Monday, March 28, 2016

Cowboys are cool. Cows, not so much

“A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.” Mark Twain

I recently saw a college friend for the first time in decades. He seemed surprised to learn I wrote novels. I guess I need to work on that world famous part. 

“What do you write?” he asked.


He immediately made a disparaging crack about cowboys and Indians.

I explained there were no cowboys in my novels.

He was incredulous. “Then what do you write about?”

“I write about people … people who happened to live on the American frontier. My characters live in cities, towns and camps, not on the range. They’re miners, businessmen, politicians, schoolmarms, shopkeepers, lumbermen, lawyers, doctors, newspapermen, and they come in all ages and in both sexes.”

“Bad guys?”

“Oh yeah, outlaws aplenty. Otherwise you don’t have a story.”

“And gunfights?”

“Of course. They’re part of the genre. But in five books, I’ve only had one duel where two men stood off against each other. My gunfights are more realistic to the history of the West.”

“But no cowboys?”

“Nary a one. Cows didn’t draw people west. Money laying in the dirt got people to get up and leave home. Mining drew far more people than ranching. The romantic cowboy has been written about since Owen Wister and The Virginian, and cowboys have become the stable of Western literature. When I started writing Westerns I wanted to do something different, so I wrote about mining, instead of ranching.”

I continued, “Cowboys have become such a cliché that most people don’t know that Tombstone was a mining town, not a cow town. Denver started as a mining camp. Mark Twain’s encounters with the Wild West occurred in Virginia City, where $305 million was mined from the Comstock Lode.  (Still, the fictional Cartwright’s Ponderosa gets all the attention.) 240 million troy ounces of silver were extracted from Leadville. Almost all of our ghost towns were once thriving mining camps. Mining was an exciting industry that drew every kind of character to the West.  Wyatt Earp made a career of following the action, and he abandoned cows to chase after silver and gold.”

“So you don’t like cowboys?” He said this with an undue sense of satisfaction.

“I do. Cowboys are self-reliant, live by a code, and are skillful with horses, ropes, guns, and nature. I believe their individualism is a metaphor for an important American value. But others have already written about cowboys, cow towns, and the open range. I wanted to explode another facet of the Wild West, so I write about mining, which allows me to get into bustling cities and the technology revolution of railroads, telegraphs, and electricity. Instead of lamenting the demise of the Wild West, I examine the influences that eventually tamed the frontier.

 “Is there drama in mining?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? Money is power … and the power-crazed chase after wealth with a passion. Mining drew fortune seekers, politicians, shysters, engineers, shopkeepers, and people with every kind of scheme under the sun to separate miners from their money. Most rail lines after the transcontinental contest connected mines to markets. Everybody chased after the money: good men, bad men, and hard cases that enforced the will of the greedy.”

“Okay, okay, you convinced me,” he said. “I’ll try one of your books.”

As Hollywood says, this story has been inspired by true events. That means a conversation did occur somewhat along these lines, but I was much more articulate in real life.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Is there life east of Pacific Coast Highway?

My wife and I are about to return to Omaha, Nebraska after wintering in San Diego. Darn, where did the time go? I’m going to miss friends and family, surfing, walks on the beach, and Mexican food.

When I was a teenager, we rarely ventured away from the beach. In fact, we didn’t believed there was life east of Pacific Coast Highway. We called the inhabitants of that vast wasteland inlanders … or worse. A few of my friends became involved with inland girls, but for the most part, we had plenty on our side of the divide. (I admit my wife came from east of PCH, but she grew up west of Hawthorne Boulevard, the next thoroughfare in our neck of the woods. That’s almost native. Besides, she put up with me for all these years, so I can't hold her paganism against her.)

In my youth, if someone had grabbed me on the beach and told me I would live in Omaha, I would have hushed them in fear that one of my friends might overhear. Omaha is in the exact center of the country. As far you can get from an ocean or large body of water. The surf stinks. And yet … I’m looking forward to going home. We have a nice home and I’m eager to see my daughter’s family and our Midwest friends. And focus more diligently on writing. When I get there I’ll play with the grandkids, eat at our favorite restaurants, bring home great pizza, watch spring blossom all over the place, enjoy watching the kids baseball games, and shoot untold rounds of golf. Oh, wait, I don’t golf. Never mind, that was someone else. But I do look forward to eating at the clubhouse.

In truth, I discovered there’s abundant life in the heartland. I enjoy Omaha, and besides, if I need a fix, I can just jump on a plane and be back in San Diego in three hours.  Thank goodness for Boeing.

Omaha, Nebraska

Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Second Short Story

I write novels. Seven and counting. (Plus six nonfiction books, if I include my ghost writing assignments.) I’ve previously written only one short story, for which I received an Honorable Mention as a finalist. Maybe that didn’t count. It was a newspaper contest for a one hundred word novel. In the beginning, I thought anyone could string together one hundred words, but it took me a week to create a draft fit for submittal. Short is hard.

All of this is preface to telling you that I have written my first real short story. “Snake in The Grass” is a Steve Dancy Tale with a twist. I won’t tell you the twist. You have to read it for yourself. Where? First, you’ll need to wait a few months. The book is an anthology written by seven top selling Western authors.

Wanted, A Western Story Collection includes stories by Brad Dennison, Lou Bradshaw, Tell Cotten, Robert J. Thomas, WL Cox, James D. Best, and Duane Boehm.

I’ll let you know when it becomes available. In the meantime, I’ll leave with a few of my favorite quotes about short stories.
A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it. Edgar Allan Poe
A short story is a different thing all together - a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger. Stephen King
The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side. Emma Donoghue
I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way. Stephen Colbert

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Celebrating a Birthday in Gardnerville, Nevada

Historic U.S. Route 395

For my birthday we ran up from San Diego to Gardnerville, Nevada. We stopped overnight in Santa Clarita to pick up friends, so it feels like a party. It’s a beautiful drive up U.S. Route 395. High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart was filmed in Lone Pine, Charles Manson was jailed in Independence, Bishop lays claim to the oldest rodeo in the country, Mammoth remains my favorite ski resort, Lee Vining is named after a saloon patron who shot himself in the most private of parts, and Bodie makes other ghost towns appear stunted. Schat’s Bakery alone makes the long drive worthwhile. This doesn’t even mention the stunning scenery. All that open beautiful land makes you wonder why everyone huddles on top of each other in Los Angeles.

Gardnerville is in Carson Valley, south of Carson City. The whole region feels peaceful. Homes are spread out, friendly people abound, traffic moves swiftly on the single thoroughfare, and majestic mountains loom in every direction. It’s a great place to live or visit.

Except … I can’t believe the amount of mayhem I’ve invented in these precincts.

Several Steve Dancy Tales take place in Carson City and Virginia City. Whenever I visit, I’m reminded that I wrote about another time. The Carson Valley of today seems quiet and subdued, but when Mark Twain wandered these environs, the region could truly be called the Wild West.

If you want to experience the history of this region, Roughing It by Mark Twain and An Editor on the Comstock Lode by Wells Drury provide first-hand accounts of Virginia City in its heyday.