The following essay by Zane Grey was originally published in the 1921 book My Maiden Effort: Being the Personal Confessions of Well-Known American Authors as to Their Literary Beginnings.

My first literary effort was consummated when I was about fourteen years old at the home where I was born in Zanesville, Ohio. Not improbably the circumstances attending the writing of this piece will be recognized by other writers as authentic and natural, unless they have never been boys.

I belonged to a gang of young ruffians, or rather I was the organizer and leader of a band of youthful desperadoes who were bound to secrecy by oaths and the letting of blood. In the back of our orchard there was a thick briar patch, in the middle of which was concealed the entrance to a cave. We had dug this cave at opportune hours during the day or night, packing away the dirt in sacks. The entrance was just large enough to squeeze into, but below we had two good-sized rooms, all boarded up, with walls plastered with pictures and decorated with skins, hand-made weapons, and utensils we had filched from our respective homes. We had a lamp that never burned right and a stone fireplace that did not draw well.

Here we congregated at different times to divide the spoils of some boyish raid, or to eat the watermelons or grapes we had stolen, or to feast on some neighbor’s chicken. We boiled the chickens in a pot that my mother was always searching for but never found.

Sometimes, too, when the neighborhood had become suddenly aroused over incidents that to us were trivial, we repaired to our cave to hide. Once we slept there all night, or at least stayed there, and each boy was supposed to have spent the night at the home of another boy. This, to our great joy, was never found out. We had a complete collection of Beadle’s Dime Library1Beadle’s New York Dime Library was published from 1877 to 1905, beginning as a weekly before transitioning into a monthly, and each issue contained a complete story, usually of the frontier or western variety, although detective and criminal stories were more common toward the end of the series. and some of Harry Castlemon’s books,2Charles Austin Fosdick (1842–1915), whose pen name was Harry Castlemon, was a prolific writer of juvenile stories and novels, intended mainly for boys. the reading of which could only be earned by a deed of valor.

In this cave I wrote my first story. I wrote it on pieces of wallpaper, not all of which were even in size. I slaved and sweat over this story, and smarted too, for the smoke always got into my eyes. It was hard to write because the boys whispered with heads together — some bloody story — some dark deed they contemplated against those we hated — some wild plan.

But at last I finished it. The title was “Jim of the Cave.” That title made a hit with all but the member in whose honor it was created. I read it with voice not always steady nor clear. It had to do with a gang of misunderstood boys, a girl with light hair and blue eyes, dark nights, secrets, fight, blood, and sudden death. Jim, the hero, did not get the light-haired girl. For that matter none of the gang got her, because none of them survived.

My early perceptions were not infallible. In spite of my love for Jim, he could not be made a real honest-Injun hero. It was through his perfidy that our secret was discovered. He had broken one of our laws and was temporarily suspended. He chose a time when we were all in the cave regaling ourselves with another chicken, and he brought my father to the entrance of our hiding-place. We had to tear off the board roof and bring to light all we had stolen, and then fill up the hole. Thus my father got possession of “Jim of the Cave.” Perhaps when he consigned it to the flames he had no divination of its priceless value. And he licked me with a strip of Brussels carpet which he found in the cave. What I did to the Judas of our clan was similar in part to the story he had inspired.3Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve original disciples of Jesus Christ and is known for the kiss and betrayal of Jesus to the Sanhedrin for 30 silver coins. In real life he grew up, passed me by with stony stare, and married the light-haired girl.

The first of my work to see print in book form was written years afterward.

I had always yearned to write, but in the early years I did not know it and there was no one to tell me. In college I could not attend to lectures. My mind wandered. My dreams persisted. I used to go into the great silent library of the University of Pennsylvania and sit there, feeling a vague peace, and the stirring of inward force that afterward drove me to write.

When I graduated I went to New York to practice my profession.4Dentistry. Here, as in college, I dreamed — my mind wandered to the hills and vales — to adventure. During my brief vacations I got as far away from the city as possible, and began writing the tales of fishing and canoeing experiences. These passed muster in some of the outdoor magazines.

Then came the ambition to write a book. I chose the story of Elizabeth Zane,5Elizabeth Zane McLaughlin Clark (1765–1823) was a heroine of the Revolutionary War. The community of Betty Zane near Wheeling, West Virginia, was named after her. sister of Colonel Ebenezer Zane,6Ebenezer Zane (1747–1811) was an American pioneer, soldier, politician, road builder, and land speculator who established a settlement near Fort Henry which became Wheeling, West Virginia. my great-great-grandfather who held Fort Henry7Fort Henry was a colonial fort which stood a quarter mile from the Ohio River in what is now downtown, Wheeling, West Virginia. for twenty years against the Indians and British. During the last siege, September 11, 1782, Betty Zane saved the fort by running the gauntlet of fire, carrying an apron full of gunpowder over her shoulder. My mother first told me this story, and then I heard it and read it afterward a thousand times. When I saw it in the Fourth Reader8The Girl That Saved the Stockade. (1911). The Horace Mann Readers: Fourth Reader (pp. 16–20). Longmans, Green, and Co. I thrilled with pride.

I wrote “Betty Zane” in a dingy flat, on a kitchen table, under a flickering light. All of one winter I labored over it, suffered, and hoped, was lifted up and anon plunged into despair. When it was finished I took it to Scribner’s who returned it with their printed slip — then to Doubleday, where Lanier damned it with faint praise — then to Harper’s, where Hitchcock’s verdict was that he did not see anything in it to convince him that I could write. And so I peddled “Betty Zane” from one publisher to another. All in vain!

I had no money. My future looked black. And when all seemed the blackest and my spirit was low I re-read “Betty Zane” and swore they were wrong.

I borrowed money to publish my work. No publisher would bring it out, so I hired a printer to print it.

And at last I had a book in my hands — a book that I had written! It changed my life. I gave up my profession and went to the country to live and write. My father was distressed. He hated to have me give up my livelihood. But after I sent him “Betty Zane” he read it almost as much as he read his favorite book, the Bible. “Betty Zane” received unhoped for praise from the Press, but it sold slowly, for the printer could not get it before the public. And eventually I bought the plates.

Every year now “Betty Zane,” in spite of its crudities, sells more and more. I never changed a line of it. And in these days of the H. C. L.9Acronym for High Cost of Living, an issue very much at the forefront of American minds at the time due to post-WWI inflation. old “Betty” helps nobly to keep the wolf from the door.


If you enjoyed this story, check out Zane Grey’s legendary western Riders of the Purple Sage.

Zane Grey