Gordon D. Shirreffs: An Interview with a Western Writer
Carole Shirreffs Cox
My father is Gordon D. Shirreffs. He has written 79 novels of the West as well as hundreds of short stories, pulps, and TV and movie scripts since he first began to sell what he wrote in the 1940s. He visited me in Baton Rouge during the summer of 1982 on his way to the Western Writers of America convention in Santa Fe. Nominated for WWA's Golden Spur Award for the Best Historical Novel for his book The Untamed Breed (Fawcett. 1981), the saga of a Scots-Canadian mountain man in the West, he had also been nominated for WWA's Golden Saddleman Award made to “a living individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the American West.” The other nominees for the Spur were Louis L'Amour and a newcomer, Loren D. Estleman, who won for his first novel Aces and Eights (Doubleday, 1981).
It was a time in my father’s life when he might be expected to sit back and enjoy such things as the recognition of his peers and his royalties, not to mention his first and only wife of 12 years and two grandsons named after him. He cheerfully autographed books at a local bookstore and did a newspaper interview. He repaired swords for a “Shakespeare for Kids" program I direct and watched 12-year-old namesake Wyatt Gordon leap through the air as Laertes in Hamlet and six- month-old namesake Gordon Stuart play a carry-on part in a baby Renaissance costume he helped me make. He re-rigged a ship model he’d made for me, posed for family pictures, and chatted with neighbors. But the whole time I felt that all he really wanted to do was to get back to his typewriter.
As he talked about future books in a Southwest Series which would continue the story started in
The Untamed Breed, I wondered what it was that kept him hard at writing at seventy and planning to put five books in a trilogy when everybody else does three. During a visit home between NCTE in Seattle and IRA in Anaheim in 1983, I asked him lots of questions.
Why Do You Write? How Did You Get Started? And Why Are You Still Writing?
I'm basically a creative person. I was always making something and reading, studying, and organizing activities along my interests. I never intended, especially, to write. An English teacher at Austin High School in Chicago named Miss Maher—a handsome woman—would give us a phrase and we’d write an essay. I still remember one: “The cold grey sea washed against the black rocks." I don't remember what I wrote, but I could see those rocks. Afterwards she told me "Gordon, if you don’t write for a living you'll waste your life." That was in 1932. The idea of writing for a living didn’t jell with me, however, until after World War II. 1 can see these things in retrospect.
In those days there was no money, no question of going to college. I wasn’t ready anyway. I worked at a lot of two-bit jobs, but it was when I washed dishes for $10.00 a week under Stale Street at the Candy Box Tea Room in downtown Chicago that I began to think I needed to raise myself up in life. Later, I was working at Union Tank Car Co. and taking night classes at Northwestern University when my National Guard regiment was called up for the National Emergency in September 1940. I went to Ft. Bliss near El Paso, Texas—a fabulous military post a hundred years old. Your mother and I were married there in the Chapel of the 7th Cavalry.
From the age of eight or nine I had an absorbing interest in military history, especially the Civil War. I became fascinated with ruins of old abandoned forts and battlefields and relics we found: pottery shards, old bottles, and bullets 75 years old. Something about the Southwest appealed to me. I guess I’m a born observer with a lot of imagination, and the influence of the Spanish, Indian, and Anglo cultures there—the towering mountains, the pristine desert with the sand blowing, coyotes howling at night—all this excited me. On top of that I began to realize that the Civil War had been fought all through New Mexico in 1861- 62. I wanted somebody else to know this, and I began to write in my spare time— little vignettes of what I had seen with the idea of someday writing a history of the Civil War in the Southwest. Some notes I took in Ft. Bliss in 1941 I used in my most recent book in the Southwest Series, Glorietta Pass (Fawcett, 1981). I felt destined to bring this to life. At that time I had no intention of writing fiction. I didn’t feel qualified. I’m not a literary writer but a first-class commercial hack with a certain amount of talent.
After the war started, I volunteered for overseas duty and was sent first to Alaska and then the Aleutian Campaign. The weather was horrible. We had no air support, and the Japanese bombed us from Kiska. All the time I was there I was observing and absorbing what happened in combat, what a man felt like in the field. I wrote two vignettes there which sold to the classic old magazine Blue Book for $25.00 each. In those days it was the place to get published, and I think the only reason they sold was because it was wartime and I was in the service overseas. I was also still reading books and compiling notes on the Civil War in the Southwest.
In December 1945, I got out of the service as a Captain. I went back to my old job at Union Tank Car Co., but I knew it was not for me. I signed up for writing courses at the Medill School of Journalism at the Chicago campus of Northwestern University at night, and this was the beginning of a semi-professional approach to writing. One of my teachers was Frederick Nelson Litten, a professional writer who had a certain talent for writing boy’s adventure stories and was one helluva coach.
By this time I had made up my mind I would like to try writing. We were living in a veteran's housing project—a chicken coop really—and I used to type in the bedroom on an old table. Your mother didn't want me to type when you and Brian were asleep, so I would go into the bathroom at night. It wasn’t heated and there was no lid on the toilet, but I sat on it with the typewriter in front of me on a clothes hamper. The water in the shower would drip all night. It was so cold.
I got into young people’s magazines, Boy's Life and Young Catholic Messenger. Then I got into pulps, magazines like Dime Western (for a quarter), Ace High, Six-Gun Western, and others. I wrote stories about the Southwest, Indian fighting and other ideas I got from the atmosphere around Ft. Bliss.
In 1952 we moved to California. I was still writing short stories but didn’t know what else to work on. We stayed with an old friend from Chicago, Adela Kay. She was writing comics and called Dell about me. They said they could use Western comics—Roy Rogers. Johnny Mack Brown, and a lady rancher called Auntie Duchess. I didn't know diddly shit, but they paid S8.50 a page. Adela briefed me. It was entirely different. You had to get a whole thought on one line. They bought all I wrote. I got a raise to $12.00 a page and did Rin Tin Tin, too.
We were living off the comics, but I started the pulps and boy’s stories again. By 1953 I had sold ninety-five pulp stories. They paid a penny a word, but you were limited to length so you couldn’t pad. I’d start a short story at 7:00 a.m. and drive to San Fernando and mail it off at 4:00 and get $35.00 to $50.00. I finally got a raise to three cents a word, and the bottom fell out of the pulps. I became very disheartened with writing and thought I had made a great mistake. With the old markets gone, I thought of writing a novel. I didn’t know what else to do to make a living. All I had done before was the army and selling. We opened a hobby shop but there was really no money except what your mother made selling gadgets and toys on a party plan. One day I sat in there from 8:00 to 6:00 and sold a five-cent glider. It was a bad time.
I decided to write a novel and started blocking out a story of Indian fighting in 1879-80. I wrote in the mornings, went to the hobby shop from 12:00 to 6:00, and wrote again in the evenings. I contacted Donald MacCampbell, a New York agent who was coming to California. I trotted down to Pasadena with my manuscript under one arm. He asked me if I could write love stories. He took the manuscript and sold it to Fawcett for a Gold Medal Original book. Fawcett was the acme of paperbacks then, and it was really something to sell a first novel to them for the breathtaking sum of $2,000.00. It was called Rio Bravo (Fawcett. 1956). a mythical river I developed in Arizona, after the Rio Grande del Norte which is called Rio Bravo because it is a brawling, boisterous river.
We lost the lease on the hobby shop, and I resented the owner of the building for years until I realized that it had pushed me to write that first novel.
That was the beginning of my present day professional novel writing. One of the great blessings of the pulps, which have a derogatory name among the literati, is that you had to learn to write fast. You couldn’t waste time or words, and I developed a rapid-fire style of writing. Then I had to make the transition to the entirely different world of novel writing. Where I previously wrote six to ten-thousand words, counting each one and used a sentence for a paragraph and a word for a sentence, I suddenly found myself with a plethora of words. I couldn't pad because padding is always obvious. Fortunately, the background of these books was more interesting to me than the plot, and I began to write more about the Southwest itself: the terrain, the history, and the people who lived there. And no matter how you cut it, history is people.
The Southwest, with its fascinating Indian tribes and descendants of Spanish Conquistadores, is a beautiful brooding country where people lived with death—from hunger, storms, wild animals, and always violence. They had a constant fear of Indian raids, from the Mescaleros and Comanches. During the 16 months I spent there during World War II, El Paso was a big sleepy railroad and cowtown with old time ranches and even some of the old Indian scouts and lawmen left. By sheer luck I ran into an old Texas Ranger who told me about expressions they had like “A Texas Ranger would charge Hell with a bucket of water to put the fire out," or a message like "Big riot in border town. Five-hundred desperadoes. Wire Austin and send one Texas Ranger.” With material like that, I could hardly lose. The people were bigger than life. I think that’s a key to my writing. I didn’t have to manufacture these characters. They really existed.
I was also interested in the stories of treasure and mines like the Lost Padre around Ft. Bliss in the Franklin Mountains. I panned for gold, kicking tarantulas and rattlesnakes out of the way, and began to absorb the legends of the Southwest. It was a kind of Camelot, peopled by tough Mexicans and fabulous Indian warriors. I began to appreciate it and understand it, and this led me to writing one novel after the other about the Southwest.
After Rio Bravo I averaged the sale of six novels per year for ten years. I wrote one in three weeks Hat. At first they were really polished up longer pulps with a better touch. Then I began to write off-the-trail stories, a loose term meaning you don’t follow the pattern of the standard adult Western. No one really knows what that is anyway.
I liked to base stories on historical events and the myths and the lore and legends of the fabulous lost mines and the real characters of the Southwest.
This is another reason I write. I can make a living using the historical research that I love so well. I research in great detail because it fascinates me. I may have a huge mass and only put down twenty percent. But it shows through in writing, the feeling of the times [See his article "The Abyssinian Desert Companion” in The Roundup, Western Writers of America, April 1981, p. 22-24]. I’m constantly reading. You have to know the West. That should be paramount in your mind. Other writers of the West have done this, Elmer Kelton, Lew Patten. Louis L’Amour has a good collection. I have reams of notes, some of which I’ve started to send to the University of Wyoming.
You also asked me why I'm still writing. I think it's the creative urge. I’ve always had it and not just in writing. I like to make things—ship models, antique restorations. Anything broken or falling apart. It’s live same with all the creative professions, actors, poets, composers. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and you must get it out of your system and express it. I think that’s why—when I’m almost seventy years old and have sold seventy- nine novels, hundreds of short stories, movie scripts, and a whole bunch of other stuff—I’m still at it. It’s part of a process and you never get away from it. There’s also a point in your life with writing, when you’re nearing the end and you think “I can still do it." Others, like athletes, must feel the same way. It’s not egotistical but something you’re born with, a feeling you can still do it.
When you get good, it flows naturally. I don’t question where the stories come from. Sometimes I think my room is haunted. Maybe it’s the ghost of an ancestor, old Andrew Fletcher. Whenever I’m stuck for a story or an idea. I think he communicates with me from over in the corner. I’ve never really seen him, but once, when I moved my head suddenly, I saw something, a Scottish soldier in a pilgrim hat and a dark cloak, carrying a sword.
I’ve also found that no matter how much you write, how hard you try, you never actually get the real feeling down on that piece of paper. You get close to it, but it’s never quite the same. There’s always a gap. Very few writers achieve one- hundred percent. Maybe Milton. The perfect novel, short story, poem, motion picture, has never been done. Shakespeare’s plays maybe, for the language alone. Whoever wrote them, the man was a genius.
Another thing that has kept me writing is that if I didn’t write, I didn’t make any money, and I’d have to go to work for somebody. I have a horrible dread of that. I couldn’t do it anymore. I also think that if I'd had a reasonable income, I would have written anyway. I wrote overseas in combat zones. If you train yourself, you’re going to write no matter what. I had confidence I could do it. Your mother went along and worked hard and made excellent money. It would ve hard to go back to anything else.
Also, when you write commercially you have to write what they want but put your own impress on it. Frederick Nelson Litten told us that there are only so many basic plots, or variations thereof, so what you have to do is follow the pattern but vary the stitch. That’s where I’m good. I have my own impress. Readers tell me they can always tell my books. In my case, style is paramount.
When writing, I like to get inside a character and also bring in the environment. A great master at this was J. Frank Dobie in books like Coronach's Children (Garden City Publishing Co.. 1930). He made the land a character—the mountains, weather, wind, animals, flora and fauna. You must go beyond a person who is jerked about on strings mouthing standard phrases. You know where I get my characters? I’ve met them all my life: friends, my daughter, my wife, guys in the Army. Whenever I’m at a loss, I think back. I knew a guy in the 210th in Alaska who was so strong he could make a dent in the top of a steel helmet when he got mad. There was another officer named Rothchild: “You know something. Shirreffs? I'm an anachronism. Have you ever heard of a Jew who was a third generation dairyman in Idaho?” He was the only one. Those are characters.
You have to round characters out and thread background and history throughout the story. Instead of “Here was a frontier street. . . galloping horses ... a bar" say “Flint Coburn rode into Dirty Sundown. Wyoming, late on a January afternoon. Dust rose front the wheels of a wagon." (This is rough draft stuff.) "He saw the bat-wings of the Golden Cafe and his throat was dry.” (Readers see the bar through the characters’ eyes.) "Hello Baldy. ..” You don't tell them what’s there but show them through the eyes of the characters. Have him experience and surround him with the environment. That’s three-dimensional.
I have a tendency to get off the trail, but I can’t help it. I am so fascinated by the country and history it has to come out. Each place has its own personality—animals, a feeling, the wind. The wind is a great character. You can use the sounds of night to taper off. "He rode off into the darkness and on the hill a wolf howled once." Always leave the reader with a thought. Don’t just cut it off like a slice of bread.
You can use odor to get into the picture. Sweating. The smell of feet. In Glorietta Pass, the book I just finished, Quint Kershaw and his great friend Luke Connors are fleeing from the Mescaleros. They've been out scouting for Confederates. They have no water and their horses are dead. They're worn out. Luke is trailing behind and Quint asks what’s wrong. The moon is coming up and he sees black footprints on the light dry clay ground. Nothing is said. You know what they are. You don’t have to say "bloody footprints." Throw your reader into the character.
What Problems Have You Had in Writing, Especially Writing Westerns?
It’s not a problem to write them, except a rather irritating thing which is sort of a stigma attached to the writer of Westerns because they are often classified—and they’re often right—as just violence, a bang ’em up, shoot ’em up, “magnified pulp." You have to overcome the opprobrium attached to the term Western. It’s a lousy term.
A guy once asked me with a sneer in his voice "Are you still writing them damned dime novels?" It’s the general idea people have. Others ask, "Are you still writing cowboy and Indian stories?" I never wrote a dime novel or a cowboy and Indian story in my life. I never wrote one for the simple reason that they never existed historically. Cowboys were too busy herding cattle and repairing fences to be walking around town blowing hell out of anybody who crossed their path. They never had enough money to buy cartridges to become expert shots.
People who believe Westerns are cowboy and Indian stories should read some of the fine material that has been written and is still being written about the West: Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ Paso Por Aqui (University of Oklahoma Press, reprinted in 1973); A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s The Big Sky (Time, reprinted in 1964); Ernest Haycox’s Bugles in the Afternoon (Little. Brown, 1944); Benjamin Capps’, a professor at the University of Texas, The Trail to Ogallala (Duell Sloan & Pearce, 1961); Alan LeMay’s The Searchers (Ace Books, reprinted in 1982). Elmer Kelton wrote two classics, The Day the Cowboys Quit (Doubleday, 1971) and The Time It Never Rained (Texas Christian University Press, Texas A&M Press, I984), which show you don’t need titles on Westerns like Flaming Six-guns. And Henry W. Allen, who also wrote under the names Will Henry and Clay Fisher, wrote an outstanding historical novel of the West in From Where the Sun Now Stands (Random House, I960).
This attitude toward Western material has bothered me many times. You have to get thick- skinned if you’re making a living as a commercial writer, however, and you have to overlook it.
Other problems vary the longer you’re in the business or the more books you write. An early problem was trying to decide what the publisher wanted. The concept of the Western was restricted as to time and place. The thirty year Western period was from 1865—1890s—from the end of the Civil War through the Trail Drives of 1867-1877 until the coming of the railroad in the 1890s. It was brief. The buffalo hunts lasted ten years, the Pony Express one-and-a-half. You had to build a story within limitations of history, background, set-up, and environment.
So many stories sounded alike. I call them the Great Western Fairy Tales, where Ned Buntline and others romanticized the West and made folk heroes of Wyatt Earp and others along the lines of Robin Hood. These men were really “townies"—town marshalls or gamblers who knew how to use a gun and hung around saloons and houses of prostitution. Some called them fighting pimps.
The plots of these so-called standard Westerns were similar. In Hollywood they said there were nine: the fight for the water hole; showdown on Main Street (e.g., High Noon): the cowboys versus the Indians (which didn’t exist); the Army story (e.g., She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)—these became badly outdated; the search (e.g., The Searchers) the range war; making heroes out of gunmen (Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday) and modern nineteenth century Robin Hoods (Billy the Kid): cattlemen versus sheepherders, or homesteaders versus cattlemen (e.g., Shane); or the area story, a town or range dominated by naughty boys.
My major problem was that I was not a conformist, and I felt I had a story to tell but didn’t want to tell it within those particular brackets. I didn't want to follow the pattern of the Western because I couldn’t write the same story over and over again. I prefer to write about a man who is part of the historical scene, so I’m limited to the number of books I can write because he has to follow a historical sequence and he's aging in the process. Some Western "heroes" never age, never change. I can't do that. I have to make the man grow old. In the West of the time of my third book in the Southwest Series, (Marietta Pass, you could age but you couldn’t grow old. You wouldn’t survive in the Southwest of those days, death was right at your shoulder by violence, environment, or disease. Disease is always left out of the traditional Western. But the covered wagon trails are dotted with the sad little graves of children who died of disease: “Elizabeth. Age twelve months.”
I've been told I’m a good writer but too far away, not enough shooting and violence. It's rare when I wrote a shoot ’em up. You only need to resort to violence when everything else fails. What I’ve tried to do is keep a strong historical sense. If I can’t write in a historical sense, I won’t write at all.
At one period, I had to conform to standards because there was no market for another type of writer. In the Western commercial field, there have been periods where certain styles of writing went out of favor. This has meant several transitions for me. When the pulps died in the early fifties, some writers graduated to soft covers and some did not. The pulpeteers were getting old. One was a suicide. There was no market. And sixty-thousand words hung on a simple pulp plot was not good enough anymore. Paperbacks had become big after World War II, and the heyday of the Western paperbacks started in the late forties and lasted about twenty years. Then they began to upgrade the stories. Men who were writing polished-up pulp material for soft covers couldn’t make the second transition into more polished and historically accurate material and failed. Some of us were lucky enough to pass into that phase. You had to pay more attention to character development, background, and plot. The market was getting tighter and more competitive.
Television also had a great influence in the 1950s and 1960s with innumerable series like “Have Gun Will Travel,” "Rawhide," "The Rifleman," ad infinitum. Then they went out of style, and so did this style in books. I started out writing military stories, and then some publishers wouldn’t publish them. Others wouldn't do Indian stories. Some liked the big strong silent hero who takes care of a town a la Wyatt Earp.
The average Western in those days was forty to fifty thousand words. Ace did Double Novels, and if you were prolific enough, they'd publish two of yours at a time, back-to-back. They weren't the greatest, but they were short and they sold. I drifted from Army and Indian stories into the closest things I ever wrote to a standard Western. They were also the worst things I ever wrote. I didn't have my heart in it.
What I’m trying to get at is that the problems of the 1959s were different from the 60s and even from the 70s. In the 80s, the problems are different again. There have been periods, at least in my own life and writing, where I have been able to make transitions according to moods and styles in this particular type of writing, a kind of metamorphosis. This is not true of all writers in this field. Some have been popular for thirty or forty years, still writing the same stuff, formula type of writing, that follows the same set of characters, environment, and problems. They change the area and the title, but it's the same stuff. Myself and others like Louis L'Amour and Elmer Kelton don't do that. Many use the same basic characters but don't use the same type of plot or background.
I gradually developed a lone hunter type of man who searched for treasures. Hunting and searching is solid material. You can cover hundreds of pages with the hunt going on. You add a big dollop of mystery, a little mysticism, put it in a romantic Southwest setting, and bring in all kinds of exotic villains. I moved into off-the-trail stories, semi-lawman, and then manhunter stories. I developed the character of Lee Kershaw over a ten-year period in “The Manhunter” series. These stories were loosely based on history during the period of the 1870s to 80s, had a great deal of overlap, and were really the result of forty earlier novels of the West.
Lee Kershaw was the consummate manhunter and this character was always in the back of my mind, from the days of early soft cover to more polished and more historically accurate stories. I did seven books about Lee Kershaw in "The Manhunter" Series (all. Fawcett/Gold Medal Originals) and I liked them: Showdown in Sonora (1969), The Manhunter (1970), Bowman's Kid (1973), Renegade's trail (1974), The Apache Hunter (1976), The Marauders (1976), and Legend of the Damned (1977).
Then I was told there was a "market trend” to shy away from Westerns. Many major houses all but dropped them in the early 1970s, and only a few of us were still writing them through the 70s. They finally told me not to send anymore Lee Kershaw Manhunter stories.
A major problem with many writers in any field is what to write, and what to write next. My own solution has been to read about the real people of the West and base a story on what really happened but put it in a historical form, an amalgam of the historic, poetic, and popular concept of the West.
For example, in Now He is Legend (Fawcett, 1965), the story construction developed from an idea based on research, historical fact built into legend. It’s the story of two great friends, one of whom feels great remorse when he kills the other. The setting was a deserted Mexican village with the fantastic name of Puerto de Luna—Door of the Moon, which came up between a notch in the mountains. I put this together with two men who are both outlaws. They part; one goes straight, and eventually the outlaw is put to death by his old friend. As he rides away, the moon has come up, and even though there is no wind, the abandoned mission bell tolls once. He turns, sees the grave, and says, "Now he is legend." The West is full of stories of men who became legends. They say when Mexico needs him, Zapata will ride again. I think it was one of the best I wrote. Not great, but well-written. (Now He Is Legend was a runner-up for the Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award for best Novel in 1966.)
In 1979, I decided to develop the idea I had had since the 1950s of a Southwest Series leading up to the period of the Civil War in New Mexico. I included some real historical figures, such as Kit Carson and Ceran St. Vrain. I planned a trilogy of the history of one man’s family. The best place to start seemed to be with the coming of a mountain man to New Mexico in the late 1830s. I used the Shirreffs’ time machine and went back to 1837-1839 and created the character named Quint Kershaw, who would actually be Lee Kershaw's grandfather. I knew this earlier period but not well enough. I did research on beaver trapping, muzzle loading rifles, and the Shoshone and Snake Indians. It was the same with the second book in the Series Bold Legend (Fawcett. 1982). By the third book Glorietta Pass, I was more into the phase of Western history I knew well.
A problem, then, for anyone writing a historical novel is that you don’t write in generalities. You are borrowing your plot from history and blending your characters in with a few real people, but you mix them all together. The study of history and historical characters gives you a framework within which to write, and then your story sense comes in to make a novel.
What Are Your Own Needs and Problems as a Writer, Not Particular to the Western Field?
A problem I had was that at first I had been just writing as it came to me. Then I began to realize to my horror that I was thinking so hard of the technical end that I had no real freedom of thought. I worried about where to pul a flashback, whether to use a single or multiple viewpoint, all the little rules you find in writing books.
I'm basically a stream-of-consciousness writer. I put thoughts down as they come. If you’re a commercial writer and have to get a manuscript in to New York for advances, you have to write fast, and what you write has to be good. Once I felt I had mastered the so-called technical rules, I felt I could get back to stream-of conscious writing.
As you develop your own style, you can also start to break rules. You can speed up a story by using single and multiple viewpoints together. It's fine to have each alone, but it can lead to problems. You might want to put in a scene with a multiple view, and then switch over to a single view with the protagonist, sometimes even in the same chapter or paragraph, like the old Western movies. The hero is in pursuit of the dirty guys. “Meanwhile, back at the ranch" the scene shifts to the girl with the blue eyes and the heaving bosom. Lucinda's in trouble! You couldn’t just have him come back and find Lucinda tied up. This is not a set rule, about viewpoints. Many writers have broken it.
In Glorietta Pass, I wrote several chapters almost in a historical narrative form to show what was happening historically from the time of The Untamed Breed and Bold Legend. I still experiment, but you need a story sense to know what will go and what won't. It’s like a long distance chess game between you, the reader, and the editor and publisher. Somewhere you have a meeting of minds.
Another problem is that you can’t fall in love with your own writing. Often, in the early days, you become enamored of everything you write. You think of it as your creation, that your words are genius. You have to be your own toughest critic and, again, use your story sense. You may have some nice stuff, but if it is not essential to the story, it has to go. Use the old cutting edge to shape the story, fit it into a pattern, but use your own touch. It’s hard, the hairiest work there is. The problem is that you're dealing with the utmost of intangibles.
You asked me if I’d ever had writer’s block. Yes and no. Not very bad. After 41/2 million words, I don’t remember in detail. There were times when I had a hiatus. You have gaps, stopping points. If the story is not moving well. I don't force it. I shut the typewriter off and work outside, cut the grass or dig a hole. I don't concentrate, but I’m always kicking ideas around in the back of my mind. Some are preposterous. You let the story take its own course. You can't turn writing off and on like a faucet. You must write all the time.
If you're writing commercially, you also can't take five years while the public is waiting for your next book. That takes a certain type of courage that I haven’t got. I have to see it in print or at least sold. I was writing for a vastly commercial market and writing for a living, so I couldn't sit and look out the window. My advances were never that much. The big ones you hear about are an infinitesimal few.
You don't make money on advances. You're lucky if you get $5,000.00 for sixty or seventy thousand words. It's the same money you got twenty years ago. It could take six months to write a book, and you can’t live on that. There’s no money without royalties. I've made $25,000.00 off some books, and some died right there. You have to bank on foreign sales. Almost all my books are still published in Europe. It’s hard when you're raising a family.
You also asked me what kind of revision process I use. Up to the last ten or fifteen novels, practically none at all. I brought to paperbacks the same style I used in pulps. I am fortunate that I had the ability to put a piece of paper in the typewriter and start a story on page one and keep going to page 125, in those days the length of a manuscript. Very rarely did I ever go back and change anything. My revision consisted of inserting words I might have left out or spelled wrong, changing punctuation, etc. I have written full-length novels and some juveniles in three to six weeks, one in ten days.
But everybody has a different way of writing. Adela Kay wrote in bed on a legal pad in pencil and threw the pages on the floor. Her husband gathered them up and typed them in the morning. I could never do that. You hear of some writers who write ten lines a day. I had to put down four to five thousand words a day, eight to ten good pages. Fourteen to fifteen pages was pushing myself. But in later years, when I got into 75-100,000 word books, I had to take more time to do revision, to make the story hang together. 1 can write very fast and consistently up to roughly 20-25,000 words, or a hundred pages. Then for some reason or other. I stop there to correlate my thoughts and see how the story is fitting in. If you say the horse is a bay on page ten, the same horse better be a bay on page seventy-five. Speech tags on page twenty-five better be the same on page three hundred. All this goes into your memory bank, like a computer. You know automatically.
Another problem is whether or not you’re writing under contract. Of seventy-nine novels, I sold sixty-five on speculation. I prefer to think up an idea, write a story, mail it in, and my agent finds the market. My last fourteen novels were written on advance contracts, fifty percent on signing and fifty percent when finished and accepted. Personally, I felt an obligation to people who had paid advance money, and it almost became a hindrance to my free way of thinking. You worry whether or not you’re coming up to their specifications. There was a period where this bothered me, when I was writing much longer novels than before.
I also went through two operations, which took a great deal out of me physically and psychologically. I didn’t have the hard-driving approach I had had. I thought much more slowly and was a lot less sure of myself. It wasn't until these last three novels that I finally began to overcome it. Now, almost at the end of my writing career, it doesn’t bother me. It may come with age, when you really don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of you anyway.
Where Are You Now in Your Writing, and Where Are You Going?
I’ve just completed Glorietta Pass, the third book in the Southwest Series. It covers the period 1861- 62. I went back in time to find Lee Kershaw’s (c. late 1870s—80s) grandfather Quint Kershaw (c. 1830s-1860s) and trace the history of the Civil War in New Mexico, through the lives of one man’s family.
The first book was The Untamed Breed, the story of Scots-Canadian mountain man Quint Kershaw who comes to New Mexico in 1839. The second was Bold Legend, the story of the Mexican War in New Mexico and the acquisition of the American Southwest during 1845—47. The third book begins in the fall of 1861. Glorietta Pass is the story of the attempt by the Confederacy to capture New Mexico for a projected invasion west to California.
The wheel turns and I’m right back where I was in 1941-42, planning a book about the Civil War in New Mexico. After forty years and four- and-a-half million words, this is the book I originally wanted to write. Of course, I had to expand my original notes, and I found fabulous research. I just heard they accepted it, liked it, but I need to do some rewriting. They think there is too much background information. I was prepared for that, but I was experimenting. I wanted to include a great deal of historical information, but I didn’t want to ladle out dull information in dialogue. So I included two short chapters in historical narrative form.
I had originally planned this to be a trilogy, but now it’s open-ended. I'm waiting to see what they want in New York, and then I’ll decide whether 1 will go ahead with the series or not. Actually, I’d like to continue with a fourth novel through die 1870s with one of Quint Kershaw’s sons. He would be the consummate professional soldier in the likeness of Mackenzie, Forsyth, and Crook involved with the Indian fighting problem of the 1870s and 80s in the Arizona Territory. These men have fascinated me over the years.
Here again the wheel has turned full cycle. I’ve written other books and have notes on them, but now with thirty years experience in writing about the West. I would like to do another book on the professional soldier. I’ve always also been fascinated by the Apaches. My first juvenile. Son of the Thunder People (Westminister, 1957), was based on the training of a youth as an Apache warrior. They are a remarkable people. My fifth Lee Kershaw book was Apache Hunter, based on the famous Apache army scouts like those that tracked Geronimo when the army couldn’t find him. Can you imagine the psychological effect on him of Apaches tracking him? He was never captured but surrendered. The government promised him everything and gave him nothing. And that's another story.
If the publishers now say. “Do not send any more books,” that's fine with me. I’ll go and work on other things, maybe an article on an ancestor of ours who was the Master of the HMS Milbrook during the Napoleonic Wars. I have that and a lot of other material I’d like to put into non-fiction form.
There are other factors. My age. The fact that I’ve been there and come back. I’ve been through all the different phases—pulps, children’s books, the Western field, a few standard Westerns, a “Playhouse 90" TV script “The Galvanized Yankee," a long extinct TV series, “Boots and Saddles,'’ motion pictures—one based on a short story where I wrote the script, was technical director and filled in as a professional archer.
Your mother thinks I'm tired and wearing out. She looks on me as sitting back in my room like Rumpelstiltskin. That’s a fallacy. Writing is hard work, but not a chore. The fun is in the making, not the finishing.
Gordon D. Shirreffs’ fourth novel in his Southwest Series, The Ghost Dancers, is scheduled to be published by Fawcett in January 1986. He has also been nominated again by the Western Writers of America for The Golden Saddleman Award made to “a living individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the American West.”
Carole Shirreffs Cox teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.