Feb 27 2011 9:00am

Saddle Up: The Appeal of Western Romance

When I see certain actors, the first thing that pops into my mind is how perfect they are cast as cowboys. Tom Selleck. Sam Elliott. Robert Duvall. It was an interview I saw with Duvall many years ago that really drove home for me why I like westerns so much.

“It's ours . . . It's American. The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov. The Western is ours."

Like most Americans, I have strong opinions when it comes to our country, our government, and how the world at large views us. One thing always sticks in the back of my mind, though—the United States is a country founded by immigrants. Unless you’re native, we all came from somewhere else. It is what makes this country great, and it makes us unique. Nothing quite exemplifies this like the American West, which for many people meant freedom, a second chance, a way to start over and make their way in the world.

People traveled west for a variety of reasons, but if you were to distill all those reasons down to the essence, you’re left with “I want to better my lot in life." The idea that the lives of children and grandchildren should be better than the lives of their parents and grandparents still exists to this day. 

Themes of redemption, second chances, and bettering yourself are fairly universal. They’re easy to relate to. We all experience the desire for forgiveness. We all have regrets and want to start over, even if it’s just in a small way. 

Even as the sub-genre’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, that’s the appeal of the western. That’s what authors, publishers, and devotees of the genre need to remind readers of. Certainly dukes, viscounts, ballrooms, and elaborate ball gowns are the stuff of fairy tales for a lot of romance readers.  They provide that immediate escape. The idea that any girl can find her Prince Charming. But who is to say that Prince Charming cannot be a common man? A man working to improve his lot in life? A man who isn’t afraid of hard work, and willing to pour every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears into building a better life for not only himself, but for those who may follow? And frankly, what could be sexier than that? To my way of thinking, not a whole lot.

That’s the appeal of the western. That’s the reason I spend a lot of time promoting it, in the vain hope that one day it will make a huge resurgence. It hasn’t happened yet, but like those cowboys, I’m not willing to give up without a serious fight.

Image courtesy of Kevin Zollman via Flickr


Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.

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Virginia Campbell
1. VirginiaCampbell
A true cowboy is a man of faith, patriotic, loves "the land", is good to horses and dogs and tolerates cats. He adores his family and friends. He would give his life for his country and his loved ones. Upon first glance, all of these characteristics may not be readily apparent. Sometimes, cowboys hoot and holler. Sometimes, they are quiet and thoughtful. They are always worth a second look. Historical Western Romance is my favorite genre, but I love westerns of all kinds. Being a Southerner, I also love Civil War romances and stories set in the South. However, for me, nothing beats a western in its purest form. By that, I mean a stalwart cowboy and his lady, the land, and the life. When a cowboy truly loves, he loves with all his heart, forever. His woman is as cherished as his values, his “cowboy code of honor”. Not always in words, but in deep, deep feelings. Feelings as true as the blue of a Texas bluebonnet.

I love, love, love my cowboys and men of the Old West! The love of my life is Sam Elliott : )Sam has no peer as a Western star. Also, his voice alone would make all the seams come loose in your clothes! One of my favorite words is “courtly”, which to me means respectful and mannerly. Who could resist a courtly cowboy, hat in hand, when he says “thank you, Ma’am”? A lady journalist who was once lucky enough to interview Sam Elliott described him as “courtly”. I knew that : ) Tom Selleck makes a mighty fine man of the West. He and Sam Elliott are great friends and costarred in two great movies based on Louis L'Lamour stories: "The Sacketts" and "The Shadow Riders". Tom Selleck was recently inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for his work in Western films.

Tim Daly. "The Outsider". Tim Daly. I have watched this movie more times than I can count, and it hasn't cooled down yet. Tim Daly : )

Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly. "High Noon". The wonderful theme song sung by Tex Ritter:

Do not forsake me O my darlin'
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me O my darlin'
Wait, wait along.
The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I'm a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave. O to be torn 'twixt love and duty!
S'posin' I lose my fair-haired beauty!
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin' high noon. He made a vow while in State's Prison,
Vow'd it would be my life or his and
I'm not afraid of death, but O,
What will I do if you leave me? Do not forsake me O my darlin'
You made that promise when we wed.
Do not forsake me O my darlin'
Although you're grievin', I can't be leavin'
Until I shoot Frank Miller dead. Wait along, wait along
Wait along
Wait along
– “Do Not Forsake Me ”, words by Ned Washington, music by Dmitri Tiomkin

Robert Fuller & Robert Horton; James Drury & Doug Mcclure (from “The Virginian”); Peter Breck, Lee Majors, Richard Long (the Barkley brothers from “The Big Valley); The Cartwrights–especially Guy Williams as cousin Will Cartwright (he also had the title role as TV’s Zorro and Professor John Robinson in “Lost in Space”); James Garner as “Maverick” or just James Garner; James Arness, Ken Curtis, Dennis Weaver from “Gunsmoke”; Clint Walker as “Cheyenne”; Lee Horsley from “Paradise”. Robert Conrad in “The Wild, Wild West”–the original “steampunk”! I love them all, and there are just too many more to mention.

However, one of the greatest TV Men of the West was Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown in “Cimarron Strip”. In my opinion, this is one of the best westerns ever put on the screen. The episodes which pitted Stuart Whitman against Richard Boone, whose character called Marshall Crown by the name “Tricky Jim” were outstanding! If you can ever find a sexier lawman than Stuart Whitman, please let me know! Those looks, those eyes, that strut and that voice!

Richard Boone--"Paladin"! We lived in Nevada when I was in the first grade, and my mother worked in a gift shop. She met lots of celebrities, including Richard Boone. I still have the calling card with the identifying graphic of the chess piece for the “Have Gun— Will Travel” series. Mr. Boone autographed it for Mom! He was extremely masculine, compelling and charming! He was an excellent actor, very serious about his craft.

I also adore John Wayne. Not a perfect man, but my goodness, what a man! From what I’ve seen, read, and heard from his films, and articles and interviews, he was the real deal. I love his older, iconic cowboy image. The scence from True Grit where he takes the horses reins in his mouth, and charges forward, blasting away with two pistols is forever burned in my brain. If you watch John Wayne in his early films, you will see a very sexy, charming, “look ‘em in the eye” kind of guy. What a physique! If he focused his undivided attention on a woman, I think she would have been in big, big trouble! No wonder they called him “Duke” : )
Saundra Peck
2. sk1336
Oh yes.....James Garner and Robert Conrad were BORN to be cowboys. They played the "hero" in many roles, but the way they sat on a horse let you know they were in complete control of everything and everyone. The easy way they rode was sooooo sexy! I, too, miss the westerns. The way a lady could be wearing the most beautiful gown and lacy underthings, then shoot a bad guy from the gun hidden in said underthings!!!! Love it!!!! Miss it!!!
Keira Gillett
3. Keira
I love Westerns! I like too ones that are up north and mid-west too... the frontier romances into places like Minnesota Territory. Are they lumped in Westerns too? What states are counted under the heading "western romance"?
Amber McMichael
4. buriedbybooks
I adore classic western movies, but am really not a fan of most western historical romances. And that's MY fault, not the genre's. I live in the Sierras, so when I think of westward expansion, I think of the Donner Party. Of the Gold Rush. Of the negative side of the western mystique. I won't dismiss an historical western out of hand, but it's not a favorite of mine.

I know far less about English history, so I can turn off that analytical part of my brain when I read a Regency.

Weird thing is that I adore contemporary westerns. Those set on ranches or filled with modern day cowboys. Maybe because it seems a little old fashioned in today's hustle and bustle, and I can let myself enjoy the charm.
Saundra Peck
5. sk1336
My favorite contemporary western so far is Nora Roberts' "Montana Sky". I have a true soft spot for Montana, and I feel that it appeals to the desire for a simpler time. What can be more basic than living off of the land with your family and a good cowboy as your man?
6. Sunita
I totally share your Western love, Wendy, both in historicals and contemporaries. Part of it is because the people are ordinary in their backgrounds but extraordinary in their ambitions and accomplishments. And also because it is just the most gorgeous part of the country. One of my favorite non-fiction books is John McPhee's Basin & Range, about the Nevada high desert. And I love Maggie Osborne because she set all her romances in places I know, and I can mentally put myself there when I'm reading. It's especially nice on a cold winter day (or hot summer day) in the midwest.

We drive from Missouri to California and back at least once a year and sometimes twice, and we usually go to Alaska every year, so I get my western fix. In between, I read cowboy romances!

Right now my favorite Western actor is Tom Selleck. I'll watch him in anything and mentally put a cowboy hat and jeans on him. I'm even watching Blue Bloods because he's in it, that's how bad it is.

Great post, Wendy.
7. Keishon
Great post, Wendy! I love a good western too. Heart of the West by Penelope Williamson comes to mind first. I just LOVE that book so pardon me for gushing on it here. Also, I think Kathleen Harrington wrote some good ones - A Taste of Heaven is one I remember enjoying. Like Sunita mentioned, Maggie Osborne wrote some good ones. LOVED The Wives of Bowie Stone. There are more but yes! give me a good western anyday of the week.
8. Barb in Maryland
Great post and thank you for championing Western Romances. I do like those, but I am a sucker for the old westerns--Louis L'Amour, Luke Short, Max Brand. I even like some Zane Grey (old-fashioned as he is). They may all be full of action and adventure, but there is always a worthy woman for our hero.
Best casting ever done was for the Sackett miniseries with Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot. But the best movie was Shadow Riders-Selleck, Elliot and Katherine Ross(aka Mrs Sam Elliot)! Love it!
9. Jenny K.
When it comes to western romances, Catherine Anderson defines the genre. I can smell the dust, hear the horses whinny, see the cowboy hats, and feel the worn boot leather...and her heroes are patriotic, moral men of action. I enjoy them all!
10. EvangelineHolland
Growing up in Kansas, my first brush with Westerns were the stories of the Old West: Dodge City, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, etc. Tales of gunfights, cattle rustlers, cowboys, outlaws, and fierce women were thrilling to my six year old self, but when my family was transplanted to the mid-Atlantic, my attention predictably turned to the history of the Eastern seaboard--Colonial Alexandria, the Civil War, etc. It wasn't until I moved once more, to California, and much later on, fell deeply in love with classic film, that the Western made a deeper impression upon me. My first love will always be urban-based stories, but the grit and boundlessness of the West, the very Americaness of it, is in my blood. I haven't found very many Western romances that satisfy my view of the West, but I too hope for their return to prominence (and, well, perhaps I should write some myself! lol).
Nancy O'Berry
11. Nan_52
Yes, yes, give me the cowboy. The true American hero who was often pitted against man, nature, and or a beast. He stood for what he thought was right. I grew up with the wonderful westerns you mentioned in your blog. I'd love to see the genre itself come back. I'm finding it very hard to place the westerns I write. Thank you for pulling out this blog and for those who've written in support of the genre.
Victoria Janssen
12. VictoriaJanssen
Jo Goodman's two most recent books (NEVER LOVE A LAWMAN and MARRY ME) were the best Westerns I've read in a long time.
13. Karenmc
Oh, Westerns. As a child I lived and breathed the TV Westerns.

Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross moved to Oregon a couple of years back (he's originally from Portland) and I get all swoony each time I pass his freeway exit. Someday, God willin' and the creek don't rise, I'll bump into him at Safeway.
Wendy the Super Librarian
14. SuperWendy
@Virginia C : My father is a hard core John Wayne fan. I'm partial to Rio Bravo and The Searchers - but hard to argue with True Grit :)

@sk1336 : The heroines are a huge draw for me as well. I like heroines who are on the way to "helping themselves" when the hero shows up to lighten the load.

@Keira : For me, it's all about time period. The books you describe I tend to call "frontier westerns." Back when Ohio, Kentucky etc. were considered "the west." The Colonial era, the French & Indian War etc.

@buriedbybook : Westerns come in all flavors, but I'll admit - I like the "darker" ones the best. The stories that show readers a glimpse of the dark side. The cozy ones are good too - but I like a good punch in the gut every now and then :)

@Sunita : I'm convinced it's the moustache. Something about Tom's moustache just screams "cowboy" to me.

@Keishon : I'm not sure I have that Penelope Williamson in the TBR. Off to go look! And thanks for the tip....

@Barb in Maryland : Where have I been? I don't think I realized Elliott was married to Katherine Ross!

@Jenny K. : I haven't read all of them, but I particularly enjoyed Cherish by Anderson. Need to reread that, one of these days....

@Evangeline Holland : It's funny - because I was so burnt out on "American history" that when I went to college I spent four years studying the Brits. It wasn't until I rediscovered the romance genre, and I started picking up titles based on positive reviews, that I fell hook, line and sinker for the western setting.

@Nan_52 : Which is why I love those "frontier style" westerns so much. So often you get that Man vs. Environment storyline. Jenna Kernan wrote some good ones that fit this mold for Harlequin Historical. Winter Woman and The Outlaw's Bride leap to mind.

@VictoriaJanssen : Argh! I still need to read Marry Me!

@Karenmc : OMG - I'd be tempted to stalk him, if only to ask him to read the phone book to me. Or maybe a grocery list - LOL
15. Reina
I'm new to western romances, but so far I like L.L. Miller.
And yes to those cowboy movie heroes. Paul Newman's good too. :)
16. Kaye
I am a huge western fan ! I have been glomming Cheryl St John's lately and look at the pile and think I really should swap them, but then I can't bring myself to do it. I think I started getting interested as a kid watching westerns on TV (this dates me a bit) and my dad always seemed to have a Zane Gray around.

Keep the trail drive going, Wendy, we need more exposure to keep the genre alive. Thanks for the post!
Wendy the Super Librarian
17. SuperWendy
@Reina: ::headdesk:: Yes! Of course Paul Newman! ::drool::

@Kaye: I love Cheryl's books. She's one of my go-to authors when I'm looking for that "cozy" feeling in a romance.
18. Meg Mims
I sure hope you're right about the resurgance!! MORE westerns, please! Loved Maggie Osborne's and Cheryl St. John's... also Suzanne Ledbetter.
19. wsl0612
I have a problem with Westerns. Although I do love the stalwart cowboy and independent pioneer woman of classic Western romance, I have such a difficult time setting aside the issues of the Native Americans and how poorly they were treated (and still are in many cases). I know we can't re-write history and that it certainly wasn't the fault of many pioneers that the natives suffered, but I sometimes just can't turn off that part of my brain that wonders what it would've been like if the West had been settled with less bloodshed.
Wendy the Super Librarian
20. SuperWendy
@Meg Mims: Well I don't know if a resurgence is on the horizon, but I keep hoping!

@wslo612: I see this reaction a lot from readers, and it always confuses me. Frankly, no historical time period is devoid of "ugly" - it all boils down to what the reader can "get past" - and that's dependent (sometimes) on how much we "know." Lucky for me, the things that I can't always "get past" tend to be time periods that aren't quite in vogue at the moment. For instance, I think it would be hard for me to read an Irish-set historical around the Potato Famine. Or about a British soldier hero coming back from one of the Opium Wars......
Nancy O'Berry
21. Nan_52
I've been trying to make the rounds with a western, but I keep hearing that "we can't sell those". Sigh breaks my heart. Granted its not your father's western, its your mothers. It has the adventure plus romance. I hope to tell a story through the eyes of a group of Texas Rangers. We'll see if someone will bite. I'm so ready to saddle up with a good brand as they might say.

22. SharonS
Believe it or not I have never read a Western! I think I need to remedy that ;)
Krista Kedrick
23. KristaKedrick
I just found this blog after a search for fellow western/country romance lovers. I'm glad to see I'm not alone. There's just something about those strong cowboy types. Everything about them is strong from their convictions, to their loves to their bodies and that appeals to me. Probably why I married one :-) You can always count on them and they really are the type to sweep in and save the day. I'm now going to follow this site with my facebook fan page in hopes I can stay in contact with my fellow western gals.
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