Writing The West: A Reference Guide

Charles M. Russell’s In Without Knocking

I often write stories set in the Old American West which is why the adage ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really fly with me to a point. If everybody simply wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age or the Galaxy Far Far Away. Of course, the real interpretation of that saying is to find what you know and relate that to what you’re writing about. Tolkien was a veteran of the Great War, and the battles and reflections of the soldiers in Middle Earth reflect that to an extent. Robert E. Howard was an iconoclast living in a disapproving little town, and Conan’s ‘barbaric’ reactions to a decadent society are his author’s own. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

But when you’re talking about writing in a real place and time, you’ve got to do your research. I’ve said it a thousand times before. Slapping a cowboy hat on a zombie doesn’t make a weird western, and putting boots on your protagonist doesn’t make him a cowboy.

In the course of my writing, I’ve amassed a reference library of course. Writing to me is a learning experience, both in terms of craft and in terms of the settings I choose. I like to write about the past, and about other cultures, and to challenge myself by writing about things I don’t know too much about. Graham Masterton is an Englishman, but he writes stories set in the US.  If he does his job, you never question his birthplace.

For those interested in writing or just reading about the American West (and I mean the Old West of gunfighters and free roaming Indians), I have a core of books I always find myself going back to.

The New Encyclopedia of The American West, Edited by Howard Lamar – This is the jumping point for any story I write set in the West. In preparing the Merkabah Rider series, I read the Jews In The West entry, and in turn sought out the books cited there. This is an astounding (and thick) reference work with entries on most every state, territory, event and individual you can think of, dating from the early Lewis and Clark days through the waning of Tom Mix’s movies up to the recent present.  It opens with a handy timeline dating from 1785-1998.

 The Look Of The Old West, by Foster-Harris – I recently picked up this gem of a book to familiarize myself with western cavalry uniforms and accoutrements. Besides being written in an extremely present and familiar folksy style, its loaded with invaluable illustrations on every minute aspect of frontier life, from firearms to women’s wear and modes of transportation. It’s quickly become one of my favorite books.

The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal – This book is an alphabetical listing of the more notorious western gunmen with cross references of men they’ve faced as well as lesser known personas like William Blake and Heck Thomas. If they were in the west and they ever fired a gun at another person, they’re likely to be in here. There are some great lists in the beginning too, including a timeline specific to gunfighters and a ranking of the most well known gunmen in terms of kills, lifespans, causes of death, and occupations.

Forts Of The Old West, by Robert W. Frazer – A breakdown of military outposts of the frontier period arranged by state, with brief entries on the histories and uses of each.

 A Treasury Of American Folklore, by B.A. Botkin – This is a great potpourri of American frontier culture, including humorous stories and songs from the period.

Dictionary Of The American West, by Winfred Blevins – Another of my favorite books. An alphabetical listing of some wonderfully colorful terms from the American Western lexicon, including a great list of synonyms for the more popular pastimes (dying, getting drunk, getting buried, etc).

Cowboy Slang, by Edgar ‘Frosty’ Potter – I love hearing those western metaphoric sayings like ‘There ain’t enough room in here to cuss a cat without getting a mouthful of hair.’ I always wished somebody would collect them into a book. While I was at Yuma Territorial Prison over the summer doing research I came across this book in their gift shop, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to what I want. The entries are a little G-rated at times for my liking, but it’s still a pretty good book.

Daughters Of Joy, Sisters Of Misery, by Ann M. Butler – Before you go writing a peachy complexioned Miss Kitty swinging her legs on the piano, her heart of gold fairly brimming from her eyes, you owe it to yourself to read this book, the best I’ve found on the stark realities of frontier prostitutes.

In Their Own Words: Warriors And Pioneers, by TJ Stiles – A great book of first hand accounts from various individuals involved in the period. Includes excerpts from Geronimo, Custer, John Wesley Hardin, and Buffalo Bill Cody among others.

Conversations With Bushwhackers & Muleskinners, by Fred Lockley – Much like the book above, but more unpolished, and thus, a little more valuable. Whereas In Their Own Words includes stuff taken from autobiographies, Conversations is just a collection of anecdotes from plain old folks, most of them relative toOregon. But it’s great just to read the vernacular speech of the time and get a feel for it.

 The Encyclopedia Of North American Indian Tribes, by Bill Yenne – When I write about Native Americans, this is my starting point. A lot of people think of Indians as the Plains variety, all buckskins and feathered bonnets.  If you don’t even know there are some five hundred different tribes of Indians each with their own individual and distinct cultures, this should be yours. The color keyed map at the front showing the general stomping grounds of the various nations both prior to after white encroachment is worth the price alone, but then you get an alphabetical listing of tribes, detailing their languages and some of their customs.

 Saloons Of The Old West, by Richard Erdoes – Another of my favorites, detailing the evolution of the saloon from colonial times onward. There are some great anecdotes about Oscar Wilde’s forays in LeadvilleColoradoas well as information on hurdy-gurdy gals, dance halls, the prices of the spirits and what they were called.

The Encyclopedia Of Civil War Usage, by Webb Garrison – Like the Dictionary of The American West, but focusing on the War Between The States, invaluable if you’re writing about the time directly after, when the gunfighter first started making his mark.

 Age Of The Gunfighter, by Richard Collins – I cherish this book not for the general text on the more famous gunfighters like Billy The Kid and their theaters, but for the awesome annotated photographs of period firearms taken from theAutryMuseumand various private collections.

The People Called Apache/Mystic Warriors Of The Plains, by Thomas E. Mails – If you’re writing about either of these tribes, these books are indispensible. Mails writes indepth about everyday life and customs and includes brilliantly detailed illustrations of even the smallest ornamental items.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown – The greatest, most accessible history of white and Native American conflict ever written.

Black Red And Deadly, by Art T. Burton – A fascinating history of African American and Indian gunfighters on both sides of the law in Oklahoma/Indian Territory.

The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative Of The Negro Cavalry In The West, by William H. Leckie – THE book on the African American cavalrymen.

We live in a visual era, and the way the West comes alive for most people is through film. If you want to get an inspiring look at the West, I’d also recommend these pictures…

The Searchers

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

The Long Riders

Unforgiven

The Wild Bunch

Dances With Wolves

OpenRange

The Missing

Bad Company

The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Wyatt Earp

Tom Horn

The Culpepper Cattle Company

The Shootist

Of course if you want to be inspired creatively, you can always take a look at the spaghettis, but I’d confine myself to Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, and Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. They have a look that although not always entirely accurate, is all their own.

I’d also recommend perusing the works of some western artists to get you int. Charles M. Russel, Frederic Remington are the two tops, but James Bama does some great western character studies, and I personally like Charles Schreyvogel.

Frederic Remington

Happy Trails.

Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Truly an excellent resource. Western fiction would benefit immeasurably if more writers did their homework before starting into a novel. Thanks.

    • Thanks Ron. I know as a reader I appreciate the extra effort of realism, so I try to do the same in my own stuff.


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