An unplanned journey to become a writer

In college (now California State University, Northridge)
I was a theater major, focusing on acting—becoming a writer wasn’t in the picture.

A publicity photo of LK after returning to Los Angeles in September 1976 after a summer of dinner theater in Lubbock, Texas. (photo © Louis Kraft 1976)

While performing in dinner theater in Lubbock, Texas, during the summer of 1976, I experienced extreme racism, two Texas Tech theater department acting cliques that hated each other, and a lot-lot worse. When I got home I wrote a screenplay about my experience and submitted it to a literary agent. He told me, “This is awful, but let’s talk.” We did, and he became my agent and mentor. I learned how to develop plots, character, and dialogue. We came close to optioning and selling a number of screenplays but without success.

After about six years of writing screenplays that ranged from Persians who fled to the U.S. at the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran to the destruction of Germany during WWII through the eyes of a U-boat commander and his Jewish girlfriend to a swashbuckler based upon the real-life Englishman John Ward who turned into a Tunisian pirate and fought the British I decided I wanted to earn money for my writing. In the mid-1980s, I started selling articles to magazines (baseball, Indian wars, travel) and an encyclopedia (biography). This was the turning point of my life, and I quit acting cold turkey. The Indian wars articles led to speaking engagements (initially free, but soon with pay and expenses) and then to my first contracted novel (Anglo-American and Cheyenne race relations in 1867 (The Final Showdown, published in 1992).

LK with Walker and Company editor Jackie Johnson in 1992. The previous year, she, my agent Cherry Weiner, and I met late one night at a Western Writers of America convention in Portland, Oregon, and I pitched a story on race relations just prior to the 1867 Cheyenne-Arapahoe peace council on Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas. My three main characters were fictional while many lived (such as Cheyennes Black Kettle, Stone Forehead, Bull Bear, Indian agent Edward Wynkoop, reporter Henry Stanley, Kiowa Satanta, and on and on … It was a good meeting, but I walked away from it without realizing that I had hit a home run. A few months later Cherry called me and asked if I had three sample chapters. OOPS!!! You’ve got to realize that I’m good at pitching myself in person, but I’m not the brightest cowboy on the block. The Final Showdown was published that year. (photo © Louis Kraft 1992)

This led to a follow-up contracted book, but after delivering the polished and accepted manuscript the publisher dropped its western line. Actually, this opened the door to my entire freelance writing future. A nonfiction book publisher, Dick Upton, had been pushing me to write a book about George Armstrong Custer (while a boy, Errol Flynn’s films introduced me to acting, swords, and Custer). I had initially put him off, as I was a “novelist,” but then called him (Custer and the Cheyenne was published in 1995).

I need to digress a little. In 1990 I began writing for the software world without any experience but was hired because of my published writing and design capabilities. When I asked for technical writing training, my manager laughed and said, “You’re on your own, cowboy.”

LK in his office at Infonet (now British Telecom Infonet) on 18nov1997. As times changed I created my job by pitching what I wanted to do. Better, I had an open door to choose my software, which I taught myself how to use. … At this time I had pitched IS, the worldwide Infonet newsletter for Information Services to the director of the department, and he bought it. I had total control, and spent time with management, stayed on top of projects, as well as the future, decided upon what I would print, assigned articles, and hung out with a fellow named Paul Zeitlin, as he was bright, open, and basically the unofficial right-hand man to the president and CEO of Infonet. He became my go-to man, and became my contributing editor. Good times for LK. But dark clouds were on the horizon, and these days came to an end. I was a mercenary, and in 1998 I moved from telecommunications to the space industry. (photo © Louis Kraft 1997)

This set in place what I would do over the next 22 years—insist upon the product software on my computer and an open door to engineers and management at all times (“open door” would now play an important role in the production process of my freelance writing, which has made many an art director and editor growl).

The software world gave me one other thing—I now had the resources to do archival primary source research anywhere while also walking the land with people—alive and dead. My freelance writing has been two-pronged: race relations on the American frontier and Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. In 1995 I decided to write a book about Flynn (without realizing it I had been researching him since a boy, and it continues to this day). The following year I began a roughly twenty-year correspondence with Livvie, as Flynn called Olivia. This resulted in me being invited to her home in Paris, France, twice, and to her special night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Beverly Hills, California), in 2006.

This is an early LK portrait as Ned Wynkoop. I had hoped to use it in publicity, but never did. (photo © Louis Kraft 2002 )

While the books, articles, and talks continued this century I wrote a one-man play about a frontiersman who harbored the typical racial prejudices on the Great Plains, but was able to do a complete turnabout and work for peace with the Plains Indians during the 1860s. I played him in Kansas, California, Colorado, and Oklahoma, and this resulted in a full-length play that ran for five weeks in California (Cheyenne Blood). His contemporary, George Bent, a mixed-blood Cheyenne, called him, “the best friend the Cheyennes and Arapahos ever had.” Around the time my book on him, Ned Wynkoop and the Lonely Road from Sand Creek, was published in 2011, the editor-in-chief who contracted that book asked me to write a book about the Sand Creek Massacre. I told him, “no, I write about people and not war.” He refused to give up, and over the next 18 months we talked in person, on the phone, and via email until we agreed on the book that I would write—Sand Creek and the Tragic End of a Lifeway.

In 2013 I also signed the contract for Sand Creek and the Tragic End of a Lifeway. It will be published in spring 2020.

In 2013 I created this website, and what I hope are lively blogs. Here I focus on my writing projects and the key players and subjects in them—past and present—such as Geronimo, Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, and the 1880s Apache wars; the 1860s Cheyenne wars, which has a huge cast of players such as Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, Dog Man chiefs Tall Bull and Bull Bear; Arapaho chiefs Little Raven and Left Hand; Rocky Mountain News editor Williams Byers; whites who married into the tribes, such as trader William Bent and interpreter John S. Smith. It also deals with my life and times, as I dig into my past, present, and future while mixing in current events that affect me—and perhaps you.

But “the times they are a-changin’” to quote Bob Dylan, and so is my writing present and future. By 1998 the Flynn book had morphed into Errol & Olivia (their life and times during the eight films they made together between 1935 and 1941), and in fall 2019 it becomes my number one project until publication (I currently have over 65,000 mostly polished words with a goal of 125,000, and with approximately 95 percent of the primary source research in-house). My blogs also deal with film, past and present, including Flynn and de Havilland. And there’s more coming here—so much more that it makes my head spin. I can’t begin to tell you how good this is, at least for me.

This image of a 1982 Ford F-150 pickup was taken north of Canyon de los Muertos, which is the northern most of the three canyons in Canyon de Chelley National Monument (which is the only national moment not on American land; it is on the Navajo Reservation). This photo was taken on the second of three major LK trips to the Navajo Reservation, the last being in 2012. This Ford logged almost 300,000 miles for me, and a good part of them were on research trips. (photo © Louis Kraft 1992)

My next novel will be Navajo Blood. It deals with a fictional Diné warrior (as the Navajos call themselves), his granddaughter, and Kit Carson during a dark-dark time in the Southwest (1863-1864). It will deal with mysticism, culture—actually multiple cultures—and the human element. Long time a-comin’ (and again, decades in the making). As of fall 2019, its time has arrived.

Finally, the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, History Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, houses the Louis Kraft Collection (C402, for writing, research, and correspondence; ACP010 for photos and art). This is a research library, and is by appointment only.

Oh, if you didn’t know—I plan on living to 130.