August 29, 2009

Why She Likes Readin' A Good Ole Western

By Stephen Bly

“Perhaps more than any other genre, westerns require adherence to some fairly strict guidelines. Writing in this genre requires knowledge of its expectations,” says R. L. Coffield in her article, “Sexuality and Cursing in the Western.”
This applies especially to classic westerns.

Most classic western fans presume a certain code. No explicit scenes. Swearing minimal or nonexistent. But there can be lots of romance amidst the shootin’ and dyin’. Character development is a must. (Or setting development, such as in a classic Zane Grey.) Good triumphs over evil. That’s why classic westerns attract lots of female readers.

In my newest western Creede of Old Montana (to be released October 2009), protagonist Avery John Creede rides into Ft. Benton, Montana, looking for old army pals. Instead, he stumbles into a running gun fight with a notorious outlaw and two women determined to distract him, each for her own reasons. Creede seems at first to either be very naïve with the ladies, or one smooth cowboy. Whichever, the results prove to be the same.

There’s lots of the usual head banging in the book, and it’s not all done by the males.
“With the quickness and velocity of a mother killing a snake with a hoe, Sunny slammed the barrel of the revolver into the back of the outlaw’s head. He crumpled to the sand.”

In one chapter I put Avery John Creede on the trail with this same Sunny (a.k.a. Mary Jane Cutler), and male/female sparks happen…some humorous, some “Aha!” But I do keep a close eye on them. Trust me.
A note about this scene, that also has to do with genre expectations: On the trail ride, even though Sunny’s a tough gal in lots of ways, she rides sidesaddle. That’s not just because she’s wearing a dress. It was thought to be scandalous beyond civilized reason for females to straddle a horse in the 1800s. And much later into the 1900s. She has no intention of breaking that sanction. And I, as the author, try very hard to stick with historical cultural facts. That’s one reason the movie, Shane, rankles me. In an otherwise excellent western, why in the world did the wardrobe people clothe Jean Arthur in pants? U.S. women, even ranch gals, didn’t start wearing slacks of any sort until WWII with the advent of Rosie the Riveter and the influence of the working gal.

That’s what it’s all about for the reader…knowing what to expect when they pick up another title by an author they’ve come to know and enjoy. I try to stay with the expectations…if I don’t, I hear about it…whether I’ve crossed a line in this reader’s mind in language choice, a suggestive taboo, or getting the details right.

On the trail,

Follow me on Twitter:
Friend me on Facebook:
Ask to receive twice monthly On The Trail western devotionals…


Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Stephen,
Your article was great, as usual. And I agree with you completely. Good westerns, in fact good historicals in general, must keep with the facts. Othewise, how will
future generations know what really happened?
And will they really care?
I guess that is what worries me the most.

Edna said...

I like to read about the old west also I like anything historical that I can learn about when my g-grandparents lived and before.


Jack said...

Historical fact I can go with. What was generally accepted I can go with, too.
Women wore pants. Calamity Jane and Charley Parkhurst come to mind.
Women couldn't be lawmen but Sarah Irvin was a deputy sheriff back in the 1860s.
There are always excptions to the rules and those who rebel against the current trends.
History is only a perception. Very often from a male viewpoint. And no one questions history so it is accepted as fact.
Calamity Jane never shot anybody - right? Charley Parkhurst shot two men. Only no one knew that 'he' was a woman until 'he' died in 1876. So, if no one knew that Charley Parkhurst was a women how come she had been pregnant? There had to be some people out there who knew full well she was a woman.
History or myth? Sometimes they get clouded together. In the struggle to survive women knew how to handle guns. They stood with their men. Or has history got that wrong too?

Stephen and Janet Bly said...

Molly, Edna & Jack: Appreciate each of your posts and input!

On the trail,

Connie Sue said...

I enjoy stories from the Old West and do appreciate that I don't have to edit out much of what I read or hear (in the movies). I enjoy the stories from that era without things that won't edify my Heavenly Father. Their lives were what they were...but to be told in a manner that keeps my attention and I don't have to shudder is what I appreciate. There definately was shootin' and hollerin'....and gals to keep things interesting! After all, with all the toughness those guys needed balance of a woman to touch their hearts!