This month we’re hearing from Western historical author Darrel Sparkman.
Interview with Darrel Sparkman:
The intro on your website is quite dramatic and reminded me of DIES THE FIRE and its sequels (collectively known as the Emberverse series) by S. M. Stirling. Have you read it? Not only electricity "dies" forever; so do guns, internal combustion engines, and essentially every type of advanced technology. It's fascinating to read Stirling's vision of how people manage to survive and build a new society (really, a wide variety of different societies). He focuses on those who do survive and eventually thrive, although there's plenty of apocalyptic destruction at the beginning.
I haven’t read that series. There seem to be thousands of authors writing about how it all comes to an end, which isn’t good for us because most of the old science fiction writing comes true sooner or later—discounting the fantasy worlds. I try to keep my writing focused on what could actually happen, right here and right now. That sounds trite when I read it, but it’s true. Reality is scary enough.
What inspired you to begin writing?
I’ve written since an early age. Poems and short essays, nothing very long. I remember having to write a poem for English class in high school. Afterwards, the teacher pulled me aside and told me I was a true poet and wanted me to put stuff in the school newspaper. Well that was the end of that. To my teenage macho mindset, I may have been a poet but I didn’t want anyone to actually know that. I had enough fights in school without tacking that sign on my back. But, I kept writing, you can’t just turn it off.
My wife and I are avid readers. I’d picked up a book about survival in a frozen world, one in a series. After reading it, I mentioned that I could write a better story than that. She told me, “So, do it.” Well, I immediately whipped out a novel, about forty thousand words I think, didn’t even proof it-I mean, why should I? After researching the market for at least a couple of minutes, I sent the manuscript off to a publisher. They were actually very nice with their rejection, but by then I was hooked. I kept writing, and sending them off. Boy, was I clueless. After close to a hundred rejections and side-trips along the way, I was finally published. I’m still working at getting it right.
What genres do you work in?
I work in several. I know my publisher would wish I picked one. Can you have genre ADHD? I’ve won an award with poetry, published post-apocalyptic books, early frontier historical fiction, and what I call regular westerns, circa 1870ish. I’m also working on a contemporary novel.
Your website identifies you as a “Frontier Writer.” Please tell us a bit about that role.
If you look up the definition of frontier, you’ll get several standard answers like “A wilderness at the edge of a settled area”, or “a line showing the edge of settled country”. In my writing, frontier is the line that has been crossed, going from the settled and comfortable life or situation into the unknown and where the outcome is up to you, and you alone. Star Trek uses space as the ‘final frontier’. Many use the ocean. Well, frontier can start right here at home when the lights go out, the gas runs out or your building is on lockdown with an active shooter. The outcome is up to you, no one is coming to help and you can’t call Ghostbusters. Or, going back in history, it’s leaving your comfortable settlement east of the Mississippi and going into unknown territory.
Do you outline, "wing it," or something in between?
Oh, how I wish someone could teach me to outline. I queried an agent once and they were interested enough to ask me for an outline of my story. What I sent them was a typical outline, you know… big heading for the subject, then big A, secondary line as little a, then after I’m out of letters, switch to numbers, all with proper tab indents. I can’t imagine the laughter that generated when it hit their desk. I don’t think I ever heard back from them. Actually, I pretty much wing it and then come back and fix it. I’ve tried writing out my story line, but usually half way into it the characters take over and change the whole thing. Normally, I’ll think of a story and start writing. The first chapter sets the stage for me and it seems like I spend as much time on that as the rest of the story. I guess my first draft is my outline, then I come back and expand it and try to make it readable. After my editor stops laughing, then I’m told how to really fix it. That’s sort of a joke... sort of. I’m working with some great people now. I’ll shamelessly plug Casey Cowan and Oghma Creative Media. It’s a small and growing press. Casey works tirelessly for his authors.
What have been the major influences on your writing (favorite authors, life experiences, or whatever)?
Favorite authors is kind of hard, because they’re all so different. I didn’t have a great childhood, and read to escape that. At times I’d read a book a day, and that’s no joke. It doesn’t take long to read Jack London’s White Fang. The bad thing is I usually remember what I read. So, everything I’ve read becomes kind of a mish-mash in my mind. My writing is a product of that. Louis L’Amour is one favorite. A speaker at a writing conference asked, “what makes you think you can write westerns, and don’t tell me you’ve read all the Louis L’Amour books.” Well, I’m sorry—but I have. No better reference to the western genre exists. But, it doesn’t stop there. Douglas Terman with Enemy Territory, John Brick with The Raid. David Graham with Down to a Sunless Sea. I love the writing of James Lee Burke and wish I could write like that. It just flows. One of the best adventure novels I’ve read was written by a children’s author D.V.S. Jackson writing about the Battle of Agincourt in Walk With Peril. I insist my grandkids read it, much to their chagrin. Dusty Richards is another great author. There are so many.
How have your Navy service and your career as an EMT contributed to your career as an author?
That one’s easy. Realism. Pee your pants afraid? Frustrated? Angry? Know you’re going to die? Wonder why you didn’t? Amazed at the vagaries of man? Been there, done that, got the tee shirt. But, it’s more about people. From kindergarten through twelfth grade I changed schools over twenty times. Add four years of service, a year of that in a combat zone, then seventeen years as a volunteer with a rural ambulance company and you see a lot of people and circumstances filled with emotion. Those translate into characters and dialogue that come across as real—if I can just write it good enough.
What is your latest or next-forthcoming book (or both)?
My latest book, and one I’m very proud of is Spirit Trail. It’s a frontier novel set in 1820 and the first of a series. Osage Dawn, another early frontier novel will be rolled out in August. Also, I have short stories that come out in the quarterly Saddlebag Dispatches.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to get Spirit Trail II going. Also, a contemporary novel called Country Boy is mostly done. Then there’s the short stories, editing and re-writes. Plus, I have to work for a living to pay for my retirement.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Probably pretty generic, but with a story to drive it home. I was at the Ozarks Creative Writer’s Conference. Dusty Richards and Brett Cogburn strode up to the raised dais and podium. These guys are kind of a big deal and accomplished authors. They were supposed to give a question and answer session on writing for new authors and it was greatly anticipated. You could have heard a pin drop. Dusty just looks around and says, “Write the damned book!” And sat down. You can imagine the panicked looks on the conference organizers faces when they were expecting a forty-minute session. Of course, it didn’t end there. But, the advice is solid and he drove it home in a memorable way. Don’t worry about editing, getting it just right, or any of the stuff the people making a living off wannabe writers tell you. If you have a story, write it. Git’er done. Clean it up later. If you’re writing fiction, then make up the story, write it, and then clean it up later. Simple advice, but hard to do. As writers we tend to over-think everything. One last thing is due diligence. Even if you’re writing fiction, research the environment your characters are operating in, from politics to sun bonnets and clear down to making sure weapons or instruments are accurate for the time frame in history. Since it’s fiction, it didn’t happen—just make sure it reasonably could have.
What's the URL of your website? Your blog? Where else can we find you on the web?
www.saddlebagdispatches.com a quarterly for the western genre started by the great Dusty Richards.
www.oghmacreative.com my publisher and book catalog. Casey Cowan is the owner and a real gem.
https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00J8YBMUG Amazon author page.
Member of Western Writers of America