An American Family

appearing in stories by


(The information below was originally presented on the Western Fictioneers blog, on January 12, 2013)

In the last two years, almost 90% of my ebook sales have come from just three short stories: “The Blackwell Claim,” “Blackwell’s Stand,” and “Blackwell’s Run.” Perhaps you notice a theme there.

About fifteen years ago, not long after I started getting fiction published, I plotted out a series of stories centered around four brothers from Tennessee who headed west during the California gold strike, then dispersed- the plan was to follow them, and eventually their descendants, and thereby get an overview of the history of the American West through the experiences of one family. If this seems similar to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett saga, well, that was a huge influence on me as a writer. My thought was to make my effort an homage- and it was only natural for me to choose Tennessee as a starting-off point, as that is where I am from and have spent most of my life (in fact, L’Amour set the origin of his Sackett family in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, which is the next county over from me.)

But there are some differences in my approach. The Blackwells are not always stalwart (though usually well-meaning), nor are they invincible. Sometimes they make very bad decisions, and sometimes (in stories to come) it gets some of them killed. The original set of brothers are introduced in “The Blackwell Claim” –they are very young in that tale, ranging from late teens to early twenties. Max is the eldest- he is very staid and responsible, and eventually joins the army as a dragoon (a title which, by the Civil War, will become cavalryman.) Next is Duke –full name Duke Cumberland Blackwell, named after a figure in early Tennessee history. Duke has their mother’s red hair, as well as her passions, temper, and gift of gab. He is a lot less inclined than the other brothers to care what the law says, and eventually becomes an outlaw –though a very likeable one. Next is Caleb- who is very much the silent type. Caleb continues his pursuit of gold long after his brothers move on to other pursuits, and in the mid-1850s travels to Australia for the Victorian gold strike. He eventually becomes a lawman in Colorado. Finally there is Jake, who has a strong sense of duty –he spends decades as a Texas Ranger, training under the famous Bigfoot Wallace. The Blackwells also had a sister, who died in childbirth- her daughter will play a part in future stories.

I wrote five Blackwell stories in the 1990s, and got three of them published. Well, I wrote four-and-a-half –the fifth one I got halfway through then shelved, finishing it over a decade later. “The Blackwell Claim” appeared in Western Digest in 1999, and “The Divided Prey” was published in The Shootist a year later. “The Windigo” –a horror story set during the Klondike Gold Rush and featuring Max Blackwell’s son Billy as the hero –also appeared in The Shootist. A fourth story, “Blackwell’s Stand,” went unpublished –it was very short, under two thousand words, and was intended as an exercise in “heroic action.” I wanted to catch the same feel as some of those old Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs tales, and related stories, in which the hero performs absolutely herculean (and unbelievable) feats as a matter of course –in this case, Caleb Blackwell fights not one, but two, grizzlies. I plan to make a running joke in future tales of the fact that none of his brothers believe his story.

I had mapped out a large number of Blackwell tales, but wrote no more for a long time, being distracted by other things (like a decade of secondary education.) I wrote other things instead, although I sometimes had Texas Ranger Jake Blackwell pop up as a supporting character in my westerns.

Then, in 2010, the Blackwells got a new lease on life.

A friend of mine (and fellow WF member), Kit Prate, told me that there was a new player in the digital publishing world, WESTERN TRAIL BLAZER. I contacted the publisher, Rebecca J. Vickery, and told her I had a lot of old short stories that might work as digital shorts –she offered to give them a look, and accepted several, including all four Blackwell stories.

And “The Blackwell Claim” and “Blackwell’s Stand” took off like crazy. Both stories spent about a year on amazon’s top 100 western list, with “Blackwell’s Stand” peaking at #3. I noticed that the two stories that didn’t have “Blackwell” in the title did not sell nearly as well, so when I dusted off that unfinished story from the 90s and wrote the second half of it, I changed the title from “The Vision Man” to “Blackwell’s Run.” I was deeply honored when that one not only sold well, but was a finalist for the 2011 Peacemaker Awards. When I realized how popular the brothers B were with readers, I decided to write all those other stories I had once intended to produce. In the last few months I’ve added five more, with another due soon. Rebecca Vickery at WTB will be releasing Blackwell collections, with six or so collected stories in each book, while I continue to release new ones as individual shorts. I plan to look at the next Blackwell generations as well (the stories are not written in chronological order), including a multi-part saga at some point that will feature two cousins in opposition to one another- one a Texas Ranger and the other a Depression-era bank robber. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

I hope you’ll take the ride with me.

"Blackwell's Run" was nominated for the 2011 Peacemaker Award for best short story

NOTE: members of the Blackwell clan also guest-star in the following: