Keeping It Real

The facts of life of fiction writing, plus a video with clues about the next Nick Drake novel

I’m rushing to write this because I need to get back to my current work-in-progress. I owe an explanation to readers who’ve asked how could I leave Nick Drake in the equivalent of professional and romantic cliff hangers in the last book while I run off to chase facts in Harney County before finishing the next.

Walking away from a manuscript in midstream is considered a major sin in novel writing circles, but I’d argue not confirming what you’re describing is an even greater transgression. Part of this belief comes from the many years I spent writing newspaper articles, magazine stories, and books on natural history, conservation, and outdoor adventure travel subjects. To me, facts not only matter, they’re sacrosanct.

Spare me the joke that journalism is the world’s second oldest profession and nowhere near as well-compensated as the first. Plenty of creative juice gets spilled reporting the news, whether or not you subscribe to such journalistic techniques as Tom Wolfe’s mau-mauing or Mark Twain’s never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Good reportage has its place in good fiction writing too.

Characters, conflicts, and very cool stuff was always to be found in the subjects I covered, and I’ve learned the natural world not only is a source and inspiration for a mystery series set in the high lonesome of southeastern Oregon in the late 1960s, but also helps lend authenticity to time, setting, and dialogue. Wildlife, weather, and landscape all play integral roles in the arcs of my stories and development of my characters. They provide action, motivation, and revelation, be it the mindset of a Vietnam War veteran trying to find inner peace as a wildlife ranger, an old lawman striving to bring justice to a beat as flinty as himself, a fiery and beautiful large animal veterinarian proving her gender is no disqualification for a tough job, or a Paiute elder keeping her people’s traditions and culture from going extinct.

Chiseled on a tablet somewhere is the adage Write about what you know. It’s no mystery why I reach back to my environmental reporting days for subject matter when it came to writing crime fiction. What isn’t carved right alongside that advice is the answer to Why do you write in the first place?

Though I once reported about wildlife genetics, I can’t say for certain if genes are a factor when it comes to writing. The same absence of certainty is also true when it comes to whether or not upbringing plays a role. My grandfather was a story teller, penning Jazz Age romances for weekly magazines before getting the call from Hollywood. My mother raised me on a steady diet of what it was like growing up with an itinerant writer for a father—true life adventures of being chased by bill collectors from one town to the next and waking up in a rented bungalow to find Raymond Chandler passed out on the sofa, his fingers still ensconced in the white gloves he wore the night before while drinking gin and playing poker with my grandfather and a pack of other Paramount scribes. Is my writing a product of nature or nurture? Who knows?

What I am certain of is, the natural world provides me with the genesis of stories and it’s up to me to listen and give them a voice. That’s what I was doing on my recent road trip in Harney County. I needed to drive every dirt track I’d be putting Nick and Pudge on when they chased bad guys, learn from experts about the challenges of managing public lands, visit with the archivist at the Burns public library’s fantastic western history room to get dates straight, and talk with long-time residents about everything under the high desert sun, from Paiute traditions to haying techniques. Most of all, I needed to stand atop Steens Mountain and in the middle of Diamond Craters and on the edge of Blitzen Valley to feel the wind, watch the birds gather, and admire the grasses and aspens as they flashed autumn colors.

I don’t profess to being the first author to discover the natural world delivers honesty as well as a roundhouse punch to a story. Read my grandfather’s old pal Raymond Chandler’s opener to “Red Wind” to see what I mean:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Okay, I know what you’re thinking by now: “Enough with the navel-twiddling explanations already. Get back to the work-in-progress. Tell us what happens to Nick, Gemma, Pudge, and November.” I will, I promise. In the meantime, here’s a short video of my recent Fall trip through Harney County. I put a couple of clues in it, along with a red herring or two, that reveal plot lines in the next installment which is shaping up to be one heck of a harrowing ride. Everyone likes to be a detective, so let me know what you find. More later.

Click here to watch.