"The Western: Dead or Alive OR Just in a Coma?" with Randi Platt

March 22, 2001

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor for this site and author of 24 novels and 150+ articles for adults. She also taught writing for 15 years.

Randi is Randall (Randi) Platt, author of fiction for adults and young adults. Of her eight books, three are westerns: The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko, The Royalscope Fe-As-Ko, and Base-ball Fe-As-Ko.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews are held on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to tonight's interview with Randi Platt. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Tonight should be fun as we discuss "The Western: Dead or Alive OR Just in a Coma?" Randi Platt writes fiction for adults and young adults. (Two of her novels have been optioned for film.) Of her eight books, three are westerns. Welcome, Randi!

Randi: Thanks. This is going to be fun!

Moderator: Randi, how did you get started writing?

Randi: I get asked that a lot. I can remember the day well. I was in second grade and my teacher introduced something called...just the sound of it makes me cringe...story problems! This means that little Susie has $1.20 to go to the store to buy some apple for her mother, but WHAT IF Susie gets mugged on the way to the store? What if Susie has to pay her bookie? In other words, story problems were, to me, just that: story problems. So ever since, I've been coming up with my own story problems. That's the good news. The bad news is I still can't balance my checkbook!

Moderator: You WERE a born writer! What is a typical writing day like for you?

Randi: My PERFECT day is - up at four a.m. Yes, four. I work at creating for at least 8 hours. Then lunch, a nap, then I do errands and what I call my idiot work - called that because my brain power isn't very much at that point. Then, it's to the gym where I will play handball for two hours or so. Or walk, or bike, or swim.

Moderator: Why such a strenuous lifestyle?

Randi: I really think a writer needs this kind of balance. Writing is so internal, so sedate. I need a balance with the physical. The writing is the spiritual, the working out is the physical. I'm in bed by 8 p.m. and that's the down side.

Moderator: I'm impressed! Moving on to the topic for tonight and some background... First, what are some common conflicts found in westerns?

Randi: Well, of course, the main conflict of good versus evil. Then with westerns we have the conflict of man (or woman) versus the environment, which of course is the rugged Western setting. Also there are David and Goliath stories, the little guy versus the big guy. And the western usually has themes of expansion or Manifest Destiny. Man will go where man can go...buffalo, Indians, and cattle barons all coming along for the western ride.

Moderator: What are some typical plot elements in a western?

Randi: Of course, the environment itself figures into westerns. Plus robberies, shoot outs, posses, cattle rustlers. All these are the 'typical'--even stereotypical--elements of the traditional western.

Moderator: What about the heroes of western stories?

Randi: Again, we see these 'typical' heroes. These are the people who settled the west, starting with the early explorers, frontiersmen, trappers. Then we come into pioneers and the settlers. The western hero, though, if you look at your favorite western, is usually a man of few words. Many times he has a secret past. Or he is running away from something, or is looking for something. Sometimes it's the ranchers versus the farmers, the Free Rangers versus fences. But always you will see that David and Goliath theme. Also the theme of honor--or the code of the west--is prevalent in most typical westerns. These to me are the best kind: more character studies and shoot 'em ups!

Moderator: Randi, you've had two novels optioned for films. First, how would you define a Western film?

Randi: Again, I think the elements are pretty much the same, although I think Hollywood takes much more liberty with what they consider a 'western' than publishing does. Hollywood likes to break rules and molds. But I would like to see more of these 'classic' elements expanded again, more character studies, more people stories and less bang! bang! You're dead.

Moderator: Can you give us any background on Western films?

Randi: You bet. First, go back to the 1880's when Buffalo Bill was putting on his Wild West shows. These were eventually 'filmed' as Mutoscopes, those penny peep shows where you would crank a handle and see someone doing something 'western,' a cattle drive or Buffalo Bill himself. This built upon the passion we have always had for the western, as seen through the popularity of penny dreadfuls, dime western novels. So then along comes real film. The first real movie with an actual plot, a story line, was The Great Train Robbery in 1903. It had characters and a story to tell, conflict and resolutions. And it made money and defined a new genre. Some of the earliest stars were lords of the west, too: William Shart, Bronco Billy, Hoot Gibson, and Buck Jones. Even back then, in the early teens, western stars brought with them star quality! So the western brought a certain legitimacy to the genre of western lore. Books read behind the barn or under the covers were now the fodder for stories told and told again through the new media of film.

Moderator: How have westerns changed? I grew up on Zane Grey. What's different today?

Randi: I just finished a stint as a judge for the Spur Award which the Western Writers of America sponsors each year. I had to read about 50 paperback novels published last year and rank them. It was such a challenge. But in answer to your question, I would say, for the most part, that not a lot has changed in the western genre. Now, is that good? For me, I would have to say that isn't necessarily a good thing. I worry that western writers and readers haven't advanced into the newer territories of plot and character. Give me a western with a real tweak to it. Of course, I don't read a lot of genre fiction.

Moderator: What is true and what is false in what we've been taught about the Old West?

Randi: I would say that about 90 percent of it is false. First of all, we are talking about a true west period of only a few decades of history. After a while, the retold, rehashed stories get glorified until they are certainly more legend than truth. I would encourage writers to explore new stories of the west, read diaries, journals, find old history books, go looking for the untold story, look for new characters. The heroes of our west--the cowboys, the Indians, the cavalry--have been done and done. Go looking for the new stories that have yet to be told. Now, you might find a publisher who is hesitant to explore these new areas, but what a joy to find a whole new set of western heroes, locations, and conflicts.

Kevin: Like what, in general, is in the 90% of the false stuff?

Randi: I would say the lore that goes with a famous event, like Custer's last stand, the shoot out at the OK Corral. The stories have been told and retold so many times, I think they get diluted and romanticized.

james55clinton: As an old shearing bum, why aren't sheep ever mentioned in westerns?

Randi: Well, as it so happens, I just read a great book called Ostrich which is about Basque sheep operations in Nevada. But I think that the poor lamb got left out of that western lore which I was referring to. I think the lamb got a bum rap as "the locust on four feet." And that's too bad because sheep certainly are a big part of our western expansion.

Moderator: Can you share any favorite research sites for western writers?

Randi: Yes! Almost every major university has a great archive that is accessible on the Internet. Also, I recommend people seek out old copies of the Writers Projects which were done in the 30's. These books are filled with first person stories of the children of the pioneers. Wonderful stuff. Also, you can search through - there are a lot of links there as well. Also, if you post a question on the Western Writers of America forum, you'll get more answers and opinions than you thought you would ever need. There is an organization called Women Writing the West. They also do a good job in helping people with their reference questions. Like the other day, someone wanted to know how many days it would take by stage coach to go from point A to point B. Well, someone knew exactly how long it would take and how many times you needed to change the horses. Then they added that there weren't any stages running that early! So it saved a writer a lot of time and eventual rewrites when the editor comes looking.

Ridley: How do you know if a web site has reliable information?

Randi: I have a tendency to trust anything that is academic, people who make their living doing research. But I know what you are saying. There seem to be 'experts' on just about everything out there. I myself get suspicious sometimes, and that's a good point to bring up. Be careful of who you trust for your information. I have made some mistakes before in that area. I assumed the information in the novel I was reading was correct, but that writer didn't do his research and I just carried his mistake right over to my book. There we go, perpetuating the myths again.

Moderator: I can see that would be a real danger. Randi, what about those professional associations for western writers?

Randi: Like I mentioned, the Western Writers of America is the oldest and the best. You do need to be published to qualify for membership. Women Writing the West is primarily for women, but you do not need to be published to qualify for membership.

AnneKelly: If publishers are hesitant to explore the new areas, won't that make it even harder for new writers?

Randi: No, not if what you write is compelling! And if you put great characters into great situations. I think then you have a better chance of attracting publishers who don't publish just westerns. In other words, you may have a western setting, but a very universal problem with complex characters. So now you can attract other publishers because you have not written a formulaic western.

jolene5: Are you better off visiting the places you want to write about to give the book a more realistic feel or can you get enough of the info from research and use your imagination for the rest?

Randi: For myself, I like to sink my feet into the actual earth I am writing about. For this reason, all of my books take place in the NW area. You're darned tootin' I'd like to write a novel that takes place in Bora Bora, but gotta justify the expense. But then again, with the power of the Internet it's almost possible to take a virtual tour of just about any place. I just go ahead and call people and have them tell me what the weather is like and send me a bucket of their earth. You'd be amazed how many people love to help a writer with requests like that.

Moderator: What made you decide to write a western in the first place?

Randi: Actually, I didn't set out to write a western. I find that once I get my story idea I need to find the best possible genre in which to tell it. The Four Arrow Fe-As-Ko was such a case. I had an idea of taking a group of 'mentally retarded' people and putting them into a situation where they are forced to work together and succeed. Nowadays, that would be called a group home, but 100 years ago? What a challenge. Because 100 years ago, people with mental and physical disabilities were thought to be crazy and just locked away. So, I had to step back in time in order to best tell this story. And I wanted it to be fun and with animals and other things I knew about. Horses. So voila! I am now a western writer.

Moderator: And not just westerns per se, but these are offbeat, humorous westerns. What's the market like for those?

Randi: With all humor, it's totally subjective and I think anyone who sets out to try to make people laugh runs the risk of failing with some people. So, you have to understand from the get go that not everyone is going to like or laugh at your work. Most people love my Fe-as-kos. Others are still scratching their heads wondering who that Platt woman is and how can she make herself sound like an 80 year old cowpoke. This cowpoke narrator of mine, Royal Leckner, is famous for his way of speaking. A lot of what he has to say strikes a familiar chord, even today. I will add that every publisher of traditional westerns turned me down. So, like I was saying earlier, I sought out other publishers who had no intention of publishing a 'western' but were into quirky humor. A risk, yes. A ton of rejection, yes. But worth it in the long run.

Moderator: So does that make you a writer of westerns or humor?

Randi: Good question. Certainly the folks in the bookstores are never sure where to stack a Platt book. I have found myself in humor, western, YA, even self-help, and of course, the bargain bin! But seriously folks, I am a writer of stories. If they take place in the ol' west, then I reckon I'm a western writer. I'll always add humor. Even my serious stories are filled with humorous situations.

Granny Jannie: My favorite western movie is Cat Ballou. Is it easier to sell a serious western or a comedic one like Cat?

Randi: I love Cat Ballou too! I think the odds of selling a serious western are still better, but we don't write for the odds. We write stories that charge and challenge our spirit. And I don't think Cat Ballou was a book before it was a movie, although it was novelized after the movie, I am sure. But I'm with you. The humorous westerns are my favorites, too!

jolene5: Do you have an idea of who your main characters will be before you start or do you let them develop on their own?

Randi: I always start with that story problem, that 'what if?' Sometimes my 'what if' centers around a situation, not a person. If that's the case, then I have to go looking for the perfect character to put in that situation. And I always let my characters lead me along. They seem to know far better than I what they are doing. I have found it's wonderful to listen to what you are writing. Sometimes the characters take on a life of their own.

Moderator: Who would you say is your average reader, if there can be any such thing?

Randi: No reader of mine is average, judging by the mail I get! Actually, I would say the folks who find and enjoy the Fe-as-ko westerns the most are people who enjoy looking at the world through an entirely different set of eyeballs. But my books all seem to cross over, which is nice.

Moderator: Sometimes the publisher's terms are mixed. For example, what is a "western adventure novel"? Or in another vein, many romances are set on ranches, etc. What qualifies it to be a western rather than a romance?

Randi: I would have to say it's those key elements that must decide its genre: is the conflict over love, or is the conflict over issues? Many people think they are writing a western and are interested to learn that they are actually writing a romance. But I think the more areas you cross over, the better chance you might have of finding a bigger readership, although many genre publishers want you to stick strictly to their predetermined formula.

Moderator: Let's talk about this term cross over.

Randi: Cross over means a book is 'meant' for and marketed to one set of readers, but finds a readership elsewhere. My Fe-as-kos are marketed to readers of westerns, but they cross over to folks who enjoy humor. My young adult books are marketed to young adults, natch, but they somehow find their way into adult hands. I love cross overs and think we all need to be thinking about these cross over markets when we go to approach a publisher.

Moderator: So do you consider the cross over effect when you write a book?

Randi: Absolutely! Every book I write, whether it is YA, literary, humorous westerns, or fantasy, the biggest challenge and the greatest reward is to be read by as many different types of readers as I can.

Moderator: Let's talk about the current state of the 'traditional' western.

Randi: As a member of the Western Writers of America, it is my pleasure to know some of the best in the business! Some of these writers are Louis L'Amour contemporaries and they themselves have helped to define the genre from the 40's to today. But even they will tell you things have been a little rocky for the western of late. There are fewer and fewer publishers of westerns these days. All you have to do is go into your local bookstore and see how much room isn't devoted to westerns.

Moderator: Where do you think that's going, then?

Randi: Well, being the consummate optimist that I am, I think with the dawning of the new millennium, we now have behind us in our history a whole century to plumb for stories of western spirit. After all, it doesn't have to be the time. It's the setting and the "good versus evil" type of lore that comprises a good western. So, I think you will see more and more contemporary westerns. Still 'west', still the same spirit, still the same values, just more Nellie Belle and less Trigger.

Moderator: And yet, Louis L'Amour and Max Brand still sell and sell.

Randi: Well, they own the genre. They built it. 100 years from now, Stephen King will still be outselling the other horror writers, because he 'founded it' - if you see what I mean. There will always be what we have come to think of as the classics.

Ridley: I was in a big bookstore last month and asked for the section on westerns. The employee who showed me their section indicated he was disappointed that it wasn't bigger and didn't have a large number of authors represented. Maybe he's looking for more published westerns!

Randi: Yes. Unfortunately, if that was a Barnes and Noble or a Borders bookstore, I'm sure the employee will not have any clout to get more westerns in stock.

kmadsen: The description of a western you just gave us sounds like the formula "Star Wars" was based on. Is that why it was and still is such a hit?

Randi: You know, I was just thinking about that today. As far as I am concerned, "Star Wars" is a western. A classic western, at that. So who's to say that it can't be considered a story of classic western themes?

Moderator: What advice do you have for people who want to try writing a western?

Randi: I would say--now remember, this is coming from a renegade--that you should take everything you think a western is and don't write it. Take an issue, spin it about, give it a new voice, tweak it, and see what happens. I just finished Richard Wheeler's latest book called The Witness, a western in the fact that it is set in the late 1800's in a Colorado town. The setting doesn't get more 'western' than that. Yes, only one gun goes off in the whole book. It's a stunning look at the love of honor and totally appropriate as a subject to be explored in the setting of the old west. In other words, find your 'what if' and then find the best possible genre in which to tell it. I never start out saying, Gee I think I'll write a western, or a fantasy. I let my "what if?" lead me into the best possible genre to tell that story.

Kevin: So there's really no market for the traditional western anymore, at least by a new writer?

Randi: No, I wouldn't say that. There are still a lot of westerns being published. Not as many as a few years ago, but remember, I was reading fifty entries for the Spur Award, and that was just the paperbacks. And one never knows when the love of westerns will return to its--pardon the pun--hay day.

jolene5: So, in other words, a western doesn't necessarily have to have cowboys and horses involved?

Randi: Not my westerns. In fact, challenge yourself to write a story set in the west and not have one cowboy or horse.

Moderator: You have found success in writers for both the adult and YA markets, literary and humorous westerns. A fluke? Or did some serious planning go into this?

Randi: A lot of the industry is serendipity or blame old dumb luck. But anyone who is interested in pursuing a career in fiction better first realize what they are up against. A good story is only a good story. A great marketing plan is genius.

Moderator: Then let's talk about marketing? (Oh no, not the M word!) Why must we know about marketing?

Randi: First of all, when we submit our stories, we are marketing ourselves and our stories to a publisher. So, just as soon as the story is finished, your marketing plan begins. And then once you get published, you will then become the main marketer of your story. Forget everything you have heard about the famous whirlwind 14 city book tour. They just don't happen anymore for the majority of writers. Promotion is the key to finding readers once the book is published. I myself think this is highly unfair, because I think writers as a whole are a shy lot. But we don't write our stories NOT to be read, so we have to market ourselves to find our readers. Actually, once you get the hang of it, it ain't so bad.

Moderator: How much of your time goes to writing and marketing?

Randi: In a typical work day, I spend about four hours a day marketing of some sort of another. Sometimes I'm scanning the trades, which we all need to do on a regular basis. Marketing is also spending time in the stores and libraries, seeing what is new, exciting and what is being read. It seems the more successful I am, the more marketing I have to do. I need to know what new independent film companies are looking. I need to know who is doing what to whom and for how much money so that I can keep a professional image to my associates. I know that's a drag when really all I want to do is just write, but that is the reality of the business. Ain't no one gonna take as good of care of my career as me.

Kevin: Boy, I think it's a great day when I can get two hours of writing done. How can most people spend four hours a day marketing?

Randi: I just have to. One project leads to another. Also, writing is all I do, twelve hours a day or more.

oderator: What particular publishers look at westerns now? Do they have online web sites?

Randi: There are several houses still very much dedicated to westerns: Kensington, Leisure, NAL, Pocket, St Martin's, Thorndike, Five name a few.

Moderator: Do you have an agent? Any advice in the agent department?

Randi: Ah yes. Agents. Yes, I do have an agent. No, he does not have an exclusive, which means I can send stuff out on my own. There is a reason for this. I alluded to it a few minutes ago. I have worked hard to fashion myself a place in this tough industry. You've seen how much I believe in taking care of my career. I love my agent. A wonderful man who is one of the greats. But he has already made his fortune and what makes me think he is lying awake at night wondering what to do for that Platt woman? On the other hand, I lie awake at night and plan my career all the time. So, agents are not to me the "be all and end all." I had another agent for ten years, but he never sold anything. I rested in the confidence and validation that at least I HAD an agent. I finally worked up the courage to quit him and sold three books on my own in six months, one of them to Germany.

jolene5: What did it feel like when you sold your first story?

Randi: IT'S THE BEST! If your determination to succeed is great enough, you will know the feeling. Never give up. My first books were rejected over 45 times. And I always keep a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator, expecting that next success. Hope you do, too.

jolene5: Did you get an agent before you published your first book?

Randi: Yes, but he was the one I sacked. My first book was The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko and I sold that on my own as well as the next two. I got my current agent by another publisher referring me to him. They thought it was time to hit the big NYC publishers, and so I went with him and he made a phone call and that's how I became an author of YA books for Random House.

Moderator: Now that we've talked about genre writing, let's talk about genre writers. Since you write in several difference genres, what are the pros and cons? First, the cons:

Randi: Ah yes, the con of not being generic. Like it or not, editors and booksellers and readers would much prefer us to snuggle into one genre and stay there. After all, we won't want to go wandering all over the bookstore looking for whatever genre that Platt woman has gotten herself into this time. People have their favorite authors who can tell a good story in their favorite genre. Romance readers and writers come to mind. A lot of professionals have told me to settle into a genre and build a readership. I guess maybe that's why I am writing the Fe-as-ko series. The closest thing I'll come to as a genre, maybe even create my own.

Kevin: Should you use different pen names for different genres you write in then?

Randi: I know a lot of writers who do just that. Probably a good idea and a way to keep several publishers interested.

Moderator: And the pros of genre writing?

Randi: I can think of a big pro about being a genre writer with a huge following - huge royalty checks! I have friends who write romance and they are living in mansions! I have friends who write world shattering fiction and they are living in hovels right next door to me! Ha ha, just kidding. But you get my point.

AnneKelly: What are the pros of using pen names?

Randi: Well, first of all the ladies at the church don't know it's you writing all that steamy stuff. Also, if you want to write 'serious stuff,' then your name won't be associated with genre books.

kmadsen: About the David vs. Goliath theme you were talking about in westerns: does the Goliath always have to be a person or could it be a harsh living environment like a Texas drought in the 1880's?

Randi: You bet! Your Goliath can be any adversarial thing you wish. In fact, I love it when the elements are the bad guys.

Moderator: How did your two film deals come about?

Randi: Well, marketing and ummm...well, brashness. The first one, The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko, was called Promise the Moon. Some film producer saw the book at a trade show and decided to option it. I had not a lot to do with it. The second deal is the option on my literary fiction novel, The Cornerstone. Actor director Tom Skerritt has the option. How did that happen? I saw that he and his wife moved to the Seattle area and were starting their own independent production company. Knowing that it's the wife who makes a lot of these decisions, I sent the unpublished novel to her and she gave it to Tom, and the rest is history.

Moderator: Smart! Randi, when The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko was filmed, did you have anything to do with the screenplay?

Randi: Absolutely nothing. In fact, a friend from Hollywood saw that they had already wrapped the picture before I knew they had even started. The Cornerstone is a different deal. Tom asked me to write the first draft of the screenplay and has involved me in every step along the way. I will add that they did the typical Hollywood treatment to my sweet story, The Four Arrows. In fact it was nothing like the novel, but every time I walk through my remodeled kitchen, I forgive them!

jolene5: Do you prefer being involved with the filming?

Randi: I can't imagine anything duller than to sit around a set all day. I would like to be involved with the screenplay process because I find it very challenging and interesting, but after that invite me to the final day's shooting so I can get the hats and the autographs and then that's a wrap for me!

AnneKelly: Do you use several pen names? How do you decide when to use them? Are there any negative aspects to this?

Randi: No, I only use my given name, except they made me put Beth in the middle.

Moderator: What's next?

Randi: Always a ton of projects on the back burners. Just finished a YA about teen suicide, am working on a Christmas story for all ages, and adapting The Likes of Me to a screenplay and beginning a screenplay for live action animation. And handball.

Moderator: Wow!!! I'm sorry to have to interrupt here, but our time is up! Thanks so much, Randi, for sharing your insights into a genre that many of us grew up with, in both books and movies. I have really enjoyed this.

Randi: Thanks to you, Kristi, and our group! Been loads of fun.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on April 5 when Kay Cornelius will be speaking about "Writing Biographies." Biographies, or "written lives," are among the most popular of all nonfiction writing. Whether the persons are still living or long deceased, there are certain steps that anyone who writes about them must take. Kay will talk about that, plus the danger of bias and how to watch out for it in your own and others' biographies. Kay Cornelius has biographies out on Chamique Holdsclaw, a star basketball player, and Francis Marion, a hero of the American Revolution. Upcoming biographies in 2001 include those of Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. Do come back in two weeks to participate in what promises to be a fascinating evening! And now, good night, everyone!

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