View Full Version : Who knows about Westerns

07-10-2018, 07:20 AM
I want to write a fantasy story with western elements, but I'm not too familiar with the genre outside of the basics. What are some classics of the genre? Both movies and books work for me. I'm looking for stuff that isn't super cheesy - more brooding and solemn, I guess.

I've seen True Grit, and I'm gonna read the novel too. I know I want a story kind of like that. I love the flowery language and drama of it. So, if you know any good examples of letters written during the time, that would be great reference too.


07-10-2018, 07:28 AM
Beware of relying too much on Hollywood and popular culture for accurate depictions of the past, particularly the American West.

It's from the tail end of the era - past the classic "Wild West" stage - but Elinore Pruitt Stewart's Letters of a Woman Homesteader (public domain) is a collection of letters from, as stated, a woman homesteader, as a widowed woman and her daughter set out to make a life for themselves on the shrinking frontier. (Her attitudes very much reflect her times; in some ways, she seems more modern with her call for women to make their own independent way, but in others her Southern roots show, particularly her attitude toward race.)

Owen Wister's The Virginian (also public domain) was considered one of the first true Westerns, IIRC; a bit rambly and meandering at times, but some classic characters, if larger than life in many respects, with some details of frontier life that get glossed over.

There's also a book called The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West - largely a collection of facts and dates, but probably worth your while to start research with.

07-10-2018, 08:06 AM
This is super helpful, thanks! And that's a good point about relying on other media. I definitely don't want it to be a knockoff, so primary sources will probably be the best way to capture the feel.

Though I am looking to identify tropes and such too!

07-10-2018, 11:52 AM
As far as movies go Tombstone is considered a modern classic. Pretty historically accurate and also just a good movie. Unforgiven is also pretty highly regarded.

07-10-2018, 12:01 PM
The Lous L'Amour and Zane Grey books are excellent.

07-10-2018, 05:17 PM
The Kansas Historical Society dates back to 1875. Much of what they've preserved have been diaries and letters. There's also been a long emphasis about preserving daily life in the state. There are roughly three periods to their publications. The "Kansas Historical Collections" went from the founding through the 1920s. "Kansas Historical Quarterly" was published through the 1970s. The current publication is "Kansas Magazine." I mention them because many articles, especially from the first two publications, are available online for free. They can be your research and point you to other materials. When I was writing and publishing Kansas history, I referenced plenty of pieces from all three.

As to fantasy, there's quite a bit out there that has Western genre settings. You'd want to look for novels listed as "fantasy Western," but also "weird Western" and maybe even "Western horror." How much you want to read is up to you, but certainly make yourself aware of what's out there.

Something else to think about is how much the fantasy elements in your world have affected actual history. For instance, if magic was available, was it used during the Civil War? Did the native tribes have magic, or was it a tool used by Europeans to conquer the Americas? Or are the magical elements more lore or mystery than common reality? These are all up to you, but they can be ways for you to make your world unique and make your book stand out.

07-10-2018, 08:11 PM
This is all great! Thanks everyone. Any good references for stuff in the American Southwest? I donít envision my story taking place during the Mexican-American war, but the aftermath might be a good backdrop

07-10-2018, 10:36 PM
There's an Old West Reference / Western History Books (https://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?57352-Old-West-Reference-Western-History-Books) thread in Western Forum that might have some thoughts for you.

I see that Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/) now has a Western Bookshelf (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Western_(Bookshelf)).


07-11-2018, 07:48 AM
second Owen Wister's The Virginian. Don't watch any of the movies based on it though. As stated above Lous L'Amour and Zane Grey are great reads. A lot of their stuff is pulp so if you're not familiar with the style it'll take getting used to.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac Mccarthy is a great read and inspired the Mumford and Sons song "Dust Bowl Dance."

One of my favorite westerns besides The Virgin is Max Brand's The Seventh Man. The pacing is thoughtful and engaging and the writing is excellent. Here's a bit that really stood out for me:

"Then out of the mountains and the night came an answer so thin, so eerie, one might have said it was the voice of the mountains and white stars grown audible; it stole on the ear as the pulse of a heart comes to the consciousness.
Truly it was an answer to the cry of the wolf-dog, for in the slender compass it carried the same wail, the same unearthly quality with this great difference, that a thrilling happiness went through it, as if some one walked through the mountains and rejoiced in the unknown terrors. A sob formed in the throat of Kate and the wolf turned its head and looked at her, and the yellow of things that see in the night swam in its eyes."

Checkout The Searchers and The Magnificent Seven (either the original or the remake) both are incredibly written and filmed. Definitely DEFINITELY the mini series Into the West because it touches on a lot of different parts of how the west was tamed.

Also, I don't know how much into anime you are but I highly recommend Trigun. It's a steampunk western and the episodes basically follow the style and pace of the pulps.

There's a ton of wiggle room in westerns for fantasy. I've even seen some pulp fiction with settlers battling Godzilla type creatures! So keep me updated with your project! I'll definitely read it

***apologies if this ends up being a double post. I went in to edit the original but may have deleted it. ***

07-11-2018, 06:09 PM
I enjoy first-hand narratives from people who actually lived the life and worked the work. You pick up good details, the jargon, local color, and things like that. You'd read any of the 19th c primary sources with no problem, depending on whether you wanted an emphasis on mining towns, on trail drives, on frontier forts, or whatever. I'd probably put the outside edge of the writers' timeline somewhere near the works of Ben K Green, who had some excellent and colorful writings about his experiences in the horse trading biz in Texas and Mexico in the 20's and 30's.

07-11-2018, 10:06 PM
I enjoy first-hand narratives from people who actually lived the life and worked the work. You pick up good details, the jargon, local color, and things like that.

This. A couple of famous ones are The Log of a Cowboy, by Andy Adams, and A Texas Cow Boy, by Charles Siringo.


AW Admin
07-11-2018, 10:13 PM
You might want to read Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory (https://www.amazon.com/Karen-Memory-Elizabeth-Bear-ebook/dp/B00LRWIDK4/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&qid=1531332636&sr=8-1&keywords=karen+memory&linkCode=ll1&tag=absowrit-20&linkId=765a25bf0293b41e1239b2f6c04cccd2) and Emma Bull's Territory (https://www.amazon.com/Territory-Emma-Bull-ebook/dp/B001H1FZV0/ref=as_li_ss_tl?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1531332692&sr=1-4&keywords=Emma+Bull&linkCode=ll1&tag=absowrit-20&linkId=1bcb8e13147bcce697235e25a1db2226), both of which are fantasy Western novels. *

* AW Amazon affiliate links

07-12-2018, 08:38 AM
If you're talking about Westerns as a genre, you need to realize that it's the story that is important, the setting just happens to be in the American West of the late 19th to early 20th century. The general theme of good triumphing over evil permeates these, whether it's a rancher fighting to protect his family or a Texas Ranger pursuing a villain through the deserts of West Texas. The Zane Grey/Louis L'Amour books are typical, even stereotypical of these, but there are thousands of others. Might look at Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove, and Elmer Kelton too. Not to mention countless movies, dime novels and the fiction of the newspapers of the era.

But... There are exceptions to this that have become more popular. The Clint Eastwood Unforgiven characters for example, bad guys doing bad for dubiously good reasons against even worse men. Even John Wayne in The Shootist, a bad guy who is just trying to finish his days at peace but with no real remorse or atonement for past deeds. More modern treatments have the American Indians as good guys, which would have never flown in the real days of the west.

Also keep in mind that reality was never anything like the movies. Most "shootouts" were either drunken brawls or ambushes. Nobody ever met on the streets at High Noon. There were no fair fights and very few honest, or honorable, lawmen.

Might watch the movie Stagecoach, a classic John Ford that put John Wayne in the starring role. Many of the actors and tradespeople on that movie actually lived the real Wild West and it shows. Heck, a young kid named Marion Morrison, who later took the stage name John Wayne, working in the movie industry back lots as a teenager, learned to handle a six shooter from one of the technical advisors to the industry, a guy named Wyatt Earp. :)

Keep in mind that the Western of yore might not sell in today's market. Strong female characters didn't exist then that can exist and do well today. Books which used to have derogatory versions of blacks and Native Americans are getting pulled from shelves and reading lists today. Even the nearly non-violent gunplay of The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman or Have Gun Will Travel went South with the Sam Pekinpah Wild Bunch overkill.

I'm not sure the traditional Western is even viable anymore, but some come out each year. The Gunsmith series of stories is one that is still being published and The Son is now a TV/Netflix series. It's not Hondo, or True Grit or Riders of the Purple Sage, but it does have a similar, though more contemporary, appeal.

Good luck. It's a fun genre, usually with quick reads, and there's a lot of chance to weave history with fiction. Or fictionalize history. :)


07-12-2018, 04:09 PM
As the story goes---

One summer day in 1876, a wagon train heading west came to Fort Dodge and camped on the prairie nearby. That evening, U.S. Army Surgeon, W.S. Tremaine and several other officers walked out to get the latest news from the travelers. They found the wagons deserted, with bullet holes and arrowheads stuck in their sides. Passing the wagons, they found the settlers kneeling with bowed heads, while their minister prayed: "Oh Lord, we pray Thee, protect us with Thy mighty hand. On our long journey, Thy Divine Providence has thus far kept us safe. We have survived cloudbursts, hailstorms, floods, strong gales, thirst and parching heat ----as well as raids of horse thieves and attacks by hostile Indians. But now, oh Lord, we face our gravest danger ---- Dodge City lies just ahead, and we must pass through it. Help us and save us, we beseech Thee. Amen."


Siri Kirpal
07-12-2018, 10:05 PM
Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

A few notes about the reality of the West:

The word "cowboy" is not "cowman" because it was usually black men in those jobs. In other words, your cowboys should include several blacks. (If you're doing cowboys at all.)

Women really were stronger than the early writers depicted, but they weren't feminists. These two stories are from 1890-1902 rural Missourah, but they illustrate the point.

Story 1: Circuit riding minister is having dinner with my grandmother's family. Her mother says she doesn't see the point of educating girls beyond a certain point because they're just going to marry some clodhopper of a farmer. Minister basically says that he'll be marrying and that girl won't be marrying a farmer. Mother says, "Well, they might do worse!" [Note: not feminist]

Story 2: The wood hadn't been chopped for the woodstove. It wasn't the Mother's job to chop the wood. She mentioned the matter to her husband and nothing was done. When the wood was gone, she made the next meal and set it out on the fences. Men (husband and hired hands) come in asking for their dinner (meaning, their lunch). Mother says she set it out on the fences to cook in the sun. Men go out and chop wood!! [Note: but not weak]

Hope this helps.


Siri Kirpal

Siri Kirpal
07-12-2018, 10:13 PM
Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Also, things were not uniformly awful between Natives and pioneers. When Mr. Siri's ancestors were crossing the plains in covered wagons, one day two Indians rode into camp while his however many great-grandmother was baking bread. We still have the beaded bags they traded for that bread.


Siri Kirpal

07-13-2018, 07:10 AM
This is all great stuff everyone! Keep it coming!

@Brightdreamer I've started reading "A Woman Homesteader" and it's a little eerie how much this is EXACTLY what I'm looking for. She has such a way with words, it's really remarkable.

@Weaselfire all good points. I'll be sure to tread carefully with the genre. It's a Western in the first place because I want to touch on themes of colonialism and violence.

07-13-2018, 05:26 PM
I'm working in the 1890 area. Researching the time period, you'll find that the "gunslinger" style of old west is very hollywood. Wyatt Earp even said there was nothing but contempt for a gunfanner or flashy showmanship buy any real gunfighter. What I found interesting in my story was the reality of travel by train vs. coach. In 1867 an expres train travelled NY to SFO in 84 hours. That's the express train and undoubtedly cost a pretty penny: Third class tickets for that were $715 in today money. First class would ran around $2,000 depending on of course times and ammenities. A stage coach? $150 in today money, coast to coast and you were expected to get out and push if it was difficult.

This is the sort of world I found to build my story within. It's all for background context to use when troubling and twisting up my people. I can't imagine a foot powered dentist drill getting to work on an abscess. Asking ofr owhiskey in a bar got you a dirty glass with perhaps whiskey in it if it wasnt cut with cheap lamp oil, or other awful leftover stuff to stratch any profit. etc.

Stage coach companies barely lasted six months except for the heavy hitter businessmen who formed American Express which later split when mister wells and mister fargo left.....

Do some histopry reading. It's quite fascinating when you haev a reason to really dig into it and find that gold nugget that will make the scenes great.

07-13-2018, 06:08 PM
I'm working in the 1890 area. Researching the time period, you'll find that the "gunslinger" style of old west is very hollywood. Wyatt Earp even said there was nothing but contempt for a gunfanner or flashy showmanship buy any real gunfighter.

Interesting. It makes sense. People who do "tricks" with something are generally viewed differently from (and by) people who do the "serious" version of the same thing.

I.e. - Doing card tricks, fans, flourishes, and the like will likely get you kicked out of a casino, and someone can be very skilled at spinning a basketball on their finger and trick dribbling and whatnot without actually being good at playing basketball.

Now I'm wondering about other skills where the tricks are sometimes more incorporated into the work itself -Drummers that twirl around the drumsticks and bartenders who do a lot of flair, for instance. Are there "purist" drummers and bartenders who have disdain for these added elements, too?

Siri Kirpal
07-13-2018, 11:40 PM
Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Well, fancy actions with the sticks won't get a drummer into the philharmonic. :)


Siri Kirpal

07-14-2018, 05:06 AM
The X games trick motoX riders never win actual races. Olympic skiiers judged on style points never win slalom or downhill. Trick horse riders never win the derby. That's exactly what I'm incorporating. The guys who talk trash, a good game, never really succeed and someone is always better and theyre too busy getting better instead of trash talkin and being flashy.

07-18-2018, 07:52 AM
HEY let's see if I can revive this thread.

I have a very specific question. With the trains in this time period, would hitting a buffalo damage the train enough to force repairs? I'm thinking of a scene where the MC is on a train... and it hits a buffalo. Shocker. And I'm trying to see if it would make sense for the train to stop for a day. Stop at the next town? Or was buffalo hitting a common thing with trains at the time and life went on.

07-18-2018, 08:35 AM
When were cow-catchers brought in to prevent bovine-related incidents?

07-18-2018, 10:46 AM
HEY let's see if I can revive this thread.

I have a very specific question. With the trains in this time period, would hitting a buffalo damage the train enough to force repairs? I'm thinking of a scene where the MC is on a train... and it hits a buffalo. Shocker. And I'm trying to see if it would make sense for the train to stop for a day. Stop at the next town? Or was buffalo hitting a common thing with trains at the time and life went on.
I don't know about hitting a bison, but trains were stopped by herds of bison migrating, or, a herd sheltering in a cut made for the train tracks.
'Cow catchers' were made to sort of shove the animal off to the side, and so of little use against a herd of anything.
A lot of large animals can do serious damage to an automobile, but trains (particularly back in the day) were large, heavy chunks of metal: no windshields to break, engineer safely away from the front. And I don't know if a bison is heavy enough to even partly derail it.

07-18-2018, 01:40 PM
I have heard that trains of those first times had in front of them a sort of protection against bisons, cow, sheep. Was it possible to hit them with that protection? I am not sure. But I can imagine an angry, big buffallo charging the engine from the side, and then it would have been possible to damage it.

07-18-2018, 06:12 PM
I think procedure on the Kansas Pacific was to stop and allow buffalo herds to cross. Even at that time (post-Civil War) buffalo herds were huge. It could take hours for them to get across the tracks. As the KP built across Kansas, hunters were sent out to against the herds, mainly to obtain meat for the construction crews. That's how Buffalo Bill Cody got his nickname. It was also around that time that the US Army began to encourage wholesale slaughter of the herds to fight the various tribes of the High Plains. That might make the incident unlikely.

Depending on where and when the incident in your story takes place, it's more likely that the train would hit livestock. That would cause a train to stop. There would be some effort to make certain the carcass was cleared from the tracks, as well as a check for fences or other signs that the railroad might not be at fault. If the railroad was at fault they could be sued for damages by the owner. If there was evidence they weren't at fault the suit would be dismissed. Thus your MC could be a witness in a court case; would that be good or bad for them?

Check various state historical societies to find out when railroad lines were built. That will tell you how plausible the incident would be. The earlier the more plausible; the later, the more likely the chance of livestock being the problem. Hope that helps.

07-19-2018, 04:50 AM
Wow, who woulda known a question about goring a bison would garner such a response. This is all really helpful. For people who are interested, I found this article on the massacre of buffalos in the American West after the transcontinental railroad - absolutely depressing and so interesting:

Apparently buffalo numbered in the tens of millions at some point before white men killed them to the point of a single herd numbering 300. Horrible. There are 200k now but they'll never be like that again.

Siri Kirpal
07-19-2018, 07:03 AM
Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Those that remain still do charge vehicles. My husband was driving with his sister through Yellowstone and saw a bison charge a truck that wasn't keeping a respectful enough distance.


Siri Kirpal

07-19-2018, 04:39 PM

07-19-2018, 05:20 PM
Cow catchers work on people too. (https://www.wwltv.com/article/news/local/orleans/safety-device-protects-woman-who-fell-near-moving-streetcar/289-570281930) :) Between the recent local news and this thread, I can't recall ever pondering cow catchers this much, lol.

07-20-2018, 09:37 PM
That's a good point about cow catchers: that's more of a precautionary measure for the train, right? Like if it hits a cow, that animal isn't gonna be doing super ok after it gets "caught"

Richard White
07-20-2018, 09:45 PM
It's really more of a cow "shove the carcass to the side so we don't have to slow down" catcher.

07-22-2018, 01:34 AM
It's really more of a cow "shove the carcass to the side so we don't have to slow down" catcher.

That makes a lot more sense

07-26-2018, 12:14 PM
You might want to read Joe Abercrombie's Red Country, which is very much a fantasy western.

07-26-2018, 07:00 PM
Hello! I'm sorry I can't answer your question about classics but thought you might like to see what Colorado history museums offer online.



I've also come across a website of Women Writing the West (http://www.womenwritingthewest.org/), which shows a variety of styles and themes in the genre.