Watching Movies in His Head Peter Brandvold.

author-profilePeter Brandvold pens books faster than most people read.

His first, Once a Marshal, took eight months. His 17th took only three months and that was hampered by a move from Minnesota to Fort Collins, Colorado. He has been known to write a 70,000-word novel in six weeks.

“It’s like watching a movie in my head,” Brandvold says. “I just have to type fast enough to keep up.”

As a kid, Brandvold loved stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Louis L’Amour. He also loved Saturday afternoon serials that ended each segment with a hook.

He grew up in North Dakota, earned degrees from the University of North Dakota and the University of Arizona and then taught for five years on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in northern Montana.  For a while he wrote literary stories, but they bored him.

While teaching English at the community college in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Brandvold decided to write a Western. “It was excruciating,” he says. He rewrote one scene 12 times and just couldn’t get it right. “It was like a bad movie.”

Finally, he scrapped the pieces and revisioned the scene, and it clicked.

He credits his wife, Gena, who edits all his books. “She is absolutely merciless,” he says. “I grit my teeth while she’s slashing with her red pen but when I can get her to cry, I know the reader will too.”

Peter has six published novels featuring Ben Stillman, the lawman in Once a Marshal, with another on the way. A second series stars Lou Prophet, a bounty hunter who made a deal with the Devil. Prophet says, “I told him that if he showed me one hell of a good time for the rest of the life I had left, I’d shovel all the coal he wanted down below.” That series has two published novels with three more on the way.

Critics compare Brandvold to Louis L’Amour, and Brandvold admires L’Amour’s economical writing—but not his characters. The traditional Western died because the characters were flat, Brandvold maintains, adding, “In order to have a compelling plot, you have to care about the characters.”

His characters are anything but flat. At the beginning of Once a Marshal, Ben Stillman, a U.S. marshal accidentally shot in the back by a drunken whore, has disappeared into a whiskey bottle. He crawls out again only when the son of an old friend asks for help in finding his dad’s killer.

Brandvold is compulsive about writing. He starts the day writing at least 500 words on his laptop while still in bed. Then he takes a run. “I get my best ideas running up Horsetooth Mountain with my dogs and my wife.” He usually writes again in the afternoon, 500 to 1,000 words. For a change of pace, he sometimes writes longhand or takes his laptop to a coffee shop.

He is almost as compulsive about researching. He looks at photos and maps of the Old West and reads a lot of nonfiction historical pieces. For each of his novels, he reads five to 10 histories of the location and consults five or six maps.

Brandvold uses cinematic techniques such as multiple points of view, which make his plots move faster. In Blood Mountain, there is even a scene from a horse’s view.

“My goal is to write my books so sharp and fast-paced that the reader comes away feeling washed out and breathless,” Brandvold says.

One thing’s for sure, if Brandvold continues writing at his current pace, there are going to be a lot of readers gasping for air.


Kathryn Sweney teaches English at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

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