A lot of people have asked why a stockbroker in South Carolina would choose to write fiction about Texans in the Civil War. Well, okay, two people asked, and only one of them really cared, but it still forced me to think about the question.
My personal tipping point came a few years ago when I was banging my head against the wall over government spending and taxes. That wasn’t nearly painful enough, I realized, and I might need a tax write-off. Fiction, particularly Western fiction, was the obvious answer. Certainly not mysteries, or legal drama, or vampires, or non-fiction. Those books actually sell. Agents and publishers might even consider them. No write-offs there.
No, better to choose the Western genre, one that any Manhattan agent will confirm as dead, passé, histoire, gone like my youth. That’ll work, I was sure. There are plenty of entities out there to take your money in return for questionable help. Great write-off potential, and head-butting won’t hold a candle to it for agony.
I collect and shoot guns from the Western Era, about 1850 – 1890. All those great names: Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson, Remington, Marlin, Hall, Johnson, Smith, Spencer, Sharps, Enfield, Lefaucheux – working guns, not the collector’s dreams. I used to wonder, if I had lived in that era, what I would have carried, what would have caused me to upgrade (the changes in firearms technology were amazing for such a short period), and how I would have afforded to upgrade. That was the nucleus of the story.
The catalyst was an article in a Blackpowder Annual magazine from Dixie Gun Works. I believe the title was “Blue Whistlers and Colt Revolvers,” and it was about Terry’s Texas Rangers, as the Eighth Texas Volunteer Cavalry Regiment was known. Blue Whistlers were the buckshot or buck-and-ball loads for their shotguns, and this outfit performed the first charge of the Army of Tennessee, as well as the final one. Doing more research, I learned that they were also favorites of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and were with him at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. In the massacre there, hundreds of Black and White Union prisoners and wounded were slain by raging Confederates after the fort was overrun. Terry’s Rangers were singled out as the one unit that tried to stop the slaughter. I was hooked.
The story came together quickly. I put a couple of fictional characters into the Eighth Texas Cavalry, took them through the war in Book One, and followed their trip home in Book Two. Sort of like Butch and Sundance enroute to Cold Mountain. I tried to infuse the novel with the sort of humor that I found among men in my two years in combat. It’s not as light as Berger’s “Little Big Man,” nor as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men,” but of course it doesn’t compare in other ways, too. I tell a pretty good story, but those guys can write.
The draft took about six months to finish. It drove me. Made my wife and office partners crazy. I’d wake up at 2 AM and have to get up and write; next day, made everyone listen to what I wrote. I don’t type; I had a medical transcription service (Transcript-USA, Columbia, SC) to get my scribbling from my legal pads into the computer.
In the two years after that I polished it and tried to get it published, or at least agented. I had tremendous help from my group, Columbia II of the S.C. Writer’s Workshop, which is nice since I did everything backwards. I wrote the the novel, then bought “How-to” books and joined the workshop, but I might have never finished it had I done it the other way around.
I’ve had almost no luck with agents or publishers. As a Western fiction writer, you find that agents send you form-letter rejections (unless you’ve already published something), and publishers don’t even respond unless you have an agent (and have published something). Most traditional publishers won’t even accept a query except from an agent. If they do, they’ll tell you, “We don’t like multiple submissions – don’t query anyone else till you hear from us. Give us six to eight months to respond – we’ll get back to you if we’re interested. Please do not follow up.” Years later, you’re still biting your nails, waiting to hear from them. They’re swamped. What a great system.
The exception for me was an acquisition editor at Oklahoma University Press, Jay Dew, who read the whole manuscript. He explained why he couldn’t accept it (they’re almost entirely non-fiction), and then encouraged me to try several other publishers by name, even gave me some contacts, and said he thought the work should be published. Nicest rejection I’ve ever received.
So, if you ever wake up and want to be a writer of Western fiction, roll over and go back to sleep. If that doesn’t work, add a heavy dose of history, and change your genre to Historical Fiction. Or join the Western Writers of America, Inc. and network through them. You can also sell your unpublished book through Kindle. Trust me – the folks in Manhattan have never heard of Lonesome Dove, Open Range, 3:10 To Yuma, Last Stand At Saber River, Appaloosa, Broken Trail, Hondo, Valdez Is Coming, Hombre, Will Penny, The Missouri Breaks, or the other two I mentioned. They might know the authors, and I don’t know about you, but I’m just not there yet. So, read, write for fun, enter contests, join a writer’s group, get an editor (EllieDavis@www.pressque.com), go to book festivals, research, keep your day job. Forget about Manhattan. It’s a figment of our imagination.