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

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.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part II)

How the Legends Began

Dime novelists of the late nineteenth century can be given the credit–or the blame–for starting the Western myth, and readers ever since have demanded it, so writers ever since have perpetuated it. While the West was being settled, the East was also undergoing changes, facing financial crisis, incurable diseases, and deadly illnesses.  People in the East saw the West as something new and exciting, an unknown. And because it was an unknown, they could make of it what they wanted. They heard stories, and they allowed those stories to grow with each telling. Writers picked up the stories and put them in print. In the fantasy world of the West, the hero always emerged as the victor, and the villain always met a proper and satisfying end in accordance to his crime.

From the early 1800s on, the West easily embodied all the elements for the mythological land of one’s imagination. With its vast spaces and stunning landscapes, its danger and adversity, its colorful heroes and heroines soon became symbolic of morality, courage, loyalty, generosity, strength, and good prevailing over evil.  Through a deluge of "escapist fiction," the West was heralded as a place of excitement, a place free from the devastating truths of reality, of financial desperation, daily drudgery, and oftentimes sheer hopelessness. It was a place of new beginnings, a place where anybody could do anything he or she wanted to do with few restrictions. A person could even take on a new identity if he wanted to. No wonder dime novelists had a hey-day with their fictional characters, and no wonder the Eastern public gobbled it up like home-made apple pie.

But the romance of the West was not sheer fantasy created by dime novelists; they got their sensational ideas from true exploits performed by real people. Heroes, in any country and in any time, are created from events and circumstances that force people to engage in heroic deeds and superhuman feats for the mere sake of survival. Think of King Arthur, William Wallace (Braveheart), and Joan of Arc–just to name a few. In American legend, recall the astonishing story of a mountain man named John Johnston, who became known as “Crowkiller,” and “Liver-eating Johnson,” and later became known to us as Jeremiah Johnson in the movie of the same name starring Robert Redford. The truth of what John Johnston did has been largely lost to legend, among both the whites and the Indians, but the legend started because he did something so astonishing that it became a topic of conversation around the campfires of the mountain men, the Crow Indians, and the Blackfeet Indians. Soon writers took the stories, added and subtracted from them to suit their individual purposes, and the legend grew until fact and fiction became hopelessly entangled. Such is the nature of all legends.

So how do you, as a writer of the West–or any other historical era–separate the myths from the lies? The facts from the fiction? And should you? Join me next week for Part III, "Fiction's Fine Line of Truth."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part I )

The Old West.

Those three words immediately bring to mind images of cowboys and ranchers on big spreads; Indians chasing buffalo on the Great Plains; pioneers in covered wagons seeking a better life; trappers and miners reaping their fortunes in furs and gold; gamblers and prostitutes in lawless towns; robber barons connecting the East and West with the Iron Horse; outlaws reaping what they sowed; and indomitable men and women engaged in superhuman feats against Mother Nature to put food on the table. The scenes one could conjure are endless.

Increasingly, however, we hear new historians–revisionists–declaring that over the decades of the twentieth century, writers of both Western fiction and nonfiction have consistently portrayed the West, its romance, and its people inaccurately, creating a myth–a legendary lie. These revisionists tell us there was nothing romantic about it to warrant our pride or capture our imaginations. They seem to want to make us see only the bad parts of history and none of the good. In short, they want to dismantle our heritage and take away our heroes.

But just how much of this so-called fantasy is actually reality, and how much is only based on reality? Why did the Old West become legendary in the first place? And how should those of us who write about the West, deal with this alleged myth and revisionist history?

History is based on the particular view taken by the person who recorded it, and therefore it is subject to that person’s interpretation, his perception, and possibly even the role he took in the event. Oftentimes, first-hand accounts of events are reshaped, even expanded to larger-than-life proportions if the writer wanted to make himself look good, or heroic. And, as time goes by, history is almost always rewritten to conform with changing attitudes and opinions.

When we study history, and begin to read conflicting reports, it becomes clear that what we read might not be absolute truth, either from old sources or new. But just as historical events are never one hundred percent true, neither are myths and legends entirely fictitious. There are many, many layers to lift and set aside. Historians–and writers–should keep an open mind and study each layer carefully and from all perspectives to get the full picture of any given event. There are, after all, always two perspectives to every story. Sometimes even dozens.

One would naturally ask why the West and its people developed to such legendary proportions in the first place, even before the door had been closed on the era, and even before the people who made the legends had died. Join me next week for Part II: "How the Legends Began."

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Inspiration Behind Desire’s Treasure

The Lost Mission of Santa Isabel

Some of the best discoveries are those you stumble onto quite by accident. Such was the story of the lost mission of Santa Isabel and the eerie legend that lives on in the American Southwest.  It is a region rife with mysteries, ghosts, witches, lost gold mines, and all manner of things that can give you a chill even in the heat of the desert. The legend has been passed down for generations and is a common tale around campfires. Many stories are told of people who have mysteriously died while searching for the mission and the treasure purported to be hidden within its adobe walls. While the legend has placed the mission in many locations from California to Arizona to New Mexico, its favorite location seems to be in the Sonora desert, and it is always hidden deep in a mountain canyon.

Many missions were built in New Spain by the Jesuits in the 16th century.  Around 1687, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino lived in the region known as Pimería Alta (present-day Sonora Desert), founding over twenty missions. But in the mid-eighteenth century, the king of Spain became worried about the power the Jesuits wielded in New Spain, and he sent out an order to expel them from the country. They would be replaced by Franciscan priests, considered to be more manageable.
The Jesuits had accumulated incredible amounts of treasure: golden candlesticks, vessels, altars, jewels, and bags of gold and silver coins. They were afraid they’d have to hand it over to the king, so some of Jesuits along the western coast of Mexico, gathered fifty loyal Yaqui Indians to help them remove the treasure from dozens of churches and move it inland to its destination–the remote mission of Santa Isabel. They believed it would be a temporary hiding place and that they would eventually be able to return to reclaim it. When the task was completed, they played on the superstitious nature of the Indians by placing a curse on the treasure to keep them quiet and keep them from taking it for themselves.  It is said that El Maldeción de Isabel–Isabel’s curse–still strikes terror in the hearts of the Yaqui Indians.

Desire’s Treasure grew from this 8-page story I found in a book whose name and author is as lost to me as the mission of Santa Isabel has been lost to time. The hero and heroine of Treasure played off each other so well that the book practically wrote itself. As far as the legend goes, there are indeed some who have stumbled onto the lost mission, but they have never lived long enough to pocket her treasure, or to tell the tale twice.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Peacemaker and Samuel Colt

“God did not make all men equal, Colonel Colt did.”

A favorite quote of Westerners.

Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1814.  He developed the first successful repeating pistol, or revolver. Around 1836, he opened Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford. His weapons were used during the Mexican War and the Civil War. He died in 1862, a decade before his company developed the reliable and most famous Peacemaker in 1873.  Over 350,000 of them were produced and the “six-shooters” his company made became famous throughout the West.

Image courtesy of Pong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Wisdom of Husbands

Okay, I had to share this. My husband came home from baling hay all day and asked me what I'd been doing. I told him I'd been hammering a 2-page synopsis into one page. He said, "Well, that ought to be easy. Just print out one page and tell them there is more upon request." Oh, if only it could be so easy. Thanks, honey. You always know how to put things in perspective.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What's on Your Summer Reading List?

It’s been a crazy summer and I haven’t had much time to read. Along with writing and helping my husband with ranch work, we've been preparing for a trip to France, which we will soon embark upon! When I do catch a few quiet moments to read, I’ve been making a concentrated effort to read the books I’ve had on my shelves for years, books loaned to me by others, and some of the books I downloaded to my Kindle that have been there for a long time. In the last few weeks I’ve read, The Other by R. Lawson Gamble, Tell me Your Dreams by Sidney Sheldon, and The Widow of Larkspur Inn by Lawana Blackwell. Up next, Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke, and A Woman Betrayed by Barbara Delinsky.

As you can see, I read all over the board. My only criteria for a book is that it has to engage me in the first few pages or chapters. If it doesn’t, I move on. There are so many books out there and so little time so I don’t waste it on something I’m not truly interested in. What’s your criteria? Do you stick to one genre, or do you read anything and everything? Do you feel obligated to finish a book even if you don't particularly like it?

I’d love to hear what you’re reading this summer and what’s on your fall/winter list. Word of mouth is the best marketing tool that exists for a book and its author, so please pass along recommendations of books you’ve read recently.

Happy Reading!

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Inspiration Behind Raveled Ends of Sky

People often ask where we writers get our ideas. My inspiration for Raveled Ends of Sky, an historical saga of an 1843 overland journey to California, came from the diaries of many women who participated in the Westward movement. The following is the book's Foreword, which might be of interest to readers and history buffs. The book was recently released as an ebook for Kindle. 


The Westward movement of the 1800s has seldom been portrayed in books and films from the viewpoint of the unmarried woman. Even those stories written about married women tend to lean toward the notion that women, in general, undertook the overland journey because they had no choice, and that every step of the way was a torturous affront to their delicate sensibilities.

In writing Raveled Ends of Sky, I wanted to dispel that myth. I wanted to show that although there were women who did not want to go West, there were just as many who took an active part in the decision to do so.

In 1849, Catherine Haun wrote of her journey west with her husband:  "It was a period of National hard times and we being financially involved in our business ... longed to go to the new El Dorado and ‘pick up’ gold enough with which to return and pay off our debts.... Full of energy and enthusiasm of youth, the prospects of so hazardous an undertaking had no terror for us, indeed, as we had been married but a few months, it appealed to us as a romantic wedding tour."

In 1852, Lydia Allen Rudd traveled to Oregon with her husband. In her words, "We were leaving all signs of civilised life for the present. But with good courage and not one sigh of regret I mounted my pony and rode slowly on."

Raveled Ends of Sky hinged, to a large degree, on the motivations that drove my lead protagonist, Nancy Maguire, and her widowed friend, Lottie England, to join the Joseph Ballinger Chiles company in 1843. Chiles's company was only the second wagon train ever to undertake the overland journey to the Mexican province of California. The first wagon train to attempt the perilous journey had been in 1841 and was unsuccessful. No wagon road existed across the Great Basin or the mighty barrier of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The pioneers on that first journey were forced to abandon their wagons at the Sierras and walk the remaining distance, weak with starvation, to the California settlements on the coast.

In those early days, maps still did not exist, save those drawn on scraps of paper, or etched into the soil by some trapper's stick as he squatted near a fire before an anxious audience and tried to relate landmarks, water holes, and possible mountain passes. Chiles, and a few of the men who would be with him on his 1843 expedition to California, had made the journey in 1841. They had returned by horseback to Missouri in 1842. Although they still had not discovered the wagon road over the Sierras during that first expedition, they at least had a better idea of the best route south from Fort Hall and across the Great Basin. Finding a wagon road was the one thing Chiles wanted to accomplish more than anything.

Historical records are not consistent, but there appear to have been approximately six women and five children traveling with the Chiles company, including two unmarried women. One would automatically ask why those women agreed, or chose, to leave the relative comfort and safety of their homes to undertake a perilous journey to a foreign land where no wagon road had yet been discovered, and where rumors of revolutions and wars passed over the land with the regularity of the sun.

It has been said that people went West for three reasons:  to get something, to get away from something, and just to get there. A study of the Westward movement reveals that men, at least, were usually motivated by financial difficulties, health problems of a family member, free land, business opportunities, or the call to be missionaries to the Indians. The discovery of gold in California and other areas lured thousands.

The women's characterizations in this book were crucial to the story's plausibility. "Gentle tamers" would not embark upon such a treacherous journey without men to protect them. Instead, the story called for highly independent women. Women who were driven by the desire for adventure and freedom from the restrictions placed on them by Eastern society.

For a while I entertained the notion that a single woman would have to be forced to embark upon such a dangerous journey alone. She would have to be running from something–a disastrous love affair, family problems, poverty, or scandal. But after numerous excerpts from women's diaries of the overland journey, I seldom found those things to be motivators for the women who journeyed westward, at least in the beginning.

 Recently married nineteen-year-old Miriam A. Thompson Tuller set out for Oregon in 1845. "I was possessed with a spirit of adventure," she wrote, "and a desire to see what was new and strange."

Single woman Elizabeth Wood, traveling to Oregon in 1851 said, "I have a great desire to see Oregon ... the beautiful scenery of plain and mountains, and ... the wild animals and the Indians, and natural curiosities in abundance."

Many books about the overland journey end when that distant shore is reached, but the journey itself was only the beginning for the emigrants. For those in this book, who journey to California, getting settled in a foreign land where "gringos" were not welcome was as much of a challenge as the journey itself. As Eliza Gregson wrote of those difficult years before California became a possession of the United States, "We few women were very uneasy about this time for we did not [know] whether we were widows or not."

The reasons women went West were many and varied. But those unmarried women who set out alone–possibly more so than those who went with the protection of husbands and families–were possessed of the spirit of adventure that was fundamental in opening and taming new lands. They were stubborn and defiant, strong-willed and resourceful. They stepped out bravely into the unknown, risking their lives for a dream they could have no other way but by their own doing.

In Nancy Maguire and Lottie England I have tried to portray two single women who exemplified the courageous indomitability of the whole. Women who had nothing to lose by going West, and everything to gain. Women who possessed the tenacity and the fortitude to blaze the trails upon which an entire nation would follow.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What About Those Bad Reviews?

Earlier I posted about how reviewers and readers should critique or review an author’s book. It would be nice if people would try to follow some of those suggestions, but what happens if they don’t and you get a mean, nasty review? What can you do? The short answer is: not much. You just have to suck it up. What you shouldn’t do is fly off the handle and respond to a nasty review. In our online world where everything you ever post is out there forever, it will only make you look bad to whine about a less than complimentary review. 

As writers, we want everyone to like our stories, our characters. We want them to appreciate the hard work we’ve put into our books. Unfortunately, not everybody is going to like our baby. The creative world is subjective. Even you, as a writer, don’t like every book you read. Sometimes you can pin-point why a work was only mediocre. But what about those books that are undeniably well written, get rave reviews, but don’t touch you in any emotional way? Keep this in mind; other people might feel the same way about your book. It’s not personal. Not everybody will like what you write. It’s as simple as that.

But will a bad review be a death knell for your book? Apparently Norman Mailer was concerned about it. In 2003, he wrote a letter to the publisher of The New York Times wherein he said, “It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one, if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”

Every reader can be swayed to some degree by a bad review. As for me, when I look at reviews, I lean toward what the majority of the people say. If there are one or two reviews that seem way out of line (like giving the author one star when everyone else has given them 4 or 5 stars) then I don’t take as much stock in the bad review.

So, here are a few things you can do if you get a bad review:

Consider the source: Was it a professional reviewer who reads thousands of books in your genre? Or was it someone who might hold disdain or ignorance for your genre. Maybe it stemmed from jealousy? Another writer who has yet to be published, perhaps. The green-eyed monster can be a vicious creature. Or it might be someone who loves to hate everything. By criticizing someone else’s efforts, he feels important and superior. If he can tell the world about it, it’s an even bigger coup.

If the bad review comes from a reader who bought the book (rather than a professional reviewer who is paid to do reviews), they could still fall into one of the above categories and be someone who just loves to say nasty things, so keep that in mind. But if they didn't like your book, they won't buy another one and they'll tell everyone they know not to buy your book. Reader reviews tend to hit us the hardest and have the most lasting effect on our egos (and maybe even our sales).

Focus on good reviews: It seems to be human nature for writers to dwell on the words of one bad review. Instead, you should go back over all the good reviews. If you really need bolstering, write down the good reviews and pin them near your computer so you can read them frequently and be reminded of those people who liked your book.

Learn from it: As much as we writers hate to admit it, sometimes there is a modicum of truth in a bad review. It might be sour grapes on someone’s part, but it might not. After you’ve considered the source, be honest with yourself. Is there a lesson for you to learn so you can improve your writing?

Move on: After you’ve allowed yourself to cry, cuss, or be depressed for several days, then put it behind you and get back to work. I like to think of the authors who had some bad stuff written about their writing, but they became household names and their works became classics.

On Leaves of Grass: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” – Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, “Literature as an Art,” 1867

On Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë:  “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” — Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, 1848

On Catch-22. “Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility… Its author, Joseph Heller, is like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design… The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.” — Richard G. Stern, The New York Times Book Review, 1961

On The Great Gatsby: “Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” — L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925

On Catcher in the Rye. “This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” — James Stern, The New York Times, 1951

On Brave New World: “Mr. Huxley has been born too late. Seventy years ago, the great powers of his mind would have been anchored to some mighty certitude, or to some equally mighty scientific denial of a certitude. Today he searches heaven and earth for a Commandment, but searches in vain: and the lack of it reduces him, metaphorically speaking, to a man standing beside a midden, shuddering and holding his nose.” — L.A.G. Strong, 1932

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Art of Writing Reviews

Authors are often asked to give another author a book review. Readers nowadays are also free to review books online. In this digital age, I see some very mean-spirited stuff out there. It makes me think of what my mother used to say: “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.”  It makes me wonder why people read books they absolutely hate. Nowhere is it written, “Thou shalt finish every book you start.” So why not move on to something that brings you more pleasure? Life is too short to read bad books.

However, if you’ve been asked to review someone’s book, you could be facing a difficult conundrum if the book really is awful.  So here are some suggestions.

Put yourself in the author’s shoes. Often this person spent years writing their book. There has been blood, sweat, and tears involved. If the author was fortunate enough to sell the book to a publisher then an agent and an editor both felt it was worthy of publication, as well as the marketing department.  Look for the qualities they might have seen. And, if the author self-published, again put yourself in that person’s position. If it was your book, would you want someone to drive a stake through your heart?

Start off by finding one or two good things about the book. Yes, there will be something, even if it’s only that the author is good with some element of writing be it dialogue, action, descriptions, characterization, etc. How about saying the concept was good (you don’t have to say they failed miserably in pulling it off). Or you could say, “Fans of (fill in the blank) will love this story.” Who knows? They actually might even if you didn’t.

If you must say something about its shortcomings, try to do so with some class and sophistication.  I recall revision letters I’ve received from editors. They always start the letters off with a few lines of praise. Then they list the things they would like the author to revise, but they always do so with positive input. It also keeps authors from slashing their wrists.

If you’re a reader, I still ask the question: “Why did you bother to read something so awful if you didn’t have to?” Nevertheless, if you were foolish enough to do so and you are hearing voices that say, “Thou shalt warn the entire world against this horrible affront to literature,” you, too, can accomplish it with some degree of kindness and professionalism that won’t make you look like a total jerk. Yes, that’s right. A vicious review will only make you look small and mean-spirited, and nobody will take your review seriously, except the author (who has already shed enough blood just getting those 100,000 words down on the page). But, ultimately, if it makes your day to viciously attack someone’s hard work through the security of anonymity, ask yourself how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. It’s a simple question with a very simple answer.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

What Do Readers & Authors Want From Each Other?

Things have changed a lot in the publishing industry since my first book was published many years ago. In those days, the author wrote a book and sent it off to a publisher (via an old-fashioned mail box). Many publishers, even the big ones, didn’t require an agent. I sold my first three books to Avon without an agent. There were a lot more publishers back then, too, so the odds of getting published were better. Once you got accepted, the publisher bought your book and they handled everything, including the promotion and publicity. They made sure your book was distributed to bookstores around the country. Authors were really only expected to do booksignings and appear (or speak) at conferences. If they were a big name, the publisher financed a book tour. Authors might appear on radio and TV shows if they felt comfortable with it.  Believe it or not, but many publishers wanted authors to coordinate with them on all promotional plans. They didn’t want us “going rogue.”  I guess they didn’t want authors to do something stupid or tacky that would hinder their sales or make them and the publisher look unprofessional. The author did a few weeks of this “face time” with the readers and then he/she went home, wrote another book, and answered fan mail.

Fast forward to 2013. Authors are expected to do ALL their publicity. They are not only expected to have a website but they’re expected to have thousands and thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and they are expected to have an entertaining blog with hundreds of followers. Some agents and editors won’t even consider an author’s work if they don’t see these “built in” readers before they offer a contract. They want to know that the author is going to do a LOT of legwork to sell their book and bring in the bucks. Many serious authors are asking themselves, “When will I ever have time to write another book if I have to keep up all this social networking and do all this promotion?”

So I ask:

What do readers want? Would they just like us to spend our precious time writing another book they can enjoy? Would they be happy meeting us at a conference or a booksigning? Or do readers want to be “friends” with authors on all these social networking sites and know the intimate details of our lives? What does a reader gain or lose from getting to know a great deal about an author?

What do authors want? We all appreciate our readers for we know we’d be nowhere without them. We love hearing from readers who like our books. But how many authors genuinely enjoy spending a good portion of their day social networking? How many would rather spend their time writing another book and leaving the promotion end up to a publisher, interacting with readers only at booksignings, trade shows, and conferences? What does an author gain, or lose, from getting more personal with their readers?

All aspects of the book industry have changed and continue to change. What do you as readers and authors believe are the pros and cons of this new social networking world? Where do you think it will go in the future? What do you want, and expect, from each other now?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Weird West

I just finished writing a book that, frankly, I'm not sure how to categorize. It’s set in the early 20th century New Mexico and Mexico (1902-1921) and has supernatural elements (Native American mysticism and fantasy). I started looking for similar books and couldn’t find any – exactly – but I did find a sub-genre of the western called the “Weird West.” Apparently this sub-genre has been around for decades, going back to 1935 with the serial, The Phantom Empire. (There might be some even before that so don’t hold me to that date.) This sub-genre is basically any book with a western setting that contains elements of another genre like horror, fantasy, steampunk, Native American mysticism, paranormal, and science fiction.

I hadn’t heard the term before (okay, you might wonder where I’ve been) but I realized I had published books similar to this sub-genre under another sub-genre called “paranormal western romances.” I wrote about ghosts and cursed treasure in Desire’s Treasure (Arizona, 1884); time travel in The Turquoise Sun (Colorado, 1896); and reincarnation and Native American mysticism in Firelight (Colorado and Arizona, 1896). The beauty of the romance book world is that they welcome sub-genres as long as the romance remains center stage.

If you stop to think about it, the American West is the ideal place for supernatural elements. There have always been ghost tales, hauntings, Native American mysticism, and all manner of strange goings-on. Recently we’ve seen in movie form, Cowboys & Aliens (science fiction), Jonah Hex (fantasy/superhero), Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (horror/fantasy), the Wild Wild West (steampunk), and, some years ago, the fantastic surreal High Plains Drifter (supernatural/superhero). In books, a few that come to mind are Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (fantasy), Louis L’Amour’s Haunted Mesa (Native American mysticism), and Peter Brandvold’s Dust of the Damned (horror). The supernatural even appears in country/western music. Remember “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by the Sons of the Pioneers?

Sub-genres aside, the main key to success in any book is great characterization and a plot that makes the reader transcend belief, whether that’s in the real world, the supernatural world, or a combination thereof.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Heroes and Anti-Heroes

One of the authors I grew up reading was Louis L’Amour. In his book, Sackett’s Land, he said, “A man needs heroes. He needs to believe in strength, nobility, and courage.” The heroes in L’Amour’s books all very much met this criteria. You could say that Louis’s heroes were the “white hat” guys, even (if they didn’t wear white hats). They didn’t have vices or demons or even insecurities and doubts. They walked a straight path and they always knew exactly where that path was going. The only time they got side-tracked was if they had to fight the bad guys or help out another good guy. Even the old westerns we used to see on TV in the 50s and 60s (okay, I’m giving away my age here), were all about the quintessential hero.

Then something happened. The anti-hero emerged. He was the hero who had goodness deep in his soul but he wasn’t perfect. He battled right and wrong and stepped over the line frequently because the line wasn’t always clear.  He had vices and demons, and he’d made his share of mistakes in his life. As a matter of fact, he was still making mistakes and trying to overcome those vices and demons. He didn’t wear a white hat. He probably didn’t even own one. He was the imperfect guy all of us imperfect people could relate to. He was the bad boy the ladies fell in love with because they thought they could reform him. Some didn’t even care if they accomplished that; they just wanted him because he stirred their blood in a way the “straight and narrow” guy couldn’t.

In today’s literature and films, the anti-hero is predominant. And not just westerns, of course. But, as westerns go, he has appeared in such western movies as Unforgiven and Lonesome Dove. The TV series Justified and Longmire have wonderful anti-heroes. I’ve found first-hand this to be true with my own books. The stories with the flawed heroes are the ones the readers have liked the most: Seth Sackett in Came A Stranger; Nathaniel Brannigan in Desire’s Treasure; Jim Rider in Mountain Ecstasy. Tyler Chanson in Tyler’s Woman; Keane Trevalyan in The Turquoise Sun; and Dev Summers in The Last Rodeo. They’re all men who have vices, demons, pasts that haunt them, or they have a little (or a lot) of that bad boy in their personality.

I’ll admit, I have an easier time making my men imperfect than I do my women, but it’s just as important for our women who have a few of their own inner struggles, dark pasts, secrets, and vices. Things they need to face or overcome in the course of our stories--or at least be dealing with successfully. So, make a conscious effort to bring imperfection into your characters. Anti-heroes and heroines are more fun to write about. And they are definitely what readers nowadays want in their characters.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Horse Gaits and Riding/Writing Blunders

I’ve read books by authors who attempt to write about horses but have clearly never been on one. For example, one book that made a real faux pas was a romance novel I read years ago where the hero and heroine had intercourse (and I’m not talking about conversation) on a galloping horse. Yikes! Maybe there should have been a warning footnote in the book that said: Stunts performed by professionals. Don't try this at home. If you’ve ever been on a galloping horse you know it’s hard enough just to stay on. It’s not like sitting in a rocking chair. I seriously doubt there's even a "professional" who could pull this one off.

Another thing I see a lot are authors who have a character gallop a horse for miles and miles, maybe even all day, oftentimes over rough terrain like sagebrush hills. Rider/Writer Beware: there are rocks and badger holes hidden in that sagebrush. Unless you want to break your horse's leg and maybe your own neck when the horse flips over on you, I wouldn't advise a flat-out gallop in this terrain--unless Indians are after you, of course. Plus, this is not an easy gait for either horse or rider to sustain for that length of time. Even the pony express boys (who were young and very tough) had to change horses every 10-15 miles at relay stations and rode 75 miles on their “workday” before resting at a home station where another rider took the next relay. And we've all heard of cowboys racing after stampeding cattle in the middle of night. They actually did this, but many of them were trampled to death when their horses went down. So be sensible. If you do have your character do some great feat, acknowledge the dangers and the problems that go with it.

Now for a quick run-down of the standard four gaits, plus a few less common ones.

Gait – A distinctive movement of the feet and legs that determines a horse’s speed. A horse has four common gaits–walk, trot, canter, gallop.

Walk – A natural, slow gait of four beats. Each foot leaves and strikes the ground at separate intervals. An average speed is 4 miles per hour but will vary depending on the individual horse, breed, terrain, and even the rider.

Trot – A two-beat diagonal gait. The front foot and opposite hind foot take off together and strike the ground simultaneously. All four feet are off the ground at the same time for a brief moment. This gait can be rough on the rider if the horse doesn’t have a light, springy step. Rising in the stirrups in time to the beats makes it less jarring for the rider. On the first beat, riders raise their body slightly by pushing their feet down on the stirrups. They come down in the saddle on the second beat and then go right up again. This is called posting.

Gallop – An all-out run. The fastest speed for a horse. A leaping and bounding motion. A fast, three-beat gait during which two diagonal legs are paired and strike the ground together between the successive beats of the other two unpaired legs. All four feet are off the ground for a brief interval. Propulsion is chiefly in the hindquarters, but the forequarters sustain tremendous jar as the horse lands. A rider will usually lean out over the horse’s neck for balance with this top speed.

Canter – Sometimes called a lope. A slow, three-beat rhythmic gait. On the first beat, one forefoot strikes the ground. Then the other forefoot and opposite hind leg hit the ground together. On the third beat, the other hind foot strikes the ground. It is comfortable for the rider and can be sustained for long distances. A rider will usually lean back in the saddle for this  “rolling” gait. The speed, if sustained, would be 10-12 mph, again depending on the factors mentioned above.

Other Gaits:

Pace – A fast two-beat gait in which the front and hind feet on the same side start and stop simultaneously. The feet rise just above the ground level. All four feet are off the ground for a split second and the horse appears to float. Faster than a trot but slower than a gallop. It has a rolling type of motion. Not suitable for travel in mud or snow. A smooth, hard footing is better for this gait to be decently executed.

Fox Trot – A low, short, broken type of trot in which the head usually nods. The horse brings each hind foot to the ground an instant before the diagonal forefoot. A slow gait.

Running Walk – A slow, four-beat gait, between a walk and rack. The hind foot oversteps the front foot from 2 or 3 to as many as 18 inches, giving the motion a smooth, gliding effect. The horse’s head will bob or nod. This is easy on both horse and rider. An all-day working gait at a speed of 6 to 8 mph.

Rack – A fast, showy, unnatural, four-beat gait. Each foot strikes the ground separately at equal intervals. It is also known as the “single foot.” It is easy on the rider, hard on the horse. Popular in the show ring.

Traverse – Also known as the “side step.” It is a lateral movement of the animal without forward or backward movement. Often helps a rider in opening or closing gates, lining up horses in the show ring, and taking position in a mounted drill or posse.

In conclusion: If you are an author who wants realism in any story involving a horse, don't make the mistake of assuming riding is like sitting in a rocking chair just because some people make it appear that effortless. At the very least, find someone who has a gentle horse who will let you ride it around inside a corral. You will immediately understand the amount of skill it takes to ride well, and you'll walk away with a greater appreciation for those who have mastered it. You'll also readily understand what would require a stunt rider to perform.

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net - "White and Black Horses Running"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Horse of a Different Color

Sorrel. Appaloosa. Grulla. Gray. Bay. Palomino. Dun. Chestnut. Roan. Claybank. Buckskin. Paint.

If you’ve ever read a book set in the West, or a book about horses anywhere, you’ve probably come across some of these terms. You might know what they mean. You might not. You might be curious about it. You might not give a hoot.

As a writer of western fiction, I care because I generally always have a horse or two in my books. Most of the time, I don’t put names on them unless they have a major role in the story; i.e., Flicka or Trigger. But if you give your horses a color, like buckskin, strawberry roan, or bay, it will make that animal unique and memorable, no matter how minor his role.

That said, I’ve compiled a run-down on a few of the terms used for the color of horses. These are by no means inclusive. There are many combinations.

Sorrel or Chestnut: Reddish brown, sometimes with a coppery hue. A wide range of shades. Mane, tail, and legs the same color as the body, but can be lighter. There can be some white markings toward the hooves. Variations: Liver chestnut (darkest shade); dusty chestnut (light, dusty appearance).

Appaloosa: Spotted. Usually dark, round, or egg-shaped spots on a white “blanket” over the loin and hips. They can have black spots all over. Hooves striped vertically black and white. Eyes encircled by white. (This is a breed, not just a color.)

Grulla: Mouse-colored, blue or soft gray. Black mane, tail, and legs.

Gray: Grays are born with dark skin but the color changes. They can be various shades from dark to nearly white, dappled, or flea-bitten (tiny flecks of black or brown).

Bay: Deep rich brown with black mane, tail, and legs.

Palomino: Golden colored with white mane and tail. Can range from light to dark golden.

Dun: Varying drab shades, slightly brownish-dray or grayish-yellow coat with black mane and tail. A black dorsal stripe (down the middle of the back). Variation: copper dun.

Roan: A mixture of white hair and one other color. Mane and tails are usually the base color but can also have white interspersed. Variations: strawberry or red roan (red/white hair); blue roan (black/white hair)

Claybank: A diluted copper dun.

Buckskin: The body is similar to tanned deerhide, yellowish-brown. Black mane, tail, lower legs. Dorsal stripe.

Paint: White with large patches of brown, black, chestnut, or any other color. Legs are usually white. Manes will follow the color pattern on the neck.

"Black Horse" Image Courtesy of Tina Phillips (FreeDigitalPhotos.Net)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bookstores Closing

Recently I found this article about Barnes & Nobles closing one-third of their bookstores over the next decade. For writers, as well as readers, I think this is some very disheartening news. The industry is trending toward ebooks, and while readers can still buy “real” books from Amazon and other stores online, the ambiance of the physical bookstore can never be replaced. It was bad enough to see all the independent bookstores and small chains like B. Dalton fall by the wayside, but now to hear that Barnes & Noble is closing stores is the final blow.

I, for one, will certainly miss wandering through bookstore aisles looking at the thousands of books and discovering many I would not have discovered otherwise. It’s also a nice place to meet with a writing friend for coffee and discuss books, works in progress, and exchange manuscripts. And I wonder, where will we gather for booksignings when all the bookstores close? But then, I guess that question even becomes obsolete, doesn't it? Maybe authors will be able to sign ebooks electronically. Perhaps it’s already being done and I’m just behind the times.

There are positive things about ebooks and being able to shop online. For writers, it’s a real boon to be able to re-issue our backlist as ebooks and reach a new audience who might not have read them in original paperback. You can carry a lot of books on your reader when you travel. You can make the font as big as you’d like to ease eyestrain. The downside for me is that the battery seems to always be dead just when I want to read, or it goes dead while I’m reading. And if you’re out on the beach or at the cabin in the mountains, chances are there’s no electrical outlet. It’s hard to “scroll” through an ebook, or to look back at something from previous chapters. When I’m finished reading an ebook, I don’t feel as if I really read a book. I just read “something” but it wasn’t a book.

Even as big bookstores go out of business, I suspect that we might see the re-emergence of small, independent bookstores that carry some rare, specialty, or regional books. And, at least for a while, there will be used bookstores. Sooner or later when there are no books to be had, used bookstores will die out too.

I used to take my books in for trade to the used bookstores but I think I’m going to keep what I have and any more I buy. Who knows, maybe my great-grandchildren will find these “paper” books and be totally fascinated by them. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll curl up in a favorite chair with that “real” book in their hands and their connection to the story will be made greater because they are actually holding the story and the characters in their hands. One can always hope.

"Traditional Chesterfield Armchair" -Marcus-  Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net