5am is a good time to write. Blue Pulp is getting exciting. The western is an underestimated genre. When you strip everything out, all the things that distract us in the modern world, so all you have is the man and his thoughts, you can get deep and frightening with the human condition.
I know you can’t buy any of these books yet but soon you’ll be able to. This is book three and I’ve got one more to write. I think I’ll be done by spring.
I was reading a western last night. A slim novella. Less that 200 pages. There is something engaging and lively in the telling of a shorter novel. Something I embrace in my own writing.
I can wait for you to read this. If you’ve never read a western before maybe it’s time to try it out.
I’ll be posting covers and release dates right here over the next few months.
I have been staring at chapter ten of Blue Pulp for an hour. I wrote thirty six words and then stared at them for a while. They were no good. There is something I’m missing. Something my subconscious is aware of but I am not. There is another, better way, for this chapter to be than the one I have in mind. I need to sleep on it.
This is what some people call writer’s block. It’s not a block of words, I’m still capable of laying down the letters; it’s more like the engine that powers the imagination is running on fumes and requires more fuel. Fuel is often made of caffeine, this time it requires something more ethereal. It needs inspiration. A new idea.
Normally in this situation I tell the story to Rachel and it turns out I knew what needed to happen next all along, my subconscious simply needed me to verbalise it. This is different. The path ahead is blocked. A new path must be made before I can walk it.
I think the problem lies in a simple storytelling problem. So far the whole story (a western) has been told from Robin Castle’s point of view (from the third person, but we as the reader only know what he knows), and I need the reader to see what another character is doing as Castle walks away from town with trouble coming up behind him.
I need to break the unspoken rule I have set for the novel. I need to look away from Castle. Maybe that’s the problem.
You see, we’re solving it together right here. So what do I do next? I’m going to ask my subconscious to figure this out and let me know the plan in the morning. I’m going to bed.
One day this period that we are living in will be the subject of historical fiction. Our Instagram, electric cars, and smart phones will seem like medieval devices. We will seem backwards in our dress and old-fashioned in our thinking. People will think the 2020s were populated by small-minded simpletons, that the people were afraid of science and new ideas, that the governments were stuffy and the class divide was great.
I write westerns under the name, Elwood Flynn (they will be published next year, but you can find Elwood on Instagram if you are interested in following that journey) and so I spend a lot of time thinking about how people thought back then.
It is easy to write two dimensional flat characters, stereotypical and slightly less intelligent than our far superior future selves. To write engaging real people in historical fiction you have to keep in mind one very important thing: Every person who has ever lived believed that they were living in the most modern times in all of history.
Cowboys photographed in grainy photographs in the late 1800s, in bowler hats and waistcoats; how old-fashioned their minds must have been. But even though these were gunslingers in a lawless land, they were wearing the highest Victorian fashion of the time, dressed like the British upper-class. Even outlaws were trendy, just not to us, not now.
Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch were some well-dressed dudes.
Maybe people will look back at teenagers in DCs and hoodies, and wonder, “Why were the teenagers back then dressed so formally?”
That’s how I dressed when I was a teenager, twenty years ago. When people were afraid of youths wearing hoodies. Front page news: BEWARE THE HOODIE! And now there are photographs of politicians wearing hoodies to make themselves seem more normal. More like the average working class man. Rishi Sunak, the British MP, trying to fool us in his hip garb.
Could you imagine Winston Churchill wearing a hoodie?
We think the ideas we are having now about people being scared of vaccines, or getting angry at cancel culture, are modern problems. And they are, just as they have always been.
This is a classified ad from 1952 –
There are articles from the 1800s about the new smallpox vaccine. One article from the Chamber’s Journal, July 31, 1886, reads, “The newspapers constantly remind us that there are many persons in the kingdom who object to vaccination…”
Comedian’s from 1903 declaring we can say, “good-bye to comedy” because racial and ethno stereotypes were banned on the stage.
In 1957, comedian George Gobel said, “…a TV comic nowadays needs the soul of a seismograph to know where the rumble of public wrath is coming from. We have to be verbal tightrope walkers.”
It has always been this way, and so it will remain. Nothing changes. Not really. We are not advanced. We have not learned from our ancestors.
We have always been, and will always be, modern.
There is a film from 1971 by Ken Russell called The Devils. It was banned pretty much everywhere for its blasphemous sex scenes (the infamous raping of Christ being the main problem), and has still not been released in full by Warner Bros. But that film did something very interesting. If you watch it, it looks weird to the eye. The sets are all so… modern. The prison scenes have bright white tiles, brand new bars. The town walls and the castle are clean and built with new stone.
The film is set in 17th century France and when the set designer came to build the sets, he went, as one does when making a historical film, to create moulds of crumbling walls. Ken Russell stopped him, reminding him that at one time these old castles were not old castles, but modern architecture. And so they built them as new. When we watch The Devils, we are not watching old fashioned people in the past being barbaric, we are watching modern people in the present raging against new ideas, just as we do now.
People have always had complex thoughts. There has always been extremes in outlook. There have always been people who are racist and bigoted, but there has also been people who are against those things. Not everyone in the 1800s was racist, otherwise the politicians, who sink or swim in an ocean made of popularity, would never have been able to abolish slavery.
This post has gone on longer than I had planned, and it’s all to illustrate one point. One lesson about writing historical literature. We must view them with a modern eye.
The thing is, about those cowboys I write about in my westerns, they have no idea that they are living in the past.
What is this art form? This theatre of words moving across a page? The trade of building images out of symbols? Carving literary statues with grammatical chisels? Writing is so much and so little. A bad sentence is almost indistinguishable from a good one. It takes a person with a degree to know what is good and what is not. They will tell you Dan Brown paints his words with turds and shake their fists at the pages of The Bookseller magazine which dares to print sales figures that contradict their assessment.
The average reader has no idea. Nor do they care.
You can have a novel, 120,000 words long, and find nothing of meaning within its pages. Heroes running the same course as many before them. A save-the-cat journey of write-by-numbers plots designed to move and thrill. The same story sold bought and read again and again and again.
Another book. Which follows no particular pattern. Does not follow the rules of grammar exactly. And does not dance around a story circle. Filled with depth and aphorisms and wit. Is never read.
If a genre book is considered literary is it no longer genre? If a literary book is blandly written is it still art? Is storytelling itself art, regardless of the prominence or not of adjectives in its prose?
I always wanted to write whatever the British equivalent of The Great American Novel is. In wanting to learn how to do this I have become more and more interested in turning a collection of words on a page into a continuous moving image in the reader’s mind. I write westerns now. The goal of the books is not to blow you away with a skilful display of my vocabulary and the wrangling of obscure and rarefied words, but to put the words out of your mind entirely. I want my stories to grab you by the hair and drag you through the dirt. I want you to read them in one sitting and turn that last page with your heart racing and your eyes raw with fatigue and belly hungry. But instead of eating, or sleeping, I want you to turn right back to the start and read it again. Is that art?
To do that, maybe I have not created art. I have created entertainment. Will that do? Is that enough? I still want to write The Great British Novel, but writing pulp is too much fun.
Right now I am sick. I’m sat on the couch amidst a snowstorm of crumpled tissue. My nose is red. I’m sniffling. I have a tickle at the back of my throat that I have been refusing to turn into a cough since I started writing this incoherent nonsense. I should be writing the next chapter in my book but instead I am rambling about, what? Whether or not writing is art? I have no idea. I have lost the thread of my original thought. The cold that has turned my brain into a red hot storm of snot has forced my imagination into some kind of fevered spasm of bollocks.
I have the urge to write but not the clarity to do so usefully. So now I have done this. I started writing with no plan and have ended up here, and you’re right here with me, wondering what the point of any of this is. We are conjoined in an existential crises of blog gibberish. I will set you free so I can go and sneeze.
Let me leave you then. I am going to drink coffee, cough up some lung-butter (as Rachel so juicily calls it), take some Sudafed, and try again to write what I opened my laptop to write in the first place. Some good old fashioned gun-slinging pulp fiction.
I’ve been going back and reading the classics of the western genre. The cornerstones of gunslinging pulp.
(The following contains spoilers. So if you just want my reaction, I loved it. I recommend you read it).
Shane by Jack Schaefer was first published in three parts in Argosy magazine in 1946. Pulp to the core. It came out as a novel in 1949 and has never been out of print. Literature with a capital W.
It’s a small book that takes its time. A slow burn. Told from the viewpoint of a boy, Bob Starrett, who watches this mythic rider come into town. The man on the horse stops at his farm house and asks for water for him and his horse. His name is Shane. The boy becomes infatuated with him. His father, Joe Starrett, offers the stranger a bed for the night and he ends up staying for much longer.
They spend time on the land. Shane helps Joe remove a tree stump. It takes a long time and Schaefer keeps with it. Showing each swing of the axe.
Shane doesn’t talk about his past and much speculation is made of him.
Soon that past, or knowledge of who he is, catches up to him. A man flees town upon merely setting eyes on Shane.
Bob and his parents are being run out of town by a rancher who needs their land back. They are homesteaders who staked their land on Luke Fletcher’s ranch. Land Fletcher had never claimed himself.
Shane stands up and defends his new home.
At first I wasn’t sure about the book. You’re spending time with these characters without a lot happening. But the writing won me over. There is something about the farm and the people that pulls you in. I liked spending time with Shane, and Bob, and Joe.
It rewards you for your patience with a great final act.
I would read it again. If you love westerns and haven’t read this one yet it’s well worth it.
Who loves westerns? Everybody? Great. Come and join the Elwood Flynn group. I will be releasing four westerns next year and if you want an early insight into the world of Robin Castle, as he travels a path of vengeance and violence, this is the place to be. Get in early.
I will be releasing a short story soon. A taster of what is to come.
All my stories come with Elwood Flynn’s Solemn Promise – This book will contain scenes of extreme violence and themes of loss and vengeance.
Getting up at 5am to write stopped being fun this week. It was hard. The words came out like stone toothpaste.
Next week will be different. I will get up with that same verve that I started with. The excitement of being amongst gunslingers while the house slept.
This week was difficult because the story stopped being a western. It was always meant to start in New York and wind its way west. I’m halfway through and can’t find my way out of the city. Gritting a 6’9″ pissed off lawman and a percheron horse halfway across a country is harder than it sounds, especially when you’re trying to maintain a certain level of pulp action.
I should have picked a city closer the the lawless frontier.
This is Robin Castle’s origin story. He’s a marshal in New York. Something terrible happens to his family and the guy who did it flees. Castle gives up his badge and the rule of the law to take after him.
He finds himself in a dry unforgiving land with vengeance in his heart and a gun on his hip.
I met him on set of his first novel, Hell’s Ridge. A small frontier town near the Colorado River. It was 1875. I found him in a dark corner of the saloon. He had a typewriter on the table with a page loaded. He had stopped mid-sentence. Loose tobacco littered a short stack of typed pages.
He was fishing a tooth out of his whiskey. I took the seat opposite him. He didn’t look up or acknowledge me. He let out a sigh. His shoulders sagged. He stared at the elusive molar.
I knew his temperament. I waited for him to initiate the conversation. I looked around at my surroundings. I felt out of place in my t-shirt. A piano played by the bar. I thought maybe I’d go and get a drink. Then Elwood came to a decision. He put the glass to his lips and drank, tooth and all. He put his fingers back to the keys on the typewriter and noticed me.
“What do you want?”
“It’s time we talked.”
ANDREW: It won’t take long.
He started to type.
ANDREW: What are you writing?
ELWOOD: You know what I’m writing.
I decided to get a drink. When I came back he was smoking a badly rolled cigarette.
ELWOOD: I don’t like your books.
ANDREW: Why not?
ELWOOD: You try too hard.
ANDREW: What do you mean?
ELWOOD: You write “literary” horror. That’s how you describe it.
ELWOOD: Do you know how pretentious it is that you feel the need to include the word “literary”? Carpenters don’t describe a table as being “wooderary”.
ANDREW: We write in different styles. I write long form horror that adheres to literary convention, you write pulp fiction. I spend hours labouring over the language, ensuring there’s no repetition or-
ELWOOD: Repetition? If your “literary sensibilities” are shaken because you had to read the word “gun” twice on the same page you don’t deserve to be entertained by me. I don’t care if you read it three times. All I care about is the story, which, if I’ve done it right, will be dragging you along by the hair so fast you won’t have time to count the words.
ANDREW: So you don’t care about good writing?
He ignored the question.
ELWOOD: You want long descriptive passages? Tough luck. Use your imagination. All you need to know is Robin Castle has a gun and a bad guy is about to die. And I do care about the writing. I just have different opinions about it to you.
ANDREW: Robin Castle is a great character, how did you come up with-
ELWOOD: Don’t brown-nose me. I’ve read that horror book you wrote, Jack’s Game, is that what it was called? You know you don’t need to describe the curtains, right?
ANDREW: I’m sure I didn’t describe the curtains.
ELWOOD: Nobody ever read a Jack Reacher book and said, “Do you remember the curtains in that one scene? They were great curtains.”
ANDREW: I don’t describe curtains in my books.
ELWOOD: You’re stopping me from writing.
ANDREW: Can I ask one more question? He didn’t answer.
ANDREW: Is this where you normally write.
ELWOOD: No. I normally get up at 5am. I write for two hours. And then I go to work.
ANDREW: I write in the evenings, when I get the chance.
ELWOOD: You’re lazy.
ANDREW: I’m you. I guess I’m just grumpier in the mornings. That might explain your attitude.
He pulled a gun on me. It was an old six-shooter.
ELWOOD: I will shoot you if you keep speaking.
ANDREW: This is ridiculous. We’re the same person. I just thought it would be good to get inside your head a bit. Try and understand how you think. Why you write the way you do? What made you decide to pair the language down? To write novellas instead of proper boo-
ELWOOD: Proper books? There’s no such thing as a proper book. Long novels are just indulgent. All I did was get rid of all the boring bits. Rip the curtains down. It’s all about movement and dialogue.
ANDREW: I’m not trying to offend you.
Elwood pulled the hammer back.
ANDREW: You can’t kill me.
He pulled the trigger. I felt the bullet smash through my ribcage and lodge in my lung.
He fired again.
Everything went dark.
END OF INTERVIEW
Join the Elwood Flynn Facebook group for news about his upcoming series of Westerns starring Robin Castle, the 6’9″ lawman turned feared bounty hunter.
It always surprises me how recent events in American history are. In my imagination, fighting between Native Americans and the settlers ended hundreds of years ago.
Black Elk witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn. He toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was around when 200 Sioux were massacred at Wounded Knee, putting an end to Native American military resistance in the West.
In 1930 he told his story to writer, John Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks was published in 1932.
He died in 1950.
When Black Elk was a twelve year-old boy he and a small band of Sioux set off to meet Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull on the Rosebud River. This is his account of a run-in with some white men.
“We were a small band, and we started in the night and traveled fast. Before we got to War Bonnet Creek, some Shyelas (Cheyenne) joined us, because their hearts were bad like ours and they were going to the same place. Later I learned that many small bands were doing the same thing and coming together from everywhere.
Just after we camped on the War Bonnet, our scouts saw a wagon train of the Wasichus ( white men ) coming up the old road that caused the trouble before. They had oxen hitched to their wagons and they were part of the river of Wasichus that was running into the Black Hills. They shot at our scouts, and we decided we would attack them. When the war party was getting ready, I made up my mind that, small as I was, I might as well die there, and if I did, maybe I’d be known. I told Jumping Horse, a boy about my age, that I was going along to die, and he said he would too. So we went, and so did Crab and some other boys.
When the Wasichus saw us coming, they put their wagons in a circle and got inside with their oxen. We rode around and around them in a wide circle that kept getting narrower. That is the best way to fight, because it is hard to hit ponies running fast in a circle. And sometimes there would be two circles, one inside the other, going fast in opposite directions, which made us still harder to hit. The cavalry of the Wasichus did not know how to fight. They kept together, and when they came on, you could hardly miss them. We kept apart in the circle. While we were riding around the wagons, we were hanging low on the outside of the ponies and shooting under their necks. This was not easy to do, even when your legs were long, and mine were not yet very long. But I stuck tight and shot with the six-shooter my aunt gave me. Before we started the attack I was afraid, but Big Man told us we were brave boys, and I soon got over being frightened. The Wasichus shot fast at us from behind the wagons, and I could hear bullets whizzing, but they did not hit any of us.
I do not know whether we killed any Wasichus or not. We rode around several times, and once we got close, but there were not many of us and we could not get at the Wasichus behind their wagons; so we went away. This was my first fight. When we were going back to camp, some Shyela warriors told us we were very brave boys, and that we were going to have plenty of fighting.”