Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pacific Beach, San Diego

My wife has flown to Omaha to do some tasks that have to do with spa colors, soothing music, and aromatherapy.  She’s helping my daughter open a pedicure spa. Since I can’t contribute anything but bad advice, I’m driving today to Pacific Beach to get in a little surfing.

You might want to visit my Surf Pinterest Board. There are some great shots and a couple videos.

Three people have asked if I will continue to work on The Return or just surf all day. Boy, does that make me feel good. In truth, two hours is all I need suit up, surf, and shower. At my age, you no longer make a day of surfing. Since six hours is a full day of writing for me, I think I can catch a few waves and still make progress on the next Steve Dancy Tale. Besides, I write better at the beach. Who wouldn’t be inspired by something like this?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Buddies in the Saddle reviews The Shopkeeper

Ron Scheer at Buddies in the Saddle has reviewed The Shopkeeper and published a companion  interview with me.

"This is an old-fashioned western in a way that goes back to the western’s roots. For the closest comparison, I’d offer Francis Lynde’s first novel, The Grafters, which was published in 1905. Both novels tell of a newcomer to the West who gets involved in a political intrigue, where influence is bought and sold, and greed rules the workings of government."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Early Adopters Pay a High Price

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale is an unusual Western because Dancy and his friends go to New York City to make a business call on Thomas Edison. Those who have read Murder at Thumb Butte know what Dancy wants from the Wizard of Menlo Park. 

What struck me during my research was the aggressiveness of entrepreneurs when a new technology emerges. This seems to be a constant throughout our country's history. From this distance in time, we think Edison invented the light bulb and everybody bought this miraculous device from him. Not true. Just as in the early days of personal computers or during the dot-com craze, there were an untold number of start-ups vying for customers in every city in America. It was chaos.

The reason for the overhead rat's nest in the above photograph is that each company had to string their own wires. (This photo was taken to show the effects of a snow storm, not the wiring mess. Sky-blocking wires were considered normal.) 

In each new phase of the computer revolution, thousands of company jumped into the field, but they were soon ruthlessly trimmed to a few giants. The same thing happened with electricity. In less than a decade, most of these unsightly wires were gone from New York City. A single supplier had been chosen. It eventually became known as Consolidated Edison, or Con Ed.

You might also like Dueling Entrepreneurs.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Dramatic Reading of Tempest at Dawn

SAGE in Northridge, CA is doing a dramatic reading of Tempest at Dawn. The SAGE Society is a learning-in-retirement organization sponsored by California State University, Northridge. The group has adapted the novel to a play-like script and members assume the roles of various framers of the Constitution. The readings will extend over many weeks, but yesterday I had the privilege of attending the first reading of chapters 1-4. The society members did a wonderful job and it was a kick to hear other people read my words aloud. This was a fun group and the performance and banter showed that the members were learned, full of life, and welcoming to new members and experiences. After Tempest at Dawn, they will do a reenactment of the Virginia Ratification Convention, which they will script from other sources. I felt honored that SAGE has dedicated their time and meetings to Tempest at Dawn.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Louis L'Amour, The Read Deal

If your name was Louis L'Amour and you wrote about men tougher than nails, would you adopt a penname? Frederick Faust used Max Brand to publish his rough and tumble Westerns. Of course, that was partly because Faust was a Teutonic name, and the Great War had made Germans unpopular.

Saul David, editorial director of Bantam Books, told Donald Jackson a story he included in a Smithsonian Magazine article. "That was the heyday of the paperback Western. We had lost Luke Short, our Western Star, and I was in California looking for a new one. I got a call - the word was out that I was in town - and a voice said, 'This is Louis L'Amour, you've never heard of me but I want to see you right now.' He came up with an envelope, made a pitch and told me to read his samples. He said he was going to be the next great Western writer and we'd do well to take him on. I read it while he waited. It was Hondo, and it knocked me out. I signed him to a long-term contract on the spot … David's boss in New York had doubts about their new author's name - L'Amour on a paperback sounded like ‘a Western written in lipstick,’ he said - but no one had grit enough to ask him to change it, ‘I didn't want to get punched out,’ David explains.”

At the time David met L’Amour (1908-1988), he was nearly fifty. He had mellowed a bit in middle age, but could still throw a hefty punch. For almost his entire life he would spend over an hour each day lifting weights, skipping rope, and punching a bag.

It might seem that L’Amour started late in the writing field, but that would be incorrect for two reason. First, he wrote for the pulps before WWII. (He took an extended hiatus during his enlistment.)  After the war, he sold at least one story per week prior to the film Hondo. There is a legend that John Wayne made L’Amour’s career when he bought the theatrical rights to a short story that became Hondo. Wayne also endorsed of the later novel as the best Western he had ever read. The Duke certainly gave L’Amour a big boost, but L’Amour was making a decent living from writing prior to Hondo. He had already sold several novels to paperback publishers and had sold several other projects for movies and TV.

The second reason would be research. He spent his early years living the life he would later write about. During his upbringing in North Dakota, his father’s veterinary practice and his other relatives exposed him to ranching and genuine cowboys. As a youth, L’Amour traveled the world as an itinerate worker. He hoboed, skinned cattle, baled hay, worked in mines, saw mills and lumber yards, circled the globe as a merchant seaman, and boxed all over the globe for money. He went out of his way to meet lawmen and outlaws. He traveled everywhere, noticed everything, and read constantly. He bragged that from 1928 until 1942 he read three books a week. By the time he met David, his life experiences and pulp writing had thoroughly prepared him to be a novelist.

Louis L'Amour wrote over one hundred books, of which more than 30 have been made into movies. He was extremely prolific and once signed a thirty book contract with Bantam. His books have been translated into over fifteen languages. A few days before he passed away, L’Amour was notified that sales of his books had topped two million. Today, that number is well in excess of three million. None of his titles have ever been out of print.

He loved writing and storytelling. He said, "I can transport myself to another time and place and put myself there." 

Critics panned his dialogue and one-dimensional characters, but praised his pacing and historical accuracy. L'Amour dismissed their criticism. "If you write about a bygone period east of the Mississippi River, it's a historical novel. If it's west of the Mississippi it's a Western." He added, "I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks, I know it's literature and I know it will be read 100 years from now." 

Twenty-five years after his death, his prediction looks accurate.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cowboy Tribute to Arizona

Last night I went to the Phoenix Symphony to hear Rex Allen Jr. in an Arizona Tribute. It was a great presentation that mixed movie and television Western scores with cowboy songs by Rex Allen Jr. This was not a night for experimentation. The symphony and Allen did the standards of Western music; Buckaroo Holiday, The Big Country, William Tell Overture, Bonanza, Ghost Riders in the Sky, Cool Water, Streets of Laredo, and several others. The performance concluded with I love you Arizona, which was written and sung by Allen and adopted last year as the official theme song for the Arizona bicentennial. The audience insisted that Allen sing the song again for an encore.

It was a full house and I hope the popularity of the two-night performance will encourage other similar events.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cowboy up!

I recently ran across Cowboy Values by James P. Owen. The book looked intriguing, but when I went to buy it, I decided to start with Cowboy Ethics, Owen's first cowboy book.

Cowboy Ethics is like getting two books in one. The first is a kaleidoscopic tour of cowboy life. Owen’s description of cowboy ethics is the purported purpose of the book, but renowned Western photographer David R. Stoecklein’s pictures grab the reader’s attention. Breathtaking photographs appear on nearly every page and alone are worth the price of the book.

The full title is Cowboy Ethics, What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West. In my opinion, the whole of American society, not just the tip of Manhattan Island, should rediscover the Code of the West. Owen points out that this code has never actually been written down, so he took several years to put together his own list. I think he does a good job of summing up the Code of the West.

Real Cowgirls by David R. Stoecklein

1. Live each day with courage
2. Take pride in your work
3. Always finish what you start
4. Do what has to be done
5. Be tough, but fair
6. When you make a promise, keep it
7. Ride for the brand
8. Talk less and say more
9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale
10. Know where to draw the line.

If you’re a cowboy, you already know the code, but it never hurts to be reminded. The brilliance of this book is that the remarkable photographs will pull you into the code over and over again. Isn’t that how ethics have been passed down from generation to generation for eons—by repetition.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Hanging Party in the Old West

I was going through some research I had collected for the Steve Dancy Tales and ran across this letter from J. A. Carruth describing life in Las Vegas, New Mexico in the 1880s.

Click to read poster

Speaking of hanging bees, another one took place in Las Vegas after wards when a crowd went and took a party out of the east side lockup and went over and started to hang him on a pole right under the window of the office of the district attorney, who came up and said: “For God’s sake, boys, don’t hang him here. There’s a much better pole in the next block. So the boys very kindly took the “candidate” to the better pole, where he was duly hanged.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Frederick Faust was one of the most prolific writers of all time, publishing nearly thirty million words in his lifetime. Faust had more pen names than Destry had bullets. (In the film, Destry Rides Again, based on the Faust character, James Stewart famously shoots his Colt seven times.) He wrote more than 500 novels and short stories—all with two fingers on a manual typewriter. In his day, Faust was one of the highest paid writers in the world. Late in his career, Warner Brothers paid him $3,000 a week and he made a fortune from radio, film, and television adaptions of his Dr. Kildare character. Despite writing poetry and fiction in every genre, it was Westerns that made Faust famous, albeit under the pseudonym Max Brand.

Although Faust had once worked on a ranch, he was not a true Westerner. He was born in Seattle in 1892 and grew to maturity in California. He attended the University of California at Berkeley for four years without graduating. He was enamored with the Greek and Latin classics his entire life and often incorporated ancient mythology into his stories. His real life’s ambition was to be a poet, and he wrote genre fiction in the afternoons so he could pursue his passion for poetry in the mornings.

Faust wrote his first Western as a magazine story in 1918. Faust’s editor had recently lost Zane Grey to a competitor because Grey’s Western stories had become so popular. This editor convinced Faust to try to fill his boots. Faust’s first Western novel, The Untamed (1919) was highly derivative of a 1910 Grey Western titled The Heritage of the Desert.

Grey and Faust were different writers. Grey was enthralled with the landscape and expansiveness of the West, while Faust preferred to explore internal conflicts. Grey brought setting almost to life as a character, while Faust had a knack for describing animals in a way that made them vital characters in his stories. Faust preferred pursuit plots, delayed revelation, and his fiction was character driven. Faust was a more literary writer, especially when he put his mind to it.  Jon Tuska, a literary critic/agent, wrote: “The Biblical overtones that run throughout Faust’s Western fiction are as striking and unique as his imagery from classical literature. Indeed, Zane Grey’s avowed pantheism is wan beside the vivid evocation of the presence of God in Faust’s fiction, whether as the Great Spirit of the Plains Indians or the Christian Deity … every story Faust ever wrote seems to have to a degree both surface action and a subtext, a story within the story that functions on the deepest level.”

Although Faust received praise from literary critics, his lack of historical accuracy, scant descriptions of the landscape, and minimal actual experience on the frontier generated harsh criticism by those who admire realistic detail in Western fiction. Additionally, His writing quality was inconsistent. Most of his books and stories were produced at a breakneck pace, which sometimes amounted to 6,000 words in a single day. His work has also been butchered by editors who severely abridge his serialized stories for publication as novels.

Frederick Faust was a one-man fiction factory. He was also a great storyteller who invented enduring characters. Faust believed that “there is a giant asleep in every man.  When that giant wakes, miracles can happen.”  This was certainly true for him.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Django Unchained—Quentin Tarantino’s Does Spaghetti Western

Western fiction
I like Tarantino movies and Westerns, so I expected to love Django Unchained.  I only liked it. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t live up to my expectations.

The Spaghetti Western is a subset of the Western genre, typified by antiheroes, revenge themes, extreme violence, slow scenes, scant dialogue, extreme close-ups, long running times, and heavy scores punctuated by stretches of pure silence. (My favorite is Once Upon a Time in the West.) The Spaghetti Western is a different breed from the traditional Western because all of these characteristics are done to excess.

I knew something was amiss with Django Unchained about two hours into the movie when I wondered how long it would be before the end. Not a good sign, even when three hours is typical for Spaghetti Westerns. The audience is supposed to be transported to another place and time, not squirming in their seats.

Tarantino loves bad movies, especially bad genre movies. He sees art where others see trash. His best works, like Kill Bill for example, blend clich├ęs and corniness from multiple genres into a cornucopia of unexpected delights. Django Unchained seemed too predictable and too narrow. Perhaps Tarantino’s shtick has run its course. I hope not.

Related post: Europe's Infatuation with the American Wild West

Friday, January 11, 2013

On Transmigration Comments on Tempest at Dawn

In an article titled "Books: An Observation," The Cajun writes:

"The only new title that knocked my socks off is "Tempest at Dawn" by James D. Best, published in 2009.  There's more about it HERE.  I've finished it and plan to read it again, after a spell.  There is a lot there to absorb and enjoy.  I know I missed many things as I read it quickly - it's a compelling read - and the second time  I plan to read more slowly and savor each character, and there are many historic figures involved. I also began looking up his other works and maybe add a few of them to my collection."

Thanks for the kind words.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Zane Grey Defined a Genre

Portrait of Grey at Monument Valley

Zane Grey was an athlete, avid fisherman, and a lifelong philander. Grey was introverted and remained somewhat antisocial his entire life. Oh yeah, he was also a writer. In fact, he wrote his first story at age fifteen.

He attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, and played minor league ball for several seasons. After graduating with a dentistry degree, he set up practice in New York City. About ten years later, he gave up dentistry to write full time.

His first published work was a magazine article about fishing, and he wrote extensively about fishing his entire life. At first, his novels were repeatedly rejected. He grew to love the West after several hunting trips to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, so he incorporated these experiences into his writing. Still his novels continued to be rejected. (His early works were not Westerns.)

In 1910, he wrote his first Western, The Heritage of the Desert which became a bestseller. Two years later, Riders of the Purple Sage became his best-selling book of all time. From that point forward, he was a celebrity writer and Grey’s Westerns were eagerly published.

Zane Grey authored over ninety books, counting the ones published posthumously from manuscripts or serialized magazine stories. He would cease writing for long periods, and then burst into writing frenzies where he would scribe over 3,000 words a day. He sold over 40 million books, most of them Western novels, but some were children’s stories or non-fiction books about hunting, fishing, and baseball. Over 100 films were based on his stories. After his death, he even made it to television with The Lone Ranger, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon—which were based on his characters—and Zane Grey Western Theater. His Westerns allowed him to explore the world extensively, maintain several homes, and write about fishing. In fact, his books made him a millionaire, which irked critics who had little respect for his writing skill.

Zane Grey’s West Society claims that “In 57 novels, 10 books of Western nonfiction, and 130 movies, Grey, who died in 1939 at age 67, almost single-handedly created the "Myth of the West."

The official Zane Grey website lists his books, movies, and magazine serializations.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Martin at What Would The Founders Think? Reviews The Shut Mouth Society

To start with, I occasionally write for What Would The Founders Think? and the reviewer is a friend. But ... it's a good review, so I'll shamelessly promote it on my site.

Martin writes, "The Shut Mouth Society is a potboiler of the first order.  James Best fans will be surprised as the author steps a bit outside of his regular genre, the classic American Western, and gives hero Steve Dancy a break ... The Shut Mouth Society is written in a “never mind maneuvers, go straight at ‘em,” style. He never resorts to Deus ex machina to resolve a pretty turbulent plot, but keeps the reader guessing until practically the end, with plausible, if surprising twists."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Three Icons of the Western Genre

Zane Grey

The three greatest icons of the Western novel are Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L'Amour. Sure, other authors have written multiple Western novels, but these three made their names synonymous with the genre.  (Actually, Max Brand was a pen name.) Together, these three authors wrote nearly 500 Westerns and countless short stories.

Zane Grey published Westerns from 1908 until his death in 1939. Actually, he left such a large stockpile of manuscripts that Harper & Brothers published a novel per year under his name until 1963.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand
Max Brand published his first Western in 1919 and continued writing in the genre until his death in 1944. Similar to Zane Grey, publishers continued to bring his work out in new editions. For example, in 2007, Five Star Westerns published Acres of Unrest from a 1926 magazine series.

Louis L'Amour published his first Western in 1951. His last Western published  while he was alive was The Haunted Mesa (1987). Like his genre predecessors, books under his name continued to be published long after his death, many of which were short story collections.

Louis L'Amour

These three may not have been the greatest authors who have ever written about the American frontier, but they were great storytellers. (Okay, my vote would actually go to Mark Twain as the best Western author.) Storytelling has always been a revered art form and has been around since man first exaggerated his hunting prowess. In fact, storytelling might be the real oldest profession. 

In the early days, stories were spoken—handed down generation to generation. Cave dwellers began the notion of illustrated stories with petroglyphs, while during the middle-ages; stained-glass served the same purpose. The novel came to fruition only after widespread literacy and it nurtured its own artistic standards. Have these three authors ever met those artistic standards? I believe the answer is yes, especially in their best work.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Wishing All a Great 2013

Today is a fresh start.A whole new year. Three hundred and sixty five days to write and enjoy life. Maybe I have that backward. My New Year's resolution is to finish The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale and make it the best book of the series ... but not for a few days. Right now I'm with my children and their families in Colorado on a ski vacation. Steve and his friends can wait a bit while I ring in the new year with a few more ski runs and some fun times with six grandchildren and their parents. 

My year is starting out great. I hope it's starting out as well for you, and may 2013 be a year of health, prosperity, and great relationships with all of your loved ones.