What's happening in your writing life and mine; Book Updates and recommendations; The wonderful world of reading, writing, and everything in the middle.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
One Author's Answer to those dragging moments? Just get out a gun. Oh my!
Stephen Bly is a Christy Award finalist and winner for his westerns, The Land Tamers, The Outlaw’s Twin Sister, Picture Rock, and Last of the Texas Camp. He has authored and co-authored with wife, Janet, 105 fiction and nonfiction books for adults, teens and kids. Stephen and Janet live in the mountains of north-central Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. They are the parents of three married sons, have four grandchildren, and one great-granchild.
SDC: Such an interesting busy life you must have! What book or project would you like to tell us about today?
SB: My newest release on May 1st will beThrow The Devil Off The Train. Sometimes plot ideas seem to fall out of the sky for me. When I recognize one that I like, I pick it up and run with it, to see where it leads.
SDC: I can't wait to hear all about it.
SB: Throw The Devil Off The Train is a road story inside a train headed west. I wanted the reader to view the grandeur of the West from a train window. . .to experience the slow, winding journey fraught with perils, compared to modern transportation. Added to that I envisioned a theme that people are much more complex than first meetings reveal. Cramped in a train and tested by various trials, stories of the passengers emerge. . .hurts and pains, victories and defeats of the past prod the actions and move the plot.
Then, with the main protagonists, Catherine Goodwin and Race Hillyard, I tossed two hostile cats into a burlap bag, then watched to see how they’d survive. . .or not. After a few gouges and bites between, I could see the evolving conflict trail of their story.
SDC: I started reading westerns about two years ago, Stephen. This really does sound exciting. What inspired you to come up writing in the western genre?
SB: Folks often ask me if I always wanted to grow up and write books about cowboys. Nope. Not me. I never wanted to be a writer. But I did grow up on a farm and wanted to be a cowboy. I had Roy Rogers PJs and curtains and a plastic statue of trigger on my dresser.
However, as a lad, I only read a few western novels. My aunt and uncle had a box of dusty dime novels in a room next to their garage. I’d go to sleep reading them when I got a chance.
But what really caught my fancy was history. I liked the nonfiction accounts of life in the Old West. I learned to grab all the University of Oklahoma and University of Nebraska titles that I could find.
After I married and started raising kids of my own, I read lots of western fiction. One birthday my mother gave me some Zane Grey stories. Then, I picked up novels by B. M. Bower, Owen Wister, Will James, Luke Short, Ernest Haycock, Elmer Kelton, Vardis Fisher and, of course, Louis L’Amour. Somewhere in the middle of the 63rd L’Amour book, the idea struck me . . . I can write one of these.
By then, I had a dozen nonfiction books to my published credit, so I knew I could fill the pages. But I didn’t know if I could spin a tale people would want to read.
One summer wife Janet and I and our youngest son camped in the Beartooth mountains, south of Red Lodge, Montana. I took along an old typewriter and wrote my first western novel, called The Land Tamers. Since I had no idea if I’d ever have the chance to write another, I tied to pack every scene I ever wanted to write in that one book. An editor commented that it moved about as fast as the movie, Raiders Of The Lost Ark. She meant it as a critique. I took it as a compliment.
As it turned out, that was just one of many tales I was allowed to write. I haven’t run out of ideas yet.
SDC: I have a feeling you'll never run out either. What do you think it takes to write a good book? Do you have any secrets?
SB: Though Janet and I have written a couple cozy mystery series, I mainly know about westerns. Every western’s got cowboys and every cowboy’s a storyteller. It goes with the culture. And cowboys don’t need campfires to tell their tales. A sidekick or a good horse who listens will do. That’s one reason why horses were so important for a cowboy. Years later, autos didn’t quite do it—to draw out a windy tale. All I have to do is get each of my characters telling their own oral stories that will captivate the reader’s attention and I’ve got a novel ready to roll.
If the story drags, I’ve got a ready-made solution: shoot someone. You may think that’s a play at humor, but I am dead serious. I do something, anything, that makes my reader jump up and shout, “he can’t do that!” To keep a story alive, you have to produce compelling action and crisp, fast dialogue. I often write an entire chapter of dialogue without any narration, without any identifiers at all. No “he said, she said”. . . .nada. Then, I tweak the words to draw emotion or subtle undertones. Once the dialogue zings, I can elaborate with scenery, narration and other literary delights to pump it up, to increase the vitality.
SDC: Great way to toss in that immediate conflict! Do you read other books besides inspirational? If so, how do they help you in your craft? If not, why not?
SB: I’ve always been a history buff, like my dad, so I read a lot of books about different eras and cultures and peoples. This has helped frame a context and reference to my understanding of the over-arching human story. Of course, I major on the events and times in the Old West, especially between 1870 and 1910 or so. This background informs my research and resources for accuracy of tone and details for my novels.
One of my favorite western fiction authors is Elmer Kelton. I had the privilege of meeting him while he was alive and listening to his talk, “Fiction Writers Are Liars & Thieves.” He stayed with the code for classic westerns. Another is Luke Short. Library Journal and others have compared my writings to theirs.
My favorite authors before I began writing westerns were Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Steinbeck and William Saroyan. These guys caught my imagination, captured me with their believable characters and thought provoking themes.
SDC: I'm going to have to look into some of those authors myself. I love to discover others and how they write or have written. We learn so much from others. Please include a short excerpt of your book. And tell us why you selected it for us.
SB: Here’s a sample of what I consider a romantic scene from my coming release, Throw The Devil Off The Train. The couple seems amiable enough, but there’s hints of sparks. No telling how the fire will settle.
The muddy North Platte River paralleled the train tracks and scattered buildings at Patterson's Siding. Mountains of firewood blocked Catherine Goodwin's view of the river, but as she and Race Hillyard strolled west, the rolling waters and bluffs appeared.
To the south, dry, brown tufts of grass sprawled for miles across treeless, rolling prairie. Occasional wagon ruts recorded the direction of an intrepid pioneer. The morning sky flashed a deep, royal blue with high streaks of white clouds that looked like thick paint slung across the sky. A slight breeze drifted towards them.
Catherine's high, lace up brown leather shoe slipped off the gravel. She grabbed Race's arm. "Excuse me. I hope I didn't twist my ankle." She stretched her foot.
"You're just trying to butter me up for a loan."
She poked him in the ribs, then pulled her arm away. "You better be teasing me."
He slipped her arm back into his. "As long as the good Mr. Phillip Draper of Paradise, California, won't mind, I'm happy to assist a pretty lady on a walk."
"Hmmm. . .a compliment from Mr. Race Hillyard. Should I be suspicious?"
"I'd be disappointed if you weren't."
Catherine studied the faces in the train car beside them. "You know, just yesterday I held you in deep disgust."
"Has that changed?"
"Yes, today I hold you in mediocre disdain."
SDC: Thank you very much, Stephen. I know as others read this, it will spark their interest too. What question would you ask of a reader that might help you in the writing of a book and that might help me to select a winner of your new book coming out?
SB: What interests you most about historical novels and why?
SDC: Oh, now, that's a great question. Thank you so much for joining us at A Pen for Your Thoughts! I can't wait till your book comes up. I guarantee I'll be one of your buyers!
VISITORS! Please take a moment to consider Stephen's question above. Write in your thoughts. I, too, would love to know what interests you most about historical novels and why. I HOPE I DRAW YOUR NAME!
Congratulations to Charity Lyman of Nauvoo, IL. Be watching for Stephen's book as soon as it releases!