My Tell Me Your Story guest author for January is Spur Award winner Reavis Z. Wortham. I love Reavis’ writing! Texas through and through, Reavis is the author of the critically acclaimed Red River historical mystery series. Kirkus listed his first novel, The Rock Hole, as one of their Top 12 Mysteries of 2011. The recipient of numerous Will Rogers Medallion awards, most recently the Gold Medallion for his most recent Red River novel, The Texas Job, Rev has been a newspaper columnist and contributor since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas.
Find him at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com.
Never Give Up
Reavis Z. Wortham
It was late evening somewhere around 1999 when I sat down to meet the deadline for my weekly newspaper column. I’d been writing a freelance, self-syndicated rants and observations since 1988 and always waited until the last minute to send it out. I still do after more than 35 years, and there are now over 2,000 mostly humorous newspaper and magazine columns and magazines articles under my belt.
On that life-changing night, I couldn’t think of a topic, and decided to clear my mind by simply writing whatever came through the tips of my fingers. It was an old exercise I’d learned from my favorite high school English teacher, Miss Adams, who said, “If you can’t think of anything to write, just put words down on the paper and they’ll eventually lead to other words and ideas.”
I wasn’t looking at paper that evening, but a monitor screen with an annoying blinking cursor that taunted me like an irritating little brother. Miss Adams was right. I glanced around my office and saw a photograph of my maternal grandparents and remembered what my grandmother always said about the Red River which ran less than a mile from their farm, “I was born on this old river, and I guess I’ll die here.”
With that inspiration, I began a story that involved her and my grandfather, who was a farmer and constable investigating murders on that border between Texas and Oklahoma back in 1964. An hour later I still had no idea what the week’s column would be, but I’d hammered out the first ten pages of a story that seemed to write itself.
A few minutes later, my wife sat down at our old 286 computer to do some work and called me into the office. For the first time in years, I’d left the program up when I was finished.
I peered over her shoulder to see what she’d read. “Just something that came to me while I was trying to come up with a column idea.”
She pointed at the screen. “This is the novel you’ve been wanting to write.”
“No, it’s just a short story.”
She gave me the Hairy Eyeball. “This is the best stuff you’ve ever written. Finish this novel.”
Instead of arguing, I worked in incremental jumps, advancing the story whenever I could find the time. Sometimes it was early morning in the office before anyone arrived, during lunch, taking notes at stop lights, when I should have been listening during business meetings, or anytime I could catch a few minutes.
Three or four years later, I finally finished my 140,000-word novel. (No one ever told me how long a mystery should be. The answer is about 90,000). After hundreds, if not thousands of edits, additions, deletions, and changes, the evening came when I typed “The End” and hit Enter for a final save.
The screen went blue as the computer hummed to itself, and “File Corrupted” appeared.
My heart sank at the sight of those two words. I had no idea a floppy disk wouldn’t hold several years’ worth of re-writes. A software tech gave it his best shot and retrieved one page that resembled something typed by a nearsighted orangutan.
My first novel was gone. Just…gone.
I went home, wrapped myself around a bottle of scotch, and wept in the closet. Never one to give up, I emerged like Punxsutawney Phil the next day and purchased a new computer and a zip drive. The only thing to do was start over, and I did, rewriting the entire 140,000-word novel from memory. (I still hadn’t learned about the 90,000-word rule.)
Despite the horror story I just related, established authors know the easy part is writing a novel, creating those characters and an imaginary world. Finding a good, qualified agent is harder, believe it or not, and I embarked on that familiar, time-honored journey of sending out query letters.
Memory fails as to how many of those letters left our mailbox, but I eventually interested someone who was both a blessing and a curse. We signed dotted lines, she landed a book deal, (huzzah!) which was The Rock Hole that eventually led to the Red River historical mystery series set in the mid-1960s, but blew a movie offer due to her arrogance and inexperience, and I set her free.
I kept at it.
By my third novel, I had a new agent who led me down the right path and the Red River series featuring three different generations of a rural family in Northeast Texas continued. Professional reviewers compared The Rock Hole to To Kill a Mockingbird, and the second, Burrows, was described as Stephen King meets Harper Lee.
Readers love old Constable Ned Parker who upholds the law in a dramatically changing world of the 1960s. He’s assisted by Deputy John Washington, a near mythical lawman and eventually Cody Parker, a recent veteran of the Vietnam war, providing readers with a look at that tumultuous time from different generational viewpoints. The two driving forces of this series, Ned’s grandkids Top and Pepper, allow us to see that changing world through the innocent eyes of children.
The most recent book in that series, The Texas Job, recently took the Will Rogers Gold Award.
But I wanted more. I needed to write thrillers, and the next chapter in my story came on hot afternoon with the creation of a contemporary Texas Ranger as I stood in the viewing cupola atop the Marfa, Texas, courthouse. The Sonny Hawke series allowed me to explore the Texas Big Bend region through the adventures of a lawman with all the faults of real people, including an unfortunate predisposition to be impulsive.
Two of those four books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America, a professional writers organization that presented those honors to such writers as Larry McMurtry, Louis L’Amour, and Elmer Kelton, to name only a few.
The success of those two series led to my new contemporary hero, a Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association brand inspector. TSCRA Agent Tucker Snow is part of a law enforcement organization which is an offshoot of the Texas Rangers and has been in operation since 1877. These fine men and women investigate rural farm and ranch crimes in both Texas and Oklahoma, including cattle rustling, property theft, blue collar crime, and online theft.
I confess, the inspiration for those characters came from two real life brothers, now close friends of mine who served as undercover agents for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Under special dispensation from then Governor Mark White, they were the only brothers in Texas. who worked together to fight illegal narcotics. They were the inspiration for Tucker and his wild card brother, Harley.
The first book in that series, Hard Country, released as Amazon’s Editor’s Pick for August, 2023. The Broken Truth hits the shelves this August, 2024.
But I wasn’t through. I never wanted to be categorized as an author who wrote in only one genre. I wanted to explore the book market I’d cut my reading teeth on, and those are traditional westerns. To date, I’ve completed two novels in the Cap Whitlatch series. The Journey South is scheduled to release in April of 2024, followed by The Only Saloon in Town within the next year.
Some say it’s hard to get published through traditional means, and that’s true these days, but dedication and determination has proven to work in my case. Since 2011, I’ve published 15 novels, with four more scheduled for release in the next couple of years. My advice to as-yet unpublished authors is to never give up.
I invite you all to join the characters and worlds I’ve created. No matter if you like mysteries, thrillers, contemporary westerns, or traditional westerns, I have something for you. All of my books are family based, exciting, and fun reads. Join us and let me know what you think.
Reavis’ high octane contemporary western series featuring Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke kicked off in 2017 with the publication of Hawke’s Prey. In 2019, the Western Writers Association presented Hawke’s War with the Spur Award in the WWA Best Mass Market Paperback category. His latest thriller, Hard Country, came out in Aug 2023. To date, Reavis Z. Wortham pens four different series. Series number two is the high-octane contemporary western thrillers that take place in Southwest Texas and features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke. Hawke’s War won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. Third series in that same genre features a Texas Southwest and Cattle Raisers Association brand inspector who solves crimes in both the Lone Star State, and Oklahoma. Hard Country released in August, 2023, as one of Amazon’s Editor’s Top Picks for that month.His fourth series is a return to traditional westerns and begins with The Journey South, which releases in April, 2024.