Researching the West
By Natalie Bright
Tucked away on a little side street in San Angelo, Texas, a quaint bookstore is filled with hard to find books, the majority of which are westerns.
The owner of Cactus Bookstore was a personal friend of the great western author, Elmer Kelton. The store features an extensive collection of Kelton from used trade paperbacks to pricey autographed first editions. I asked him if Kelton had ever written a how-to book on writing. He said, “No, but I have this.” He handed me a cassette tape, 90 minutes, featuring two of Kelton’s keynotes from 1989. Marked down half-price, I grabbed it, and what a treasure. While it’s short on specific technique, it’s long on wonderful stories and quotes from the people who crossed his path. Kelton also shares his personal favorite western novels, and includes insightful background on creating unique characters.
I already own one of his recommendations: the most realistic account he knows of for a cattle drive, THE LOG OF A COWBOY by Andy Adams. Published in 1903 by University of Nebraska Press, I found this well-worn book at a used book store in the Dallas area.
For an entertaining read, it’s a little dry, however historians and writers will love it. Written in first person narrative by a young man who moved from Georgia to Texas after the Civil War, the specific details are invaluable. For example, here’s an excerpt about a sale which took place between Mexican vaqueros on a March day at the Rio Grande.
Here he explains the important count after the herd was transferred across the water. The cows were strung out between four mounted counters; a Mexican corporal, a US Custom House gov’t man, the drive foreman, and a drive hand. “…the American used a tally string tied to the pommel of his saddle, on which were ten knots, keeping count by slipping a knot on each even hundred, while the Mexican used ten small pebbles, shifting a pebble from one hand to the other on hundreds.” The story continues with two men agreeing on the same number of 3105 head, one man came one under and another came one over. The deal was sealed that night over dinner in Brownsville.
I’ll be blogging more about my prized Elmer Kelton tape. Thanks for following Wordsmith Six blog!