The Importance of History to the Western Genre

I’m still trying to sort this out. I am wondering if certain genres rely more heavily on history and historical interpretations than others. I mean, I guess that’s true to a degree for any genre, right? I’ve read lots of science fiction stories that either A.) took their ideas from history, or B.) were set in historical eras and told their stories from that viewpoint and in that context.

So history, and our view of history, and more importantly our perception of history, has always played a big role in story telling. Even when our perception is skewed and our facts are wrong they still play an important (and sometimes a debilitating) role in a story.  But I wonder if the western genre doesn’t tend to lean a little more heavily upon history as background and context, and if, ultimately, this might not be a mistake?

Now I understand when you’re writing about events that took place in the past you can’t help but have a historical framework there working for you, even if it’s window dressing. If you’re setting your story in the Old West then you are probably going to have the trappings present for the reader to recognize. This does make some sense. It gives the reader a touchstone, something familiar she can draw from. I think all good writers do this in all genres, to be honest. It isn’t specific to westerns. But one of the problems with a western is we are so inundated by its tropes, and they have become such an indelible part of our culture, that I can’t help but wonder if it has become too easy to use them as background. Until we reach the point and just throw them about like disposable stage furniture?

Like I said, I’m not sure any of this makes sense, and I’m still trying to work it all out.

You mention “Old West” and a hundred people will conjure up a hundred different images, thoughts, and ideas as to what the culture was like and the social mores people had to endure. Some of these individual ideas will be right, but almost all of them will have some mental elements that are similar. Whether it’s a feeling we have about the west, or verifiable historical knowledge, there are some tropes and images that have become so universal when you mention them, or allude to them, everyone knows what you are immediately talking about. They see it, and they feel it.

Case in point: a person on a horse. But the west was peopled by hundreds of thousands, and ultimately tens of millions of people. They didn’t all ride horses. But that image endures throughout our culture today. Just that one image. You can extrapolate what you like from that image, expand it however you wish and ultimately tell the story you want that will move people on an emotional level.

But the fact remains most people didn’t ride horses. They walked. Or they rode a horse-drawn buggy. Or,  they just walked some more. But the scene of a man or woman sitting a horse continues to hold power in our collective consciousness. And I’m not so certain that’s always a good thing because it makes it kind of easy. People, old and new, come to the genre thinking they know it pretty well. And, by certain standards, that might be a valid judgment.

I am reminded of Gene Roddenberry and the trouble he had with NBC in trying to create a believable spaceship for Star Trek. Executives kept telling him “put some rocket fins on it and let’s go, baby.”  But Roddenberry knew if you didn’t believe in the starship, the entire premise of the show would unravel.

So here’s my point. (And I confess I am probably making it rather badly.) When we write westerns, or any story, I think we should always be aware of all the other facets that come into play with a particular image we are using. Rather than go for the cliche, we should try and use the western to elevate what we think we know about ourselves today. And yesterday, too, for that matter. Again, I believe all good stories do that on some fundamental level. All good stories let the writer and the reader grow together in some sense and find common ground.

Look, I’m not arguing every short story should be some literary lodestone that elevates the consciousness of humanity. I’m just saying be aware of the world of the genre you are working in, and let your characters move and interact with that world the way they would have done in real life.They way real human beings move around and interact with the world today.

Anyway, those are the kinds of stories I like to read, and those are the kinds of stories I try to write. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I am not. But it’s always something I try to keep in my head when I write.


Just a reminder: I am on Facebook, too

I am also on Facebook. If you have a page there, or you used to follow me on Live Journal, please don’t forget to link me so we can stay in touch. This is used for writer networking and keeping in touch with friends more than anything. Thanks, guys.

I am Seriously Considering Writing a Haxan Prequel Novel

I have mentioned this before but I am seriously thinking about writing a Haxan prequel novel. I think this more than anything else will be my next big writing project. This would take place before Marwood goes to Haxan, while he was up in Montana Territory as a U.S. marshal.

We know some things about his life up there, and before. Things that were hinted in previous stories and which I talk about in the novel Haxan which CZP wants to publish. Carlene Minker, Magra’s adversary, may be in this novel. She was in Helena at the time and that whole story with her and her husband was alluded to in “Vengeance is Mine” in the Beauty Has Her Way anthology . Judge Creighton was there, too. When Creighton was transferred to New Mexico Territory he brought Marwood with him. (A not unusual occurence in lawing. When judges found marshals they liked they kept them.) We also know Marwood spent time with the Mandans while in the territory and that’s where he became known as “Long Blood”. So there are revelations I can work with, both for his story and for himself.

In a way I guess it’s a story about a man finding himself. Discovering who he really is, along with his past, and coming to terms with that.

I could write this as another Haxan novel. What I mean is, it could be like the other stories we see. I’m not denigrating them at all, but they have a recognizable pattern. And, hey, it works and it sells. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But I want to do something different. I guess what I’m saying is I want to do something more. Raw, brutal, uncompromising. Show the West for what it really was. No more TV ideas or tropes. Trash can all that, upend it all. Dump out the bathwater and scatter the papers of what we think we know about the Old West. It’s been done before. I just want to do it, too.

I think the key to something like this is I cannot hold back on language, structure or style.

I would be lying if I said I was not inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I think Haxan, the entire world and mythos of Haxan, lends itself well to many interpretations. In fact I know that is true because we can read the published stories and see how they are open to different genres and even styles. I have always said I love Haxan because it’s my own little corner of the universe where I can play with matches.

Now I want to play with a forest fire.

This would be doable. I think. Heh. A bit of whistling past the graveyard there, no doubt.  But I am also under no illusion it would be tough. It might even be impossible to write. At least for me. And if I did get it written, it might be unsalable.

Anyway. I’m thinking about doing it. As the days move past and the year draws to a close, I think I am going to pull the trigger on this.

What do you guys think? Advice?

How I Created Theater 13 Radio, and Why

When I was thirteen I used to listen to a black and white transistor radio tucked under my pillow. One night I found a Chicago station and heard The CBS Radio Mystery Theater hosted by E.G. Marshall.

Just like that I was hooked. I fell in love with radio dramas and wanted to hear more.

Popular for its time, CBSRMT was a modern program aired by CBS during the late 70s and early 80s and produced by Himan Brown. It was an attempt to recapture the magic of Old Time Radio. When we moved from Illinois I always made it a point to find a station that aired this program so I could continue listening, and I would often ask my grandparents what they remembered of OTR.

As an adult I discovered real OTR, old time radio, and its fans. I began to collect and research these old programs and listen to them whenever I could. As a professional writer I saw the intrinsic value of these radio shows beyond their nostalgic worth. I knew I could learn a lot from these programs on how to write a tight cohesive story, and I did.

I really hope you like the classic programs I am bringing to you now, and I hope you come to love them and hold them as dear as I do, and will, for my entire life.

Theater 13 -- Old Time Radio Beyond the Extraordinary

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