"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why Wasn't I Hooked?

Too many times, it seems, I find myself not being able to read a lot of the books I’ve piled on my reading stack. It’s become a bit disturbing. Is it me, or the books? It used to be that when I started a book, I felt obligated to finish it, no matter what. Maybe it’s just a function of getting older and seeing time shrinking, but I've come to the conclusion that there’s not enough time to read books that don’t interest me. I won’t say they are “bad” books, or poorly written, but there is definitely something in the way they're written that doesn't engage me. I can’t blame it on the subject matter, because I won’t start reading a book in the first place if the subject matter doesn’t interest me.

Naturally, I have to ask myself, “Why wasn’t I hooked?” Well, for starters, sometimes it’s simply the tone of a book, or the author’s voice and style of writing that I can’t relate to. For example, there's a “snarkiness” nowadays in our society that appears in many of the contemporary books. It doesn't mean it's bad; it's just something I personally don't care for, so I'll skip books with that particular tone. There also seems to be a trend for heroes and heroines to be “anti-heroes” and “anti-heroines” to the extreme; i.e., there is nothing commendable about them at all. They have no redeeming qualities. They are not people you would like in real life or want to have anything to do with. I’m okay with my protagonists having flaws and being far from perfect, but if they’ve got something really amiss, I'd at least like to see them trying to overcome it. In other words, a guy who’s a serial killer is not going to be my hero, no matter how you paint him.

Another reason I get unhooked from a book is because I’ve never been able to trudge through a lot of narrative, description, and introspection in the first chapter (or any chapter, for that matter). I have always preferred stories that dive right in.  Bore me with pages of “setting up the story” by “telling” me about a person, and you’ll lose me. I want to know just enough about that character that I get a sense of who they are, and the rest I’ll learn along the way. Don’t bog down the first chapter with this stuff! Don't slow the book's momentum with a sagging middle either. Give me information only in small, sweet, dark chocolate servings–please!–and in just the right place and at just the right time. However, I would like to say that I’ve read authors who can use, in abundance, everything I just said not to use and they do it brilliantly. Every word is a gem that can’t be skipped. So, as always, there are exceptions, but it takes the exceptional writer to pull it off.

I want a story to move forward. I want to feel immediate compassion or some other sort of connection to the main character. I want to get the sense that whatever started the turning point in the main character’s life (which is where the story should begin) is significant and that things are going to get worse before they get better. I want to feel that something is truly at stake for the protagonist, and I want to see how he or she is going to handle this life-changing situation through inevitable twists, turns, and bumps in the road. Even if the life-changing situation appears insignificant on the surface–i.e., something barely visible just beneath the surface of a pool of murky water–I want the sense of suspense and tension that will keep me engaged long enough to see what that “something” is.

I confess that I usually find myself analyzing every book I read from a writer’s eye, but I will also try to give another writer the benefit of the doubt. I will usually always trudge through three chapters before giving up. If I can get engaged in a story and forget to analyze it, then, to me, it’s a really good book. I get excited when I find myself slipping into a story so much that the writing becomes invisible. I find myself even more excited to actually complete an entire book and admit, “That was a darn good book!” Of course, the writer in me always asks why was it a good book. And the answer is always the same: the writer just knew what to say, how to say it, and precisely the right time to say it.

So, my last few questions are to those of you reading this post: “As a reader, what makes you start skipping through a book you thought you were going to like? What makes you give up on a book entirely? Are there parts of a book you always skip, like prologues or excessive narrative, etc? And, lastly, what makes you fall in love with a book so much that you wouldn’t think of skipping any part of it?”

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Some Fun With Western Slang

Western slang is a big part of the authenticity of any western, regardless of the sub-genre. Context will usually clue you in to what a phrase actually means, but you might just as easily find yourself completely perplexed. So, just for the fun of it, here are a dozen Old West slang phrases that you might find both confusing and amusing. See if you can figure out what they mean. The answers are at the end.


1. We ought to hire him to keep the windmill going.
2. He doesn’t use up all his kindlin’ to make a fire.
3. He was grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a yellow jacket.
4. His hinges got loosened.
5. He had more wind than a bull in green corn time.
6. You can’t hitch a horse to a coyote.
7. He’s ridin’ herd on that woman.
8. He’s padding out his belly every chance he gets.
9. He spent all morning airin’ his paunch.
10. That kid could knock a dead dog off a gut wagon.
11. That guy couldn’t drive nails in a snowbank.
12. That feller looks like someone swiped the silver linin’ off his cloud.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1. He talks so much he creates his own wind.
2. He doesn’t waste words on small talk.
3. He was happy (or embarrassed).
4. He got thrown from a horse.
5. He was “full of hot air.”
6. Two opposites don’t make a good marriage.
7. He’s courting that woman.
8. He’s eating every chance he gets.
9. He spent all morning vomiting.
10. That kid stinks to high heaven.
11. That guy is a complete idiot.
12. That feller looks right sad.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Stable’s Place in History

Before the automobile displaced horses for anything but pleasure, people depended on these noble creatures for both work and transportation. Their lives, and their livelihoods literally depended on the horse, so a wise man, or woman, took extremely good care of these precious animals. Horses that were used daily were kept in barns, or stables so they could be well fed and groomed daily. These structures could be simple or very elaborate, depending on the wealth of the owner. The main criteria was that they were functional, well ventilated, and afforded protection from the elements.

Buildings materials could be everything from rough lumber to buildings made of brick and mortar and decorated with paneled ceilings and fancy lamps. Most owners agreed that the best floors were clay or lumber. Concrete or asphalt was not chosen because it was too hard on the horses’ legs and feet. Straw or sawdust was used on the floors to absorb the urine and manure, then easily shoveled or forked out daily into wheelbarrows to be hauled away.

A lot of work went into taking care of the horses, so oftentimes men were hired specifically for the job. Sometimes a crew was needed to do the feeding and watering, grooming, as well as to keep the stables cleaned out daily. Harnesses had to be cleaned, oiled, repaired, and organized. Sometimes each horse’s harness was placed on hooks next to the horse’s stall; other owners preferred to keep the tack in a separate room. Saddles almost always went into a separate room and were placed on saddle racks. Equipment such as shovels, pails, brooms, pitchforks, clippers, hoof picks, soap, brushes and currycombs had to be kept clean and organized.

Stalls were built according to the size of the horse. They were designed to fit either big draft horses or the lighter weight saddle horses. Each stall had a manger at its head for oats and hay. Individual stalls could have gates, if they were larger and the owner chose to turn their horse loose inside, but if there were many horses, the stalls were narrow, not gated, and the horses’ were tied inside the stall near the manger.

Well-bred, well-kept horses and stables were not only a source of pride, and a symbol of affluence, but they were also a reflection of the man himself. For if a man mistreated his horses, he not only lost a good animal to serve him, but he lost respect among his peers as well. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Inspiration Behind The Turquoise Sun

While excavating the primeval cliff dwellings of the long-vanished Anasazi tribe, 19th-century archaeologist Tanya Darrow and rival archaeologist, Keane Trevalyan, find a hidden passageway that sweeps them back in time to the 13th century. Trapped in the untamed splendor of the primitive past, and worshipped as gods by the ancient cliff dwellers, Tanya and Keane are drawn into a lively battle of wit and will, of love and war, and the realization that their destinies have always been linked by one thing ... the Turquoise Sun.

Behind the Story:

Shortly after the Spaniards arrived in the American Southwest, explorers reported the discovery of ancient ruins belonging to a lost civilization in southwestern Colorado.

The first report to gain public notice came after an important discovery by two cowboys in December, 1888. While out searching for stray cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason stumbled upon the largest ruin which they named Cliff Palace.

The Smithsonian Institution and other museums had been sponsoring expeditions into the Southwest since the 1880s. With the discovery of Cliff Palace, the interest shifted to Mesa Verde. Both official and unofficial excavating was conducted in the area until Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906.

Many people have theorized on the disappearance of the Anasazi. When I read the history of the Hopi Indians, however, I felt that the question had been satisfactorily addressed by their historians. I chose to use their creation myths, legends, and some of their religious beliefs to provide the basis for this story about the Anasazi.

Studies also reveal that the Anasazi gradually abandoned the cliff dwellings during the same time-frame that the Aztecs, or Aztlans, rose to power in Mexico. Some scholars believe that the Aztecs (whom history records as having come from caves in the north) might have been descendants of those Anasazi who left the hard life in the San Juan River region for the easier life in the tropics.

When I think back to what sparked my initial interest in the Anasazi Indians, I would have to say it started with a hurried trip to Mesa Verde around 1979. It was the first time I’d seen the ruins, and I had never heard of them before this visit. Some ten years later, I read Louis L’Amour’s book, The Haunted Mesa, and it renewed my interest in the mysterious cliff dwellers. Like all writers, it only takes one seed to grow a forest. The next thing I knew, I was up to my ears in some very compelling research, which required that I return to the cliff dwellings around 1992 for more in-depth study. On that trip, with our three children, we visited Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, and Betatakin and White House Ruins in Arizona. These places inspired both The Turquoise Sun and Firelight.
   

One of the strongest memories I have was of an old Indian man we passed on the steep, twisting path leading down to the Betatakin ruins. When we looked back, just a moment later, the old Indian was gone–nowhere to be seen on the path above us, leading out of the canyon. It was only a brief passing, eye contact, and exchanged smiles but it had a lasting impression. We joked at the time that maybe he was a ghost of the Old Ones said to linger in the dusty ruins. From him was born the loveable and slightly eccentric shaman in my book, Ten-Moon, who believes it was his power that brought the hero and heroine across time.

When you stand in the ruins with the massive rock all around you, it is indeed easy to imagine that the stone dwellings have retained the imprint of those who lived there. When you go into the kivas and the small rooms where they lived, you can almost feel their presence. If you listen closely, you'll hear the wind whispering through ruins like the voices of those who went before. And one of the voices might even belong to the Old Indian who smiles at tourists on the path to Betatakin...

Purchase either the Kindle edition or the paperback.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part III)

Fiction's Fine Line of Truth

As a writer of Western tales, your story is only one fraction of the whole, and it should be perceived within itself as a believable part of the whole. The writer of Western fiction–or any fiction that deals with history–should remember first and foremost that he is writing for the audience of his time. The writer is always dealing with current knowledge and sensitivity acquired through hindsight and through history itself, not necessarily knowledge and sensitivity of those who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago.

The reality of the Old West has never changed, only the ongoing contemporary perspective of it. A study of movies and books will reveal that the plots reflect the opinions and attitudes of society at the time the work was written. You can, and should, read old journals and diaries, but if you try to write true to how the people of that era felt and believed, you’ll find yourself in hot water. We live in a world where political correctness rules, so even if you want to be one hundred percent historically accurate, you can’t be. There are things written just twenty or thirty years ago that are no longer accepted today. A secondary character, who might end up being the villain or an insensitive bloke, can say or think what was completely true of the time, but your hero or heroine had better follow the PC of today’s world or you’ll hear about it from readers. That is, if it gets past an agent and editor first!

The writer of Western fiction not only has to be politically correct, but he needs to study extensively and continually the genre for which he wants to write, or for which he does write. What he writes today will be influenced by certain formulaic demands that may have very little to do with what actually took place in the West. And ten years from now, or twenty, those demands will likely change again.

The old dime novels, as well as current literature of the West, fall into what is termed, "romantic fiction." By definition, romantic fiction is escapist literature and depends on exaggeration to obtain the desired effect. Romantic fiction is very well suited to the image of the legendary West. Readers have demanded, namely, that the protagonist has a definite problem to solve, sets about solving it through heroic means, meets plenty of villains and obstacles along the way, and in the end successfully fulfills his original objective. A couple of books that go into greater detail about the structure of romantic fiction are, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, and The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell.

The West is the mythical land of the American people and continues to fascinate not just Americans, but people all over the world. For all its romance, though, today's reader won't accept implausibility and historical ignorance or inaccuracy. Nor do they want to be cheated of their romantic notions of the place, the people, the era. They want that which they perceive was real (the myth), and that which was real (the truth). You, the writer, have to walk the fine line and give them both.