The McCabe family has been with me a long time. Writers often say that kind of thing about a particular character or storyline, and you have to wonder exactly what it means. Essentially, it means a story idea gestating in the back of a writer’s mind while he goes along through the thing called everyday life (yes, this is actually how writers do things). I have been blessed with readers who seem to love the McCabe family as much as I do, and I have had questions about them and how they came about. So with this, my first ever blog, I’ll try to answer some of those questions.
I was ten. For those keeping track, it was actually 44 years ago. As I type this, I find myself sitting back a moment and taking in that figure. 44 years. When I was a kid, I would hear older people talking about their own lives and frames of time that were longer than they realized. They would say, “That doesn’t seem possible.” It’s become such a cliché, but it applies here so I’m going to say it. It doesn’t seem possible. Many years have come and gone since I was ten, but I remember it so clearly. Another cliché comes to mind. I remember it like I was yesterday.
I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller, I just didn’t know which format I wanted to work in. I didn’t know if anyone actually earned a living doing it or just did it on the side, but I didn’t care. I was a kid and I loved storytelling. I considered comic books and screen plays, but for various reasons they just weren’t the right formats for me. It was when I was 13 that my father suggested I try writing a novel, and I fell in love with that form of media. The next year, my freshman high school English teacher knew of my passion for storytelling and my desire to be a novelist, and he told me there are writers who actually paid the bills writing. It was their job. I said, “Well then, sign me up.” He handed me a copy of Writer’s Digest magazine, and my long and often frustrating journey toward earning my living as a storyteller had begun. At that point in my life, the McCabes had already been with me four years.
Johnny McCabe is now pretty much as I first envisioned him 44 years ago. A cattleman who is a former scout and Texas Ranger, a man who at one time was wanted by the law and who carries the brand gunfighter with him wherever he goes. A family man who suffers a little from PTSD because he has been shot at one time too many.
Try to imagine a kid of ten creating a gunfighter with PTSD. My mother always thought I was weird kid. Maybe she was right.
Johnny’s sons and his daughters emerged gradually. I wrote out story outlines, but most of this was done in my head only. The story of Dusty joining the family came to me when I was 11. When I was in my twenties, I decided to merge the daughters into one character, Bree. Other changes happened, too.
When I was around 18, I tried to write the first western novel based on this family, but I wasn’t yet the writer I needed to be. These stories needed to be more about character than about guns and fights. I wanted to write about the men who carried the guns and did the fighting. It had to be about who these men were, how they came to be and what they learned and how they grew along the way.
When I was 29, I sat in the shade on the back lawn with an old-school manual typewriter on a series of summer days, and I rattled off the rough draft to a novel I call simply Johnny McCabe, a story of his early days. It was another major step in developing the McCabe series.
Editors and agents rejected these novels. Unlike most writers, I am not one to keep rejection notices. They remind me of my failures and I believe in optimism, so they go in the trash. When computers came about and I began working with electronic queries to agents and editors, I began deleting rejections.
The message I continually received from editors and agents was that the western is dead. In an attempt to find a publisher, I at one time actually tried to convert the McCabes into a science fiction series, putting their adventures on a foreign frontier-oriented planet, but it didn’t feel genuine so I hung up on that project.
I took time away from them to write the sort of thing I was told that sells, these days. Dark fantasy and such. But no one was interested in that, either. Ultimately, my journey always seemed to bring me back to the McCabes.
A few years ago, Amazon started allowing writers to self-publish their work. Self-publishing has always been there, but I had stayed away from it because it was costly and distributors generally won’t carry self-published books. What Amazon does is allow a writer to self-publish with no up-front cost, and provides almost unlimited distribution. The only fee they charge is 30% of the book’s sale price. Amazon has gotten a lot of flack lately in the press, but it should be noted that their process allows an avenue for young writers to reach readers. Writers who can’t seem to get a foot in the proverbial door of a traditional publisher.
I decided to go with The Long Trail as my first McCabe novel to be published on Amazon. I figured it would probably be my only McCabe novel. I didn’t expect much, because remember, more editors and agents than I can count (mostly editors) told me the western was dead. My wife asked how many copies I expected to sell, and I said, “Maybe five, over the next couple of years.” I wasn’t expecting to make money from it. I was making it available just to complete a goal I had begun as a kid.
To my surprise, all of those editors were wrong. The western isn’t dead. The Long Trail took off almost immediately as an Amazon bestseller. Readers were contacting me and asking for more, so I wrote the sequel. Rather than go with Return of the Gunhawk, which had been the plan way back when, I wrote a new one that I titled One Man’s Shadow, about Johnny’s younger son Jack, the college student. I dreamed up part of the story idea when I was 14, but it was originally to feature Johnny’s older son, Josh. Making this a story about Jack gave it an entirely new life. Now, I’m currently working on the fifth installment in the series, and The Long Trail is being published in large-print paperback format by a traditional publisher.
It truly has been a long trail, not only for the McCabes, but for me. The title actually has a double meaning that those close to me understand, and now I’m sharing that with all of you.
The trail that began when I was 10 still goes on. And I’m loving every minute of it.