Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saloon Archaeology Museum in Reno

tickets from Piper's Opera House
On the fifth floor of the Ansari Business Building at the University of Nevada's Reno campus is a gem of a museum, currently showing a fascinating exhibition of Western Archaeology. The University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Research Museum is part of the Anthropology Department. At the time of writing (December 2011) the exhibition called Archaeology of the Mining West features artifacts from saloon digs at Virginia City, the Silver Boom town featured in the 1960s TV show Bonanza and now in my new Western Mysteries series of books for kids aged 9+. (There is also a small case of items from one of the excavations of the ill-fated Donner Party, where pioneers had to resort to cannibalism to survive.)

Jessica Axsom with pictures of a dig
I first heard about the museum from Dr. Jessica Axsom (left), an archaeologist at the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office in Carson City. Every morning for a week in November of 2011, Jessica gave me access to their little reading room so I could do research. On the last day she showed me a whole box of artifacts from Battle Mountain, (where my great-grandmother Corinne Prince was born in the 1870s.) Jessica also showed me pictures of her dig in the Chinatown area of Virginia City, where my books are set. She didn't have any artifacts from Virginia City, but she told me I could see some at the small Anthropology museum in Reno.

Ansari Business Building
Jessica told me to ask for Sarah Heffner, a graduate student in charge of the Virginia City exhibition. A few hours before we were due to fly out of Reno, my sister and husband and I drove to the impressive campus, found the Ansari Business Building and went up to the 5th floor. We were lucky enough to ride up in the elevator with someone who knew Sarah and she kindly took us to the museum. Serendipity: Sarah was there! The museum is literally one room with about half a dozen cases and a research room tucked behind. It is manned by graduate students like Sarah, a "Museum Technician", and volunteers like Robert. (The exhibit itself was designed by a Museum Training for Anthropologists class.)

Sarah Heffner, Caroline & volunteer Robert

antique bottles
A glass case explained that Dr. Donald Hardesty is the recently retired professor of archaeology who was responsible for excavating sites of the Pony Express, the Donner Party and various saloons in Virginia City. In the four or five cases devoted to artefacts found in his digs, I was thrilled to see items from various saloons around Virginia City. The Boston Saloon is particularly fascinating because it is the first African-American Saloon ever excavated. As Dr. Hardesty says, "Archaeology is another way of travelling into the past." Entering the Boston Saloon you might have seen a gaslit space filled with pipe smoke, the smell of lamb chops and fine wine, and the sound of trombone music above the babble of happy voices. (To find out how they deduced this, have a look at this 2-part film clip.)

cases in the small museum
Also on display were artifacts found on the site of Piper's Corner Bar, (later Piper's Opera House), the Hibernia Brewery and O'Brien & Costello's Shooting Gallery & Saloon. It was thrilling to see tickets from the Opera House, poker chips charred by Virginia City's great fire of 1875 and gun shells from beneath the saloon shooting-gallery. There was even evidence of children found in some of the saloons: marbles and a doll's arm! Yes, Virginia City was a wild place, even for kids.

toys from Piper's Opera House Saloon
Artifacts from saloons included bottles, bungs, white and red clay pipes, dice, animal bones, oyster shells, buttons, bullets, coins and even a tooth powder box. A water filter made in London and a glazed earthenware spittoon were represented by photos. There was also a case devoted to the Chinese population of Virginia City, (Sarah Heffner's special subject), including Chinese coins, pottery, tiny medicine bottles, a bone toothbrush and an opium pipe. It was a delightful half hour travelling back in the past. If you have any interest in the archaeology of the Wild West – or Virginia City – and find yourself on the Reno campus, I urge you to go along to the University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Research Museum. Just tell them Caroline Lawrence sent you!

P.S. You can see more about Saloon Archaeology HERE and you can find out about the Western Mysteries HERE.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Twain's Bloody Massacre

Insensitive, moi?
Was a real life incident in July 1863 part inspiration for one of Mark Twain's most famous newspaper hoax articles?

[Warning: I am about to quote some fairly graphic descriptions of death by Bowie knife]

Before Mark Twain was a genial, white-haired, much-beloved raconteur, he was a hard-drinking, hot-tempered, pipe-puffing reporter with "mutton chop" sideburns and no mustache. (left) He lived in Virginia City (famous for being the setting of the TV series Bonanza) and he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise Newspaper. The Comstock, as that region was called, was wild and woolly, full of "thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes, poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits." Despite this rich vein of journalistic gold, Sam Clemens – who had not yet adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain – was not afraid of slandering local residents or even of making up hoax stories to fill blank pages of the paper.

His first hoax, early in October of 1862, was an article about a Petrified Man found in the Nevada desert east of Virgina City. Twain describes a prospector with a wooden leg who was found turned to stone at a place called Gravelly Ford. He describes the man's position, and if any of his readers had bothered to adopt the pose – or even mentally visualise it – they would have realised immediately that Twain was joshing them. (He even signed that article "Josh") One of his main aims in writing this hoax piece was to vex an enemy of his, a man named George Sewall with whom he was feuding. And he succeeded. People generally do not expect the printed word to be an outright lie.

A year later, Twain wrote another hoax, a truly grisly piece about a man living in Empire City who supposedly kills and mutilates his family, cuts his own throat from ear to ear, then rides three miles before dropping dead on the steps of a Carson City saloon. Once again, careful readers would have read the clues and figured out that this story wasn't true. After all, how can a man ride three miles with his throat cut from ear to ear? (see map above right)

But readers of the morning paper pushed away their breakfasts in horror upon reading Twain's grisly report of the unhinged father's murder and mutilation of his family.

TE readers put off their breakfast by Twain's gory article

Territorial Enterprise, October 28, 1863

From Abram Curry, who arrived here yesterday afternoon from Carson, we have learned the following particulars concerning a bloody massacre which was committed in Ormsby county night before last. It seems that during the past six months a man named P. Hopkins, or Philip Hopkins, has been residing with his family in the old log house just at the edge of the great pine forest which lies between Empire City and Dutch Nick's... About ten o'clock on Monday evening Hopkins dashed into Carson on horseback, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the warm, smoking blood was still dripping, and fell in a dying condition in front of the Magnolia saloon... [even more graphically bloody details follow, which you can read HERE.]

The Journals of Alfred Doten

I've been reading (and re-reading) the Journals of Alfred Doten as part of researching my Western Mysteries stories set in and around Virginia City in the early 1860s. Like Mark Twain, Alf Doten was a failed prospector turned journalist. Throughout his life he kept meticulous and detailed journals, recounting the weather, cost of things and concrete details of life in the California gold fields and later on the Comstock, in Nevada.

This morning over breakfast I pushed away my own yogurt and strawberries in dismay as I read Doten's sad and distressing entry for 16 July 1863.

July 16 - About 8 oclock this evening a man by the name of Patrick Comerford committed suicide at the Mineral Hill tunnel, some 2 miles below here [Como, Nevada]. He was living near the mouth of tunnel with some half dozen others - he went into the tunnel and with a bowie knife he cut his throat - first ripped it up from upper part of breast bone to his chin & then cut across nearly from ear to ear, severing the jugular, windpipe &c - did the job securely - his partners heard him groan and went in and found him - he died in a few minutes - one of them immediately came up to town &c told the story - several people went down there - Briar went - he acted as Coroner and the jury gave verdict in accordance with the facts - he was an Irishman and about 35 or 40 yrs old - no reason could be assigned for the rash act - he seemed to be all right enough but somewhat troubled in his mind, and at times somewhat abstracted 
Journal of Alfred Doten p 719

As a writer who constantly draws inspiration from things I read and hear about, I am pretty sure that poor Patrick Comerfield's bloody suicide in July 1863 was partly the inspiration for Twain's "Bloody Massacre" hoax, written three months later. The gruesome details of Comerford's suicide must have spread like wildfire even if not reported by local papers.

Thus it is not too surprising that many Comstockers believed Twain's similar but greatly embellished account of a bloody suicide by Bowie knife. In fact, the article caused such horror and outrage that, Twain had to print this retraction the very next day:

Territorial Enterprise, October 29, 1863
The story published in the Enterprise reciting the slaughter of a family near Empire was all a fiction. It was understood to be such by all acquainted with the locality in which the alleged affair occurred. In the first place, Empire City and Dutch Nick's are one, and in the next there is no "great pine forest" nearer than the Sierra Nevada mountains, etc. 

[For more retrospection about this hoax read Mark Twain's Sketches New and Old.]

You would think Twain might have learnt his lesson, but no. Six months later, in May of 1864, he wrote a different sort of hoax, this one about the Ladies of Carson City. As a result of this third hoax the hot-blooded young reporter was challenged to a duel by pistol and had to flee Nevada. But that's another story.

[The second book in my Western Mysteries series, is called P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man in the USA and The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse in the UK.]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Western Mysteries ABCs

A basic GLOSSARY for British children reading the Western Mysteries who might not know what a Desperado or a Stagecoach is... or where Nevada and Utah are.

America in 1862

A is for America - the country across the Atlantic Ocean where people speak English with funny accents. It is also known as the United States, but in 1862, the states only went halfway across America with a few on the west coast. A great chunk of land in the west was called "Territory". Towns in the Territories were often lawless and wild.
Is P.K. a Desperado?
B is for Ball & Blackpowder - this is what old-fashioned bullets were made of. You also needed lint and a tiny little metal cap that you put on the back of each hole in the cylinder of your Revolver to make a spark which set off the powder and get the ball flying towards its target. Later on they put the cap and ball and powder in one metal case called a cartridge. This is what we now call a Bullet.
A Chinese Youth
C is for Chinese (not Cowboys) - in the early 1860s, when The Western Mysteries are set, there were far more Chinese out west than Cowboys. Cattle drives did not begin in earnest until 1866.
D is for Desperado - a desperate person who is usually on the run after committing murder, robbery or other serious crime.
E is for Emigrants - most of the people who flooded to America in the 1800s were emigrants from Euorpean countries like England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Russia, etc. And, of course, the thousands from China.
F is for Frontier - the place in the American West where settled land gave way to wilderness populated by wild animals and Native American tribes.
A Gunslinger
G is for Gunslingers - almost everybody carried a firearm in the 1860s out west, even women & kids.
H is for Horses - The West in the early 1860s was a world mostly driven and powered by animals with hooves like horses, mules and oxen.
An Indian Tomahawk
I is for Indians or Native Americans - the tribes of people already living in North America when the emigrants arrived were as varied as the people from European countries, sometimes more so.
J is for Jackrabbit, also coyote, grizzly bear, prairie dog, buffalo and all the other unique wildlife found in the West.
A Kerosene Lamp
K is for kerosene or coal-oil, which is what folk used to light their lamps. They used candles, too. In 1862 gas had not quite reached Virginia City.
L is for Lincoln - who was president between 1861 and 1865 when America was fighting a terrible Civil War over slavery and freedom.
26-year-old Mark Twain
M is for Mark Twain - his real name was Sam Clemens and he was one of America's greatest authors and humorists. He joined the Civil War for about two weeks then headed west to Nevada Territory with his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the governor. After trying his hand at prospecting, Mark Twain became a reporter in Virginia City where he remained for two and a half years. Many years later he wrote Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn, among others.
N is for Nevada - then a "Territory" and now the triangular state to the right of California, (see maps). It is full of deserts, mountains and minerals.
O is for Ore - rock and/or dirt containing precious metals or minerals. The Gold Rush in 1849 brought a huge wave of people to California, then ten years later the Silver Boom brought thousands Nevada, to the Comstock Lode beneath Mount Davidson.
P is for Pinkerton - the first detective agency in the world. The founder, a Scotsman named Allan Pinkerton, coined the phrase "Private Eye". Their head office was in Chicago, Illinois (one of the high-up states in the middle).
A Quartz Stamp Mill
Q is for quartz stamp mill - a machine with heavy iron pistons that crushed quartz so that silver and gold could be extracted.
R is for religious revival - America was going through a great Christian revival in the 1860s and almost everybody was deeply devout.
S is for stagecoach - a large, closed carriage pulled by four to six horses; it was used to carry passengers, goods and mail on a regular route. Sometimes you could ride on top.
T is for tobacco - like religion, almost everybody had tobacco. They either smoked it, sniffed it or chewed it. Those who chewed usually spit their tobacco-tinted saliva into vessels called spittoons. Ew.

A Stagecoach

U is for Utah - now the state to the right of Nevada on a map, then it was a "Territory", a part of America which did not yet have the full rights of the other states.
Nevada Territory 1862
V is for Virginia City - the mile-high city on a steep mountain above a buried "ledge" of silver called the Comstock Lode.
W is for Washoe - the region around Virginia City, named after a lake to the west (see map) and also a tribe of Indians who lived there.
X is for "X marks the Spot" - Prospectors were people who prospected or "looked out for" areas where gold or silver could be found. Then they "staked their claim" i.e. announced it as theirs. They guarded their claims with bowie knives, revolvers, rifles... and their lives.
Y is for Yankee or Yank - slang for somebody from the northern states or on the Union side of the Civil War. A person on the other (Confederate) side was often called a Reb or Rebel.
Washoe Zephyr
Z is for zephyr - by definition a warm and gentle breeze. In Virginia City, a Washoe Zephyr was what people jokingly called the gale force wind that sometimes swept over the mountains and threatened to uproot trees and houses.

If you would like to read a book with all these words and a heck of a lot of adventure, get The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence. It is available in hardbackKindle and unabridged audiobook format. Suitable for children aged 9+. Perfect for American history at Key Stages 2 & 3.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stagecoach Etiquette

These tips for people travelling by stagecoach come from a 1877 issue of the Omaha Herald newspaper. They give you a good idea of how uncomfortable it must have been to make long journeys by stagecoach in olden days, and they don't even mention the poor sods who had to sit on top!

an overcrowded stagecoach
The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver. Even if you have a tendency to sea-sickness when riding backwards - you'll get over it and will get less jolts and jostling. Don't let "sly elph" trade you his mid-seat.

In cold weather, don't ride with tight-fitting boots, shoes or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling, he won't request it unless absolutely necessary. If the team runs away - sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine out of ten times you will get hurt.

In very cold weather abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence.

Don't growl at the food received at the station - stage companies generally provide the best they can get.

roads were hair-raising
Don't keep the stage waiting.

Don't smoke a strong pipe inside the coach.

Spit on the leeward side...

Don't lean or lop over neighbours when sleeping.

Take small change to pay expenses.

Never shoot on the road as the noise might frighten the horses. Don't discuss politics or religion.

Don't point out where murders have been committed, especially if there are women passengers.

Don't lag at the wash basin. Don't grease your hair, because travel is dusty. Don't imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort and some hardships.

Find out more about Stagecoaches, Saloons, Spittoons, and Scalpings at my Western Mysteries session on Friday 26 August 2011 from 4.00-5.00 at the Edinburgh Book Festival

watch the mini-trailer on YouTube
Trailer for the first Western Mystery, The Case of the Deadly Desperados

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Virginia City 1862

Virginia City, Nevada Territory - September 1862.

P.K. Pinkerton, Private Eye
When desperados kill the preacher and his wife in a small frontier town, their foster child P.K. is forced to go on the run. P.K. must get a valuable letter to the Recorder’s Office before anyone else can get their hands on it. It’s not easy: Virginia City is full of gamblers, hurdy girls, saloon-keepers and gunmen, all of them on the make. But there are possible allies: Sam Clemens, the new reporter for the paper, a gambler called ‘Poker Face Jace’, a derringer-packing Soiled Dove, and a Chinese photographer’s apprentice named Ping.

Map of the Washoe
Virginia City was a famous mining town in Nevada that sprang up on the slopes of Mt Davidson in 1859, ten years after the California Gold Rush. But it was silver, not gold, that was found in quantity in this barren part of Nevada, so some have dubbed it the Silver Rush. When Mark Twain arrived in September 1862 he described Virginia City in this way: ‘It claimed a population of fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand, and all day long half of this little army swarmed the streets like bees and the other half swarmed among the drifts and tunnels of the “Comstock”, hundreds of feet down in the earth directly under those same streets.’

In the 1860's Virginia City must have been one of the most colorful places on earth, with prospectors, miners, saloon-keepers, gamblers, dancing girls, deserters, actresses, desperados, lawyers, schoolmarms and newspapermen. In the last category are some well-known names (Dan De Quille, Alf Doten, Joe Goodman) and one stellar one: Mark Twain. Their dry-as-dust humor, tall tales and hoaxes produced a uniquely Western flavor of literature which some call "Sagebrush Humor."

Sam Clemens is Mark Twain
The Comstock in 1862 was an extreme example of what we might call "politically incorrect". People gambled, cursed, smoked, spat, drank, carried firearms, murdered one another, ate opium, sparked, and exhibited racism at its worst. It was an ethnic melting pot, boasting Irish, Germans, several tribes of Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese and Mexican residents. Many of the inhabitants had come west to avoid the horrors (or duty) of fighting in the War between the States. Almost everyone came to get rich, though there were a few who came to save souls of others or lose their own.

In short, Virginia City was a crucible; it made some great, and destroyed others. What will happen to 12 year old P.K. Pinkerton? Read the Western Mysteries to find out.

Western Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence will be talking about her new series at the Edinburgh Festival from 5.00-6.00pm on Friday 26 August 2011. For more info, and to book, go HERE.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Historical Inaccuracies Rule!

Try to avoid anachronisms
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction for children to balance accuracy and fun. It's no good having a bazillion accurate facts if the books are dry as dust. And it's no good telling a ripsnorting yarn if your story isn't at least 95% accurate.

In my Roman Mysteries I was meticulous about getting historical details, events and people as accurately as possible, but I made my hero – the 10-year-old detectrix Flavia Gemina – as independent as any 21st century schoolgirl. Maybe more so. I needed to make Flavia and her pals accessible so that children could identify with them and enter the world and so absorb the details of the period. It was a balancing act, challenging but fun. I tried not to let too many inaccuracies creep in, but one or two per book were necessary. 

Virginia City re-enactor
I have the same problem with my new Western Mysteries series, set in Virginia City, Nevada Territory, in 1862. To me it is deeply thrilling. I have the Civil War, Indian battles, the Salting of Silver Mines, Runaway Slaves, Mark Twain & other priceless primary sources. Plus Virginia City is still there and chock full of museums, mine shafts, lively saloons (!) and historical re-enactors. But it's still going to be a hard sell to children aged 9+ in the UK. To them this time and place is deeply unsexy. Their grandfathers liked Western movies for heaven's sake. How uncool is that? 

So, in a bid to make the period immediately engaging and fun, I went to five of the most famous visual images of the Western: blazing six-shooters, the Stetson hat, sheriff's badges, swinging saloon doors and WANTED posters. The problem is, all five of these iconic artefacts are basically myth. Especially in Nevada Territory in 1862. But I decided to indulge myself with two of them. 
the author with replica Colt & badge

Myth #1 - Blazing six-shooters
This is the image of 90% of the Westerns you see on TV or in cinemas. The myth is so strong it has spawned Cowboy Fast Draw as a new sport, especially popular in states like Nevada and Arizona, where almost anybody can carry a loaded firearm. I had huge fun in May at the Genoa Cowboy Festival. I got to fire a revolver at targets with wax-filled cartridges. Anything under 1 second is considered good. The champions can draw, cock, fire and hit the target in under half a second. 
Denied! At the time my books are set – 1862-63 – cartridges were brand new. Most guns needed to be painstakingly loaded with black powder, cap, ball and wad. (I've tried this, too.) With this kind of ammo, misfires are common. When you DO hit something they often set the victim's clothes on fire. How often do we see that in movies? In old westerns, a bullet means instant death. In reality people often survived after being shot multiple times. That myth I can bust. Accounts of real historical shootouts are exciting, shocking and sometimes even amusing. 

Sheriff Tom Peasley
Myth #2 - Sheriff Badges, etc. 
Think of Gary Cooper in High Noon, dropping his badge in the dust as his response to the refusal of the town to acknowledge its authority. Or Henry Fonda in The Tin Star, where the sheriff's badge symbolises his redemption. Surely that's not a myth?
Denied! During my last research trip to Virginia City I learned that lawmen did not wear badges until 1874, a full dozen years after my first book is set. Nor did marshals, sheriffs or police (yes they had them too) wear any distinctive uniform for many years. So how did you know you were facing the law? Fascinating. I'm going to use the reality here, too, as it could provide lots of drama. But I'll carry on wearing my Virginia City Deputy Sheriff's star to parties and book launches.
The Duke in his hat

Myth #3 - Stetson Hats
Ten-gallon hats, Stetson hats & cowboy hats! Think of Steve McQueen and his disgustingly realistic-looking sweat-stained hat in The Magnificent Seven. Or John Wayne and his famous white(ish) cowboy hat. (right) Surely those are a legitimate icon of the 1860s? 
Denied! Most men in Virginia City wore something Dickens would have worn. Mr. Stetson didn't sell his first hat until 1865, a few years after my books are set. Mark Twain, (my vocabulary source for 1862), describes himself as arriving in Virginia City with a slouch hat, a soft felt hat usually of brown or black. That's the type of hat my character is wearing on the front cover of my book. So in my books my male characters wear plug hats, stovepipe hats or slouch hats. And my women are almost universally in bonnets. The dude on the black and white carte de visite up above is Tom Peasley, a famous Virginia City Sheriff from 1866.  

Myth #4 - Swinging Saloon Doors
Is there anything more iconic (or fun) about a wild Western town than The Stranger swinging in through those butterfly doors? The piano player stops, the room goes silent, everybody turns to stare and you can be sure there will be a fist-fight or a shootout before long.
Denied! One scholarly resident of Virginia City tells me that saloons there never had the famous swinging doors so beloved of Western movies. One reason may have been the hurricane force wind fondly known by the locals as the "Washoe Zephyr". It was strong enough to blow off tin roofs and carry away small mammals. 
El Indio

Myth #5 - WANTED posters
Think of all those great Western movies where the WANTED poster tells you exactly what the bad guy looks like. One of my personal favourites is in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, where the evil laughing baddie El Indio is freeze-framed mid-cackle and the image becomes his WANTED poster. 
Denied! My Nevada historian friend assures me that WANTED posters from the 1860s and 1870s were probably printed handbills with a plain verbal description. I have a replica of the WANTED poster for Lincoln's assassin up on my wall and she's right. Exclamation points, yes. Pictures, no. 

But swinging saloon doors and WANTED posters are iconic images from the Western genre, so I've decided that both of these particular myths will appear in my book and on my website. I want to tell readers – especially young readers – that this is a series about the Wild West, with cowboys and indians; gambling and drinking; horses and mules; guns and knives; action and excitement. I can do that instantly with saloon doors and WANTED posters.
So the naughty swinging doors became the portal to my website and the illustrated WANTED poster became the cover image for the book.

Wisely used, historical inaccuracies can be the spice to bring the past to life, but like spice they should be used sparingly and knowingly. The historical author should know exactly what she is doing and why. Inaccuracies through ignorance are not allowed, so if I get something wrong, don't be afraid to tell me! 

The Case of the Deadly Desperados is the Telegraph Family Book Club choice for June. Read the review and see questions for book group discussion HERE

Tuesday, June 14, 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 sanitized 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 Ballad of Lucy Whipple (U) by Karen Cushman
This is the tale of a girl in a California mining camp during the American Gold Rush. I like this story because it transports you to another time and place, with wonderful details about the plants, animals and climate of the Sierra Nevada mountains combined with food, clothing and equipment of gold miners in the 1850s. This is probably the safest of the five books on my list, because it was written especially for children, but like all good stories it is compelling enough for adults to enjoy, too. Plus it has plenty of grit and grime.

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.

Western Mystery #1, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, is out in the US now. Western Mystery #2, The Case of the Petrified Man, is coming in 2013. 

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.  

My "Dime Novel"
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?

not the final cover
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 this here 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)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hero's Journey in Westerns

I’ve just blogged about The Hero’s Journey over at thebookette.co.uk. 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 & 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!