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Keeping cowboy novels alive

Major Mitchell loves telling a story and he's intrigued watching people and what they do, especially children.

The 72-year-old Oakdale author who specializes in Western novels and children's books has another book to be released in a month or two and just finished a screenplay that is in the hands of a producer right now. The screenplay tells about a wheelchair-bound female veteran who returned from Afghanistan and ultimately helps other veterans with their struggles after coming to grips with her own.

Born in the desert community of Brawley, a Southern California cattle town, Mitchell grew up reading his father's Western-themed Zane Grey books. He wrote his first story, "A Reason to Believe" 35 years ago about a girl who wants to ride saddleback broncs with the guys. He rewrote it several times and it was published 25 years ago.

"I have always loved to write," Mitchell says. "I learned over the years to be a good writer you have to be a good reader. I read all the time. One of the drawbacks of being a writer is you hate to throw anything away and figure some day you will use some of that stuff."

Mitchell’s works include “The Dona” where Leonida Garcia comes to California through an arranged marriage and then inherits a large land grant. In “Mokelumne Gold” Leonida defends her rights in court while a murder is investigated. In “Manhunter” Matthew Blue trails a murderer while being trailed himself. In “Where the Green Grass Grows,” Matthew Blue becomes a family man and tracks down a stolen baby.

“Dusty Boots” tells the tale of two brothers traveling together, but with very different values, in 1880s Texas. In “Jokers Play,” Marshall Clay Best searches for a missing girl while discovering he is being pursued by another woman. In “Refugio’s Gold”, Marshall Best and his new wife go to Mexico in search of gold. Mitchell describes Marshall Best as an ex-marshal who is tough but tender-hearted toward children and those needing help. After his first wife dies, the marshal meets and then marries a much-younger Mexican widow.

In “Poverty Flat” a returning Civil War veteran goes to California and discovers an abandoned pregnant woman and her son. In “Canyon Wind” a woman and her four sons run their South Dakota ranch in the 1880s after her husband dies and her daughter disappears.

A retired painting contractor who worked for more than 30 years in the Bay Area, Mitchell creates a card file on his book subjects and then builds their character in a capsule biography, detailing what they like to eat, where they were born, their mannerisms and character traits.

Mitchell says there were lots of values attached to the American cowboy, where a handshake was your bond and you worked as hard as you could regardless of what you were being paid. To break your word would make you a liar and a scoundrel.

“I can usually turn out a novel in six to eight months if all goes well. In another one it took over a year and it took a year’s research before that. A lot of times the story will write itself. You let the characters act out like you knew they would,” Mitchell says.

In at least one instance during the writing of a novel, he retreated to a camp trailer in his back yard for solitude and freedom from interruption. He jokes he is tempted to do that again. Mitchell and his wife of 31 years, Judy, have six children, 20 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a fourth one on the way.

Also the owner of Shalako Press, Mitchell says he receives 30 to 60 emails a day and admits he has a small fan base. He is on Facebook and Linked-In. His website is


Mitchell says Western novels are making a slight comeback after being in a slump for a while. He says he has never kept track of the number of books he has sold. As a student years ago at Imperial College, Mitchell remembers being encouraged by his English teacher to pursue his talent and take creative writing classes. His first novels were authored with a pencil and a legal pad; he now does a majority of his writing on a computer, with wife Judy serving as his editor.

Mitchell wrote “The Witch on Oak Street” for his granddaughters. It’s a Christian-based book of children’s stories with life lessons. His first children’s book, “Charlie Shepherd,” also was written for his granddaughters and details how Charlie makes the right choice with the help of his people and his friend, Samantha the cat.

Mitchell’s advice for would-be writers? Read a lot and don’t be too excited about dealing with publishers. Find out what you will get and won’t get and realize you won’t hit a home run every time. Work on your craft until you get it perfected and realize one can always get better.

Mitchell’s Tracy-based brother Jerry Mitchell, who turns 80 this month, has co-authored three books with him and has a book of poetry in the publication stage.

Asked how he got his first name, Mitchell responds his father gave him the name. A ranch hand, Mitchell’s father died when he was 7 years old and the reason for the name died with him.

“I probably will write until the day I die. I like to write, not to make money,” Mitchell says.

Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.