There is tremendous irony in how popular the Western genre of Historical Romance is with today’s readers.
After all, life in the Western United States in the late 19th century was hardly the stuff romantic dreams were made of.
Sweaty saddles, dusty bedrolls, boll weevils in the breakfast bowl, horse flies feasting on your neck and only the most rudimentary levels of sanitation. Not exactly Harry Met Sally.
And during the Gold Rush era, romance was barely mathematically possible as there was a severe shortage of ladies in the bustling, burgeoning Barbary Coast area. The fairer sex were even scarcer in the desolate hills of the Gold Country and the few women who did reside in the region were…uh um…mostly of the working variety.
So why is it that historical novelists such as myself and well informed readers…like you…cling so tightly to the notion there is romance in the air of those Western Skies?
For me, there always was something undeniably, absolutely captivating about the wide open spaces of the West. In fact, in writing In Golden Splendor, the second novel of my Heirs of Ireland series, I discovered the landscapes themselves became a central character in the book.
They became inseparably entwined in the courtship of the story. Here are some examples:
Any good romance starts with our leading lady or man with a yearning in their heart, a sense of aloneness. The great expanses of the unexplored wilderness of the West naturally provoke emotions of deep yearning, always a key to a great romance.
Even at a distance, the ribs of the great beast showed through its patchy and scarred chestnut fur. Through the barrel’s eye, Seamus tracked the young bull as it limped its way over to an aspen tree. The elk raised its head, crowned in mockery by horns uneven and fractured.
Did it catch his scent?
Then the animal relaxed, bared its teeth, and tugged on a low-lying branch, releasing a powdery mist of fresh snowfall and uncovering autumnal leaves of maroon, amber and burnt orange. Brilliant watercolor splashes on a white canvas.
In the deadly stillness of a finger pointed on a trigger, Seamus shared a kinship of loneliness and futility with his prey, whose ear flapped and jaw bulged as it chewed.
What is romance without beauty, whether it is expressed through a perfectly sculpted face or experienced in the depths of a pure heart? When it comes to landscapes of the American West there are few areas on our planet that offer as seductive a setting for an epic journey of the soul.
Can you imagine being the first to capture sights of Yosemite? Long before there were roads and campgrounds?
There spinning beneath them, breathlessly and seemingly miles below, was a valley finely tailored in a stunning cloak of white and generously covered with snow-flocked forestry. It lay at the base of a symphony of granite that reached like grateful hands up to the heavens. Tears of adoration poured freely from great waterfalls that descended with fullness, despite the lateness of the season. Behind this all, the sun lowered its head beneath the distant edge of the crucible, pouring into the sky cottony plumes of pink, rose, and rusted orange.
Just as the thorn to the rose, the territory of the West can prove to be the perfect villain in the story, an antagonist who challenges our heroes to the core of their being:
Now also coming into clarity was the gruesome evidence of the trail’s savagery. Lining either side of the pathway were the tragic debris of failed crossings. Sun-blanched rib cages and scattered bones of oxen, horses, mules, as well as broken wagon frames and wheels with missing spokes. Even more haunting were the discarded dolls and toys and even cribs, a reminder of how death dealt no better hands to the young.
The Ephemeral Moods
This scenery of the West as well can prove to be a treasured palette for authors, allowing us to shift emotion and moods of a story.
The harbor fog drifted in as they weaved between the ghost ships, amidst the lofting smells of dead fish, rotting wood, and mildew. The waves splashing against the hulls and moans of bending timber and strained ropes added to the eeriness of the evening. The farther they were from the shoreline, the more desolate and forbidden became this naval graveyard.
Characters of Strength
But the rich scenery is far from the only tool of the Western-themed novelist. Also in romancing the West a writer can tap into the deep complexity and intrigue of those who would respond to such a Manifest Destiny in their lives.
What great romance awaits such complex characters!
Which is why in the blending of all of this mostly male humanity, the woman who approached appeared so extraordinary and so out of place. She was dark enough in skin color to be Mexican, but her facial features were European, with high cheeks and taut skin. Her hair flowed freely, brown and straight and nearly all the way to her glistening silver belt buckle. She glanced at Seamus with playful and alluring eyes.
Yet rather than being dressed in the bright, ornamental dresses off the painted ladies in town, she was dressed more as a man, with leather leggings, a red plaid shirt, spurred boots, and a black flat-brimmed hat. Most notably, she swayed with confidence and strength.
The Pen is Yours
What about you? What do you think makes the American West such a perfect accompaniment for romance?
One of the commenters who answers Michael’s question will win an autographed copy of his or her choice from the Heirs of Ireland series: Flight of the Earls, In Golden Splendor, or Songs of the Shenandoah. Click on the book covers above to find out more about each book. The winner will be announced Sunday evening (Aug. 23).
Michael K. Reynolds’s debut novel, Flight of the Earls, about the Great Irish Potato Famine was a finalist for RT Book Reviews 2013 novel of the year award in the category of Inspirational Romance. In Golden Splendor, set during the San Francisco Gold Rush, earned fourth place as Forewords Best Historical Novel of 2013 and Songs of the Shenandoah, the Civil War-era conclusion to the trilogy was a Top Pick in RT Book Reviews, as well as a finalist for RT’s Book Reviews Book of the Year and was the Gold Award Winner as Forewords Best Historical Novel of 2014.