A Good Man to Have in Camp was published by Endeavor Books of Casper, Wyoming, in May 1999. It was the second of two contemporary western novels of mine that Endeavor Books published, and I was glad to see it make its modest way into the world.
This short novel (a little under 53,000 words) is set in rural California, the land of my youth. It continues to develop ideas that I explored in my collection of short fiction entitled Seasons in the Fields, which was printed a year earlier. The main character, Jim Lander, lives in the foothills outside a small town in the Sacramento Valley. He has done farm and ranch work all his life, and although he has his own place now, he has uncertainties to work on in his personal life. As with my other California stories as well as with my other contemporary fiction, I work with character, relationships, and landscape.
I wrote this novel freestyle. That is, I let it evolve as I went along, in a way that I have written quite a few short stories. his approach contrasts with my more typical method of planning out and then working from an outline, as I have done more and more when I work with book-length story lines. In order to write in this freer style, I don’t work with preconceived boundaries in areas such as length, subject matter, level of language use, and the like. These are important considerations, but for the purposes of exploring a story and letting it find itself, I suspend thinking about where I might try to get the thing published. I concentrate on getting it written, and then I worry about where to send it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think about audience, shape, form, balance, length, and so forth, or even about explicitness in subject matter and language use. It just means that those parameters come from within rather than as a set of premises from the beginning.
I took the less-structured approach with this novel because I just wanted to get it written. More specifically, I wanted to carry out an idea I had begun quite a while before and had not brought to completion.
My original idea for this work began to take shape, though not very definitely, when I finished my doctoral dissertation. I had written several short stories and, having just completed a long project, I thought I should move into a book-length work of fiction. My problem was that I did not know how to conceive of or plan out a longer work, so I tried writing my way into a novel. However, after about twenty pages I got stalled. At the time I bounced back and forth between short stories, articles, reviews, and other miscellaneous short pieces, so my work did not come to a halt. I just left the idea unfinished and worked on other things.
From time to time over the next several years I would look at the fragment I had written and would review the notes I had sketched out for other parts of the story. I still liked the idea, but I didn’t know how to carry it out. Each time, I would set the material aside and work on things I was more certain about.
After I had written another contemporary novel and about four westerns, I thought I should go back to this story line and see if I could finish it. For a stretch of a few months, I had the rare experience of having a bit of free time in the evenings and on the weekends, along with the other rare experience of not having a lot of personal intrusions to distract me. So I thought, I’ll just write this thing and see where it goes.
By now it was fifteen years since I had first started work on the idea, and my writing style had changed—settled into something more like my own voice, I think. So the first thing I did was revise the twenty or so pages I had kept in the folder. I revised that piece a few times, so that the new version didn’t look very much at all like the original. That was all right, too, because if I was going to free this thing, I couldn’t cling to any part of it just because I already had it written down.
And so it went. I wrote out a story about my character, and it was somewhere in that middle ground between long short story and novella. I decided I wasn’t through with him, so with some more of the material I wrote a second story, again in the forty-to-sixty-page range. That chunk turned out all right, too, so I wrote a third one. Now I thought I had my character’s trajectory done and had covered most of the subject matter that seemed to belong in his world. As I looked at the three pieces, which I had consciously written as segments in sequence, I saw that I wasn’t too far away from making one continuous work out of them. So I worked on transition and continuity, brought in a little more detail here and there that would be more appropriate in a longer treatment than in any one of shorter length, and now I had a long novella. I went through it again, sort of back and forth, still working on balance, and when I came out of this version (my third or fourth), I had a short novel. I did not feel a need to make it any longer just for the sake of trying to make it look more like a novel. I was past 50,000 words, which by most measurements and certainly by mine put it into the novel range.
Having done so much short story writing in my life, I do not ever have the problem of having too much content and having to decide what to cut. In this case, since I had started out in the very beginning with a short story approach (and probably a short story conception of my story line) and had then followed through with a short story method, I was satisfied with what I thought of, in aesthetic terms, as the relative weight of my short novel. It was lean and crisp, and it had only what it needed to realize its own form.
Following the sequence of working in this way—that is, write first and then try to place it—I now needed to see what I could do with a manuscript like this. Lucky for me, I had a good relationship with the great fellows at Endeavor Books, who had published my first contemporary novel and still had some faith in me. They also had a second painting they had commissioned and not used for the cover of the previous book, so the production did not threaten to be costly. Bruce read the manuscript and made comments, Dan set the type, he and I went through the editing, and then Bruce and I worked on marketing.
The book did not make a big splash, but I did hear from some readers, especially women, who liked it. I think it has a modern appeal in its treatment of male-female relationships, more so than most of my traditional westerns might, and I think it has a spare, unadorned effect that some readers of literary fiction appreciate.
As for myself, I like it for its subject matter as well. The protagonist plants trees, hunts deer, buys a horse, and does ranch work in the daytime; in the night time he goes to the honky tonks and pursues the other side of trying to find balance and harmony in life. I think there are a few good lines in this story, and maybe an image or two that will stick with some readers.
Another aspect I like about this short novel is its form. In writing it the way I did, I was able to finish a work I felt I had to finish, and I was also able to achieve a small victory, a quest, in carrying out the story as it sought its own form and fulfilled it. In this respect, A Good Man to Have in Camp seems like one of the purer works I have written.
A Good Man to Have in Camp is available at Amazon.