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By Anne Schroeder

A reader might not be able to articulate what makes a compelling women’s western novel—but she knows it when she sees it.

It’s a combination of Ahaa! Attagirl! Whoopie! and Wow!

Ahaa! is self-discovery. The “I never thought about that—but she’s right!” factor that we multi-faceted gals need in our novels. It’s a deep primary storyline that pulls us through new territory; a fresh look at nuances of human experience that we recognize, but haven’t spent a lot of time musing over; fresh solutions to old problems that frame our ancestors’ actions in ways that connect us.

As authors of such novels, we begin with a premise that everyone does the best they can with the information they have. Then we dig into our research and write a story that debunks or expands pioneer myths and defends our ancestors’ hard choices.

Attagirl! is the action element of a novel that keeps the heroine moving forward. We begin with a female character and we give her a compelling personality that includes quirky mannerisms, grit and determination. Then we add a handicap, a seemingly insurmountable problem, fallen virtue—whatever moves our storyline forward as our heroine encounters larger-than-life setbacks.

Whoopee! is the romance and the sex. Every story needs it, but not always to the same degree. Often, western writers shy away from the romance. “I want to be taken seriously and not be seen as a romance writer,” they say. But they forget that the relationship aspect is important to women readers—and vital to a well-rounded story.

The writer’s cardinal rule is to make the story true to the character—and at the same time to write for the reader. This doesn’t have to mean writing a torrid “Love in the Sun” scene. If the devil is in the details, so is the romance. Try nuanced dialogue and sweetness—a shy man thrusts a tin mug of water at a girl and spills it over her, leaves a wilted wildflower on a wagon seat, brings a dripping, unskinned rabbit as a supper gift—little surprises tucked throughout that portray a well-intentioned wooer with more daring than sense.

Wooers can be clumsy and unsuccessful. A girl can lose in love. She might reject her suitor or spoil her chances, choose single life, don men’s clothing and become a muleskinner, but the romance needs to be shown—maybe as she witnesses a girl who took the other path to wife and motherhood. Regrets are part of romance, too.

Wow! is the grandeur of the western setting. The existence of pioneer settlers depended on the vagaries of weather, setting and circumstance; a compelling western begins with the soil and work inward.

Wow! demands authenticity: western deserts have rules for survival; mountains and plains have others. Coastal states have earthquakes, fog and torrential rain. Farmers and ranchers endure different struggles within the same seasons. Women have a different way of relating to nature—often the more difficult chore of waiting.

That’s all we have time for. Write it on the palm of your hand: Ahaa! Attagirl! Whoopee! and Wow!

—The above essay was originally published in the Women Writing the West newsletter. Anne Schroeder’s newly released memoir, Ordinary Aphrodite, explores the baby boomer’s journey through the past forty years. She teaches writing online through RWA, and at writer’s conferences.



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