Recently I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Charles G. West about his western novels. Hopefully you’ll find his comments as interesting and enjoyable as I did. Thanks again, Charles, for taking the time to answer my questions.
I don’t think there was ever a time when I decided that I was going to be a writer. In high school the one subject I found easy was English, especially the creative writing courses. And I have always thought that everyone has at least one book in them, if they would just sit down and write it. I had what I thought was a great story to write, but even then, I didn’t think seriously about becoming a writer. I started that first book more as a hobby, just to see if I could actually write a whole book. After a long day in my commercial print shop, I banged away at night and early morning on an IBM typewriter. When the book was finally finished, I then decided that the project would be a success if I could get it published. At that point, I was introduced to the real challenge in writing, but I was determined, so I continued to send it to every publisher I could find. About ten years, and God knows how many rejections later, a small publisher in Denver liked the manuscript, and published THE TENANT, a science-fiction medical thriller.
By the time my first western was published, a book entitled STONE HAND, I had replaced my typewriter with a computer. It was not the first western I had written, however. That distinction goes to WIND RIVER, which may still be my favorite. When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the writing of A.B. Guthrie and Vardis Fisher among others. They were the authors that could tell a tale of the old west. I read a great many westerns by other authors, but I decided that I wanted to write one my way. So I wrote WIND RIVER. It was my epic. At this point, I don’t remember why I didn’t want to submit WIND RIVER to this agent I had been talking to. So I wrote STONE HAND and sent it to him. He liked it, and wanted to know if I could write two more to make it a series of three. Of course, I said I could, so we got the Jason Coles series published at Penguin, and I’ve been writing for them under the Signet label, ever since.
It’s rare for me to work on more than one book at a time, because so much time is required for research, which in my books is very important. Even if the book has no connection with actual occurrences of that time period, like the Sand Creek Massacre, Little Big Horn, etc., I still want to portray the people and places, weapons and routines as accurately as I possibly can. I would like to create a complete outline for each new book, but in reality, I never do. At best, I start with the concept of the protagonist and a general idea of the story. Once I start writing, I find that I simply go where the story leads me. Most of the time I end up somewhere I didn’t expect to be. As for how many hours a day I write, it depends on whether I’m on a roll, or if I really feel a passion for the scene I’m writing. But I typically spend about four hours a day, every day working at my computer.
To me, the biggest challenge in writing a western is to develop a fresh plot with characters the reader can identify with. About twelve years ago, when my first book was published, I had the opportunity to talk to a very successful western author, who had published quite a few books. I asked him how he could come up with so many different plots. He told me that there were really only four basic story lines, and he just plugged in new names and places. I hoped he was not really serious, but I remember thinking that if it came down to that, I was going to quit writing. I think I owe it to my readers to give them interesting characters and a good story, one they haven’t read over and over.
I’m sometimes asked which western writers I would recommend. I always think of Fisher and Guthrie, but I also admire the writing of Larry McMurtry in his LONESOME DOVE. I’m afraid I’m not much of a judge of other western writers simply because I haven’t read their work. There’s a reason for this. I don’t trust my memory that much, so I always want to know when I catch a phrase or idea that I think is clever, that it’s mine alone, and was not something I read in someone else’s book.
My earlier books were in series of three and on one occasion, four. The sole reason my latest books have been stand-alones is simply because my publisher dictated it. There is really nothing preventing me from continuing with sequels to any of my individual titles. In fact, I plan to go back and visit some of my earlier protagonists. Many of my readers have suggested that they’d like more of Matt Slaughter, John Ward, and Jason Coles. I don’t really have a preference between stand-alones and series. I’m more interested in a good story. I don’t write under any other name, although I should have used a pen name when I first started, because West is on the bottom shelf at the end in most bookstores. But it’s too late now. As far as recommending a good book to start with for someone who has not read my work, that’s hard for me to decide. They’re all my children, and each one was my favorite when I was writing it. If a reader’s interest lies in stories about lawmen, I suggest DUEL AT LOW HAWK or SHOOT-OUT AT BROKEN BOW If their interest is more into Indians, I suggest the WIND RIVER series. But I think any of my books will give a new reader a good idea of my style.
I guess none of us can say how the future of western fiction will evolve. Ebooks seem to be gaining popularity, and may well be the wave of the future. Some of my non-westerns are offered in ebook format only, but who can say? It’s fairly obvious that the western genre is suffering in comparison with others, especially with the younger readers. Having said that, I have to think that there will always be western fans. Twelve years ago I was told that western fiction was fading fast, with many publishers dropping the genre, and yet today there are still many western fans. I think it’s because that period of time in our country’s development was the most romantic in terms of individual courage and adventure. We need to see more western movies, like in the past – movies with good solid stories like 3:10 TO YUMA, DANCES WITH WOLVES, and LONESOME DOVE.
As for what I read for my own pleasure, I have to admit it’s almost entirely non-fiction research for upcoming books about the time period in our country’s youth which I find so very fascinating.
The two covers shown below are of books yet to be published. Ride the High Range is due out in December 2010 and Thunder Over Lolo Pass will follow in April 2011.