Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Truly Gritty

My Top Five GRITTY Westerns for kids.

Everybody has their own definition of a “western”. Here’s my definition:
A Western doesn’t have to have cowboys or Indians but it
should have horses and/or mules.
should be set in the American west in the 1800s.
should have six-shooters, smoking, gambling and drinking.
should have a hero who fights against overwhelming odds.
should have some harsh but beautiful landscapes & big skies.

Because Westerns are usually about survival of individuals in the extreme situations of a frontier world, they are usually too violent and politically incorrect for children. The ones that ARE aimed at children are often too sanitised for my liking. I like gritty reality with a dollop of danger. So here are five of my favourite Western books; ones suitable for kids but which also have grit, grime and menace. I’ve placed them in order of ascending grittiness.

1. The Little House on the Prairie (U) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I know you're thinking this is saccharine sweet but it isn't. Although safe enough for a 6-year-old, it is magnificently evocative account of pioneer life with all its hardships and joys. Wilder's descriptions are so vivid and compelling that it seems she has stepped back into her six-year-old self to describe the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of her extraordinary life. If you've been put off by the TV series, don't be. Put aside your prejudices and try this. There is a good reason it's considered a masterpiece.

2. Hondo (PG) by Louis L’Amour
Louis L’Amour is considered one of the greatest Western writers and this is one of his greatest books. The story follows a strong, silent hero named Hondo who helps a woman and her son living in hostile Apache territory. The best bit of the book is a section at the end where Hondo teaches the boy how to track and hunt Indian-fashion. The John Wayne movie is good but doesn’t have the tips about tracking and desert survival.

3. True Grit (PG) by Charles Portis
This deadpan masterpiece by Charles Portis is one of my top ten fave books of all time. It recounts the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross who hires a fat, half-blind Marshal to help her avenge her father’s cold-blooded murder. Both of them have ‘grit’, (which can mean ‘courage’ as well as crunchy dirt.) True Grit is one of those books you can read over and over and always find something new. Both movie versions are good, but the book is better. Best of all is the audio book, read by American author Donna Tartt. She captures Mattie Ross’s voice perfectly.

4. Boone’s Lick (PG) by Larry McMurtry
Like Charles Portis, Larry McMurtry is another great American author. His Pulitzer-prize-winning Lonesome Dove was made into a highly-acclaimed TV mini-series. His screenplay of Brokeback Mountain won an Oscar. Boone’s Lick is based on the real events of an Indian massacre in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. The narrator is fifteen-year-old Shay. Some scenes are quite brutal, but it’s suitable for readers 10+. As with True Grit, there is a superb audiobook version, read by actor Will Patton, who makes McMurtry’s drily funny characters even better than they are on the page. No mean feat.

5. St. Agnes' Stand (15) by Thomas Eidson
WARNING: This book has harrowing scenes of torture by Apache. It made me understand why you always save the last bullet for yourself in an Indian attack. (gulp!) But if you have a strong stomach, it is a beautiful Western with a powerful message of love and redemption. 

And don’t forget my new book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, which  falls between True Grit and Boone’s Lick on the True Grittiness scale. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Inhabiting the West

Virtual Stagecoach for my Western Mysteries Blog Tour
This is the final dusty stop on my blog tour to promote my new “Dime Novel”, The Case of the Deadly Desperados. It has been quite a journey but I have enjoyed it.

The first stop on my tour was a big ole Hay Festival. I did not see many Bales of Hay but I saw some International Personalities & also a passel of Authors of Dime Novels. I must have got some of that there “Hay Fever” because I shared some special secrets about my own Dime Novel. Yup, I told them all about Reading People & Writing Character.

The next day my Virtual Stagecoach took me to Bart’s. Bart’s Bookshelf, that is. It was kind of dark in there but that Darren made me & my Driver feel real welcome. We sat by the cosy fireplace sipping whiskey while I described some places I had visited to help me Write about the West.

Day Three was bully. I had been riding beside Douglas, the driver of my Virtual Stagecoach. I hopped down & I strode into the Book Bag (is it a Saddlery?) & announced my Fave Five Western Movies for Kids, and also my 5 for Adults, too. Nobody took a bullwhip to me, and the two lady proprietresses said I had “great taste” so I guess they liked my choices.

On Saturday June 4th, Douglas drove me over to the Book Zone Saloon. It was mighty dark in there, too, but as our eyes adjusted we saw lots of Child Detectives including my three Favorites. One is called “Nancy”, one is from London & one is a mite strange. The proprietor was real friendly. He was also called Darren. I suppose I will have to put a Saloon-keeper called “Darren” into my next Dime Novel...

There was no Sabbath Rest on Day Five. Our stagecoach made 12 Heroic Stops. Still, it was worth it to talk about Story Structure over at Miss Becky “Bookette” Scott’s Lending Library. Miss Becky is real cheerful & she liked my book a lot. I blush to say she called it “genius”. Aw, shucks.

On the sixth day of my trip I visited a retired Schoolmarm in a town called Serendipity. She wants to write them Dime Novels, too. I told her my 5 Favorite Places to Write. Miss Viv liked my books so much that she rushed out to the local stationer & bought a passel of ’em. Not my Dime Novel, I hasten to add. My Writers’ Notebooks.

Monday the 7th was my seventh stop and I was glad to wet my gullet at the Fiction Thirst Saloon. The proprietor Rhys was only about 15 or maybe 16 yrs old. So we drank sarsaparilla instead of whiskey. I reminisced about my childhood and I told him about The First Gunslingers I Ever Met, back in the days when things were still in black & white. One of them dressed All in Black & one of them wore Trowsers so Tight they Split & one of them was a Master of Disguise.

Well, by Day 8 I was getting tuckered out. So I stopped by Miss Jenny's Wondrous Place. It was all done up in purple velvet with stars on the roof and real pretty gals there, especially the proprietress, Jenny. I didn’t want to inquire too closely as to what sort of an establishment it was – some of those gals had real pale skin and sharp teeth – so I tried to distract them with Some Music. Some of their gentlemen and lady callers seemed to like my choice of songs.

There followed another day of relaxification - Day 9 - over at Angel's Boarding House. Funny, but that place was kind of purple, too, but with leaves this time, not stars. And here is the strange thing: I told Miss Emma AKA "Angel" about my Favorite Inspirational Music and she showed me pictures on the walls that seemed to move & play the very songs I had been describing! I guess she is some kind of Magician or maybe one of them Spiritualists.

Day Ten. After my two restful purple days, we stopped by Sheriff Karen’s Eurocrime Jail to bail out My Favourite Character from the old West. He is now riding along with us. He has 5 Christian names & 1 Silver Tooth. He wears his gun around his neck but uses belt AND braces to hold his pants up. And he just ate the cheroot I offered him. My stagecoach driver Douglas says he “stinks like a pig”, but I kind of like him. I wonder if you can guess who he is?

My "Dime Novel"
The rains came on Day 11 of our journey so that little beads of water dotted the window of Mr. Ripley’s Enchanted Books & Elixir Wagon. I told him How We Chose the Cover for my Dime Novel. He seemed pleased and said he kind of preferred the version we didn’t use. My feelings weren’t hurt none. I just hope that won’t stop him from reading it.

Miss “Book Maven” Mary runs a respectable joint. I stopped in there on Day 12. I was expecting tea in china cups, but she gave me whiskey & a plug of tobacco! Once I recovered from this shock, I told her why I am now spending more time in the Wild West than in Ancient Rome, even though I can talk Greek & Latin & some of them other Dead Languages. Miss Mary writes some mighty exciting books, too. Like a book about a young man who posed in not even his union suit for that there Italian statue called David.

My next stop was at the claim of an Old Timer name of Mr. Scottish Book Trust. They call him “Scotty” for short. I waited a while at the mouth of his tunnel & then who should appear but his daughter! I pulled Seven of my Best Writing Tips out of my Carpet Bag and traded them for a few "feet" of her mine. Heather seemed pleased with the trade, so my 13th stop turned out to be a lucky one.

Well, the end of my trail has now hove into sight. For my last stop, my stagecoach driver Douglas has said why don’t I give a lecture on “Inhabiting the West”.

I guess all those things I have been talking about over the past two weeks help me to “inhabit the west”. I talk to people & hear their stories. I listen to music & study maps & look at some of those stereoscopic photographs. And I walk around a lot, daydreaming. I reckon the best way to inhabit the west is to go there – not Virtual but Real-like – and breathe in that Sagebrush-scented Atmosphere & look at that Big Sky & maybe Ride a Horse. But if you can’t afford the fare, then the next best thing is to Read a Book.

"Douglas" (left) with Caroline
So as an added Extra Bonus I am going to tell you my Five Favorite Books for transporting you to the West, especially if You are a Kid. I am going to telegraph those choices to Prospector Zac in a place called Christ Church in New Zealand because it is too far for Douglas my Stagecoach Driver to take me and our horses might get damp. But I will also post them tomorrow on my own Notice Board.

I would like to say a big THANK YOU to all those people who hosted me on my Western Mysteries Blog Tour and especially to my stalwart Stagecoach Driver, Douglas. Nina Douglas, that is. Yes, Douglas is a Girl. (above)

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Hero's Journey in Westerns

Working on my Western Mysteries series for kids, set in Nevada in the 1860s, I have been thinking about The Hero’s Journey. This story-writing plot-structure was devised by Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler after reading Joseph Campbell's book on world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The template is a great tool and can be applied to many myth-based stories, i.e. stories in which the hero goes on a quest of some sort.

As promised, here is my version of Vogler’s twelve steps as I’ve applied them  to my first Western Mystery, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, and as I detect them in two other recent Western films: True Grit and Rango.

Warning: Here be Spoilers!

1. The Ordinary Hero in his Ordinary World 
A hero exists in an ordinary world, yearning for something more. Deep down he knows he is called to something greater. To us the hero’s world might be fascinating and exotic, but to him, it’s ordinary: sometimes comfortable, sometimes oppressive, sometimes both. 14-year-old Mattie Ross, the hero of True Grit, lives in Yell County near Dardanelle, Arkansas. She is her family’s book-keeper. The world makes sense to her, everything adds up and her parents even depend on her in various ways. Rango is a chameleon; his ordinary world is a safe but boring terrarium with a few lifeless friends. The hero of my new Western Mysteries series, 12-year-old P.K. Pinkerton, lives in the flyspeck town of Temperance in the Nevada desert with his Methodist foster parents. P.K. is a social misfit who doesn’t know how to ‘read people’.

2. The Call to Adventure
In Greek mythology the messenger god often comes down from Mount Olympus to summon the hero on a quest. Sometimes the ‘call to adventure’ is a disaster that forces the hero to leave his comfort zone. In True Grit, it is the sudden and violent death of Mattie’s father that calls her away from her accounts. For once, things don’t add up. Meanwhile, over in his terrarium, Rango is bored. ‘What our story needs,’ he says, ‘is an ironic unexpected event that will propel the hero into conflict…’ He gets this wish in an unexpected way, when his owners swerve to avoid an accident and his entire ‘world’ is flung high up into the air. In the first Western mystery, P.K. Pinkerton finds his foster parents scalped and dying. His mother urges P.K. to run; the killers are after him! In some screenwriting templates, this step is called the Inciting Incident.

3. The Mentor
In Greek mythology, the mentor is usually a god or goddess. In modern versions, the mentor is a wise older person who knows the hero’s abilities and encourages the hero to use them. If the hero refuses to heed the Call to Adventure the mentor encourages her and often gives helpful advice. The mentor does not usually participate in the quest but sometimes they – or a different mentor – appear at a ‘life or death moment’ for the hero. In True Grit, you could say that Mattie Ross’s first mentor is her dead father; he ‘calls her on the journey’. Her second mentor is Rooster Cogburn, who teaches her and helps her in her hour of greatest need. The armadillo ‘Roadkill’ sets Rango on his journey; he wears his experience as a scar. Later, the personified ‘Spirit of the West’ helps Rango in his bleakest hour. P.K.’s first mentor is his dying foster ma Evangeline. She tells P.K. to run and to take his medicine bag. Later P.K. meets Poker Face Jace, who will teach him to understand people.

4. The Talisman 
It is often at this point that the hero receives a talisman, an object of magical value which represents his authority to go on the quest and which also helps him. Theseus had his father’s sword. Luke had his father’s Light Sabre. In the western genre, the talisman is often a gun. Mattie has her father’s Colt Dragoon. Rango gets a gun, too. So does P.K., but his real talisman is his father’s ‘detective button’. Sometimes the talisman has magical abilities, but its greatest power is what it symbolizes, an important aspect of the hero’s destiny.

5. Crossing the Threshold
A single step can take the hero from his ‘ordinary’ world into the world of adventure. As the hero passes into the new ‘World of Adventure’, she often meets some ‘Threshold Guardians’: characters who would prevent her from entering the new world. She often has to battle them with strength or skill, or both. This is a kind of preliminary test to make sure she is worthy. In True Grit, Mattie crosses a threshold when she makes Blackie swim the river in order to prove to the ‘threshold guardians’ (Rooster & LeBoeuf) that she has the right to come on the adventure. Rango’s threshold is the desert highway he must cross to enter ‘the land without end, the desert and death are the closest of friends…’ My 12-year-old hero climbs on top of a passing stagecoach and flattens himself “as flat as a postage stamp” as it passes through Devil’s Gate from the desert into Virginia City AKA Satan’s Playground.

6. Enemies and Allies
In the new world, the hero begins to meet various characters. Some are enemies. Some are allies. Some are both. One fun archetype in this type of story is the apparent enemy who later becomes a friend. True Grit and Rango are both chock full of interesting and unpredictable characters. In my book, P.K. makes valuable allies in the form of several newspapermen, a Soiled Dove named Belle and a Chinese boy called Ping. And of course there is Poker Face Jace, who knows how to read body language.

7. Training
As the hero gets closer to his goal, he must often learn new skills in preparation for meeting the ultimate opponent. Mattie learns that hunting a wanted man ‘ain’t no coon hunt’. Rango learns how to play a new role, that of a gunslinger and action man. P.K. Pinkerton learns to find his way around Virginia City and how to read people.

8. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The tension and stakes increase as the hero nears the ‘inmost cave’ where he will battle the ‘monster’ for the prize. Think of Theseus, who travels from Corinth to Athens, vanquishing baddies, beasts and tricksters along the way. This is not the big battle but it prepares our hero for the big battle.

9. The Supreme ordeal or Battle 
There may have been several battles along the way but this is the big one, the one that counts. Theseus finally lands in Crete and descends into the labyrinth to fight the minotaur and win the prize of his people’s lives. Often the hero first comes face to face with death and his own mortality. It is at this point that the hero realises their true identity, often as a leader. Mattie must face the man who killed her father, Ned Chaney. Rango must face the Mayor, the worst of several baddies. P.K. must face Whittlin’ Walt, the most notorious desperado in Nevada Territory.

10. The Reward
If the hero wins the battle, he gets the reward. This can be a sword or a golden fleece or a beautiful princess. Mattie is after revenge; Rango seeks water and P.K. wants to cash in a valuable document. But the prize itself is almost always immaterial. The real prize is the knowledge the hero gains, sometimes even if he ‘loses’. In the Western genre the lesson is often a hard one. Mattie learns that revenge does not come without a price. Rango learns that as sheriff, he can be a real contributing member of a community not just a play actor. P.K. learns … well, I’ll leave that for you to find out.

11. The Resurrection
In Greek myths, this is the part where the hero emerges from the Underworld. He is the same, but different. His journey has changed him forever. Mattie almost dies but is brought back by Rooster Cogburn’s almost superhuman effort. Rango is reborn as sheriff and takes on the name he gave himself: Rango. P.K. realises who he really is.
Mattie Ross in the snake pit

12. Return with the Elixir
In mythology Jason returns with a fleece that will heal the sick. Mattie pays a great price and learns a terrible lesson, returning with the knowledge of what the world is really like. Better she had never gone on this particular quest. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, hers is a bleak story, with a bitter ending.  Rango, on the other hand finds his place in the world, among new friends and lovers. P.K. returns from the depths of a mine shaft with a new certainty about his particular calling and identity.

The Hero’s Journey Structure is both formulaic and powerful. It isn’t right for every story, but when it can be applied it makes for some mighty good storytelling. Have fun with it y’all!