|Fiction Focus: Looking for a hero|
|Written by Christine D. Johnson|
|Monday, 05 November 2012 01:12 PM America/New_York|
Fiction that draws on heritage of the American West appeals to men and women
Cowboys and Indians may be the stuff of Gunsmoke and Bonanza reruns, but readers may be hard-pressed to find Westerns in the Christian retail market—that is, Western fiction in the traditional sense.
The committee that oversees the Christy Award—the well-recognized honor given to writers of fiction from a Christian worldview—only offered an award in the Western category in 2002 and 2003.
“There simply weren't enough entries to have a viable category, especially compared to the other categories, so we moved westerns into historical,” said Donna Kehoe, executive director of the awards program.
The late Stephen Bly was dominant in the category then and was a Christy Award winner. His wife and other family members helped to finish his last novel after his death, Stuart Brannon’s Final Shot, released by Greenbrier Books in March.
Western fiction does seem to be experiencing a bit of a resurgence of late. A touch of romance seems to have enlivened the category—for female readers at least.
Charlene Patterson, acquisitions editor, fiction for Bethany House, finds Western a “difficult category to describe.”
“Some people define Westerns as primarily male-focused, with gunfights and sheriffs and battles with Indians, along the lines of the movies Open Range or 3:10 to Yuma,” Patterson said. “Others define Westerns as anything set on the Western frontier, like Love Comes Softy or Tracie Peterson’s current series, ‘Land of the Lone Star.’ We don’t think of ourselves as publishing Westerns at Bethany House, but we do publish many historical romances with a Western setting that defines the story.”
The Baker Publishing Group division doesn’t expect to publish many classic Westerns in the future, she said, because “they haven’t proven popular with our readership.” Instead, it is opting for “historical fiction with cowboys, ranches, frontier settings and, of course, romance will continue to be among the core type of book we publish.”
Two of the house’s relatively new, but increasingly popular authors in this genre are Karen Witemeyer, who, Patterson said, “uses frontier Texas settings in her books, and readers respond well to her rugged heroes and strong heroines,” and Mary Connealy, who is gaining a following for her “romantic comedy with cowboys.”
In Connealy’s fiction, “you’ll find everything from ranches to Indians to gunplay to rowdy cowboys in her stories, though they are underscored by humor and sweet romance,” Patterson noted.
Robin Lee Hatcher (Betrayal, Zondervan) observed that “women had a great deal to do with the settling and civilizing of the West. Romances are about hope for the future––and it was hope for the future that drew so many to begin again in the West.”
“The American cowboy has always been a strong romantic figure and history gives us endless tales of the resilient women who tamed the west alongside them,” said Regina Jennings (Sixty Acres and a Bride, Bethany House). “Expansive settings, determined characters and perilous journeys provide all the elements needed for a hearty romance. Besides, assumedly any bachelor living in town in the 19th century was either on his way to the altar or being stalked by mothers with marriageable daughters. In contrast, the elusive cowboy who wandered into civilization represented an unknown that sent hearts a-fluttering. He’s tough, he’s lonely … but he values his freedom. What woman could resist such a challenge?”
When it comes to Westerns, branding doesn’t just refer to the practice of claiming cattle as the rancher’s own. An author’s ownership of his or her own brand may mean name recognition and higher sales, though some authors have chosen to stray off the ranch.
Abingdon Press has published two Western romance series by Shelley Gray (“The Heart of a Hero”) and Margaret Daley (“The Men of the Texas Rangers”), two authors who have written other types of fiction as well. Gray is known for her Amish fiction, while Daley has written romance and romantic suspense.
“Westerns have had limited popularity in recent years, so many writers have had other genres that have helped pay the bills,” said Ramona Richards, senior acquisitions editor, fiction, at Abingdon Press. But, she added, “specializing does help build the brand, and I am hoping to acquire writers in the future who specialize in this brand.”
Patterson of Bethany House believes strongly, though, that branding is key in Western and other fiction.
“Most of our historical writers stay within their genre and within similar story settings, which is something we encourage,” she said. “A brand is a very important thing. Readers want to know what they are getting when they pick up a book, and strong branding makes it easier for booksellers to make recommendations to their customers.”
SIX FEET UNDER
When Sherri Shackelford (Winning the Widow’s Heart, Love Inspired Historical) started writing five years ago, she was told the Western was “dead and buried.” But she believes that “the popularity of Christian fiction, especially Christian romantic fiction, has created a vast new audience for the Western.”
Darlene Franklin was “part of Moody’s reentry into fiction” with the six-book series “Texas Trails,” with books written by Franklin, Susan Page Davis and Vickie McDonough. With its stories spanning four generations of a Texas family, the series was published under new imprint River North.
“With the explosion of Christian romance in recent years, more and more authors are writing Westerns than ever before,” Franklin said. “Love Inspired, in particular, remains hungry for new voices with their expanded Historical line and the addition of Heartsong (formerly with Barbour).”
Abingdon Press is also seeing a significant number of authors who want to contribute to the genre, Richards said.
Perhaps Witemeyer (Short-Straw Bride, Bethany House) best sums up the state of Christian Western fiction.
“There are fewer new authors for true, non-romance-centered Westerns,” she said. “The market for these stories has been shrinking since the days of Louie L’Amour and Zane Grey. However, in the realm of Western romance, there are new authors being added all the time.”
HEROES AND VILLAINS
One critical element of the Western genre is setting.
“Setting is key,” Witemeyer said. “Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado—places known for their cowboy heritage. Harsh landscapes that cause their own hardships for the characters add to the flavor of the novel. Horses, boots, guns—all necessary ingredients. However, the most essential element is a cowboy hero who follows the cowboy code: honor, chivalry, integrity.”
Victoria Bylin (Brides of the West, Love Inspired Historical) also believes a good western needs a strong hero.
“I want the hero to be brave, principled and strong in the face of danger,” she said. “In some ways, this is a statement of the Christian faith, and it’s why westerns fit so well in the inspirational market.”
Davis also sees setting as crucial, “whether it’s an accurate picture of a particular area and moment, or a representation of the average American’s idea of the West,” she said. “Personally, I need historical accuracy before I’ll dub a book a ‘good’ Western. But action is nearly as important as the setting. A slow-moving Western won’t make it in today’s market.”
Abingdon’s Richards points out that in a Western, “the West really must be a distinct third character, and an author should understand it as much as she/he does the hero and heroine.”
“Setting is often a villain in these stories as characters band together against the harsh elements,” Shackelford said. “There's a sense of wildness surrounding the Western genre—untamed people against an untamed land.”
A BREED APART
As with any category, retailers familiar with the authors and the works themselves can build sales as they recommend Westerns to customers looking for a new read.
“Don’t separate out the westerns and send them to a little corner of their own,” Davis said. “There are many fine historical novels out there that happen to be westerns. Present them as the newest good book, not the latest western.”
Erica Vetsch (A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas, Barbour Publishing) offered several suggestions for stores, including posting author-comparison lists and appealing to women looking for a gift for their husbands, fathers or sons.
“Offer a classic movie night at the store,” Vetsch said. “Show a movie like Shane or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon or El Dorado, then over some refreshments, talk about some of the new western fiction in the CBA [market] and encourage the patrons to talk about favorite westerns, books and movies.”
Frontliners should take note of the two different kinds of Western readers before making their recommendations.
“Readers of straight westerns are a different breed than readers of western romance,” Witemeyer said. “With such a large percentage of Christian readers being women, the level of romance in a book might be a bigger selling point at first. However, if readers get hooked on the western settings and rugged heroes found in romance, they might be more open to the grittier storylines of the straight westerns.”
Overall, growing readership for the category may mean emphasizing the universality of its themes. Henry McLaughlin (Journey to Riverbend, Tyndale House Publishers) said he believes the genre can capture new readers “by exploring universal themes such as good and evil, right and wrong through interesting characters; themes that apply across all genres, by keeping the stories exciting through plot twists, character growth in responding to challenges and making the stakes as high as possible, including physical death or spiritual loss.”
Davis also believes the category has broad appeal.
“Western fiction resonates with many, many people,” Davis said. “Most Americans view the West as a vital part of our heritage, even if they are only familiar with it through films and television. Many of us can identify with one of the iconic western characters—the intuitive scout, the loyal cowpuncher, the troubled drifter, the determined pioneer. I don’t think this genre will ever go away.”