Kaki Warner: Realism in Western Romance


Romance novels are all about suspending belief and creating characters (especially men) who look, act, smell, move, react and think the way we wished real men did.  This is particularly true in the bedroom-or as is so often depicted in Western romances-on the back of a horse.


I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but that just can’t happen, not unless the characters were circus folk.  And even then, it would require a catatonically calm horse, a man so gifted at multi-tasking (is there such a thing?) that he can simultaneously hold the reins, maintain his balance on a moving horse, and enjoy a carnal interlude with a woman, who-let’s be honest here–would have to be as limber as a gymnast, tough enough to rise above (so to speak) belt buckles, holstered pistols and that nasty saddle horn, and not suffer motion sickness when facing backwards.  It could happen, I suppose.  But wouldn’t their heads crash together with every stride the horse took?

But you won’t find those unpleasant realities in a romance.  Or any of the other improbable, disgusting, shocking, and unmentionable things that TRULY did happen in the Old West.  Such as…

…that whole hygiene thing.  Let’s face it.  Real cowboys didn’t roam the range with a trunk of clean clothes, laundry detergent, shaving gel, a loofah, or (dare I say it?) toilet paper (which they called personal papers).  And what “personal papers” they might have were not quilted or scented or stamped with pretty flowers.  They were rough, scratchy, barely processed sheets of paper with splinters.  Ewe.

And you know that old saying about what bears do in the woods?  Well, cowboys not only did that, but they also relieved themselves onto their campfires (hopefully not while they were cooking).  They even had an expression for it-“Pissing out the fire and calling in the dogs.”  I know.  Disgusting.  And yet even today-and I’m not kidding here-men will happily do this when the opportunity presents itself.  I swear.  Supposedly, they do it to douse the flames so an errant spark won’t start a forest fire.  Maybe.  But I suspect they also like the sound it makes, and pride themselves on doing something no right-thinking woman would even attempt.  But I could be wrong.


And as long as we’re talking about disgusting things that are too realistic to be included in a Western Romance, what about tobacco?   Sure, sometimes cowboys fed it to their horses as a cure for worms, but mostly they chewed the stuff.  Which requires spitting.  Which is why it’s rarely mentioned, because really, how sexy can a hero be with a bulging cheek and a mouthful of brown spit?  I’m starting to make myself sick, so we’ll move on to actual smoking, which created its own set of problems in the Old West.  With no ashtrays handy, a fellow didn’t dare flick a lit match or hot cigarillo into the tender-dry brush.  So what did he do with the butt?  He put it out in his palm…AFTER dampening that palm with…you guessed it…spit.

But don’t expect to see that happen in a western romance.  Why?  Because we western romance authors have class.  And even though we might know what REALLY happened in the Old West, we also know how to dance that thin line between fantasy and reality.  That’s what we do, and we’re good at it.

But just for research purposes, what would a hero have to do to cross the line?  What is too gritty, and what is OK?

I’m giving away an autographed copy of my new book CHASING THE SUN (the third book in the Blood Rose Trilogy) to two lucky people who drop by and leave a comment.

Visit my website at www.KakiWarner.com

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35 thoughts on “Kaki Warner: Realism in Western Romance”

  1. Hi Kaki, welcome to Wildflower Junction! Your post has me laughing out loud. Just the thought of unbrushed teeth gets me gagging, so…I don’t think about stuff like this all that often. I want my heroes perfect. As for crossing the line…hmmm. Unwashed sox has an amazingly high yuck-factor; therefore, dirty skivvies have got me shivering.

    Thanks for posting today.

  2. Welcome Kaki,thanks for such a great post,gave me a chuckle while reading it,as a child my grandmother had a outhouse an a smoke house an she would make us to to either,we were afraid of that dark outhouse so we did our business behind the smokehouse,an she was so stingy she had a big Sears/Robuck catalog there for us to use,YUCK,this if funny now but not then,everytime we hear a car on the road we would hurry an run,lol,this was in the early 60’s,cant imagine kids doing that now

  3. Everything you said is so true. When I’m reading a romance novel I know that the cowboy, hero, etc. can’t really be as clean, handsome, polite and all that. haha.. And yes, we had an outhouse and newspapers when I was little! And a washtub in the front yard for baths. I’m glad times have changed!!

  4. Hi Kaki! Welcome to P&P! Loved your post on TMI–Too Much Information! I like a realistic story, but I’m happy to skip, shall we say, unpleasant sensory detail? LOL. Toothpaste, soap and laundry detergent are wonderful products, but toilet paper is the best!

  5. Loved this, Kaki. Thinking about what it really must’ve been like in the old days. The poor women out on the trail couldn’t do their hair for weeks on end or put on makeup. And I’ve done my own share of squatting in the sagebrush – only time I’ve ever envied that male attachment.
    As for the horse thing – yikes! Just glad I never put it in one of my books.
    Thanks for a smiling start to my day.

  6. I also had an outhouse and heating the water on the stove and taking a bath in the wash tub. I really love my inside bathroom. I just finished Chasing the Sun. I did not read it for two days because I knew it was the last of the Blood Rose story and just did not want it to end. When I started it I couldn’t put in down. These three books were WONDERFUL!!! I was so glad you told what all of them were doing in the future. I will be looking for your next books.

  7. Thank you ladies for the warm welcome. Visiting P&P is always a treat.

    Tanya–I agree. Some of the realities give me the shudders, too. Best not to think about it, right?

    Vicki–LOL–I’ve had the same experience with unexpected visitors–which never ended well.

    Patsy & Victoria–I like my fantasies, too. I get enough reality in real life.

    Elizabeth, I can’t imagine how women back then did without all the amenities we have today. I guess they were too busy trying to stay alive.

    Goldie–thanks for the wonderful compliment. I’m so glad you liked the Wilkins brothers.Wouldn’t it be great if they were real?

  8. I enjoyed your enlightening post today. It is harsh reality to understand what was real life at that time. Many of us have had to endure difficulties but nothing compared to those days.

  9. Hi Kaki, and welcome to P&P! I’m cracking up. When I’m writing romance (or reading it)I want my heroes to be perfect. LOL White teeth, (NO TOBACCO!)clean, (well, as much as could be allowed)and no mention of “personal papers” and what goes with them. Thanks for a good laugh to start my day! So glad to have you here with us at P&P.
    Cheryl P.

  10. Hi Kaki, loved your post and it kind of brought back old times. I also had an out house when we were growing up. I can remember being at my grandparents house and a guy came running in telling my grandfather that his outhouse was on fire. My aunts were out here smoking cigs. My grandfather just laughed at the guy and told him he knew his outhouse was on fire and he was going to start one his self when those girls got back to the house.

    Don’t enter me in the contest because I have all your books, awesome reads they are. So ladies if your haven’t read Kaki’s books they are a must read. You have to get this series.

    I can’t wait for your new books to come out. Thanks for sharing with us today.

  11. Hi Kaki,
    What a fun post and it’s true that I can’t imagine any of it making it’s way to a western romance. I think I take it for granted that there are situations in a story where ther is no bathing and little personal hygeine happening but it is better to just not have it mentioned in particular. I think it’s realistic that it isn’t a big topic of conversation since why would people notice something that’s lacking if they never had it

  12. In the western movies the bad guys usually have yellow rotten teeth. You just know this must have been the norm. This would not be in a romance novel. Sometimes I think I would like to live in a less tech world but I would not like to do without electricity, running water & indoor plumbing. I will be the first one to read your book at our library if I don’t win this one.

  13. Pearl, I think back then things were simpler–adapt or die. Nowadays life can be really complex, don’t you think?

    Thanks for the kind welcome, Cheryl. I’m delighted to be here.

    Quilt Lady, you’ve made my day. I really appreciate the support. And considering the lack of proper ventilation back then, it’s probably lucky your aunts didn’t blow themselves up.

    Maureen–good point. And as for none of it showing up in books…em, I have to confess one tiny little thing might have slipped into Book 1 of the new series–Heartbreak Creek. Look for it.

  14. Welcome, Kaki. I love that name! No water, no bathroom, no electricity, I remember it well. Of course the last time I was in that situation the electricity was off due to snow!

    As for the whole love thing on horseback, I have heard bragging about it. Just saying!

  15. Hi, Diane. I didn’t even think about teeth. Ick. You’re probably right, even though they did have tooth powder (mostly salt and baking soda) and brushes back then.

    Connie–really? Gads, I can hardly imagine it. Not that I’m trying to imagine it…

  16. I have read books where some of these private matters were handled tastefully, and I didn’t mind the mention. For example, one explained that the women on a wagon train formed circles and shielded each other with their skirts during necesary times.
    I would just as soon not know every personal detail about the hero or heroine. I am sure the heroines could get pretty smelly too, and some of them used snuff!

  17. To be honest, I don’t think about all that, no bad breath (in the morning or at any other time), always clean clothes and everyone is always as clean as one can be! 🙂 I sure want details about the life of people at that time, but there is a certain limit to it.
    I loved Pieces Of Sky! Great book!

  18. All of the above (shudder). I do chuckle sometimes when authors try to clean up their characters – there’s always a stream nearby lol. Thank goodness I can suspend belief and not think about some of the more disgusting problems. And I bet women doused themselves with perfumes too! I’ve heard that a lot of weddings were performed in June because they took their first baths after winter in May lol.

  19. Another good point, Judy H. I never thought about what you would have to do on a treeless/shrubless plain.

    ClaudiGC–Thank you so much. I’m so glad you liked it.

    Catslady, thanks for sharing that tidbit about the June weddings. And the perfume. (BTW, all this “stinky” talk is diminishing my appetite–sure makes dieting a lot easier).

  20. Enjoyed reading your article today. When I read a book, I want to use my imagination and not so much that of the author’s about the characters. A skillful author will lead the reader to develop these conclusions for their characters. Anyway, I think the chewing of tobaccy and spiting it out…ugh.

  21. Thanks Estella, Joye, and Colleen for coming by. It was a fun, goofy blog to write and I hope it lightened a dreary January day–it certainly did for me. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  22. Thanks, Melinda. I love my covers, too. I was really lucky with them and Berkley has been very supportive. The covers for the new series are along the same lines–so they should be easy to spot on the shelf, right? Right?

  23. It’s my first time reading here, and I loved your post, Kaki. I chuckled my way through 🙂 You make some good points about being realistic in Western romance and suspending disbelief. It’s true that as writers we need to know all this stuff so we can write our own stories without having to write “descriptive decriptions.” 🙂 I’ll take imagination, though, and will remember your sage advice while writing my own stories.

    Have to look your books up at my nearest bookstore, too!


  24. Apple Blossom–I appreciate that, and thanks for coming by.

    Alice, I agree about letting the imagination pick and choose. And thanks for looking up my books–I hope you like them.

  25. Great post. My big smile for the day. The chewing tobacco is what gets me. Who would want to kiss a mouth like that? Yuck. We had a young woman who would come into our library with a “chaw” in her cheek and floating pieces of tobacco on her teeth. If a cowboy walked up to his pretty lady and gave her a smile like that, she would probably turn and run for the hills.
    As for personal hygiene in less than optimum conditions, it is possible. I was in the Peace Corps for three years. You planned your travels according to where the best bathrooms (many just holes in the ground), water sources, and places to wash up were.
    You learned to carry your own TP. And by the way, long skirts still work well for instant screens. Many times, older women would just step to the side of the road, flare their skirt, squat, do their business and walk on.

    You don’t need to enter me in the giveaway. I have this series and am getting ready to read book 3. Love them. Good luck with the release of CHASING THE SUN.

  26. Hahahahahahah…. we girls were just having this conversation a few days ago!! =) Definitely would take a gymnast with football pads to walk away with her person intact! And sanitation… What a “hero!” At least if he’s got a chew he might have minty-fresh breath! =) But alas, we the fantasy… 🙂

  27. Kaki,
    first, this is cool and surprising to have one of my favorite authors guest posting on a website hosted by another of my favorite authors.

    i think your post told me more than i wanted to know about the west. i think the same problems apply to writing any historical, be it western, regency, Scottish, or medieval fantasy like i write. who wants to know about all the diseases and bad water and poor living conditions? no one. that’s not why we read. we want the realism without the disgusting factor.

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