It’s the middle of June, and my annual trek to the Western Writers of America (WWA) convention has begun. At the moment, we are somewhere in the middle of Missouri. Our ultimate destination is Springfield, with the convention starting Tuesday and launching into full swing on Wednesday. This is my one long vacation of the year, and I generally block off my schedule for 9 or 10 days. No writing, no indexing. This year, it’s different. I have my laptop with me and I’m indexing a daunting 1150 page book on Econometrics that has to be delivered on the 26th. And, I’m working on my current novel, which I’m the heat of and I don’t want to lose the spark. So it will be interesting to see how I am able to juggle writing, indexing, and my favorite convention at the same time. But this isn’t about juggling time, that topic has been covered here before. This one is about western writers.
A little back story. When I was a kid in the 1960s, westerns were at the height of their popularity. In the days of only three major television networks there was not a night that went by when there wasn’t a western on television. Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Big Valley, Branded, to name a few. So the western and its black and white and Technicolor images is seared into the basement of my brain, into the foundation of my psyche.
I never played cowboys and Indians. I never had a cowboy hat or outfit. I grew up in Indiana where the landscape is as flat as the sole of a factory worker’s shoe and covered with a billion rows of corn. A hill here is something ants make, and a mountain is something you only see on a coffee can. Most importantly, I didn’t read westerns. At least, I didn’t think I did. It could be argued that Steinbeck is a western writer, or that Jack London is too. To clarify, I didn’t read Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey. I wasn’t being snobby about not reading L’Amour or Grey, but at my age and in my geographic location, they just never showed up on my reading radar.
My point is this: Considering my background, I never expected to grow up and consider myself to be a western writer. But I do. I consider myself a mystery writer, too. There is a long history of writers bouncing between both genres, Elmore Leonard. Donald Hamilton, Robert B. Parker, Loren Estleman, and Bob Randisi, to name a few. But that topic is for another blog post, too.
A few years ago I wrote a short story for a Gorman/Greenberg anthology. I thought I was writing a mystery. The guidelines were simple: the main character needed to be a modern day Texas Ranger, and it needed to be a mystery. How could I think otherwise? So I wrote the story, Ed liked it, and I figured that was that. Cool.
When the anthology arrived, I was surprised that it was a collection of western stories, the lead being one from Mr. L’Amour himself. Mine was the only modern day story in the collection. Packed in this anthology were stories by some of the top name western writers of our day, James Reasoner, Russell Davis, and Bob Randisi. Not bad company for my first professional short story sale. Cool. It didn’t matter to me that the anthology wasn’t a mystery. What mattered was that I was introduced to some really good writers that I would have otherwise missed out on. I have since discovered even more western writers worthy of note. You guessed it, that’s another topic for another day.
After the anthology was published, I figured that was that. I did a couple of signings. Sold a bunch of books. Over 200, and from I understand, that’s not bad for an anthology, and I went back to working on a novel that I was hoping to start querying agents about.
Then lightning struck. In February of 2005, the phone rang. It was a nice lady from WWA, Elaine Long, and she was calling to inform me that my short story, “The Promotion”, had won the Spur Award for Best Short Story. Wow. My wife needed a jack-hammer to pry me off the ceiling when she got home.
We went to Spokane, Washington later that summer to the WWA convention. I didn’t know a soul. It was kind of weird, because, well, I thought I’d written a mystery, and the only cowboy boots I own are salt and pepper shakers that were souvenirs. I met a lot of nice people. There was graciousness that is hard to explain, other than, after 5 days, I felt like I had arrived at distant relative’s reunion, and I left a full-fledge member of the clan. WWA knows how to throw a convention. Day trips to points of interest, good food, and a shindig at the end that rivals any black (bolo) tie affair around. Let me tell you, western hospitality is real. Some people say the western is dead, but they obviously haven’t been to a WWA convention lately.
So—we’re heading to Springfield. My third convention and I’m just as excited as I was when we were heading to the first. Spokane provided a springboard for my writing career that I could have never created on my own. Fate intervened. Took me on an adventure I never imagined. Cool. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Oh, “The Promotion” was also featured in “The Adventure of the Missing Detective: And 19 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories”, in 2005, too. Go figure it was mystery after all. And a western too. Kind funny how things work out sometime.
More about the WWA and the Springfield convention next week…