DEFINING GENRE (or when is Western not a Western?)

One of the most difficult things about writing fiction is deciding on a genre, particularly when your work hits several of them tangentially.

I’m writing a series of novels that feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in America after the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1852, each with a central romance and a dash of Irish mysticism.

So these stories obviously belong in the historical genre. But historicals have many sub-genres: romance, mystery, time travel, fantasy, Westerns, as well as alternate histories and steampunk. Mine have been classified as both Western and romance.

lasso-hat jimo663 pixabay

Photo courtesy of jimo663 via Pixabay

Many people may consider them Westerns by dint of the setting alone, but might still expect Westerns to be plot-driven, flowing this way: hero-cowboy/lawman/rancher fights the bad-guy/rich-guy/land-grabber and saves the girl/ranch/town. A twist on that involves a woman, sometimes posing or dressed as a man, fighting obstacles to win the guy/ranch/revenge.

The romance genre also suffers from a perception that the theme is always the same: the main character meets someone they can’t stand, but then somehow the two main characters end up together forever. Or for a change, two people who have lost touch overcome various obstacles to wind up together again and live happily ever after.

In my opinion, these stereotypes are outdated. They’re held over from a time when writers were expected to follow a formula, and deviation from the established norm would mean no publishing contract. With all the options authors have today, creativity has a new lease on life and novels are often filled with the totally unexpected.

Whispers in the Canyon, for instance, is set in the Arizona Territory in the 1880s (so far, so good for the Western genre), but the bad guy’s death is the opening catalyst for the novel, not the thrilling denouement.

It also tells the tale of two people in love. It’s character-driven, as a romance would be, but the hero wins the girl quite early on and the dead outlaw’s deeds have an effect that reaches far beyond the grave.

rose-book PlushDesignStudio Pixabay

Photo courtesy of PlushDesignStudio via Pixabay

Finally, WITC has some elements of the paranormal, which you’d normally find in a fantasy: certain characters are blessed with the ancient gifts of sight or empathy, and another is plagued by hallucinations.

So is it a Western? a romance? a fantasy? Or is it one of the new breed of novels that blazes its own path, hitting on elements of many genres and not content to be what the tropes would suggest?

I hope it’s the latter, and that readers find it unusual and refreshing.

Do you prefer to read a story that follows the traditional flow of a genre? If not, what are your favorite exceptions?

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