Westerns are sometimes considered THE American story. Often they’re set in the semi-mythic frontier lands of the Old West. The iconic hero is a lone wanderer such as a gunfighter or cowboy, a version of the knight errant who wanders wild and beautiful lands, stopping now and then to help people out. Western mythologies permeate American culture, including Hollywood and politics, so it’s not surprising Westerns have played a very large part of the historical romance market. The early historical writers (like Pat Rice) often jumped from setting to setting, including medievals, Westerns, Revolutionary or Civil War, etc.
But in the last few years, as the Regency setting practically took over historical romance, Westerns largely disappeared. Not entirely—a few long established writers have continued to spin Western tales, but the setting became a very small proportion of the total number of historical romances published.
Now Westerns are showing signs of being on the upswing. I was going to pontificate, but the three Western writers I talked to for this blog have pretty much said all that needs saying:
First up is Shirl Henke. (http://shirlhenke.com/) Shirl’s very first published romance in 1986 was Golden Lady, and it won the Romantic Times Best New Author award and was a Rita finalist. She grew up reading Luke Short, Max Brand and Zane Grey. With a few detours to England, some contemporary suspense and two thrillers under a pseudonym, she’s overwhelmingly stuck to the West for her settings.
“…if either Freud or the Navajo speak true, westward we shall find the hole in the earth through which the soul may plunge to peace…”
"Have you ever seen Bonanza dubbed in Japanese? I have. Sounded a little weird, but it illustrates the universal appeal of the West, an idea as limitless as human imagination. “Space…the final frontier…”
Exploring the unknown, taming the wilderness, starting over again are the stuff of primal myth. Captain Kirk and Marshal Dillon had a lot more in common than Hollywood ever imagined…at least until Joss Whedon put it together in Firefly. Because the West holds such a deeply rooted place, not only in America's imagination but the world's, Westerns will always return in cycles and so will western romances.
There is a panoply of raw materials from which to craft a story. No other time or place in history drew together as many people from around the globe as did the ever-expanding American frontier: Spanish conquistadors, czarist Russians, French fur trappers, Anglo riflemen, Scots merchants. Cattle barons were often literally that—titled gents from England or Germany. The dispossessed came searching for a better life: Irish, Chinese, Hawaiians and Jews. African-Americans from the post-Civil War South left their mark as cowboys, lawmen and legendary Buffalo Soldiers. With this cast, how could any writer fail to find her muse?
I believe that Westerns and romances uniquely compliment each other. Nothing holds more mythic allure than the concept of frontier. Nothing is more powerful than the male-female relationship. I can't imagine a better setting for the essential conflict between a hero and heroine than the West, a place beyond ordinary rules, filled with extraordinary promise. I put my protagonists at risk. They come from opposing cultures—Anglo vs. Hispanic, white vs. Indian, Mormon vs. Gentile. In a violent land they discover who they are and what they really want—each other.
My newly released western romance, Pale Moon Stalker, has an English nobleman turned bounty hunter offering a marriage of convenience to a mixed-blood Sioux woman. I introduce a paranormal element with an old Cheyenne medicine man who sees their future and helps them track down a truly nasty remittance man. Where else could I have set Max and Sky's story but in the West?
I’ve committed to this Wild West Series that began with The River Nymph Feb 08. Pale Moon Stalker is out now and Chosen Woman will be out July 09. I intend to continue this project as long as readers want the books."
Patricia Potter is another long-term writer, possessor of a full tribe of RITA nominations. Pat started out with Westerns, including some that used Civil War Western history. More recently she’s been writing contemporary romantic suspense and Scottish historicals, but lots of people remember her Westerns with passionate enthusiasm. http://patriciapotter.com/
I contacted Pat, and found out that not only has she just agreed to do three Westerns for Harlequin Blaze (the line is adding a historical a month). but another publisher has also expressed interest in having Pat write Westerns for them.
Patricia Potter: You can go home again
“Yes, I do think there's a longing among readers for the Western. I regularly receive queries about when I'll do another Western and laments about the lack of them. There seemed to be a fluttering interest about their revival among publishers two years ago, then it slackened. But I see it coming back again.
I think the appeal of Westerns is still out there. Publishing has a habit of picking up on a trend, then overloading the market and eventually destroying it by over-publication. We've seen it with Westerns, romantic suspense, chick lit, and now we're in the midst of a paranormal boon. All eventually return in more measured publication.
I believe the appeal of the Western is still strong. It was a time of discovery, both in the land and in the strength of the people who settled it. There were amazing real life heroines and men bigger than life. There are so many wonderful stories to be told.
Westerns are doing very well with Harlequin Historicals and Kensington. I've just agreed to do three in the Blaze line. I hope this is one boom that is coming back."
Those three upcoming Patricia Potter Westerns are good news for lovers of the genre! Pat is a member of http://petticoatsandpistols.com/, a blog of Western writers as well as http://storybroads.com/, a more general romance writer blog.
Besides classic Westerns, new forms of Western are appearing, including erotica and even vampire Westerns. I talked to my Texas born friend Laurie Kingery, who wrote Westerns and medievals for Dorchester, Harlequin, and Warner under the pseudonym Laurie Grant. (http://lauriekingery.com/)
Now Laurie is writing Westerns for the Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historicals line of inspirational romances. Her first book for them, A Hill Country Christmas, is a November release and she has another one in production. (The Outlaw's Lady, August 2009.)
Laurie Kingery: Western Inspirationals, a match made in heaven
“I'm not sure western romances have ever been totally eclipsed, but they were indeed overshadowed for a time by Regencies and medievals. But publishers like Harlequin Historicals and now, Love Inspired Historicals, have recognized that Westerns are the backbone of historical romance with their appeal to a simpler time when our country was still young and a vast expanse of western land needed to be settled by strong men who were able to protect their ladies, and ladies who were strong enough in their own way to be the equal partner to these men.
Many of us grew up watching Westerns on TV and in the movies, and while those weekly TV shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide” are gone, the continuing popularity of Westerns reveals itself in the movies that are still made for both the cinema and TV like Tombstone (my personal favorite), Appaloosa and Broken Trail.
However politically incorrect it is these days to make a hero of a man who's good with a gun, something in many of us harkens back to when this quality meant survival for a man and his family. It's also a way to re-explore our ambivalent relationship with the Native Americans.
Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historicals, drawing on the core audience of Harlequin Historicals (they're both part of the same huge publisher) is currently publishing two historicals a month. One of these is always a Western, which speaks to the strength of that readership.
The difference between a secular historical and an inspirational one is the addition of the faith journey of the hero and heroine. In a secular romance, the main characters are the hero and heroine; in an inspirational one, God is a third main character, forming an unbreakable three-stranded cord.
These stories do not always involve conversions and are not merely "religious tracts within a story," but the hero and heroine are usually at different points in their faith journey, which forms part of the conflict. Westerns are a natural fit for inspirational historicals, because it was a time in our nation when most average people were people of faith, for it's hard to imagine how people could come from the civilized east of America—and from countries all over the world—without strong faith in a God who watches over them and cares about them.
Laurie is currently working on Marrying Milly, the start of the "Spinsters of Simpson Creek" series. So it looks like Westerns are alive and well at Love Inspired.
To round out the subject, I asked Kate Duffy, my wonderful editor, about Westerns at Kensington. Her reply:
“Well, the God’s honest truth is that here they never went away. We as readers love them. Brava currently has two Western historical writers doing great business – Diane Whiteside and Beth Williamson.
In Zebra, Georgina Gentry, Janette Kenny, Elaine Levine (just off the top of my head) and we are lucky to have Jodi Thomas in some anthologies including, coming next February, Give Me A Cowboy, following the success of Give Me A Texan. I am sure I am leaving some authors out but in my defense, I haven’t had enough coffee.
So we never experienced an eclipse. We certainly saw fewer of them submitted to us. And that seems, as I said in San Francisco (at the RWA conference) to be because of the impact of this notion which really wasn’t valid, at least at Kensington.”
So there are the thoughts of four experts on Westerns. How about you—have you missed them? Do you have favorite Westerns that you loved? Tell us about them!
As a special treat, Shirl Henke and Laurie Kingery will give away signed copies of their current releases (Pale Moon Stalker and A Hill Country Christmas, respectively) to lucky commenters before midnight Friday. So speak up!