Monday, June 21, 2010

Dialogue and the Western Novelist by Stephen Bly

Western writer, Stephen Bly, has returned this Manuscript Monday with advice on dialogue. He narrows down his topic, gearing it toward western writers, but I (Annette) believe you'll find some useful information no matter which genre you write. Enjoy!

Western Lilt: Dialogue of the Western Novelist
By Stephen Bly

Speech has rhythm. To write good dialogue, an author must listen to each character’s voice, to discern timing as well as vocabulary.

Every era and region boasts its language and dialect, which can be learned through research or experience. But tone and timing can’t be taught. It’s in your bones . . . or not.

In my newest novel, Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, six old cowboys chatting can’t wait for one topic to die before blurting another. I worked to hear the tune of their chatter, the lilt of the lyrics, to produce an authentic, natural flow. And blend the philosophy within the words.

Cowboy Culture

Talk slow and think deep. It’s part of the Code. It’s the way true westerners talked.

These cowboys told their stories often and not the same each time. That’s the beauty of oral history. It’s not a static photograph of the past, but a monologue that percolates, evolves, and sometimes digresses through the memory and heart, by the one who lived it. My task: be true to the characters, yet sympathetic to my readers. Spend a morning near the old-timers booth at the local cafĂ© and you’ll know what I mean.

In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, I used a lot of classic cowboy terms that have now disappeared. For instance, a phrase often used on a cattle drive was “man at the pot.” Someone at the coffee pot gave a shout-out to indicate he’d fill everyone’s cup.

To cowboys, ‘nobby’ signified fine, expensive clothing. They mention the store Nudies. That’s where Hollywood cowboys and country-western singers bought their fancy boots and rhinestone jackets. I bought a cowboy hat there . . . a plain, beaver felt XXX, size 7 7/8, dark brown Resistol with horsehair hatband . . . for the sake of research.

“You never know the luck of a lousy calf,” one of my favorite cowboy sayings. Healthy, sturdy calves seem to fall off cliffs or get attacked by wolves. It’s the scrawny, worthless ones that survive.

I once stood at the graveside of my rancher uncle. As I looked down at his coffin, an old-timer slid up beside me. “He was a good man, son. He lived by the Code.”

In my novel, Pop would “do to ride the river with.” That’s the highest compliment for a cowboy. Crossing wild rivers with great herds of cattle exposed dangers for man and beast. Not a time to trust your safety to some rookie just learning the ropes. “He’ll do to ride the river with” signified “I’d trust that man with my life.”

Cowboy Faith

Every writer filters their work through a worldview. Mine happens to be Christian. Sometimes that pops through. In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, you’ll find this quote:
“If you feel prodded, Shorty, it’s the shovel of the Lord. He’s diggin’ you up and intends on restorin’ you.”

The narrator’s granddaddy chides his pals with the Gospel. He cares too much to keep silent. He’s hoping that fifty years of friendship and five minutes spouting Jesus will open their eyes.

My suggestion: read Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon aloud, like around a campfire, to capture the cadence. Then, the characters will start to feel like family. Maybe you weren’t born 100 years too late.


Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon (hardback, Center Point) will release this month (June 2010). Available through Amazon or

More about Stephen Bly:

Married to writer, Janet Chester Bly, 46 years; they’ve co-authored 18 books. Resides in northern Idaho at 4,000 ft. elev., on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Father of 3 sons: Russell, Michael, & Aaron. The family includes daughters-in-law, Lois, Michelle & Rina Joye, plus grandkids: Zachary, Miranda (& husband Chris), and Keaton. Third-generation westerner, Steve spent 30 years working family ranches and farms in central California. His hobbies include collecting and restoring Winchesters; studying histories of Old West; doing construction on Broken Arrow Crossing, a false front western village next to his home. He also plays a par game of golf.

* authored and co-authored 102 fiction and nonfiction books,
including historical and contemporary westerns
* Christy Award winner, Westerns, 2002, The Long Trail Home
* Christy Award finalist, Westerns, 2003
* mayor of Winchester, Idaho, pop. 308 (1999-2007)
* pastor of Winchester Community Church
* speaker for men’s and writers’ groups, USA and Canada
* roving editor, Big Show Journal
* mentor, Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild
* represented by agent Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary
* Interviews and Media Kit available,
* Fresno State University, CA, Philosophy, summa cum laude
* M. Div., Fuller Theological Seminary, CA, 1974

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post. I never really thought about the rythym and timing of the dialogue. Good stuff. Blessings to you, Stephen, for sharing your always interesting advice.


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