Writing contest winner Joe Totten publishes his first historical novel
Three years after winning the short story category in the 2016 Utah’s Original Writing Contest, Park City-based author Joe Totten has published his first full-length novel, “The Law of Capture.” which is available in Kindle form at Amazon.
The story, which takes place from 1870 to the 1920s, is much different in tone than his award-winning story, “The Starling Killers,” which was about a father and son who participated in the government-sanctioned starling purges in the 1960s.
“The Law of Capture” follows Edward Valentine, who tries to start a life after fighting in the Civil War.
“He finds life on the farm a little too quiet, and moves to Texas and goes from being a cowboy to a bank robber,” Totten said. “From there, he becomes a lawman and then an assassin.”
The idea for Valentine to become an assassin is based on events that happened during the Johnson County War, which took place in Wyoming between 1889 to 1893, according to Totten.
That conflict, also referred to as the War on Powder River, started when cattle owners utilized hired guns to protect their herds, Totten said.
“The thing was back then the herds were so big and grazed on so much land that rustlers could come, grab three or four cows and make some money,” he said. “Cattle owners who usually lived in the East or Europe didn’t know what was going on, so their only recourse was to hire an assassin to go kill these rustlers. It was complete anarchy.”
While Totten chose not to write about the whole Johnson County War, he used pieces of it in his book.
“It’s a fascinating part of Wyoming history,” he said. “The problem was, it has been covered so many times, so I used parts of it in the book.”
Interspersed with Valentine’s story is that of another character, Stares at the Sky, who is Native American.
“He narrates his own story about what it was like for him living in the West at that time,” Totten said.
Getting into the Old West frame of mind was an adjustment for Totten after writing “The Starling Killers.” So he immersed himself in history.
“I did a lot of reading of memoirs and first-hand accounts of those who settled the West,” he said. “There are also all kinds of newspaper archives online, and various universities in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming have a lot of frontier diaries of what it was like living in the West back then.”
During his research, Totten found many accounts of former lawmen turning to crime.
“There were a lot of these men who saw a lot of rewards of being criminals, and there were also many criminals who switched sides to become lawmen,” he said.
The lack of expanded law enforcement and census data benefited the outlaws.
“There was very little interplay between the governments and the local sheriff, so if you got into trouble in Salt Lake City, you could just jump on your horse and ride up to Wyoming,” Totten said. “Once you got there, if you said your name was ‘Scott Brown,’ the people would know you as Scott Brown. So there was a lot of opportunity for nefarious activity.”
The violence of events such as the Johnson County War was one of the inspirations that pushed Totten, who grew up in Texas, to start writing “The Law of Capture” five years ago.
The other inspiration was his ancestors.
“My family, going back 80 to 100 years, was involved with the Texas Rangers,” he said. “The way they did things back then would not be accepted today. They basically killed anyone who got in their way.”
Totten also wanted to write a novel that wasn’t based on the Westerns he saw on TV.
“In Westerns you always see the good guys and the bad guys who sometimes get along, but that wasn’t really the case,” he said. “During the settlement of the West, there were white settlers, African-American settlers, Native-Americans, Mexicans, Asians – it was a big melting pot of races.”
Many times these factions found themselves at odds with one another for different reasons,including the destruction of the buffalo and displacement of the Native Americans, according to Totten.
“The novel touches on all of that, but I would say it’s an adventure story as well,” he said.
Totten enjoyed surrounding himself in the culture of the West while writing the book.
“It’s was great for me because the language spoken back then was different than how we speak today,” he said. “So it was fun getting into the words and vocabulary so the book feels authentic.”
As Totten wrote, he really didn’t know how the plot was going to end.
“It was like driving home at night,” he said. “You know where you’re going, but you can’t see more than 50 feet in front of you.”
In order to end the book to his liking, Totten relied on himself and his editor.
“The first draft was more than 400 pages, and my editor told me I needed to find a central character and weave him through the book,” Totten said. “That was the best advice I ever got.”
Totten said he still thinks about Edward Valentine.
“When I finished writing the book, I had to stop reading Western history because I had burned out on it,” he said. “But every once in a while I will think of something that he would be good in.”
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