Having written two whole western romances – Bella’s Vineyard and Just Like Jesse James – I feel I’m in a position now to share my experience of writing cowboy love stories with the world. And when I say cowboy love stories, I’m not talking about Brokeback Mountain here. I’m talking about a man with a big Stetson and a girl in a gingham dress. What’s most amazing about my success in selling a western romance is that I was born in Pontypool, South Wales, and have lived in Chesterfield for over thirty years. What’s more, I have never set foot on American soil. One of the librarians at Chesterfield Library has also written dozens of westerns. I’m guessing he probably got out more.
But here are my tips on how a British woman – or man – can write a western romance without ever having visited the United States.
Watch classic westerns – Most peoples’ experience of the Wild West is from watching old films. The Magnificent Seven (pauses to think of Yul Brynner … sigh), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (pauses to think of James Stewart – yeah, I know it’s amazing I get anything done at all), True Grit. The cowboys were always clean and handsome and the western towns quaint. This is the image you’re selling. You might think that Paint Your Wagon was more realistic – well apart from Clint Eastwood singing to trees – but this is not what your average western romance reader wants. They want the fantasy of the tall, dark handsome stranger who rides into town, saves the day and wins the girl.
Forget the gritty realism – As mentioned above, Paint Your Wagon may paint (excuse the pun) a more realistic portrait of your average western town, with its mad dash for gold, whore houses, spittoons and streets teeming with mud, but that isn’t the stuff of romance. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Oklahoma are your reference for all things pretty in a western setting. Jane Powell in her cute little homemade patchwork dresses. Shirley Jones in gingham pretending she’s not remotely interested in Gordon McCrae (no pause there. I never quite got the Gordon McCrae thing). Or if you want your setting to feel a little more in fitting with those times, Hugh Jackman (pauses etc etc) singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning in Sir Trevor Nunn’s re-imagining of Oklahoma. Now there’s a man who can look big and tough and still hold a tune. Hugh Jackman that is. Not Sir Trevor.
Leave out the cattle – I hate to be blunt here, but cattle smell. Really bad. And they’re a bit noisy. There’s also the danger of your heroine stepping in a cow pat when she’s dosey doe-ing across the field in her new gingham dress. No, pick a prettier setting for your heroine. In Bella’s Vineyard, I chose … well the title says it all really; vineyards in the beautiful Sierra Nevada. In Just Like Jesse James, I’ve chosen the orange groves of Southern California. There is a ranch mentioned (owned by the hero) but the cattle don’t get much of a look in. I am now hunting around for the next pretty setting for a western romance. I’m thinking apple trees in blossom or maybe New England in the autumn (no I know that’s not ‘western’ but it’s still darn pretty).
A gun is just a gun – Men reading westerns like to know all about the Winchesters and Colt 45s and six-guns, how many rounds they shoot. I find women on the whole are not so interested. So just keep it simple. The bad guy is either holding a rifle or has pulled his gun from his holster (which tells the reader it’s a handgun). The ironic thing about me giving this advice is that I’m married to an expert marksman, who could tell me everything I needed to know about weaponry. But needing to know and wanting to know are two different things…
Make your heroine British – there’s a good reason for this. It means that you can get away with writing your western romance in British English. So you can use colour instead of color, and flavour instead of flavor. Also it gives your British reader of western romances someone to connect to. They can put themselves in the heroine’s place and imagine they’re the ones attracting the attentions of the Yul Brynner or Hugh Jackman look-a-like.
Have an old-timer – It’s important in a western setting to have at least one old timer, male or female it doesn’t matter, who talks about ‘the time afore the railroad came to town’. It adds colour and gives the impression that the town has been there a long time, but is now civilised so your heroine doesn’t have to worry about accidentally walking into a whorehouse on her first day there or being scalped by Native American Indians (who, of course, don’t go in for that sort of thing in westerns written since the late 20th century anyway.) In Just Like Jesse James, I made my old timer, called Old Tom (look clichés are allowed in westerns, alright – more of which later) the town chorus. He was the one who said what everyone else was thinking.
Have lots of barn-raisings and barn dances. They’re great situations to bring your hero and heroine together, putting your heroine into a pretty non-gingham dress, as well as being a place trouble might start when the bad guy rides into town.
Make your hero a fine, upstanding … killer - Your hero must be a good man, but also capable of killing another man in a shoot out. It’s what your heroine and your reader expects. That’s not to say that he’ll do it. But it must be clear that he would and could if he had to. Especially if his gingham-clad sweetheart is in danger. But do make your hero a ‘man with a past’. This isn’t my advice. It’s my dad’s and you just don’t argue with him on such matters. So there.
Make up the town – If you’ve never been to America, then make up your town. It’s easier and stops people from saying ‘that can’t have happened there, because it doesn’t have any mountains around it’. Louis L’Amour famously said that if he wants a tree to be in a certain place, he puts it there and I tend to agree with him. If I want mountains, it has mountains. If I want a beach three miles away, I put one there (clearly the town would have to be near one of the coasts for that to happen). I do try to keep crops, such as vineyards and orange groves specific to an area, but this is because even a novice western fan would know it’s unlikely that one could grow grapes in Alaska (unless anyone can tell me any different?). When you make up your town, find an old English town on the map of Britain and name it after that. Obviously Milton Keynes doesn’t work, as it wasn’t around in the 1800s, but I did name the town in Bella’s Vineyard Milton (after the poet). Or if your location is further south and to the west, look up an old Spanish town on a map of Europe and call it that. French maps cover anywhere around the New Orleans/Deep South area, German and Scandinavian maps most places in the mid-west. Or pick a nice foreign word that says what the town does. In Just Like Jesse James I named the town Ocasa, which is Spanish for sunset (at least I hope it is now otherwise I’m going to look a real prat). This is because the town is based on the Southern California town of Ojai which, I’ve read, have fantastic pink sunsets and I thought that was a good setting for my romance. America also has some pretty weird sounding town names listed here: http://www.accuracyproject.org/towns.html -so you could make up one from any two random words and it wouldn’t be considered wrong. Though I may give ‘Spunky Puddle’ a miss.
Clichés are allowed so have fun with them. Oh yes, clichés are allowed in western romances. Because as I stated at the beginning, the majority of readers’ image of the Old West is going to be based on what they’ve seen in television and films. So don’t be afraid to use those clichés as a shortcut to helping people understand what’s going on. Of course, turning those clichés on their head is just as much fun. Let your reader think they’re getting one thing then give them something else entirely. Did I mention that the ‘old timer’ in Bella’s Vineyard turned out to be a lesbian? Well she was, and she was one of my favourite characters ever.
So now you know how to write a romantic western, right? As you can see, I don’t take it too seriously, and that’s the important thing with any type of writing. Just have fun with it.