Good Water is my twenty-fifth western/frontier novel and my sixth book with Five Star Publishing. I wrote it in the first part of 2015, and it came out in the latter part of 2016. For this novel, I tried a couple of approaches with which I had not done much, and so it took me a while to get the plan ironed out.
To begin with, I wanted to write a story about a land baron who wanted to wage a war against a group of non-white people. In an early run-through of the story line, I tried a couple of different perspectives and decided to treat it as a melodrama. Even then, I found myself being too didactic, and I had to work to focus more on the action and have fewer speeches in the manner of Thucydides.
I liked the story because I thought it had a worthwhile (though possibly heavy-handed) idea behind it. I had the non-white people as herders of sheep and goats and donkeys, and I had the land baron as a despot who decided to cut off their water. I liked the animals, the dust, and the concern for water. I also liked the dark heroine. I had her as more dark-skinned than some (as in a mainstream western), and I thought I would have a developed physical relationship between her and the protagonist. So I began to consider the story as a combination of sensual romance and melodrama.
First, I focused on the melodrama, which, as I understand and use the term, means a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. In this story, the evil resides in a bigoted campaign to rub out non-white sheepherders or sheep growers. At first it seems as if the primary prejudice is against sheep raisers, but then it becomes evident that the persecution is aimed at a race or racial mixture that is non-white. In the early stages of planning this novel, I thought of the underdogs as Acadians, a group of exiled people who had some of the racial characteristics of Creole people. I had a hard time imagining this group as wandering around in Wyoming, though, so I decided to characterize them as Mexicans, a group I know better anyway (having lived among them for most of my life) and have worked with in other stories. And as I have seen in real life, there is plenty of prejudice against them among Anglo folks.
Eventually the prejudice against race and racial mixture becomes evident as something the perpetrator fears in himself, hates in others, and is obsessed with keeping others from practicing. I had observed this kind of phobia in works as diverse as the song “Son, Don’t Go Near the Indians,” Kate Chopin’s short story “Desirée’s Baby,” and James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel The Last of the Mohicans. The fear or the thing loathed is miscegenation and interracial sex. In this story, the villain does not practice it, as in some stories, so he is not a hypocrite–just an obsessed bigot.
I felt that the fear of miscegenation and sexual mingling was good because it goes deeper than racism at the level of color or surface appearance. Still, I thought the story needed more, so in order to give the conflict a little more complexity, I made it about socio-economic class (we’re cattlemen and we’re better), old vs. new (we’ve been here longer so we’re superior), racial (we don’t like dark features), and genetic (we don’t like the threat of mixture).
Having gotten this part of the
conflict clarified for myself, I decided to downplay what I thought of as
sensual romance and to work with a young adult for the main character. And so I
tossed out my ideas for sex scenes and combined the melodrama with a
For the protagonist, I drew up a young puncher who has strayed from the straight and narrow in the past. He is sixteen years old, and when he was under the influence of a pal who was a couple of years older, they stole and sold a heifer. In the course of the story, the deed comes back to haunt him in the presence of his girlfriend and her people, and he takes responsibility for what he did. Part of his trajectory, then, is his going straight, which is something he learns on his own and identifies to himself as he goes along. It entails developing a moral sense. Another part of his development lies in his rising to courage as the assaults from the cattleman and his minions intensify.
I decided to keep the melodrama aspect, even though it did not have as much subtlety and nuance as my stories often do. For the purposes of this story, at least, I saw the melodrama as being compatible with a young adult story. And so I took on the challenge of trying to write something like a young adult novel.
One measures success in various ways. Finishing the story is a good start, and I felt that I fulfilled the plan I set out for myself. This novel made it through the acceptance and editorial process without great difficulties, and it went on to garner a couple of good reviews and to win a finalist award in the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award and a second place in the Will Rogers Medallion Awards. Both of these recognitions were in the area of juvenile/young adult fiction, and so I felt I had succeeded in my efforts to write in this category. Moreover, I felt that I had written a story that might have value for some readers.
Good Water is available at Amazon.