What Makes a Western a Western?


Tracy Garrett

Last month, while attending the Romantic Times BookLovers Convention to promote my latest release, TOUCHED BY LOVE, I had the pleasure of participating as part of a panel on “Historical Romance Through the Ages.” The writers, five in all, covered the gamut of settings, from 1100s Scotland, through Georgian, Regency and Victorian England, and across “the pond” to the American West.

Our discussion concerned what set apart a romance in our chosen time period. In my case, what makes a western a western.

Victorian HatsI enjoyed listening as those who wrote European-set stories discussed social mores, etiquette, keeping Mama happy, and buying just the right hat at the right store for that party that all the right people will attend.

In a western, in my opinion, the environment has more influence on stories than most other factors. Think pioneers, survival, and hardship; taking care of yourself and looking out for your neighbors because that’s what a good person does. Hats and parties were important, especially to young ladies of a “certain age,” but, for the most part, people concerned about survival don’t care if their clothes are the latest fashion – they’re just glad to have clothes to wear.

As to social etiquette, the proprieties were certainly observed, but I imagine they were often tossed off the wagon in deference to survival. Of course, the backlash of ignoring them makes for great conflict in our stories.

Covered Wagon

When a family moved west, they took what they could carry and left everything and everyone else behind. Letters moved slowly, if at all, leaving these westward pioneers isolated from everything familiar. They had to suck it up and create their own “familiar”, their own new lives, friends and routines. They even had to build their own surroundings. Young men suddenly had to provide for their families. Women learned to create a home wherever they decided to put down roots. It took real grit to make it when nothing was familiar. And if the crops failed, or a fire destroyed the house, or their livestock were rustled, they brushed themselves off and started over.

Westerns are about hope and opportunity. That’s a big part of why I love writing them. There was a chance for those who had “fallen” to redeem themselves or turn their backs on the past and begin again. No matter the hardships, they had an opportunity to make a happy-ever-after for themselves and the generations to follow.


How about you? What makes a western a western for you?


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14 thoughts on “What Makes a Western a Western?”

  1. Hello Tracy…Hope and opportunity. I think you hit the nail on the head there. One of the unwritten laws of the West was that you didn’t ask too many questions about background; everyone was starting fresh, and actions spoke louder than words. You became what you made of yourself, regardless of what you’d been in the past.

    For me, it’s that sense of hope and freedom that defines a Western. There’s the setting, of course, and there are common sources of conflict -lawless villains, the environment, the struggle to adjust to the unfamiliar – but people went west looking for a better life, and in Western novels they find it. That’s why I find them so satisfying, and that’s why I write them.

  2. Hi, Tracy. Well, Westerns are just different than pioneer type romances to me.

    I’ve heard it called Prairie Romance, books like Sarah Plain and Tall and Love Comes Softly.

    I suppose it’s the gunfire. 🙂

    But Stetsons, Colt revolvers, horses and spurs and lassoes. All part of the scene of a western. Honestly, the more I think about it, it’s the hat. Think of Pa Ingall’s hat in Michaal Landon’s Little House on the Praire series, as opposed to his hat on Bonanza. It made all the difference.

  3. Great post, Tracy!

    I think it embodies the hope that you mention and the chance to start again, something we all need from time to time. Also, there was the call of freedom to a people who had been living under the yoke of tyranny for so long. I think one has to factor in freedom in there too, it’s such a powerful influence.

  4. Good morning, Jennie. Thanks for stopping in. I’ve alwayss been interested in the idea of don’t ask, and that a person can leave everything behind and start fresh.

  5. Hi Tracy,

    With just having completed my big move, I can certainly relate to how those pioneer women felt. They had to learn to adapt to entirely new lives. They usually got to keep nothing from their life back East so everything was strange and probably scary in a way. I feel that way here. But I know I’ll get used to the newness and will find new familiar things.

    I agree with you about what makes a western. Those people didn’t have time or energy left to worry about clothes and fashion. They were too busy to waste time on trivial things. Very interesting blog! I’m chewing over the food for thought you gave me.

  6. Linda, I understand about moving and everything being unfamiliar. Hang in there. You’ll adapt just like they did.

    I’m fascinated by what people thought they had to have to start a new life. Can you imagine the people who refused to leave their piano behind? Knowing how tiny those wagons were, it seems a brave and interesting choice – music/art vs. more food or clothing or ammunition.

  7. Hi, I have heard them called Prairie romance too. IN my head, Westerns must have a setting West of the Mississippi River, no? There’s something about those wide open spaces. And give me a guy in a Stetson with a cool horse.

    Strong women are a no-brainer for me. I don’t want to read about a simpering ninny. I despise old historical movies when the heroine just stands there and screams. Dang, bash the bad guy with a chair or something. Grrrrrrrrrrr.

    Some houses (e.g. Wild Rose) have a catagory for “colonial” or American romance east of the river and pre or Civil War era.

    Thanks for the interesting post, Tracy.


  8. Hi Tracy, Loved your blog! Regencies and urban-set historicals are about “man vs. society.” Westerns have that element, but they’re also “man vs. nature.” Carving out a new life in the middle of nowhere was an amazing challenge. Men and women who moved west put their lives on the line. They engaged in life or death struggles. Talk about courage!

    I *do* think that, even today, there’s a difference between a western mentality and an eastern one. Westerners have an openness I don’t often encounter here in Washington DC.

  9. Tanya, I agree wholeheartedly. Or if the heroiine starts out spineless, she’d better grow through the book and save the day in the end.

    Vicki, that’s the perfect summation: Man vs. society or man vs. nature.

    Cheryl, that good vs. evil thing has to be there. A western without a villain to defeat just doesn’t fly.

  10. Western just have an element that shows the backbone of the characters as they go against impossible odds to win against natuere or evil. Love them.

  11. I think with the western, who the individual is as a person is more important than it is in the European historicals. The rigid social structure was not present in the west and a person, for the most part, was what they made of themselves. Of course there were exceptions – indians, mixed race, etc. – but when trying to survive in a new place far from family, who your family was doesn’t count for much.
    Rugged individualism seems to be the defining characteristic of the West and the characters in stories about it.

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