I live and write in 2016, the 21st Century, and there isn’t any real way to know how folks talked in the Old West. The only way to discover what words people used in conversation is to read then-contemporary documents and glean what I can and put it in my stories.
There is, however, another way: western novels and stories. From the earliest days, authors sometimes had the opportunity to interview real old west cowboys. Or these future authors—I’m thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent—they actually grew up around some of these cowboys. No matter how the early 20th Century authors got their data, they put what they learned or knew into their stories.
Over the years and decades of western writing, a vocabulary of how writers described things emerged. A more or less common way to make these cowboy heroes, villains, and lovely ladies speak also emerged. Ever since the first western I read, I quickly realized that western writers simply had their own unique vocabulary.
So I started reading westerns with a pencil in hand.
Every time I came across some new term, I’d circle the word. Every new-to-me western I read, I repeated this practice. It’s second nature to me now. Even the Longarm novel I picked up in Austin last weekend—Longarm and the Bank Robber’s Daughter—has multiple new words for me. Even when I read stories on my Kindle, I highlight words and phrases and collect them when I’m done.
Now, I have an ever-growing “database” of words I can use to sprinkle into my Triple Action Western stories and give them more authenticity and help the reader—and me—become immersed into the world of the Old West.