How has being a Texan influenced your writing? Texas provides a sense of place, history and pride that I haven’t seen in residents of other states. I was a Kiplinger Fellow at Ohio State University and had the opportunity to work closely with a dozen journalists from other states, primarily in the Midwest and Northeast, and they didn’t share the same sense of identity with state that I did. When I graduated from high school, I said West Texas had seen the last of me, but after living in Central and Southeast Texas and then in Ohio and Michigan, I realized I missed West Texas, both the landscape and people, and was glad to get back in West Texas where I have remained ever since.
Why did you choose to write historical books? I always loved history and growing up in West Texas, the Old West was the history that surrounded me, from old forts to cattle trails to dramatic landscapes. My youth was a heyday for western movies, which my father enjoyed and took us to, so that was the screen stories of my childhood. Perhaps the event that most cemented my fascination with the Old West was a trip my parents took my brother and me to Lincoln County, New Mexico, where I could walk in the footsteps of Billy the Kid. The final impetus was the birth of our first child and I realized I was going to have to ultimately put our son (and later his sister) through college. So, I needed to start making more money to save for their education. Shortly, after our son was born, Bantam had a First Western Contest. I wrote a western and submitted it. Though it didn’t win the contest, it gave me a manuscript to circulate, and it was ultimately published by Tower.
What kind(s) of writing do you do? I have done various types of writing, both on and off the job. With newspapers I wrote hard news and features. In higher education, I wrote features, news releases, brochures, ad copy and web copy over the years. As a freelancer, I’ve had articles appear in daily newspapers, airline magazines, history magazines and scholarly publications. I’ve written western, historical and juvenile novels, an occasional short story or poem as well as three dramatic productions, two of which were staged, and an unproduced screenplay. Blood of Texas, my historical novel of the Texas Revolution, earned me a Spur Award for best novel and three other novels were Spur finalists. My True West article on the Battle of Yellowhouse Canyon also received a Spur for best short nonfiction and another True West article was a Spur finalist. My comic western The Fleecing of Fort Griffin earlier this year earned an Elmer Kelton Award from the West Texas Historical Association for best creative work on West Texas. Two of my juvenile novels also won Kelton Awards.
What cultural value do you see in books? Books provide the cultural continuity of our civilization. For instance, I took Latin in high school and college and by the time I was done, I could pick up the narratives of Caesar and read them as if Julius Caesar was speaking about the Gallic Wars straight to me across the centuries. Similarly, I could do the same thing with memoirs of later military heroes Ulysses S. Grant or Dwight D. Eisenhower as well as common people like Anne Frank or Mary Boykin Chestnut. Books capture the ephemera of the day for posterity.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book? I’ve never been a fan of George Armstrong Custer, as is evident on page 1 of Bluster’s Last Stand, so I had not read or researched much on him and the Little Bighorn. I was shocked at how much material was available on him and his troops. All the 7th Cavalry soldiers that are mentioned by name in the book were actual participants in the battle, and their descriptions were taken from their military records. So, I picked out soldiers whose stories I liked or fit my narrative. There was one Texan in the battle so I had to use him. On top of that, there were some accounts of a couple soldiers who had survived the fight at Last Stand Hill. I used one of those soldiers to help tie the book together at the end.
What question do you wish someone would ask about your book, but nobody yet has? What do you have against George Armstrong Custer? Answer: While he was unquestionably brave (or perhaps impulsive), he was a self-aggrandizing pompous ass with little compassion for his men. A lot of them died as a result at the Little Bighorn.
Are there under-represented groups or ideas featured if your book? In Bluster’s Last Stand, I have a self-educated black gentleman who my protagonist rooms with in a Waco brothel where they both work. The idea was to reflect in Earl Eaton an educated man to contrast with my protagonist, H.H. Lomax, who was more interested in adventure than education. I also have a Sioux warrior who plays an important role in resolving the conflict, though he appears only in a few chapters. Using under-represented characters is tricky in these politically correct times, but I try to use them when the plot requires it or I can make it work for my protagonist, who needs a whole range of foils to make the humor work.
Which character from your books is most or least like you? There’s probably a little of me in all the characters in my books. My favorite is H.H. Lomax, protagonist in Bluster’s Last Stand, though he is probably least like me because he is outspoken, cynical and irresponsible whereas I tend to be more traditional in my outlook on life.
What did you find most useful in learning to write for publication? What was least useful or most destructive? Award-winning novelist Jeanne Williams, who was a great mentor for me and many other western writers, told me once that she had watched a lot of young novelists start out, many with great talent and others less so. However, she said persistence at writing generally trumped talent as the determining factor in their success. Talent grows with writing experience while persistence is difficult to cultivate. As for the least helpful advice, it’s write what you know. Problem is we know so little, especially when we are writing about historical topics.
What projects are you working on at the present? For my next book in The Memoirs of H.H. Lomax series, I am researching a trail drive novel, giving me a chance to re-read some of J. Frank Dobie’s works and a lot of the classic trail drive histories and memoirs. I’m always looking for odd or offbeat facts that I can put a humorous spin on or that give me an idea of how to turn the conventions of the genre upside down.
How important are names to you in your books? How do you choose names? I play around with names and sometimes throw friends with slightly disguised names into my books just for the fun of it. Of course, I always get their permission, but it is fun and it ensures at least a couple buyers of each book.
If you had a superpower, what would it be? Time travel so I could do research and resolve many unanswered questions about what happened in the past.
Where is one place you want to visit that you haven’t been before? Dodge City, Kansas.
If you could time travel, what time period would you first visit? My favorite period in American history starts with the beginning of the Civil War and ends with the conclusion of World War II. That covers the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the classic period of the Old West, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and World War II. What period I would visit would depend upon my mood of the day.
What is your favorite quote? “I cannot live without books”—Thomas Jefferson and “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please”—Mark Twain.