It’s been a fascinating exchange of views

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’.



  1. Dad's side of the family – My Confederate great-great-grandfather was left in a boardinghouse ill with an attendant. Union soldiers went through the boardinghouse robbing and killing any boarders that were obviously Confederate. The only thing that saved his and his attendant's lives was the Union Sargent who had a Freemason's ring on. My great-great-grandfather gave him the hand sign and the Union Sargent spared their lives.

    Mother's dad's side of family – Kentucky – Uncle Bob and Aunt Betty had a farm that a carpetbagger official wanted. They deported them to Canada and in the length of time it took them to work their way back to Kentucky the farm was sold for 'back taxes' to the carpetbagger.

    And Damn Yankees wonder why Johnny Reb might be giving them the evil eye. And why Blacks and Native Americans give whitey the stink eye.

  2. I liked the story, the dialect, and Walt. I think you are spot on for the time frame.
    I will buy the book.

  3. I guess my hillbilly ways are showin'. I wouldn't change one dern thing! Then again, I generally prefer to read OLD novels.

  4. I didn't comment as I don't really read Westerns, but I didn't find the language or mode of expression jarring after the first bit. I settled in rather quickly only noting how you chose to write the particular vernacular. Similarly, the ethical and moral quandaries were jarring at first, but made sense as I slipped into the story. I did expect his severe knife-edge friend/enemy soldier's mindset would mellow as he encountered the grayness of peaceful interactions. I was thrown off at the immediate killing of the man, but after the bushwacker status was established with the dialogue with Tom, I chalked it up to character introduction by action rather than description. And it was even rather easy to see how a man so soon out of battle would retain the impetus to put an end to a threat to other Confederates.

    I'd expect the book would create a world apart as one settled into it. I've read those where you come away almost copying the vernacular when you first speak after reading a bit.

  5. How about an author's edition with the dialect in, after you've published the book? It would mean more work, but if you've written most of it already, you're going to have to redraft anyway, and this would allow readers who cotton the lingo a richer experience.

  6. I'm with Alfred! I would very much like to read the original vernacular vs the modern version, if it should be available.

  7. Leave it the way it is, I found myself there in that small hollow with Walt. Capturing that truly gritty realistic tone is very hard and you've accomplished it. You don't write a book by committee and everyone has an opinion, doesn't mean there right.

  8. Just my $.02, but I like it the way it is. Will I buy it? Just make it dead tree and you got me.

  9. I LIKE the dialogue. Can I have the Director's Cut with the historical language? I'm the sort of guy who loves the flavor of old ways of speech.

    I know, making two versions is too much work, and it might mess your Amazon ratings by splitting your sales. But still. I read modern speech every day, and I find old rhythm refreshing. Especially when you nail it like you did in that sample.

  10. My many-times-great uncle was Confederate General Braxton Bragg. In my family the Civil War was always referred to as "The War Of Northern Aggression".

    Needless to say I like your story just the way it is, but I can understand the need to tone it down a bit for modern sensibilities.

    I'd buy a copy either way.


  11. Count me in for buying a copy when it comes around!
    I've read my share of westerns, aside from writing weird westerns myself, and this one looks like it'll really capture the gritty violence that was required to survive in those times. I'm fascinated to see a factual fictional story.

    I wouldn't change anything. I'm not too familiar with Southern speech, but it felt pretty natural to me! I wish you luck in writing this sucker. 🙂

  12. Peter,
    I have no problems with the story, so far. The action flows along, and the language seems fine to me. It fits the historical era, I think. Westerns aren't a favorite of mine, but I've read a few, while reading many thousands of books in various categories over the last fifty + years.

    As someone else mentioned, the boy completely ignoring his wounded father seemed a bit off. On the other hand, he would have been close enough to probably determine his father's condition.

    Shooting the two was warranted by their reaction to the boy noticing The mounted rider across the clearing. It goes far beyond "furtive movements" as justification.

    I've no reservations to him waiting for the other son, and how he handled it. I'd have done the same thing in his place. I would have been inclined to ambush any group that was engaging in that sort of activity. I might have considered hunting for them, in fact. That sort of thing would be safer with a few friends along, though.

    Leaving the last horse would appear to be a waste. Granted it was tired, but if unburdened, it might have been able to hang with the group. If it was uniquely marked, though, taking it along might be hazardous. Always nice to have reasons or motivations for the characters actions.

  13. I've been a writer in the past, and have had good editors and good critique-ers. There are some hard lessons in writing.

    Each piece, whether it's an editorial in a newspaper, a short story, or a novel, has to stand alone. It is what it is.

    You must kill your own babies. Sometimes a carefully worded sentence, or an artfully constructed paragraph simply doesn't fit. It's your job to delete it.

    You cannot defend your work. If you need to explain something, then you didn't do a good enough job writing it in the first place. The only people who get to defend their work is that writer of a thesis or dissertation as part of the scholastic process. The rest of us must let the work stand alone. It is what it is, not what you'd like it to be. The audience decides what it is.

    I was writing back in the day when a writer had to print a manuscript and mail it to a publisher. I have rejection notices from some of the biggest names in the business. I have also published several things. The internet and self-publishing have changed many things about the process, but they have not changed the idea that the written word is powerful.

    Keep writing.

  14. It rings true, very few spoke "King's English" back then, and the body count and 'action' are true to the time period… Write it! 😉

  15. Ha, I am on the other side of the equation of a lot of folks here. My people are from Mississippi, but one of my gggggrandfathers was a carpetbagger. He married one of the local belles, and they had a couple of children. Shortly after his second child was born, he was killed by a brick thrown through a window at him by a disgruntled former Confederate soldier.


  16. I might be inclined to try it (if such books were my taste), if only because there is at least some, very faint, possibility that the protagonist, who is ex-Confederate, will be portrayed as equally 'hard' and unpleasant as the Union men and not entirely written as the soiled knight, whose sins are not his own. Neither side was glorious, both were equally capable of producing bushwackers and men quite willing to seize opportunity however it presented. They were also both equally capable of producing very good men.

  17. Didn't have a problem with the dialect. Sounded in my head like some of my Southern relatives. Shooting the ambushers made sense based on the circumstances. I did note that Walt didn't shoot the woman.

  18. I found that the dialect slowed down the reading a little, at first, but not to the point that I would give up on reading it. It did help set the tone, style, and authenticity for the story, and I wouldn't complain if it was used throughout the book. That said, toning it down just a little bit (not removing it completely) would make the book a little more readable while still giving a feel for the times it's set in.

    It's a good start, and even though I'm not a big fan of Westerns, I'll buy it if you write it – however you settle the dialect question.

  19. Well, I had no problem with the way he spoke, but perhaps my language has been “coarsened” a bit, too. There's something Dave Drake wrote in, I think, the forward to Ranks of Bronze that might apply.

    That book is about a Roman legion that was bought by aliens (rather than Asians) after a defeat, and carried off to the stars to fight in their wars far from home. A reader complained to the author about the way the characters spoke. Apparently (my opinion), that reader was expecting a more “Roman” veracular that ends up being a mismash of Elizabethan English and some earlier.

    Dave responded, and here I am paraphrasing from memory, that he could have wrote the whole damn thing in Latin, but then very few people could have read it. If he was going to write about Roman soldiers in English, why the hell wouldn't he write the *kind* of English soldiers use today?

    While I have no problem with any “coarseness” seen so far, if you feel you have to change it, you could do worse than following the example of one I'd argue is in the top five science fiction writers of our time. Soldiers cuss. Former soldiers in civilian life, especially in “frontier” type situations still cuss, too. And speak bluntly. That doesn't change the character of the story.

    Good luck with the writing. This one sounds like a book I'll be buying as soon as it hits the shelves.

  20. I thought it was good. It's been a while since I read 19th century memoirs (mostly Grant, Sherman and other Civil War figures) and your tone seems about right though some of the word choices jarred a bit. "Vicious" in the first paragraph?

    You sometimes tend to use chains of adjectives and adverbs which can slow the narrative flow, and, perhaps related, push too hard, using some redundancy or near redundancy. For example, "the stillness was broken by a shrill call" and, two sentences on, "It was a woman's voice."

    Or you could say he comes from Britain.

    The border country was certainly a dangerous place. Just ask Josey Wales' family.

  21. Event though the dialogee may have been authentic, it gets in the way of the reading flow for me. That was my biggest issue. If the dialogue is more modern I think I'll really enjoy it 🙂

  22. It was my understanding that back in those days the town lawmen were paid a pittance with the understanding that they took a rake off the businesses dealing in vice of one sort or another.
    And the good church going folks turned a blind eye as long as it was all kept on the other side of the tracks.

  23. Peter, I think you've got a winner here. People forget how bloody and dehumanizing the War between the States era was, on both sides. I recall a true story of a Kentucky woman whose husband and eldest boy were murdered by a Confederate pressgang, "drafting" soldiers at gun-point, literally. She and her survi ing sons declared feud. When the old woman passed away in the '20s, her prized possession was a soap bowl….made from the press gang leader's skull….
    The plot, tactics, and language fit the time period well. I love the writing. Now I see I must run down all your books! I believe the editors at Baen will be honest about how the dialect will sell, but I like it.
    There were no real hero's in this era, through the settling of the frontier. Only survivors…

  24. Critics, Pffft.
    I'm no writer, but I read a lot. I notice "flaws" in some of my favorite books but can overlook them if the unity or theme is maintained.
    Contrast the styles of Manchester and Gilbert in their Churchill biographies.
    Savor the prose in the Durant history.
    Enjoy the anachronisms in TH White's Once and Future King.
    Parse the sentences in Faulkner.
    Admire the technical handling of the time slips in Raintree County.
    Compare Steinbeck to Hemingway. Or Tolstoy to Dostoevsky.
    Could Dickens plot a novel?

    Read Michener and Somerset Maugham on the art of crafting a novel.
    I still can't read James Joyce or Tolkien.


  25. I had relatives on both sides.

    On my mothers side, Missouri, a confederate uncle had a little finger blown off.

    Scots Irish with each generation, group of families, moving a bit further West. They finally ended up in California. Started out in Virginia before the revolutionary war.

    California was full of confederates. Pattons family for example.

    I thought the number of shots was too low. In real life it seems to take s lot of shots to kill a person.

    Another anon

  26. Go with the period language and behaviour. People will slip into it very quickly. Remember how people lapped it up with Rome and Spartacus.

    You also need a proofreader: 'but weren’t as good as keeping out the rain' for example.

  27. @JohninMD:

    You're thinking of the tale of Aunt Jenny Brooks. Never ever underestimate the lengths a hill family will hold a grudge — especially when blood is spilled.

  28. I was surprised by the number of people who were put off by the dialect. Doesn't bother me a bit; in fact, it added to the atmosphere for me.

    @Judy – Damn Yankees is two words?!?

  29. I enjoyed the tidbit you gave us and am looking forward to reading the rest of it. It's your book, write it your way. Just let me know when it hits the Kindle store…

  30. I didn't even notice the dialect. Perhaps that is because of where I am from. I got drawn in immediately and am ready to buy the book. I thought it was well done.
    On a side note, a great-great grandfather was released from a Chicago Prison Camp with a rifle (that's it!). After a year or two he walked into town at home in Mississippi. I have often thought about what was involved in surviving that walk. Two Texas relatives were in the same prison camp, one died there, and the other made it home. I never got any of the details of that long trip. Tough people.

    Sherman's depredations caused hatred long after the war. Heard some terrible stories from Oklahoma relatives that moved from Georgia. One of the grandmothers would not permit a northerner on her property. She witnessed some terrible things as a child in Georgia.

    Write on, looking for the book!

  31. Have you seen Hell On Wheels, the show about building the transcontinental railroad (last shows coming up this season)?
    I have, and your story fits in well with the HOW story attitudes.

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