This morning I put up an excerpt from a Western I've been fiddling with for the past couple of years. I've been fascinated by the interchange of ideas that's resulted. A number of my readers commented on that post, and others e-mailed me with more in-depth responses. I thought you might be interested in an overview of a few points - particularly because I think the exchange highlights how modern culture has 'whitewashed' some very unpleasant and unpalatable facts about the Civil War and its aftermath.
1. Language and mode of expression.
A majority of respondents found Walt's way of speaking to be problematic. A smaller number recognized it at once, and some even found it familiar from their own background. Here's a small selection of comments, from the blog post and e-mail:
- ... the dialect is so jarringly unpleasant to read that it's almost unreadable.
- I enjoyed your sample story as it is, but I do think changes to the language would improve it.
- I think with that accent! I have no problem with reading it, again, very familiar.
- It rings very true, right down to the rain running down the back of his neck and the dialect.
I should point out that I've studied many of the books and other sources recommended by readers. I've built up quite the reference library about the period, precisely because I wanted to make this novel as authentic as possible. When I speak of forts in Kansas, or weapons of the period, or riverboat routes, they're as accurate as I can make them on the basis of contemporary records. The same applies to Walt's initial dialog. As the book progresses, I've made it clear that he was raised to 'speak better', but that three years in army camps with people from a wide variety of backgrounds had 'coarsened' his language. That's a very real problem even today (as those of you who've served in the armed forces will know from your own experience). For example, the 'F word' is not just an expletive in military service, but an every-minute-of-the-day adjective and pronoun! I've also noticed in myself how my British-colonial manner of speaking became coarsened during my military service.
Nevertheless, despite being willing to bet on the historical and linguistic accuracy of Walt's dialog, I have to accept that if I want the book to sell, I have to write to readers' expectations. It's no good writing in Mark Twain's style, because he was writing for the people of his generation, who understood his dialect. If I want to sell my book to my generation, I have to write it in dialect they'll understand. Therefore, sadly, I'll probably have to make the dialog more modern and less authentic, in the interests of marketing. Another lesson learned!
2. Moral and ethical quandaries.
A number of people found Walt an 'odd' sort of hero because he's clearly a cold-blooded killer. Again, this is historically absolutely authentic. At the end of the Civil War it's been estimated by various authorities that several thousand Confederate veterans (perhaps as many as tens of thousands) were robbed and murdered, either on their way home or after they arrived there. The so-called 'Carpetbagger' administrations in several former Confederate states were so corrupt as to be criminal enterprises from the top down - again, this is historical fact, not opinion. Legalized robbery and murder were the order of the day. In having bushwhackers rob Confederates with the tacit approval of a local Union commander, who shared their loot in exchange for ignoring their activities, I'm telling it like it was. That happened in a number of places, and sometimes criminal and military charges resulted.
In the same way, Walt's willingness to kill and steal from the bushwhackers is nothing more or less than expediency. He needs a stake to make a fresh start, and since they've tried to kill and rob him, he sees nothing morally wrong in killing and robbing them in their turn. "Do unto others what they tried to do unto you", if I can put it like that. Later in the book he'll steal a valuable cargo from the Union Army, and again will have no qualms about it - after all, the Union Army (in a sense) took away his inheritance (as the book will explain), so he's taking from it what he needs to build a new life.
This sort of 'flexible morality' happened in the case of a surprisingly large number of Old West so-called 'heroes'. To consider only a few examples:
- Wyatt Earp is reliably alleged to have taken bribes and kickbacks in the various towns where he served as a local lawman, and also to have helped run a brothel (for which he was arrested three times). There are also several legally and ethically questionable shootings to his 'credit'.
- Bat Masterson was a well-known lawman, and despite some controversy was generally considered an honest man. However, he had a habit in later life of buying revolvers from Colt, then selling them to eager admirers who could thus claim that they owned Bat Masterson's gun. He never explained that it wasn't the gun he'd carried as a lawman, or that there were dozens more like it in existence. Moral? Ethical? Not in my book - but he made a good deal of money out of credulous admirers in that way. (Today, if you go to an auction house claiming to own 'Bat Masterson's gun', you'll be met with shaking heads and rolling eyes, for precisely that reason.)
- Buffalo Bill Cody was an audacious self-promoter, making many claims about his life and exploits that could not be proved. He was undoubtedly a brave man and an outstanding showman, but his 'legend' was largely self-created and invented out of whole cloth.
- 'Texas John' Slaughter and Charles Goodnight were legendary cattlemen, but also merciless killers who often acted outside the law, summarily hanging or shooting those they accused of rustling. The exact number of those who died in this way has never been tallied, but is popularly believed (based on accounts from their cowhands and others who were in a position to know) to be measured in dozens, if not scores. Of course, no-one can say whether those they killed were innocent or guilty - and it's too late now.
- Tom Horn was a highly regarded scout, detective and soldier who 'went bad', and was eventually hanged for murder.
I could name scores more such examples. My protagonist, Walt, is based on their 'composite morality', if I can put it like that. He's ruthless and merciless in defending his own, but will also go out of his way to help those in genuine need. He sees nothing wrong in taking out of the Union Army's hide what he's lost during the war; and, in the same way, will gladly rob the bushwhackers of what they've robbed from others (including his comrades in arms). He also sees nothing wrong in lying in wait for, and killing, the last surviving bushwhacker, because by doing so he's making sure the man can't target more of his comrades in future. It's very basic frontier morality, and there were many like him on both sides. For his time, Walt really is a 'good guy'.
3. Body count.
A number of readers complained that I'd criticized excessively high 'body counts' in many Westerns, then immediately proceeded to kill off four people in one chapter! Let me point out that the excerpt I posted isn't set on the Western frontier, but in Kentucky at the end of the Civil War. Such incidents were common enough at the time. Indeed, they continued for several years, not just with bushwhackers like these, but also with the so-called 'bummers' sent out by General Sherman in his march through Georgia. Those Union troops liked their free-lance 'foraging duties' so much that hundreds of them formed outlaw bands at the end of the war and continued to rob both former Union and former Confederate farms and towns for years. They killed hundreds of innocent people, and eventually most of them had to be hunted down and exterminated in their turn. All this is a matter of historical record. The same happened on the Confederate side, of course: the James-Younger gang is perhaps the best-known example of wartime Confederates who continued their guerrilla activities as criminals, but they were far from alone.
The soldiers and frontiersmen who had regular contact with Indian tribes also ran up significantly higher 'body counts' than the average Westerner. Those who lived in settled towns in the Old West seldom had to shoot anyone, and most of the lawmen and outlaws who've come down in history killed only one or two people. Those who fought in the Indian wars, or opened up new territories, or served as territorial lawmen (as opposed to city marshals or county sheriffs) had more exposure to danger and (of necessity) killed more people in order to stay alive themselves. (See, for example, the so-called 'Three Guardsmen' of Indian Territory, which later became part of Oklahoma.) Nevertheless, few killed a large number of opponents, and those who did were regarded with awe and trepidation as very dangerous men. My protagonist, perhaps inevitably, will develop such a reputation . . . but then, that's what fictional heroes do - even anti-heroes.
I realize that in order to make this Western commercially viable, I'm going to have to 'fudge' that part of the historical record. No-one will buy or read a boringly factual account where a former soldier makes his way out West with no danger, no armed encounters and no problems at all. The morally ambiguous nature of the times (Kansas towns trying to confiscate Texas cattle herds on the legally dubious grounds of 'infectious disease', suppliers gouging travelers with obscenely high prices, corrupt shipping agents diverting entire trainloads of immigrants to destinations that offered the highest bribes, and so on - again, all matters of historical fact) means that my protagonist will have to deal with the same moral ambiguity in himself and others. I'm sorry that so many Westerns don't treat those issues at all. To me, their existence makes the times more understandable and more real.
I hope these comments help you understand why I've written this Western in the way I have. I've no idea whether it'll be a commercial success; and to give it the best possible start, I'll certainly address issues like dialog, dialect and manner of speech, to make it more generally acceptable. Nevertheless, I'm going to try to be as factual as possible, from wagon trains to railways to mining camps to Indian raids. The West was an absolutely fascinating story that's often glossed over in popular fiction. It deserves to be told 'as it really was'.