The Well-Told West: I. J. Parnham on Writing the West

Born and raised in England, Ian Joseph Parnham now lives in Scotland where he writes about the American West.  An accountant by training, he has written more than two dozen novels for Hale’s Black Horse Western line and for Avalon Books Western line.

Parnham’s Black Horse novels run a straighter, darker line than his Avalon books, often with plenty of action and mystery.  His Avalon novels are lighter, and Parnham tends to throw in unexpected elements that poke and prod at the illusions of the idealized West.

“Fiction is about telling a good story well,” said Parnham.  “For me style is the telling well bit. I’d describe my style as ‘accessible no-nonsense’, or at least that’s what I try to do. I’m not hard-boiled enough to be minimalist, but I do try not to let the words get in the way of the story. The sun sets in my stories without casting azure rays of iridescent pearls. Men get shot in the chest without any lectures on firearms or anatomy. People talk without using apostrophes.”

Parnham’s recent novels include Bleached Bones in the Dust, The Secret of Devil’s Canyon, The Prairie Man, Sharpshooter McClure, and The Miracle of Santa Maria, which was released today.

Below, we talk about characterization, connections, and otherwise having fun writing the West.

How does an Englishman come to write Westerns?

Ian Parnham: Western films and TV series were a part of my growing up, although I didn’t think about reading one until I heard J. T. Edson on Radio Nottingham talking about his 100th novel. I was amazed that a local man was a writer and so I sought out his stories and then the other westerns that filled the shelves in the 70s.

But then westerns disappeared from bookshops and I didn’t think of them again until the 90s when I discovered Black Horse Westerns. I enjoyed them and then the thought came to write one…

What is it about the American West that inspires you to tell stories?

Ian Parnham: My other big love is science fiction and its sense of wonder, that moment when Captain Kirk leans forward in his chair and decides to find out what’s out there, except that’s in the future and yet there really was a final frontier to explore and colonize. Living in Scotland, it’s easy to get a feeling of who those colonizers were. Vast areas of land are now free of people with only a few abandoned bothies to show where communities once lived before the Highland Clearances. Those people had to go somewhere and many went west, along with Englishmen, Irishmen, German… and they met with the worst that climate, and terrain, and man can do to man, leading to stories I’d like to tell.

How would you describe a Black Horse Western in general and one of yours in particular to someone who hasn’t ever heard of the BHW line?

Ian Parnham: The easy bit is that BHWs are a hardback line (pasteboard without dust jackets) of short 156 page novels, which translates to about a 200 page paperback. They are published in London and are, in the words of the publisher, “tales of the Old West, tales of human courage on the frontier, lawmen fighting against the odds to get their man, justice being dealt out with the pull of a trigger.” Around 100 are published each year with most being new stories. Although many of the authors are British, numerous other nationalities are represented.

The harder bit is that I can’t generalize about the stories. The publisher gives authors the freedom to explore their own interests, styles, and subject matters so that it’s guaranteed that there really is something for everyone. Amongst many there’s the authentic slices of history from Chuck Tyrell, the sophisticated plotting of Mark Bannerman, the intense psycho-dramas of Lance Howard, the surreal adventures of M. Duggan.

As for myself I’ll mention my forthcoming The Prairie Man. In it Temple Kennedy has made only bad decisions and has ended up as an outlaw. During a robbery, a child is killed and guilt forces him to rethink his life. The opportunity to seek redemption comes when he learns that his childhood friend (and hence the decent man he could have become if he’d made better choices) has been wrongly accused of murder. With only days to prove his innocence he resolves to find the real culprit. Unfortunately his only clue is that his friend believes he already knows who did it and that’s the Prairie Man, a spooky character from stories told to children…

I haven’t read that one since writing it and so I might change my mind when I do, but I think it’s typical of the stories I write. It contains many action set-pieces, has a, hopefully, appealing central character, and has a central mystery that must be resolved to a deadline. Most importantly nothing happens by chance and everything is relevant, especially the bits that aren’t.

What does a reader expect from a Western and how do you use those expectations to your advantage?

Ian Parnham: The reader’s familiarity with the basic settings helps my style of writing where I avoid lengthy description. So saying that the hero walked into a saloon can, sometimes, be enough to tell readers everything they need to know about the scene. Or I can look for one telling image. On the opening page of my last story the town sign had fallen over and been left to rot. I thought that told readers everything they needed to know about the town and so I didn’t describe much else.

In bigger ways the expectation is for a morality tale and so that provides an impetus to the writing. Solve the murder, find the outlaw, get revenge… stories are all about resolving problems in interesting ways and once I know what the problem is, I know where the story has to go. Once though, I had the good guy get shot up while the bad guy rode off into the sunset. I got letters from far flung corners of the world from people telling me they weren’t happy. I was happy, though. It meant someone had read it!

Where does a Western novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether? And how do you develop the novel from there?

Ian Parnham: Yes, is the simple answer. I always say that writing fiction is the art of making connections and usually stories start when I make enough connections to make me want to write, while leaving enough unanswered questions to make me want to find out what happens. Usually those connections involve connecting a plot idea, a character idea, something that happened, and sometimes an image. In my recent Sharpshooter McClure, I had the plot idea of the lawman who fails badly and seeks to make amends even though he never can. I had the character idea of my main character becoming disfigured and how living with that would change him. I had an interest in Wild West shows that promoted an idealized version of a Wild West. And I had an image of a man performing in a play about his own life. I connected those things and then the story got underway.

From there I write in scenes, and from the dialogue and actions I make other connections that dictate where the story will go until I get to the moment when the characters take over and say where they want to go. Usually I let them.

Cassidy Yates, Nathaniel McBain, Fergal O’Brien, what makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling western protagonist in particular?

Ian Parnham: I vary my approach and so Cassidy and Fergal represent the opposite extremes for my protagonists. Cassidy is an everyman, being neither faultless nor fault-ridden, being neither strong nor weak, being neither a fast-draw nor unable to fight back. So it’ll be easy, I hope, for readers to identify with him and see the situation through his eyes and, by extension, become him.

Fergal is the opposite being colourful, flawed, devious, cowardly and someone who will always do what’s best for himself. Readers probably won’t identify with him, but I hope they’ll enjoy reading about someone who when confronted by a gunslinger won’t draw faster than the gunslinger, but will firstly run away and then when cornered will offer him a deal to shoot up someone else instead.

And what makes a compelling antagonist?

Ian Parnham: I once got an editorial comment that my antagonists had a purpose and they weren’t beyond redemption. I liked that as I hadn’t thought about it like that before. My bad guys are rarely bad just because they are. They have an aim and so they are just as motivated to thwart the hero as the hero is to thwart them.

In my stories I often have hidden antagonists so that the hero will think he has only to defeat an obvious bad guy and yet the bigger problem has been lurking there all along. This helps me get over the mid-novel lull and that horrible feeling that often hits me of why doesn’t the hero just shoot up the bad guy on page one and save everyone a lot of trouble.

Any advice for writing action scenes?

Ian Parnham: I’d suggest playing out the action scenes to the fullest by taking advantage of everything available. If the hero confronts the bad guy and they fight, it’ll be over with quickly. So stick them on a bridge. Suddenly possibilities open up. With that sheer drop looming you can have the danger of imminent death with every blow and they can swing up and over beams. You can have them dangling by fingertips from the edge of the bridge. You can have gunfire coming from either side of the bridge. They can fall off the bridge and fight it out in the raging torrent below. Then when the hero drowns the bad guy and drags himself back onto land, he can get surrounded by some more bad guys and start all over again.

Oh, and make sure the hero learns something important when he’s in a clinch with the bad guy so that the plot moves on a bit, too.

What’re the best things about your new Avalon Western, The Miracle of Santa Maria? How is it indicative of your past Westerns and how does it break new ground?

Ian Parnham: Thaddeus T. Thackenbacker the Third, raconteur, gentlemen, hero, swordsman and the West’s greatest living thespian (only in his own eyes) has been in my thoughts for a while and he finally appeared with his cowboy version of Romeo and Juliet: “Verona was quiet… maybe too quiet.”

As for the novel, it follows the style of my previous Avalon Westerns in mixing ingredients that I hope have rarely been used in westerns along with a sprinkling of humour. It doesn’t break new ground, but I’d like to think humour is an area of the western genre that’s neglected. Aside from the Wild West Shakespeare there’s the world’s most boring scientist who invents a planetarium, unsuccessfully. There’s also Saint Woody and his mysterious closed box that nobody can open and which may contain the keys to heaven itself, and that’s aside from the actual story in which Fergal for the first time tries to do something noble by saving a young nun, deviously. Oh, and there’s a miracle, too, and it all ties up in the end in a way that surprised me.

After more than two dozen novels, is fiction writing work or play? Or both?

Ian Parnham: Whenever it feels like work I force myself to have fun and whenever I’m having too much fun I try to get serious.

Any parting words? Words of caution? Advice?

Ian Parnham: If you want to write, write. Don’t put it off waiting for that really good story idea to come along or whatever excuse you’ve given to yourself. Then write your stories your way.

Seek out advice, but don’t follow it if you don’t want to. Seek out positive people who enjoy the writing life. Make friends, not contacts. Don’t listen to the doom merchants who delight in pouring scorn on you and pontificating on how your chosen genre is dying or that the book industry is dying or any one of a multitude of downers. There’s plenty of things out there to get you down and so don’t get disillusioned about something you love doing. Have fun and remember: if you write it, they will read.


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 “The Well-Told West: I. J. Parnham on Writing the West

  1. The first two Black Horse Westerns I read were by Ian Parnham and they, along with lots of useful, friendly advice, helped me to write my own BHWs. And his Avalon Westerns? They're fantastic reads–and should be made into movies!

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