Keith Chapman writes Black Horse Westerns under the pen name Chap O'Keefe.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF.
I was born and educated in Enfield when
it was still on the edge of the Green Belt north of London. I shifted to
New Zealand in 1967, paying for the air fare out of my income from
freelance writing. Because there was and is no genre publishing in NZ, I
then worked as a journalist on magazines and newspapers for nearly 35
WHEN DID YOU START WRITING?
Pretty much as soon as I could read!
Professionally, as soon as I left grammar school and went to work at
Fleetway Publications in Farringdon Street, London. Since that great
starting opportunity, I've never had to work in a job that wasn't based
on writing. With my wife, I've managed to raise a daughter and two sons,
now all adults, and we live in a comfortable home on a hillside
overlooking the upper Auckland harbour. And you could say the bills have
all been paid by the pen.
WHO/WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES?
A book of my mother's, Playbox Annual
1928, is a fondly remembered early-childhood influence. The Bruin Boys,
with Tiger Tim, featured in that book, and when I found out they were
still appearing in a comic paper called Rainbow, I became an avid
reader. I've still got my Tiger Tim badge somewhere! I moved on to boys'
story papers, favouring the text publications, like the Champion, over
the picture-story ones, like Lion and Tiger. All these weekly papers and
their annual books were issued by the Amalgamated Press from the
Fleetway House, Farringdon Street. As a boy, this seemed to me to be an
almost magic address, though I did also read the Thomson-Leng story
papers from Dundee: the Rover, Wizard, Hotspur and Adventure. At this
time, the Amalgamated Press also published pocket-sized monthly
paperback series called "libraries". These included the Sexton Blake
Library detective novels, and a companion series edited by the same man,
Len Pratt, called simply Western Library. Here you could find reprints
of Ernest Haycox, Clarence E. Mulford and George Owen Baxter (Max
Brand) alongside new short novels by John Hunter, T.C.H. Jacobs (Penn
Dower), James Marshal (Sydney J. Bounds) and Charles Wrexe (Rex Hardinge).
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO WRITE WESTERNS IN PARTICULAR?
I don't know that I
did. Westerns were part of the mix of what I could sell in the 1960s.
There was also war, detective, school, sport, historical. In the '70s, I
added some "confessions" and supernatural material for the Charlton
Comics Group edited by George Wildman in Derby, Connecticut (Ghostly
Tales, Many Ghosts of Dr Graves, Scary Tales, etc). I even wrote some
scripts for a Scandinavian publisher who had a franchise to produce
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO WRITE UNDER THE PEN-NAME CHAP O'KEEFE?
Chapman sounded too ordinary for a Western. Everything about the books I
wanted to write in this genre needed to be ringing and colourful,
including the byline. So for fun I shifted things around a bit till I
reached a result approaching what I was looking for, but that could
still be recognizable as myself.
DID YOUR BACKGROUND SCRIPTING STORIES FOR COMICS HELP YOU WHEN YOU
TACKLED YOUR FIRST NOVEL?
All your fiction experience helps: your
reading, working in editorial offices, writing short stories . . . and
yes, scripts for picture stories. The tight script structure forces you
to be a planner plot-wise and to visualize constantly. If your story is
too static, lacks graphic incidents, or is just too wordy, your
picture-story script won't even begin to work. Also when you worked on
periodicals at a young age, you learned the discipline of deadlines. If
the artist didn't get his script on time, the letterer and then the
printer couldn't do their jobs. I never heard of a picture-story
publication missing an issue because of a slack scriptwriter, so I guess
those that were unreliable just got weeded out before they could cause a
problem. When I was editing Micron Publications' Western Adventure
Library and Cowboy Adventure Library, along with a monthly mystery
magazine, a war library and a detective library, I depended on good
writers. They included Vic Hanson, T.C.H. Jacobs, Rex Hardinge, Sydney
J. Bounds and J. T. Lang. By the way, the two sample openings of my
Western comic stories on this page are from Odhams books -- Boys' World
Annual 1968 (The Train Robbers) and Eagle Annual 1967 (Blackbow the
Cheyenne). Blackbow was a stock "house" hero who appeared in the famous
weekly Eagle boys' paper.
WHAT PROCESS DO YOU GO THROUGH TO GET FROM INITIAL IDEA TO FINISHED
For a Black Horse Western I usually start by writing a 2000-
to 3000-word synopsis which includes six main character sketches, two of
them women. I don't become a slave to the synopsis when I write the
novel, but the planning does help me judge whether the pacing through
the book is right, and it does mean I can avoid writing myself into
tricky corners. Since I want my first draft of the novel to be close to
a finished manuscript, the synopsis is very important to me. Some
writers hate synopses. I value them as props and safety nets in the
writing process. The "working" synopsis shouldn't, of course, be
prepared or regarded as a sales tool or blurb.
HOW IMPORTANT IS RESEARCH TO YOU?
I'm not a serious student of the Old
West. I do research on the trot. Too much can be a hindrance. I usually
research at the initial ideas stage in a broad way, to make sure what
I'm proposing isn't ridiculous. Then for detail I research as I
write.The Outlaw and the Lady, for example, drew largely for Colorado
background on an 1879 book by an English woman traveller. The Gunman and
the Actress was inspired by the US tours of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)
and I borrowed two biographies from the local public library. I also got
some south-western facts, particularly on cock-fighting, from the work
of a University of Texas historian.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE BLACK HORSE WESTERN SERIES?
It's a unique
opportunity for writers world-wide. There's no closed shop at Robert
Hale. They'll read your MS whether you live in Britain, America,
Australia, South Africa, New Zealand . . . anywhere. That's so
pleasing. An agent specializing in Westerns once told me that he went
against his own conviction to represent two long-respected Black Horse
Western writers. He named them in a letter to me, which I felt was a bit
unethical, and went on to say that no American editors would touch their
books simply because they were English! Because Hale's contract terms
and payments reflect the limited number of Black Horse Westerns that can
be sold to public libraries, it's tempting to portray the people at Hale
in unflattering ways. Resist that! By all means put a reasoned case for
improvements, but remember that for most of us Hale is the only option
for publication as a Western writer. NZ, for example, has no genre
publishing. The scene is dominated by the likes of Random House and
Penguin, whose main business is marketing imports.
DO YOU USE SERIES CHARACTERS, OR DO YOU PREFER NEW CHARACTERS FOR EACH
I prefer new characters, but Joshua Dillard is the hero of
Shootout at Hellyer's Creek, The Gunman and the Actress and The
Sandhills Shootings. So you can say I've done it, but only when it has
been fitting. Series characters can become inhibiting. My first job at
Fleetway House was on the Sexton Blake Library. The detective Blake was
a "stock" character, the property of the publisher, of course. But many
top mystery writers just couldn't write about him and his associates
because they couldn't produce self-contained stories that were
consistent with what had gone before, even when the publisher supplied
WHICH OF YOUR BOOKS IS YOUR FAVOURITE AND WHY?
Sorry, I don't have a
single favourite. I like 'em all for different reasons. For example, The
Gunman and the Actress, one of my books that had a Linford large-type
reprint, is full of action and gusto from beginning to end. A romp, even
to write. But Doomsday Mesa has a more thoughtful central character and
is a more rounded, mature story with a bitter-sweet ending.
WHICH OF YOUR COVERS IS YOUR FAVOURITE AND WHY?
Again, they all have
their strengths. My least favourite is the one for Doomsday Mesa, which
shows a gunman waiting in ambush for an approaching rider. Nothing like
it happens in the book.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT ANY UPCOMING WRITING PROJECTS?
Brides is based on the "cargo of brides" affair in Seattle but with the
main setting moved to a frontier town in New Mexico. Chapters are also
set in the territory's capital, Santa Fe, and in New York circa 1880.
The Rebel and the Heiress will be a post-Civil War story with an Arizona
ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING BLACK HORSE WESTERN WRITERS?
Take a little time
out to learn the basics of your craft. Many more excellent instructional
books are available today than when I started out. You'll probably find
some at your local library. They don't have to be on writing Westerns.
They could be about thrillers or historical fiction, say. But the
principles will still apply and you can adjust the advice, paying
appropriate attention to the sections on setting and research. Find out
about plotting, characterization, dialogue, construction, pace,
climaxes, openings, endings, and everything else. Above all, write
regularly and diligently. Read lots of Black Horse Westerns
analytically, if you decide they're your bag. Lastly, don't expect BHW
money to pay your rent or mortgage, or even your grocery bill. You'll
need another income stream for that. If that means working eight, or
even five hours a day in a job that is mentally demanding, you may find
that by the time you've also met responsibilities to partner and kids,
you'll not have the energy left to cope with even a short novel. Try not
to fret. Put your BHW ambition to one side and promise to come back to
it when your circumstances change. That's very hard, I know, but it can
be done. And you wouldn't want to have a nervous breakdown, would you?
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