Interview with Susan Spence: ‘Online writing communities are great sources of ideas’

Today’s guest is Susan Spence, author of the historical fiction, A Story of the West.  You can visit her website at

Q: Thank you for this interview, Susan. Can you tell us what your latest book, A Story of the West, is all about?

My book is about early day ranching that began down in Texas. During the Civil War a lot of Texans went to fight for the Confederacy, leaving their cattle to run wild. Unmanaged, their numbers quickly increased and they soon over-ran their range. After the war ended, huge herds were driven north and so began the cattle industry as we know it today. A Story of the West tells the story of one family starting a ranch in Montana Territory during this time. It is also about greed and destroying other people’s lives to have it all.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

My characters are based on people who settled the frontier. Matt Daly and his father see an opportunity when they arrive in the empty grasslands of the northern prairie. They, like others of the time, start grabbing land in an effort to control it for their own interests.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

My characters are based on people who could have lived during the time. I may have borrowed certain traits, but basically they are from my imagination.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

This is my first novel and I was consciously aware of the choice my main character had to make, but I wrote and rewrote to figure out the body of the story. My second book is different because, instead of an event that I’m writing the story around, it’s more of a concept I want to get across.

Q: Your book is set on the prairie of Montana.  Can you tell us why you chose this place in particular?

The plot of my book revolves around cattle ranching in the American West. During the 1880s, the cattle industry was taking off as the grasslands filled with cattle brought up from Texas. Back then it was the “in” thing to invest in and people made a lot of money fattening cattle to ship back east.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

The setting plays a major part in my story. Just like any get rich scheme, where greed causes people to behave unscrupulously, early cattle speculating brought out the same behavior. Back then, on the frontier, there was practically no law enforcement, so it was a free for all.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

John Daly, Matt’s father, is out checking cattle to see how they are wintering. While struggling through a snow drift, his horse is injured and he is forced to walk home, leading the limping horse through the snow, as night falls and the temperature drops.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

Jake and Ed stopped their horses at one of the saloons, hoping to find a man who wasn’t yet drunk this early in the day, and that they could convince to take the job. Since they lived in primarily cattle country, it might be hard. If they had been running a cattle outfit, there would have been a line of men all the way down the street seeking work.

Matt rode up just then. The sheep men quickly looked him over before the foreman asked him, “You ever tend sheep before?”

“Nope, and I’m not lookin’ to.”

“Fifty dollars a month and keep.” The ranch owner knew his only chance of replacing the deserter was to offer the next guy more than he could make on a cattle ranch. It was a lot of money, something Matt needed.

“Will you stake me to new clothes?”

The old ranch owner looked Matt up and down again. Glancing at his boots, he could see the cowboy in front of him needed more than clothing. This fellow was definitely down on his luck. “Okay, I’ll give you a month’s wages in advance, and I expect you out at the Circle J headquarters by this evening. We’ll need to head out first thing tomorrow.”

As Matt agreed, Jake nodded to Ed. The foreman took out a wallet and handed Matt fifty dollars cash. “I’m Jake Judson and this here’s Ed Markus.”

Matt took the money. It was more than he’d seen in quite a while. “Thank you. My name’s Bill.” The men shook hands before Matt headed once more for the saloon door.

“Let’s see if we can’t find you a pair of boots.” Jake and Ed got on either side of him and steered him towards a ready-made clothing store down the street. Matt was going to get a drink first, but the two sheep men were smarter than that. Jake wasn’t going to just hand over his hard earned money to a stranger. As usual they both wanted to see that they got their money’s worth.

Q: Have you suffered from writer’s block and what do you do to get back on track?

When I can’t find the words or the plot fizzles in a particular spot, struggling never helps. I avoid becoming frustrated by hitting enter a couple times and moving on. Then I come back later with a clear mind and fix it.

Q: What would you do with an extra hour today if you could do anything you wanted?

Go outside and enjoy the beautiful spring weather we’ve been having.

Q: Which already published book do you wish that you had written and why?

Something like All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren would be a trip to write. To have the skill to write that in depth of a novel, one that holds the reader’s attention to the very end, not to mention the focus needed to see it through, is the ultimate achievement as a writer.

Q: What kind of advice would you give other fiction authors regarding getting their books out there?

Persevere. I got discouraged and gave up for a while as it became overwhelming. I have found that the online writing community is a great source of ideas and a lot of writers are willing to share their experience.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Susan.  We wish you much success!

You’re welcome. Thank you for the good wish.

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