Writing Westerns

Although Piccadilly Publishing does not actually publish those books by Terry Harkett/George G Gilman, without him there would be no Piccadilly Publishing.  Many years ago Mike and Dave were involved in the George G Gilman Appreciation Society, which segued into The Westerner. In November 1980 the first newsletter carried a piece by Terry on how to write Westerns. I think it’s worthwhile reprinting here ….

Terry Harknett

THE essence of my advice to would-be writers of any kind of category fiction, i.e., Westerns, romances, crime novels, or any sub-division of these, is related to the fact that I wrote successful Westerns before setting foot in the U.S. Contrary to what the textbooks (and probably other articles in this magazine) may say, my advice is to write about what you do not know! Sounds crazy?

Do you think I am putting you on while my tongue is lodged firmly in my cheek? Well, I can only speak with authority on my own experience. Which will not teach you how to write but which, I hope, will help you to achieve success with your writing by adopting this fresh approach.

Initially, a couple of clichés about writing, which, like most clichés on any subject, contain more than a mere grain of truth:

1) There’s only one way to be a writer — apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write.

2) Writing is ninety-eight percent perspiration and two percent inspiration.

If I paraphrase the second one, I think it puts in a nutshell the “secret” of my own experience: Successful writing is two percent inspiration, forty-nine percent perspiration and forty-nine percent luck.

Because, you see, I am a frustrated mystery writer who has achieved success in a field for which I had no particular penchant. For fifteen long years, I wrote mystery novels that were published twice yearly — and sank without trace at the same tale. This taught me how to sweat as I wrote five pages a night every night after completing a full day’s work on one or another fringe of journalism.

Then luck took a hand, when I got a job on a book trade journal. There, one of my chores was to write a weekly review of new paperback titles for the retail trade, and this inevitably brought me into contact with people in paperback publishing.

One such person heard of my evening fiction-writing activities and gave me my big chance: he commissioned me, for little more than pocket money, to write a book of a movie, i.e., a paperback original based upon a screenplay.

The movie happened to be a Western. I had not seen it and I had never read a Western novel. But I had seen my fair share of oaters on the big screen and on TV — enough, anyway, to know what the western landscape looked like.

Thus was William Terry (the name I used on the book, so it would not clash with the names I had used for my mysteries) born. And after this first Western was well received, commissions for four more books from movies followed. (I guess you could say I was type cast!)

Then the publisher concerned was struck by one of those examples of the “two percent inspiration” that all publishers and authors wish they could come up with more often.

This all happened at the time when the screen Western (under the influence of Italian movie makers) had hung up its guitars in the crazy bunkhouse and come out with blazing guns onto the dusty streets and wind-blown high plains. Clint Eastwood did not wear a white hat, and when he shot a man, the blood flowed — and showed. The movie West was suddenly tough, but nobody was writing books like that.

So Terry Harknett/William Terry was asked to write a couple and test the market. But for these he was called George G. Gilman. And thus my protagonist, Edge, came into being, destined to appear in from four to six books per year (current number of titles available, twenty-nine) and to chalk up world sales of more than ten million copies in the five or so years since his inception.

Creating an original character

Why this success? And why have not Adam Steele, Jubal Cade, and Apache (three more Western series I created) achieved the same best-selling status?

Because Edge was an original. He had to be, since, as I’ve said, I had never read a Western in my life before I wrote those first two Edge titles. The sole influence I had were movie and TV series — preconceptions from another medium, unlike all those unsuccessful mysteries I had written previously (and which I continued to write for a time after Edge succeeded). They had been very strongly influenced by my ceaseless reading of the books of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, and all the other American hard-boiled school of crime writers I tried to emulate. Then, in writing my first Western, I was also reading Westerns, albeit my own. And when I wrote other Western series, I was subconsciously influenced by myself. Certainly, I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time and to know the right people. That was part of having had that forty-nine percent of luck.

After that, I knuckled down and perspired my forty-nine percent working in a field that initially had no great appeal for me, and put aside what I wanted to write in order to supply what the public wanted to read — or, in the first instance, what a publisher thought the public wanted to read.

I became a commercial writer, writing for money and, as it turned out, for more pleasure than I ever got from writing those unsuccessful mysteries. For, I can assure you, sitting down at a typewriter with a virtually pre-sold project in mind is much more fun than working in limbo with a hope and a prayer for company.

Now to the mechanics of how I, as a commercial writer produce my books (a technique that is much the same as when I wrote those first two Edge titles).

I start out with an outline of the projected story — a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot, which may be as few as three or as many as eight pages long. (Nowadays I write eight such outlines each spring — four each for Edge and Steele, the two series I presently do. And the publisher gives me contracts for these eight books. Thus, my year’s writing and publishing program is scheduled.)

I then write the books at the rate of at least fifteen pages a day, or about 3,000 words, come hell or high water, five days a week. And in three weeks, I have a finished manuscript of from 225 to 260 pages.

At the end of each working day I read through the work I have done, and then at the end of the book I read the entire typescript. On books that go well, I need only to correct typing and spelling errors. On the books that go less easily. I may have to rewrite ten or a dozen pages before I’m finished.

How much research, and when?

What about research? This brings us back to my early point about writing of what one knows little.

When I wrote the first two Edge titles, my sole sources of reference were a map of present day United States and my recollections of movies I had seen. Since then, I have built upan extensive library of reference books covering every aspect of the Old West. But I use them sparingly, and only when I am actually engaged in writing an outline or a book.

Thus, should I need to set a scene in a mine, on a train, in an actual town or perhaps feature people who actually lived, then I will pull the necessary books from my shelves. Doing research on the hoof, as it were, keeps me from padding out my Westerns with unnecessary detail, which always strikes me in other books (not Westerns, because I still don’t read them) as a pretentious airing of knowledge and only tends to slow down the story.

On my desk when I am writing are a half dozen dictionaries, because my spelling is bad. Also, Roget’s Thesaurus, because, although the first word a writer thinks of is invariably the best one, there are times when no one can delve deeply enough into memory to come up with the right word first.

I did finally go to the United States, to the Southwest, where the majority of my books continue to be set. And what did I get from the trip that will be of use to me in writing future Westerns? A whole pile of source books to add to my reference library. Plus, I have to admit, a sense of the vastness of the area: first-hand knowledge that the big sky really is big.

Now it may be said that because of my facile methods of researching and writing, the quality of my work would be higher if I researched at great length and depth and took three months or three years to write the books I produce in three weeks.

That well may be so. But I subscribe to the school of thought that if one takes one’s produce to the marketplace and it sells, one would be foolish not to return as soon as possible with, more of the same brand.

Crass commercialism and not the view of an artist? Sure, because I am a commercial writer, a craftsman with no claim to being an artist. All I claim is that I am successful, because my products sell on a free market, and that I work as hard as I can to do the best I can within my known limits.

The “perspiration” percentage

Should you wish to tread this same path, I cannot teach you. All I can offer are the following rules which I have adhered to, with the proviso that they are no guarantee of success, for what they amount to is merely that forty-nine percent of perspiration. You will have to get your own inspiration and keep your fingers crossed that Lady Luck will smile on you.

1. If you are in an ivory tower about becoming a published, full-time writer, climb down out of it. Writing books is a public service job. And if you want people to pay good money for the service you are providing, you have to give them what they want, not what you think they should want.

2. Do not write in the field you enjoy reading, unless you can totally forget what you have read when you start to write. It is impossible for me to be this objective, and, I would guess, for most people.

3. Polishing is something you do with wax and a cloth. Writing is not an exact science, so forget about trying to write the perfect sentence, let alone the perfect novel. If what you first put down on the page makes sense and advances the story, your readers will not mind a half dozen split infinitives.

4. Research as you write. That way you don’t overload your story with too much irrelevant material just because you spent a great deal of time digging for it. It even helps if you are notmuch interested in your subject matter — then researching it will bore you.

5. Write each novel as if it were the first one in a series which simply means leaving it open ended. Then if the book takes off, you have a ready-made central character for the next one. (You might even send outlines for one or two more books in the series when you submit your first one.)

6. If you adopt rule five, make your series more of a serial, i.e., with your central character developing a little more in each book.

7. Pay no attention to people — whether your next-door neighbour or the most high-brow critic on the Sunday book section — who smile or even sneer at you for being a writer of Westerns. Just enjoy receiving your royalty checks. These will not inevitably be for large amounts, but they will certainly be regular. Western fans are loyal.

8. Never set a Western in the East. Never try to write an entire series set during the Civil War.

9, Write fast. That way the action comes fast.

10. Write. To repeat that first cliché I mentioned, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write.

And, I wish each of you to be visited by that large percentage of very necessary luck.

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