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Advice for writers

Writing a Western: A Journey Into the Wild Frontier

writing a western 1

How to Write a Western That Captures the Frontier Spirit

Are you a writer with a deep passion for the Old West, drawn to the rugged landscapes, iconic characters, and timeless stories of the Western genre? Writing a compelling Western novel is a rewarding endeavor that allows you to explore a wide range of subgenres and themes. Let’s take a look at the basics of how to write a Western novel, from exploring subgenres to conducting research and drawing inspiration from classics in the genre.

Once you’re ready to publish, submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press! Our expert publishing team will ensure your book is treated right and introduce the next Western classic to an eager audience.

Selecting Your Western Subgenre

Western novels encompass a variety of subgenres, each with its unique flavor and themes. The first step in crafting your Western is to decide which subgenre aligns with your vision. Here are a few popular options:

Classic Western: This subgenre takes place in the 19th-century American West and often features cowboys, outlaws, and pioneers. Think of iconic figures like John Wayne in The Searchers.

Historical Western: Delve into the rich history of the Old West, weaving real events and characters into your narrative. This subgenre demands thorough research to maintain historical accuracy.

Frontier Romance: Combine the excitement of the Wild West with the allure of romance. Ideal for those who love stories of star-crossed lovers against a Western backdrop.

Weird West: Blend the Western with elements of fantasy or the supernatural. Imagine a gunslinger facing off against supernatural creatures or magic in a dusty, lawless town.

Revisionist Western: Challenge the traditional Western narrative by subverting stereotypes and presenting complex characters and moral ambiguity.

Common Themes of Westerns

Themes are the backbone of any novel, and the Western genre is no exception. Choosing a compelling theme helps add more weight to your novel as you write. Consider the following themes that can add depth to your Western story:

Freedom vs. Civilization: Many Westerns explore the tension between the untamed frontier and the encroachment of civilization. This theme can drive your characters’ choices and conflicts.

Justice and Redemption: Westerns often feature characters seeking redemption or dispensing their own form of justice in a lawless land.

Survival: Life in the Old West was tough, and survival was a daily struggle. This theme can create suspense and dramatic tension in your novel.


For your Western novel to feel authentic, research is key. Dive into the following areas to gain a deeper understanding of the era:

History: Study the history of the American West, including the Gold Rush, Indian Wars, and famous outlaws like Billy the Kid or Jesse James.

Geography/Scenery: Familiarize yourself with the diverse landscapes of the West, from the arid deserts of Arizona to the lush forests of Oregon.

Cultural Aspects: Understand the Native American tribes, Hispanic influence, and various immigrant communities that shaped the West.

Primary Sources: Read diaries, letters, and firsthand accounts of people who lived in the Old West to get a sense of their experiences.

Drawing Inspiration from Classics

To master the art of writing and storytelling in the Western genre, it’s essential to draw inspiration from classic works. Here are a few timeless classics to kickstart your creativity:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an epic tale of friendship, adventure, and loss set against the backdrop of the Texas frontier.

True Grit by Charles Portis: A gripping story of vengeance, bravery, and justice, narrated by a spirited young girl seeking retribution for her father’s murder.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt: A darkly humorous, modern take on the Western, featuring two hitmen on a morally ambiguous journey during the California Gold Rush.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: A challenging but brilliant work that explores the brutality and darkness of the Old West, pushing the boundaries of the genre.

Character Development

In the Western genre, characters often take center stage. Create memorable and authentic characters by considering their motivations, flaws, and complexities. Your protagonist should have a compelling backstory and a clear goal, while your antagonists should be equally well-rounded.

Setting the Stage

Transport your readers to the Old West by vividly describing the environment. Use sensory details to evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of the frontier. Weather, wildlife, and changing landscapes should all play a role in shaping the atmosphere of your novel.

Dialogue and Diction

Crafting realistic dialogue is crucial. Research the speech patterns and slang of the time, but be careful not to overdo it. Use Western idioms and expressions sparingly to maintain authenticity without confusing your readers.

Conflict and Action

Westerns are often filled with action, whether it’s a gunfight at high noon, a horseback chase, or a showdown in a saloon. Build tension and suspense by pacing these scenes effectively.

Writing a Western novel is a rewarding journey into a bygone era, teeming with possibilities for memorable characters and gripping stories. Choose your subgenre, research diligently, draw inspiration from classics, and immerse your readers in the sights and sounds of the Old West. With the right blend of historical accuracy and creative storytelling, you can craft an authentic Western novel that captivates readers and keeps the spirit of the Wild West alive in literature. So, saddle up, partner, and start writing your Western adventure today!

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