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

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."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Remembering Dad

From the Old Days
This time of year I find myself thinking of my dad more than usual. This was the time of year he was born, and the time of year he died. The fall was his favorite season. The crops were all in and he finally had time to do a little horseback riding.

In September we always went on roundup. The three-day roundups I remember were scaled down dramatically from the six-week-long roundups my dad had engaged in as a young man, back in the day when there were not many fences and cattle could scatter for fifty miles in nearly all directions.

He was an excellent horseman, having ridden from the time he was old enough to walk. He broke his last colt when he was in his early 70s. It wasn’t long after that, though, that he hung up his spurs, perhaps realizing he was getting too old for the game. But the itch to ride never subsided. He was 80 when we bought a little mare for our youngest daughter. Naturally we worried if the mare would be a good, reliable mount, not a spoiled knucklehead that would get our daughter hurt.

My dad came to visit one day and we were showing him the horse. He said he’d give her a “test run” to make sure she was okay. But I could see the longing in his eyes. He was itching to get on that horse and the test run was only an excuse.  He swung up on her bareback and rode her around the lawn and yard. When he brought her back and slid off, his blue eyes were sparkling. He handed the reins over with his seal of approval.

That was the last ride my dad took. Shortly after, he found out he had cancer and died four months later, sixteen years ago today. But I’ll always remember the joy he got out of being horseback again, if only for a few minutes on a kid’s old mare.