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.