The Cadence of an Up-tempo Ballad: Mike Blakely on Writing the West

Mike Blakely writes and sings cowboy songs.  He’s recorded 11 albums of TexAmericana music, including the recent Homemade Serenade and  Live From Luckenbach (with Thomas Michael Riley).  Blakely plays somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 gigs a year, sometimes alone, sometimes with Michael Riley, and sometimes with his father, Doc Blakely, the well-known humorist.

Blakely also writes cowboy books.  He’s the author of 16 novels, including A Tale Out of Luck, which was co-written with Willie Nelson.  Three of Blakely’s novels, Moon Medicine, Comanche Moon, and Shortgrass Song, were nominated for the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Western Novel.  The novel Summer of Pearls won a Spur and so did his song, “The Last Wild White Buffalo.”  He’s currently working on a novel with country music legend Kenny Rogers.

Blakely grew up in “ranching and cowboying” in Texas.  His songs and novels are filled with quirky characters that reflect the vast Texas landscape.  On stage or in print, Blakely has a way of letting a song or story unfold in its own time, on its own terms.  Below, Blakely and I talk about learning from his father, setting out on his own, and getting back up after being knocked down.

So, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it does roll away at least a little bit, right?

Mike Blakely: My father developed a career as a non-fiction writer and a professional humorist as I was growing up.  He had books and humor albums to his credit.  He was also a musician, primarily a fiddle player.  It helped me a lot to realize that a simple country boy could get a book published and play music in front of audiences.  I, however, gravitated toward fiction as a writer.  And I began writing my own songs, whereas my dad played mostly traditional songs.

Were there any others who were particularly influential when you were young?

Mike Blakely: As a prose writer, I was influenced by J. Frank Dobie and Elmer Kelton.  My musical influences came from the country and rock hits of the day, and from the traditional cowboy songs and fiddle tunes I learned from my dad and his cronies.

In what ways did serving in the Air Force prepare you for a life of writing and performing?

Mike Blakely: I met guys from all over the states in the military.  They all brought different kinds of music into the barracks.  Some of my Air Force friends were guitar players from California, Arkansas, Florida, and Oregon.  That made for a pretty broad jam session.  Also, points of view from around the country influenced my prose writing in the years that followed.

How does music–listening, playing, writing it–enhance your fiction writing?

Mike Blakely: For one thing, I tend to write about musicians, using them as fictional characters.  Also, musical things like rhythm, cadence, and tempo can be applied to fiction writing to a certain degree.

Why Westerns?  And how has your understanding of the genre changed from Vendetta Gold to Come Sundown?

Mike Blakely: I grew up ranching and cowboying.  With my dad teaching me at first, I trained horses, and learned how to hunt.  All these endeavors are links to the days of the frontier.  I’ve learned that there is a lot of room inside the western genre.  There are shoot-‘em-ups, and carefully researched historical novels, and a lot of middle ground in between.  Other than that, I’m not sure I fully understand the western genre, or need to.

What is “style” and how would you describe yours?

Mike Blakely: Style might refer to the amount of detail an author uses, which naturally affects the pace of the writing.  It might also involve character development, plot or lack thereof, humor, level of violence, dialogue, and a million other choices an author makes.  As for my style, I attempt to create strong characters, vivid yet fast-moving episodes, and a surprise twist or two.

Roy Huckaby, Plenty Man, Horseback, Carrol Moncrief…  what makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling western protagonist in particular?

Mike Blakely: I like protagonists who behave like real people.  They struggle just like we all do.  However, they all posses something special or even quirky that sets them apart – again, like we all do.  I like a protagonist who can be admired.  You can knock him down time after time, but he always gets back up.

What about an antagonist?

Mike Blakely: Antagonists are fun because they are inherently predisposed to break the rules.  Anything goes with a twisted, wicked mind.  And, they can really stir up a plot when the story starts to lag.

Any advice for writing action scenes?

Mike Blakely: Pick up the pace, use active verbs and sparse narrative description.  Rewrite actions scenes over and over until they take on the cadence of an up-tempo ballad.

How’d you like working with Willie Nelson on A Tale of Luck?

Mike Blakely: Working with Willie was a phenomenal experience.  We met when we could, given Willie’s busy tour schedule.  The rest of the time, we corresponded by email.  He often replied from his Blackberry or I-Phone.  Most of the characters in the book were his inventions.  The setting, too, was based on Willie’s ranch and the western movie-set town he built there, called Luck, Texas.  And, of course, the protagonist was designed to be a character Willie could portray in the movie.  I pounded out the rough draft, and Willie made changes as he saw fit.  We worked very well together. The project led to my current deal, co-writing a book with Kenny Rogers.  It’s my first non-western novel – a music business story set in 1975.

Any parting words?

Mike Blakely: It is wise to write for the market, but it’s suicidal not to write from the heart.

The adage says, “Write what you know.”  But, Jean Auel didn’t know a thing about prehistoric peoples when she got the idea to write Clan of the Cave Bear.  She educated herself, and wrote a classic.  She wrote what she learned.

If you’re not fascinated by it, don’t write about it.


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.