So you want to write a Weird Western?
If you love your historical fiction with a dash of the weird, you’ve probably already dabbled in weird western fiction. If not? You’re missing out.
Weird western is a literary genre that fuse the gritty, sometimes brutal reality of life on the American frontier with elements of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. This genre hasn’t been as popularized as its other SFF counterparts, but it has so much potential. It’s often also called gothic western, historic fantasy or fantasy western.
If you’re looking for inspiration and ways to write weird westerns, read on for tips and tricks.
How to Write weird western stories
For those of you new to writing weird westerns, think of it this way: combine all the tropes of a traditional Western plus strange elements. The story can be occult, supernatural, or just plain weird.
- A small settlement community fighting a cowboy vampire in Arizona
- A miner who discovers and befriends a gold-seeking dinosaur in 18th century Colorado
- A frontier woman who finds a mysterious object in her back yard…
…you get the idea. Weird western stories are typically set in the 1800s; sometimes they’re set in prehistory or even futuristic worlds that share similar themes, settings or iconic tropes–like outlaws and horseback riding and saloons–as Westerns do.
When you’re writing a weird western, the first thing to remember is that you want to make sure your readers are surprised by some of the ideas and things that happen in your story. It’s a pretty broad genre, but in general, it’s all about taking the typical elements of the western genre and twisting them just enough to keep the reader guessing.
For example, maybe you have a character who typically rides a horse and has a gun shoot people in an old west town. But what if you had that character ride into town on a cougar and instead of using a gun, they used their own cursed magic to fight?
Or maybe your character needs something from someone else—maybe they need money to pay for their kid’s surgery, and so they go to rob a bank. But they find it’s no ordinary bank…
You can also use weird western fiction to tell stories about real issues or problems that people have faced historically.
For example, some weird western stories focus on issues like racism or sexism—they might focus around indigenous people dealing with brutal attacks on their way of life; how women were controlled by not allowed to have jobs or land; or how society deliberately treated black people worse than white people. (Note: use common sense and sensitivity when talking about the plight of groups to which you don’t belong. This is good practice for fiction and being a decent human.)
Now that we’ve established what this unique genre is and a general approach to storytelling, let’s look at more specific steps on how to write a weird western!
Step-by-Step Tips to Writing a Weird West Story
Below are some points to keep in mind when writing your own weird western.
1: Follow the genre’s parameters
Though there can be exceptions, these parameters generally should be followed to be classified in this genre:
- The time period should roughly be between 1810 and 1912
- There must be significant fictional elements that take place in an environment or world based on or resembling the American Old West
- The primary setting can be any location west of the Mississippi River, going all the way back to pre-colonial times
2: Use Old West dialect thoughtfully
“He was uglier than a boot heel.”
“A hog-killing’ good time.”
““Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”
Dialect and sayings of the time can add a lot of flavor to a historical story. However, leaning too heavily into a dialect can be distracting and/or corny. Generally for writers new to the genre, use slang and dialect sparingly or add your own twist.
Here are some resources for cowboy sayings that you can riff on:
- 100 Top Cowboy Sayings (Colorado Trails)
- Western Slangs and Sayings (Writer’s Guide)
- Western Insults (Legends of America)
3: Look to history
Reading primary sources, such as archival newspapers form the 1800s, can immediately put you in the mindset of the Old West. Used bookstores can be a great spot to find offbeat and intriguing historical tellings. Reading stories about women trailblazers in the Old West or heroic indigenous warriors can provide rich fodder for story ideas. But, a word of caution: don’t get bogged down in history. Though historical accounts can be helpful resources, don’t let the details slow you down. One of the fun aspects of the Weird West is the freedom to follow your imagination.
Looking to history will also help you add in the details and realistic aesthetics that will help your reader become immersed in the world.
4: Think outside the box
The gold-hearted prostitute, helpful shaman and stoic cowboy are tired tropes everyone has seen too many times and can result in lazy writing. Generally stories that demonize or fetishize a group of people based on religion, race or appearance can also be cringey and make for a poor reading experience (e.g., Indigenous groups portrayed as the default mystics or “bad guys”).
Weird West is a great chances to try out new types of characters and storylines. By the same token, stories of werewolves, vampires and zombies get tiresome too, so think about what makes the “weird” in your story different and why.
5 ways to find Inspiration to write A Weird West Story
- Make friends with a horse. A simple afternoon horse-riding excursion or tour can help inspire a sense of what it might have been like to use these animals as a mode of transportation.
- Go on a train ride. Lots of locations offer historic train rides or tours that can be excellent fodder for story ideas. A tour in a mine can also help foster ideas.
- Listen to country music. Something about that tangy country music style can instantly transport back to the 1800s.
- Take a speculative short writing course. Online offerings, such as from Litreactor, Storyville and others, can be a great way to get your feet wet and get some feedback on a weird western.
- Read work from the masters. There is a plethora of entertaining weird western stories out there. Check out this list of weird west novels and anthologies for short story inspiration.
If you’re still stuck…
If you’re still stuck, here’s a down-and-dirty outline to try:
- Come up with a believable yet slightly absurd event that could happen in the Old West, such as a zombie outbreak.
- Give your main character a motivation and background story, such as they want to seek revenge on someone who killed their family and they are afraid of zombies.
- Write the story after combining the two elements from steps 1 & 2. Make sure you add a lot of zombies/monsters/ghosts/etc.!