Writing Historical Fiction, Part Two

Or: It was the Pomp That Killed Off the Western

Another varmint

Before I return to the actual topic of this two-part post, let me say that as sad as it was to hear the lack of Authentic Frontier Gibberish in the westerns of the fifties and sixties it was the pomp hairdo that foreshadowed the death of the genre. Now as anachronistic as was Elvis Presley’s pomp in the seldom mentioned Love Me Tender (a western taking place just after the civil war), there is another actor whose pomp was taller and even more greased (they didn’t have gel in those days) and that was Dale Robertson in a less than a B movie called, Sitting Bull. It’s kind of a toss-up because while Dale had the taller pomp, Elvis had fenders.

Now, as much as the producers of westerns wanted to appeal to the younger generation, they did insist on their cowboys wearing cowboy hats. Of course, wearing a cowboy hat in the hot sun tended to melt hair grease and make a mess of the pomp, the hat, and the actor’s face. Not really, I just made that last part up. Elvis and Dale were allowed to frequently not don their Stetsons thereby wowing the chicks with their rock-and-roll greaser splendor. An added bonus for them was that neither had to speak their lines using AFG. But Elvis wasn’t allowed to ad-lib lines like, “Go for your guns, Daddy-O.”

Now let us finish with the gibberish

So far, I’ve ranted on about how in westerns only the colorful sidekicks were allowed to express themselves in the vocabulary of AFG there is another aspect of sounding like a genuine old west cowboy, gunslinger, or lawman and that is the Texas Twang. Folks can argue about whether a twang is substantially different from a drawl, accent, or brogue. And if the reader (if any are still out there at this stage) so desires, he or she is free to Google “Texas Twang” and read all about it. This writer is going to move on to: How to fake that drawl. It’s easy; just talk slow. John Wayne never rushed his words and neither did Clint Eastwood. But aside from those icons of the western, my favorite drawler is Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones.

I had thought about including Robert Duvall with the above actors due to his brilliant performance in the television mini-series, Lonesome Dove. He, in the character of Gus, kind of sounds like he’s drawling but unlike Clint Eastwood characters, he is a talker. I rather think Duvall succeeds because of the authentic sounding dialogue in the script. When reading the novel, it’s hard to avoid hearing a Texan’s voice coming out of the printed page.

Which brings me back to my original point which is about writing authentic sounding dialogue. The writer can’t assume the reader will mentally hear John Wayne’s voice drawling the writer’s words. There has to be something in the written text that strikes a reader as authentic. Two well-known novels accomplish that: Lonesome Dove and True Grit. Both novels were written by authors who’d probably heard the old-time regional way of talking first hand from grandparents and other oldsters. True Grit liberally uses some great archaic words and expressions. Lonesome Dove – not so much – but is equally successful in conveying authentic voices in written words. In conclusion, I have to admit I don’t yet have much of a handle on how to instruct other authors about writing authentic western dialogue. For sure, sprinkle in a few old timey expressions (but avoid the clichés, pardner) but other than that: I know it when I hear it, or read it, rather.

P.S. As bad as was the pomp hairdo of the fifties and sixties, the current dialogue equivalent is using the F word a lot. This is done to excess in Deadwood. And no, it doesn’t make the dialogue sound more authentic to me. In fact, it grates on my historically inclined ear.

P.S.S. By the way, just speaking slow does not guarantee that an actor will sound Texas Twangish. But to know why, the reader will have to Google Texas Twang. Don’t those three words sound like the title of a fifties’ rock and roll ’45? “Goin’ google Texas Twang all night long”.

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