Writing Historical Western Romance

Many publishers consider the Western as a genre separate from Historical novels, because the era of the cowboy was a time period within itself. It was a short episode in the second half of the nineteenth century, sometimes called the Old West, or the Wild West, frequently exaggerating the romance and violence of the era, and lasting from 1800 to the turn of the century about 1900.

Western Romance is about life on America’s post civil war western frontier. Although both Florida and Georgia each have claims to ‘cowboy’ history, most publishers require authors to set western novels anywhere west of the Mississippi river.

Western Heroes:

  • are rugged
  • usually a loner with a mission
  • handy with fists, knife, revolver or rifle
  • excellent horsemen
  • might be an outlaw, but is always honorable
  • live by the cowboy’s code of the west
  • limited education, but never stupid
  • mean as a snake, but with redeemable traits

Heroines in westerns/western romance novels are not simpering twits. Their characters range from prostitutes by circumstance, to outlaws, schoolmarms, and mail order brides. These women can shoot, ride, scratch, cuss and spit, or are refined ladies in jeopardy.

Themes range from marriage of convenience, to revenge and betrayal, to rescuing a bride or a child from kidnappers, to land-grabbing, cattle and horse rustling, staving off attacks from outlaws and Indians, to bank robberies, and panning for gold. Writers of western romance novels are only limited by their imagination.

Landscape is an important feature of the western genre, and a sense of timelessness often pervades these stories. Used properly, authors draw on setting to give readers a break from scenes of violence, and too, slow the pacing. Likewise, setting is used to add dramatic elements to story scene, and to increase the pacing.

The true ‘western’ novel is plot driven. This means that circumstances, usually beyond the control of your protagonist, propels the story forward. Plot driven stories are tales in which the story is important than the individual characters. Backstory is limited, and when necessary built in through dialogue. There is plenty of action to drive the plot forward. However, when writing a historical western romance novel, the author has the dual responsibility of balancing both the plot and character driven elements. No easy feat.

Violence in historical westerns/western romance tends to be grittier than in contemporary western romance. The trick is tempering the brutality so the novel captures the spirit of freedom, individualism, and adventure of the time period.

Chapter lengths in westerns are usually shorter than their contemporaries, with 6-12 pages. Dialogue is short and snappy; word count is approximately 55,000 – 70,000 words (depending on the publishers requirements).

Research is vital. Avid western/western romance fans know about weaponry, saddles, hats, clothing boots, spurs, horses and all things that authenticate a historical western/western romance novel.

Language plays an important role in writing this genre. It is important to keep slang to a minimum–even with the secondary characters to avoid making them sound hokey or illiterate. The western hero is manly, so pay attention to his dialogue. He is never long-winded.

Just like today, using abbreviated from of words for texting, cowboys, sidekicks, and outlaws had their own way of speaking. Here is a sampling:

“Why that young’un ain’t mor’n between hay and grass.” Meaning, neither man nor boy; half-grown.

“I swear that man is a flannel-mouthed liar.” Meaning: an overly smooth or fancy talker; especially a salesman or politician.

Well, you catch my drift. The point is, when writing about the old West, consider your audience carefully. Most western fiction readers have a better than average knowledge of history, and consider themselves aficionados of the time period. They’ll bust you immediately if your book has any serious inaccuracies in it. While you don’t have to know everything about the west to write about it your writing must be, to a large degree, historically accurate.

Happy Writing!


Loretta C. Rogers
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Loretta C. Rogers

Founding President at SSRA
Loretta C. Rogers, is a national/international best-selling author of fifteen novels. She conducts writing workshops nationally, and is a co-founder and past president of Sunshine State Romance Authors, Inc. and a member of Romance Writers of America®. A fourth generation Floridian, Loretta resides in Citrus County. She enjoys hearing from readers and invites them to visit her at LorettaCRogersBooks.com
Loretta C. Rogers
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