Bat Masterson, Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Bat Masterson, c. 1880

Back when the West was very young
There lived a man named Masterson.
He wore a cane and derby hat,
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson!

During the “golden age of television,” the 1950s and early 60s, the Western was the dominant genre. You had The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers, Maverick, Rawhide, Bonanza, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone Territory, Death Valley Days, Cheyenne…and on and on. Among them was a series starring Gene Barry as Bat Masterson. The lyrics at the top of this post are from the song that accompanied the series.

Interesting historical item: Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson should be better known to us as a writer!

It is true he was an Old West lawman and friend of Wyatt Earp. But his legend as a gunslinger was the result of a practical joke played upon a naïve young newspaperman.

In the 1880s readers in the East were enamored of tales of derring-do out West. Savvy writers were quick to exploit that fascination. Ned Buntline, for example, created the legend of Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody himself would ride that publicity into a nice income from his Wild West Show.

In 1881 a reporter named Young, who wrote for the New York Sun, came out to the Colorado mining town of Gunnison, looking for a “shoot-’em-up” story for the paper. He asked one of the locals, a man named Cockrell, where he might start looking for such a story. Cockrell decided to have some fun with the dude. He spun a tale of a lawman he knew from Dodge City, a twenty-seven-year old named Bat Masterson. Why, he’d already killed twenty-six men! And seven of those were to avenge the murder of his brother! Another time he hunted down two Mexican outlaws and brought their heads back to prove it and collect the bounty! And so on. Young lapped it all up and filed the story. The Masterson legend took off, never to be ameliorated. (In fact, Masterson the lawman killed only two men. One of them was, indeed, the murderer of his brother.)

Times changed. The era of the gunslinger came to an end. Bat Masterson, who was more a gambler and “sport” than anything else, ended up in Denver as a promoter of the sport of boxing. This was in the bare-knuckles era, and Masterson would be intimately involved with every heavyweight championship fight until his death in 1921.

His time in Denver did not prove profitable, so in 1902 he and his wife headed for the more promising venue of New York City.

His arrival was not propitious. The second day he was there he was getting his shoes shined at a stand when the cops, led by an officer named Gargan, arrested him. Why? Because he was nicely dressed and happened to be near a West Coast gambler by the name of Sullivan. It was Sullivan and some others who were part of a bunco scheme to fleece a Mormon elder named Snow out of $16,000. Masterson did not take his arrest well. His loud protestations at the station were muted somewhat when police removed a concealed revolver from their famous arrestee. Snow failed to identify Masterson, and the bunco charge was dropped. Masterson, however, had to pay a fine of $10 for the concealed weapon.

Never one to take it on the chin, Masterson filed suit against Snow for injury to his good name, to the tune of $10,000. Snow settled with him out of court. Masterson never forgot Gargan, either. Eleven years later he would seek a charge against Gargan for perjury in his testimony about the 1902 arrest.

Masterson in NYC, c. 1920

Did I mention that Masterson was pugnacious? That was one of the qualities that made his column in the New York Morning Telegraph so popular. From 1903 to 1921 the former lawman wrote three columns a week and gained a huge following all over America. He didn’t cheat on the verbiage, either. His pieces averaged 1700 words. Mostly he wrote about boxing, but he was not averse to sharing his opinions on other matters of the day.

Masterson was frontier educated and never went to college. So how did he master the art of writing? Three ways. First, he was a voracious reader. Second, he made it a goal to expand his style by adding to his vocabulary on a regular basis. And last, but not least, he let his passion for his subject bleed onto the page. For example, in 1911 he covered a fight between a boxer named Burke and an Irishman named Maher. Burke, he wrote, found Maher “a fine bit of cheese” who threw wild punches. But after a Maher haymaker “put a crack in the air,” Burke “planted a left into the Irishman’s potato pit … and it was curtains for Erin’s representative.”

So the writing lesson for today we’ll call the Masterson Triad:

  1. Read widely
  2. Expand your style
  3. Make sure your passion is evident on the page

One last bit of trivia. Have you seen the musical Guys and Dolls? Most probably you have. It was a big Broadway hit, and then a hit movie. Based on characters created by Damon Runyon, it is the fanciful story of Broadway touts and gamblers with names like Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Society Max, and Benny Southstreet. The leading figures are Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra in the movie version) and Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando). The plot is based on a bet between Nathan and Sky. The two are sitting in a restaurant on Broadway when Nathan bets Sky that he will not be able to take a “doll” of Nathan’s choosing out to dinner in Havana, Cuba, the following night. Sky, who believes all dolls are the same, takes the bet.

At which point Nathan points outside to Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army!

Here is the interesting backstory. Damon Runyon was a young reporter whom Bat Masterson took under his wing. The two remained close until Masterson’s death in 1921. One day they were sitting in a bar, and Masterson was spinning tales about gambling and guns, when they heard a loud thumping out in the street. It was the bass drum of a Salvation Army band, summoning sinners to a meeting. The band was led by a fetching young woman. And Runyon immediately got a story spark: what if a pristine Salvation Army sergeant fell in love with a sport like Bat Masterson?

The idea stuck, and years later Runyon wrote “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” The sport he named Sky Masterson, in honor of his old friend. The story became the basis for Guys and Dolls.

Let’s ask the Bat Masterson questions today.

  1. Do you read widely?
  2. Are you purposeful in expanding your style? 
  3. How do you get passion onto your pages?

Note: Most of the research for this post is taken from Robert K. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

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36 thoughts on “Bat Masterson, Writer

  1. Great post~ love this kinda backstory…

    To your questions, in order:
    1. Yes, I read widely and as much/often as I can — beginning with the back of the cereal box as a kid. If I were to be profiled from what’s on my bookcase, my web-browser, or what I check out from the library (which, fortunately I can’t), there’d be no clear path to my intentions — biographies, history, science fiction (and factuals), art, design, music, poetry, as well as thrillers, who-dun-its, police procedurals, and craft improvement. (Not braggin’, just sayin’)

    2. By expanding my style, I assume you mean working on different deliveries and voices, as well as pushing my boundaries ~ if so, almost always… noir, historical fiction, trying my hand at “copying” the style of authors I admire and enjoy reading, dialogue, and musically in genres from country to blues to bluegrass to rock and pop (though they DO often feed well from and into each other).

    3. Passion into/onto the page ~ therein is challenge — and one reason I practice 1 and 2 — and check in here most every morning…

    As always, thanks for letting me blather on~ Enjoy your day, and stay safe and well.

    • Excellent answers, George. I especially like the practice of “copying” the style of a writer you admire. Not to try to be like him, but to catch the rhythms of the language that you find pleasing, the “music” of it.

      And we encourage blathering here at TKZ. Why, we’ve been known to indulge in it a bit ourselves! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Thanks as always for a great post, Jim. I watched the Bat Masterson show religiously as a child. The theme music was an instant earworm. Still is, actually.

    • Joe, my wife is amazed at my ability to recall and sing old TV theme songs. They just stuck with me somehow. Now if I can only figure out a way to monetize this.

  3. Jim –
    My answers to the Bat Masterson questions are “yes”, “yes”, and “trying my best”.
    This is a fun and fascinating post for me on many levels.
    I think the fabulous westerns you describe provided a basis for a generation of viewers sense of right and wrong. “Show don’t tell” lessons of morality were revealed through conflict and action though often followed by the “tell” of dialog where life messages were explicitly shared (e.g. Ben Cartwright and the ‘Rifleman’/Lucas McCain telling how a man should act).
    So fitting that you as a story master share mention of this powerful genre and golden era. I’d love to see you plumb this era and its incredibly engaging storytelling further in other posts. Those skilled writers clearly put their passion into their work.
    Thanks for the fun and provocative visit to the shows that transfixed me as a child. This was a great start to my day!

    • Thanks, Tom. Those old Westerns indeed contained powerful storytelling elements. The majority of tales ended with a gunfight of some sort, giving the villain his due. I like how Have Gun, Will Travel went a different direction much of the time, with Paladin getting justice not with his gun, but via his intellect and ingenuity.

  4. Fascinating story. I watched almost all the westerns growing up, but never go into Bat Masterson. Your list missed one of my favorites, “Range Rider.”

    I’m looking at your questions and wondering if they’re grounds for my dismissal from TKZ. They’ve made me think, and wonder if I’m doing anything right.

    I read voraciously, but not widely anymore. I stopped going to three different book clubs because their book choices never resonated with me, and I never had any desire to read more in the genres they’d choose.

    I try to improve my writing, but I’ve found “my” voice (I think) and don’t like to deviate. This doesn’t mean I’m not willing to expand my characters. The downside of this is sometimes I feel like I’m writing the same book over and over.

    Getting passion onto the page – clueless as to whether I succeed. I live in the bodies and minds of my characters while writing, but I can’t say whether or not any passion of mine comes through. As close as I’m willing to commit: If I don’t care about something, I can’t write about it, but I’ll be honest and say my “caring” isn’t necessarily “passion.”

    • You’re just on probation, Terry.

      Seriously, though, there is no one way to approach these matters. I think your statement about “caring” is the passion clue. That caring fuels your writing, and your “voice” is filtered through characters.

      And heck, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote the “same” book over and over again. Ditto Lee Child. They sold a few books.

    • I heard a craft teacher say once that as writers, we write the same story over and over, and that’s okay. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not.

      We just have to find different characters and scenes to tell our story. 🙂

      • That was the secret to Erle Stanley Gardner’s success. While Mason remained the lead who finds the truth through dogged determination and cleverness, it was all the new suspects that made the cases colorful.

  5. Great post, Jim. Interesting story. I second Tom’s motion regarding encouraging you to plumb this era in your story telling. I can imagine a traveling philosophical gunslinger, an ancestor of Mike Romeo, who travels to all the legends of the West and lends a hand when the legend has a particularly large den of snakes to clean out. His philosophy adds to his ability to find “justice not with his gun, but via his intellect and ingenuity.” The Mike Romeo series and the western series could cross pollinate (similar to the Lupin books and current Netflix series that Joe told us about).

    Questions: 1. Reading widely? Trying to make up for the folly of my youth when I stayed drunk on medical literature and woodworking magazines. I have the Mount Rushmore author list in front of me and plan to work my way through the list.
    2. and 3. Expanding style – getting passion on the page. I am constantly studying new craft books to learn of new techniques for increasing passion and finding traction with the reader. (Currently studying Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”)

    Thanks for a great post, as always!

    • Thanks, Steve. You’ve put some cross-pollinations ideas into my head.

      What a great idea, to work through the Rushmore. So much great reading ahead! Meanwhile, I need to get up to speed on woodworking.

      Happy Sunday to you.

  6. Ah westerns! My favorite! So glad I grew up during a time when they were king.

    Reading widely:
    For as long as I can remember, this advice has always rankled. It riles my independent minded, know-thyself style. Granted, “read widely” can mean lots of things to lots of people, but usually leads to conversations about how the person loves to read 47 different genres. If that’s what you want, AWESOME! But I don’t believe this is a necessity at all. By nature, most people already expose themselves to news, articles, magazines and books both fic and non. But I know the few genres I like and I’m sticking with them. I neither have the time nor the desire (or patience) to spend reading stuff that doesn’t interest me. I know what my lane is and I’m sticking with it.

    Are you purposeful in expanding your style?
    That to me comes naturally as you continue to write.

    How do you get passion onto your pages?
    I stick to my lanes and only write about what keenly interests me.

    • BK, to me “read widely” is not limited (and shouldn’t be) to fiction. There is an infinite world of nonfiction out there, things to discover and know, and even put to use in our work.

      As to staying in lanes, I like the occasional offramp into a story world that is completely new…though that’s almost always via short fiction.

  7. Good morning, Jim! Masterson’s life seemed to have quite the arc to it. I love that photo from 1920 NYC, when he’s been in Gotham for nearly two decades, spinning columns three times a week and living life large in the Big Apple. He would have seen so much change in his lifetime.

    I don’t read as widely as I could, but I do read in multiple genres, histories, science books, books on writing craft and personal development etc.

    My style I’ve worked on primarily through character voice. I keep telling myself I need a round of craft study focused on the sentence level. I’m wrapping up a five day virtual writer’s retreat today, and several of the mini-workshops dealt with style as part of their topic (Nancy Kress’s on creating tension for example), so I plan on using these as a springboard 🙂

    As for passion, I go with ideas and characters that interest and excite me, and strive to get at the emotional core of their stories. It isn’t easy at times to keep the passion in the middle of the process, but who said writing was supposed to be easy?

    Thanks, as always, for another thought-provoking post. Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • Great feedback, Dale. Glad to hear about your retreat…you mentioned my colleague from the WD fiction column days, Nancy Kress. She’s great.

      As to keeping the passion, when it wanes I always try to dig deeper into the characters. That’s a well that never runs dry.

  8. Love the trivia, Jim. Thanks for a great start to my Sunday.

    I devoured westerns as a kid, mostly because that’s what my Dad and brothers watched. But, I did enjoy watching the manly men with the guns on their hips or in the saddle scabbards. Still do, BTW. (Cue Clint Eastwood and his one-eyed squint at his mile long revolver.)

    I try to read widely. I have soooo many books on my Kindle that I need to read. I take advantage of those freebies every chance I get. The only genre I have trouble getting through is romance. If there’s no gun in the story, why read it? 🙂

    I’ve played around a bit with style. One thing I’m doing right now is creating a “round-robin” style story with my ten-year-old granddaughter. I write a chapter, then she builds on that in the next chapter, and then I build on that, etc. She’s a kick, let me tell you. After I wrote the first chapter, she critiqued it and said, Hey, Gramma, this is a really good start, but this sentence here doesn’t make sense and needs tweaking. But good job! (Best critique I ever read!)

    Passion? The two novels I’m working on now deal with hard themes, some rooted in my own past. I’m digging to get at those themes, but they’re buried pretty deep.

    • That round-robin game is priceless, Deb, esp. for your granddaughter! What an imagination must be building there.

      And about the “hard theme” type of novel, the potential problem there is too much passion. It’s necessary to be able to “pull back” a bit for purposes of craft. Not easy to do. I wish you Godspeed with those projects, Deb.

  9. You brought back great memories, Jim. As a kid, I loved the westerns. There were the good guys and the bad guys and a code of conduct you were supposed to follow. Roy Rogers was my hero and I even had a red cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a toy pistol and holster. I kept our neighborhood safe from gangsters for years.

    In answer to your questions:
    1. I’m fortunate to be in a great book club whose members have interests all over the map. I’ve read books I’d never have picked for myself. Suggestions from blogs, podcasts, and other sources add to my ever-growing TBR list. It all contributes to going wide.
    2. Each book is a new experiment for me. My WIP has two little girls as important characters. Figuring out how to thread their story through the main mystery plot line is challenging. But then again, if it wasn’t hard, why do it?
    3. I don’t know how to answer your third question. I’ll have to think about that one.

    In the meantime, Happy Trails to You!

  10. Fascinating story about Mr. Masterson, Jim. I knew none of it. Gotta throw my two cents in here about reading widely. I guess I’ve never put the Dr. Death life behind me because every Saturday I read the Vancouver Sun’s obituaries. Not only do I pick up great character names – I find some amazing backstories. Go ahead. Call me weird.

    • No way, Garry! Early in my career I found obits to be treasure troves of potential backstory. One of my favorite books is Obituaries by William Saroyan, a quirky collection of his riffs off an annual obit edition of Variety. I wrote a book of similar musings called SOME PEOPLE ARE DEADl. It’s still one of my own faves.

      Thanks for chiming in. Someday you can read the obits like George Burns: “Every day I read the obituaries. If my name’s not there I have breakfast.”

  11. I remember that show, and all the others you mention which is weird since I was so young. I came for the horses and remember the stories. The Western is the prototype of the American story and character, and it certainly informed my own writing. Plus horses.

    Before I put down the first words of my first novel, I’d spent years getting degrees in literary analysis and reading the American, British, and classical and Medieval canons as well as popular fiction in a bunch of genres so I was powered up on words and genres. In some cases, I had to pare away some of knowledge, particularly writing styles, but it was both a good start as a writer and an even better start to teach writing and write about genre. Plus horses.

    • Thanks, Marilynn. I was steeped in Westerns, and also swords and swashbucklers, from Zorro to Robin Hood. It’s not hard to discern where my themes come from.

    • Marilynn,

      Funny you mentioned horses. I took riding lessons for research for my latest novel. In the process I fell off, broke my arm, and got back on. I’m still taking–and plan to continue taking–lessons because I love riding and being with the horses. I believe this passion came through in my novel.

      • Ouch! Growing up with a horse, I took a lot of knocks, but no breaks, thanks heavens. Horses are complicated to get right in fiction. I can answer simple questions if you have them. I recommend Judith Tarr’s horse columns at Tor.com for info., and I imagine she could answer harder questions since she breeds, trains, and rides. Do a search of her name to see all her columns.

  12. I loved all the shows you mentioned, Jim. Though I don’t recall Bat Materson.

    To answer your questions…
    Other than a friend’s fantasy series (normally, I’m not a fan of the genre, but his characters are hilarious), I stick close to crime. Under that umbrella, I will read romantic suspense or paranormal if the story revolves around a crime.

    Yes to question #2. I love to experiment.

    #3: I don’t know how to explain adding passion to a WIP other than if you’re passionate about the characters and plot, it just bleeds on to the page. 🙂

  13. Jim, thanks (I think) for the background on Bat Masterson. It sort of pokes holes into what I’ve learned from some of the fictionalization and accounts that aren’t based on real research. As the line goes, “When fact becomes legend, print the legend.” (That may not be exact, but close enough).

    • Yes indeed, Doc. The line you refer to comes from the John Ford movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

      Masterson didn’t mind his legend gaining him a foothold in New York society. He did mind when lies were told about him. That was liable to result in a punch in the snout or a lawsuit.

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