I write mysteries. I don’t write sci fi/fantasy because my mind is tethered to the real world too tightly to make the great leaps required to build whole new worlds. And by tethered, I mean, I’m not that imaginative. Write what you know, they say. It’s good advice that makes creating fiction so much easier than if you had to make it all up from scratch.
When we moved to Flagstaff in 2007, there was a huge controversy waging over pumping treated waste water onto a ski area on the San Francisco Peaks just outside of town. Those peaks are sacred to several local tribes and feature in their creation stories. It’s where the tribes collect plants and herbs and perform vital ceremonies.
This situation seemed ripe for a murder mystery. I “borrowed” from real life and pretty much used the whole set up for Tainted Mountain. I jumped into it, researching and asking questions. It didn’t take me long to discover the Hopi tribe. Destitute and tiny, this tribe who makes its home on three mesas north of Winslow, believe they are responsible for the balance of the entire world. They view themselves as a microcosm of the world and what happens with them will be played out in full forces over the planet. I swear I didn’t make up any Hopi stuff. All of the weird, magical, amazing bits in my books are from real life research.
I was hooked. I started playing the “what if” game to build the plot. Who would be the most affected by this fight? Aha, the ski resort owner. Write what you know, right? I made Nora a business woman, even though accounting is not exactly a career path littered with excitement and action. I figured we wouldn’t be following our unfortunate heroine, Nora, as she built spreadsheets and created projection analyses.
About this time, I landed a day job in my new town. I was hired as an accountant at The Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental non-profit whose mission is to protect and restore landscapes on the Colorado Plateau. My position, as unlikely as it sounds, was finance manager and administrator of the Trust’s cattle operation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Like Nora, my job was dry and boring. Oh, but the perks!
As with any good book, my time at the Trust was full of conflict. I never got used to the ebb and flow of finances at a non-profit. However, I loved working with inspired, passionate, creative people in those amazing landscapes.
At lunchtime, while I reheated my leftover beef stew, and they’d quaff some kind of green, lumpy juice they’d made from CFS shares, we talked and laughed and I learned about botany, biology, hydrology and Native American culture. They introduced me to quinoa, for which I am forever grateful.
They taught me about composting and cold frame gardening. My world view expanded as they shared their travel experiences and knowledge of strange and beautiful places. One woman spent weekends in the southern Arizona desert assisting illegal immigrants. Another woman took me cycling up Snowbowl Road and through Page Springs outside of Sedona. I reached new heights of happy hour accomplishment with another. The ranch manager took me to places on the North Rim that few people ever get to see. Those field trips—breathtaking!
I was in the early stages of plotting Tainted Mountain when I started at the Trust and quickly decided Nora needed to be an environmentalist. That would create big internal conflict for her and I had great examples of earnest and dedicated people I worked with. Using my new work situation, I again followed the “write what you know” advice.
When book two, Broken Trust, rolled around, Nora was out of a job. By this time, I’d left Flagstaff and was back in my capitalist comfort zone. Sticking with what I know, I let Nora find a position with a non-profit. I got to indulge my writerly urge for revenge on distasteful ex-coworkers. Nora steps into an organization full of characters that sprang from my mind…almost. I changed their genders and positions, mashed up traits and distributed them to various characters. I got to kill off a couple of them, make fun of others, and laud some, all to the background of this quirky world of Other People’s Money. I even set Loving Earth Trust, Nora’s new employer, in a farm house eerily similar to the one in which I worked. Except the fictional one is in Boulder Canyon instead of Flagstaff. That was the handiest part, since I knew the place often smelled like burnt toast, how the heater sounds when it kicks on and off, and the creepiness of being in the rambling structure alone at night.
Am I worried one of my old co-workers will read Broken Trust and be offended or sue me? Not at all. I’ve changed enough details and made stuff up so there’s no issue of libel. As to the people coming after me because I present them in a bad light: They’ll never recognize themselves. That’s the way it works. They don’t see themselves as despicable. But the real reason I’m not worried is that I’m pretty sure none of them will read it.
What about you? Do you write what you know? Have you used real characters or situations in your writing?
Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Broken Trust, released March 2014, takes place in Boulder, CO. A lover of western landscapes, she can often be found backpacking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, or just playing lizard in the desert. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Shannon is Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. She serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is a member of SinC and MWA.