To Never Give Up: Cotton Smith on Writing the West

Cotton Smith is as concerned with the interior landscape of his characters as he is with the exterior landscape of the West.  And horses.  He loves horses, and that affection shows throughout his excellent novels of Western adventure.

Smith is a historian, artist, and writer of both fiction and non-fiction.  His novels include Spirit Rider, Return of the Spirit Rider, Blood of Bass Tillman, Death Mask and last year’s Ride for Rule Cordell

Whether writing about Texas Rangers, farm boys, or outlaws, Smith gives readers a look inside the hearts and minds of the people who face hardships day in and day out.  When Smith writes about a range war, shoot-out, or cattle drive, readers are reminded that character and plot are inextricably linked–that plot grows out of character and character grows through plot.

“I am fascinated by the power of the human spirit,” said Smith, “the ability to take blows and grow beyond them.   To never give up.   Everyone gets knocked down; how one reacts to that is the key to success.  This challenge to life is enhanced, in my opinion, in dealing with the rawness – and greatness — of the American West.”

Below, Smith and I talk about riding the West, creating characters, and bending (or not bending) the truth in Westerns.

What do you enjoy about writing about the West?

Cotton Smith:  Just about everything.  I think the West is essentially the soul of America.  It is what we want, down deep, to be.  Independent.  Brave.  Strong.  As my dear friend, the late and great Don Coldsmith, used to tell me — there are countless stories waiting to be told.

Early in my life, I “rode with Roy, Gene, Hoppy and Wild Bill on the silver screen” and played “cowboys and Indians”– and this infatuation turned into a lifelong love of the West, truly learning what happened there and why.  Realizing, for example, that the Texas cattle drives were among some of the most daring of entrepreneurial adventures.  Learning that citizens of the early cowtowns would make trips to Texas to encourage cattlemen to come their way: “You’ll cross fewer rivers . . . and we’ve got everything you’ll want in town.” (And they did.) 

Take a look in your refrigerator.  Virtually everything there had to be made by our ancestors. Imagine that!

Where does a Western novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether?

Cotton Smith:  Good question!  All of my stories are character driven.  So I start with my main character and a general sense of the story I want to tell.  Then I look for some dramatic point to begin, something to stop the reader and make him want to know more.  Sometimes, I find that the first chapter in my first draft becomes my eighth or so when the writing is finished.  The trick is to get right up against a critical point of action or mystery.

My main character will be right there.  Even if it’s a sequel.

I don’t outline. Well, I did outline one of my early books and, at one point, the characters took over and went another direction.  Sounds corny, but it’s true. I have in mind one or two key elements I want to communicate.  So, in a way, I read the story for the first time as it is written.   Some authors write detailed outlines.  That’s great as long as you don’t consider it the completion of your effort; because you’re just getting started.  And don’t be afraid to change your outline when the characters take over!

How do you develop your characters so deeply?  Make them so…  human

Cotton Smith:  A good protagonist must be a distinctive person, someone the reader cares about and relates to at some level.   Reading fiction is about escape, so give the reader a fun place to go and want to stay.  The hero must have flaws, but also must have a drive to succeed.  The worse the situation, the more we understand what he is up against. 

All of us have holes in our game.  I look for ways to make him real.  Try describing a relative or a friend, then push it a little further.  The “real” Hopalong Cassidy was a wise-cracking, smart-aleck foreman of the Bar 20.  Not the mild fellow in the movies.  But that’s another story.

Simply describing a character is not making him so.  The reader must see him through his actions and his speech.  Consistently.

Remember, villains have a good side, too.  In fact, try turning your next villain into a hero and see what happens.

I do a lot of rewriting – “layering”, I call it.  Making certain my characters are real, have quirky things they do.  But don’t mistake a few quirks for a personality.

In Behold a Red Horse, the strongest of three brothers is blinded by a wild horse kicking him, making him, most likely, the first-ever blind Western book character hero.  In Spirit Rider, Panther-Strikes, an Oglala-raised white man, loses his Oglala wife in an inter-tribal raid, rejects his Indian upbringing and returns to “the white man’s world” to become an astute businessman.  He is confronted with the kidnapping of his former brother-in-law by outlaws and finds that he must return to his Oglala ways to try to save him.

In Pray For Texas, Rule Cordell is devastated when his dog, a stray, is killed in a Civil War battle.  Around him is all manner of death, yet losing an innocent dog brings him to his knees.  He is an intense Confederate cavalryman trying to deal with the awful reality that the South has lost – and with it, the painful realization that his evil minister father was right that he shouldn’t give himself to a cause.  Throughout the book, he wears the stem of a rose on his lapel; the original rose was given to him by JEB Stuart’s widow at the great general’s funeral.  That’s intensity.

In Blood of Bass Tillman, Bass Tillman is an older man who has long ago given up gunfighting to become a respected lawyer in his adopted town of Longmont.  That gentle life is snapped when his son and wife are murdered.

How do you write such compelling dialogue?

Cotton Smith:  Don’t put “information” into the dialogue that isn’t logical.  There are other ways to get this detail across.

Say it out loud after you write it.  Does it sound like something someone would actually say?  If not, write it again.  For the most part, we don’t speak in complete sentences.

If your character has a dialect or a speech impediment, be consistent with it throughout the book.  At the same time, make sure it isn’t too exaggerated; the reader won’t want to work that hard.

Be careful of long three-person conversations.  They rarely work.

Any advice for writing action scenes?

Cotton Smith:  Keep it real.  Tense.  And keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.  Gunfighters rarely met each other in the street, to test their abilities with a fast draw.  Why would anyone do that?   Unless a bullet struck the heart or the brain, it was likely a person, expecting to be hit, could keep going in combat.   It is very hard to shoot accurately from horseback – and few horses would stand steady for it. 

If it’s a fistfight, study a televised fight and write down the blows delivered.  Understand what it takes to knock a man down or out.  Remember, the knuckles will be hurt.

How much and what sort of research do you do?  How much can you bend the  truth?

Cotton Smith:  I do a great deal of research even though most of my stories are pure fiction.  Still, it is important to know what it’s really like on a Texas cattle ranch in winter . . . the specifics of certain weapons . . .  handling a new horse . . .  and so on.   These details add interest and value and make the story convincing.

At the same time, a writer must recognize that he or she likely knows more about such details than almost anyone and must use them sparingly, or else the book gets bogged down.

As far as “bending the truth” is concerned, that depends on what you are writing.  If it is a story about what would have happened if Wild Bill Hickok had survived his Deadwood murder, the writer is immediately creating something “new” – and that has its own problems.  If, however, a real character pops into the story, then be careful.  Some writers don’t like to put words into the mouths of historical figures.  I don’t mind if it is consistent with what we know about him. 

The only book I’ve written so far with a strong sense of actual history is Return of the Spirit Rider.  The year is 1876.  Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and others occupy some of the pages, along with fictional characters.  I made certain that they were in the right places at the right times, according to history.  It added to the flavor of the story, but it could have been told without using them.

What’s next for you?

Cotton Smith:  My next book comes out in November.  Shadow Crossing from Leisure Books is a story about U. S. Deputy Marshal Sell Hoback growing up knowing the Colorado mountain wilderness and loving it.   His brothers and sister — and his father, a U. S. Deputy Marshal — saw to it that he learned well.  The family even had a secret bear claw initiation built around a three-day wilderness trek when each child was fourteen.  Each Hoback wore the bear claw on a leather strand around his – or her – neck as a mark of pride.

When his father is murdered by an unknown assailant, Sell Hoback becomes a deputy marshal in his place.   It was something he had wanted to do since childhood.  During the Civil War, Sell was decorated for bravery; his older brother, Court, won the Medal of Honor, but became a known gunfighter afterward, an outlaw some said. A third brother, Matthew, died in the conflict. His oldest brother, Jamison, became a teacher and his sister, Katherine, became a successful horse rancher.  Lots of fun!

Lastly, any parting words?

Cotton Smith:  If you love to write, don’t let anything stand in your way.

There is a tendency among inexperienced writers to create too much back-story at the beginning of their books.  That can be deadly.  You want the reader to experience the story, not read about it.  If you need all this back-story, start your novel there.  My fourth novel, Spirit Rider, was actually my first, although it was never published in the way it was originally written.

Don’t let anyone read your material, except someone who can buy it – or someone who has sold their work.

Be an observer of people.  Keep notes.  It’s good to keep a small memo pad with you at all times.  Good ideas need to be written down, right then and there.

Any coincidence – an independent, uncontrollable act – should go against the hero.

Too many adjectives and adverbs spoil the soup.

Be careful about writing in the first person.  It can prove to be a trap.

Write a little every day.  No excuses. 

Don’t submit something until it is your best, then go after it.  Be careful about self-published books.  Unless you just want to stroke your ego and end up with a garage full of books.  Keep working and find a real publisher.  They are out there.

The American West is alive and well.


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.

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