Limitless Vista of Character & Story: Howard Hopkins on Writing the West Part 1

Each new novel by Howard Hopkins reminds me that the possibilities are endless, that anything goes—within the publisher’s guidelines, of course.  Hopkins writes horror novels and Westerns, such as The Dark Riders and Pistolero, under his own name and Westerns as Lance Howard.  His recent Lance Howard Westerns include Dead Man Riding, The Killing Kind, and the forthcoming Hell on Hoofs for Hale’s Black Horse Westerns line.

“Howard Hopkins’ Westerns are tight, well-written stories peopled with believable characters,” said Matthew P. Mayo, author of such Westerns as Hot Lead, Cold Heart and non-fiction as Cowboys, Mountain Me, & Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West. “These aren’t cookie cutter good-and-bad guys. His good folks come across as downtrodden, perhaps abused, but not without hope. His baddies can come across as vile, fractured, perhaps unhealable, but wholly believable. And he puts them all in situations that ring true–even those tinged with the supernatural and fantastic. Howard’s novels are also about something–there is powerful subtext in his writing. Not every writer offers that.”

Below, Hopkins and I talk about suspense, mood, character and Hopkins’ love for exploring the wide open literary landscape in service of telling the best story he can.

Why the West? Why Westerns?

Howard Hopkins:  Originally, I started out as a horror writer, but with the horror glut of the late ‘80s, breaking into publishing in that genre proved difficult. I’d sold twenty plus short stories to various small press magazines in that genre, but wasn’t having much luck with novels. I’d even briefly gotten an agent who promised to represent my work in children’s horror, but took my money and ran (and was later closed down, I think, but I have been very tentative about agents since).

A friend of mine at the time had just sold a Western to the Black Horse Western line from Robert Hale, Ltd., and suggested I try a sort of horror/mystery thing, as they also had a mystery line. So I wrote a novel called Dancing with Death, about a series of cult-type murders at a strip club, with an ongoing detective character. I submitted it to the publishing company, who quite liked it, but, unfortunately, they had just ended their mystery line! It left me with a mystery book and a quandary.

I had never been a big Western fan up to that point, with the exception of probably the greatest, in my opinion, western hero ever created, The Lone Ranger, and a scattering of TV shows such as The Wild Wild West, Lancer and The Big Valley, and, later, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and The Young Riders. So I bought a ton of Western novels, from Louis L’Amour to Matt Braun, and plunged into the dust- and cactus-covered trails of the American frontier—and quickly fell in love with the genre.

That led to, without telling my friend, an attempt at my first Western novel, Blood on the Saddle, which sold within a week of submission. I am presently working on my 34th  Lance Howard Western after just selling my 33rd, Hell on Hoofs. And the mystery I wrote for them? Well, that I rewrote into a Western that became a tale of cult saloon gal killers, The Deadly Doves!

So initially it was a matter of a writer looking for a genre in which to break in, but it, of course, quickly became so much more. I think many people have an idea of the Western being a moribund genre for old men wearing cowboy hats and scuffed boots, but it can be so much more, and the Black Horse Western line certainly has been more than gracious accommodating my Westerns, which often mix a bit from many other genres—horror, mystery, even romance. (Anyone wishing to learn more about my titles and read excerpts, etc., please visit my Western page.)

I think the reason I fell in love with the Western is because it has the same vast potential as the men and women who opened the West originally. The only limits are those placed by the expectations of the individual, whether publisher or reader. There is just a huge limitless vista of character and story, and room for growth. There are shoot ‘em ups, which I and many writers certainly love to incorporate, all the way to my vampire-Western, written under my own name, called, The Dark Riders, which involves outlaw vampires seeking revenge.

The Western is far from dead. It is an ever-expanding living genre that should not be shackled by narrow perceptions. There is literally something for everyone. The Black Horse line is a perfect example of that.

Where does a Western start for you—character, plot, image, historical event, something else altogether?

Howard Hopkins:  Really depends on the individual book. Sometimes a title just pops into my head and I go from there. Other times, it will be a snatch of dialog, or some scene, or a very basic idea. With my August 2010 Lance Howard release, Dead Man Riding, the first thing that popped into my head was a scene of a down-and-out former manhunter who receives a box at the saloon. What’s in the box, a very gruesome and emotional surprise, starts him on a path of vengeance and redemption.

With my novel Coyote Deadly, I had heard a news report on Mexican “coyotes” along the Arizona and New Mexico borders who would leave the underwear of their female victims hanging in trees as mocking symbols to the law. I transferred that into the West and a three-brother gang who raided an Amish-type settlement dead-set against violence and left their victims’ undergarments hanging in a tree in the center of town. To that I added the fact that nobody in town will speak of the crimes or aide in the capture of the criminals, making the hero’s job quite a bit more difficult.

With my most recent sale, Hell on Hoofs, it was just a title, based on the phrase “hell on wheels.” It became the story of a former manhunter with a very difficult decision to make once a woman solicits his help in a saloon in a very unusual manner.

One of the striking things about The Killing Kind is the lighting, the mood. This leads me to wonder how much horror shows up in your Westerns and what form does it take?

Howard Hopkins:  As far as I am concerned, anything and everything is on the table. Some folks just love to define and pigeonhole the Western, or any genre for that matter, but I think if you limit yourself in any way (aside from the specific requirements of your publisher/editor, of course) you limit your story and your growth as a writer. I use horror, mystery, romance, pulp hero adventure, and even comic book styles to bring new angles to the Western.

(Tip for writers: read comic books, because they are excellent for showing you how to advance a story with dialog and pace. Check out the works of Ed Brubaker, Gail Simone, Paul Dini, Geoff Johns and other masters of the trade.)

Some cases in point: My Lance Howard Western, Ripper Pass, involved Jack the Ripper in the old West—the Jack the Ripper before he became Red Jack. The West Witch focused on a woman the townspeople suspected of being a witch and The Comanche’s Ghost concerned the spectre of a Comanche marauding in the night. Palomita entailed a ghost white horse. Even more to the point my vampire-Western, The Dark Riders, as mentioned above, involved a passel of blood-suckers terrorizing a young rancher. Western campfire stories have a long tradition and horror out in the vast wilderness, when there was no electricity, telephones or modern conveniences, works very well. While many of my Lance Howard novels have supernatural trappings, they are just that, what I call my Scooby Doo Westerns, but Dark Riders and another under my own name called Pistolero ride into full blown horror mixed with Western. With The Killing Kind, which is a sort of stalker-Western, the lighting and mood were very important. The novel relies much more on suspense than shoot ‘em up action, more on character than horse opera.

With so more than three dozen Westerns behind you, how has your understanding of the Western novel changed over the years?

Howard Hopkins:  Honestly, I pay very little attention to that. I write the story that is there. I am conscious of word length if I have one, which of course on Black Horse Westerns I do, but the characters and the story usually dictate things.

In my opinion, many novels are far too long nowadays, laden with extra wordage and even padding. I think I read a piece by Dean Koontz ages ago where he said many writers don’t know how to plot for a long novel, and he’s right. So if you intend to write a long Western, make sure to plot for it and that everything in that plot belongs there and is not just inserted to add to the length. Make sure your sub-plots relate, mirror, or oppose your main plot. Everything, every place, bit of dialog and scene should add to the advancement of the story or character. Move it forward. Don’t wallow. But long form Western or short, I let the story dictate.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

One thought on “Limitless Vista of Character & Story: Howard Hopkins on Writing the West Part 1

  1. Very interesting interview, especially the part about the blending of western and horror.

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