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03. January 2012 · Comments Off on Writing the Range · Categories: Uncategorized

In a fit of boredom some months ago, as we flipped through the cable channels looking for something new and/or interesting, we stumbled across the Hallmark Channel. Hey, Hallmark – how bad could one of their movies be? – and wound up watching The Trail to Hope Rose. The premise interested us for about twenty minutes, and then we realized that although whatever book it might have been based upon may have been a very good read, the movie was a bit of a painful watch. We stuck it out, just to see if any of our predictions made in that first fifteen minutes came true. (They did – all but the kindly old ranch-owner who befriended the hero being killed by the villainous mine-owner. He didn’t – but he was deceased by the end of the final reel.)  It was just a generic western: generic location, generic baddies, card-board cut-out characters and a box-car load of generic 19th century props from some vast Hollywood movie warehouse of props and costumes used for every western movie since Stagecoach, hauled out of storage and dusted off, yet again.

It wasn’t a bad movie, just a profoundly mediocre one. Careless gaffes abounded, from the heroine’s loose and flowing hair, her costumes with zippers down the back and labels in the neckline, and the presence of barbed wire in 1850, when it wouldn’t be available in the Western US for another twenty-five years, neat stacks of canned goods (?), some jarringly 20th century turns of phrase – and where the heck in the West in 1850 was there a hard-rock mine and a cattle ranch in close proximity? Not to mention a mine-owner oppressing his workers in the best Gilded Age fashion by charging them for lodgings, fire wood and groceries, as if he had been taking lessons from the owners of Appalachian coal mines.  It was as if there was no other place of work within hundreds and hundreds of miles – again, I wondered just where the hell this story was set. It passed muster with some viewers as a perfectly good western, but to me, none of it rang true. Whoever produced it just pulled random details out of their hat – presumably a ten-gallon one – and flung them up there. Hey, 19th century, American West; it’s all good and all pretty much the same, right?

I’ve been getting increasingly picky, though. Generic, once-upon-a-time in the west doesn’t satisfy me any more, not since I began writing about the frontier myself. It seems to me that to write something true, something authentic about the western experience – you have to do what the creators of The Trail to Hope Rose didn’t bother to do; and that was to be specific about time and place. The trans-Mississippi West changed drastically over the sixty or seventy years, from the time that Americans began settling in various small outposts, or traveling across it in large numbers. And the West was not some generic all-purpose little place, where cattle ranches could be found next to gold mines, next to an Army fort, next to a vista of red sandstone, with a Mexican cantina just around the corner.

No, there were very specific and distinct places, as different as they could be and still be on the same continent. 1880’s Tombstone is as different from Gold Rush-era Sacramento, which is different again from Abilene in the cattle-boom years, nothing like Salt Lake City when the Mormons first settled there – and which is different again from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s small-town De Smet in the Dakota Territory – or any other place that I could name, between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi-Missouri. Having writers and movie-makers blend them all together into one big muddy mid-19th century blur does no one any favors as far as telling new stories.

Being specific as to time and place opens up all kinds of possible stories and details. Such specificity has  the virtue of being authentic or at least plausible and sometimes are even cracking good stories because of their very unlikelihood. For example, Oscar Wilde did a lecture tour of western towns. If I remember correctly, the topic of his lecture was something to do with aesthetics and interior decoration, and he performed wearing the full black-velvet knickerbockers suit with white lace collars. He was a wild success in such wild and roaring places as Leadville, Colorado, quite possibly because he could drink any member of his audience under the table.

Anyway, my point is, once you have a time and a place, then you can deal with all the local characters and the visitors who came to that town at that time, have a better handle on the technology in play at the time. Was the town on the railway, who were the people running the respectable businesses – and the unrespectable ones? Who were the local characters, the bad hats and the good guys, the eccentrics and the freaks? What was the local industry, and for how long – and if not long, what replaced it and under what circumstances? What did the scenery out-side town look like? Even such details as what were the main buildings in town made of and what did they look like, over the years can be telling. Where did the locals get their food from? Their mail? Who did the laundry, even! What kind of story can a writer make of a progression from canvas tents over wooden frames, from log huts and sod huts, to fine frame buildings filled with furniture and fittings brought at great expense from the east. I had all those questions while watching this movie – and I’ll probably have pretty much the same, if I ever watch another one like it. It would have been so much a better movie if someone had given a bit more thought and taken a little more care.

Above all, if a writer can be specific with those underpinnings, of time and place and keep the story congruent within that framework – than it seems to me that you can tell any sort of story, and likely a much more interesting and entertaining one. As near as I can judge from some of the western discussion groups and blogs, many writers are moving in that direction. Eventually movie producers may move in that direction as well; supposedly Deadwood makes long strides in re-visualizing a more specific west.

But they will absolutely, positively have to get rid of those costumes for women with the very visible zippers down the back.

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