Welcome to our last CSR Discussion day of 2021! What better way than with this interview with Headstall's story, Sidewinder. Did you read it? I admit I'm a country girl so I enjoy a good western tale done right. What did you think of the story? Share your thoughts in the comments below, but first you get to enjoy my interview with Headstall!
Chocolate or Vanilla?
Chocolate, hands down.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
A faithful, devoted companion, like a dog or a horse. I might also have a little bit of tiger mixed in.
What’s something personal about you people might be surprised to know?
Something surprising? Hmmm. I’m pretty much an open book about my life. Maybe it would be that I’m a pretty good public speaker—I seem to have an easy time of fitting in and making people laugh—and I’ve usually been successful in the things I’ve wanted to accomplish. I’m struggling to come up with something interesting, but I’m drawing a blank. I guess I can add that people tend to confide in me, and look to me for advice. I’d like to think that means I’m a good listener. Sorry… that’s all I got.
What’s one location you’d love to go to research for a story?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ll say the Yukon, but Greece and Switzerland would be up there. I have story ideas for all those places. Actually, since I’ve been watching Yellowstone, I might choose a working horse ranch in Montana if I could go somewhere tomorrow, but that would be for fun as much as research.
Do you have any writing rituals or concrete habits when writing a story?
I don’t believe so. No… not really, although I most often tend not to read what I’m writing when I’m on a roll. Does that count? Sometimes that will go on for an entire story, and then I’ll have to divide an 80,000 or so word document into chapters after it’s completed. That was the case with “Endings”, and “Sidewinder” was pretty much that way (other than I did separate chapters along the way after I got a ways in). I just kept writing and researching, and had no idea whether my western would be good enough to post when it was finished. Once done, I read through the whole thing in two sittings, editing the obvious stuff here and there as I went along. It was a relief to feel it was good enough to post (the pandemic was still screwing with me). After that, I spent weeks editing and reediting… and researching. I continually edit right up until I post, with every story I write… and am usually still editing in the GA editor before I submit a chapter. I’m a tough man to please in that regard.
Others, stories that don’t flow so easily, that’s not the case. I might write a few paragraphs, and then go back over it right away. So, I suppose that means I was right that I don’t have concrete writing habits. I don’t usually listen to music, but sometimes I do. I might have the TV on in the background, or I might not. I write when I’m tired… or not. Sometimes I write for twenty minutes, and sometimes I write all day or evening. I guess I do have a habit in where I write, though. In a big, usually empty house, I always end up writing in one corner of my bedroom at my desk. My chair is comfortable and the lighting is good, and I can stare out the window at the trees when my eyes need a break.
What book first inspired your love of the western genre and why?
I’m not sure how to answer this. I was a voracious reader, but I don’t remember the names of a lot of books I read as a kid. I do know a lot of the westerns I did read were by Louis L’Amour. I remember someone giving me a box of them. “Hondo” was one of those, as was “Sackett”. And of course I read “Lonesome Dove” by the incredible Larry McMurtry when it came out.
I don’t think my love for westerns came entirely from those books, though. I’m sure some of it seeped in because of reading—I’ve been horse crazy my whole life, and read all of Walter Farley’s books about “The Black Stallion”. I also devoured Marguerite Henry’s books, like “Misty of Chincoteague” and “Justin Morgan had a Horse” to name a couple. But even those weren’t the reason for my love of westerns.
I would watch any TV show or movie that had horses in it, and I came to love TV shows like Bonanza, The Big Valley, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Rawhide, The Cisco Kid, Have Gun—Will Travel… I could go on. All of those spaghetti western movies too, were like candy for me, so that’s where a lot of my love for that genre came from. To this very day I will watch just about any western that comes on television.
Even so, I’ve always known, even as a kid, that a lot of what was presented was not true to life. Indians weren’t savages, and the bad guys didn’t always wear black hats. One of the most powerful movie experiences I’ve ever had was watching a ‘western’ called “Soldier Blue” in the theater. The Indian massacre in that movie devastated me in ways I can’t even describe, and continued to affect me for many years. I’m not sure I could ever write about something so tragic.
What part of writing a western story came easiest? Was the hardest?
Easiest? I think that would be how I understand that pioneer spirit. I might have been born in the wrong time period. I’ve built two farms from almost nothing, and I had that drive to work from sunup to sundown, building barns and fences and clearing land, all while doing any chores that were required to be done… and working fulltime. Showing horses successfully takes tremendous dedication and a strong work ethic, and is a dream that takes a lot to achieve, and I rose right to the very top. So yeah, I’m familiar with the challenge of that kind of life. I can even make my own horse shoes, being a trained and licensed blacksmith/farrier.
The hardest? That would definitely be creating a dialect that sounded authentic to my own literary ear—one I felt comfortable using for my characters. I did a lot of research, and believe me, it is sporadic when it comes to how folks talked back then. There existed such a regional variation that it was almost a series of different languages. Tenses were the biggest thing… they were often mixed up and improperly used, and word choice was vastly different. Language relates to the time period we are in, and so much was different in those times on the frontiers. It was a process, but I believe I found the rhythm, cadence, and word choice I needed to make the characters come to life. I actually find myself ‘thinking’ in that dialect now.
Your story description mentions a lot of research. When it came time to write, did that help you develop Boone and Coy’s characters or was it more about the setting and authenticity?
It was definitely both. Let me clarify. I needed to understand what made these guys tick, like with any characters I write, and research gave me the biggest key for that. It soon became clear that despite the lawlessness of the time, most folks were god-fearing. Their faith was what kept them going through the tough times in the harshest of environments. Sometimes a cowboy had no company but the Lord’s for miles around, and for months at a time. Faith wasn’t something they paid lip service to… it was the backbone of their existence, and once I understood that, I had my characters.
And of course there were a lot of scenes in the story that had to feel right. They included aspects of hunting, weapons, terrain, types of game and edible plants, equipment, and cooking—even types of cattle. They are just some examples that required a lot of tedious research (not that I really minded). I did go down a few rabbit holes… okay, a lot of rabbit holes, but I believe I ended up with an authentic feel to the story. If that isn’t the case, it wasn’t from a lack of trying.
And word choice! I can’t forget that. There are so many words we use without thinking today (like ‘okay’), ones which would seldom or never be used back in those times, so I spent a lot of time searching word origins and when some sayings came into existence, or when they were popular. That was ongoing throughout the entire story and its sequel.
What is your favorite scene or line in Sidewinder?
Yikes, that’s a tough choice to make, but one small part does come to mind. Whenever I get the chance, I like to include some social commentary in my work… nothing that’s in your face… only things that fit within the story. Coy asks a question, and Boone answers him…
“There’s lots of things I don’t agree with… things your ma believed, but she was a good, god-fearing woman and I loved her.”
Coy nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on Boone’s. “I know you did.”
“But, I don’t think anyone can speak for what God thinks—not even a preacher—but everyone seems to think they have the right. Lots of things in the bible don’t make a lick of sense to me, not if I know God like I think I do. For sure there’s comfort in some of it, but men wrote that book… not the Lord hisself. The Commandments, though, I believe they come straight from him.”
Boone took a deep breath while he studied Coy’s face. The man’s lips were parted, and he was listening closely. He’d never voiced such personal thoughts about hisself before, but Coy has asked. “All I know is I am who I am, and for sure and certain, He made me this way. It don’t say nothing about me in his Commandments, and I’ve never broken a one… ‘cepting maybe I took the Lord’s name in vain a time or two, and I’m not all that good about the keeping the Sabbath holy, but I ain’t never drank whiskey or gambled on a Sunday either. Anyways, that’s what I go by. If he’s of a mind to exclude folks like me from heaven then he should have said it plain in another Commandment, but he didn’t. He gave Moses them rules for us to live by… no more and no less.”
Can you share anything new about your current or upcoming work with readers?
Sure. I am working on chapter eleven of a new story. It’s been waiting in the wings a long time, and it’s just a simple human drama set in contemporary times. I started it a long time ago, but the pandemic played games with my head, and I lost my desire to write. After writing my anthology entry, “Finding Refuge”, I’d always wanted to write another western, so out of the blue I started “Sidewinder” late one evening… and my research began. Later, I returned to this story, only to leave it again to write “Larkspur: A Sidewinder Tale”. Those voices wouldn’t stay quiet. I must admit I am having strong urges to write another western, so we’ll see if this one gets set aside again. I’m not doing a good job of selling this new work of mine, am I? J
Thanks for the great questions, Cia. This was fun.