Right around the start of the Civil War, Erastus and Irwin Beadle published a new series of cheap paperbacks entitled Beadle’s Dime Novels. Thanks to increased literacy rates among the American people during this time, and the inexpensive price (yes, they truly did cost a dime), these thin, paper-bound books met with huge success. Their debut novel – Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann Stephens (a woman – hooray!) sold more than 65,000 copies within the first few months of its publication. Those are the kind of numbers even today’s authors would get excited about – believe me! The book released on June 9, 1860 and was basically a reprint of a serialized story that had appeared in the Ladies’ Companion magazine back in 1839.
Dime novels varied in size and thickness, but the tended to be about 100 pages in length, about the equivalent to today’s novella. At first, dime novel covers had no cover art beyond the fancy title script. But it didn’t take long for the Beadles to move to illustrated covers, better designed to grab a browsing customer’s attention.
If you saw a homicidal squaw about to tomahawk a frontiersman, wouldn’t that grab your attention? The next one is slightly less blatant with the rifleman helping a young woman escape danger, but there is certainly still an element of adventure and the breathless question of “What will happen next?”
Dime novels were famous for lurid, often melodramatic tales of the frontier. Heroes were larger than life and typically had exaggerated strength and skill. Not that the readers cared. The more jaw-dropping the story, the more fun it was to read. Hence the birth of genre paperback fiction.
In my most recent novella, The Husband Maneuver in the collection With This Ring, I had a lot of fun playing with the dime novel genre. The hero of the story – Daniel Barrett – was once a famous bounty hunter and has been immortalized for the masses as Dead-Eye Dan in a series of dime novels. He hates the novels, claiming they are blown out of proportion and even pure fiction in places. He wants to leave that old life behind and just train his mules. Marietta Hawkins, the daughter Daniel’s boss, on the other hand, is in love with Daniel and devours the dime novels as a way to feel closer to the real-life man who is determined to keep his distance.
I started each chapter of the novella with a scene from a Dead-Eye Dan novel. They were such a hoot to write. They quickly became my favorite scenes. In the end, you end up with two stories in one: Dead-Eye Dan and the Outlaws of Devil’s Canyon and the actual love story playing out between Daniel Barrett and Marietta Hawkins.
Here’s the opening dime novel scene:
Dead-Eye Dan climbed the tall oak with the skill of a cougar. Jaw tight, he scaled the tree hand-over-hand, his gaze locked on the v-shaped branch above his head. He had one chance to slow his prey. One chance to gain the upper hand. He wouldn’t squander it.
When he reached the branch he sought, Dan positioned himself in the cradle, bracing his legs against the sturdy trunk. In a single, smooth motion, he slid his Remington long range rifle from the custom holster on his back and lifted the Vernier peep sight into position with a flick of his thumb. The walnut stock fit against his shoulder as if it were an extension of his body.
Dan leaned forward and rested the barrel against the branch in front of him, notching it against a broken twig’s stub to keep it steady. He located his target. Four horses, 750 yards ahead. Four thieves and a woman. His woman. Taken when the desperados left the bank. They thought to use her as a shield to keep him at bay. A fatal error. The moment they touched Mary Ellen Watkins, they’d signed their death warrants.
–from Dead-Eye Dan and the Outlaws of Devil’s Canyon
- Do you like your fictional heroes larger than life? Or do you prefer more realistic story lines?