For the Reader to Care: Frank Roderus on Writing the West
This interview re-posted from Booklifenow.com blog by Jeremy L C Jones
Bad Boys by Frank Roderus opens with a man about to tell the woman he loves about his wild and rowdy past. The novel ends… well, it ends where it needs to end. In between, the story ranges, in tone and content, from the romping good times of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the more mature The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the picaresque tales of highwaymen and outlaws. The prose is fast, tight, and as clear as spring water. Each chapter moves deeply into the life of the central character, Danny Southern, and then moves on with only the faintest hint of sentimentality and a steady maturation.
At the three-quarters mark, dread sets in—not simply because of some impending doom, but because it becomes increasingly hard to deny that the story will soon end. It’s hard to stop reading Bad Boys—hard to put it down while in you’re reading it and hard to accept that it’s over when you finish.
Frank Roderus has been writing novels full-time for more than thirty years. He’s written in a variety of genres—action-adventure, crime, mystery—but the majority of his 300+ books are Westerns. He writes both stand-alone and series Westerns. He’s been contributing steadily to the Longarm series (as by Tabor Evans) since #53 (in 1983).
When I asked Roderus what remained the same in all his novels–what was the constant–I was hoping he’d reveal to me the secret to writing a fresh and unique novel every time out of the gate.
“Oh, I do most earnestly hope there is no constant in them,” said Roderus, “at least not apart from reader involvement with my characters. Through the years I have been privileged to vicariously become a delightful array of people and professions. Cowboys, sure, but also badmen, telegraphers, storekeepers, drifters, snake oil salesmen… the list has gotten pretty long and I have enjoyed experiencing each of them. And hope to find more in the future.”
With Roderus, it all comes back to characters the reader can care about. Below, Roderus and I talk about writing fiction in general and writing the West in particular.
You’ve been writing Western stories since you were five, novels since the late 70s, and writing full-time since 1980… Are you still loving it?
Frank Roderus: I am still very much loving what I do and feel blessed to have had the opportunity for such a wonderfully enjoyable career. Writing has always been a joy for me and I did thoroughly enjoy my years as a newspaper reporter, but journalism is essentially a matter of finding something that is wrong and pointing that out to the readers. With fiction I can also point out that which is good in people. Besides, it is just plain fun to tweak the noses of the bad guys.
Where does a Western novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether? And how do you develop the novel from there?
Frank Roderus: My books nearly always start for me by way of a character. I will find someone in my thoughts and he will tell the story from there. I just sit back and mentally watch the show unfold bit by bit and put that down on paper as it happens. The situations these characters find themselves in can be prompted by a newspaper story or something read in a history book, by almost anything. Much of my pleasure reading is non-fiction and those, especially first person accounts from long ago, will sometimes influence my characters but they become very much their own persons. In fact, some of my best friends have been my own characters.
What does a first chapter need to do and how do you do it?
Frank Roderus: I would hope that my first chapters give the reader something to care about. Good, bad or simply setting a tone, for the reader to care is the important thing. Or so I believe.
Danny Southern, Harlan Breen, Lyle Wilson… What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling Western protagonist in particular?
Frank Roderus: There again, for the reader to care is most important. Notice that I do not say the reader has to like the character. He can hate the rotten lousy so-and-so, and that is quite all right, just so long as he wants to see the fellow get his comeuppance and sticks around for the ride toward that end. I have come to believe that as long as I care, I can create a character who the reader will also care about. But I must genuinely care in order for this to happen. I don’t think the protagonist in a Western is markedly different from a character in a crime novel, a noir piece or even a romance, though. Any differences are on the surface–does this guy ride a sorrel horse or drive a red Ferrari–the heart and the emotions are constants and those are the basis for storytelling.
And how about an antagonist?
Frank Roderus: Same thing. He can have shades of gray in his character but there should be an emotional involvement in one’s feelings toward him. The reader may even like him… but should want to see him fall as a matter of simple justice.
Any advice for writing action scenes?
Frank Roderus: Action scenes are generally easy to write. I watch them play out in my mind and put down what I “see” there. I do have my own emotional involvement though and am completely wiped out by the end of the scene, very much as if I had physically participated in them, just without the blood and the bruises.
The middle of your novels never sag. How do you keep the tension mounting, the plot moving, and the suspense building?
Frank Roderus: Oh, my. You can’t know how pleased I am for you to say that. Maintaining pace is not always a simple thing to do and I can’t always judge how well I have done it. What I try to remember in the middle of a yarn, when all the characters and the main direction of the story have been established, is to throw in some new problems for the protagonist to overcome. Those needn’t be central to the main story but they do need to be true to the character. You can also slip in something playful.
The end game… what does the final chapter need to do? How do you manage the fine balance between too many and too few threads tied up? How do you ensure the reader leaves satisfied and comes back for more when the next one comes out?
Frank Roderus: I probably am guilty of weaving too few threads, not too many. I just try to wrap up what is there so there is some closure for my protagonist, whether good guy or bad. Leaving the reader satisfied is always a goal but since I am not creating series characters there is no compelling reason for the reader to return. He knows he will not find someone familiar in my next book, but I do hope he will feel he can find someone interesting.
Speaking of the next one, what can we expect from Ransom?
Frank Roderus: Ransom is about relationships, man and woman, father and daughter, divorced man and his ex wife’s lover… and of course with a bad guy/kidnapper thrown into the mix.
Any parting words? Words of encouragement or caution for the writers out there?
Frank Roderus: Oh, encouragement, by all means. It has always been difficult to get into print, always will be, but it is worth the struggle. The thing a new writer must do is write something so darn good, so completely compelling, that an editor simply can’t turn it down.
As for caution, I would advise newcomers to avoid the easy route of e-pub until he has sold at least one book to a legitimate print publisher. There are two reasons for this. The first and more obvious is that the e-pub houses generally do not have staff to properly edit, and the writer needs the input of editorial staff in order to have his work fully judged. He really cannot adequately judge it himself. Secondly, and more important, the print houses have established distribution and distribution is the most difficult part of the publishing process. That said, writing is more fun than almost anything. Do it. Revel in it. And keep at it until you do get that miracle of an acceptance letter.
If I may toss in a bit of advice here, the Western Writers of America holds seminars at their annual meetings that can be invaluable to newcomers. While one must be published in order to become a member of WWA, you do not have to belong to the organization to attend the conventions. Check their website for details about those summer meetings. And once you are published, you might want to consider Western Fictioneers as a source of information, encouragement and fellowship also. It too has a website that may be of interest.