A picture of me holding my book pre-release inexplicably blew up over on r/pics the other day, and the outflowing of support from reddit helped my book do way better on release than I expected. This book, and most of what I've written lately, is centered around the American "Wild West" period just following the Civil War. My book is about the first famous cowboy, Texas Jack, and the ways in which his real-life adventures became the foundation of later cowboy tropes and myths in pop culture.
If you have questions about the Wild West, my writing process, when Half-Life 3 might be out, or the smooth sophistication of Steely Dan, let me know. I'm happy to answer, or try to answer, all questions.
Why did you decide to write about that?
Well, I initially set out to write a fictional novel about these wild west badasses turned Broadway stars. Because Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill really did spend a season touring together, playing all of the big eastern cities. I thought this would make a great book. Because I'm a HUGE procrastinator, I read a lot of books about those guys. I found lots of information and some great books (They Called Him Wild Bill by Joseph G. Rosa and Buffalo Bill's America by Louis Warren). It turned out there was only one book on Jack, and reading it made me feel like there had to be more to his story, but also really surprised that he was so largely forgotten.
So the more I looked into Jack, the more I realized his story needed to be told, not fictionally but factually. So I researched and made notes and delved into historical archives and old dime novels, forgotten journals, newspaper archives, all that. And the more I found out, the more I realized this guy was the first cowboy to make an impact on popular culture. A lot of fiction we believe about cowboys (their lives were exciting, they were sharpshooters, they fought Indians, etc) has kernels of truth in the life of Texas Jack, largely because of his relationship with his best friend, Buffalo Bill, who went on to popularize cowboys and the American West after Jack's death.
So really the story just kind of crept up on me, and then demanded to be told. I was compelled to keep finding out more and then to keep trying to get it published.
Upvote for the smooth sophistication of Steely Dan
Given the veracity of historical events during the "wild west" and western history in general, when doing your research, where do you draw the line between historical fact, eyewitness bias, and pure unadulterated fiction?
How does this play out in your own writing?
Which Steely Dan contributor is your favorite?
That's a great question. I think much of western history tends to be hagiographic, where the bias is such that you can tell that whoever wrote it is talking about a TRUE HERO who is additionally one of their personal childhood storytime favorites. And because of that, there is a lot of accepted fact that likely isn't true. I've seen grown men get into shouting matches over whether or not Buffalo Bill Cody rode for the Pony Express or not. Most biographies and biographers wouldn't and don't even question it.
Additionally, because Texas Jack specifically was a kind of folk hero at the time, some of the fictionalized dime novel accounts by people who knew him (Ned Buntline, Prentiss Ingraham, Bill Cody himself) create or perpetuate myths about him that aren't true. My research didn't uncover anything about a young Jack traveling to Texas and becoming a cowboy prior to the Civil War, though multiple dime novel stories claimed that he did...much less did I find evidence of Buntline's claim that Jack ran away from home at 13 to become a sailor, visiting Africa and Australia before settling in Texas.
Separating truth from myth can be hard, but it gave me an opportunity to talk about the truths that lean themselves to exaggeration, and how those combined to form the basis of tropes that are now real genre cliches, like shootouts at high noon and "cowboys and Indians" battling on the plains.
Oh, also, I always connected with Walter Becker. When I eventually met him, he was incredibly kind to me, and we kept in touch over the years. That's why I help out running www.walterbecker.com, where his family/estate periodically releases tracks he recorded but never finished, in accordance with his wishes.
I’ve read that during Texas Jack’s lifetime African Americans may have represented ~25% of cowboys in the West, and that the term “cow boy” was originally used to refer to black cow hands pejoratively.
Does your book touch on any interactions Texas Jack may have had with black cowboys?
I do talk about the true racial mix in Texas after the Civil War, where the majority of cowboys were Mexican vaqueros, mixed-race Native Americans, and increasingly large numbers of former slaves seeking gainful employment far from the Reconstruction-era South. Texas Jack's fame and popularity is one of the major reasons that the false narrative of "manor-born" white cowboys became so ubiquitous. After Jack's death Bill Cody turned their old stage shows into the outdoor spectacle of The Wild West, and hired a crew of cowboys in the mold of his old friend...tall, handsome, and white...to join him. That version is the one that stuck around, pop culture wise.
What's your process to stay motivated and just get to writing? Do you just sit down and let it flow?
Motivation is always a problem for me. At some point you're just staring at a blank page or one full of something you wrote but hate and its hard to keep working. But keeping the momentum going really helped. Seeing the word count grow helps convince you that you can keep it up. And sometimes I would tell my wife or a friend something I had just learned or some insight I had just had, and their questions or trying to explain it without giving hours of background told me something I needed to add.
I've been a fan of Western history for a long time, but I could never truly feel I got the real picture of the time. As you say, much has been exaggerated or has become legend and it is hard to find the real Old West Story. After visiting Langtry and Judge Roy Bean's saloon, Kit Carson's home in Taos and Tombstone, I'm trying real hard to find books or information that are more accurate. Your book is now on top of my list to read, but what would you recommend to read or look for to get a more authentic picture?
If you're interested in Kit Carson, Hampton Sides Blood & Thunder is a great book - reads like a page-turner but is authentic history. He is one of the best and most well-respected western history writers out there. S. C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon is a really well-written and meticulously researched book about the Comanche tribe and their last great chief Quannah Parker. I'd start with those to get a taste of modern writing about the historical west, and then move into whatever interests you specifically. I could suggest genre-relevant books all day. I made a list of some of the books I referenced or read over here:
approximately how many western us new release are there? i dont suppose louis L'Amour is still pumping them out
Well, the "new release" period is fairly broad, as is the genre. Here's the current list, for reference. My book is #4 right now.
Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
I think you have to find the way to write that works for you. Don't try to write like Stephen King or Brandon Sanderson. Write like you. Tell the story that only you can tell, and in the way that only you can tell it. Second, talk to other writers. They'll get the struggle and they'll understand the challenges, which means they'll celebrate with you as you hit milestones in writing and publishing. And they'll be able to tell you what worked for them so you can give that a shot.
How much time was spent researching/reading vs writing/editing?
Way more researching, because some research ends up at a dead-end or is duplication (the same article in multiple papers) or simply validates previous research. And some of that is because my research is functional procrastinating. I read multiple books about Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill, Ned Buntline, etc. I could have just skimmed the relevant parts, but I wanted to know how the history was presented and have a better idea of what the big picture was of these men in western history. And occasionally I'd find a book like Julia Bricklin's biography of Lillian Smith which was loosely relevant but that I read just because it was super interesting. So that still counts (to me) as research.
Actual writing time was maybe 25% of research time, but some of that was transcribing quotes I was going to use.
What do you like to munch on when writing?
I know they're no good for me, but I am absolutely addicted to Haribo gummy bears. I just can't seem to give them up.
I'm also way into smoky earl grey tea. I never understood the British preference for tea over coffee until someone gave me one of these bad boys, but now I'm a real and true convert.
Are you a Texan yourself, and did that have anything to do with choosing to write about Texas Jack?
Nope, I'm from and still live in Tennessee. Tennessee has a love-hate relationship with Texas, as Texas has historically been where Tennessee's heroes go to die. I'm also a big fan of the UT Volunteers, and sometimes someone from Texas makes the (false) claim that they are the "real" UT. Of course we like to remind them that we were a school before they were a state.
Anyway, I wasn't drawn to Jack because of his name but because of his story. He was a southern boy himself, from rural Virginia, who went west and fell in love with the place, and I certainly identify with that.
Many writers, myself included, subscribe to a less than normal work-sleep schedule.
When you have been actively trying to complete the book what did your day look like?
Well, I have a day job that sadly interferes with writing. Optimally I would research at night and then write in the morning, but that wasn't usually possible. I'm a night reader and always have been, so I would screenshot things on my iPhone or bookmark websites as I read and then incorporate them into writing the next day.
How many synthetic shares of GameStop exist?
Probably at least three or four, right?
Is lead a typo here in your book description on Amazon? Should it be led?
"Jack lead cattle on the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving trails to New Mexico, California, Kansas and Nebraska."
It was. Thanks for pointing that out. I corrected it, but not sure how long it takes them to roll out the change.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, does it affect your writing? Congrats btw :)
Sometimes, but for the most part, if I listen to music I get distracted. I listen to a lot of music, but not while I write.
I’m a Mississippi relative of Texas Jack (from the Muhundros, post apostrophe and post O). We’ve always taken great pride in Texas Jack, distant relative that he is, and I hope my second and third cousins were helpful sources!
What was the most surprising thing to learn about Texas Jack from a human or family perspective, or from his descendants?
The most surprising thing for me was finding out how many things Jack did that predated later Wild West shows, specifically his old friend Bill Cody. When the two men split up their dramatic combination in 1876, after 4 fears of acting together, Bill hired Jack Crawford as his costar, and Texas Jack hired Donald McKay. Crawford was an Irish-born Army scout. McKay was a half-Cayuse Native American, and had served as captain of the Warm Spring scouts during the Modoc War.
So Jack was hiring and costarring with Native Americans before Buffalo Bill.
At the Philadelphia Centennial, Texas Jack set up a hotel/saloon/shooting gallery on Elm Avenue, immediately opposite the exhibition entrance. He did this with John Burke, his sometimes manager and sometimes costar. That was in 1876. In 1893, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show set up across the entrance from the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with John Burke as promotional manager.
Texas Jack led at least three parties into Wyoming, including Yellowstone and the Bighorn Basin, starting in 1874. He blazed a new trail and a new entrance to the new park. Years later, Cody founded a city at the Shoshone river entrance east of the park at the town that bears his name.
Because Jack was so largely forgotten and ignored, the things he did first have been ignored too, the largest of which is being the first famous cowboy in America and forming a kind of tropic prototype all other cowboys would follow.
Any Texas media outlets or publications reached out for interviews about the book?
One Texas literary publication is featuring the book, but otherwise not really. That said, it isn’t like there was a buzz for the book. No one in those circles knows me enough to have anticipated it. I’m hoping that some of the momentum generated by people buying, reading, and reviewing gets their attention, as I would love to talk about Jack with them.
Do you yourself live a cowboy lifestyle?
Oh no. That life is way too hard for me.
I have a great story for a book but I'm not a good writer. What should I do?
Sometimes a good story is better than a well-written book. Not all good writers are great storytellers. If you want to be the one to tell your story, do it in the way that works for you. That might mean you write it as best you can and then hire a professional to help you get it in shape. It might mean you just work at it until you’re comfortable. Or it might mean you team up with a co-writer to get the thing done, where you handle big picture and they supply the mechanics and detail.
But if it’s your story, then really only you can tell it the way it wants to be told.
And most writers will tell you that getting it on paper (or onto a computer) is more important than it being good. You can always change it once it exists. You can always make it better once it is.
I'm trying to do a little genre blending using Westerns, and one thing I struggle with is language. That Western sound, word choice, etc... Any tips on that?
At its foundation, western speech is based on a handful of writers filter through years of movies. There are a lot of dime novels available for free online, and I’d suggest checking out the language used by Ned Buntline, Prentiss Ingraham, and a handful of others.
Beyond that, I think good dialogue is good, regardless. If it’s realistic and well-written, it will surpass the genre boundaries.
What do you do when you're bored?
Play piano or browse reddit. I launched another New Vegas playthrough not long ago. And recently (during pandemic) I decided to finally watch Star Trek. I'm four or five seasons into Voyager now after watching all of TNG and some DS9. For whatever reason I never really paid attention to the show when I was younger. They say you're either a Star Trek or a Star Wars person...I was a Doctor Who kid.
Any tips on getting support for releases? One of my non-fiction books is being released soon...
The first thing I'll say is that building an audience is up to you. I can't tell you the right way to do it, but I can tell you what I did.
As soon as I was sure I was going to release my book, either through a traditional publisher or directly through Amazon (I ended up going trad route), I set up a Facebook page for Texas Jack. In my research, I found a lot of info that was interesting, but not relevant. Meaning, I thought people might enjoy to read it but it wasn't going to end up in my book because I had already illustrated my point with a different example...or sometimes I had a long period article that was interesting, but which I was going to except down to a relevant sentence or two. So I used those to make articles. I set up a webpage with a blog, shared those blog posts to my Facebook page, and shared those with the multiple western history groups on Facebook. Everyone who liked my posts got an invite to like my page, and I slowly built an audience. I tied posts to relevant dates (Wild Bill Hickok's birthday, Buffalo Bill's death, the Battle of Little Bighorn) and then tied those people or events back to Texas Jack.
My usual scheme is to share a single image with my text, because I found that gets more shares and likes than text alone. I usually link to my article at the top of the post, and then, once I knew when my book was coming out, a short closing paragraph saying the book is out on X date with a link to my site showing where it could be preordered. I would caution you to be slow and deliberate about self-advertisement on any platform. You want to get your work out there and to be visible, but doing that AFTER you have provided something that is interesting and shows your writerly chops makes the pill of reminding them you would like them to support your work a little easier to swallow.
Some people put a big emphasis on Twitter followers, but I don't think that is as relevant to selling books as some other social media platforms. That said, don't shy away from taking part in #writerslift and stuff like that on Twitter, if just because you can show a publisher that you have a following, which helps convince them that someone might purchase your book. For me, having 7000 Facebook followers on the Texas Jack page helped reassure the publisher. That's grown to nearly 10000 since then, and being able to connect directly to people interested in what you're writing about is a big plus.
What genre is your book? There are probably relevant groups on various social platforms that would be very interested in what you're writing about.
Westerns make me depressed, what makes your book different?
I guess that depends on why westerns bore you. Sometimes, western movies can get pretty formula. They use a lot of the same characters (or at least character archetypes) over and over again, and the plot is just a trail from one trope to the next.
My book is the story of the man who laid the foundation for some of those tropes. The example I use to kick off the book is the old "Cowboys and Indians" trope. How many times have you seen a movie with a cowboy taking on a bunch of Indians? Well, that really never happened. By the time of the "cowboy era" after the Civil War, most of the native tribes of the American west had been decimated by disease, restricted to reservations, and otherwise pacified by the profit they could make by simply charging a small fee to let cattle drives cross their land.
But because Texas Jack stopped cowboying and became a government scout, he did occasion come into conflict with Native American warriors. Specifically, he saved the life of Buffalo Bill Cody in a skirmish with Miniconjou Sioux warriors in April of 1872. Buffalo Bill went on to become the most well-known man and the most widely-attended entertainment on the planet, and the close of his show was a bunch of cowboy, patterned after his real life best friend Texas Jack, rushing to save a settlers family from and Indian attack.
I get why cowboy stories can seem other than genuine...but most of them aren't reality. My book at least is true, and hopefully helps people see where all of the fiction came from and who it was based on.