First open this here in a new tab. My latest fiction published at Rigorous.
This is gonna be a long ass writing/craft lesson so get some coffee.
Let’s start with the opening paragraph which incidentally is pretty much the one thing that didn’t change through several iterations of this story:
The Cowboy walked into the juke joint at the outside edge of a half-dead town in the deep in the drylands expecting nothing more than a watery beer and perhaps someone to warm his bed that night. The barroom was clean and smelled of the bunches of flowers on most available surfaces. He paused to look down at a bunch of light purple flowers that exuded a scent like nothing he’d ever experienced.
To start out with, I wanted to create an origin myth. If you’ve read me for a while you know that’s kinda my jam. I love creating and reimagining mythos through various lenses. For this particular story I was inspired by the following: *book links are amazon affiliate links
- The Gunslinger.
- Black Cowboys (I have a bunch of the images saved on my laptop)
- Various mermaid tales.
In the Gunslinger Mythos we have all of these fantastical elements that King has so masterfully integrated with the classic Western. For me, I kept wondering what would a Black cowboy in the desert be like? I started out with a Roland Deschain archetype. I wanted to explore the anonymity of my Cowboy and kept him as a nameless man who as you get further into the story has a presence.
In my notes from when I started this story I had a mission to tell the reader that there is magic in this world, that this loner Cowboy is capable of and full of wonder and when I started, this wasn’t actually a love story. It was going to be a gunslinger story. I’d had this want to re-imagine Roland Deschain as this other and this story was originally supposed to be world building practice.
Sometimes, shit does not go as planned.
I got to the Cowboy finding this oasis and now enter my mermaid. I spent some time reading various mermaid myths and settled on an idea. What if in this other world, this dry dirty world of the Cowboy mermaids have had to evolve? If I was that mermaid, where would I post up to hunt?
At a saloon. And because I was intent on giving context clues to the Blackness of this story, I used the worlds Juke Joint rather than saloon. I wanted to evoke both the wild west and the dirty south. Late nights, hard liquor, brown women, dirty dancing.
When I got to this part in the writing of the story I had very definitive ideas about how I wanted this story to continue. Some sensuality, some sensuality from our male protagonist, I wanted to portray him in a way that is often only for female characters. I wanted the Cowboy to have the kind of moment where, you feel so sexy and you forget the good stuff that usually bothers you, see here:
For long minutes he forgot his knobby knees, scars and grizzled body hair. He forgot his big flat feet and narrow buttocks. Her gaze gave him beauty and grace. Her soft eyes pulled him out of his role as Cowboy and into the role of sweet pure lover. “Come, let me bathe you.”
In terms of erotics and sensuality, this male character is feeling a feminine gaze and feels beautiful. So here we have some of my gender role fuckery afoot. This doesn’t show our Cowboy to be emasculated or submissive, rather he’s put into a position to be feelin’ himself.
Because our Cowboy is if not a learned man, an experienced one he knows on some level that he’s in danger and has to fight through his erotic haze to work it out. I didn’t want to bring the eroticism down too much while he was figuring it out. I wasn’t going for boner killer necessarily.
Inside of the realization that he’s in danger the Cowboy let’s his desire lead the way.
I really wanted to give him this moment to understand and accept things.
“Saw these. I know these.” When she put her mouth against his and her soft chubby body squished into his long starved body, The Cowboy wanted to die.
It was a perfect moment. The apotheosis of his most secret desire to be felt and loved. He felt seen for true, the way his Nan had looked at his Nana. It was enough for him to happily go into the next place.
And we also see that this world has Queers.
And an Easter Egg. I first heard the word apotheosis in the Gunslinger and I remember looking it up in a dictionary when I saw it. It is really one of my favorite words. The idea of divine perfection summed up in such a pleasing word tickles me. It is one of my favorites.
Moving along, we’re getting towards the end. I wanted to give the Cowboy some more opportunity for sensualism and to be around women. In this world, women move things as the Cowboy was taught:
“Because they women, and women drive the changes.” Nan took special care to explain the intricacies of womanhood to the Cowboy because he feared women. Men–well, the men he knew–had little in the way of that level of sankofa knowledge.
Often in romance, we see women as being those who have to get ready. I wanted to give the Cowboy another chance to feel pretty. Also, I wanted to give a nod to Black folks going to the salon or barber shop for company and community.
The Cowboy blushed with pleasure and the Aunties chucked him under the chin and whirled into action. One oiled his hair, combed and washed it, another gooped something sweet into it and wrapped it in what he thought might have been some sort of hat. “Excuse me, Auntie? I brought no coin for pretty hats.” The Auntie filing his fingernails snorted and slapped his knee.
“You hush. You too pretty to be such a worry. You are courting the Pisces, we know what she likes.” The Cowboy settled and let the Aunties do as they pleased. They did things to his eyebrows and rubbed his face with unguents, they shaved him. When they were finished, he stood in front of their mirror with tears in his eyes. “I’m pretty.”
In the context of writing this piece, originally I spent a lot of words at this part. This was one of those stories where I had too many ideas and really wanted to jam ALL the things into it. Rather than stopping myself out of hand, I let it happen. One of the drafts of this story topped out at a chunky 7K and wasn’t what I wanted.
In the past, when I’ve put the brakes on my nerdiness, I often didn’t finish the stories. I would kind of flounder deep in nerdland and never slog through it. For this story I took my time and let it all out. This resulted in a couple of super long drafts that didn’t look at all like the published piece. I was able to really see what I wanted to carve out of the bigger mass of nerd.
For this final draft, I felt very purposeful.
I wanted to accomplish a happy ending and I wanted to give a glimpse as to what the story might be if you heard it in another place. One of the ideas I had for this while I was writing it was that it is the origin story of something you might hear in a juke joint in this world or sitting around a campfire. It could have been a more bawdy, more violent, but in this case you (the reader) get the sweetest ending.
During the writing of this piece, I discovered I am actually able to get what I want in a story without it being weird. Normally, I write in a totally different way with fiction. Usually, I write from hearing a voice and having a what if question. For this one, I started with that and the desire to create something to go with a Black cowboy myth as inspired by the Gunslinger.
In this experiment, I really had to stretch to mix Western and fantasy. And I really worked very hard on putting Blackness in there and not making it scream OMG BLACK PPL because that always feels weird to me. I worked very hard to keep my references the way I wanted them and not change them to be more open. I worked the Blackness from the inside out rather from the outside in.
For those writing the other this is something I suggest thinking about and practicing. Rather than, OMG LOOK AT THIS VERY NICE MAGICAL NEGRO OMG LOOK NEGROES LOOK, do some reading. Look at cultural markers and ways to use language that goes beyond misappropriating AAVE.
Overall, for the months put in on this story I am very pleased with it. The process of writing, rewriting, cutting and sculpting this piece was really great if long. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that, while my individual story output for fiction is way down, spending so much time with work is enabling me to really get at some stuff I want to play with and I’m grateful for that.
To end, I’ll show y’all a few more of the inspirations/things that helped me write this piece:
- The mermaid art of Jesse Dewyer.
- The Johnny Cash and Nick Cave rendition of I’m So Lonesome I could Cry
- This little article about Isom Dart.
- This old article on CNN.
Last lesson, before I wrap this up.
Always tuck away bits of information. You never know when they’ll come in handy.