Thursday, April 18, 2013

How An Easterner Writes A Western

By Sarah McNeal

How an Easterner Writes A Western

When I write paranormals, I’m usually creating a fictional world, maybe combined with places I really know like Wilmington, North Carolina or Central Pennsylvania. Westerns present, on the other hand, need research. Although I’ve been to most of the western states and lived for a year in Nebraska and a year in Texas, there is much I don’t know about the western part of the United States. So, when I began writing westerns, I chose the state of Wyoming because it was wild, filled with independent thinkers and the first state to give women the vote. I had been there once on a trip with friends and fell in love with its rolling hills and wide open spaces. I remember getting out of the car and sitting on the hood of the car looking at the untamed landscape. A few wild buffalo were grazing nearby just below a bluff that overlooked the flat plains. I felt a kind of wild freedom mixed with fear. There I was, exposed to everything nature had: wolves, a buffalo stampede and, if I had lived a hundred years or so ago, Indians, perhaps Lakota.

I had to investigate everything about Wyoming except for the visual impression it left on me.  I got out my trusty road atlas and found just the right spot in the hills on the western front that sat right against the Great Teton Mountains. I put my fictional town of Hazard beside the Green River, that runs parallel to the mountains and cradled in the hills right where I needed it to be.

(The red dot is where the Green River begins and where my imaginary town lies.)

I also had to study the great Lakota Indians and learn their beliefs and culture. Two of my characters are part Lakota.

(Pic. from Wickapedia)

The more I learned, the more I grew in respect and admiration. I went to a Lakota website, Lakota Prayers and Ceremonies (White Deer of Autumn) , and found some very useful ceremonies. Here is one of about smoking the ceremonial pipe:

Chanunpa Wakan (sacred pipe)

Connects the physical world with the spiritual world—the link between Earth and sky.  SMOKE is our words, the fire in the pipe is the fire of the sun which is the source of all life. Tobacco is used because the roots go deep into the earth and its smoke rises into the sky.

“The ceremony invokes the relationship of the energies of the universe, and ultimately, the Great Spirit, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.

The healing ceremony is intended to call upon and thank the six energies. (the four directions, the sky and earth—and the Great Spirit.

I used this ceremony in For Love of Banjo when he returns from the war in Europe and becomes acquainted with his uncle.

Another Lakota ceremony is smudging, a ritual that continues today.


A mixture of sage, sweet grass and tobacco in the sacred pipe and blown over the person and fanned with an eagle feather.  The prayer is carried to the Great Spirit on the wings of the Eagle.  It clears out negative energy and brings peace and relaxation—allows the person to put spiritual difficulties to rest.


(From “Secret Native American Pathways” by Thomas E. Mails

Information for the ceremonies obtained from Native American Ceremonies and Prayers.



I also had to study the time period of each of my works in progress. Harmonica Joe’s

Reluctant Bride takes place in 1910. To be honest, I was very surprised to learn that industrial advancements had already begun by that time. Automobiles, although not mass produced, did exist and so did electricity. Wyoming had not become part of the grid yet, but New York City had electric street lights and more and more homes were converting to electricity on the eastern seaboard. My western characters had heard, or maybe even seen some of these modern conveniences even though they didn’t own them. Of course, my heroine, Lola, came from the future in a mysterious old trunk and was well acquainted with the modern world, but not so Joe Wilding. Being a man of science, Joe was very curious about the advancements around him and read about some of these marvels.

            When I wrote the sequel, For Love of Banjo, many things had advanced. During this WWI story, planes were introduced as well as armored tanks. Clothes and social norms also changed dramatically between 1916 and 1918 in which my story took place.

1918 clothing and WWI Fighter Plane

An older character, Joe’s father, Ben Wilding, is enamored with modern things. He buys a tractor for the ranch which proves to be an important factor in a particular scene.

1928 Tractor

My father was born in 1912 and his history both in pictures and words helped to give me a perspective of this time in American history. I’m grateful for these memories he shared with me.

            From my personal history handed down by my dad to my research of these time periods, I built a fictional world that I hope conveys the way life truly was from 1910 to 1918. Making an historical story believable takes time and effort, but so very worth it. Readers should be transported to the time and place in a story so they can experience it almost like actually being there. That’s half the fun in any historical, but even more so in a time travel story. Readers want to feel what the transported person feels when first discovering that have arrived back in time.




A haunted house, a trunk and a date with destiny.


Lola Barton discovers a warp in time in an old trunk when she falls into 1910. She finds herself married to Joseph Wilding, a stranger shadowed by secrets. Mistaken for Callie McGraw, a thief and a woman of ill repute, Lola finds her life is threatened by a scoundrel. Joe stands between her and certain death. With danger threatening all around and secrets keeping them apart, can Joe and Lola find their destiny together? Or will time and circumstance forever divide them?



Deceit stands between Banjo Wilding’s love for Maggie O’Leary and his search for the father he never knew.


Banjo Wilding wears a borrowed name and bears the scars and reputation of a lurid past.  To earn the right to ask for Margaret O’Leary’s hand, he must find his father and make something of himself.

Margaret O’Leary has loved Banjo since she was ten years old but standing between her and Banjo is pride, Banjo’s mysterious father and the Great War.

Will either of them find happiness?     

          Lulu :



  1. Sarah, I think a writer who does their research can write about any place they want. I used to give my first CP a hard time because she lived in NY and wrote westerns and I was always "fixing" her horse scenes. But everything else was gritty and had the feel it needed to be a western. Because she researched.

    Congrats on two interesting sounding books!

  2. Fortunately, I have a friend who has horses and I also worked with a friend whose daughter competes in hunt seat so I have a touchstone for things about horses.
    Thank you for your comment about my two Wilding books. I'm working on the third right now...Fly Away Heart.

  3. I have the same problem though I have spent a good number of years working with horses and cows. Granted, mine were dairy cows, but I think, overall, one heifer is as dumb as the next. To create a sense of place I find as many pictures as I can. I look at bird and plant guides and google earth. And I double check past maps with present. Sometimes man creates lakes or landfills where there were none in the past. For me, it can be both fun and frustrating. Love your book, For Love of Banjo. You did a great job with all the WWI research. I felt like I was right there in the trenches. :)

  4. Congrats on the books, Sarah. And I love Wyoming...we took a wagon train trip around the Tetons. Oh, the Grand and Mt. Moran are so glorious!

    I have limited experience with horses, so that trip and also a stay at a Texas ranch and now volunteering at our local horse rescue help me a lot in the equine department.

    Such an interesting post today.

  5. Sarah, I live in Texas but still need to do oodles of research for my westerns. I agree with Paty. An author can write about any place as long as she/he does plenty of research.

  6. I agree, Kathy, about checking the plant life in a western to get the scene accurate. A palm tree might be a little out of place in the hills of Wyoming. LOL
    Thank you so much for reading For Love of Banjo and for your kind comment about it.

  7. Sarah--you're very good at researching! I love to research, and like everyone else, I become lost in it, and the more I read, the more I find something else to research. It's often difficult to stay on track.
    I loved your description of discoveriing the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I've been right there in that place, at the base of those grand mountains.
    Me? I stick to Texas. I do enough research on my own state, even though I've lived here my entire life. If I tried to write a story set in Central Pennsylvania, I'd never finish it-I'd never finish it.
    Thanks for such a wonderful take on research.

  8. Tanya, it's good I at least have a go-to person about horses.
    I read in the news that Spain is so out of money that they are going to start slaughtering their Andalusian horses because no one can afford to buy them. It made me so sad to read that.
    Thank you so much for coming by.

  9. I lived in Texas for about a year, Lyn and thought it was fun to check out different places. It's such a big state I couldn't see everything, but I sure tried.
    I use North Carolina in my nonwestern books and, like you, I've had to research some things even about my own state. Good thing I like research. LOL
    Thank you so much for coming by and leaving a comment.

  10. I know how much you love your stste of Texas, Celia. I know how you feel about research...I get lost in it, too.
    As much as I love North Carolina, my heart will always be in Central Pennsylvania. Some of my research for The Violin was from family stories and all those visits to see my grandparents. The hardest part of that research was the 1927 time period.
    Thank you so much for coming by, Celia. I really appreciate it.

  11. Sarah,

    Wonderful post! Research is the key for a wonderful story. It's no wonder your tales are fantastic!

  12. Karen, thank you so much for coming by and I really appreciate the compliment.

  13. Wow, I envy your trip to Wyoming, but there's nothing more fun than visiting where your location is for your book. Great post.

  14. It's so good to have you here, Ciara. I was living in Nebraska for about a year back in my twenties and my friends and I decided to take a road trip. We took off for 2 weeks and visited every state we could. Montana, Colorado and Wyoming were all we could manage because we went to just about every town to shop. LOL I left Nebraska as soon as winter appeared on the horizon, married and moved to Texas where it was sunny and warm.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

  15. Hi Sarah! What a great post! I don't think of you as an "easterner"--I think of you as a "southerner"! LOL Now I find out you're really a northerner! LOL You did a ton of research for your books, and they are just outstanding. The west is such a fascinating topic, no matter where you live in our country. Loved your pictures, and I envy you getting them to cooperate on the posting! As always, a wonderful blog, and I enjoyed every bit of it.

  16. The cool thing about reading books is they can take you any where, any time. But I'd say that's also the cool thing about writing books. You do a wonderful job of transporting us back a hundred years. :)

  17. Sarah,

    So interesting about your research. I don't know which part was more interesting - loved all of it. I think I liked the part best about your research in 1910. But what you learned about the Lakota Indians was fascinating too. Thanks for taking the time to write about your research process.

  18. I was amazed at all the industrial advances of 1910. There was so much that came as a surprise to me.
    Thank you for coming by and leaving a comment, Diane.

  19. I'm a transplant from PA to the south. I consider myself a southerner since I've lived here in NC since I was 5 years old. As long as my parents were alive I had a connection to central PA, but there are no relatives left there now. I just have memories.
    Thank you for your very sweet words, Cheryl. They mean a lot to me.

  20. Reading books anywhere I go is made even more convenient now that I have an ereader, Jacquie. One of the perks about writing is I can do it anywhere on Earth so I'm not tethered to any one place. Of course, I choose to hang out here in North Carolina. LOL
    Thank you for coming by and leaving a comment.

  21. Sarah if you've been in NC since you were 5, I think you are a true southerner. LOL I always love your blogs--sooooo interesting every time.

  22. Forgot to say, I'd feel the same way about a place that had such sweet memories for me as PA does for you. Home is where the heart is--that is so true.

  23. Well Cheryl, I know what grits are and I sure do like 'em, so I must be a southerner. LOL
    The little towns of Bloomsburg, Numidia and Sunbury, PA will all have a piece of my heart. It's sad that I don't have any relatives there now.

  24. LOL Sarah--I never knew what grits were until I was an adult. My mom and dad had eaten enough of them to last a lifetime, I guess, by the time I was born, and Mom never made them. But guess what? I LOVE THEM. I will order them for breakfast if we go out to eat, but Gary doesn't like them, so I never make them at home just for me.

  25. Nice post, Sarah. I love the info on the Lakota. I think often authors can know a place better than its natives because of the detailed research!

  26. Great post, Sarah. I prefer writing about places I know, or at least have visited, but even then I find I have to check up on a lot of things. I'd hesitate to write a western because I've never been to that part of America, and would be worried about making some huge errors!

  27. Hey Ella. Research is fun for me. If it wasn't, I'd only write contemporary stories in NC or PA. Sometimes I get so involved with the research, I almost forget to write the story. LOL The most informative research I encounter is on websites. That's where I found most of the Lakota information. I remember when research involved encyclopedias and hours at the library. Now it's all at my fingertips on the internet. Yea!
    Thank you so much for reading my post and commenting, Ella.

  28. Paula, so good to "see" you. I love westerns and I wanted to challenge myself to write one. It did seem daunting, but then I got into the research and it became fun. Since I had visited Wyoming, I felt comfortable placing my story there. I did have to research some things about it to get my story in just the right place and make it realistic though.
    Some day I'd love to try a mystery, but it scares me to try that at present.
    Thank you for taking the time to come by and comment, Paula.

  29. Sarah, great post on the amount of research required for our books. No matter where we live, we have to research, don't we? I enjoyed your article and the photos.

  30. That's true, Caroline. I've written a couple contemporary stories and I did have to do research. In the first book of my Legends of Winatuke paranormal series, The Dark Isle, my hero owned a private airplane company (Flights of Fancy) and I needed a scene where he and his passengers were in peril. Fortunately, one of the doctors in the ER flew a Cessna and was my go-to guy for information. I have a fear of flying, but when he asked me to fly with him so he could show me what it was really like to fly a small plane, I said yes even though my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. It was quite an adventure and it really did help my story come alive.
    I really appreciate you coming by and leaving a comment for me, Caroline.


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