What sites might you visit, books might you read, etc., to research writing a western?
July 3, 2007 7:33 AM   Subscribe

What sites might you visit, books might you read, etc., to research writing a western?

I'm less interested in the broad strokes of history -- though that's appreciated, too! (if relatively easy to track down without assistance) -- than in the particulars of how people lived their day-to-day lives a century and a half or so ago. Thanks.
posted by kittens for breakfast to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You may dig Ghost Cowboy, which blogs stories from the newspapers of the day. I also got some some really cool and helpful answers to this AskMe I posted about life in Civil War/Reconstruction times.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:40 AM on July 3, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, rock ON. Thanks! Ghost Cowboy looks awesome, and I might have thought to search for CW-related posts...
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:53 AM on July 3, 2007

County historical societies have a wealth of information on this sort of thing, but it may take a bit of digging. Call around in the geographic area of your choice until you hit a gold vein, then run it through the sluice box and extract the riches.
posted by yohko at 8:01 AM on July 3, 2007

Western Words: A Dictionary of the Old West by Ramon Adams. It is just a fun book to browse through in any case.

I'm sure people have been editing and publishing first hand accounts of western immigrants and pioneers, I don't know of any first hand though.
posted by marxchivist at 8:33 AM on July 3, 2007

This might sound a little odd, but Role Playing Game material, like GURPS Old West have a fair amount of stuff distilled down, plus a bibliography.
posted by fings at 8:46 AM on July 3, 2007

If you're willing to derive inspiration sitting in front of the boob tube, you might watch (available on DVD) the TNT series "Into the West". Steven Spielberg was the producer of the series. It wasn't as entertaining as Deadwood but might be useful to you.
posted by vito90 at 8:52 AM on July 3, 2007

Go to Cowtown.
posted by salvia at 8:59 AM on July 3, 2007

One of the best westerns ever written is called The Virginian, by Owen Wister (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Virginian_%28novel%29). It's been made into several movies, none of which has captured it all, so I'd recommend reading it rather than watching it. You'll thank me. Oh, and if you can *listen* to a book on tape version, you'll thank me even more!
posted by crepeMyrtle at 10:37 AM on July 3, 2007

If you want books about WESTERNS, aside from watching a lot of them, I'd recommend:

Cawelti, John. The Six-Gun Mystique. 2nd ed. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1984.

Coyne, Michael. The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western. London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.

French, Phillip. Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre. New York: Viking Press, 1973.

Lenihan, John H. Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

Parks, Rita. The Western Hero in Film and Television: Mass Media Mythology. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." The Frontier in American History. 1920. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. 1 - 38.

Wright, Will. Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1975.

Those are less historically minded and more works that study the genre. If you want some actual books that present you with histories, try:

Barra, Allen. Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998.

Marks, Paula Mitchell. And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Tefertiller, Casey. Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

(Maybe to give you an idea of how a historical personage gets translated into films)

More generally:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

White, Richard. It's Your Own Misfortune and None of My Own. Norman OK: U of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Also, here are some handy links.

If I think of any more, I'll post again. But also try to get your hands on some primary texts, personal accounts, et cetera.
posted by synecdoche at 10:44 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'd consider reading Ghost Town by Robert Coover, which is like a skeleton of a Western. He's pretty brilliant about distilling the tropes and reworking them to make them both more and less explicit as tropes.
posted by OmieWise at 10:45 AM on July 3, 2007

VIGILANTES OF MONTANA by Thomas Dimsdale. This book was published as a book in 1865 and is a first hand account/narrative frontier justice in the mining camps of Montana–lots of details of the desperadoes and robbers that rode the mountain trails in the northern Rockies. Jack Nicholson based his screenplay RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966)* on an incident in this book. I found a cheap, leather-bound Time/Life edition of the book at Abebooks a couple of years ago.

I'd recommend reading diaries and letters from this era. Great place to steal develop story ideas and get a feel for the language of the era. Your local public (or college) library should be able to assist you in tracking down this kind of material through Interlibrary loan...

*RIDE... was directed by Monte Hellman and starred Harry Dean Stanton as well as Nicholson. Great movie, one NIcholson's best performances, and one of the most authentic westerns ever made. Note: In the audio commentary and several interviews, Hellman mixes up the name of the book used by Nicholson.
posted by cinemafiend at 11:59 AM on July 3, 2007


Ahem, sorry.
posted by cinemafiend at 12:01 PM on July 3, 2007

I would suggest visiting the area around Durango, Mexico- where the film, "High Plains Drifter" and the "Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" was filmed.

You might find some of the old mining towns in Arizona and New Mexico interesting for scene-setting purposes.
posted by solongxenon at 12:16 PM on July 3, 2007

Sorry, films...were filmed.
posted by solongxenon at 12:18 PM on July 3, 2007

True West Magazine
posted by rcavett at 12:41 PM on July 3, 2007

After finding out some relatives were involved in the Pleasant Valley War in Arizona, we found this website.
posted by rcavett at 12:43 PM on July 3, 2007

You will find no better Western genre writer to emulate than Elmer Kelton of San Angelo, Texas. He's won seven Spur Awards and three Western Heritage Awards, and has been voted All-Time Best Western Author by the Western Writers of America, in addition to being four-time winner of the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Pretty good credentials. Several of his novels are set around the 1860s-1880s in Texas, when the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at isolated forts were protecting white settlers and trying to eradicate the Indians. But Kelton's not a typical shoot-em-up Western kind of guy.

Many ranchers and other residents in far West Texas towns say that Kelton's "The Time It Never Rained" is perhaps the most truthful, heart-rending account of a West Texas rancher's battle to survive during the horrible drought of the 1950s that drove many ranchers out of business -- or to their deaths. This book has made many a tough man cry because they've seen their granddads, dads or themselves in these pages.

Think, too, about reading anything by Larry McMurtry. Man, that man can write!

Oh, if you live anywhere near Texas, check out the local history sections of libraries and/or museums for a glimpse of real life in the West. For example, the Archives of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University has a wealth of material.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 5:44 PM on July 3, 2007

I second the last two books synechdoche recommended (Limerick & Richard White). They point out certain things other books gloss over.

Most university libraries have diaries you can read (some that you can check out, some that you have to read in the special "no pens allowed" room). A good reference librarian could help you search for diaries of that exact place, period, or activity. E.g., I ended up reading a few diaries of early gold miners in California. To me, reading someone's impromptu attempt to describe their own life makes their experience hit home much more than a polished history by someone else.
posted by salvia at 10:33 AM on July 4, 2007

When and where do you want to write about? I am a western historian and it drives me crazy to hear people talking about "the old west" as if it were one place. There is a huge difference between the 1830s and the 1880s, for instance, and between mining and farming communities in the same era, and between regions of the west. So first narrow down your interests. Read a sweeping history (I assign Hine and Faragher's _The American West: A New Interpretive History_. When you pick a place and time consult the bibliography and start drilling down.

Once you do you will find tons of primary sources (writings by the people who experienced events first-hand).

Good luck!
posted by LarryC at 12:15 PM on July 4, 2007

Response by poster: I...oh, my. I don't even know where to start. But I have a much better idea now than I did 48 hours ago. Thanks, you guys!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:23 AM on July 5, 2007

A late addition, I just discovered the Project Gutenberg Wester Bookshelf: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Western_(Bookshelf). 50+ public domain Western books, many written by people alive during the time of the "Wild West".
posted by fings at 8:53 AM on July 8, 2007

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