Sunday, August 19, 2012

Troy D. Smith: Blackwell Unchained

Blackwell Unchained
(The Blackwells series)
by Troy D. Smith
Copyright © 2012 Troy D. Smith

One of my favorite people in the writing business is Troy D. Smith, talented author of many wonderful works in a variety of genres. You can be assured of historical accuracy in his stories—he has earned a PhD and is a historian and history professor. The historical tidbits he brings to his stories are intricately woven into rich characterization and strong emotional conflicts so the reader internalizes the authenticity. Few writers have the chops to pull that off. Troy's history is so much more than a bunch of battles and dates because he delves into the hearts and minds of those who were there. You'll get a taste Thursday when his article on Camp Ford is published.

Romancing The West interviewed Troy earlier this year. Take a look at Troy D. Smith: Cherokee Winter, and the article he submitted, The Flight of Opothleyahola.

Before we get started, Troy has offered bribes! er, prizes! Yes, there's a
(Details after the excerpt)

RTW: Let's get down to business. Please tell us about your series, The Blackwells.

TDS: The Blackwells is a series of ebook shorts—they average about 5,000 words—that examines the American West through the experiences of one family. Last year Western Trail Blazer released the first five stories, and I have just released four more. Henceforth (isn’t that a cool word?) I plan to write a new one every month or so.

The story starts with four young brothers—all in their late teens to early twenties—leaving Tennessee in 1849 for the California gold fields. From there they go their separate ways: one becomes a soldier, one a Texas Ranger, one an outlaw, and one spends several more years as a miner before becoming a lawman.

RTW: When and why did you first decide to do this series?

Troy D. Smith, author
TDS: I actually wrote my first Blackwell story not long after I had my first short fiction published in 1995. I wanted to do an epic series that spanned the whole period of the “traditional west”—as you know, I love history... and I love epics, especially those that have a beginning, middle and end. Obviously, I was influenced by Louis L’Amour’s Sackett novels—and I think the greatly underrated TV series How the West Was Won did something very similar (I think I can get away with having my family also come from Tennessee, as that’s my home—half my characters in general wind up being Tennesseans!) Another saga I love is Robert E. Howard’s Conan—not a western, I know, although “Beyond the Black River” is very western-like. I am taking the same approach with the Blackwells that REH did with Conan—the stories are not told in chronological order, but jump around in time, each one completely self-contained. But eventually I will have woven a complex tapestry.

Those first four Blackwell tales were published in the late '90s in the magazines Western Digest, The Storyteller, and The Shootist. I sort of got distracted after that by other projects, although Texas Ranger Jake Blackwell showed up as a supporting character in many of my other works (including Bound for the Promise-Land, which to my great joy won a Spur award.)

RTW: Why did you choose to make the Blackwell saga a series of short stories?

TDS: Mainly because I wanted to write a lot of them, featuring several different main characters over a long period of time. Plus, I love writing short stories. I am pondering the possibility of later branching out into an occasional Blackwell novel, though.

RTW: I love short stories. How have the first stories been received?

TDS: The Blackwell series is the only thing I have ever done that has had both high sales and good critical reception. It’s really strange—when those earliest stories were published in low-circulation magazines in the 90s, I think the highest I was paid for one was $25. And yet in their second life as e-books they’ve sold very well— “Blackwell’s Stand” peaked at #4 on Amazon’s western list. And I was very pleased and honored when the first new one I had written in over a decade, “Blackwell’s Run,” was a finalist for last year’s Peacemaker Award from Western Fictioneers.

RTW: Where do you see this series going?

TDS: I have a lot of story ideas. I plan to do a story (or more) about Caleb Blackwell’s gold mining days in which he goes to Australia for the rush there in the 1850s. I’ve already branched out into the second generation, introducing Max Blackwell’s son Billy in the Klondike gold rush story “The Windigo,” and I plan to do more stories about him. I’ll eventually have Blackwells in 1920s oil boomtowns and maybe cousins on both sides of the law during the 1930s Dust Bowl bank robbery heyday.

RTW: What other stories are you working on?

TDS: If you like detective stories, I just released the newest of my Roy Carpenter mysteries, “Stomp Boogie,” and have another series beginning soon called Dead Rednecks!

And of course, I am extremely excited about being series editor and co-writer of Western Fictioneers’ new western novel series, Wolf Creek. The first volume is being unveiled on September 1, with a new one every three months or so thereafter—and it is really coming together well.

RTW: Tell us about this excerpt from “Blackwell Unchained.”

TDS: Jake Blackwell left the Texas Rangers to join the Union Army. He has been captured and sent to a prison camp—on Thursday I’ll be contributing an article here about Camp Ford, in Tyler, Texas, which I have renamed Camp Henry in the story. Here Blackwell is about to have a run-in with his nemesis, the sadistic guard Sergeant Tucker.

EXCERPT of Blackwell Unchained
by Troy D. Smith

The prisoners tended to segregate themselves according to their national background—there were “neighborhoods” of Norwegians, Germans, Irish, and Swedes. Some sections of the camp were organized according to region—the New Englanders here, New Yorkers there, people from the states that had been the Old Northwest Territory in another area—and others by regiment. Jake Blackwell had not found a sizeable group of pro-Union Texan prisoners.

Camp Henry’s “neighborhoods” became most evident on race day. In preparation for the races, prisoners tried to catch as many rats as they could. Preliminary races were held to determine each group’s swiftest rodent, and this was followed by a final round in which the groups’ chosen rats competed against one another for the championship. An area was cleared for the race, and individual lanes were created with scrap lumber. The prisoners did not have many possessions, but what little they owned was wagered—coats, blankets, and shoes were the most common items.

The Northwesterners’ rat, Charlie, had dominated the last several contests. Charlie’s official owner was an artillery corporal from Wisconsin, but all the soldiers from the Great Lakes states felt a sense of proprietorship in the critter—including Barton and Suffolk.

The final race had just begun when Sergeant Tucker approached the track. The guards had always stayed away during the festivities—but Tucker was apparently feeling especially vicious on this day.

“Here, now, what’s this!” he shouted as the rats were released. “Filthy vermin, contaminating the camp?”

He plunged his bayonet into the nearest rat, pinning it to the ground. It was Charlie, and the little fellow screamed piteously for a couple of seconds. Tucker pulled out his bloody blade, grinning broadly.

“One less rat—almost as good as one less Yankee.”

The entire assembly of prisoners seemed to be in shock. Charlie’s owner stumbled over to his pet’s still-twitching body and sank to his knees beside it.

More guards approached—the captain in command of the shift had seen what was happening and feared an impending riot.
Jake Blackwell heard a low growl from beside him. He turned and saw Suffolk—the Hoosier’s right eye was twitching and his clenched fists shook.

RTW: Wow, you really left us hanging, Troy. Excellent excerpt!

Blackwell Unchained is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

One commenter this week wins
a pdf of three short stories:

Small print: Winner will be drawn Aug. 25, 2012 at 9pm PDT.  Please leave your email address with your comment so we can contact you.  Otherwise, we'll have to draw another name.


  1. Hi Troy, Look forward to reading Blackwell Unchained and all the future Blackwell's. There is nothing better than a comfy chair, a great western, and a good cup of cowboy coffee. So my chair and my coffee are ready!

    Best of luck on this series.

    Reba -

  2. OH BOY!! I shall have to get ALL of the Blackwell series. What a fabulous excerpt, Troy! Love all the historical details in your writing too. :-D

  3. A Texas Ranger who joined the Union army. Wow. That guy believed in living dangerously, didn't he? ;-)

    Great excerpt, Troy. I look forwarding to reading the whole series. Thanks for the introduction. :-)

  4. Thanks, y'all! And there were some pro-Union Texans, including Senator Sam Houston. Like every other Confederate state except SC, Texas raised Union troops. But it was indeed living dangerously- in fact, in Tyler, TX- location of Camp Ford- a judge, the former sheriff, and several other prominent pro-Union citizens were hanged by a kangaroo court. Them there was rough times.

    1. Texans weren't easy on Union sympathizers -- witness the Nueces Massacre. I'm proud to be the product of generations of Texans, but there are some episodes in our state's history I'd just as soon not claim.

      Troy, you're a delight. I plan to start reading BLACKWELL UNCHAINED this evening. Cheryl Pierson speaks so highly of you and your work (and I'm such a fan of hers), that I don't see how I could not enjoy the story. :-)

    2. I hope you like it! And I'm glad to hear Cheryl is as big a fan of my work as I am of hers ;-)

    3. Troy, you know I love your stories. I love history so much, and you have such a way of incorporating the "facts" into the story so I know I'm learning, but I don't realize I'm learning while I'm reading--it's just a good story that I am engrossed in. Thanks to you and Kathleen both for the very kind words. I appreciate it!

    4. I try to do the same thing in front of a class!

  5. I just read Cheryl Pierson's blog this morning about the group of writers including you who were collaborating on a western novel. It sounds positively unique and I look forward to reading it.
    I had to grin when I read the first part of the exceprt where Jake couldn't find any good number of Texas Union soldiers. When it got to poor Charlie the rat being murdered by that awful Sergeant Tucker, I was just horrified and hated him right off. I hope Jake does something to him for that.
    The Blackwell series looks like some good reading. It's difficult to write a story in 5000 words. Every word counts so they have to be just the right ones. I'm looking forward to reading the whole series.
    Congratulations on all those fantastic awards and I wish you continued success, Troy.

  6. Hey Troy,
    I really love your Blackwell idea...well, I love ALL your ideas...LOL This is a great excerpt and I just feel so angry over Sergeant Tucker killing Charlie I want to go after him myself--the mark of a great writer! I agree with Sarah--5000 words aren't a lot to be able to tell a story, but you do it very well. I love "henceforth", too...

  7. Thanks, ladies. And I agree, writing a compelling short story is a challenge. All the Blackwell stories will be around 5000 words, but the very first one that the wonderful Rebecca Vickery over at Western Trail Blazer released as an ebook single was shorter than that, at around 2000. I had no idea how big the series was going to be, or even if it was going to sell anything at all, at that point- if I had that one to do over I'd have expanded it a bit. Although quite a few people seem to have really liked it, which was good.

  8. Great interview! Your Blackwell series sounds very compelling. I'm thinking about writing a series of short stories, something I've never tried before. I'm hoping your stories will help me get a handle on how to go about it.

  9. Oops, forgot to add my email addy:

  10. My first book was a series of short stories (fantasy romance, though)and I've always wanted to write a western series. I really love short stories--so good to read when you don't have time to savor a novel-length story. Also, the characterization has to be crack-on right from the get-go and there's no room for wandering in the woods. Since I prefer fast-paced stories, the condensed nature of short stories suits me.

    So I plan to pick up the first few Blackwell stories and get started on them. They're right up my alley. :) And of course the excerpt for Blackwell Unchained was superb!

    1. In the not-a-western category, I have a short story in an upcoming Port Yonder Press all-elf anthology... and sometime in the next year Vickery will be releasing my horror-sci fi anthology "Rider in Shadow."

  11. Troy, I hate that this camp was in Texas. Actually, I hate that it was anywhere, but especially in my home state. Still, I was very interested in reading about it.


Romancing The West welcomes you to show your appreciation of our guest blogger by leaving a comment. If there's a contest, don't forget to leave your contact information. Thanks!