Writing the Wicked West

authorprofileA gambling spirit is what inspired many people to head West in the first place. After working hard on a cattle drive or digging in a mine, men needed a way to relax and have fun. In keeping with that risk-taking spirit, many chose to wager their hard-earned money in the saloon,” Sherry Monahan writes in The Wicked West: Boozers, Cruisers, Gamblers, and more.

Monahan may live in North Carolina, but her heart and soul are in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, a place she said she felt she belonged to from the moment she stepped out of her car and put her boots on the ground.

The work she does—writing books and magazine articles (she wrote “Historical Rail Celebrations & Party Trains” for the March issue of True West), appearing in documentary films and working as a historical consultant for the film industry—all connects her to the American West.

“I like to think that I lived there in another lifetime,” she says. “My great-great grandfather, William Turner, was a newspaper man and traveled all over the West. I guess it’s in my blood.”

TW: Much of your writing in some way ties to Tombstone. Why?

SM: Destiny, I guess. I went there on vacation in the early 1990s and felt like I had lived there before. I was really mesmerized by Tombstone. On the plane ride home, I decided that I wanted to be connected to Tombstone. My love of cooking and writing got me interested in what they ate in Tombstone during the 1800s. Voila—enter my first book, Taste
of Tombstone.

But writing about the region wasn’t enough, so Sherry and her husband bought land near Tombstone, giving her greater opportunity to soak in the ambiance of Arizona and to research an era that has become her passion: the wicked West of the 19th century. She’s written for Tombstone Times, Tombstone Tumbleweed, Tombstone Epitaph, Arizona Highways and was a contributor to The Best of the Best of Arizona and Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work.

Besides Tombstone, Monahan heads to the saloons of the Old West for her inspiration. She writes of “boozers, cruisers, gamblers” in her book The Wicked West, and shares  recipes for Old West drinks such as a gin sling, mint julep or beef tea, as well as bartender tales and insight into the lives of the men and women of those bygone days. In her newest book, Tombstone’s Treasures, recently published by the University of New Mexico Press, she goes beyond the saloons to the silver mines that gave birth to the community.

Why have you concentrated so much of your writing on saloons?

I just think the saloons are so fascinating and not at all like the movies portray them. Every time I watch a Western movie, I cringe. The shot glasses of whiskey, the tables and chairs, and the saloon girls and their clothing. I thought it would be nice if people really knew what the old Western saloons were like. The drinks were very fancy too—not just cheap whiskey. The characters who frequented the saloons were a real trip. Some of their antics and stories are hilarious!

In Tombstone’s Treasures, you provide great detail about the city, its silver mines and saloons, yet only devote limited space to the “big story”—the fight behind the O.K. Corral.

One 30-second gun battle has already gotten plenty of coverage—I didn’t need to go there. I wanted to concentrate on the other parts of Tombstone’s history. The town lived a pretty rich life for about 10 years, and little is written about that. However, without that 30-second battle, no one would care about the history I write.

She has also created an 1882 map of Tombstone and written the “Self-Guided Walking Tour of Tombstone.” To really put her research into the era onto the table, she even developed a faro game so aficionados like her can “enjoy the old Western saloon game at home.”

As an expert on 19th-century lifestyle, she has appeared on the History Channel in the Investigating History and Wild West Tech series.

How did you get involved with those History Channel projects?

A good friend, Bob Boze Bell [True West’s executive editor], recommended me to the producer. I remember shooting the first show for Investigating History, and I was a nervous wreck! I was answering the questions so fast that the producer stopped me. He told me that if I kept that up, he would start firing his questions as fast as I was answering. We laughed, and I slowed down.

In spite of her fascination with Tombstone, Monahan hasn’t neglected other areas of the West in her writing. Utilizing a collection of photographs taken by her aunt, she prepared Pikes Peak: Adventurers, Communities and Lifestyles for Arcadia Publishing. Her next books will deal with pioneer cooking along the emigrant trails, Victorian women in the West and some bizarre murders that occurred on the frontier. Currently, she is a historical consultant for The Territory, a film set in 1860s Arizona.

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