Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cowboys Gone Wild

A few days ago, I wrote a disparaging post about Western mash-ups. Since I’m not into weird Westerns, I was unaware that many Western mash-ups had become cult films. At least, that's what I've been told. I haven't actually watched any of these films, so I cannot vouch for their Western authenticity or historical accuracy

Western film
The Phantom Empire (1935) was a Gene Autry serial film, combining the western, musical, and science fiction. The story is about a singing cowboy who stumbles upon an ancient subterranean civilization.

Hollywood movies
The White Buffalo (1977) is a mystical story about Wild Bill Hickok hunting a white buffalo with an Indian named Crazy Horse. Is this Jaws or Moby Dick?

Western films
In Billy the Kid vs. Dracula  (1966), Dracula goes to the Wild West looking for a wife and decides on Billy the Kid’s fiancĂ©e. Trouble ensues.

Hollywood horror film
This 2009 TV film is a precursor to Cowboys and Indians. A bad guy about to be hanged, saves the town from nasty bugs from outer space.

Now, if you're into odd blendings of Westerns and lessor genres, you'll like The Return. This Steve Dancy Tale is an honest Western about Thomas Edison and the electrification of Wall Street. It's a fish-out-of-water story about an Easterner who seeks adventure in the Old West and then can't quite fit anymore in his home town of New York City. Try it, you'll like it.

Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The First Movie Studio—And a Mea Culpa

Thomas Edison
Edison's Black Maria, West Orange New Jersey
Edison’s first movie studio was in West Orange, New Jersey. It was nicknamed the Black Maria after the stuffy paddy wagons of the day. According to Wikipedia, “The first films shot at the Black Maria, a tar-paper-covered, dark studio room with a retractable roof, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women.” Let’s see. Edison started the film industry with Westerns, comedy, violence, and soft-porn. Seems that when the movie industry migrated to Hollywood, the moguls in charge adopted the same themes.

This very first studio shows the movie industry's predilection to innovate. Notice that the roof can be lifted to catch the light and the entire building is on a rail to rotate with the sun.

Thomas Edison
Edison Motion Picture Studio

What was not filmed at Black Maria was The Great Train Robbery mentioned in my last post. The first feature film was actually shot at the Edison Motion Picture Studio in the Bronx, New York City. My error. At the Black Maria, Edison did film acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, so I’ll still award New Jersey honorary Western status.

Speaking of Hollywood, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the movie industry did not leave New York because of the weather.
“Motion Picture Patents Company, also called Movie Trust, Edison Trust, or The Trust, a trust of 10 film producers and distributors who attempted to gain complete control of the motion-picture industry in the United States from 1908 to 1912. The company, which was sometimes called the Movie Trust, possessed most of the available motion-picture patents, especially those of Thomas A. Edison, for camera and projection equipment. It entered into a contract with Eastman Kodak Company, the largest manufacturer of raw film stock, to restrict the supply of film to licensed members of the company.
The company was notorious for enforcing its restrictions by refusing equipment to uncooperative filmmakers and theatre owners and for its attempts to terrorize independent film producers. It limited the length of films to one and two reels (10 to 20 minutes) because movie audiences were believed incapable of enjoying more protracted entertainment. The company also forbade the identification of actors because popular entertainers might demand higher salaries. By 1912, however, the success of European and independent producers and the violent opposition of filmmakers outside the company weakened the Movie Trust, which, in 1917, was dissolved by court order. The Movie Trust, which was based in New York and other cities of the East Coast, was indirectly responsible for the establishment of Hollywood, Calif., as the nation’s film capital, since many independent filmmakers migrated to the latter town to escape the Trust’s restrictive influence in the East.”

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Steve Dancy in New Jersey? What's that about?

film by Thomas Edison
Still from The Great Train Robbery

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale partly takes place in New Jersey. Oh yeah, and Thomas Edison is a character in the latest story. Dancy fans need not worry; Steve has been firmly converted to an unabashed Westerner. He has good reason to visit New Jersey and it will take someone toughened by the Wild West to sort out the mess in Menlo Park.

Western gear
Serratelli Hat Company
New Jersey may not be the Wild West of the mid nineteenth century, but the Colt revolver was invented in New Jersey, Annie Oakley called New Jersey home, the Serratelli Hat Company is based in Newark, John B. Stetson came from New Jersey, and the first Western movie was filmed in New Jersey. Six shooters, western hats, and the birth of Western movies: that ought to be enough to give New Jersey a Western pedigree. Besides, Edison needs Steve and his friends to sort out a few problems or he may never complete his electrification of Wall Street.

Edison, has the curriculum vitae to play a role in a traditional Western, especially one where the protagonists are miners, not cowboys. Thomas Edison’s contributions to mining included new techniques in blasting, conveying, crushing, and magnetic separation. His greatest mining invention was the electric cap lamp. 

As for his cowboy credentials, he has none, but his company produced the very first Western feature film. In 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company distributed The Great Train Robbery.

You might notice his name in the upper left hand corner of the title frame. I believe this makes Mr. Edison a cowboy at heart, which in my mind gives him the right to cavort in a Steve Dancy Tale.

Friday, July 26, 2013

These guys will kick your butt!

James D. Best
Bandits' Roost, Photograph by Jacob Riis, 1887

New York City gangs were notorious. This historic photograph appealed to me because in The Return, Dancy must defeat a street-gang to save himself and his friends. The feud starts in Leadville, Colorado and follows our hero east. I liked the photo so much, I suggested that it be used for the cover.

Final cover for The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale.

This is the full cover. I especially like the cowboy shadow the designer added.

The designers did a great job. As I mentioned in Get a Spine, the spine is crucially important because it is all a browser will probably see in a bookstore. Here are the six spines for the Steve Dancy Tales.

Do people judge a book by it's cover? Do book covers sell books? Yes and yes. Need evidence? Here you go.

You might also enjoy Vintage Photograph to Western Book Cover.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Released: The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale

Western adventure fiction

As of this morning, Amazon is offering The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale in print and Kindle formats. The hardcover large print edition is due from Center Point in the first quarter of 2014. Barnes & Noble and other retailers have not yet listed the book as available, but you can be sure I will let you know when that happens.

Amazon Print Link
Amazon Kindle Link

It's the summer of 1880, and Thomas Edison's incandescent bulb is poised to put the gaslight industry out of business. Knowing a good business opportunity, former New York shopkeeper Steve Dancy sets out to obtain a license for Edison's electric lamp. Edison agrees, under one condition: Dancy and his friends must stop the saboteurs who are disrupting his electrification of Wall Street.
After two years of misadventures out West, the assignment appears to be right up his alley. But new troubles await him in New York City. Dancy has brought a woman with him, and his high-society family disapproves. More worrisome, he has also unknowingly dragged along a feud that began out West. The feud could cost him Edison's backing ... and possibly his life.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Has a Western mash-up ever worked?

I’m not a purist. My own westerns are about miners instead of cowboys, my plots delve into the politics of the frontier, and my protagonist is a wealthy Easterner. I also liked the Lone Ranger, even though it went overboard on special effects and cuteness. I can go off the beaten track and even enjoy oddities like Cormac McCarthy’s weird punctuation. But mash-ups? Where did this fad come from? Mixing diametrically opposed genres is like fusion cuisine where the main course and dessert are lumped together in a stir-fried. It may be an interesting novelty, but it won’t change traditional menus.

I believe a fiction writer’s job is storytelling. It must be done well, with good characterization, but essentially the task at hand is telling a ripping good story. Effective storytelling takes people to another place and time. It can be the Wild West or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A mash-up tries to take the audience to two different places at two different times. It’s jarring.  Besides, these writers seem more concerned with how clever they can blend the genres, rather than storytelling.

Many Western enthusiasts lament the lack of audience for Western literature and film. Unfortunately, there will be no resurgence by mashing up Westerns with the latest teen craze. It’s not that easy. Intriguing characters with a well-crafted story arc will draw readers to any genre. Just ask Larry McMurtry, Elmer Kelton, Louis L’Amour, Owen Wister, Jack Schaeffer, John Ford, or Clint Eastwood.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Tricks Women do With Ropes

Steve Dancy Tales

I was wandering around YouTube and found a fun video of Eleanor Powell tap dancing her way through some impressive rope tricks. Reputed to be the best female tap dancer, Powell was the first wife of Glenn Ford. For the impatient, her roping begins at about 1:30 into the video.

Powell once said, "A tap dancer is really a frustrated drummer." To prove her point, she danced with Buddy Rich, reputed to be the world's best drummer.

And now for something completely different...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Top 10 Western Books

Steve Dancy Tales
 Reading Cowboy Statue, Azle, Texas

American Cowboy magazine has listed the top 10 Western Books, plus a few also-rans from the same authors. Many of these novels were made into classic films, which shows that good storytelling can be adapted to multiple mediums.

By the way, I searched through the list twice, but never found any of the Steve Dancy Tales. I'm sure this is an oversight that will be corrected in the next list. 

Actually, I believe they compiled a fine Top 10. I've read 8 of the 10 ... an omission I'll correct shortly.

Steve Dancy Tales
Illustration by Zachary Pullen

Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Astonishing Thing!

Steve Dancy Tales
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Carl Sagan

Steve Dancy Tales
"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul." Joyce Carol Oates

Steve Dancy Tales, The Shopkeeper
"Be awesome! Be a book nut!" 
Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Empires of Light: the story of a fascinating feud in the Wild East

During the time of America's Wild West, there was also a wildness in the civilized East. It wasn't a range war; it was ruthless combat on the frontier of science. Telegraphs and trains compressed time and space, engines and motor gave man super strength, and electricity expanded day into night. These were parlor tricks that burst out of the laboratories to the wonder of a bustling nation. It was near magic, and hard-nosed men fought to control these supernatural enterprises.

Jill Jonnes in Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World does an excellent job of helping us understand the energy and competitiveness of the time. The "War of the Electric Currents" was an exciting part of our history that could have been made dull as mud. Jonnes avoids tedious explanations of technology to tell the story through three men: Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse. The supporting cast includes robber barons that provided money and intrigue. It was a Wild East fighting over a vast business frontier without rules, fences, or referees.

In researching my latest book, I read, or seriously scanned several books on Edison and one on Tesla. I picked up the Jonnes' book because I wanted a better understanding of Westinghouse. Jonnes does a good job of presenting all three key players in the "War of the Electric Currents." Empires of Light is especially good if you want a single book that puts this fascinating feud into perspective. She makes these giants human and shows that they had distinct personalities. Empires of Light is a nicely done, balanced history book about a world-shattering period of invention and innovation.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Lone Ranger—Hi-Yo Silver Away!

The Lone Ranger has ginned up a lot of controversy. It’s not a homage to the 1950s television series, nor should it be. Reinvigorating the Western genre means appealing to younger generations. Other than costumes, do the Batman films have anything to do with the television series? Well, in the Lone Ranger, they even ditched the costumes. Thank goodness, because a masked man in a form-fitting white outfit made as much sense on the range as Roy Roger’s blinged cowboy shirts. The movie appropriately retained only the symbolic white hat.

Purists criticize the film for enlarging the role of Tonto over the Lone Ranger. I disagree. The television series and the film are buddy stories and good buddy stories need parity between the partners. The film comes closer in this regard than the old Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels series. To me, this had more of the flavor of the Lethal Weapon series—a bomance disguised with irreverent bantering.

Bottom line: I liked The Lone Ranger. I laughed out loud, which is rare for me inside of a movie theater. I was dazzled by some of the cinematography, and loved the score. The characters were different than I expected, but struck me as fresh. The plot follows the standard story line of a wronged protagonist reluctant to accept the mantle of hero. That’s behind us now, so from this point forward, it’s Hi-Yo Silver Away!

If you’re interested in some other perspectives, take a gander at these:

Monday, July 8, 2013

Owen Wister’s Virginian Would not Approve

women pioneers
Poor, but smiling nonetheless

Last month, Paul Mountjoy of Virginia wrote a snarky article for the Washington Times website titled, “The Old West: When men were men and women knew their place.” He opens with the following paragraph. 
“How many times have we heard men declare of the days of the old West, ‘men were men and women stayed at home and knew their place’? This is a common refrain after folks watch a movie based on the period.”
How many times? None, that I've encountered. This is not a common refrain of Western film enthusiasts. It is a writer’s cheap trick. Attribute a sexist comment to something you intend to denigrate.

Mountjoy proceeds to make commonplace observations about the true nature of gunfights in the Old West, list everyday hardships as if they were unique to the frontier, and reminds us that people died of disease and attacks without good medical assistance. The West, of course, was completely void of compassion due to men “witnessing 25 thousand deaths in a matter of days” during the Civil War. (I'm sure this callousness never afflicted men in the actual battleground state of Virginia.) Mountjoy has a penchant for hyperbole. He also claimed prostitutes in the West took “up to 50 or more customers nightly, more often than not, in an alley between two buildings.”

Perhaps Mountjoy’s motive is to promote employment for his friends in the nation’s capital. He writes, “If their farmer husband became disabled and had no older sons to take over the farm, they were in deep trouble. There were no government programs to help.” That seals it; the real Old West was nothing like the movies. And I thought White House Down was a documentary.

Mountjoy misses the whole point of Western mythology. I wrote an article titled, “Is the Mythologyof the Old West Dead?” Here's one paragraph. 
“The West, outer space, the future, or a make-believe land represents a new beginning in a fresh place away from home—the shrugging off of disappointments and a chance to start all over again. The romance and adventure of frontiers draws people desperate to escape the travail of their current existence. We've seen this in real life with the migrations to the New World and the Old West, but today many people satisfy this longing vicariously with fiction. If you're poor, your family makes you miserable, you've committed an act that offends society, or wanderlust has gripped you, then the adventure and limitless opportunity of a frontier beckons like a siren's call. Emigrating to a frontier means you get a do-over in a land with no rules, no fences, no referees.” 

It’s the absence of civilization that draws stalwart people to a frontier. They can start over and build a better life. Maybe they won’t, but they’re willing to take risks just for the chance. Listing hardships never dissuaded pioneers, whether they were setting off for Plymouth or Tombstone. They were a tough and hopeful breed. We lament the demise of the frontier and the Old West because we need more of these courageous people.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Coming Soon ... The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale

western fiction
Friday, I signed the final approval forms for The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale. Whew!

western fiction
The Return by James D. Best

I wish that meant the book was done and the novel would be available next week. Lots yet to do for the print version and formatting remains for ebooks. Turnaround for ebook formatting is generally quick, so I expect both formats to be available within the next four weeks. Perhaps a little sooner. Center Point's Large Print version will come out the first quarter of 2014. The movie has been green-lighted for 2024, or thereabouts.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Eat, Drink, Read, and be Merry

We had a great 4th of July with friends, hamburgers, and noodle salad. Breaking bread with friends is one of the pleasures in life. I think it goes back to campfires and caves, when you savored eating instead of being eaten.

Reading Steve Dancy Tales
Bookbar, Denver

Books can be friends, as well. That’s why I liked this Flavorwire article on “10 Literary Restaurants for Hungry Book Nerds Around the World.” I think I’ll put all 10 on my bucket list.

If you believe reading and food go together, you’ll enjoy Book Eats, a blog dedicated to food and books.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

An Elixir for a Frenzied Pace

The world keeps moving faster. I used to do email once a day, but people kept getting irritated that I took twenty-four hours to respond. The assumption is that everyone has a smart phone and is checking email continuously. Not me, although I do check it about three times a day now.

James D. Best
The Good ol' Days

Sometimes I fail to answer the phone. When I follow up, the caller asks in an accusatory tone where I was. Nowadays, people expect to get hold of anyone at their convenienceespecially bosses. When you run to Starbucks from work, you need to remember to grab your cell phone off your desk or face angry stares when you return. We’re supposed to be wired at all times.

In this age of Big Data, we are getting our information in snatches. News magazines have given way to tweets. The crawl at the bottom of the screen tears your attention away from the larger story coming from the anchors. You can’t even relax while watching entertainment television because you need to have the remote handy to speed past the commercials.

Deep breath. It’s summer. Relax. Find a good book, a sand chair, and turn off the world. Take a mini-vacation with a good story. Travel to another place and time without leaving your backyard. You’ll be surprised how much you can recharge with an hour to yourself.

I’m breathless just writing this. I think I’ll go to the movies tonight and heed the admonishment not call, text, surf, or use telepathy during the screening.

May I suggest one of these.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Full of Surprises—Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

In high school, I read every Ian Fleming James Bond book. I liked them, but wasn't motivated to read them a second time until recently. I started with Live and Let Die, the second book in the series. The novel was full of surprises. I remembered that Bond was a different character than in the movies and the plots were less extravagant.  All true. James Bond is vulnerable and feels fear in the books. He is not as much of a loner and makes friends easily. The plot doesn't make sense in either the book or movie, but the action/escape scenes tend to the more realistic side in the novel. There is a fetish about equipment, but in the book, Bond is given somewhat specialized scuba gear, while in the movie, Roger Moore wears an electro-magnetic watch that can pull a wooden row boat by it metal rowlock. Fleming does not give Bond futuristic gadgetry. A steel-toe shoe is about as exotic as it gets.

Original book cover
First Edition Cover
Fleming was a much better writer than I remembered. His pacing was pitch-perfect and descriptions excellent. Although the dialogue often seemed pedestrian, Fleming was a great storyteller. Live and Let Die was an easy read, and there were more than a few times when I reread a section that showed skillful writing.

The big surprise was the racism reflected in this 1954 book. Fleming occasionally writes favorably about his black characters, but for the most part he relies on offensive words and stereotypes that were more generally accepted than we would like to remember. Fleming’s attempt to reflect black ghetto dialects seems crude and wrong. This novel demonstrates that racial attitudes have improved in the last sixty years. Perhaps everyone, especially the young, should read Live and Let Die to gain a fuller understanding of the 1950s.