Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I am fascinated by Cherokee leader Stand Watie. I've used him as a character in many of my stories. I think the reason I can't seem to get enough of him is because of his remarkable life and accomplishments. Here's a little bit about Stand Watie and what he did--and then I'll tell you about my stories he appears in.

Only two Native Americans on either side of the States’ War rose to the rank of brigadier general. Standhope Watie (Uwatie), fighting for the Confederacy, was one of those two. Yet, what makes this accomplishment so incredible is the fact that while he was fighting for the Confederate States of America, he was also fighting other Cherokee tribal leaders who held opposing political views and very different visions for the Cherokee nation.

Stand Watie commanded the Confederate Indian Cavalry of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. While the cavalry unit was comprised mainly of Cherokee, some Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribal members also served.

Born in Oothcaloga in the Cherokee Nation, State of Georgia, Uwatie (or Oowatie) was also known as Isaac. He was educated in a Moravian mission school. In his early adulthood, he occasionally wrote articles for the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper. The State of Georgia confiscated Cherokee lands in 1832 when gold was discovered, including the thriving plantation owned by Stand’s father and mother. Stand and his brothers, part of the powerful Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction of the Cherokee council, stood in favor of the Cherokee Removal. Their signing of the Treaty of New Echota facilitated the removal of the Cherokee people to Indian Territory—what is now Oklahoma.

Another faction of Cherokees following John Ross refused to ratify the treaty signing. This segment was known as The Anti-Removal National Party. Members of this group targeted Stand Watie and his brother, Elias Boudinot, along with their uncle, Major Ridge, and cousin, John Ridge for assassination. Stand was the only one who survived the assassination attempt. Although Watie’s family had left Georgia before the forcible removal of all Cherokees in 1838, another brother, Thomas, was murdered by Ross’s men in 1845.

In October, 1861, Watie was commissioned as colonel in the First Mounted Cherokee Rifles. Besides fighting Federal troops in the States’ War, his men also fought opposing factions of Cherokee, as well as Seminole and Creek (Muscogee) warriors who supported the Union.

In 1862, Stand Watie was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, through dissension continued among John Ross’s supporters.

On June 15, 1864, Watie’s troops captured the Federal steamboat J. R. Williams on the Arkansas River off the banks of Pleasant Bluff near Tamaha, Indian Territory. The next morning, Colonel John Ritchie’s men, who were stationed at the mouth of the Illinois River near where the two rivers met, engaged Watie’s men as they attempted to confiscate the cargo. The river was rising, and they fought to a standoff. When Watie learned of the advance of Union troops from Fort Smith, Arkansas, (within about 40 miles), he burned the ship and much of the remaining cargo, then sank it.

Watie surrendered a year later in June of 1865, the last Confederate general to lay down his arms.

In my debut novel, Fire Eyes, I weave this bit of history into my plot. The villain, Andrew Fallon, and his gang have come upon the site where the J.R. Williams was sunk four years earlier. Fallon speculates there could have been gold aboard, and sets his men to dive for it. As mercurial as his temper is, none of them dare question his order. Here’s what happens:


“Damn! I know where we are.” Dobie Perrin said.

Andrew Fallon turned in the saddle, glaring at Perrin, the afternoon sun dappling them through the leaves of the thick canopy of trees. “So do I, you idiot! So do we all, now.”

The secluded cemetery sat on a bluff, overlooking the Arkansas River. They had been wandering for two days, ever since retracing their steps to the first small creek they’d come to. The one Fallon felt sure would give them their bearings. Now, at last, he recognized where they were. He’d figured it out ten miles back.

“Tamaha,” Denver Rutledge muttered. “I was raised up over yonder.” He inclined his head toward the riverbank. “Over in Vian.”

“Then why didn’t you know where we were?” Fallon’s anger surged. “I am surrounded by idiots!”

“I shore ’nuff shoulda known, General,” Rutledge said apologetically. “Right yonder’s where we sunk the J.R. Williams. Rebs, I mean. Stand Watie’s bunch.”

Fallon jerked his head toward the other man. “Right where, soldier?”

Rutledge kneed his horse, coming abreast of Fallon. “Why, right yonder, General. It was in June of ’64. She was a Union ship, the Williams was.”

“What was she carrying?”

Rutledge shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. Supplies, maybe.”

“Payroll? Gold?” Fallon fingered his curling moustache. “Could be anything, eh, Rutledge? But the Yankees were known to cache their gold profits in casks. Maybe that’s what the J.R. Williams was carrying. Casks that weren’t really supplies, but were filled with gold.”

“Could be, I ‘spect.” Rutledge’s voice was hesitant.

Fallon nodded toward the river. “I think maybe we’ll try to find out.”



The next story Chief Watie was included in was my time-travel western novella, MEANT TO BE. Here's a little bit about this Civil War story:

Robin Mallory is facing another Christmas all alone when she decides to surprise her aunt and uncle several hours away. A flat tire leaves her stranded near a desolate section of interstate. With a snowstorm on the way, Robin has no choice but to walk, hoping to find shelter before the storm hits full force. But the road she chooses leads her back in time, to a battleground she's only read about in history books.

Confederate Jake Devlin, an officer in Stand Watie's Cherokee forces, is shocked when the spy he captures turns out to be a girl. She's dressed oddly, but her speech and the ideas she has are even stranger than her clothing. Where did she come from, and what is he going to do with her? Will he be able to hold on to his heart? Is it possible for a love this strong to span centuries? It is, if it was MEANT TO BE…



My most recent story that Stand Watie appears in is my first venture into "alternate history" in the alternate history anthology, TALES FROM THE OTHERVERSE released through Rough Edges Press. If you aren't familiar with alternate history, it's fascinating to read and to write--because you can change history to suit the story you want to tell. My novella is called MRS. LINCOLN'S DINNER PARTY--a very different story about how the Civil War ended, thanks to Varina Davis, Mary Lincoln, and of all people, Stand Watie. Hmmm...let's just see what's going on at this odd dinner party of Mrs. Lincoln's, shall we?


“If you’ll excuse me, sir,” Mary said, “I must return to the receiving line. You’ve had a long journey—if you’d like a moment to freshen up, Mr. Pennington can show you to your quarters—” She nodded at the guard standing behind the general.

“Yes, please. I’d like to know where I need to place my bag,” the general said.

Mary glared at Mr. Pennington, who squirmed uncomfortably.

“Thought maybe there was a mistake, Mrs. Lincoln—”

“Mr. Pennington. There is no mistake. And I will not tolerate rudeness. Please, show General Watie to his quarters—and you carry his bag.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Pennington answered. “This way, sir.”

General Watie gave Mary a rare smile. “Thank you. I will see you at dinner, Mrs. Lincoln.”

Mary felt Abe’s eyes boring into her as she moved across the floor, back into her place in line.

“I’m…surprised at you, Mary.”

Mary felt the hot flush creep up her neck, into her cheeks.

“I’m wondering, what other—guests—you may have invited without my knowledge.”

Oh, how she did wish he’d keep his voice down! She didn’t want the children to see the discord between them—especially here in public, where it was so easy for others to read between the lines, pick up on any issues that were best kept private. As Robert had said earlier, they could all find themselves on the front page of the papers along with unflattering descriptions and comments if they weren’t careful.

She didn’t answer Abe’s prodding, becoming suddenly resentful of being placed in such a predicament. She wouldn’t have had to resort to this if Abe and the others who had started this war had been more reasonable.

And though, in her heart, she believed fathers loved their children dearly…she couldn’t yet reconcile how fathers could call for sons to go to war. War! Where the children mothers had fought so hard to keep safe and whole all their childhood years could—in one moment—be maimed, or left to die a horrific death at the hands of their enemy…The enemy—people who had, just two scant years earlier, been their neighbors, their friends—even their own families!

She couldn’t sit by any longer and do nothing. Robert would be heading off to West Point in the fall…then Eddie and Willie would follow.

She was not going to lose her precious boys to this confounded idiocy.

“My God,” Abe swore, his tone calling her back to the present. “Is that—”

“Varina Davis. Yes. It is.” Mary turned to look up at her husband. “It looks as if Jefferson declined the invitation. Would you care to accompany me to greet her, or—”

“Yes, I’ll come,” he all but growled. “Mary, we have some talking to do.”

But Mary was already on her way across the floor to greet Varina Davis, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s wife.



I want to thank everyone for joining me today! Do you like to read fictional stories that incorporate real historical characters in them? I love it--if it's done right! Please leave a comment and you will be entered in my drawing for a copy (DIGITAL OR PRINT--YOUR CHOICE!) of FIRE EYES and I'm also giving away a copy of MEANT TO BE!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Cooking in the Old West

Cooking was a lot more complicated in the 1800's than it is today. You'd think food would be much simpler, but, in fact, much of the time it was more complicated than what we prepare nowadays.  Here are a few recipes your characters might have encountered, along with the books from which they were taken.

Good Family Bread
The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1864

For five common-sized loaves, make a pint and a half of thin water gruel. Use half a teacupful of fine Indian meal. Salt it a little more than if it were to be eaten as a gruel, and boil ten of fifteen minutes. This is of importance, as, if the meal is only scalded, the bread will be coarse. Add enough milk to make two quarts of the whole. If the milk is new, the gruel may be poured into it in the pan; if it is not, it should be scalded in the kettle with the gruel. This is particularly important in the summer, as at that season milk, which is but a few hours old, and is sweet when put into the bread, will sour in the dough in a short time. When the mixture is cool, so that you are sure it will not scald, add a teacupful of yeast, and then stir in sifted flour* enough to make a thick batter. This is called a sponge. This being done in the evening, let it stand, if in summer, in a cool place, if in winter, in a moderately warm place, till morning. Then add flour enough to make it easy to mould, and knead it very thoroughly.

A half an hour is the least time to be given to kneading a baking of bread, unless you prefer, after having done this till it ceases to stick to your hands, to chop it with a chopping-knife four or five hundred strokes. An hour’s kneading is not too much.

After it is thoroughly kneaded, divide it into four or five equal pieces, and mould according to the form of the pans in which you bake it. These being greased with clean drippings, put in the dough and set it in the sun or near the fire (according to the season) to rise. Loaves of this size will bake in an hour; if the oven be rather hot, in a few minutes short of an hour.

*All kinds of flour and meal should be sifted for use, except buckwheat and Graham flour

Old Fashioned Turnip Soup
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881

2 lb. veal bones    1 lb. turnips
1/2 gal. water    salt and pepper to taste

Take two pounds veal bones to half a gallon of water, and boil  [down] to one quart. Put turnips and bones to boil together. Then strain the liquor off and send to table hot. Season  while cooking  with pepper and salt.

Snitz and Knep
Godey's Lady's Book 1866

Take of sweet dried apples (dried with the skins on, if you can get them) about one quart.  Put them in the bottom of a porcelain or tin-lined boiler with a cover.  Take a nice piece of smoked ham washed very clean and lay on top; add enough water to cook them nicely.  About twenty minutes before dishing up, add the following dumplings:

Mix a cup of warm milk with one egg, a little salt, and a little yeast, and enough flour to make a sponge.  When light, work into a loaf.  Let stand until about twenty minutes before dinner, then cut off slices or lumps, and lay on the apples and let steam through.

Onion Custard
Godey's Lady's Book 1860

Peel and slice some mild onions (ten or twelve, in proportion to their size) and fry them in fresh butter, draining them well when you take them up; then mince them as fine as possible; beat four eggs very light and stir them gradually into a pint of milk, in turn with the minced onions; season the whole with plenty of grated nutmeg, and stir it very hard; then put it into a deep white dish and bake it abut a quarter of an hour.  (Bake at 350mins.)  Send it to table as a side dish, to be eaten with meat or poultry.  It is a French preparation of onions and  will be found very fine.

Cocoa Flummery
Civil War Cooking: The Housekeepers Encyclopedia, 1861

Egg whites, beaten stiff    Shredded coconut meat
Boiled custard    Sponge cake

As in many recipes of this period, the term "cocoa" does not mean anything resembling chocolate. It means "coconut" 

Beat the whites of eggs stiff, grate the white part of a of cocoa-nut, Mix the egg and nut together, sweeten to the taste; prepare a boiled custard, pour it over sponge cake, and lay the egg and cocoa on the top.

J.E.S. Hays

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Humor me if you will. Or, rather, be humored yourself by a true master.

During those times when the creative well is running a little low and the plot lines lie flat on the page, I try to prime the pump with some good reading. There are several contemporary authors who inspire me but I also enjoy reaching back into the archives to see how the old guys did it.

One book that I never tire of revisiting is Roughing It by Mark Twain, based on his stagecoach journey to the west and subsequent adventures in silver prospecting, real estate speculation, and (after a side trip to Hawaii) newspaper reporting in San Francisco. During these years of 1861-1867, he honed his rough-hewn, almost madcap, style of writing into the Twain style that forever set him apart: sharply satirical (as in The Gilded Age) but capable of tender character portrayals as well (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). For spot-on, wry descriptions of the mundane, Twain is hard to beat. I’d like to share a few of my favorite excerpts from Roughing It.

First off, the western landscape provided Twain with all sorts of writing fodder and I love this meandering passage that manages to work in references to sagebrush, mules and anthracite coal all in one sitting:

“Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner.”

From the stagecoach, he observed this forlorn creature:

“The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.
He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”

In Carson City, Nevada, the young Twain is caught up in a romantic desire to own a horse and is tricked into buying one at an auction, described to him in a secretive whisper as a “Mexican Plug.”

“I did not know what a Genuine Mexican Plug was, but there was something about this man’s way of saying it, that made me swear inwardly that I would own a Genuine Mexican Plug, or die.”

As you can imagine, the partnership between horse and tenderfoot does not last long:

In the afternoon I brought the creature into the plaza, and certain citizens held him by the head, and others by the tail, while I mounted him. As soon as they let go, he placed all his feet in a bunch together, lowered his back, and then suddenly arched it upward, and shot me straight into the air a matter of three or four feet! I came as straight down again, lit in the saddle, went instantly up again, came down almost on the high pommel, shot up again, and came down on the horse’s neck—all in the space of three or four seconds. Then he rose and stood almost straight up on his hind feet, and I, clasping his lean neck desperately, slid back into the saddle and held on. He came down, and immediately hoisted his heels into the air, delivering a vicious kick at the sky, and stood on his forefeet. And then down he came once more, and began the original exercise of shooting me straight up again. The third time I went up I heard a stranger say:

‘Oh, don’t he buck, though!’

While I was up, somebody struck the horse a sounding thwack with a leather strap, and when I arrived again the Genuine Mexican Plug was not there. A California youth chased him up and caught him, and asked if he might have a ride. I granted him that luxury. He mounted the Genuine, got lifted into the air once, but sent his spurs home as he descended, and the horse darted away like a telegram. He soared over three fences like a bird, and disappeared down the road toward the Washoe Valley.”

You can view the first edition of Roughing It in its entirety online, along with the wonderful original illustrations at:

I'd love to hear about some of your go-to Western books!

All the best,

2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist, Short Fiction
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist, Short Fiction

Keep up with Vonn! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Ask any writer where their titles come from for their work and you’ll get a thousand different answers from “It just came to me!” to “My publisher made me use this one.” As an author, I’ve had both happen to me, with several other scenarios for my titles scattered in between.

In my first book, FIRE EYES, the heroine’s name is Jessica—my own daughter’s name. She needed a name that she was referred to by the Indians, and my daughter had told me years earlier she wanted her Indian name to be FIRE EYES. So that was a given. And it worked out great! That story was the one that the title came easiest for, of all my books.

Fast forward to my first contemporary romance novel, Sweet Danger. The story takes place in a deli that has been taken over by a very dangerous escaped convict, Tabor Hardin, and his men. His hostages just happen to include an undercover police officer, Jesse Nightwalker, who put him away in prison—supposedly for life. One of the other hostages is Jesse’s neighbor, Lindy Oliver, who is the retired police commissioner’s daughter. They’ve just met and are minding their own business over a sugar ring when a hail of gunfire erupts and—well, y’all know how I love my wounded heroes, and Jesse is no exception. I had titled the story THE SUGAR RING. But I was told by my publisher that that title would have to be changed. Period. SWEET DANGER was born, and in retrospect, is a much better title.

Titles should stick with the reader, be memorable, and make readers want to know more about the book.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Who would do that?)
SWEET SAVAGE LOVE (Tell me more!)

SHANE (Who is this person?)
NOBODY’S DARLING (Maybe mine?)
THE GATES OF THE ALAMO (I’ve gotta know!)
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (Maybe I can learn something, here!)

TALES FROM THE OTHERVERSE (Where is this place, and what are these tales about?)
LOST SISTER (Who was she and why was she lost?)

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Who was he? Certainly not who we thought!)

The list goes on—but you get the idea. I know right now you’re thinking of titles you’ve read that have stuck in your mind—and the questions they’ve made you ask about those particular stories or books.

And I bet you’ve seen a phrase and thought, “That would be a great book title!” I know I’ve done that plenty of times. I’ve even written them down. Now, if I could only remember where I wrote them!
Another fun way to come up with titles is through a title generator. There are several of these online. They even have them for different genres: Sci-fi, westerns, fantasy…you name it. But they come up with some real doozies! Take a look at some of the ones a western title generator came up with for me:

These are mainly odd, funny titles, but the beauty of them is that they get your mind working in ways you might never have thought before—and adding and changing some of the words in some of these titles can make for a beautifully creative experience!

What are some of YOUR favorite titles, and why?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Wolf Creek #17: Comanchero Trail

Troy D. Smith

The newest Wolf Creek book is here -and it is intense.

Abby Potter and several of her soiled doves are traveling by wagon to the Breedlove ranch -to help the hands enjoy a barn dance -but they never make it. Kiowa war chief Stone Knife is back in Kansas, and he takes the girls captive, also killing several settlers along the way. Stone Knife takes the women southwest to the Llano Estacado to trade them to Comancheros.

A small rescue party from Wolf Creek goes after them: Ben Tolliver, Charley Blackhorse, Derrick McCain, Rev. Obadiah Stone, Jimmy Spotted Owl... and young cowboy Billy Below, whose true love Brandy is among the captives. Along the way they meet new allies: a Texas Ranger troop that includes Rangers Jake Blackwell and Jim Blawcyzk (from western series by Troy D. Smith and James J. Griffin). They also meet an enigmatic farmer, Tom Sallee, who is looking for the Comancheros for reasons of his own.

As I said at the outset, this volume is intense. In order to be true to the historical period and to demonstrate the stakes faced by women taken captive at that time, there are a couple of scenes that might be disturbing to some readers. The authors taking part, however, believe we have produced a powerful story.

Those writers are Jacquie Rogers, James J. Griffin, Chuck Tyrell, myself (Troy D. Smith), and John Neely Davis, in his first Wolf Creek appearance. If you are unfamiliar with our series, it is a Western Fictioneers production in which at this point almost thirty WF members have created their own unique characters who interact in collaborative novels. They appear under the house name "Ford Fargo." We have as much fun writing them as you do reading them.

Another Wolf Creek volume is coming along soon -in November -a short story anthology titled Hunter's Moon. It will feature events that will change the lives of several Wolf Creek citizens... watch for it.

Buy Comanchero Trail HERE

Wolf Creek: Comanchero Trail by [Fargo, Ford, Griffin, James J., Tyrell, Chuck, Rogers, Jacquie, Davis, John Neely, Smith, Troy D.]

Monday, September 5, 2016

Why did they go West?

Why did they migrate West? The third in my High Mountain Sheriff series, Founding Sheriff, tells the story of the man who apprenticed as a cooper in Bury, Lancashire, England.  He took his wife and five year-old son and moved West.  In the story, good fiction requires that the discovery of the reason be dramatized, not analyzed.  Here, in the first Monday blog, I invite you to work with me on the analysis to help me understand.  Why?

The question is an onion.  Keep peeling it and layers fall away but core questions remain.  “They” is anyone who went West. “When” for our Western Fictioneers concern covers the fifty years from 1840 to 1890, but the fact is emigrating West started in 1620 (or maybe earlier, if you do not date your consciousness of American settling to Plymouth Rock). Ohio, Midwest, illustrates this migration: 1800: 45,000; 1820: 580,000; 1840: 1,400,000.

Some research and a lot more time spent with my chin in my hand (Rodin, forgive me) lead me to four reasons, with a couple of sub- elements thrown in. Please join me in my brief discussion by adding your comments: more reasons, better explanations, lively examples.

First, a short digression into an understanding of the notion of emigrating.  It starts with the verb migrate.  1. to go from one country, region, or place to another. Synonyms: move, resettle, relocate.  Antonyms: remain.  There are other definitions less pertinent to our concern (to pass periodically from one region to another or to shift from one system to another) because our question is Why did they migrate? As in the title of the blog, Why did they go?

It remains to note that emigrate is to leave one country or region to settle in another and immigrate is to come to a country of which one is not a native.  So everyone who went West migrated by emigrating and when they arrived they were immigrants.  Doesn’t it make you wonder how the word “immigrants” was/is turned into a slur in some places and for some classes of people.  But that is not today’s blog.


Plymouth Rock may serve as the first major and visible symbol of wholesale emigration for the primary reason of seeking an amenable locale to practice the religion of choice.  Forgive me for not using the phrase, religious freedom. Neither that religion, nor the one that sought out Salt Lake City, nor the one that is seeking refuge in the U.S. today tolerates anything like religious freedom while they ask for the freedom to believe in the religion that organizes the people who are emigrating.

A few other groups went West to find a better place to practice their religion, some Friends, some Lutherans, and if you count Virginia as once West to someone, the Huguenots.  In our Old West, however, one force consistently strove to convert a desert with one tree and three trappers in 1846 into a state of 260,000 population admitted in 1896.  Beginning with its early flight from persecution to a place beyond the borders of the United States and through its missionary program that first created converts then preached the Gathering of Zion, the LDS Church had on its mind the creation of a Western Empire.

Indeed, the founding sheriff accepted his submersion in the local river and then removed his family to the arduous task of an overland trek.  But could belief alone create such motivation?


The motivation to escape provides no end of action-event sequences for our fiction.  Oppression, poverty, and trouble cover most of the reasons for escape I can think of.  Escape from oppression may often be the other side of the religious freedom coin, but it would appear two million Jews who escaped from oppression in Eastern Europe, mostly Russia, during our Old West years landed on U.S. shores.  One study identifies 154,000 who settled in the West.

Escape from poverty is the mirror of opportunity, so the most interesting escape reasons lie in escape from trouble.  Here all sorts of mayhem may be found.  I wrote a blog earlier this year complaining about random violence in Western Fiction, and I underscore the complaint was about random not violence.  Some young boys get in trouble because they breathe, some young girls, too; and, of course, the true creator of our Wild West was the Civil War.  Its conduct bespoke unfathomable violence, to some, its aftermath justified more.   The treatment of women may be overlooked, but should not be forgotten. Even in inexplicable violence, reason is the cause, not randomness.

Escape as one of the reasons for going West strikes me as a big reason for a small number.  This is, of course, why we write fiction and why escape stories are so engrossing.  Very few people need to escape the trouble they got into, but those who do travel uncertain and tortured paths.


The vast motivating opportunity was the chance to leave their status.  Except for 13,000 Chinese in 1862 and a lot more in 1866, the majority of Americans who went West were of European origin and most of them were working class.  That translated into three rigidly constricting facts of life: they were not rich, they were socially jailed, and they had no land.  Land and wealth represent what could be achieved, but the simple opportunity, the prospect of social mobility, the notion of not living inside rigid boundaries, all of those added up to the feeling and the pursuit of freedom.

Opportunity was certainly the major force behind the grand migration.  An organized religion moved only 260,000; a world-wide oppression may have moved only 150,000, and all the trouble in the nation probably moved fewer than a thousand (my guess, so yours is as good as mine). Yet from 1840 to 1890, while the entire country was growing from 17 million to 63 million, the West (not including Kansas or Nebraska as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854) grew from 450 thousand to 7.8 million.

In short, some seven million people probably emigrated West for the opportunity it afforded.  The concept of opportunity may often be very difficult to bring to life in fiction – how many store keepers have been conceived of as the leader in their community?  Remember the one in High Noon? Fortunately, social mobility is also opportunity and it exudes human feeling.


Land and, its nourisher, water are symbolic and tangible and given to great dramatic tension.  Some of this owes to the reality that it created wealth, and also, that it established empire, even if it was the family empire. The ownership of land held a symbolic importance almost as important as the right to practice a religion.

Almost the entirety of America’s immigrants arrived on these shores because they could not afford or were not allowed to own land.  Looking merely to the population numbers above, it follows logically that more than 10% of those immigrants kept going west in search of the promise of owning their own land.  The fulfillment of this promise, while euphoric, had its inhuman, even evil, underbelly: the treatment of the Native Americans from whom almost all of this land was taken away—even when purchased.


Gold provides the symbol.  Second, perhaps, comes cattle. But the list is very long: railroads, banks, mineral rights, mines, oil, and you can add to the list.  Perhaps nothing more than another example of the 1%, but the prospect drove and motivated many more than the 78,000 who made it. (I exaggerate by using that number. In fact, ample evidence suggests that income distribution in the West provided wealth for more than the 1% and a good life for disproportionately more than the rest of the U.S.)


All of the above are a form of adventure and any character thinking about his motivation to go west cannot help but see and feel the adventure in the immediate reason that drives him.  Still, my bet is there were some, mostly men, but even a woman or two, who went west simply for the hell of it. Because it was there.

A Very Short Summary

Once examined, the reasons for migrating west all merge into that big one, opportunity.  Somehow the symbolism strikes me as apt: The West is as big as it is because it is one big opportunity.

E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


"MITCHELL PASS" by William Henry Jackson
At the end of a recent trip to Wyoming, I decided to ramble over to western Nebraska and investigate Scotts Bluff National Monument. I have a couple of short works in progress set in the area and needed to see and smell it for authenticity’s sake.

     Scotts Bluff, named for a fur trader who died at its base, is actually a chain of sandstone/limestone rock formations covering 3,000 acres and towering 800 feet above the North Platte River. It’s a spot rich in history. From 1860 to 1861, Pony Express riders thundered by every ten days or so. 
     Between 1841 and 1869, some 350,000 people traveling the Oregon Trail squeezed through Mitchell Pass–with only sixty feet of clearance– in the shadow of majestic Eagle Rock, the southernmost peak of the bluffs. Westbound pioneers would have seen the pale hulk of Scotts Bluff for days before they reached it. It was an important landmark; it meant that they were a third of the way to Oregon and the prairie was about to give way to mountain ranges.

     It’s interesting to note that Mormon emigrants traveled and camped on the opposite, northern bank of the Platte, to avoid unpleasant encounters with those who opposed them. For that reason, the Mormon Pioneer Trail parallels the Oregon Trail for much of its length.


     Of course, the Native American tribes in the area had known about Scotts Bluff for a long time, although they may have had mixed feelings about its significance. Their name for it was “Me-a-pa-te,” or “hill that is hard to go around!”

     Scotts Bluff has been managed by the National Parks Service since 1919. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed an access road during the 1930s. The drive to the top of the bluffs is dramatic, beginning with a lazy arc across the plains, then rising steeply through outcroppings and passing through three tunnels carved in the sandstone cliffs. (I recommend that you postpone enjoying the breathtaking view of the plains until after you’ve negotiated the switchbacks and are safely parked at the top!)

     Hiking trails allow visitors a closer look at geological features and vegetation. Numerous overlooks afford sweeping views of the plains and another rocky area known as the Badlands, lesser to those located in South Dakota. The Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center, located at the park entrance, provides a wealth of historical and scientific resources, along with some gorgeous oil paintings by noted Western artist William Henry Jackson.

     While it’s always fascinating to walk in the footsteps of our pioneer forefathers, sometimes the line between present and past feels mysteriously blurred. As I hiked up the rocky trail to the overlook, I stopped to take pictures of a determined little pine tree that had contorted itself into existence in the rocky ground. As its branches swayed in the wind, I heard what sounded like a faraway song…but only for a few seconds. As the breeze ebbed, I heard it again and, this time, it sounded like a chant––a Native American chant.

     I was sure I’d become weak-minded from altitude sickness, but just as I gave up on hearing the chants, they drifted by once more. I crawled up on a flat boulder and looked eastward down into the valley. I saw a grouping of buildings next to a large grassy park, roughly the shape of a baseball field. It was packed with people…and, even at that distance, I could see that most of them gathered in a circle. The chants drifted up again. A pow wow!

     Later, I drove past the Legacy of the Plains Museum and confirmed that my first visit to the summit of Scotts Bluff had coincided with the closing ceremonies of the Lakota tribe’s Circle the Bluffs Pow Wow, or wacipi, as the natives call it. How lucky can a writer girl be?

     Of course, I left with an overflowing well of inspiration. While I do all my writing from a converted bedroom office in the southeastern United States (at least, for now), I try to make the most of trips out west. Stories emanate from the land and the people of a place. I take hundreds of pictures, talk to locals, and drive down backroads. I have learned the hard way how to identify roads on the map that peter out into gravel. I’ve been known to sneak pine cones and bags of rocks into my carry-on bags. You do what you have do to make the West come alive in your writing!

 Learn more about Scotts Bluff National Monument at
                                                           All the best,

Vonn McKee
“Writing the Range”

2015 WWA Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I’ve had a few folks who read my 1930s B-western book series ask me to name the best actors from the old cowboy films. To me, favorite movie cowboys and best western-film actors are two separate categories.

One key element that all western films have in common is the battle between good guys and bad guys. And, in the classic B-westerns of 1920s into the ’50s, the good guys wore white hats (except for Lash LaRue and Hoppy) and the bad guys wore black hats.

Film villains in those days were usually saloon owners, bankers and attorneys with pencil-thin mustaches and smarmy smiles. It didn’t take an A-student to identify a B-western bad guy within the first five minutes of a Saturday matinee presentation. (I only wish it were that easy in real life prior to an election.)

The great character actors who wore black hats and perpetrated dastardly deeds in many western films were usually the best actors. People like Charlie King, Myron Healey, I. Stanford Jolley and Barton MacLane appeared in countless films as delightfully wicked scoundrels. Where the white-hatted heroes were strong, handsome and, usually, quite stoic, the villains were able to mug for the camera and chew scenery while carrying out their evil attempts to steal the ranch, rustle the cattle, rob the bank or force the schoolmarm into an unwanted marriage.

The King of the Black Hats was Charlie King. His bushy black mustache and deep Texas accent made him a popular rascal in close to 400 motion pictures during his career. Although he appeared primarily as a villain, King also played a variety of parts in oaters, including comedic roles. Virtually every B-western hero (Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, Lash LaRue, Buster Crabbe, etc.) engaged in memorable on-film fistfights with King.

Myron Healey’s bad-guy characters were usually clean-shaven. But young audiences began to recognize his villainous smile as a sure sign he was up to no good.

Healey landed his first scoundrel roles post-war at Monogram Pictures where he faced off with Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson and Jimmy Wakely, and also wrote screenplays for some of the films. That led to a long career in television and motion pictures.

Barton MacLane was another great character actor who became known for his cowboy villains. During his career, which lasted from the ’30s into the ’60s, MacLane also successfully portrayed gangsters, cops, military officers, newspaper editors and protective fathers. His recognizable face can be found in B- and A-feature films as well as television. He worked with Humphrey Bogart, Randolph Scott, the Marx Brothers, Glenda Farrell and other greats in films with singing and non-singing cowboys, pirates, Dr. Jekyll, the Mummy and Jeanie from the I Dream of… series.

Although his name isn’t often recalled, I. Stanford Jolley, whose acting career lasted from the ’20s into the ’70s, is instantly recognizable as a western villain. He portrayed all kinds of characters in motion pictures and television, yet his look personified the mustached black-hatted blackguard who would shoot a preacher in the back for the coins on his plate. Young matinee audiences would begin hissing the minute he appeared onscreen and then break into a cheer at the end of the film when the white-hatted hero dispatched him to his un-heavenly reward.

Mr. Jolley’s family and friends have remembered him as one of the kindest men in the business. Now that’s a real actor.

The classic cowboy stars of the past could not have existed, let alone been so heroic, if it were not for the wonderfully evil black hats who were out to get them.

Former newspaper editor and political cartoonist Darryle Purcell writes and illustrates Buckskin Editions’ Hollywood Cowboy Detectives series. The B-western book series was inspired by the great Saturday matinee serials of the 1930s and is illustrated in the style of the pulp adventure publications of the same era. The latest paperback adventure is Mystery of the Horned Monster, which includes a bonus short story, Mystery of the Silent Demons. The series can be found in paperback and Kindle editions at:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Story Behind the Story: Abram's Wife

One of my favorite writers is Fredric Brown.
Brown wrote mostly crime and science fiction stories and is well known for his detective novel The Fabulous Clip Joint and his SF story, "Arena," which was adapted for the original Star Trek TV series.
But Brown is also famous for his flash fiction. Known in his day as short-short work, a typical Brown piece of the sort might fill only half a page. Or, as in his story "The End," the same story might appear on the top of the page, only to repeat--backwards--across the bottom.
Meanwhile, in a couple months I'll be releasing a collection of my Holt County novellas and stories. Deputy sheriff Whit Branham is one of my favorite western characters, so I thought it was appropriate that with a new collection soon coming, I'd let him take center stage in a short-short piece of fiction.
The result is "Abram's Wife." 
I wrote this in two sittings. The first draft, typed out at the local deli with a tumbler of iced tea and an '80s pop soundrack weighed in at close to 1,600 words and took two hours. 
I brought it home, mulled it over, and cut around a third of that, added a bit more, and within another 30 minutes had the final story of Around 1,300 words.
After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. In 2016, Richard roped the Spur Award for short fiction given by Western Writers of America. Read more at