(Don’t) Give ‘Em What They Want

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

Recently, at the writers’ workshop I teach, we spent the afternoon discussing the ways characterization intersects with plot, particularly where conflict is concerned. After all, conflict moves story, but characters must have some element within themselves that makes them willing to engage in the conflict at hand… the hero’s quest, yadda yadda. At some point, early on, I made the very basic statement: as a writer it is your job to figure out what your character wants, then don’t let them have it. Because once they do, the story is over (so all right, let them have it at the end. That’s what makes it the end.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about what that means when you have an ensemble cast instead of a single protagonist. In the Western Fictioneers series Wolf Creek (by the multitudinous, multifaceted, and multifarious Ford Fargo), for example, every volume has about two dozen potential protagonists to draw from, each one with very different goals and desires/ How do we as a writing team, and I as an editor, keep them all from getting what they want, ever? It’s a sobering thought, at least from my end.

I’ve been thinking about some of the great western ensemble casts of bygone years. Deadwood had a magnificent ensemble cast. The network frustrated the desires of all the characters, and the audience as well, by canceling the show in the middle of a storyline. That’s clearly not the way to go.

The other greatest ensemble cast, in my opinion, was Gunsmoke (with plenty of other contenders). Most of the members of that ensemble had simple desires. Festus seemed to want a carefree life, and Chester a work-free one. Those desires are easily frustrated. Doc wanted to keep people from dying –in a place like Dodge City (at least on television), the frustration of that particular desire was guaranteed.

Which left the main protagonists, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. Matt wanted to be a lawman, and Kitty wanted to get married. Matt could not accede to Kitty’s desire, at least in his own mind, and hold on to his –considering it unfair to get married when he could be killed any day. I think that, really, he just didn’t want to be married. So Kitty never got what she wanted, and one suspects Matt was not able to fully enjoy his own life for the guilt he must have felt… and the story continued for about twenty years, with both of them stuck somewhere between vague contentment and unacknowledged sadness. Which was god for the show, really, because the tension between them remained, over and above the tension of each episode’s outlaw gang or Indian raid. And it was all very much between-the-lines, almost subliminal.

But, as I said, in Wolf Creek we have almost two dozen main characters. It would be nice if we could pair them off, a la Matt and Miss Kitty, so that their desires cancel one another out –maybe there’s a way to do that, I’ll have to give it some further thought.

I suppose I should begin by looking closer at the two characters I “run” –Black Seminole scout Charley Blackfeather and Marshal Samuel Horace Gardner. The two are about as different as night and day.

Charley is a remarkably complex man, with remarkably simple desires. He wants his universe to have balance. It is a major tenet of his, and his people’s, spirituality. If anything disturbs that balance it needs to be rectified. If there’s one fictional place your peace of mind can be jacked up, it’s Wolf Creek –check. This puts Charley in a similar situation as Doc Adams (and Doc Logan, in our series) –the one thing that most defines him is constantly going to be challenged as long as he is in that environment. It would be like being a housekeeper in a frat house.

Sam Gardner, on the other hand, is different. The one thing that defines him, that drove him from his Illinois home and keeps him in rowdy places like Wolf Creek, is his desire –his compulsive need –for action. He bores very easily. This makes Wolf Creek the kind of place he would thrive. It also makes for some very witty dialogue –but not much tension. I find myself digging a littelr deeper for the personality quirk that would cause discontent for the marshal in our rough-and-ready environs. And I think, in our most recent efforts (including some that have yet to see print, but will), I have found it.

Sam Gardner, in addition to craving action, craves respect. Not the sort of respect the corrupt mayor or crime boss of the town have, respect for his unique abilities. And that is already causing him some discontent in Wolf Creek. If he is successful at his job, and cleans up the town, there’ll be nothing for him to do. Not that there’s much danger of that; Sam is a prodigious gunman, but cleaning up Wolf Creek is a tall order indeed –the more he tries, the worse things seem to get. And that’s all well and good so far as things remaining exciting, but it is also causing people around town –and elsewhere –to doubt Sam’s abilities. So the marshal is I a Catch-22 of his own making, that is just going to get progressively worse. How long can that continue? I’m not sure –I guess we’ll have to ride along and see.

You can see things begin to unravel for Sam in Wolf Creek 4: The Taylor County War, out now.

Writing For A Cause

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

It’s a funny thing about writers. Sometimes, when we go about our life’s activities, especially if those activities involve worthwhile charities or causes, we forget about the wellspring of contributions we have access to as authors. Those contributions include both our own well-honed talents and those of the network of colleagues most of us are connected to.

In my day job, I am a history professor at Tennessee Tech University, specializing in Native American Indian history. In that capacity, last year I was asked to serve on the board of directors of a new project: the Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center. At the time, it existed only as a concept: a center located in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, which in the colonial and pre-contact area had been a trade and diplomacy crossroads of sorts between several different tribes, that would eventually house a museum, an educational program offering various classes to the public, and fund indigenous cultural events and –someday –perhaps fund one or more scholarships to nearby TTU for American Indian students.

We’ve come a long way in a year, but we have a lot further to go. Most of all, we need to find funding –we had hoped to procure grants and so forth, but the continuing economy doldrums have dried up many of the sources we could normally have turned to. We have been brainstorming ways to reach potential donors who might be able to help –we tossed around ideas about fundraisers and outreach activities. That’s when it hit me.

I’m a writer. I write westerns. Lots of my friends write westerns.

Westerns are often about Indians.

Why not a fund-raising short story collection?

So I put out the word –and am putting it out now.

I will be overseeing the publication of Tales from Indian Country, under the aegis of Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center (SSAICC). Authors are being asked to donate a story (keeping their own rights to said story, other than for this publication) –either an original tale or a previously published one they have the rights to –featuring American Indian protagonists and/or Indian themes. We do ask that they be well researched for cultural accuracy. There are no minimum word counts, though there is a 10,000 max. All royalties (beyond printing fees and other costs) will go to the SSAICC. The book will be available in both paperback and digital; if there is enough interest from writers, there may be more than one volume. With the potential long shelf life of books in this new digital age of ours, there is a chance our anthology (or anthologies) will continue to benefit the center as it grows (with the understanding that, if SSAICC should dissolve, the royalties would be diverted to a similar Native American Indian educational project.)

I would never have considered the possibility of editing such a volume if I had not spent the past year editing Western Fictioneers’ Wolf Creek series (and by the way, the fourth book in that series –The Taylor County War- just came out). Several of my colleagues from that series have already offered to pitch in for Tales from Indian Country. Like me, they are delighted to have a chance to use their unique skills for a greater good.

I encourage you to also think of ways to use your fearsome and formidable powers for some noble cause. And, if you write about Indians, or have done so, please consider pitching in to our cause, as well. You can email me at tdsmith at tntech dot edu for details. You can also learn more about SSAICC –including just what the “Standing Stone” of the title refers to. You might also want to check out the SSAICC Facebook page (or make direct financial contributions to their Fundrazr page).

Brawling Cowboys, Furtive Gamblers & Other News from the Western Fictioneers

Troy D. Smith teaches history at Tennessee Tech University. He also writes Western short stories and novels.  Smith recently won the 2011 Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Story for “The Sin of Eli,” which appeared in the Western Fictioneer’s first anthology, The Traditional West. He is also a past winner of the Spur Award, and current president of Western Fictioneers.

I appreciate the invitation to do a guest blog here at Booklifenow. While I have never been known to shirk an opportunity to talk about myself and my writing –as we all do, if we want to get anyone’s attention –I decided to use this forum to talk about Western Fictioneers, and the very exciting new project we have coming down the pike soon.

Western Fictioneers is the only professional writers’ organization devoted exclusively to fiction about the American West. We have some of the most exciting new authors in the genre, and many (if not most) of the veterans whose traditional westerns line book racks around the country. We present an annual award called the Peacemaker for best novel, short story, and first novel. We have also begun publishing anthologies; our first, The Traditional West, is one of the biggest such collections ever offered to the public, and one of the most critically acclaimed. It contains both the Spur and Peacemaker award winners from this year, and several of the Peacemaker finalists.

We are now embarking on something never before attempted in the western genre, and only tried a handful of times elsewhere (and not quite in the same way.) WF is producing a new series of novels, under the overall banner of Wolf Creek. They are set in the early 1870s, in the fictional town of Wolf Creek, Kansas. Each of the authors involved –seventeen at last count –has created one or two characters who live in or around the town. Each book is a collaborative novel, with five or six authors participating and writing chapters from the perspective of their own characters, usually interacting with one another. We have a large cast of supporting characters as well, which the authors will “share,” making the project an ensemble piece not dissimilar in structure to the HBO series Deadwood.

As series editor it is my job to make sure it all fits together smoothly –and so far, due to the professionalism and talent of our members, it has been a far easier task than I expected. In fact, I am quite proud of how our first volume –Bloody Trail –has turned out. It will be released on September 1, with a new title to follow every three to four months.

In Wolf Creek, you will discover, everyone has a secret. Tensions from the Civil War remain high, as the town had been founded at the height of the Bleeding Kansas years by abolitionists. With the arrival of the railroad, however, there has been a population influx –many of them ex-Confederates. A seedy “helltown” nicknamed Dogleg City has grown up on the south side of town, filled with brawling cowboys and furtive gamblers (and far worse.) Corrupt politicians and criminally inclined saloon owners compete for control of the dark side of town, while decent men and women try to make lives for themselves –and professional lawmen try to keep the peace. A nearby fort has been established to protect the town, and the surrounding farms and ranches, from hostile Indians. The possibilities for compelling stories –especially from this top-notch bunch of writers –are endless.

We have created a “house name” as principal author of the series: Ford Fargo. No secret is made, however, of who the writers really are –they are listed in the table of contents. In any given volume you may see one of your longtime favorites, or you may discover new writers whose style you like as well. We have been working on this “shared world” for months, and are very excited to announce it now to the general public. I predict you’ll be pulled in as completely as we have been; if this series is half as much fun to read as it has been for us to create, we’ll be in good shape.

More details will be forthcoming soon from WF at our website, www.westernfictioneers.com … and much more detail is available to our readers right now, at a special website we have constructed for our series: http://wolfcreekkansas.yolasite.com/.


Stalking the Wild Sentence

Peter Brandvold has written over seventy fast-action western novels under his own name and his penname, Frank Leslie.   Follow of his blog here.

Finding that first sentence of the day can be as bracing to the writer as that first up of coffee, but it’s sometimes as hard to find as the strike zone for the aging fast-ball pitcher or as elusive as wild asparagus for the natural foods forager.

Sitting down to the soft, menacing whine of his machine, the career-scribe stares at the blank screen and sees nothing but his own bewildered eyes staring back at him.  Two lone eyes in a vast sea of white.

Gradually, the eyes get wider.

And wider.

They are suddenly no longer the wordsmith’s own eyes but the eyes of the moron he suddenly fears he’s become.  “Eee-gads!” he cries, fists clamped to his temples.  “My career is over and I have only a few chapters left on this oater I’m writing!  No delivery check for me, and they’re probably going to force me to return the advance money I’ve already frittered away, as well!”

The scribbler’s heart pounds like musket fire in a Civil War reenactment battle as he wonders if they’re hiring down at Target.

Where are those slippery devils, those glistening little hand-cut and polished jewels, those sentences, hiding?

Sometimes, at this point, the writer must become the Euell Gibbons of his trade, don his metaphorical hiking boots and walking stick, and light out for parts known.  Yes, into the wild he’s explored before.  Into the woods where he’s found those toothy little word-lions roaming free in the past and managed to throw a loop around them and haul them home to the cheers of his relieved family and the yips of his happy curs.

My version of this primeval forest is usually as close as my own office bookshelves or sometimes even my bedside night table.

At either place I can usually find all the books I’m in the half-conscious habit of returning to on those frustrating mornings I find that I need my pump primed.  Sometimes, all I have to do is flip through one or two of these tomes, reading a few of the sentences in each–usually by writers who have struck major chords with something deep inside my writer’s ear before, firing the spark of creativity inside my desperate soul–and suddenly I become a cat pouncing on a mouse.

I’m Hemingway in Africa.

Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive.

It’s weird, the books I find myself returning to.  These are the books I’ve read and reread so many times I know them almost by heart, but they’re not at all what anyone who knows I’m a fast-action, blood-‘n’-guts western writer would expect.  Most days, there’s not a single oater among them.

Today I found three books at the top of the stash I return to most often and thumb through repeatedly, searching for the sounds that are going to ring my own bell.  And one or all of these almost always rings it.

Here are the titles:

Red Smith on Baseball.

Lights on a Ground of Darkness by Ted Kooser.

One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell.

Yeah, that last one’s a freakin’ gardening book.  And aside from throwing a few shrubs in the dirt now and then, I don’t even garden!  The thing is, I’m not reading for content but for the sound of the writer’s words arranged with such seeming effortlessness into graceful sentences.

I’m needing to hear the writer’s voice and see the images that that voice paints in my head.  For some reason and almost all the time, hearing and seeing those sentences written by folks I consider masters of the trade helps me use my own voice and my own images to write this essay, for instance, as well as the scenes in my own western novels.

Here are two sentences by sportswriter Red Smith from his essay, “A Man Who Knew the Crowds,” that got me going yesterday:

When the iceman cometh, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference which route he takes, for the ultimate result is the same in any case.  Nevertheless, there was something especially tragic in the way death came to Tony Lazzeri, finding him and leaving him all alone in a dark and silent house–a house which must, in that last moment, have seemed frighteningly silent to a man whose ears remembered the roar of the crowd, as Tony’s did.

Thanks, Red.  And Henry and Ted.

You’ve helped me more times that you could ever know turn that moon-like desert of the white page into a flowing field green with wild asparagus!