So, Westerns. What are the basic elements of a Western? There are the two plots: 1) a stranger comes to town and 2) someone leaves town, heading for a new place. A subsidiary plot involves surviving in the wilderness, whether that’s physical (making a go of a farm or ranch) or emotional (surviving in a corrupt town) – both come under the category of Civilization versus Wilderness. And, usually, there’s some kind of moral conflict going on, whether it’s personal (fighting an enemy) or social (fighting outlaws).
There are also, often, a lot of issues relating to representation of Native Americans in many Western romances. I’ve been looking for some critical sources about this issue, so if you know of some, please let me know!
In romance novels, the major conflict must always be the relationship. So in a Western romance, the basic conflicts are usually represented on a personal level. I think that’s why there are so very many Western romances involving an Eastern woman (stranger) traveling to a Western town, where she is often a civilizing influence on a wilderness man, who might be rough-mannered, or an outlaw, or even a civilizing influence on the wilderness himself.
Various elements of the Western genre work really well with the structure of a romance novel. Westerns provide a setting and a framework for stories; romances provide a plot structure. The two mesh easily together, like romances with mystery/thrillers.
One thing I think might be specific to Western romances is that the setting can also be a character. Think of Western movies, and all those gorgeous shots of sunset-lit rock and flowing plains. Very often, the stranger character in a romance, usually the woman, falls in love with the landscape she’s met as much as with the man. Often, the man himself is revealed to have a deep love of the landscape in which he lives.
I also find it interesting that Western romances take a genre that’s heavily gendered as male (think of the Western movies you’ve seen) and bend the civilization aspect of the genre towards making a personal home rather than a law-abiding town; making a home is usually gendered female in our society. When the woman’s goals come up against the man’s in a romance, even if he’s a rough and tough hero, usually she comes out the victor in the end, “taming” him, even if on the surface she remains the “little woman.” Conventional as some western romances can be, they can also be subversive.