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The Western is Dead: Long Live The Western

July 16th, 2021

I recently glanced at something my husband was watching on TV and realised it was John Wayne riding across the great plains of the American West – the type of film that used to be on all the time when I was growing up (yes, I know, I’m giving away my age there). I didn’t stop to watch it but it did get me thinking about the fate of the Western novels, once so popular too.

It might take a bit of hunting to locate the westerns section in most bookshops and online stores, but that doesn’t mean that the genre is dead. Westerns go in and out of fashion and there’s every likelihood that tales of the Wild West will find a fresh, eager market. Prior to the pandemic many holidaymakers were making the pilgrimage to see the breath-taking scenery of America’s rugged canyons, mountains and deserts. And as soon as travel opens up fully I’m sure the desire will be there again.

Even if this market doesn’t revive dramatically, there’s a dedicated hardcore of cowboy fans who will always be fascinated by stories of round-ups and rustlers, bank robberies and jail breaks, Indian attacks and high noon shootouts. They’ll guarantee that publishers won’t abandon this exciting and often underrated genre. Zane Grey, an author long dead, with such enduring appeal that his novels have recently been republished, is proof of this.

But if you do want to go down this route, it’s vital that you find your own original approach to the clichéd old formulas. You need to be looking to bring something fresh to the table, without abandoning the inherent traditions.

As with thrillers, research is vital in the western, a genre more open to glaring anachronism than most. It’s possible to write westerns without having seen the West, but it is advisable, because you will be competing with writers (and readers!) who have.

It’s also important to know something of the ‘real’ history of the West and not just hearsay and impressions gleaned from Hollywood films. Aficionados can spot a phoney a mile off. So time spent learning about the subject is invaluable. You won’t be able to use every fact you discover, but an in-depth knowledge of life as a settler, a cowboy or a soldier in the U.S. cavalry will give your work a ring of gritty authenticity.

The beauty of writing westerns is that, although the ingredients are familiar, the result can be entirely different each time you mix them up. Whether it be a trek West story (a sort of serial in which the characters are members of a wagon train heading for California or Oregon); or a story with a twist in the tale about a coward who comes good in the end; or even a novel based on real life characters, the possibilities are endless. But remember, westerns are like romances and won’t work if you attempt to write them tongue in cheek.

If you feel this genre is for you, then you could do worse than study some of the following authors: WR Benton, Peter Brandvold, Thomas Eidson, Larry McMurtry, Ralph Compton, Matt Braun and William W Johnstone.

But westerns don’t necessarily need to be traditional – they can still be historical but why not go for a modern setting to ring the changes? Have a look at Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories (Brokeback Mountain and other Stories). Or Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which you’re probably more familiar with as a Coen brothers film.

Or one of my all-time favourites: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. A story of escape from famine-ravaged Ireland to the no less harsh environment of the US Army on the Oregon Trail and the brutal raids carried out on Indian settlements. It has all the usual elements but the writing is first-class and it certainly stands out from the crowd as a ‘literary’ western!

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