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Blame It on Sudden   Hoofprints
 Of Plotters and Pantsers
 More Horse Talk   New Black Horse Westerns

Convenient distribution and sales might be a separate matter, but the London home address of the Black Horse Western line has proved no handicap when it comes to providing discerning readers with action-packed novels in the best traditions of the genre.

It may, in fact, have helped. The authors do not have the responsibility imposed by a western publisher looking for -- as one back-cover blurb puts it -- "an epic story of the building of our mighty nation". BHWs stick for the most part to fulfilling expectations similar to those of the readers who eagerly sought out the western pulps of an earlier era.

This is not to say that BHW readers would look kindly upon an author who played fast and loose with history and geography, or that many BHW titles are not written by United States citizens motivated by other than national pride. But primarily the reader who borrows or buys a BHW is seeking fiction that has been created to entertain. The term "light fiction" comes to mind, though not used pejoratively as some people these days would have it.

In this edition of the Extra, it's our pleasure to invite you to meet Christopher Kenworthy (aka Walt Masterson), one of the best of the Britons who have turned their expert writing hand -- he is another former journalist -- to the Old West. He tackles the job with a combination of flair and respect. Like many before him, he has afterwards visited places he has written about with a degree of trepidation that has fortunately proved unfounded.

Chris (or Walt) sets his westerns in a piece of country that will be very familiar to many of his readers at the present time, since it's also the setting for a string of fine western stories that first appeared in the pulps and have now been published in The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. This 2004 collection of 30 stories by a master writer was reissued in paperback last year, was a "recommended read" at the Saddlebums Western Review blog, and is one anthology that is a must for any western enthusiast's bookshelf.

Tucson, the Gila River, Fort Bowie . . . places mentioned by Chris in his autobiographical article and his books can also be found on the map at the front of Leonard's book.  Apaches, cavalry, resourceful civilian scouts and ladies in peril (but who cope) are likewise elements in common.

Also in this edition, we have more facts about horses from a man who has known and has worked with them for longer than he has been writing western novels. Greg Mitchell is another who brings a note of authority to his fiction. And we pick up a debate-provoking piece from the fine historical-mystery and thriller writer C. S. Harris. We hope it will form the basis for later discussion by a panel of BHW writers. All this plus new Hoofprints left by the famous and not-so-famous. . . .

Your comments and western news are always welcome at    



Photo: Freddie Feest

How Walt Masterson chased his dreams


When he finds the struggling Wheatley family trying to make it all by themselves through troubled Apache territory of the Sonora Desert, army scout John Best begs them to wait for him to guide them. But they set out on their own and the Apaches strike first.
    Now Best finds himself helping the teenager Lucien to rescue his beautiful sister Emma from a terrible fate. However, the US Cavalry, under a demented, newly commissioned officer, seems to be determined to complicate matters instead of riding to the rescue.
    It's all down to Best to fight his way through despite the odds.

Back cover
Guns Along the Gila

Discriminating Black Horse Western readers have been warming to the work of  Christopher Kenworthy under the pen-name Walt Masterson. Late last year BHE tracked him down and requested an interview.

Chris promptly replied, "I was surprised and delighted to get your email. Yes, I'd be flattered to do an interview. Since I spent most of my professional life interviewing other people, it will be a most interesting experience to be on the other end of  the process. I actually wrote my first two westerns back in the 1980s, but left Fleet Street to go freelance shortly afterwards and, as you will know since you come from the same background, freelances don't write anything that doesn't pay top dollar. I retired from professional journalism six years ago, then came back to the western world a couple of years ago. I enjoy it thoroughly. . . ."

Recognizing Chris's wide experience, BHE eschewed a rigid question and answer format, made a few basic suggestions and left it to him to decide what he cared to tell. The result is this highly entertaining and informative article. . . .

IT was all Oliver Strange's fault really.  In the post Second World War years, my father and mother, at their wits' end to find a school in which I would not be swamped by the local lads, sent me off to an English boarding school perched on the end of the Pennine mountain chain in the mountainous wilds of Derbyshire. The teaching was gentle, the headmaster, a saintly man, did not believe in corporal punishmant, and what else can you do to someone in a boarding school? You can't keep him in, because he already is. So I did not believe in doing anything I did not actually want to do.
But the school was in a kind of minor stately home. It contained  a magnificent library, and the library contained wall after wall of books. A child thirsting  after knowledge could have done a PhD on the contents of that library. I thirsted after adventure, and I found it in the great adventure wrtiters.  I read Walter Scott, H. Rider Haggard, everything I could find about King Arthur and his court and so on.  And I discovered the Sudden novels of Oliver Strange. Night after night I lay in my dormitory bed, reading by the light of a lamp outside the window, and riding the range with Sudden.
Sudden led me to Zane Grey, and on and on and on. Louis L'Amour and I  made contact quite a lot later, but we bonded. By this time a professional journalist in Fleet Street, I did  the grand tour of the street, working for the Daily Express, the Evening Standard,  television programme magazines, the early television column of The Sun newspaper. I managed to interview a stream of authors parading through London, and I shamelessly looted their brains and expertise.

C. S. Forester

Louis L'Amour

C. S. Forester ( I love seagoing adventure, too, of course; Hornblower and I  hit it off splendidly) told me: "Write  the books you would want to read," so I did.  I wrote a series of four seagoing adventures set in the Anglo-American war of 1812.
When I discovered Louis L'Amour, and found he had hundreds of titles in print, I thought I had achieved  paradise. I  worked my way steadily through every word of his that was available at the time. Indeed, so prolific was he that I am still finding, decades later, Louis L'Amour titles I have never heard of.
Finally, I actually met Louis. I could not believe my luck. We had lunch at one of London's top hotels and I don't know about him, but so far as I was concerned, we bonded. This big man --  he was in his later years by this time,  but still looked as though he had been  hacked out of granite -- sat and poured out his own history and what amounted to a blueprint on how to write westerns. He even paid for the lunch, against my startled objections, I swear. I can't remember what we ate, but I consumed what he said greedily and and  laid it all on paper.
There is a curious snobbery about westerns. Literary critics and those who aspire to letters dismiss them as "pulp westerns". Well, sucks to them. The late, great Sir Winston Churchill loved them, I am told, and he was a literary talent of awesome proportions.  Me, I'm with Winston.


Promptly two dust coloured shapes popped up and started their jinking runs, one of them providentially in his sights, and he saw the blood fly when his shot hit the man in the head. He went down like a sack of potatoes, though his companion dived into the ground several yards closer. At this rate they would be all over him in ten minutes and he knew that he had to move. Trouble was, so did the Apaches and they began to speed up their charges.

A  good western contains everything an adventure story should. It has a strong action line. It has heroic heroes and villainous villains. It is, I sometimes think, the last refuge of simple morality. In a good western, good triumphs. Elmore Leonard's Valdez is Coming is an outstanding one -- a brutal and powerful man surrounded by hired guns and bully boys is brought down by a retired Mexican scout who, through his courage, expertise and sheer doggedness, reduces the villain's band of hired thugs to a basic minimum, steals his woman and finally humiliates him in front of the remains of his gang. Good old Valdez!  He gets the girl, too.
I asked Louis L'Amour why the West seemed full of tough men on both sides of the law.
He pointed out that just to get to the western territories before the opening of the railroads meant months of travel. Most of the people who started out from the frontiers of civilization walked for thousands of miles, with their homes in wagons, their wives and children with them. Kids were born on the trail. People got married.


Martha Summerhayes

Just getting there could kill you. I read  the wonderful Vanished Arizona, Martha Summerhayes' magical first person account of life as a junior officer's wife in Arizona in the 1870s and 1880s. As a young bride, she had to get to California, take a steamer to the Gulf of California, and a paddle steamer up the Colorado to Fort Yuma. Conditions for the gently born girl from the East Coast were frightful. At one time during their service in Arizona Territory, she gave birth to her baby and then promptly had to travel across Arizona in an Army ambulance -- wagon with springs -- through territory ranged by vengeful Apaches. Her husband gave her a small handgun and told her to use one cartidge for her baby and the other for herself if he should be killed in a skirmish. The ambulance, incidentally, was not provided because she had just given birth. It was the only available form of transport for women at the time.
Welcome to Arizona, Mrs Summerhayes. Enjoy.
What women they were, the ones who plodded across the continent to make new lives in the West! They faced everything their husbands faced and more. And when they got there, the hard work really started. There are accounts of women pulling their husband's plough.  Now that's a woman!


An hour later he was looking down into the contaminated water of the seep.  There was a dead pony lying half in and half out of the water, its throat slit and a boken cannon bone testifying to the reason it had been sacrificed. There was no need for the Apache to ambush the site. By their act they considered they had either condemned their pursuers to death or forced them to break off the pursuit and return to the last water source.

All this knowledge about Arizona and New Mexico came my way when my son, Matthew,  who is an astro-physicist (you don't need to know this but I like saying it) went to Tucson to work. He has been there for nearly ten years, now, and we visit him as often as we can, but in any case at least once a year.
Because of Matt I actually got to visit places I had only read about, or seen John Wayne defending with unerring aim. My first two westerns, Carnigan's Claim and A Hot Day In Hammerhead, were written and originally published under the pen-name of C. Kay (geddit?) and more significantly, written before I had actually been to the States at all. We drove around Arizona with my heart in my mouth because I was sure my ignorance must be apparent in the books . . . and found to my astonishment that thanks to dear old Duke and his co-stars  I hadn't made any glaring bloopers.
But actually being able to go there brings the whole of the South West alive in a very special way. The first revelation was that Arizona really is like that! The Painted Desert really does look as though some gigantic amateur decorator has been splashing the rocks with weird colours.  The Grand Canyon truly is beyond words. The Sonoran Desert, where I set Guns Along the Gila,  has not changed since the only way to get to Fort Yuma was to ride a horse, drive a wagon or walk. Well, okay, there's a magnificent highway through it now, and Yuma is surrounded by irrigated fields where they grow lettuce, for heaven's sake, by the square mile.
There really are forests of saguaro cactus -- the ones like men standing with their hands up -- but they stop growing somewhere north of Phoenix and a place called New River. There's a growing community there now, but at one time there was just a refuge for travellers going north to Prescott and the fort at Camp Verde. General Crook used Verde as one of his bases during his campaigns against the Apaches. His main headquarters was at Fort Apache though. It is still there, in  a setting of savage beauty, and so are the Apaches. You can visit Crook's home and stand on the parade ground. The Apaches watch you with unreadable eyes. It can be unnerving. It is, after all, their homeland.

"Between here and Yuma, there's a whole lot of Sonoran Desert. That's bad. In that there Sonoran Desert there ain't nothing that doesn't sting or poison or bite."

If you want to go to another fort which really controlled the end of the Indian wars, you can still see its remains. It is Fort Bowie in Apache Pass to the south.  The reason for the fort is Apache Spring, which was used by both the Apaches and the white migrants passing through, and constantly fought over. Cochise used to live nearby and it hasn't, so far as I can make out, changed at all. The valley which is Apache Pass has a gentle, rising path up to the spring, and the remains of the fort are beyond it. I've been there and drunk at that spring, despite the notice advising against it. I couldn't resist the temptation.  
The reason I love Louis L'Amour's work is that he was a genuine westerner and it shows. Strip out the guns and the horses and what you have in so many of his books is a story which would be interesting in any setting. His heroes are real men, and occasionally make real mistakes. When they get shot -- and they frequently do -- it hurts them and they bleed. Set afoot in the desert, Hondo Lane doesn't miraculously come across a straying Indian pony, he humps his saddle and his gear for days before he arrives at an isolated ranch and then he has to buy a horse and break it himself before he can get going with his despatches. And, incidentally, meets the heroine and love of his life. 


All he had to do was wait and the night would reveal itself to him. Very slowly it did so. First the faraway creatures emerged from the black and silver. A coyote trotted busily along the trail below, stopping now and again to raise its head and listen and sniff the air. It could probably, Best knew, smell both him and the horse. What tiny wind the night allowed to whisper over the land carrried a river of scents on it, rich and pungent to the wild nose out there.

Ruger Single Six

Why choose Walt Masterson as a pen name? "Walt" is a friend of mine in Tucson who once worked as a guide in Tombstone, so he actually did walk down Allen Street wearing a Colt on his hip. He has a fine collection of weapons, including a Winchester carbine, and Colt .45,  so I know what they weigh and how they feel. In my youth, before privately owned handguns were outlawed in Britain, I owned a Ruger Single Six and went target shooting every week. Better than carrying a gun in Tombstone. The targets don't shoot back.
"Masterson" is in honourable memory of Bat Masterson who was in Tombstone with the Earps and went on to become a newspaperman. I was slightly embarrassed to discover there really was a Walt Masterson, related to Bat,  but I don't think I have done anything to embarrass him.
I have a whole collection of books about the history of the South West, and a pile of newspapers and magazines both from the period and recalling it. Many of my stories --  Guns Along the Gila is one -- are based on real stories of real people. Considering what they did, and how they lived and survived, it is impossible to exaggerate.
They haven't changed much either. The cowboys in the white hats --  and yes, they do wear them, though these days they often ride pickup trucks rather than mustangs -- talk the way they do in films, and wear  blue jeans and  western shirts. Why not? They are cowboys and they live in the West.
I know, I know, I go on about the West. Its brief history fascinates me, the country itself draws me, the people charm me.

And now, if you will excuse me, I must get back there. There's a small wagon train crossing the Painted Desert on the old Mormon Trail, running into trouble with four crooked brothers and  I need to get the hero down out of the mountains to give the people a hand. I have a feeling gunplay is in the offing. . . .

-- Christopher Kenworthy, aka Walt Masterson. Read more
about his work at



Under many brands.
A new set of western tracks


Veteran author Keith Hetherington, of Queensland, Australia, tells Hoofprints, "Ran into a bloke I haven't seen for a while in the local library and he told me he picked up a Brett Waring Cleveland paperback from a book exchange last week -- 'Hey, mate! Thirty bloody years old and she's still a good yarn! You better tell me the pen-names you use now.' I did, and he already had a Jake Douglas BHW in his bag and went off to look for more under my pseudonyms. Bit of a lift . . . in fact, apart from movie sales, just the thing to pick you up." Regular BHW readers won't need reminding that Keith's other BHW bylines are Clayton Nash, Hank J. Kirby and Tyler Hatch. And as reported here in our December 2006 number, a nickname he also once had was "Ringo", which pops up in the title of his latest book. Publisher John Hale describes Call Me Ringo as "a splendid western". This is something of a relief  to Keith since he put it together last (southern) winter while battling a bad case of flu and longer-term health woes despite having had an annual anti-flu vaccination. "I've never felt so low," he said then. "Don't know where I am half the time or what I'm doing." As in a good Hetherington yarn, all's well that ends well!

Actor Sam Elliott has carved a niche playing men who adhere to a cowboy code of honour. He told Susan King in an interview for The Scotsman how his childhood was spent in suburban Sacramento but early roles in westerns kept coming his way. "I have no explanation for it. It's not like I went after them necessarily. . . . My family on both sides for several generations all hailed from Texas. My dad was with the Fish & Wildlife Service and got transferred from West Texas to Sacramento. I was born the year after they got there. I never heard the end of the fact I wasn't a Texan." But Sam spent a lot of time around ranchers and real-deal cowboys and sheepmen. "There is something about that sensibility in general that appeals to me." Today Elliott lives in the wilds of Malibu and owns a ranch, complete with horses, south of Portland, not too far from where his 92-year-old mother resides. Meanwhile, at, staffer Scott Huver noted that 2008 marked the 63-year-old actor's fourth decade in films and television. "You had a good, long association with author Louis L'Amour -- projects like The Sacketts, The Shadow Riders and Conagher. Any more of his works that you'd like to do?" Sam replied, "There are a couple more . . . I think Tom Selleck has the rights to one of them. . . . I love L'Amour's stories and his characters. They're so classically American westerns and cowboys. That's the kind of stuff I really love doing. That's kind of the ultimate escape on some fantasy level."

When is a Texan not a Texan?
  A broken wing.
Chris Kenworthy found putting the finishing touches to his fine leading article for this edition of BH Extra a somewhat challenging exercise. Just days before Christmas, he fell and broke his left arm. This gave him plenty of time to read his emails at what should have been a more active time of the year -- "I'm restricted to the house and my right hand" -- but among the disadvantages were the many minutes it took him to prepare replies to the messages. He hopes to contribute to BHE again, "hopefully a good deal faster than currently . . . this reply is being typed with one finger at a pace which would bore a snail with its ankle in plaster." Fortunately, the next Walt Masterson BHW, Gunfight at Dragoon Station, was all complete and is safely scheduled for publication on May 31.

Robert Duvall is another actor closely associated with westerns. He starred in Open Range and two of television's most celebrated treatments of the genre, Lonesome Dove and Broken Trail. An interviewer for the Basingstoke Gazette asked him, "Where does your love of the genre come from?" He said, "It's our deal. The English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière and the western is definitely ours. When I was a kid I went to my uncle's ranch in Montana for two summers -- he had a big cattle and sheep place out there. And you know, when I first went to Hollywood I would take out a horse every day -- bareback, English saddle, western saddle -- and I learned to jump a horse, so I would have a seat on a horse, because most actors can draw a pistol but they can't ride a horse. So I wanted to do westerns and it served me well. So I think westerns are our thing. People say they don't sell, but they do sell and, as soon as you make them, they say, when are you going to do another one? In England, they love westerns, wide-open spaces and all that. I just like doing them." He laughed. "At the end of my career I thought maybe I could do a gunfighter in a western who is mute, so I wouldn't have any lines."

 "Definitely ours."

The late Mr Paine.
Hoofprints has quoted in the past at least one brother writer who believes his BHWs will allow him to achieve a sort of immortality. What better, then, than to go a step further to what, at first glance, looked suspiciously like reincarnation and a sex change! In the December issue of its magazine Roundup, Western Writers of America featured a review by Linda Wommack of a Five Star publication, Man From Durango; A Western Duo by Lauran Paine. As David Whitehead has told us in an informative BHE article (December 2006), visit any library in Britain and Paine (1916-2003) is still the best-represented western writer on the shelves -- thanks largely to a record output of BHWs under his own name and dozens of pen-names. The Roundup review told its specialist audience, "Lauran Paine is undoubtedly one of today’s greatest Western fiction writers. With dozens of books to her credit, including the bestseller Open Range, also a major motion picture hit, the latest book, Man From Durango, gives fans two tales in one volume. . . ."


At the website of the Madison (Wisconsin) Public Library, Robin of Meadowridge reviewed Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and added in a footnote: "I had always thought of westerns as, well, just westerns, until a library tour guide informed my group that only older men read westerns. And furthermore, that her library (not a library in our system, thank goodness) was only allocating one spinning rack to western paperbacks because 'everyone who reads westerns is going to be dead soon'.  I bristled, and still bristle when I recall it eight years later."

Madison library corner.
Lil . . . is she PC?
In a lively debate at the Piccadilly Cowboys forum, Maestro, of Illinois, told Steve M, "My opinion on Ralph Compton westerns -- thumbs down! The writing is juvenile to the extreme and the books are filled with modern-day political correctness -- rootin tootin female gunfighters galore! Something that never even came close to reality back in the Old West. . . ." Mick Keetley, of Derby, England, responded, "The ones I have read do not have female gunfighters." Then BHWs' Chap O'Keefe, maybe with an eye to championing Misfit Lil, pitched in. "I can't speak for the works of any of the 'Ralph Comptons', but rootin' tootin' female gunfighters sound like a great chance for some fun to me. And I can't agree that they have much to do with modern-day political correctness. Tough western heroines have a tradition that dates right back to the Beadle Dime Novels featuring Hurricane Nell, Calamity Jane and others. For this genre, how much further can you go? You're quite right that sassy ladies weren't part of the everyday reality of the Old West, but was much of what we read and enjoy? For myself, I find writing the Misfit Lil series has given me a chance for a break from more seriously researched books like Peace at Any Price." Dipping into the latest Lil, Misfit Lil Hides Out, Hoofprints finds a chapter beginning, "It seemed doubtful the ball at Fort Dennis could afford any excitement more irregular than the spanking of Lilian Goodnight." A gruesome murder is then committed. Politically correct? Hmm. . . .

Demand is growing for large-print books, Johanna King reported in the Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico). "Whether travelling, exercising, suffering from waning eyesight or just plain tired, large-print books may prove to be a saving grace for readers. The large typeface in the books makes them easier to read, and not just for the visually impaired. Large-print titles are gaining popularity among commuters and travellers being jostled by planes, trains and cars, say librarians and booksellers. They note the books are also the choice of office workers whose tired eyes can’t focus well after spending all day staring at a computer. And they’ve become part of the exercise arsenal for gym enthusiasts who read while working out on treadmills and stationary bikes."

Time for an eye-opener?
Thorpe's top-shelf westerns.
The distinctive T&P tepee stamp on magazines imported by the Thorpe and Porter firm of Oadby, Leicestershire, was a familar sight in Britain in the 1950s and gave many readers their first taste of western and other pulp fiction from America and Australia. After principal Frederick Thorpe retired from the business, he hit on an idea for helping elderly and impaired-sight readers. In 1964, he founded large-print book publishing in English, reprinting old favourites in editions about twice the size of the regular books. The books had no cover art and were color-coded to indicate categories -- like orange for westerns, black for mysteries -- a convention that has survived on the spines to this day. In 1969, Thorpe's Ulverscroft company began to retypeset the books in 16-point type and put them in normal-size bindings, increasing acceptance by ordinary public libraries. Thorpe became a large-print ambassador, travelling the English-speaking world promoting the provision of large-print books for seniors. Today, Ulverscroft continues to issue westerns under the Linford and Dales imprints -- a large percentage being reprints of the best recent BHWs.

Just published is newcomer Matthew P. Mayo's second BHW novel, Wrong Town, in which homely-faced hero Roamer strives to save the Rocky Mountain township of Tall Pine from tearing itself apart. Matthew is also the editor of, and a contributor to, Where Legends Ride, a 14-story anthology published by a group of writers operating under the badge Express Westerns. And he has his very own, tastefully designed author website. But Hoofprints can only wonder why his home page -- at which he offers his services as an editor and writer -- features a photograph of a chimpanzee working at an old-fashioned manual typewriter. Is it a picture of the proud author? What he expects to be an uncle of if you take up his offer? Or is it a subtle suggestion that anyone who pays peanuts must expect a monkey? The puzzle's too deep for Hoofprints! We'll be looking out for Matthew's books instead. . . .

Monkey puzzle.

Different outlaws.
Several BHW authors have been moving into new stalls at the Robert Hale publishing stable, making forays from the Old West on to the crime and historical scenes where the company is strengthening its presence. They include John Paxton Sheriff (aka Jack Sheriff, Matt Laidlaw, Jim Lawless and Will Keen), Keith Souter (aka Clay More) and Jean Rowden (aka Eugene Clifton). Keith Souter's latest title is The Pardoner's Crime. It is the time of outlaw Robin Hood and Sir Richard Lee, Sergeant-at-Law, has been sent to Sandal Castle by King Edward II to preside over the court of the Manor of Wakefield. Within hours of his arrival, Sir Richard and his assistant, Hubert of Loxley, are forced to investigate a vicious rape and a cold-blooded murder. . . . It appears Keith is staying closer to home. He graduated in medicine from the University of Dundee and has worked as a family doctor in Wakefield for many years. He tells us, "I live within arrow-shot of historic Sandal Castle."

Author Ray Foster (aka Jack Giles) had a great 2007, getting back in the writing saddle after an eight-year hiatus. Virtually on Christmas Eve, he emailed us, "Just today heard back from Robert Hale -- there will be a new Jack Giles western titled Lawmen. Absolutely, thrilled to bits. What a Christmas present. . . ." For those who do not already know, Ray explains for BHE in his own words: "Jack Giles, figuratively, 'died' in 1999 halfway through two books -- whether he gets 'resurrected' is a matter of debate. In 1999 I had a stroke -- and, although I can walk, talk and do things that 'normal' people can do, I did lose near enough 30 years of memories. Of course, one of the first westerns that I read was a Jack Giles and my wife, gently, had to break it to me that I had written the book. The story of how I came to write westerns was documented; the original contracts were in a file along with a couple of letters from Terry Harknett [aka Edge author George G. Gilman]."

Jack rides again.

Finally! The low-down on how writers work

BHE has borrowed advice for writers from Candy's Blog before. CANDICE PROCTOR writes a Regency mystery series under the name of C. S. Harris and thrillers as one half of Steven Graham. Her blog posts contain considerable good sense for all writers. They also widen our appreciation as readers.

Recently, Candy said she thought respect was "the single most important aspect of powerful writing . . . . Respect for one’s craft, respect for oneself as a writer, but most importantly, respect for one’s readers. This is what drives me to spend days researching an elusive fact, that inspires me to deepen my characters, to polish my prose, to close up my gaping plot holes, to plumb the depths of each scene’s emotional potential. It’s because I respect my readers and my craft that I strive always to avoid the overdone, the hackneyed, the melodramatic; that I don’t let myself take the easy way out, that I always push myself to reach that little bit further."

Here is a past post on Plotting that BHE hopes it will be possible to follow up with a panel discussion among BHW writers.

WRITERS typically fall into one of two camps: those who plot their books before they begin, and those who do not.

The latter types like to live dangerously and fly — or rather, write — by the seat of their pants. Believing that advance planning kills their muse and destroys their interest in a story, they jump in with little idea of where their story will go. In a romance, they’ll start with a “cute meet” and fumble their way forward from there. In a mystery, they don’t know ahead of time who will turn out to have committed the murder or why; sometimes they’re not even sure who — amidst all the characters magically appearing on their pages — will actually be the one to fall victim to a foul deed and start the mystery rolling.


James Lee Burke

In the hands of a master, this “winging it” approach can be highly successful: James Lee Burke, for instance, says he can never see more than two or three scenes ahead as he writes, yet what he produces is brilliant. Unfortunately, with many “Pantsers”, the result is all too often a wandering storyline, gaping plot holes, an unbalanced story arc, and a host of other dastardly results.

As you can see, I’m not a fan of this approach. Yes, it can work, and work well. Yes, there are bestselling writers who use this approach. But then, there are a lot of books published every year — including bestsellers — that I find just don’t hold my attention. And you know what? I’ve discovered, after a little bit of digging, that most of the writers whose books I put down are Pantsers rather than Plotters. Now, that might tell you more about me as a reader than anything else — unless I’m reading something beautifully literary, I like a tightly knit, well-constructed book with a good story arc. There are obviously many readers who don’t mind a more rambling, casual, disjointed tale. The Pantsers are for them.


If a recent discussion on the DorothyL mystery listserv is anything to go by, a surprising number of mystery writers — like romance writers — use the Pantsers’ approach. There seems to be something about the act of plotting out a story in advance that kills their joy in writing it. Some Pantsers do massive rewrites to pull their ramblings into something cohesive — and publishable. Others seem to be able to plug into their subconscious so successfully that they claim their books require almost no rewriting. There’s a lot of New Age-like talk about whether Plotters are left-brained or right-brained, but the discussion is seldom flattering to the Plotters. Plotting is often portrayed as plodding and pedestrian; the antithesis of creative; Pantsers typically see themselves as the truly creative ones, giving birth to an almost mystical product.

Frankly, I’ve never been able to decide if I’m left or right brained. I am very analytical, very methodical — I was, after all, an academic. Yet I’m also very creative — for many years I planned to become a professional artist. One of the reasons I like plotting my books out in advance is that it gets all that analytical stuff out of the way, so that when I sit down to actually write, I can just relax and let the story flow without worrying about structure.

Incidentally, there is a third kind of writer. These people never plot anything out on paper, and they don’t use notecards or post-it notes. But they’ve given so much thought to their story before they begin that they already know their story arc, their key scenes and major characters. They may not be plotters in the traditional sense of the word, but I don’t think they can really claim to be writing by the seats of their pants, either. They just have amazing memories. I’m not one of them.

-- Candice Proctor, aka C. S. Harris,


Greg Mitchell checks the facts


(With quotations from the classic book The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams, first published in 1903. Greg Mitchell says, "His book is a very good one with plenty of reference material for writers. The size of some of those old trail herds was amazing. The biggest mob of cattle I ever worked with was slightly over 1,500 head and that was roughly a mile from the leaders to the tailers. Adams' herd was 3,000 head, so on the road they would stretch out to nearly two miles.")

THE cowboy's horse may have been his best friend but it can be a western writer's worst enemy if it is wrongly described or used for doing the impossible.

Get the horse details wrong and they can destroy the author's credibility. And don't think that most readers won't pick it up. Many western readers are horse people and though riding styles might differ from country to country, some facts about horses remain the same.

Here are a few fictional clichés and the reality.

Riding horses

As mentioned in the December 2007 edition of Black Horse Extra, stallions are poor choices for general riding. They can be bad-tempered and if a mare in season is nearby many are difficult to control. Good stallions were kept mainly for breeding purposes and were often too valuable for day-to-day knocking about. While an outlaw might steal one to escape the law or to use for one specific task, it would be too dangerous to keep the horse for any length of time. The task of taming a mature wild stallion would be beyond the ability of the average rider and even when tamed, such animals would still be difficult to handle and unreliable in performance.

Likewise, draughts are not much good because their body shapes are wrong for riding. The problem of a heavy rider is not solved by putting him on a draught horse. A properly built riding type, though hundreds of pounds lighter, is more capable of carrying weight at speed. It is not a case of the bigger the horse, the stronger it is. Conformation and breeding are the most important factors for weight-carrying and endurance.

While the six-feet-two traditional hero might ride a 17-hand horse, such animals were not common in the West, nor were they any better because of their size. A hand measurement is 4 inches or about 10 centimetres. A horse's height is the distance between the sole of the forefoot and the top of the wither (where the neck runs into the shoulders). A pony is a horse below 14 hands 2 inches, although cowboys often referred to all horses as ponies. Most working ranch horses would be somewhere between 14 hands 2 inches and 16 hands.

To carry weight at speed, a horse has to be built in a certain way. The draught horse is not designed to be ridden and will fail quickly if galloped under a rider. A properly built riding type of 15 hands is a better weight carrier than the draught.

Wild stallion

At no time in my life, before or since, have I felt  so keenly the parting between man and horse as I did that September evening in Montana.

I read one western where a large villain rode a Clydesdale draught. It might have been strong when taken at a walk but would be too slow, too clumsy and lack the endurance for a true villain's horse. It is a bit hard to lay waste to the countryside on a horse that is slow and stumbling and scarcely able to gallop 300 yards.

Arab horses, Morgans and Quarter horses are not tall and 15 hands is considered a fair height for such breeds. Very tall horses usually had Thoroughbred or draught in their breeding.

Mustangs had a reputation for toughness, and some of these were only about 14 hands but they were not particularly good weight-carriers because of their small size.

When fit, a good riding horse can easily cover 40 miles per day but to keep up that rate over long periods, it needs to be hand-fed and rested for at least one day a week. Horses are capable of covering much greater distances in a single day, but it takes its toll on them and sometimes they are not fit for the next day's work. A good travelling pace that kept the horse in good condition was 5 miles per hour. It does not sound like much but takes a lot of trotting and cantering to maintain that rate.

The Pony Express rode at a very fast rate but used, lightweight riders, specially selected, well-fed horses, and frequent changes of mounts.

Stagecoaches averaged between 9 and 10 miles per hour under normal conditions, with horses changed every 12 to 15 miles.


These really get writers into trouble. In military terms, the flanks are simply the sides but with an a horse they are a specific place. Flanks are the areas between the last ribs and the hind legs.

Horses are sensitive around the flank and most riders do not spur them there. I read of one hero who rode hard "with knees pressed into the horse's flanks". To do this he would need to be sitting behind the saddle and the horse would probably buck at such treatment.

Most spurring is done on the horse's sides, not its flanks. A long-legged rider or one with long-necked spurs could reach the flanks but that is hard on the horse. A light touch with the spur on the side usually produces a better result.

Neither horses nor cattle are branded on the flanks.


For on the trail an affection springs up between a man and his mount that is almost human.

Steering horses

Western stories frequently have riders "kneeing" their horses in all directions. Horses are steered by the reins or sometimes by shifts in weight, touches from the heels, or even the calf of the leg but never by the knees. Knees are mostly used for gripping but not for steering.

Reins are traditionally held in the left hand when riding one-handed. This not only leaves the rider's right hand free to do other things but allows greater control over the horse when mounting and dismounting.

Riding styles

Working riders ride differently to today's show-oriented riders and what is correct in one place can be downright dangerous somewhere else. The bridle is the main means of control and with horses raised on the open range, it is the first thing on the horse and the last thing off for safety reasons. In England and Europe, horses are usually tied up with halters for saddling so the saddle goes on before the bridle. Authors often mention horses being saddled in the wrong order.

In England and Europe, riders dismount by removing both feet from the stirrups and sliding off.  This style is fashionable because of small women riding big horses who have too far to step down from the stirrup, but no self-respecting cowboy would do it because of loss of control and the chance of being cow-kicked. Range-raised horses that are feeling energetic or frightened sometimes kick forward with the hind leg, as a cow does, and will catch the rider who has just slid off. Others will try to pull away and if they succeed can really flatten and possibly kill a rider with a straight-back kick from both hind feet.

Dismounting by the stirrup, if done properly, puts the rider beyond the reach of a cow kick and allows a greater control of the horse. Because the range rider often worked alone with dangerous horses, he used different methods to those of England and Europe. So what is right in one place can be wrong in a western situation. One author made a point of saying that "professional" riders never tied horses by the reins. Professional show riders might not, but working horsemen certainly did.  Unlike show riders, their horses were trained not to pull back and would stand for hours secured in this manner. It takes very strong equipment to hold any horse in a place where it does not want to be, so proper training is important.

Every privation which he endures, his horse endures with him -- carrying him through falling weather, swimming rivers by day and riding in the lead of stampedes at night, always faithful, always willing and always patiently enduring every hardship from exhausting hours under saddle to the suffering of a dry drive.

Rearing horses

These are favourite means that writers use to separate riders from horses, but the hero should not fall off a rearing horse as rears are not hard to ride. An unexpected shy or a buck can be much harder to sit.

Horses do not rear if they see a snake. This writer has personally seen two cases where horses stepped on snakes and did not react in any way. They might have if the snakes had bitten them, but they seemed oblivious to the reptiles' presence. Sighting the sudden movement of a snake might make a horse shy but they do not rear or bolt.

Bucking horses

These were common in the West for various reasons but writers talk of horses bucking for impossibly long periods. Bucking time is measured in seconds rather than minutes. Bucking requires a great amount of energy and it is a very good bucker that can buck hard for 10 seconds . Some will stop to recover their breath and start again but they cannot keep going continuously.

A cowboy used to riding, who has a decent saddle, does not get saddle-sore. Open wounds sometimes described, would not occur with the usual western saddle. They are designed for rider comfort during long working days. Only under unusual circumstances do experienced riders get saddle-sore.

Side-saddles, lame horses

Most ladies in the Wild West era rode side-saddle. A few rode astride but it was considered unladylike and few did it in public.

The loss of a shoe does not automatically lame a horse and many ranch horses were not shod. It just depended upon the country where they worked and how much work they were given. Stone bruises are too often trivialised in stories as being nothing very serious. Any stone bruise will put a horse out of action once the injury cools. These bruises are very painful and in the days before antibiotics, some took a year to get right.  Tendon damage is usually serious and in some cases permanent. Liniment was used on sprains but was never used on open wounds.

Shot horses

Horses are large, powerful animals and can absorb quite powerful bullets without being knocked off their feet. Most comparatively low-powered firearms of the Wild West era would not kill a horse outright unless it struck the brain or penetrated to the heart. A brain-shot horse drops immediately, but one shot in the heart can gallop fifty yards or more before collapsing. It was possible to empty a revolver into a horse with no apparent damage to it although the animal would probably die a slow death later.


When the shooter is some distance from the horse, it is possible to hear the sound of the bullet striking the animal.

Though we sometimes laugh at situations where heroes are rescued by their faithful horses, a few such animals exist. In this old bloke's lifetime I have had two horses that were fiercely protective of me and would attack any horse or dog that they thought might harm me. Any human who threatened me might also have found himself in trouble but such occasions never arose. So protective horses do exist but they are not common. I doubt if either of mine would have been smart enough to chew through ropes or do some of the things that fictional heroes' horses sometimes do. I had another that was very loyal to the extent that she defied the herd instinct and stayed with me when other horses galloped away. But the majority of horses do not show great powers of reasoning. Most are content to do the horse's job and leave thinking work to others better qualified. Where horse and rider have had a close association, it is possible that the animal might do something unusual to protect the man, but remember -- horses are not Rhodes Scholars.
The western character is incomplete without a horse and these wonderful animals can greatly enhance a story if references to them are correct. If a writer is not sure about some aspect, it is safest to use general terms rather than go into details that might sound right but do not really suit the situation. It is a case of "different strokes for different folks". What is right in show riding can be wrong or even dangerous in western situations. Don't rely on the wrong books when doing research!

-- Paddy Gallagher, aka Greg Mitchell, whose next BHW,
 Range Rustlers, will be published in April.




Published by Robert Hale Ltd, London
Call Me Ringo Hank J. Kirby  0 7090 8531 7
Wrong Town Matthew P. Mayo
0 7090 8511 9
Duel at Murphy's Ford
Tom Benson
0 7090 8519 5
The Long Chase
Alan Irwin 0 7090 8527 0
Tough Justice
Skeeter Dodds
0 7090 8502 7
Jim Lawless 0 7090 8539 3
A Reckoning at Orphan Creek
Terrell L. Bowers
0 7090 8525 6
Misfit Lil Hides Out
Chap O'Keefe 0 7090 8352 8
Hell's Courtyard
Corba Sunman
0 7090 8491 4
Six Days to Sundown
Owen G. Irons
0 7090 8532 4
In the Name of the Gun
Ryan Bodie
0 7090 8543 0
The Death Trail
M. Duggan
0 7090 8545 4
Renegade Gold
Robert Anderson
0 7090 8547 8
Duel at Cheyenne
Daniel Rockfern
0 7090 7687 2
Blood Creek
Lance Howard
0 7090 8454 9
Wolf Hole
Abe Dancer
0 7090 8544 7
Lightning at the Hanging Tree
Mark Falcon
0 7090 8553 9
Temptation Trail
Billy Hall
0 7090 8554 6
Range Rustlers
Greg Mitchell
0 7090 8567 6

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