"LIKE MAKING CHILI": AN INTERVIEW WITH HUNTERS OF THE DEAD'S STEVE HOCKENSMITH
Steve Hockensmith is the creator of The Holmes On The Range Series. Set in the American West of the 1890s, it features two cowboy brothers. The Amlingmeyer Brothers, Big Red, the narrator. who dreams of being a writing, chronicling Old red, his illiterate but sharp sibling who works to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes. After several years, Steve has brought the boys back in a book where they have to find the killer on a dinosaur dig. Steve was kind enough to talk about returning to the series.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: How did it feel returning to Big and Old Red after some years?
STEVE HOCKENSMITH: Easy-peasy! It helps that I kept writing “Holmes on the Range” stories for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over the years, so I never lost touch with Big Red’s voice or the continuity of the series. That made the move into another novel pretty smooth.
At this point writing the series kind of feels like making chili. I don’t have to look up the recipe. I know all the ingredients and what to do with them. Yes, I have to spend a lot of time chopping and hovering over the pot stirring stirring stirring. But there’s no mystery to it. I know what I’m going to get in the end…and that I’m going to like it.
Maybe for some writers, that would be boring. Maybe they’d want a challenge to keep things fresh. Me, I’m thrilled to have a muscle so ready to flex. Not that writing the books is easy, exactly (despite my “Easy-peasy!” above). It’s a ton of work, and parts of it — outlining the plot, in particular — require a brain-melting level of concentration. But it feels great having a process that, while laborious, I know so well.
S.M.: How did early paleontology become the backdrop?
S.H.: I can’t remember where I first ran across “the Bone Wars” — the big rivalry between paleontologists that played out in digs across the West in the second half of the 19th century. But the second I heard about it I knew it was a great set-up for a “Holmes on the Range” mystery. I keep a list of story ideas, and it was in there for years.
For a while I thought I couldn’t use it because I learned, much to my disappointment, that Michael Crichton had written a novel from the same inspiration: Dragon Teeth. But then I eventually mentioned that to someone, and they were like, “Oh, pshaw! Don’t worry about it! A ‘Holmes on the Range’ mystery would be totally different from anything Michael Crichton would write.” So I forged ahead with it.
I still haven’t read Dragon Teeth. I bet it’s great. I just hope it and Hunters of the Dead have nothing in common other than fossils.
S.M.: What was the most fascinating thing you learned when looking into that profession at the time?
S.H.: What jerks some of those guys could be! Some of the paleontologists and the fossil hunters who worked for them got so wrapped up in their feuds that they actually destroyed dig sites — sometimes with dynamite! — so no one else could use them. The things they supposedly cared about above all else — science and discovery — took a back seat to money, prestige and beating the other guy.
On the one hand, that’s a bummer. It undercuts the high ideals of science and reminds us that, at the end of the day, people are people (and a lot of them suck). On the other hand, it made this a perfect set-up for a mystery in the Old West. I’m just sorry I never figured out how to work in the dynamite...
S.M.: Without bogging the story telling down, you appear to borrow some of the writing style from the era the books are set in. Can you talk about how you approach the style?
S.H.: The voice of the series — Big Red’s narration — felt like a bit of a tightrope in the beginning. I’ve always wanted readers to hear Big Red talking to them in their heads. But the series has always been epistolary, as well: Most of the stories are in the form of letters, and it’s been established that the novels are books Big Red’s writing for his publisher in New York. So to feel authentic to the period — the 1890s — I include a lot of Old School touches, like the titles and long, descriptive subheads I give each chapter.
When I was writing the first novel, I doubled down on that, with the kind of long, winding sentences that were the norm for Victorians. But my agent at the time told me to knock it off or I’d alienate modern readers. She was right, too. So I wrote another draft that kept the flavor but hopefully didn’t sacrifice any readability. And that was the draft we sold.
Over the years I’ve loosened up more and more. I used to avoid modern devices like sentence fragments for emphasis — something you see in today’s novels all the time — because it wouldn’t have been acceptable in 1894. But what the heck. I can make Big Red ahead of his time.
S.M.: One of the things I love about the series is the authentic and tactile feel of the period and places you set them in. What kind of research do you do?
S.H.: First off, thank you! That’s great to hear, because I do put in a lot of effort to bring the time and place alive. This isn’t intended as a knock on Western writers, most of whom take research as seriously or more seriously than me, but I have run across books that plunk you down in a generic, Gunsmoke-y version of the West with no effort at real world-building. There’s a saloon and gunslingers and a town sheriff (though a sheriff is an elected official of a county, not a town), and everything feels rote and one-dimensional. That’s what I try to avoid (though you can’t get around saloons and gunmen and sheriffs given the stories I’m telling).
I’m always reading books about or from the late 19th century. It’s usually non-fiction — I recently finished Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight, which was great — but it can be fiction, too. In fact, some of the most helpful portraits of life in the Victorian West that I’ve come across are the “Great Brain” books by John D. Fitzgerald. It’s a series for kids, but the setting — a small Utah town in the 1890s — is brought to life with a ton of detail that goes way, way beyond the saloon/gunslingers/sheriff stuff.
Whenever possible, I’ll set a “Holmes on the Range” story in a real place so I can dig into its past. I’ll scour the web for historical information and download all the period pictures and street maps I can find. If you do that, you’ll come across all kinds of interesting details that can inspire plot points. In Hunters of the Dead, for instance, there’s an abandoned house made of bones that might strike some readers as over the top. But that was a real thing!
Note to anyone working on historical novels: Google is your friend. You should use it — a lot — before you start writing.
S.M.: You have some more traditional westerns coming out. What can you tell us about those?
S.H.: I’ve always thought of the “Holmes on the Range” books as Western adjacent more than Westerns. They’re historical mysteries that just happen to be set in the Old West. There’s tons of Western flavor to most of them, but the notes they hit — a murder, suspects, clues, red herrings, a final reveal — all come from the mystery genre. But I love Westerns! I read them all the time! So for years now I’ve wanted to break from the “Holmes on the Range” formula and write a Western Western. Specifically, an action-adventure Western — the kind of thing that Gold Medal might have published in 1967 or James Garner might have starred in around the same time.
And finally I did it! I wrote exactly the kind of book I wanted to read: one that’s full of action in the Old West but also has the kind of humor and offbeat characters I gravitate toward. It’s called Hired Guns, and Rough Edges Press will publish it next year along with a sequel I’m still working on, No Hallowed Ground. The sensibility is a mix of the traditional Western and spaghetti Westerns and elements of the “Holmes on the Range” series. In fact, it’s a spinoff from the “Holmes on the Range” books. The heroes — soldiers of fortune Ira Hoop, Eskaminzim and Oswin Diehl — work for the same detective agency as Big Red and Old Red. They even appear in Hunters of the Dead.
I really hope my readers will give Hired Guns and No Hallowed Ground a try. My dream is to build out a “Holmes on the Range”-iverse with multiple spinoffs and installments coming a lot faster than I’ve been able to manage the past few years. At the moment, Rough Edges Press seems open to whatever direction I want to go in, which is really exciting. Hopefully Big Red and Old Red and the rest of the gang have a lot more Western adventures ahead of them.