Things Start to Happen: Charles T. Whipple/Chuck Tyrell on Writing the West Part 2

Journalist and novelist Charles T. Whipple writes most of his Westerns as Chuck Tyrell. Recent Chuck Tyrell titles include Guns of Ponderosa, The Killing Trail, and Hell Fire in Paradise all published as part of Robert Hale Ltd.’s Black Horse Western line. Whipple has also written a Chuck Tyrell novel, The Snake Den, for Solstice Publishing.

Whipple writes character-driven novels and stories in which the setting is very much a living, breathing character. (Whipple usually sets his Western novels in his native Arizona, but his new collection of short stories, A Matter of Tea and Other Stories, features stories set in Japan where he currently lives.  All proceeds from the book will go to relief efforts in Japan.) Below, Whipple talks about where his Western novels start and how he develops characters and settings.

What sort of Westerns do you write? And how are Black Horse Westerns different than a Solstice Western?

Charles T. Whipple: Maybe instead what kind of Westerns I write, I should talk about westerns I don’t write. No. That won’t work either. Who knows what the next one will be like? I don’t have a particular type of hero, and I don’t have a particular kind of bad man. Vulture Gold was triggered by a piece I read in Arizona Place Names, as I remember, about a very large bullion robbery in Vulture City. The marshal of Vulture City in my story had a Texas Ranger father and a Western Cherokee mother. Some folks didn’t like the idea of a half-breed marshal, but in the end, he proved them wrong. So Vulture Gold was a quest.

One of my books begins with a rape, then goes on to show the revenge the husband takes and the way he and his wife deal with her unwanted pregnancy. Another begins with a fire that takes the lives of the heroine’s two sons . . . and so on.

Black Horse Westerns are short, about 40,000 words. They tend to be action-oriented, and eschew fortuitous violence, sex, and tend to shy away from showing Native Americans in a bad light. I’ve yet to write a Western from a Native American’s POV, but there’s a story burbling in my head that may turn into one.

Solstice puts no word limit on their Westerns. My Solstice Western, The Snake Den, would never have made it past the BHW editor because it has some fairly graphic prison rape/abuse scenes in it, and it was half again too long to be a BHW.

Rebecca Vickery’s Western Trail Blazers imprint is incredibly flexible, and also has a line of Dime Novels that let you sell stories for $.99 and novellas for $2.99, which helps you get your stories out where Westerns lovers can find them.

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?

Charles T. Whipple: As I mentioned, Vulture Gold started with the story of an actual robbery. Revenge at Wolf Mountain started with a rape, but it features Garet and Laura Havelock, who were major characters in Vulture Gold. Trail of a Hard Man began with a call for help to Ness Havelock, who played an important role in Revenge. Guns of Ponderosa began with a displaced gang of men riding into a peaceful sawmill town. The story started with the town, a town I know well. In my mind’s eye, I saw the opening scene. Everything continued from there. The Killing Trail began with a promise to gun down the killer of the protagonist’s brothers. It’s an unusual tale that I’d like to hear people’s opinion of, actually. Hell Fire in Paradise starts with a job of arson that kills the two sons of the heroine, who loses her husband in a wagon wreck the same day. The book is a prequel to Guns of Ponderosa and has some of the same characters. A Man Called Breed began in the desert, but a flashback shows a saloon scene in which the hero savagely slashes the bicep of a man trying to throw him out of a saloon. The antagonists are Irish-Americans. Much of the reasons for their pursuit of the hero is due to their experience as immigrants in the Bowery of New York. Dollar a Day starts with a gunman being offered cowpoke wages to protect a town founded by a Puritan-type Christian sect. Again, the climax is quite different from many Westerns, maybe all other westerns. The book features characters from Hell Fire in Paradise and A Man Called Breed. The Snake Den starts with a young man being wrongly charged with theft, convicted, and sent to Yuma Prison (sparked by the fact that the youngest inmate of Yuma, actually, was only 14 years old).

The Snake Den…  Oh, glorious Snake Den…  It’s your first novel for Solstice and it’s a masterpiece. What compelled you to write a prison novel? Set in Yuma? With a fourteen-year-old protoganist? There’s got to be a story behind this one…

Charles T. Whipple: I sailed a boat down the West Coast, from Olympia, Washington, to San Diego, California (and on to La Paz, Mexico, after that). I then rented a car and drove across California to Yuma. No Western writer can go to or through Yuma without stopping off at the Yuma Territorial Prison (park) and the Arizona Historical Society. At the prison, I saw the cells, the dark cell, the caliche hill that is cut away to form the south wall, the women’s cells, the barbershop, the kitchen and mess hall, the latrine area, the sallyport, the towers where the guns were, the warden’s office, the infirmary, and so on. What doesn’t exist now, you can see on the model in the visitors room. While there, I learned that the youngest inmate in the history of the prison was 14 years old. There’s a story in that, right?

Grant’s Crossing is a fictitious town I created for Trail of a Hard Man. It lies at the juncture of the Zuni and Little Colorado Rivers. Felt like a good place for Shawn Brodie to get into trouble. History and records of the Yuma Prison told me the breakdown of prison population. The numbers in The Snake Den are correct. They also told me about the Chinamen there, which gave me the idea for Shoo Lee, which is a corruption of the name of the capital of the Loo Choo Kingdom, Shuri. Karate did develop in Okinawa. The kingdom was annexed by the Japanese in 1879. The Japanese changed the characters in Karate to make it mean “Empty Hand.” The original was Kara Ti, meaning Chinese Hand. I thought by having Shawn Brodie learn Kara Ti from Shoo Lee I could help him grow up and gain the confidence he’d need to be a man in the West.

The Warden’s wife, by the way, is modeled after my Aunt Harriet, who made the best oatmeal cookies ever. No one, repeat, no one could or can make cookies like Aunt Hat. Notice how young Shawn jumped through hoops for those cookies. Pure bribery.

What does a first chapter need to do and how do you do it?

Charles T. Whipple: The first chapter must give the reason for the conflict that carries the story. In general, a story (or a scene) begins with a conflict or a problem, goes through several developments in the handling of the problem, and then comes to a resolution (which can be that the hero loses). The first chapter sets it up.

Do you lean to a particular type of Western setting and why?

Charles T. Whipple: I set my stories in Arizona for the moment because to me, setting is a character. It can be the antagonist, as it was in The Three Godfathers, or it can be a big problem keeping the protagonist from achieving his aim. I’ve got shards of stories set on the Santa Fe trail and in New Orleans, but can’t push on with them because I don’t feel familiar enough with the settings. I had to go to Yuma Prison and sit in the Dark Cell (The Snake Den) before I could do justice to the setting of The Snake Den.

What is the relationship between character and setting in a Western? And how do you create and present that setting?

Charles T. Whipple: Setting, to me, adds veracity to the story. You can tell (usually) when an author knows the country he’s writing about. When Dusty Richards writes about Arkansas, you can smell it and feel it because he knows the country so well. When Elmer Kelton wrote about Texas, you knew he was there, he’d seen it, smelled it, touched it. (I may be wrong about this but . . .) I tend to think people set Westerns in Gunsmoke-like towns because they don’t have to get specific, and they can write about “towns” from anywhere in the world. (OK guys, knock me down.)

What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling Western protagonist in particular? What went into the creation of Matt Stryker and/or Garet Havelock

Charles T. Whipple: Actually, Matt Stryker is a work in progress. I still don’t know enough about him. He lost a wife. He was/is a bounty hunter. But he’s still an enigma in many ways. In fact, the current work in progress swirls around Matt Stryker, before he went to Ponderosa. He does have the same horse. And his problems are not as personal as perhaps they should be. We’ll see how it turns out.

Garet Havelock. Garet started life as Hawke Glidden. See why I changed the name? Yuk. Here’s a thing I did on him called “How to Be Garet Havelock”.

How to be Garet Havelock:

  • Never draw your gun unless you are going to pull the trigger
  • Never pull the trigger unless you are aiming to kill
  • Never go against the law
  • Love your woman to distraction
  • Drink your coffee strong enough to melt spoons
  • Take care of your horse first, then look after yourself
  • Always be willing to help a neighbor
  • You can lose a fight, but never give up
  • Make friends with stray dogs
  • Carry moccasins in your saddlebags
  • Hanker for canned peaches
  • Want to live
  • Be ready to die
  • Pay attention to the little things
  • Always give the other person the benefit of the doubt
  • Know about the birds and the bees (birds can warn of enemies and bees can lead you to water)
  • Always carry hidden weapons
  • Dream about owning a horse ranch
  • Be quick to accept a badge
  • Wear a steel brace on your left leg
  • Respect your Cherokee Ma
  • Respect your Ranger Pa
  • Stop your horse just to watch the sun go down
  • Push your horse to a canter so you won’t be late for dinner at home
  • Don’t be afraid to tell her you love her
  • Be true to your obligations
  • Hope for a son
  • Love a daughter
  • Work from daylight to dark
  • Blaze your own trails
  • Back down from no man
  • Practice with your handgun at least every other day

What about an antagonist? How do you build someone like Jake Cahill and/or Barnabas Donovan?

Charles T. Whipple: Jake Cahill came on the set fully fleshed out. He was bad to the core, and loyal to no one. Everything he did came from one source, the desire to best the other guy/girl, whatever it took.

I never really liked Barnabas Donovan’s name, but didn’t come up with another. He was a Kansas Redleg, a kind of highwayman in disguise, and his penchant for using spurious means to achieve his grander aims carried over from that formative era.

Any parting words of caution, encouragement, or advice?

Charles T. Whipple: Somewhere, sometime, something will spark a story. With some authors, it arrives full blown. All they have to do is write it down. Yukio Mishima was like that. He’d write a novel overnight, and wonder why all authors can’t do that. Well, many of us can’t. I usually have an idea and an opening scene. I write on it every day. I’m not like James Reasoner or Joe Konrath, authors who can write 7,000 words an hour. I do 300-500 words a day, almost always writing at the same time and place. But while I’m writing the story, and while I know what I think the ending is, inside, things start to happen. In my work in progress, I met a character named Kensington St. George. He came out of nowhere. A walk-on, but an important one. Another was Catherine de Merode. She has walked on for a short scene. She’s important. I just don’t know why yet.

At 500 words a day, an author can do two or three books a year. Or, if you’re writing a tome, you can do one, or one and a half. Keep at it.

Learn your craft. Read the good guys. Figure out how they put the words together. Then do them one better. Your style is always a work in progress. And it should keep getting better.


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.