Over on Bill Crider's blog today, he posted a photograph that was taken in Jackson, Wyoming, in June of 1992, during the Western Writers of America convention, along with a very nice tribute to my dad. (Thanks, Bill.) That was my favorite WWA convention, in a great setting with a lot of great people in attendance. The photo came about when my dad and I went out to dinner with Bill and Judy, Doug Grad (then the Western editor at Pocket Books), and Paul Block and Pam Lappies, my editors from Book Creations Inc., the book packaging company for which I was doing a lot of work in those days. On our way to the restaurant, we stopped at one of those tourist places where they dress you in old-fashioned clothes and take a sepia-toned photo of you. The guys wound up dressed as outlaws, Judy was a Southern belle, and Pam was a saloon girl. We all bought copies of the photo. I think Doug may have even gotten it blown up into a poster, I don't remember.
During dinner, somebody (Doug?) said that in the photo I looked like I ought to be called Big Earl. I dubbed him The Kid and mentioned that while he appeared innocent, he was actually the most vicious killer in the bunch. Just the usual sort of convention banter. I even told Doug that I was going to write a book based on the photo, and he would have to buy it for Pocket Books.
Well . . . a few weeks later, I get a call from Paul at BCI. Doug actually wants me to write a proposal for a Big Earl book. After some suggestions from Doug and Paul, I come up with Big Earl Stark, former stagecoach driver who educates himself in the law, becomes a lawyer, and eventually is appointed a federal circuit court judge, riding from town to town in the West to hear cases. Doug likes the proposal and wants three books. He even says we can use the photograph from Wyoming as the cover of the first book. So that's how the Judge Earl Stark series of Western mysteries comes about. Just as I said back in Jackson, I name all the other characters and build the plot around them, even to the point of having a photograph of them taken during the course of the story. When the book came out, I was a little disappointed that the entire photo wasn't used, only a close-up of me as Big Earl. Of course, as Bill has been telling people for years, that's his hand holding the six-gun right behind my head. Bill has also never forgiven me for some of the things that happened to his character in the book.
I really enjoyed the Stark books and would have continued writing them, but poor sales did the series in after three books. Still, I've always gotten a kick out of being one of the few authors to appear as his own character on a book cover. (Mickey Spillane, Mike Avallone, and Stephen King come to mind. I'm sure there have been others.)