Caroline Lawrence on Writing the Wild West

Caroline Lawrence is American. She won a scholarship to Cambridge to read Classical Archaeology, then did a degree in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London.She lives with her husband, a graphic designer, by the river in London and is active as a speaker in schools and at book festivals. She is the winner of the 2009 Classics Association Prize for ‘a significant contribution to the public understanding of Classics’.In addition to the 17 novels in the ROMAN MYSTERIES sequence, Caroline Lawrence has written 5 spin-off titles, all of which have contributed to total UK sales in excess of 1 million copies.


How does a London-based city-gal put herself in the Wild West, considering she hates dust and shares Ian Flemings opinion of horses? (He once quipped that horses were uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends)

I do it by travelling back in time to a gold rush town of the 1800s.

And what better town than Deadwood, setting of a great gold rush and a great HBO TV series, to boot. Of course, you cant actually go back in time to visit Deadwood, but you can do the next best thing.

Arriving for Melody Ranch Movie Night
Arriving for Melody Ranch Movie Night

You can visit the Melody Movie Ranch where the award-winning TV western was filmed. Its only open to the public one weekend a year but what a weekend that is: the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival! This is where western fans from all over the world can gather, wear their cowboy hats and geekily rejoice in their shared adoration of all things Western.

Its fitting that I attend this festival because six years ago Deadwood was the inspiration for my new series of books, The Western Mysteries. Watching that profane, violent and totally believable programme I got me excited about the western genre. I revisited some favourite old films I hadnt seen since I was a kid and found the best of them had held up brilliantly. That gave me the notion that a western revival might be long overdue, especially among kids.

The first time I went to the Cowboy Festival, in May of 2010, we kicked off with a ticketed event, a Friday night dinner and a movie on an inflatable screen. The organisers put out round tables with red and white checked tablecloths on the iconically famous western street. We watched High Noon on the street where it was filmed. Even before the film started I met some useful people. Standing in line for fried chicken and cornbread I got to talking to the Sampitch Kid, who told me about the Single Action Shooting Society, where you can try out cap and ball firearms for real. Filling up my souvenir tin mug with black coffee, I met a couple who told me about the Silverton Railway in Durango, Colorado. And over peach cobbler, Western journalist Mark Bedor recommended the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson Arizona. He assured me it was the best place in America to learn to ride a horse. A few months later, in November, my husband Richard and I were there!

Over the next two days of the festival proper, I met other Western fans, some in costume and some not. I also heard musicians, cowboy poets and re-enactors.

Caroline and David Rainwater
Caroline and David Rainwater

I listened to a fiddler playing Camptown Races, admired a gunslinger doing tricks with his six-shooter, and ate food cooked in the authentic chuck wagon way.I interviewed a blacksmith, watched a pioneer woman spinning wool, talked to Buffalo Soldiers and heard a Civil War brass band.

Melody Ranch Blacksmith
Melody Ranch Blacksmith

I even bought a buckskin jacket, put it on and felt the velvety skin and swinging fringe. In other words I experienced some sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of the old west. (There were some hot dry winds stirring up dust at the 2011 Cowboy Festival, so I even got to sneeze the Wild West.)

Santa Clarita isnt the only place to experience the old West. My sidekick… er, husband Richard and I have now visited ghost towns, real towns, ghost forts, Indian reservations, etc. in California, Nevada and Arizona.

At Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, not far from the White Stallion Dude Ranch, we saw a stagecoach pulled by four horses and watched dancing girls frolic in the saloon. In Virginia City, Nevada, the town where my new series is set, we descended into several mines. We also visited the jail,  the fire house and a crypt behind a saloon that legend claims was once the coroners mortuary. During a Civil War re-enactment weekend in Virginia City, I watched a demonstration of how women used to get dressed in the 1800s. The poor things wore a minimum of seven items of clothing. And they put their boots on first. Once your corset and hoop skirt are on, theres no way you can bend over to do up your shoes!

On each of these research trips I have experienced something new of the old west, and met experts in various fields. My greatest find has been Carolyn Eichin innkeeper of the B Street B&B in Virginia City. She has given me so many resources and good ideas that I will dedicate my next book to her.

Horseshoe with P.K Initials
Horseshoe with P.K Initials

I try to get a souvenir of each place so when I visit schools I can concretely demonstrate the similarities and the differences between us and them. One of my favourite artefacts is a pony’s horse-shoe that a blacksmith made for me that first Saturday at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. He hammered in the initals P.K., for the 12-year-old hero of my new series.

Whenever I hold that horse-shoe, I remember the clink of the blacksmith’s hammer on iron, the heat of the furnace, the smelled the smoke, the hiss as he put it in a bucket of water to cool. It reminds me that in 1862 there was no train near Virginia City so the main mode of transportation was horse power.

But most of all it reminds me that Ian Fleming was right about horses. Six months after our horse riding session at the White Stallion Ranch, I still have sore ribs.

I guess I’ll always be a city gal at heart.

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Buy: The Western Mysteries: The Case of The Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence from The Book DepositoryCaroline Lawrence gives the inside story of her new series The Western Mysteries Twitter
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