Why Write Westerns – by author Mike Torreano

the-reckoning-mike-torreanoI met Mike Torreano at the 2015 HNS conference in Denver and chatted about our preferred time periods and the careers we had before becoming obsessed with writing. Mike’s novel The Reckoning – a post civil war mystery – has just released from The Wild Rose Press. Today Mike talks about writing a western and the Code of the West. Over to you, Mike.

So my western mystery, The Reckoning, was just released by The Wild Rose Press. It takes place in 1868 and is the story of Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find that his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the killers, a search which takes him to the high plains of Colorado.

I’ve heard some people say the traditional American western is dead—all of which prompts the question, ‘if that’s so, why write a western?’ Well, it’s true that the golden age of westerns was some time back. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell until recently when several big box office western movies have been released.

Are they’re coming back? I don’t know, but I hope so. If they are mounting a return, why would that be? Perhaps it’s because westerns and the Old West embody timeless values, timeless outcomes where right triumphs over wrong. Not always, certainly, but you get the idea. The American West in the 19th century was a black and white place with clear-cut rules—there were things you were supposed to do as well as things you weren’t. And if you did wrong, there were consequences, usually immediate.

There was a code of the West, even among the bad guys. Simple rules for simpler times. Unwritten, but adhered to nonetheless. The Code drew its strength from the underlying character of westerners, both men and women alike. Life back then was hard, but it was also simple. Things that needed to get done got done. Whining wasn’t tolerated. Complainers were ignored. You weren’t a victim, you just played the hand you were dealt.

If you’re getting the idea that I like that kind of culture, I guess you’re right.

The world we live in today sometimes baffles me. Everything seems to be different shades of gray. Honor and fidelity don’t seem to be in fashion. Our culture is filled with victims. People are entitled.

While the Code of the Old West was unwritten and existed in various forms, there were certain common elements that everyone—from the hard-working sodbuster, to the law-abiding citizen, to the hardened criminal—typically abided by. Granted, there were exceptions, but generally that held true.

In 2004, Jim Owens synthesized the Code into 10 guiding principles in his book, Cowboy Ethics- What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. Keep your promises.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Some things aren’t for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.

Let’s take a look at three of these.

How about number 7—Ride for the Brand? It means be loyal to the people in your life—from family and friends, to those you work for. That last part refers to the idea that when you work for someone, you should work for them.

Take a look at number 4—Do what has to be done. Life is oftentimes messy, our days are filled with ups and downs, and we make choices all the time. This is about choosing to get done what has to be done, then getting on with something else.

Next, there’s number 9—Some things aren’t for sale. The Code gave westerners a guide to live by that they broke at their own peril. Are there still things today that aren’t for sale? What are they for you? They might be different for each of us, but at the end of the day I’d wager we all still have values that are non-negotiable. After all, values don’t really change, only times, circumstances, and people do.

Have these values that the Code embodied vanished from our society today? The good news is no, they haven’t, but sometimes it seems they’ve been driven underground. Popular culture tends to look down on old-time values, or should I say timeless values. We’re an instant gratification society that focuses on the here and now, and disregards the lessons of the past. Imagine a world where you sat with your family at night, sometimes even talking with each other. What a novel concept. Imagine a world where a man’s word was his bond. Where handshakes took the place of contracts.

Or as Arthur Chapman says in his poem, ‘Out Where The West Begins’—

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,

Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,

And a man makes friends without half trying—

That where the West begins.

So, yes, sometimes I yearn for those simpler times amid the hustle and bustle of today’s world. Where we are inundated with various media platforms from morning to night. Sometimes Ike’s world looks pretty appealing. Still. To many of us. That’s why the western will never die.

The Reckoning by Mike Torreano

Ike McAlister returns home to Kansas after the Civil War, his soul bruised and empty. Worse, his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders who are still on the loose. No stranger to death and destruction, he vows to run the killers down.

A clue leads him to the high plains of Colorado, but when his sister, Sue, disappears there his world quickly spins out of control. In the midst of this turmoil a feisty landlady sparks an attraction that’s the only good thing in Ike’s life.

Now, in a race against time he must make a deadly choice. If he continues to pursue the killers, Sue will likely never be found. If he veers off to find her, the killers’ trail will likely go cold. Which track to follow? Will the love of family triumph in his broken heart or will it be the passionate hate of revenge?

Many thanks, Mike. I’m so delighted to have you on the blog today. Your perspective on the code is very timely. Wishing you lots of success with The Reckoning. You can also read Mike’s post on what makes historical fiction unique.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Appeal of Historical Fiction for author Mike Torreano

author Mike TorreanoMike Torreano is a relatively new author with two novels in the works. Like many others, he trolled the halls and workshops at this June’s Historical Novel Society conference and we chatted about our writing and the challenges of breaking into the market. Recently, I asked Mike to add his thoughts to the Inside Historical Fiction discussion.

What makes HF unforgettable/irresistible?

For authors, the irresistible part is easy. For whatever reason, history resonates with us. Perhaps it was a childhood experience where we were first exposed to signature events, or a family history which opened up a peek at the past.

For me, it was a fifth grade teacher who made us read a book a week and make a written report. We never knew who she was going to call on to give the report, so we had to be ready. I read every Zane Gray novel I could get my hands on, which started my fascination with the American West and history in general.

As for unforgettable, the characters we write about tend to be the lions of their age. They are people who rose to prominence in circumstances that we can relate to. Even stories without a famous figure bring to life events we’re familiar with-captivated by. Who doesn’t want to know about the intrigue that led to this or that royal’s demise?

As we read, we can relate to their motivations, worries, and lives in many ways. We’re reminded that what we are experiencing today has been played out so many times before. Sometimes that’s a comfort, sometimes it’s alarming, but it’s always interesting.

What do the best writers do to get it right?

Simply put, they put us in the scene. Whether it’s a tryst, a trial or a tribulation, the great authors invite us in to witness what’s happening. We’re the mouse in the corner, the barkeep washing up, the lady-in-waiting with the frown on her face. We can SEE what’s going on. The character’s emotions become our emotions. The story’s tension is our tension.

Are historicals inherently different than contemporary novels? If so, how so?

Certainly there are many stylistic differences between the two, but I think those are trumped by the overriding similarities. In historical fiction, we write about the problems that our ancestors faced, but grief, romance, greed, and pride know no era. The human condition has remained basically the same over the centuries. History bears that out. The everyday struggles and triumphs we experience today are the same things our historical characters experienced.

Even so, there’s a tendency to think that today’s issues are somehow new, or unique. Granted, technology today is light years different than the past, but we imperfect humans remain much the same.

What aspects do you specifically try to highlight in your novel/s?

Every historical author wants to be accurate, wants to describe the times and the surroundings vividly. What I enjoy crafting in particular though, are tightly drawn dialogue and physical descriptions. Revealing motivation through what my characters say-and sometimes don’t say-intrigues me. Often, with dialogue, less is more.

I also like to emphasize my character’s physical actions and reactions-like a throaty voice, a turn of the head, a shaking hand, a brush at an eye, all accompanied by silence for impact.

In HF, what resources do you use in researching conflict, plot, etc, so they are true to the time period?

I almost feel guilty in confessing that I have a researcher who uncovers many wonderful historical nuggets for me. I give her general guidance about what I’m looking for and the time period involved and she comes up with reams of material that I then pick and choose from.

I also do my own research, mostly electronically. What I find though is that my research tends to be more laser-like, which is fine to a point, but sometimes I miss broader aspects of the period which my researcher brings to light. So it’s a complementary relationship.

What aspects need to be included when building a past world for your readers?

Perhaps the most important aspect is to give the reader a vibrant sense of the times. What did a typical day look like? Who did what? What was acceptable in society then, and what wasn’t? We do that through our characters’ actions and reactions.

In today’s culture, it can feel uncomfortable at times to paint historically accurate, but politically incorrect scenes. But to change history, to change our writing to reflect today’s mores distorts the mirror we see the past through.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

One trend I see is a gradual movement toward less dialogue and greater description, particularly in the Royal novels, where narrative about motivations and desires dominates storytelling. It’s very effective.

As far as the marketplace, HF remains a healthy genre and will always have a solid core of readers. Not as big perhaps as YA or fantasy, but large and stable nonetheless, always ready to devour the next well-crafted, well-researched HF novel, regardless of period or place.

My latest novel.

I have a short story set during the Yukon Gold Rush, titled The Trade, recently published in an anthology. I also have two novels currently under consideration, one by a publisher, and one by an editor.

Fireflies at Dusk is a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the Civil War. A young man rejects his family’s pacifism and joins the Union Army after college. In his desire to separate from his father, he drives everyone he ever cared for away. As the War unfolds, he’s faced with a gritty journey to reclaim his self-respect.

The Reckoning is a western, set in Colorado in 1868. It’s a story of how revenge can have unintended consequences. After his folks are killed by Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, a former soldier tracks the culprits to Colorado. Just as he’s about to spring a deadly trap on the murderers, his sister suddenly disappears. Now, he has to choose between running the killers to ground or finding out what happened to her.

Many thanks for contributing, Mike. Wishing you good luck with your novels!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.