My newest short story will be available in print and ebook on Thursday, October 1. It's called "The Midnight Train," and it's in the fine anthology Under Western Stars, from the Western Fictioneers organization.
My novella "Byrd's Luck," published in the previous WF anthology, was a finalist for the Spur Award and the Peacemaker Award, two of the most prestigious awards in the Western writing biz. No telling if this one will be as well, but one never knows. This is a slightly more traditional Western story, about a guy waiting for a train on which his beloved may or may not be arriving--but on which a known outlaw is definitely arriving.
These books are labors of love for the editor and the writers; all the proceeds go to support the organization, which doesn't charge its members dues (much like the International Thriller Writers, to which I also belong).
I hope you'll give "The Midnight Train" a try, and let me know what you think.
Writing historical Westerns involves doing a ton of research (at least for me, because I write in multiple genres--some Western writers I know seem like they were alive in the 1870s, because they have it all at their fingertips). For me, it's lucky that I have a large library of Western history and natural history, and access to the internet for more.
Which leads right into the secondary topic mentioned up there ^^: cultural appropriation. It's a buzzword in literary circles these days, and it was largely responsible for the near-demolition of the career of Jeanine Cummins, who wrote American Dirt, about a Mexican bookseller trying to reach El Norte. Here's a piece that describes the controversy that erupted. I haven't read the book and don't have an opinion on it.
What I do have an opinion on is the idea that people can only write about characters who are just like themselves, which seems to be the end-point of what the cultural-appropriation police are pushing. I've written about all kinds of characters: superheroes, cops, Black people, LGBTQ BIPOC, cowboys, Indians, LatinX people, monsters, and more. Also White men, of which I am one. My most recently published novel, in fact, took place almost entirely in Colombia, where I've never been, and involved LatinX people around Pablo Escobar, who I've never met. I've certainly never been a billionaire drug lord.
But I believe in research and sensitivity and care. I believe that part of the benefit of reading fiction is that it allows readers to step into the skins of people who are not like them, so they can find out what different lives might be like. And part of the appeal of writing it is that it allows writers to inhabit the heads of people who are not like them, to imagine what different lives might be like. This is particularly true when writing historical fiction, because NO writer alive today was around to experience the Dark Ages or the Enlightenment or the Civil War or the American West of the 1870s. Regardless of our cultural background, we need to put in the work to know and understand those times.
This week, a female Asian TV writer asked the New York Times's ethicist (yes, the NYT has an ethicist, and the columns are often enlightening) what her responsibilities are when asked to work on shows about Black protagonists. interesting points, which I'll quote at some length (emphasis mine)., the ethicist, made some
"There’s another issue to weigh — call it identity expertise. You could worry that, if you’re not Black, you’ll get things wrong about a Black character. (I’m talking about one in a narrative setting that aims for some measure of social realism; I’m not talking about a Black Mandalorian.) This can be a legitimate concern, although there are many kinds of Black characters, and Black writers, too, can certainly make a mess of them, because of the way gender, class, sexuality and the like shape experience as well. Or simply because they’re lousy writers. The same goes, I’m sure you’ll agree, for the many kinds of Asian characters.
"To be sure, what’s sought, in the guise of expertise, is often something else: Call it an identity permit. Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black,” whose title character escapes slavery in 1830s Barbados, is a marvel of craft, research and imagination. The author is from Calgary, of Ghanaian parentage, and we’d be succumbing to racial primordialism — not to mention disserving her accomplishment — if we supposed that her being Black gave her expertise about the world of her novel; she put in the work. (And there are plenty of terrific white characters in the novel, too.) An identity permit, then, doesn’t need to be cashed out by experience. Conversely, if you lack an identity permit, putting in the work might not matter: A white woman of my acquaintance wrote a deeply researched novel set in early 19th-century America with a Black protagonist; despite the success of her previous novels, her publisher wouldn’t touch it."
"Even in situations where identity expertise might be real and relevant, it doesn’t justify having only Black writers on projects with Black protagonists, any more than it would justify having only white writers when the main characters are white. So long as you’ve got a good ear and a supple imagination, the rule is: What you don’t know, you can work up. We don’t want an approach in which writers and characters must match up, one to one, in their racial or ethnic identities. That way lies a system in which Shonda Rhimes doesn’t get to write a series centered on the white surgeon Meredith Grey; in which George Eliot (being neither male nor Jewish) doesn’t get to tell the story of Daniel Deronda. Pretty soon, all storytelling would be confined to autofiction."
To be clear, I'm in favor of Black writers and Native writers and queer writers and disabled writers and every other kind of writer being published. A world in which the only writers who are read are White men would be just as boring as one in which, as Appiah says, "writers and characters must match up, one to one." As a White male, I'm sure that I've had opportunities that others haven't. I like to think that's because I work hard and try to tell good, honest stories about real people, but that might just be White privilege talking. The publishing business has long been mostly populated and run by White people, and it's undeniable that they've gravitated toward stories about people like them. That's changing, now, and the change is for the better.
But I wouldn't want an editor telling a Black author that she couldn't write convincingly about White people, and I don't want one telling me that I can't write about non-White people. Authors have a responsibility to get things right, and they should be judged on how well they do that. If they screw up, if they fail to understand the culture they're writing about, they can be called on that. And some dives into particular cultures are genuinely too deep to be written about convincingly by someone not of that culture. I couldn't have written Stephen Graham Jone's fine The Only Good Indians, for example, and it would've been a disaster had I tried.
I'm not trying to stir up any controversy here, just explaining where I'm coming from, and using today's Ethicist column as a springboard. YMMV, and that's okay. After all, I don't live in your head.