It’s not about changing the .45 for a Colt .44 or rewriting that shoot out with a showdown on Main Street at high noon, either. People have done that, of course, and the results have been rotten books. Here are some of the aspects of writing a western I came to appreciate in the course of writing one:

Distance

In a modern thriller or crime story, we’re generally talking about distances that can be closed within a matter of an hour or so. Six hours by jet if you’re flying across country. If your character is down on their luck, a bus or train takes longer. 

But in the 1800s, everything was far. Trains were fast, but not as fast as you’d think. I also had to consider how long a horse could ride in a day and account for appropriate breaks when necessary. You can gas up a car when the tank is low, but a horse needs rest and feed. They also tire, get sick and die. You can’t fix them like a car or truck. That adds a special precarious element to the story that I enjoyed taking into account. 

Planning

The protagonist can’t just hop on a horse and chase the villain for days on end. The pacing is much slower because one needed to be more deliberate back then. Long treks required provisions for the journey and the money required to procure them. The larger the group, the more provisions one needed. That might mean a cook and a wagon, which can also pose more intrigue along the trail as I’ll discuss later. 

Society

People who lived in the 1800s were a lot different than they’re depicted in 1950s television and in the movies. These were people who had fought long and hard to get to where they lived. They survived disease, hardship, broken wagons, sick animals and attacks from road agents looking to rob them. The cavalry wasn’t always around to protect them and they were often left to defend themselves. Yes, there were attacks from Native American tribes, but not as many as one might think. Disease and injury killed more people than any Indian raid.

It was also an incredibly diverse group of people that included African-Americans, people from Mexico, Europe and China, depending on what part of the Old West one is writing about. 

I’ve only touched on three of the most glaring differences here. I could probably write a novella about all of the lessons I learned as I researched the rich, complicated and often tragic heritage of America’s westward expansion, but I won’t. 

I was equally surprised by the common elements I found in writing a western and writing a crime thriller. Hardship, greed, complicated characters, fascinating story lines and clashing cultures abound in both genres. The white hero against the ‘red savage’ bit doesn’t play well for today’s audiences, but when written as a clash of civilizations? Now you’ve got something. The duel on Main Street at high noon is enough to make us yawn these days, but a sheriff who uncovers a plot by wealthy ranchers to murder him? That’s a mystery, folks. The demure school marm is a trite gimmick these days and the female pistolero tells me the writer is trying too hard. But, a widow seeking revenge on the men who killed her husband? You’ve got something there. And that food wagon and cook I mentioned earlier might sound boring on the surface, but what if the wagon breaks a wheel and the cook is left alone to face the elements? A wagon full of food, but nowhere to go. You’re in OLD MAN AND THE SEA territory there. 

If my experience in writing a western taught me anything, it’s that there’s far more to this rich genre than people think. I’m honored to have been given the chance to write two westerns and I hope they sell enough so I can write more of them. I also hope some of the people reading this article right now will give the genre a chance. I think you may just find something worthwhile, just like the pioneers of old.