Thursday 15 September 2011

The Guns of Retribution as historical fiction

I hate the concept of self-promotion about as much as I dislike the idea of using sulphuric acid instead of sun cream. It just doesn't sit well with the English sensibility unless you're an attention-seeking contestant on Big Brother. However, as Blackadder would say, needs must when the Devil vomits into your kettle, and here I am, trying to think of ways to promote my new book without jumping out at you, waving a placard in your face.

The hard sell is that The Guns of Retribution is now available for the Kindle through the very excellent Pulp Press (here for the UK, and here for the US). I know a lot of people look down on so-called pulp fiction but it offers a damn good read, as I think I mentioned when I reviewed Danny Hogan's Pulp Press novella Jailbait Justice earlier in the year. I've been trying to think of things to say about pulp fiction to hopefully pique people's interest in it (go on, check out PP's other books, you know you want to), as well as my own book. Besides, publishing blogs are always telling us that no one is buying Westerns, so aside from citing the success of HBO's Deadwood series, or highlighting the change in Hollywood mindset that led to Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens, how do I change your mind?

I did what any self-respecting journalist would do and asked on Twitter if anyone had anything specific they wanted to know about it. After reading the questions, I'm going to run a short series of posts in an attempt to answer them. Hopefully you'll find the processes I describe useful if you're a writer yourself, and if you're not, then hopefully all the talk of gun fights and femmes fatale might make you want to buy the book! Yes, there are guns. There are gallows. There's a bad guy you'll want to punch in the face. What's not to like?

One question I received is one that did play on my mind when I first made the decision to write a Western. Now, my reasons for choosing the genre were quite straightforward. I was offered a range of genres in which to write and the Western was the one that grabbed my attention. I'd already written adventure fiction in the form of my steampunk serial, The First Tale, and the larger-than-life characters of the Old West aren't a million miles away from the pirates of the Caribbean, as exemplified in my Parrots and Piracy stories. The iconography and history are different but the basic idea is the same.

But it wasn't just that. I know what you're thinking, how can a female writer from the cold North East of England possibly write a Western about a male bounty hunter in Arizona? Easy. Research.

Anyone who's been reading my flash fiction for a while will know I have a bit of a thing about writing historical fiction. Grave robbers, the inmates of Bedlam, ships lost at sea, bullies at the Charterhouse School - I just love setting stories in the past. I've had a deep passion for history since I was little and I enjoy the research just as much as I enjoy the actual writing part. I did study the history of the American West at school as part of the GCSE syllabus, and I found it absolutely fascinating - and here was my chance to use it as a backdrop to a story.

I'll be honest, I never much cared for Westerns as films, with the notable exception of Back to the Future III (though I do admit the entire film is stolen by Thomas F. Wilson as Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen). A very good friend of mine recommended Tombstone, and my entire opinion changed. It's an awful film in terms of acting and structure, but it's just so damned enjoyable. While many of the early Westerns are far from historically accurate, choosing to paint a mythologised picture of the Old West, they're a good way to get a feel for a period. Naturally, later Westerns (such as the 3:10 to Yuma remake in which Russell Crowe acts Christian Bale off the screen) are much more adept at historical accuracy.

Clearly, when dealing with a period so far outside one's own lifetime, one of the best research tools is still a library. I read extensively before starting my novella, including general histories of the Old West, histories more specific to Arizona and the Apaches, and other Western novels. I can't stress enough how important it is to read, both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources for the Old West are a little limited in the UK, since we don't have the same level of access to contemporary newspapers, diaries or letters etc., but many of these are reproduced in secondary sources such as history books and biographies. Indeed, the Old West has an added advantage of having been a popular choice for TV documentaries, allowing the information to be presented in a visual way. Yes, there is always the possibility for the bias of the researchers to colour the information, but helps contextualise the period.

All that remains of Aztec, AZ
My final mode of research would have been to visit places in Arizona but seeing as how my budget didn't stretch far enough, I had to rely on Google Maps. Obviously the locations I discovered are contemporary, although many of the ghost towns can still be found using the aerial mode, but Google Maps is good for getting a feel for the landscape. It would be no good me setting a novel in Arizona and then describing lush green fields or subtropical paradises, only to find scrubland and canyons when double-checking the facts. Retribution and Sandwater, the two towns featured in The Guns of Retribution, are entirely made up, but they're loosely based on actual towns. It might be a pulp novella but I didn't want people to read it and say it was factually inaccurate!

I really enjoyed writing the book and I hope people enjoy reading it. The Guns of Retribution is currently 99p/99c, but the price will be going up next week! For those who prefer hard copies, it comes out in paperback on September 24, and you can pre-order it here.


Heath Lowrance said...

I'm really pleased you chose to write a Western, Icy. By an interesting coincidence, the book I'm working on now is also a Western-- and of course David Cramner beat us both to the punch. It seems to me that Westerns are on the verge of a big comeback, at least amongst fans of pulp stuff. For you as a writer of historical adventure pulp, it's a no-brainer, right? And as a writer who is more associated with noir stuff, it's also not that big a stretch for me.
Anyway, I bought Guns of Retribution a few days ago and am really looking forward to reading it!

Jen said...

Even just that awesome cover would be enough to suck me in. Your details about research, particularly based in the UK, make it even more compelling. I hear you about self-promotion, but honestly if you've worked this hard and you have this great a product I think it's worthwhile.

Have you seen 'The Quick and Dead?'

Unknown said...

I think Ill have to pick it up rhis week then. Hopefully I get it read and reviewed before October.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Heath - I think Westerns are a really interesting setting and I'm pleased that there's a resurgence in them. It's even better that pulp's seeing a renaissance of sorts! I really hope you enjoy the book.

Jen - You know me, I can't NOT research the crap out of something. I have seen The Quick and The Dead but a very long time ago!


I am learning by you, on how to stretch your inner world across a massive map of time and space.
I am excited.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I usually like to create fictional towns too - it can keep you out of accidental inaccuracy in describing real ones, but you're free to work in any real historical details you like. Neat cover - I like how it looks just like an old pulp magazine.

Helen A. Howell said...

Very interesting post Icy - thanks for writing it. As I have read the book and reviewed it, the only thing I can say is it is a good read, so get out there and buy it folks, you won't be disappointed!

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the world of the Western, Icy. More than a few of us have been slaving away in the pulpish genre for years, despite the scorn of the trendy. And we're based in all corners of the world, from the US (of course), to England, to Wales, to Scotland, to Spain, to Japan, to Australia, to New Zealand. Please drop in and meet us online at Black Horse Extra!

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