The 1860s to 1890s were a shoot ’em up, bang ’em up period full of drinking, swearing, killing, and general lawlessness. So, how are you supposed to write a wholesome story set during the Wild West?
If you’re like me, you love Westerns. However, due to the romance and/or language contained in most Westerns, my parents didn’t allow me to read the genre until I reached my teens. Though I realize that every family has their own reading guidelines, I personally prefer to write books that all ages can enjoy.
While the Wild West can be a challenging era to cover, many authors have succeeded at it with various degrees of gritty and romantic content—from none to a sprinkle to a heavy layer. I’d like to help you navigate this topic by sharing tips on how to make a Western suitable for the whole family.
1. Focus on a Family
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series is an excellent example of stories that revolve around a family. Disasters happen and the characters experience trials, but most parents wouldn’t object to reading each book aloud to their children.
Writing about a family also means that a wide range of readers can relate to the characters and situations, which will broaden your book’s audience.
2. Depict Sin as Wrong
This applies to any book, but always show that the antagonist’s actions are contemptible. In my book A Mighty Fortress, the antagonist is an outlaw and his thoughts reveal that he’s aware of his wickedness:
Jed turned his head in time to see Tom stalk off and Lefty shaking his head, a disbelieving look on his face. Jed’s determination grew. He knew now that this would be his one and only chance to prove himself.
So a man would die to give him that chance—what did that matter to him? If he wanted to make it in the world of outlaws, he’d have to do some killing. Jed shivered despite the warmth of the autumn sun. He clenched his jaw and straightened his spine to rigid attention, all the while hardening his heart to the man he would be killing in a matter of hours.
This is only one of many tactics to portray evildoing. You can also demonstrate the consequences of a crime by sending the perpetrator to jail, or by subtly hinting that a deed is sinful. For more ideas, check out Hope Ann’s article on depicting darkness in storytelling.
I try to write realistic fiction, so I occasionally need to include characters who lead immoral lives. To accomplish this, I might mention that a woman is a prostitute, but I won’t describe her job in detail. In my book The Solid Rock, all I say about a prostitute is that she’s expecting a child and is afraid she’ll be fired because of it. Moreover, I clearly convey that her profession is depraved. She was forced into it and longs to escape, but she doesn’t know how.
This is how I introduced such a character in one of my books:
He forced himself to breathe evenly and reached for the knife in his thigh holster. With as tough and evil a voice as he could imitate, he spoke, “State your intentions.”
“I came to warn you,” a feminine voice said. The voice was quiet, almost shy, and trembled.
Joshua put the knife back in the holster. “About what?”
“The men who took Mr. Harris talk too much to us. We know more than we say for fear we will lose our jobs.”
“Why are you here then?” Joshua glanced outside. It was still dark. Probably not more than two hours after midnight. “Shouldn’t you still be working?”
“Under normal circumstances, yes.”
Joshua eased out of the bed and struck a match to light a candle, but the girl gasped.
“No! It’s best if you do not see me.”
Joshua narrowed his eyes as he blew out the match. “Why?”
“Please trust me.”
“I’m not in the habit of trusting women like you.”
The young woman shifted her feet. “I would be worried if you were. I know you are an honorable man or I wouldn’t have dared come in here.”
These scenes are a balancing act. On one hand, prostitutes and outlaws were common in the Wild West. On the other, adding them will raise the rating, so to speak. One way to tiptoe along the tightrope is to have characters discreetly discuss the immorality of certain activities.
3. Reference the Bible
Scripture addresses numerous tough subjects in an appropriate manner, as you would expect from an almighty, loving God. By imitating the Bible’s tact, you can deal with outlaws, prostitutes, and the like without disturbing readers.
The Bible was prevalent in the Wild West—perhaps even more so than now. It was one book almost every family owned. From my research, people often learned to read using the Bible. Thus, even if a character doesn’t follow God, he might still be familiar with Scripture. An outlaw could quote a verse out of context (or even in context), or he might listen to the Bible being read around the campfire.
However, as you’re attempting to be authentic to the time period, don’t beat people over the head with the Bible. Story Embers has published multiple articles about weaving Christianity into fiction, but Josiah explains it the most thoroughly.
4. Handle Swearing Creatively
In the Wild West, as in any frontier, characters will encounter rough individuals who swear copiously. But how can foul language be represented in a family-friendly story?
Strategy #1: Exclude swearing. This may seem like the chicken’s way out, but I think it can work. A note stating your reasons for omitting expletives might help. This advice would pertain more to a children’s book, however.
Strategy #2: Rely on phrases like “His words should have made everyone blush” or “He swore like a sailor.” Be careful not to continually repeat the same phrase or this will feel like a cop-out though. Aim for variance and creativity.
5. Highlight the Events Rather than the Romance
Don’t be fooled by the Christian label on some Westerns. Many are mushy romances or at least have a romantic thread. Parents may steer their children away, and even some young adults will be put off by the books. During my childhood and teen years, I read a few romances I regret. They were all allegedly Christian or clean, but they stirred up emotions I shouldn’t have been feeling yet.
That said, a good romance can enhance a book. But how do you avoid going overboard? By focusing on each individual’s life and letting the romance bud from that without becoming the story’s axis.
My second published book, Be Thou My Vision, chronicles Anna’s life after she learns of her brother’s death. Near the story’s beginning, she returns to church after a long absence and befriends two boys who have lost their mother. She offers to take care of them while their father works, and over the course of a year or so, Anna and the boys’ father fall in love. But their romance is not the center of the story. The spotlight is on Anna and how she interacts with everyone around her after her brother’s passing.
I also keep the kissing descriptions to a minimum in my books. They are present, but I limit the action to a sentence or two—similar to seeing your parents kiss. Kissing is normal for a couple in love, but you don’t need to dwell on it.
Of course, you can dodge the problem altogether by excluding romance from your story, but that will depend on the plot and your goals.
6. Use a Force as an Antagonist Instead of an Outlaw
The most obvious antagonist in a Western would be an outlaw. However, if you feature an outlaw, you’ll probably have trouble keeping your novel family-friendly, although it’s possible since I’ve done it myself.
There is an alternative though. Instead of outlaws, I’ve had my characters fight against rumors, jealous suitors, prejudice, blackmailers, pride, and money. The book might be less heart racing, but sometimes readers prefer the quieter thrill of wondering how the characters will overcome obstacles. To be clear, a book with this type of antagonist will be character-driven rather than plot-driven.
Since these are tips rather than steps, you don’t have to implement all of them. You could mix and match them or use only one. However you choose to apply them, I hope they’re beneficial.
Be encouraged that family-friendly Westerns have been written before and can be again. I would love to see more lining bookstore shelves. I adore the genre, but often end up reading novels that I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with my little brother until he’s older.
Now, get on out there, cowboys and cowgirls! You’ve got some writin’ to do!
Faith Blum is a small-town Wisconsin girl. She’s lived in, or outside of, small towns her whole life. The thought of living in a city with more than 60,000 people in it scares her, especially after some interesting adventures driving through big cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Faith currently resides in the middle of Wisconsin with her husband and their cat, Smokey. She is blessed to be able to have writing as her full-time career, with household work and cooking to do on the side.
When not writing, you can find her cooking food from scratch due to food allergies, doing dishes, knitting, crocheting, sewing, reading, or spending time with her husband. She is also a community assistant for the Young Writers Workshop and loves her work there. She enjoys hearing from her readers, so feel free to contact her on her website.