Archives: Westerns

Writing Observations: Backstory

I finished reading a slim, hardboiled novel the other day of 142 pages and marveled again about how much story these good writers from the ’50s could cram into a tiny space.

One of the things I liked best was that the backstory wasn’t front loaded into the plot. I think a lot of modern writers would have spun it out twice as long and shown us a bunch of scenes of the youthful years of the character as he experienced the things that shaped him. Instead, the story starts with Jake Wade’s new identity already established, then the threat to that identity is introduced. The story is in motion from the very start and anything we don’t know acts as an enticement to find out the secrets behind it all. Boy do I love that style more.

I wonder if it says something about the era in which I grew up, where as a boy I admired and emulated men who had still waters that run deep, and didn’t talk about problems. Not that I was successful, because I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I aspired to be more like that. Those were the models I saw around me and those are the models I saw on television and in the movies. Of course those models had some things wrong with them, too — the inability to communicate, for instance — but I still admire the habit of not spewing your problems and backstory over everybody you meet. Maybe the tendency to do that in some modern fiction is a backlash against being too closed in.

Anyway, two thumbs up for The Law and Jake Wade, and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie now, which is supposed to be a pretty strong old western.

It’s not until page 134 (of those 142) where we finally get a little window into how a man who’s good now ended up running with a bad bunch in the past, because it’s necessary for Jake to try and explain himself to the woman he loves over breakfast before he makes his final goodbye. Here, I’ll excerpt this text from Marvin Albert’s book:

Treasures

All kinds of cool treasures are rolling in these days. It’s nice to have friends.

I’ll save more detailed descriptions for a day when I have a little more time (I’m determined to finish most of my new short story today).

First, though, the new Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a thing of beauty, a work of art. I spent thirty minutes last night just flipping through and soaking up all the artwork. If it’s not THE go-to sword-and-sorcery rpg at this point, it’s tied for first place. It just oozes the right vibe. In the next little bit I’ll post some pics.

Great Western Reads Part 2

It’s not just that I want a western. I want them with lean prose and a lot of action; with characters deep enough to care about, with believable motivations and sharp plots that read quickly. No bloat. No padding. No digressions. In other words, pretty hard-boiled. Believe it or not, those simple requirements are hard to meet.

Today I thought I’d share some writers that my site visitors may not have heard of and who I think are worth a serious look. I’ve read some others now who might be in the running, but have seen enough from those listed here to recommend more than just one book.

Great Western Reads Part 1

Everyone’s heard of Louis L’Amour. It seems like most “best western” conversations begin and end with him, although you might hear a mention of Max Brand or Riders of the Purple Sage. But there are scads of additional western writers, and there’s lots of great stuff out there hidden amongst the dreck. The trick is finding a guide to it.

A good place to start might be the new book by Scott Harris and Paul Bishop, 52 Weeks 52 Western Novels: Old Favorites and New Discoveries. In it, Harris and Bishop and a handful of other contributors discuss overlooked westerns of excellence. They don’t waste your time by giving a two-page spread to stuff you know about, like Lonesome Dove. They do dig deep into the L’Amour catalog to point out a couple of strong ones, but mostly they present things you probably aren’t aware of. It’s the kind of list Chris Hocking and I have been looking for.