Beau Smith is a lifelong writer and the author of some famous graphic novels and comic books. He is most famous for his creation of the Wynonna Earp series. I was recently announced an upcoming fourth season of this series will air on the SyFy channel. In the crazy world of fictional heroes and otherworldly villains, see where he draws inspiration from and how he creates the gritty characters and locations he brings to life.
Tell us about yourself? Family, Hometown, favorite activities to do, etc?
I’ve lived a life of fiction based on fact since 1954. For as long as my memory serves me I’ve been telling stories, even before I knew how to form letters with a pencil and put them to paper, I’ve had the desire to create stories to match the visual scenes I have in my head. Much to my personal disappointment, I’ve never been an artist that could draw the scenes that were living in my head. My artistic ability plateaued at stick figures, but on the bright side, I have always been able to describe in words how those scenes should and could appear on paper. I think that’s why I was mesmerized by comic books as a four-year-old. Here were static pictures, as I saw them in my head, on paper with words. Not comparing myself to Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, but I know that they must have had the same instinctive feeling when they first touched a ball or held a hockey stick in their hands. It just felt so natural.
I can remember looking forward to the start of first grade. I thought, at last, I would be able to read the words that ballooned from the mouths of the drawn figures in the comic book pages. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed when I came home from that first day of school and realized that they couldn’t teach me to read and to write in one day. It did give me the drive to master reading and writing, a fire that has never dimmed in my years on the right side of the dirt.
Once I learned to read and write, I never stopped. I’ve done both in abundance every day of my life since then. I’ve carried a notebook and a pen/pencil with me all my life. I’ve filled up so many from spiral bound school notebooks to well-tanned leather journals that deserve a more talented owner than myself. I love writing and the tools that allow me to do so.
I was born in Huntington, West Virginia in 1954. It’s the only state I’ve lived in. My education from grade school through college (Marshall University) was spent here. Most all of my family has deep roots here with some coming from northern Ohio where my family tree has a branch that puts me as a descendant of noted author and outdoorsman, Zane Grey. His DNA for the outdoors and making up stories has to be flowing through my blood on purpose or by a fluke, either way, I’m happy to claim it.
My family, especially on my mother’s side, were all aggressive readers. Books were always in our house and lots of them. I’ve been that way all my life. I still average reading a book or two a week.
Outside is where I’ve always preferred to be, the more different the landscape the better. Our family spent almost every Summer for vacation in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It was like a second home to my brothers and me. When I wasn’t fishing and swimming, I was sitting in the sand writing a made-up story of my brothers and me, only in these stories, we were catching Hammerhead Sharks and battling a giant squid, instead of sand crabs and shrimp. A better childhood I couldn’t ask for.
The reason I go outside in Ceredo, West Virginia
When did you start writing/illustrating and who/what inspired you or are you self-taught?
Once I was taught to read, I became a book addict. I loved all the typical reading fare of young boys such as Doc Savage written by Lester Dent or the by-line of “Kenneth Robeson”. The incredible painted covers by James Bama were fresh bait on a fish hook for my imagination. It gave you the perfect imagery to set you on the path to each adventure. Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan was another line of books that got me through West Junior High School. I have to say that Stan Lee, writer, co-creator of so many of the Marvel Comics characters and books, has always been my biggest early influence. He is the one that is the core of my love for character dialogue. Stan Lee is the writer that took the time to make each character stand alone, good guy or bad guy. Stan tossed the cookie cutter away and developed his own, “without limits characters”. Ones that took from real life and wore the skin of fiction. He was also the one of the first to brand and promote himself, not so much out of ego, but because he had to. Comic books were not the high profile, licensing tree that they are today. Stan was the first to open the clubhouse door and let the reader come in. Even though he was just as old as the folks publishing for DC Comics and others at the time, he was the only one that made you feel like a part of the family and not just some faceless reader that they didn’t really relate to. As I grew older, Elmore Leonard (Raylan, Valdez Is Coming), Clair Huffaker (The Cowboy and The Cossack), Don Winslow (The Death and Life Of Bobby Z., Power Of The Dog) and Christopher Farnsworth (Blood Oath: The President’s Vampire) became my fiction influences because not only were they visual storytellers, but they all are dialogue masters. They make the words of the characters so important and they all add wit, humor and most importantly, likeability, to every character, no matter how major or minor they are in the story.
There are many writers that are poetic, epic, and deep in their writing, writers that can take a page just to describe how the sound of Fall leaves sound when you walk on them, but as a reader, and a writer, I have to have likeability in those characters for me to have an emotional investment in the story. Without that, the conflict doesn’t matter to me. If that happens, then I don’t care what happens to any character, good or bad. Like so many character actors make films, it takes a character writer to make a compelling story. The best non-fiction authors are able to do this with the research that they do on real people. No one is completely flawed or completely good, but there is always a spark of something to like in each.
I was a journalism major at Marshall University. Even though I told my teachers early on in elementary school that I wanted to write comic books when I grew up, I was always told that I should write for a newspaper or a magazine, that writing comic books was no way to make a living. Today, teachers and those with influence are not quite as quick to stifle creativity. That’s a good thing, but in my day, I reluctantly tried what they heavily suggested, finally in college, my Journalism professor, Dr. Ralph Turner, took me aside and told me that journalism was about facts and that facts didn’t seem to be close friends of mine; fiction was. He said that I should really hone and focus my skills as well as time to writing fiction….so I did. I waited a long time for someone of influence to tell me what I already knew.
I’ve been writing professionally since 1987. I’ve written for every major and minor publisher in comic books and graphic novels, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, IDW Publishing, Dark Horse Publishing, Image Comics, and many more. I’ve had the honor of putting words into the mouths of such iconic characters as Batman, Wolverine, Boba Fett from Star Wars, Aliens, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and hundreds more. Most importantly I’ve created and own characters of my own, Wynonna Earp, I created and have been writing for 20 years. Wynonna Earp is also starting its third season as a cult television series on the SyFy on July 20th. Cobb, a thriller/Crime series about a former Secret Service Agent using his skill sets to help those not equipped to be in very dangerous situations with adversaries such as The Russian Mafia, Terrorists, and The Cartels. Cobb is currently in development for a prime-time TV series as well.
When it comes to the education of writing, I am mostly self-taught. I’m inspired by the works in non-fiction, film as well as TV and music. Regardless of lyrics in a song, sometimes the music alone is the trigger that sets off a series of scenes in my head that forms the picture, the story, and the dialogue. As in the aforementioned series Cobb, that main character’s personality was based on the instincts and personality of an Australian Shepherd that I owned for 15 years. Your influences and ideas come from very strange places at times. The more unusual, the better, or more interesting, in most cases.
My teachings come from observation of people, places, and situations. We’re blessed with interesting people and places every day. I learn and pull from that. I create from that. Creativity is a layered fabric woven from interesting observations.
What does writing mean to you?
It’s the communication of our lives. It’s how we relay the past, present, and future to each other. Fiction, non-fiction, poems, lyrics, letters, notes, lists….it’s all thoughts, feelings, and actions that we need to share not only with ourselves but with others. Writing provides motivation on many levels. It can inspire others to create and understand their own thoughts that rent space in the hotel they call a brain. For me it’s like the trails that I take to when I hike, it leads me to places I’ve never been, it helps me find new directions, it fills my head with more interests and provides me a path for those interests to make their way to paper, and then to a computer screen. One of the biggest rewards I get when writing a story is when it’s read by someone else, someone I’ve never met, and they “get” what I’ve said or the character I’ve created. In 31 years of writing, I’ve never experienced that more than with my character, Wynonna Earp. My readership on this character has never been complacent or stagnant. It’s grown beyond age groups, gender, sexual preference, and genre. With the comic book series and the Television series, I have so blessed to have people from all walks of life tell me what this one character has meant to them and how it has found a place in their family. This is the highest compliment I could ever receive, for this to happen with a fictional character is something I never dreamed would happen. For it to happen because of a character I created when I was in grade school, making up adventures of Wyatt Earp fighting monsters in the old west in my Trapper Keeper notebook. Imagination, pen, and paper…they started out with me and remain with me. Writing is something I need to do, it’s something I have to do.
How long and how much practice did it take you before you felt comfortable and were pleased with your work?
Starting out writing, I was more uncomfortable with the mechanics of prose, and the technical form of a script. I have rarely been uncomfortable, even in the beginning with the writing itself. Writing a story is like a prison break going on in my head. The words, the characters, the dialogue are all there and trying to bust out, I find myself using the structure of prose and script to corral and herd the words, characters, and dialogue in order so they all don’t run loose or get bottlenecked on the page. I’m so very thankful for my editors. They keep my grammar and punctuation gremlins in check.
Most monthly comic books are 18 to 22 pages. A deadline for that is on average 3-4 weeks. I’ve written full comic books in as short as two days, (Don’t tell my editors) and then there have been other times when I beat the deadline by an hour. It all depends on how much continuity is involved. It’s much quicker when you’re doing a creator-owned book rather than work-for-hire such as when I worked on famous characters such as Batman or Wolverine.
Practice is why I have filled up hundreds of notebooks in my career. I use them to jot down ideas, layout pages, List acts and beats for the story, I paste reference in them cut out from magazines and papers, Post It notes, there are no real limits to the uses I put my notebooks through. I do try and make sure they are made of durable materials, I tend to write a lot outside and when I travel. I use smaller notebooks for ideas and lists, and the larger ones for layouts and dialogue. Transference to the computer takes less time when I always have my notes to refer to. I don’t have to back them up, and paper never runs low on batteries. (Although I do back my writing up on the computer, I’m not a total baboon.)
Comfort level with my writing is good when I’m writing it. The moment I turn it in, or I read it once published, that’s when I want to change things or wish I would’ve said this, or that. For me, I’m never satisfied with my finished product. I think that’s a good thing. If you’re completely satisfied then what’s the motivation to do more or to top yourself?
Wynonna Earp Issue #7 in the early stages of my Rustico Journal
What do you do to tackle writer’s block?
I can’t think of any time when I’ve had true Writer’s Block. As I mentioned before, the ideas, the lines of dialogue and characters are all jockeying for room in my brain, the only blockage is trying to figure out where to start. It’s kinda like a feast of food and not knowing what to eat first. That’s a good thing. What I try and do is step away from the computer every hour. I get up and do something physical, I hike, I walk the dog, I fold clothes, I take off to the post office, I get outside. That’s when I take a notebook. I never know when an idea or a line of dialogue is gonna hit, and I want to make sure I have something to write it down with. No chance for a missed opportunity. When I do writers seminars and talk at schools, I always suggest to writers to step away from the keyboard at least every hour if possible. Do something else, something physical, walk, run, stroll, do something around the house or the office. It sure helps me. I also suggest that they write every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes, write down ideas, dialogue, thoughts. It all adds up and it really helps me be mentally organized for when I do transfer it to the computer.
Which do you prefer pen or pencil? Why?
I use both. I favor a pen for the bulk of my writing, I use a pencil for highlighting and contrast lines. The pencils are usually colored pencils so that I can show the different characters, props or items that are key in the story. In the last year, I’ve favored the Blackwing Palomino 602 pencil. My friend, Tyler Axtell, Founder of Bradley Mountain, got me using the Blackwing pencils, and I like them a lot. Very smooth without being too smooth. I don’t have to use as much pressure, I’m a pressure writer and notorious pencil breaker. The Blackwing pencils have stood the test.
With pens, I have Pilot G2 pens stashed everywhere, my backpacks, briefcase, and jacket pockets. I like the Bold #10 for notes and ideas and then switch to the Pilot G2 #05 Extra Fine for more detailed writing where space is needed.
For the last 15 years, my go-to, everyday pen is the Rotring Core Rollerball Pen. This has been a true workhorse for me that has withstood all the roughhousing I’ve put it though indoors and out. It’s a beast and I always check and recheck where it is. I’d hate to lose it at this stage since I never see them for sale anywhere these days.
The MonteVerde Tool Pen is always with me when I travel for the simple fact it has multiple tools built in, screwdrivers, flat and Phillips, a level, ruler, stylus and writes really well. A great “Just-In-Case” pen to have.
My Dress Up pen for meeting and such is a Foray Focus. Screw Cap and Bottom rollerball made of tough aluminum. Writes a fine line and is a handful.
I like using a pen because it makes me more accountable for mistakes. I know that in my notebook or journal that if I screw up with a word, there’s going to be a cross outline or a blackout spot. A pencil I can erase, but I like a little more accountability. I like the speed of a pen as well.
End of Part 1
Check back tomorrow for the rest of our interview with Beau.