Friday, February 26, 2010

Great Westerns #1

For the past three years I've secretly been working on a new series: The Western Mysteries.

One of the best things about it has been re-watching some of my old fave Western films and TV shows. In the next day or two I'll post my top ten westerns of the many I've watched over the past couple of year. In the meantime, here are a dozen of my older favorites:

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1966
When I revisited this classic spaghetti western three years ago, I couldn't believe how good and funny it was. There are at least three classic scenes, some wonderful lines and an iconic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. My favourite character is Tuco - 'the Ugly' - magnifiently played by Eli Wallach, who will be 94 later this year.
quote: 'Don't die, I'll get you water. Stay there. Don't move, I'll get you water. Don't die until later.' (Tuco)

2. "Deadwood" 2004
This amazing HBO TV series rekindled my passion for The Western. Like all good historical fiction, it made me think: 'That's exactly how it would have been.' Kids DO NOT watch this at home.
quote: 'Avoid looking left as you exit, if idolatry offends you.' (E.B.Farnum)

3. Little Big Man 1970
Dustin Hoffman plays a 111-year-old man in this moving western which always makes me laugh and also cry. Chief Dan George is in it.
quote: 'Every time I believe you are dead and the buzzards have eaten your body, you come back!' (Younger Bear)

4. The Outlaw Josie Wales 1976
Clint chews tobacco and spits! Chief Dan George is in this one, too!
quote: 'I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.' (Chief Dan George)

5. The Searchers 1956
The classic John Ford/John Wayne film which influenced many, many directors and films. Filmed in Monument Valley, Utah.
quote: 'That'll be the day!' (Ethan)

6. Once Upon a Time in the West 1968
The western to end all westerns. Sergio Leone's masterpiece. Another brilliant soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the longest buggy ride in film history. Claudia Cardinale starts out in Spain and ends up in Monument Valley, Utah. Henry Fonda is brilliantly cast against type as a cold-blooded, child-killing baddie, Charles Bronson is Harmonica and Jason Robards is everyone's favourite: Cheyenne. Get the new DVD; it has one of the best commentaries I have come across so far.
quote: 'Looks like we're shy one horse.' (Snaky) 'No, you brought two too many.' (Harmonica)

7. Two Mules for Sister Sarah 1970
Another great Eastwood role. Shirley Maclaine as the 'nun' is brilliant. The animal that inspired part of the Morricone soundtrack is her mule.
quote: 'All the women I've ever known were natural-born liars but I never knew about nuns until now.' (Hogan)

8. The Magnificent Seven 1960
Based on Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, this film is a classic. Many filmmakers have stolen from it. I will, too.
quote: 'Yes. The final supreme idiocy. Coming here to hide. The deserter hiding out in the middle of a battlefield.' (Lee)

9. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid 1969
Another anti-western. 'Who ARE those guys?' They are Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
quote: 'Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?' (Sundance)

10. Dances With Wolves 1990
Kevin Costner has starred in two great films in his career. This is one of them. The buffalo hunt was done before the days of CGI and Kevin really rode in it. The new DVD has some great supplementary material.
quote: 'My name is Dunbar, not Dumb Bear.' (John Dunbar)

11. Cat Ballou 1965
A musical comedy version of the Western, with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda.
quote: 'You won't make me cry. You'll never make me cry! .' (Cat Balloo)

12. Eagle's Wing 1979
Last but not least. This underrated western with a young Martin Sheen as a runaway bluecoat and Sam Waterstone as a boozy Comanche has almost no dialogue. A brilliant example of 'show don't tell'. Filmed entirely on location in Mexico, the scenery is stupendous. Some very clever scenes, too.
quote: 'Any man alive would give his vitals for that horse.' (Pike)

Going to post my more recent discoveries soon!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Recipe for a Revolver

Any writer knows that you can read about something as much as you like, but it's not until you've actually tried it out that you really understand it.

In Virginia city last year I went on a stagecoach ride. Ten minutes was enough to show me how claustrophobic and uncomfortable and even scary it would have been.

I also visited the jail and a mine. Both of them made me feel clammy and prickly and trapped.

In Death Valley I went horse riding for an afternoon. OK, an afternoon on a plodding horse is not a cattle drive like in the old Westerns, but you get the feel (and smell) of being on horseback in the west.

Some things I don't want to experience: getting shot, going down a deep mine, drinking alkali water or 'tarantula juice' (homemade mezcal), being in a real shoot out, getting scalped.

One thing about the 1860's I must know first-hand is how to load and fire a cap and ball revolver.

Until the 1870's, the majority of handguns were cap and ball. This meant you had to put all the components of a bullet in the chambers of your cylinder. Like putting the ingredients of a little meal in a pan to cook them. (All except for the cap, which is the frosting on the cake)

Luckily the main character in my new series owns a Smith & Wesson Seven-shooter model 1. This was one of the earliest guns to have a metal cartridge with the cap and ball and powder all inside.

But in Virginia City in 1862, the time my book is set, very few people were lucky enough to own a gun which took cartridges. According to Mark Twain, who was there at the time, almost everybody in wore the 'universal Navy revolver'. This popular gun was 'cap and ball'. So were the many models of Colt's Pocket Pistol. So was the bigger Colt's Army Revolver. The only difference was the size of the bullet or 'ball'.

At the Ham & Petersham Rifle & Pistol Club one Sunday, I saw why they call it a 'ball'. It really is a big metal ball.

A .22 caliber ball is tiny, about the size of a dried pea.
A .36 caliber ball is the size of a normal pea.
A .44 caliber ball is about the size of a chickpea. And it's heavy. You wouldn't want one of those to hit you.

I went with my 'research assistants' - my husband Richard and his friend Charles - on a cold February morning. The Gun Club is down a one lane dirt track by the River Thames. The parking lot is muddy. The architecture is shed-like. The interior decoration non-existent. My mother used to go to gun clubs with my grandfather in the 1930's and she says things were just the same then in California.

It is a guest day, so we pay our £10 entry and £5 for a few rounds of ammo.
They have to make us up some packs, so we sit watching Derek (top) as he assembles the components.
Big metal .44 balls. Check.
Little circular wads. Check.
Tiny round boxes of caps. Check
Where's the black powder?
'Out in the shooting range,' says Derek. 'We don't use black powder. We use something called Pyrodex. It's safer and more predictable.'
'Oh,' I say, crestfallen. 'I want the full black powder experience. The bang and the smoke.'
'You'll get the black powder experience,' says Derek. 'Don't worry.'

We collect our 'ear defenders' (no charge to borrow them) and follow Tony across the muddy parking lot to the 25 yard range where they fire cap & ball firearms. Derek and Tony and all the other helpers are members who cheerfully donate their time to help guests one Sunday a month. The gun club is a non-profit organization.

A long wooden shed - a bit like a horse's stable - has places for six shooters.
25 yards away are six targets. Behind the targets an earthen bank and a tall brick wall.
'If you aim too high', says Tony, 'You might hit a tourist in the grounds of Ham House.'
He is joking.
I think.

Richard and Charles and I are going to be using the club's guns, some replica Rogers&Spencer .44 revolvers, made in Italy.
Apparently, if you want a good working replica of a Wild West gun, that is where they make them. You can also get working replicas from places like the Dixie Gun Works.The original Rogers&Spencer revolver was manufactured in bulk for use in the Civil War, but by the time it came out the war was over. It's a few years after the date of my first book, but it will give me a good idea of how to load and fire a period firearm.

First Tony shows me how to load the Rogers&Spencer revolver.
You take a brass powder flask filled with black powder. There is a special way of filling the nozzle with exactly the right amount for a charge. You hold the flask in your right hand, with your forefinger over the open end of the nozzle and your thumb on a little lever. You push a little lever, hold the flask upside down, tap powder into the nozzle, let the lever go, turn the flask upright, remove your finger from the top of the nozzle and tip the measure of powder carefully into an empty chamber of your cylinder. Then you put down the flask. Take a disc of felt - the wad - and push it in on top of the powder. Then comes the lead ball. It is slightly too big for the chamber so you have to use the ramming rod to push it right in.

The ball needs to be big to grip the rifling in the barrels. Rifling is the term for the curved grooves that make the ball spin, for greater accuracy. So there's your lead ball, sticking out of the business-end of the chamber. Now you have to turn the cylinder and center the ball under the ramming rod (a metal rod attached to the underside of the barrel) and ram it in. This can be quite difficult to do. The ramming rod is stiff for a gal's fingers, and if you don't center it just right it doesn't work. But once you've rammed it right down, you are ready to repeat the process in the next chamber.

Once you have put a measure of powder a wad and a ball into each of the six chambers, you put the flask well out of the way.
'That powder flask is essentially a hand grenade,' says Tony cheerfully. 'One spark and it will blow up.'
I put it in a large tupperware box and press the lid down firmly.

Now for the caps. These are little copper cylinders smaller than a tic-tac. Your fingers feel big and clumsy as you try to fit six of them on the six nipples at the back of the cylinder. When the hammer of the gun strikes these copper caps, a spark ignites the power and the explosion pushes the lead ball out of the barrel at several hundred miles per hour. The wad is to stop the powder sparking and causing what is called a flashover.

A 'flashover' is where a spark from one chamber ignites the powder in all the other chambers and all six bullets go off at once. Either that, or the gun explodes.
Neither scenario is desirable.

When I had finally filled all the chambers with the required ingredients and fit the fiddly cap on the backs of each one I was FINALLY ready to try it out.
Get your stance right.
Breathe in.
Take aim.
Squeeze the trigger.
A satisfyingly loud report and a slight kick upwards and sparks fly out and there is a gratifying cloud of grey fog: gunsmoke!

You have five more bullets to fire.

It is over too quickly.

Now you have to load it all over again.

Imagine doing this under enemy fire. Or with a pack of redskins whooping down on you. That would take a cool head.

No wonder there was a waiting list for Smith & Wesson's model 2 .32 revolver, with its all-in-one metal cartridge.

Here are ten fascinating things I learned at the shooting range as I tried out cap and ball and powder:

1. The bang would have been even louder in the Old West when they used at least twice the amount of powder we were using.
2. If you accidentally load an extra ball you can't turn the chamber on.
3. If you don't put in the powder the cap will push the ball into the barrel but not out of it...
4. So when you fire your next shot the barrel can explode!
5. You get powder smears on the base knuckle of your index finger.
6. You can get speckly powder burns that are like a tatoo, an expert called Dave showed me his.
7. Sometimes a little spark follows the bullet out, that is the remains of the wad.
8. You can use axle grease or bear fat instead of the wad, anything that will form a seal against sparks.
9. In the heat of battle you can dispense with the wad, but then you risk flashover.
10. In a battle, the cloud of gunsmoke would soon obscure your vision.

The best part about our morning at the Ham & Petersham Rifle & Pistol Club was when I met an expert on firearms of the 1800s. Dave let me try out his replica Winchester 66 and he also had a sweet little .22 revolver. He promised to bring his own Smith & Wesson seven-shooters the next time we meet!

Watch this space...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

More about the Western Mysteries

Over the past few years I've been working on a exciting new series very close to my Californian heart.

The Western Mysteries will be set in wild and wooly Virginia City in the fall of 1862.

Why 1862?

Back east the American Civil War is in its second year.

Out West the Silver Boom is taking over from the Gold Rush.

And in the final days of September, a dusty prospector walks into the offices of the Territorial Enterprise Newspaper to take up a postition as a 'local' reporter. His name is Sam Clemens but within half a year he will begin writing under the name 'Mark Twain'. But Mark Twain isn't the only exciting thing about Virginia City in 1862. There are also gamblers, miners, con-artists, hurdy girls, prospectors & gunmen galore.

Here are some of the original ideas I had for The Western Mysteries.

1. The series will be for children aged 8 - 14+
2. The detective will be a loner: the western hero is always a loner.
3. The detective will be a kid.
4. The detective will own a Smith & Wesson seven-shooter.
5. Real historical figures will appear in the books.
6. The bad-guys will be gunfighters, tricksters & newspapermen.
7. The mysteries will be based around real historical events.
8. The books will be told in the first person.
9. My detective will love black coffee and layer cake.
10. I am going to have a lot of fun writing these books.

Here are some of the things which have made it into the first book:

1. A hero like nobody you've ever met before.
2. A terrifying, sadistic bad guy...
3. ...and his two side-kicks.
4. A terrible massacre, apparently by Indians.
5. An exciting stagecoach chase.
6. A beautiful hurdy girl, a Chinese boy & a handsome gambler.
7. Shootouts galore and some Bowie knife action, too.
8. A Pinkerton detective. Kind of.
9. A heart-stopping showdown in a deep mine shaft.
10. An ending that promises more.

Even if you don't like Westerns, I think you'll like these books. For more news, watch this space!