2016 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Winner

Author GP HUTCHINSON - 2016 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Winner

Writing Westerns: Authenticity or License?

Riders of the Purple Sage

“ZG Riders of the Purple Sage Cover” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

The debate continues–when writing Westerns, should authors aim doggedly for maximum authenticity, or can they lapse freely into artistic license? Should Westerns be classified as historical fiction, or are they merely inventive yarns–mysteries, romances, and action stories–that just happen to be dressed up in hats, boots, and spurs?

The Western Authors and Readers Group on recently took up this topic, and it really started me thinking.

Historically Speaking

From the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans through Dime Novelthe era of the Western dime novels, exaggeration was accepted and even expected in American Westerns. Readers eagerly devoured such exaggerations. Perhaps they knew no better; perhaps they simply like the West they read about in fiction better than the West they knew from experience.

But not everyone was happy with the artistic license exercised by popular Western authors. The legendary Zane Grey–who, by virtue of his popular appeal, was one of the first authors to attain millionaire status–was troubled to no end by critics’ accusations that his works took unacceptable liberties regarding the realities of life in the Old West.

And Along Came Hollywood

Roy Rogers

Lynne Roberts and Roy Rogers in Billy the Kid Returns, 1938 (Unknown, Republic Pictures)

Pearled buttons, embroidered shirts, buscadero holsters–those Hollywood studios sure knew how to dress up a larger-than-life American hero. The 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s brought Western fiction to the silver screen in all its colorful (or black-and-white) glory–and then some. Talk about exaggeration. (Some would say ‘exaggeration’ is too soft a term. Perhaps ‘garishness’ would fit better.) Yet fans of the Western genre multiplied exponentially.

If we step back and think about it, though, Hollywood had only built upon the heroes and characters of the Old West as they had been presented in the turn-of-the-century traveling Wild West shows.

Even if folks argue that, by the 1970s, Westerns had jettisoned the flamboyant trappings of earlier film adaptations, they’d nonetheless have to admit–artistic liberties remained in plenitude. Cowboys still fanned the hammers of their six-guns and fired off eight, nine, ten shots without reloading. Or they shot and killed a fleeing badguy with a single bullet…from a pistol…at a hundred yards.

A Place for It All

Unicorn WesternI think you’ll probably agree, there’s plenty of room for all types of Westerns. And if you don’t care for one kind, you can Blood and Thundercertainly look for and find another. Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder offers the reader a tale that leans a lot heavier toward the history end of the spectrum. At the opposite end of the line, you’ll find that Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant’s Unicorn Western series retains mere vestiges of the historical West. Both works have die-hard fans. And there are thousands of titles that fall somewhere in between.

GP Hutchinson’s Preference

When it comes to viewing, reading, or writing Westerns, I tend to like a story StrongConvictions_CVR_XSMLthat is well rooted in historical accuracy and then colorized a bit. For example, I want the characters in the story to wear period-accurate clothes and gear, and I want them to carry era-appropriate weapons. But I don’t mind if the apparel, gun rigs, boots, chaps, etc. end up on the more colorful side of what folks might have worn and used. I’ll take the bold look of Hollywood Pictures’ Tombstone (1993) over the staid browns of Warner Brothers’ Wyatt Earp (1994)–just as  a majority of  the viewing public did.

When I write a Western, I want the setting to be authentic. No more shine than a town or a ranch house truly might have had back in the day. Nevertheless, if it serves my story well, I may run a railroad through that town two years before the railroad actually got there in real history.

So What Do YOU Think?

Why not share your ideas about what you like in a Western? Do you like it as historically accurate as possible? Or do you mind a little fudging on the history if it helps create an exciting story?

Feel free to use the comment box below to state your preferences? You never know who’ll read this. Perhaps your favorite Western author or movie producer will take your suggestions to heart and give you the Western story you’ve always been waiting for.

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