After a career spent writing thrillers and crime fiction, many of my colleagues wondered why I wanted to write a western. They were particularly curious about how a life-long New Yorker such as myself would set his story in Montana, a place I had never even seen.
I explained my reasons for wanting to write a western were intertwined with having it set it in Montana. Having grown up in The Bronx, I had always dreamed of the wide-open spaces and natural beauty of Big Sky Country. I also wanted to write the kind of western I wanted to read. I wanted my exploration of an unseen land to filter into my fiction, so the reader grew to understand it just as I had. I chose Montana for the same reason why I wanted to try my hand at a completely new genre.
I didn’t have any romantic notions about how life was in the Montana Territory during the late 1880s, which is when my Aaron Mackey / Billy Sunday novels take place. I had done enough reading about that period in American history to know most television shows and movies got it wrong. I’ve never been shy about allowing movies and television to pique my interest in a topic, but once hooked, I do my own research.
It was through research that I decided there was no other place where a character like Sheriff Aaron Mackey could be. The majestic landscapes. The grit of the people who dared to make a life there. The plight of the native peoples who eventually and begrudgingly adapted to the newcomers who came by wagon and train. The harsh conditions the pioneers endured so that they might carve out a life for themselves from the wilderness.
I decided that Montana herself would serve as a character in my novels. Some might think of simply cowboys and Indians and gallant cavalry charges when they think back to the Montana Territory. My research told me that it was far more complex than that. I knew Montana’s history was much more than just Custer’s ill-fated charge at The Little Big Horn. Montana was a place that also attracted railroad and cattle barons, miners and loggers and fortune seekers of all description. And some who came simply because they had no other place to call home.
In my novels, Captain Aaron Mackey returns to his fictional hometown of Dover Station after being discharged from the Army under a cloud of suspicion. He is a hero but comes back to Dover Station a dejected and broken man. His friend and former sergeant, a Buffalo Soldier named Billy Sunday, comes to Dover Station with Mackey in the hopes of starting a life for himself in Mackey’s hometown. The two men are eventually elected as Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff, where they find plenty of criminals to arrest, outlaws to shoot and other lawbreakers to lock up.
Although there is no shortage of actual Montana towns that have rich and colorful histories, I chose to create fictional locations that had a sense of those actual towns. My Dover Station is set along a new train line that served loggers and miners and investors of all types. Throughout the novels, the town undergoes changes and growth, just like Aaron Mackey does. It prospers, suffers growing pains, and endures all the intrigue that was common to boom towns of that era.
A wealthy financier – Frasier Rice – is loosely based on J.P. Morgan, but he’s my type of railroad baron. Since the evil, cigar-chomping, greedy miser has been done to death in western fiction, so I chose to write about an unconventional character. In many ways, Mr. Rice is one of the few characters in the novels to whom I can relate. He comes west with a dream of building something, not destroying it. To increase his coffers, yes, but not at the expense of those who live there. He wants to do well by doing good. A rarity in such men, I know, but remember, I’m writing fiction.
And, over the course of the four existing books, the reader learns that Mr. Rice’s dreams are not immune to human greed. Mackey often finds himself on the opposite side of that greed and does everything in his power to thwart their corruption at every turn.
I took various events from Montana history and melded them into my own fictional universe because I wanted to show my readers that Montana is not just some kind of Eden of rich resources and indescribable beauty. It’s a place where humans live, and with humanity comes all the failings common to our condition.
But that doesn’t mean I ignored all the hallmarks that make the western genre popular, even in our modern, digital age. I feature plenty of showdowns and brawls, shootouts and chases, renegades and heroes along the way. I wanted to encapsulate the Montana experience as I understand it in a fictional setting so I could be free of the standard of history to which I’d be justifiably held if I had set the story in an actual town. That isn’t to say that that Montana history has no place in my books. Far from it. If anything, the period plays just as big a role in the stories as the landscape itself.
My works in other genres always use the period in which they are written as a main motivation for the events of the story. My University Series, for example, is set in modern day and modern technology plays a huge role in how those tales unfold. My crime stories are set in 1930 New York City because it was the end of the Roaring Twenties, the dying days of Prohibition and the beginning of the Great Depression to come.
I set my Aaron Mackey books in the late 1880s for a reason. The Montana of that time was transitioning from being a territory to becoming a state on November 8, 1889. It is this tension between eras that fuels many of the events of my Mackey novels. It serves as the motivation for why so many of the characters act as they do.
I began this journey into a new genre set in a land strange to me in the hopes that I would learn more about myself both as a historian and as a writer. Now, after six books set in Montana, I find myself admiring the place, its people, and its history more than I ever thought possible.
I even had the good fortune of visiting Billings a few years ago and enjoyed every moment I was there. The people I had the pleasure of meeting were warm and inviting and didn’t seem to mind my New York accent.
Montana and her history have become an integral part of who I am as a writer and as an artist. And, whether it is in my fiction or in real life, it is a place I intend to revisit as often as I can.
Subscribe To The Terrence McCauley Newsletter
Join Terrence's mailing list to receive the latest news and updates. It's totally free and you can opt out at any time.