An Interview with Writer Wendy St Germain:

Writing for the High Chaparral Newsletter

1. You are one of High Chaparral newsletter's most popular writers. How did you come to start writing for them? Were you a long-time fan?

Unlike my husband, who grew up watching High Chaparral, I only discovered it on FOXTEL's classic's channel a few years ago. It may have been on in my house when I was a child but I don't remember it. Over the past few years I have become a huge fan. I love how it is based on a man who, like the main character, tried to make a life where Indians and white men lived together. Its creators had a real eye for detail and it comes through in each episode.

High Chaparral websiteI eventually googled to see what more I could learn about the show. I came across a link to the fan newsletter on the official High Chaparral site. I read a few back issues before signing up for it. Then I emailed the editor to compliment her on such a good monthly release. She thanked me saying that she didn't always get it out monthly because she was short of help. I mentioned that I had been a fulltime freelance science writer since 1999 and if she ever needed a hand to let me know. The rest, as they say, is history. Together we got organized and have put out a monthly newsletter ever since (occasionally even two!). This is my third year of writing the articles.

If you are interested, the newsletter link is at http://highchaparralnewsletter.com/

 2. Do you nominate the topics or does the editor?

As a rule, I do, though I am open to suggestions from the editor. Sometimes she will mention something that ends up in my occasional Did You Know? Trivia section. I write that and a Q & A column when I get something worth putting in. As for the articles, the only guideline I have is that the article be about either a specific episode of the show, about filming such programs, or something to do with the Old West in general. I have also written humorous pieces such as the Christmas issue where I imagine what it would have been like to try and put out a feast without all the mod cons. So long as fans can relate it to the show then it's fine with the editor.
 
3. What subjects have you written on, and how has this helped you to an understanding of the writer's craft? 

I've learned a lot writing for this newsletter. One of the ways it has helped me as a writer is to force me to select a precise topic from very broad themes, in this case The Old West or a specific episode. Those could cover so much that I am challenged to think of something specific that is of interest to me and from there, find a way to make it interesting for others in about 1000 words give or take a few. This helps me with other writing because if I think, oh I would like to write about the circus (for example), I have learned to ask myself okay, exactly what will you write about? There are so many options with a circus that I would need to stay focused.

A writer shouldn't waffle off in all directions. It's helped me to narrow down central themes for my writing. This is easier to do when writing science because there is no place for flowery language or drifting off in one direction or another. A fact is a fact and there are no options. The pressure is to get the facts right. But since I can be more relaxed with these articles, I must take care not to get sloppy. They have taught me how to stay tight and focused in all kinds of writing.

Topics I've written ranged from The Appaloosa Horse, to Rattlesnakes, Cacti, Continuity Errors found throughout the show's filming and even a piece about Our Lady of Guadeloupe when this religious icon was the main theme of an episode starring Ricardo Mantalban.

After Tilly the Camel starred in an episode with Frank Gorshin I wrote an article about camels using her as the lead in to the topic. I then tied camel behavior in with what we saw Tilly doing. For example, one of the scenes shows that she was very trusting to have performed what would not have been natural behaviour for the species. The key is to keep pulling the show back into what you are writing. I have even written a fun piece about why I feel conventions are worth attending. That tied in with the 2009 convention and is being rerun to coincide with this year's October 2011 fan reunion which will be at the ranch in Tuscon, Arizona where the show was filmed.

The editor, who knows many of the surviving cast and crew, focuses on those interviews since she is the best one for the job. There is no room for egos in producing such a publication. The best person for the job is the one who does it.  Otherwise you compromise the quality of what you are trying to do. She also writes about any special events like the upcoming Fan reunion.

From time to time we have guest writers such as Jan Pippins, who has just finished writing Henry Darrow's biography Lightning in a Bottle (Henry stars as Manolito in the series). Through writing for the newsletter I have contact with these writers about their works which always teaches me something. We all have different ways of dealing with assignments and it's great to learn how they deal with their work.

Most recently, I wrote a three part series about the importance of supporting cast. I wanted fans to fully appreciate how they contribute not only to the storyline but to make the stars themselves shine.

4. How has your previous experience as a writer helped you to write these articles?

Most of my paid writing has been science texts so my previous writing experience has been of great help with researching topics. When you write to a publisher's deadline you can't afford to waste time and when it's science you're writing, you need to develop a keen eye for what's worth wading through and what isn't. It's imperative that you don't get a science fact wrong or you'll get an avalanche of criticism. You also need to be able to tie what might otherwise seem dull topics into a reader's life, making it worthwhile for them to read what you've written. So over the years, I've come to know which sites are reliable, make contacts for future reference and so on. In fact, I emailed a contact who is a horse breeder with reference to something I wanted to confirm for the Appaloosa article. I have made connections as well which are helpful.
 
5. How have you benefitted from writing these articles?

I've benefitted in many ways. For example, the supporting cast series has helped me in a way that I will now look at future characterizations in a different light. The point of the article was to show that these people aren't just there as space fillers but to shine a light on the main cast.  I have also learned that the stars can cast light on the supporting cast which was something I'd never given much thought to before. The ways they work together can reveal things about each that the characters themselves can't do by their actions alone. I've learned how each can give more depth to the other. This added depth gives a greater richness to the overall storyline.

So now I am more aware of the importance of using my supporting characters to build up main characters rather than just have them do things as needed. I can see how at times, I have under-used some of these characters. It wasn't until I finished researching all the cast involved, and then worked out exactly how the show benefited by their presence, that I realized I had underestimated the importance of these characters and their contributions to a story. Now I'll be more alert to different ways that my own characters can be used when I write.

Also, knowing the show is based on real people, with fictional characters and storylines woven in, I have seen how fact and fiction can blend to create a great story without compromising the truth. You develop an eye for authenticity when you see how well the two can be combined.

Another way I have benefitted is to have to think of fresh new ways to present what could end up as dull topics if I am not careful. When, as a test of what I could do, the editor selected the topic of my first article - none other than the Saguaro cactus (!!) I thought good grief, how does one make cacti interesting? They don't talk… they don't even move! They just stand there, all spiky. It was a good example of picking one thing from the show, and indeed most westerns, that features regularly but is often ignored. It was my job to make it interesting. So it forces you to think of a way to write something that YOU yourself might want to read. In fact, that is the only time the editor nominated the topic. (I'm almost afraid to let her do it again :!)

6. What sort of feedback have you had from [a] readers and [b] the editor? Have you had any feedback from the cast of the show?

I have had positive feedback from everyone you mention. I have yet to get any negative feedback. But then the fans of this show really seem to be wonderful people and they come from all over the world. I have been contacted by people in the US, New Zealand, Central America, Canada and one who was in Russia! It is particularly exciting to learn that people like Linda Crystal and the other surviving cast read and enjoy my articles.  I am told that some of them even print the newsletter out to collect. It is a lovely newsletter, full color with great photos from the show. People have emailed me with stories about themselves after they've read something. For example, after the Appaloosa article features, in which I mentioned that the only two horses I've ever owned were of that breed, I had a few from Appaloosa owners who felt they had a bond with me because of it.
 
7. Do you have any advice for writers who might be contemplating writing for a fan magazine - or indeed, any specialty newsletter?

At the risk of sounding corny, be a huge fan. Normally we are told to know the subject matter through and through. As a science writer I can say that for science, this is very important. But for the High Chaparral articles, I think it's more important that I really love the show. That passion makes you go the extra mile, peek under extra rocks for little jewels you can include in a piece. Even though the fans knew it inside out, because it was new to me, I was able to present things from a less fan-atical angle (that was meant to be a funny play on words!).

But you have to take care. When I once mentioned in the Appaloosa article that other western stars such as James Drury (The Virginian) and James Arness (Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) rode Appaloosa's, I had a few emails about exactly what proportion of the breed their horses were because they were cross breeds. I knew this but my writing suggested they were pure. Nothing slips by the fans!  I think it helps too, to remember that you are not only a fan, writing about something you love, but you are also writing for people like yourselves so remember this. Fans will be watching what you say!

© Wendy St. Germain

Note from Marg:

In a follow-up email, Wendy told me that, in an effort to keep the interview reasonably short, she deleted a section about when she heard from a fan in Venezuela. I htought it was too interesting to leave out... so I quote from Wendy's email: "He wrote that my Tilly the Camel article came out a week before that episode aired and how he got so much more out of the episode by knowing all the camel info.
 
He said he waited for the scene where I point out the unnatural behaviour (where Tilly kneels and has a ladder pressed up against her). Apparently he kept dropping these little bits of info to his wife. He said he had to email me not just for making the episodes more enjoyable, but because after the Tilly episode, it was one of the rare times in 45 yrs of marriage where he left his wife speechless! She kept saying 'how do you know all this?'"

 

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