Writing Westerns

Cooking up an antiquated western is easy!

First, grab a mixing bowl—we call it The West. Throw in a trusty horse and a cowboy with a white ten-gallon hat. Next, add spice—a gorgeous female in distress who wants a cowboy to take her to a ranch where she’ll have babies and keep the house clean for him. To add a bitter flavor, pour in a thin-lipped villain in black. Mix well. Dollop scenes in sequential order and bake in the Arizona desert until burnt. Serve with a side of angry Indian, a crusty gold miner looking for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, and beans. 

Used with Permission. Laura Harkins

Gone (we hope) are the days of formula westerns. So why do numbers say westerns are making a comeback? Because new westerns have qualities the enduring American West novels embraced.

High stakes keep readers turning the page. Losing a few head of cattle (the stakes are steaks) won’t keep the reader’s interested. If the lives of many are troubled by the fight between the hero and villain, the more interesting. Granted, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is a cattle drive. But an entire way of life is at stake.

Give the girl a gun, please. Helpless damsels in distress are no longer in fashion, unless it’s simply a person rendered defenseless. Historically, women in the west were cast-iron. Charles Portis wrote True Grit’s Mattie Ross as the toughest person in the novel, with more sand than even the meanest marshal she could find. She’s just awesome.


Embrace Ethnicity. Many of the famous western writers loved the Native American’s way of life and portrayed their point of view. Some included the Chinese, African American, Mexican, and countless others. Movies, however, needed faceless villains. The plot lines wreaked havoc on minorities. I’m thinking of the stagecoach chase scenes with feathered and painted Caucasian stuntmen galloping on horseback, only to be slaughtered by bouncing riders with small Winchesters. In today’s westerns, everyone’s point of view matters.

No person is perfect. Even heroes and heroines suffer from limitations. Giving them a fault or a medical condition makes them more believable. Jubal, in Louis L’Amour’s Jubal Sackett, seems to suffer from ADHD and possibly a mild hyperkinetic disorder. But yet, he finds a place where he can be himself and discover love.

These tips and more are played out in my western West for the Black Hills!

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. www.peterleavell.com.