Tag Archives: wyatt earp

My Writing Apprenticeship at Pan Historia

I earned my writing chops at Pan Historia.  Day in and day out, for more than ten years, I have logged in to my alternate self.  In the halcyon early days I am quite sure that I was averaging probably a thousand words a day easy, some days more, some days less.  The stories were numerous and varied.  I like a lot of different genres, and sometimes I found that what I liked to read was different from what I like to write.

I wrote historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt, the American West, and sometimes Rome.  I wrote science fiction, particularly beloved was the now sadly lost in time and space, “Forever is Far Too Long” (please forgive me if I slaughtered the title).  Forever was the brain child of one of my closest friends, a writer of amazing imagination and craft.  It was a real challenge not only to occupy a world created by her, but to occupy a character created by her.  I hope I rose to the occasion.  I know I surely learned a great deal.  I feel like it was a sort of apprenticeship.  I also wrote noir detective fiction with a fun bunch in our grand “Marlowe Detective Agency“.  That was an idea of brilliance, if I say so myself.  When I look at the way that people’s attention spans have shortened, even in the last ten years, it’s probably impossible to do now, but basically each episode was a complete mystery.  One person wrote the detective, and it was the detective’s job to actually solve the mystery the other writers crafted for him. Later on I moved to horror. I have never been a big fan of horror movies, but I have always enjoyed horror fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King.  I found great joy in crafting tales of dripping ickiness to disturb and creep out my readers.  I discovered I have something of an ability in creating villains that people love to hate.

For a long time I was so involved in my exploration of the American West through the eyes of Wyatt Earp and his brothers that I had great, and rather grandiose, plans for writing a fictional autobiography of his long life that was going to be so historically precise, and so magically astute as to his psychic and emotional landscape that it was going to be the final word on the subject.  The desire to take what I had learned from my near daily collaborative and role-play writing to a novel has always seemed to be a natural progression to me.  But for a long time I couldn’t get started. It seemed like I had this great idea, enough passion for the project, and yet I continued to divert myself with the small episodic posts in the collaborative environment.  The good was that I was writing everyday; the bad was that I wasn’t moving forward on my long term goal.

Finally I realized it was the project itself that was bogging me down.  My scheme was too research laden, too definitive, and too constrained by my own expectations and the structure of history.  My character, Wyatt Earp, couldn’t breathe. I simply knew too much about him, and yet too little at the same time.  My version of Wyatt Earp, the one I have now been writing for ten years, is not the same as the historical.  He’s grown into a very complex, and intelligent man, with a gift for the gab – which the real Earp never had.  I realized that I didn’t have to finish this project just because I had decided on it years before. In fact, after finally writing a version of the shootout at the OK Corral for my collaborative version on Pan, I realized that I had already written volumes on the man, and that my legacy to him was there – on the boards.

I was free to pick a different project.  Now I’m fifteen chapters and over 30,000 words into that novel, and I feel great about it.  My writing is solid (but there is always room for improvement!).  My ability to structure the novel and plot it has been aided by ten years of collaborative writing, but I’m missing the collaborative element.  With that in mind I am considering a coauthor, someone that has worked with me on this story as it existed on Pan Historia.  I’m hoping that another set of eyes will rectify the mistakes, point out the inconsistencies, and increase the liveliness.  What better way to build upon the many positive foundations that Pan Historia has provided me with?

Writing the Good Guys: Give Them Black Hats

A casual exchange in #writechat, Twitter’s Sunday writing discussion, led me to think a little bit more about writing the good guy in fiction. I stated that I found writing a hero more challenging than writing about the villain. Villains are fun. They are people I don’t need to make likeable, honorable, or virtuous, and yet we are all a little predisposed to get a vicarious thrill out of that bad boy doing what we wish we could. The hero might have flaws, even fatal flaws (one that leads to her demise), but we still need to be relating to her and rooting for her.

A good writer friend of mine at Pan says: “People adore Dexter. He’s a serial killer. How can you like him or hope he doesn’t get caught? Because he fights his insights and sticks to his code.” Dexter is a good example of the hero role turned upside down, or an anti-hero because even though he seems to be a prime example of a bad guy, he has an unshakeable code of conduct.

But what about a good old-fashioned hero?

Clementine Proulx (a nom de plume of one of our excellent Pan Historia writers who is also a published author in the real world) advises: “Readers have to care about your “hero.” She doesn’t have to be lovable or even likable, but she has to have something that makes them want to invest in her.”

I write the historical character of Wyatt Earp. I use the historical record to provide him with the flaws needed to make him a believable human being and not a TV show stereotype. The controversy surrounded Earp supplies me with plenty of ways to show that my hero is not just a nice guy. He was a gambler who consorted with prostitutes, but he was also a fearless lawman who was prepared to crack a few heads along the way. He even arrested a judge. His brother Virgil arrested Wyatt once. That kind of single-minded adherence to duty is both honorable and a flaw. Rigidity is not a likeable character trait.

Back to Clemetine Proulx:

Almost all the best heroes are essentially not so nice people overcoming their not-so-niceness. They do it throughout the story which in Hollywood is a character arc. Really “nice” people or “good” people are rather uninteresting heroes unless thrown into a plot driven story. I think of a Stephen King—The Mist—where the decent dad faces unbelievable situations. A hero is always reluctant at first, has character flaws, but eventually makes the satisfying choice. The more flawed the hero, the more he struggles, the more we care for him…so yes, Dexter could be called an anti-hero (like Hannibal who only eats rude people), but he is still a hero because he can’t help who he is, formed by one of worst childhood experiences I can think of, but he struggles against it to do – ultimately – good. Sure we all want to kill bad guys. Actually we all want to kill people in our way. But Dexter follows a code that is essentially the code we all follow…only his is obvious and spelled out.

Clementine really knows what she’s talking about. In the collaborative fiction novel FLESH she writes a character that is notable for being everything you don’t expect in a heroine. She’s old, ugly, pudgy, a fanatic fan of Tom Jones, with few social skills who was overjoyed when her mother was consumed by flesh-eating zombies, but her wit, spunk, and ingenuity gets the reader rooting for her nonetheless. In fact it is her flaws and her history (she was picked on mercilessly in school, had a sad and lonely family life) that causes the reader to love her with a passion.

In the same novel FLESH we have started a new chapter and my personal challenge is to create a hero that is essentially pretty unlikeable and yet, in the end, it is my hope that the readers are rooting for him to succeed. Michael is proud, pompous, prejudiced, and overly rigid in his thinking and actions. He’s about to be thrown into a situation where he has to help the very people he’s been alienating for years: his neighbors. You can check out my writing for this character here on my writing blog. I would love feedback, as the story progresses, about how well I’m doing at creating a flawed hero that you might hate to love.

Is It a Rose by Any Other Name?

Naming a fictional character can be a tricky business. The right name can make a character greater, and the wrong name can derail all your carefully drawn details. The importance of a name on people’s perception of a character or even a real person has long been understood. In literature the Bronte sisters were originally given male pseudonyms in order to render them more serious and palatable to their potential readership. The author George Sand was born Amanda Aurore Lucille Dupin. Later on Hollywood was following a similar practice. Only in their case they weren’t hiding gender but often accentuating it with what were either considered lovely memorable feminine names or manly names befitting a man of action. Who doesn’t now know that Cary Grant started life out as Archibald Leach? They did hide, however, ethnicity in many cases. Theda Bara was actually Theodosia Burr Goodman, a good Jewish girl from Ohio.

Historically a name can make or break whether or not someone is remembered. In Allen Barra’s examination of the fame and notoriety of Wyatt Earp, Inventing Wyatt Earp, he devotes a section of the book to speculating on why it is Wyatt Earp more than his brother Virgil Earp that is remembered as the upright lawman with the Buntline Special Colt .45. He quite congenitally points out that, besides a few other details of Wyatt’s fame, ‘Wyatt Earp’ just rolls off the tongue better than ‘Virgil Earp’ does. Keeping to the western theme ‘Doc Holliday’ is a magical moniker that gives the owner a permanent password to fame. In the town of Tombstone at the very same time lived a medical doctor who was known as Doc Goodfellow, and while the name appears to be nearly as good, and then good doctor was, in fact, a brilliant physician and innovator, it is the gunfighting tubercular dentist who’s name really sings in the memory.

In fiction, as in fact, it is a great boost to memorability to have a great name. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in his early memoir Pumping Iron of his intention to keep his funny sounding Austrian name that was hard to spell, despite Hollywood practice, because he believed that it’s very unusualness would ensure that people remembered him. It seems to have worked in his case though many actors and actresses have discarded their own prosaic sounding names. After all would Cary Grant have been quite so suave and sophisticated as Archibald Leach? The name shouts his working class roots as well as having an unfortunate association with small blood-sucking invertebrates. I have come across many unfortunate names in real life such as Doreen Wonderlick and Dick Swet. You have to wonder what the parents were thinking.

Unless you want a comic character you want to avoid doing the same thing to your own ‘children’ of your imagination. I can’t tell you how to choose a good name, but I do several things. I collect names. When I hear a good name I keep a note of it. I, of course, mix and match. It’s very important to say the name aloud a few times to make sure it sounds right. You might want something melodious or you might want something guttural and punchy. It is good to consider whether or not it fits your character. Like A Boy Named Sue it could be ironic or it could be a perfect match; something that suggests that your character just couldn’t be named anything else and be the same person.

When I write collaborative fiction at Pan Historia I often find the name coming first – surfacing out of the depths of my mind like a leviathan breaching. The name draws the rest of the beast out into the open sea of my imagination until I have a fully realized character. Most of the time though I think writers will have a character in mind and need to name them after. In your short story or novel there will be many supporting characters – each will need a name. I would give as much thought to the smallest bit part as to the hero or heroine. A small character with a funny or unusual name well thought out can become more vivid in the reader’s mind. Who can forget Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy? Now tell me what John Voight’s lead character’s name was from the same movie? Can’t? It’s Joe Buck – a name very suitable for the character but completely upstaged by Ratso Rizzo. All of these factors should be of consideration when you’re naming characters. Whatever you do, don’t just open up the White Pages and randomly pick a name.

Be armed with names ahead of time. Keep a notebook with all the great names you come across including the names of family members or friends that you find evocative. You might not have occasion to use them right away, but in time they might be just the right moniker for some well-crafted character. It’s ok, in a manuscript or draft, to play with different names, or versions of a name, until you get it right. It’s a little more difficult in collaborative fiction because you create the character before you start writing, but be prepared to delete that which does not work.

Writers: I would love to hear your tips and techniques for picking out the right name for your characters. Feel free to comment and keep the discussion going.

Western Writing Sample from Pan Historia

It occurred to me that in an earlier post I gave you a link that has samples of my collaborative fiction writing set in Ancient Egypt but that I haven’t shared anything yet of what I do in the Western genre. So without further ado here is a free sample of some writing of mine from Pan Historia. It is from the Tombstone novel and features my trademark Wyatt Earp from the day of the Gunfight at the OK Corral:

I watched the back of the sheriff as he moved off to ‘deal’ with the cow-boys that had been threatening our lives all morning. I think I heard a snort of derision from Doc, who was, I might add, in particularly fine fettle this afternoon – as if the danger was all he needed to feel in perfect health.

We stepped off the sidewalk as a group when we were accosted by concerned citizen after concerned citizen. First the cow-boys were at the Dexter Corral and then at the O.K. Corral. There were numerous first hand accounts coming at us in all directions of the threats against our lives. I had cause, in the days to come, to remember many of the names and faces and offers of assistance, and not in a pleasant way. Captain Murray, a stockbroker with a military past offered to gather a militia, a man by the name of Sills told us that the cow-boys had said they mean to kill us on sight.

We were not another ten paces down the street after declining help from left and right when a foreigner by the name of John L. Fonck came to see us. Fonck sells furniture in town but apparently had a far more colorful past – as a Chief Detective of the Los Angeles Police Department and an agent of the U.S. Secret Service. He tells us what he has heard of the threats and that he can quickly round up ten men.

“I swear to God, are these boys just going around finding everyone in town to issue this threat to?” exclaimed Virgil in exasperation.

It was getting a little tedious.

“Where are they now?”

“They are all down there on Fremont Street,” said Fonck.

“Thank you, sir, but I think we can take care of things – as duly appointed officers of the law. We’ll take it from here.”

After Fonck made his retreat Virgil turned to me with distress in his face. I knew he didn’t want to fight these men, and I knew he’d much rather be studying the racing form, but there really was nothing for it.

“Nothing to do but try and disarm them, and if they want a fight, make a fight.”

“About time,” said Doc, “I’ll go along.”

“This is our fight, Doc. There’s no call for you to mix in.”

“That’s a hell of a thing for you to say to me, Wyatt.”

I wasn’t going to gainsay my friend if he wanted to back our play so I nodded. Virgil didn’t argue either, which surprised me a little, but then he requested Doc’s silver capped cane and handed Doc the shotgun.

“The sight of this thing could give folks the wrong idea. Put it under your coat, Doc, and now you’re a deputy.”

Reading this now I’m surprised it is as cohesive as it is. I wrote it under a lot of pressure on the actual anniversary of the gunfight. If I were to rewrite the thing today at my leisure there would be some changes. I worked quite closely with Virgil and Doc Holliday when I composed this piece, and each had done their research on the day so this was one of those occasions when the role play and collaboration went as rapidly as the shots fired that cold day in 1881.

Fiction Understanding History

Recently I participated in an online writing exercise that was ambitious and unusual. I don’t know what happens elsewhere because I tend to stick to a few places on the internet and really dig in deep, but even for my community site www.panhistoria.com I felt that the endeavor of last weekend was quite remarkable. We re-enacted the Gunfight at the OK Corral with our key writers over one day: October 26th, 2008 – the 127th Anniversary of the historical event.

To give you a little history our group has been ‘role-playing’ the characters and color of the town of Tombstone, Arizona since 1998 when I first quite randomly picked up the character of Wyatt Earp, and my kid, then quite young wanted to be Doc Holliday. I thought it would be an educational thing we could do together – I could sneak some history down with the role play and he might actually learn something. School sure wasn’t sticking. At the time I was into Ancient Egyptian and Roman history and knew nothing about the American West. I was not a huge fan of Roy Rogers, the Wyatt Earp TV Show (never heard of it even), and even John Wayne (though The Shootist was on my list of great movies). I neither counted nor discounted the western movie from my repertoire of viewing or reading but what brought me to westerns was a movie – it was Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer and a momentary passing interest my son had in Doc Holliday because of that movie.

Slipping into the skin of an American icon, one both revered and hated depending on whose doing the looking, was and remains a terrifically challenging task. Not to be half-assed I started looking into the historical record of a man that lived by the gun but was never shot himself and kept finding nifty and interesting tidbits as well as controversy. It was a story sure to suck me in. Who was this guy and how did he become famous, stay famous, and then end up the central figure of a love him or hate him conflagration that maintains its passion to this day across numerous history forums?

One thing I decided early on was that I was pro-Earp. First I was playing the character and I preferred the hero to the villain (villains are great fun to write by not the kind of dull brutish villain Earp detractors favor for our Wyatt). Second there were several facts that seemed indisputable and pointed to Wyatt being an ok guy even if he had some less than stellar moments on occasion (as is true of us all): his enemies pretty much were all well known rustlers, collaborators with criminals, on the graft, and ended up either in jail or shot for their crimes; his enemies tended to ambush people and shoot people in the back; Wyatt ended his life respected and loved by some rather upstanding and interesting people.

There is probably no way at this late date in history to ever completely know just what kind of man Wyatt Earp really was, and in the end it’s not necessary to me as a fiction writer to recreate the man. I have, in the end, simply created a man that I call Wyatt Earp who re-enacts many key elements of the original’s life but is, in fact, quite uniquely himself. You cannot take the role of another for ten years and not infuse something of yourself into him – whatever your take on history.

This year as a writing group it seemed like we finally had the chance to write about the events that seemed to have thrust Earp into the history books whether he like it or not. These events, the Gunfight, which should more accurately be called “the street fight in the vacant lot by C.S. Fly’s Photography Studio (not so catchy is it?), are not exactly pivotal events in the history of our nation. In fact it’s a wonder that they survive as more than a footnote in the annuals of the history of frontier law and as one of the only actual gunfights to take place in western American history – unlike the Dime Novels would have had us to believe.

But it is a pivotal event in the history of the American Myth, and part of the stories that make us, as a nation, who we are, or at least who we like to be. Wyatt Earp’s name is known around the globe as a symbol of American shoot ’em up go get ’em and ask questions later law enforcement. He is the predecessor of characters like Bruce Willis plays in the Die Hard franchise. Going back to the shoot out itself, even if it was just in a collaborative fictional setting, our history books open, was to watch the birth of something huge and looming in the American psyche. I make no judgments here whether it this thing is good or bad, but it is part of us, even to the people with no interest in the ‘Wild West’ or Wyatt Earp. We are touched by it whether we like it or not. It’s relevant to our dealings in law enforcement, our dealings in government, in foreign policy, and how many of us see ourselves.

So it was with some sense of awe and accomplishment that I completed a twelve hour long role-playing session at Pan Historia on Oct 26th with my fellow writers (much thanks to the other big players Virgil Earp and Doc to use their Pan identities), as well as all the other wonderful writers and supporters playing characters both made up and historical. As the day flowed from one tense moment to the next, after weeks of building up the tension in town to get the heat right, I finally made sense of what, no matter how well explained in a history book, had previously left me confused and without answers: what happened that day to cause the Earps and their friend Doc Holliday to participate in a gunfight that hurtled three men to their deaths, made Wyatt and Doc famous, but ultimately destroyed all the ambitions of the Earp family.

And in making sense of it the event finally became more than just fiction, it became history.