The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fire, fire, burning bright

First, the good news: my website is up and gorgeous, which means I didn't do it. Check out Cedar Fort created it, and they let me list other books, too. Daughter of Fortune and Here's To the Ladies also link to Amazon, etc. This blog is also on the new website, which appeals to the lazy in me. I write it here, and it shows up there. Magic. (I never said I was computer savvy.)

Several more of my early Signet/Penguin-Putnam regencies are now listed there, too, and available as ebooks. You're also welcome to leave any comments.

Yep, Daughter of Fortune is out now as paperback and ebook. It was my first novel, and it taught me a lot about the bidness. In The Double Cross, book #1 in my Spanish Brand historical mystery series, I "revisit" the scene of the action in DOF, but one hundred years later. Note to prospective authors: always write about places you love to visit, because then every visit you make is tax deductible. (I am savvy about that.)

Right now, the place not to visit is central Utah. Scary times here. We're now just a canyon away from the Seely Fire, and an hour through several canyons from the big Sanpete County fire. That's if we were inclined to drive to Sanpete County, which we can't do anyway, because all the roads from here to there are closed. There's been a mandatory evacuation of Scofield, so my mind and heart is on that little cemetery so full of "my" guys. Of course, there's no grass to burn in the cemetery, just sand and rocks. You can't get to Clear Creek either, that lovely little community with restored Finnish-style houses to the south of Scofield. Big sigh.

Ash is in the air, the sun went down red last night, the winds are starting to pick up, and the sky to the west, north and east are full of angry-looking, brownish smoke. All this reminds me of Nancy Caesar, MD, a neonatologist at Cox Medical Centers in Springfield, Missouri. I used to be a medical writer/PR person there. Nancy told me once that with all our modern science and cool gadgets, parents just naturally expect a perfect outcome when their child is born. As Nancy put it, we have lost touch with the idea that sometimes things can go terribly wrong.

So it is with fire here and floods in Florida, and other disasters. Sometimes our modernity lulls us into thinking that we're in charge. Guess what? We're not. Fires burn. I remember heated debates on this in the National Park Service, with rangers who want to accomodate tourists who expect a perfect visit in a national park, but who are also aware that fires are necessary. When fires burn, visitors want fires put out immediately. I understand this. What some people don't get is that fire is nature's way of tidying up. When things aren't allowed to burn and the dry and rotten wood piles up, it will burn at some point. It's hard to balance public use of land with the proper stewardship of that land.

The trouble with this, of course, is that we have moved ever closer and closer to forests as population expands, and people have more leisure time for cabins in remote areas, etc. We love our woods. Homes march up hillsides and into deeply wooded areas, often in defiance of the order of things.

We're never in charge, and this will never change. I have a healthy respect for fire. Let me recommend two excellent books on the subject: Young Men and Fire, by the marvelous Norman MacLean, and The Big Burn, by Timothy Eagen. MacLean was given a posthumous award from National Book Critics for his 1992 story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana, where 12 smokejumpers perished. In his beautiful, elegiac prose, his subject is death - facing his own mortality - and the science and nature of fire. Magnificent book.

The Big Burn tells two stories: the August-September 1910 monster fire that roared through eastern Washington, through Idaho and into Montana, and the coming-of-age of the newly minted U.S. Forest Service. I used both books when I wrote Borrowed Light. My Wyoming monster range fire also took place in 1910. Julia discovers the terror of fire sucking all the oxygen out of the air, and the overwhelming urge to run in front of a fire, which cannot be outrun.

(Both books are available for cheap as used books on Amazon.)

I can't tell you how often in the last day or two I've thought of what Mr. Otto tells Julia (I paraphrase): "Watch the ridge. Watch the ridge. If the wind changes, watch the ridge. If you hear something that sounds like a freight train, run for the river and don't look back."

We're watching the ridge.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Carla the fangirl

I am a giddy fangirl. Boy howdy, did I have fun last week in Choteau, Montana. I'll have even more fun if I get an answer to a fan letter I left with Rose at the Elk Country Grill.

Word of explanation - Choteau, Montana, is a small town (1,788 inhabitants) on Highway 287, which roughly parallels the Rocky Mountain Front Range. The view is simply not to be believed, except there it is and I love it. We were on our way to visit son Jeremy on the border and stopped for lunch in Choteau at the Elk Country Grill.

Whenever possible, which is nearly always, I avoid chain restaurants when I travel, or anywhere else, for that matter. The Elk Country Grill fit the bill - no atmosphere, old chairs and tables, handmade quilts lining the walls, and an elk bugling call that lets the servers know when the food is ready in the kitchen. How great is that? The service was fast, and the roast-beefy-potatoey soup definitely did not come out of a can. Rose gets my vote as a superlative maker of pies. Her crust was as good as mine, and mine is quite good. (No, I have never served Humble Pie. Can you tell?)

Anyway, I was chatting with Rose at the register and happened to mention that I like driving through Choteau because it was the home of A.B. Guthrie, probably my favorite writer of the West. He's well-known for The Way West (Pulitzer liked it to the tune of a prize), The Big Sky, The Last Valley, These Thousand Hills, and my personal favorite, ARFIVE. ARFIVE is a brand, and it's the story of the ranching settlement of Montana. I've been known to open the book to favorite passages and read them aloud to an appreciative audience (moi).

I expressed my admiration of AB Guthrie to Rose, and she said, "His daughter Helen comes in here quite often, and she loves to talke about her dad."

Oh gosh, I was so excited. Rose said that Helen was out of town right now, but expected back soon. I said I was going to be back through Choteau in October, on my way to a booksigning in Cardston, Alberta. Would Rose mind if I wrote Helen Guthrie a letter and left it at the Elk Country Grill for Helen, when she returned?

Rose didn't mind a bit. During my visit with Jeremy, I composed a letter to Helen Guthrie, telling her when I would be through Choteau again, and asking if I could take her out to dinner and listen to some Bud Guthrie stories. I left the letter with Rose on my way back home, and am hoping I hear from Helen Guthrie, who (according to Rose) is 78 or so and quite lively.

Oh, gee. I should be finishing Chapter 17 in The Double Cross, my New Mexico mystery, but don't you know I'm going to pull out ARFIVE and reread that section where well-seasoned rancher Mort Ewing goes to Missoula for his ward's college graduation. Such good writing.

Canada was fun, too, for lots of reasons. One reason was that I got to meet Lane Cook, mighty hunter/rancher/Subway owner, in Waterton Park. He's a compact, handsome fellow with killer dimples, and apparently a very good team roper. Lane and his wife and young daughters live on a ranch near Cardston with his parents.

Last spring, the elder Cook was in the chicken house when he heard a sound overhead in a crawlspace. Varmints can accumulate in sheltered places during an Alberta winter, and he wondered what was passing through the Cook ranch and decided to stay awhile. He would have whistled up the family dogs, but they were nowhere in sight. He pulled up the trapdoor and found himself staring at a highly irritated, too-close-for-comfort mountain lion. No joke.

I asked Lane just how close that lion was to his father and Lane said, "Dad told me, 'I could smell his breath and count all his teeth.'"

The way Lane tells it, his father didn't know he could run that fast. He shouted to Lane to get his gun, and Lane shot the cougar. Shaken, the two ranchers started looking for their dogs. They found one of them in that crawlspace over the chicken house, where the mountain lion had been trying to bury it and save it for a late night snack. The other dog, merely a pup, had managed to squeeze himself through the cat flap and was cowering inside the house. He's probably still inside the house.

Lane skinned the mountain lion, went through a mound of paperwork, and is having the pelt turned into a rug. Jeremy knows the Cooks really well. He asked Lane if his daughter, who usually carries a BB gun when she goes to feed her own animals, had her firepower "upgraded." Lane just grinned. "I gave her a 22."

Tough people. Most folks never get that close to a mountain lion and live to joke about it.

I know the most interesting people. I plan to use that story in the book I'm working on right now.

P.S. My very first Signet Regency, Summer Campaign, is now out on ebook. I've seen the ARCs (advanced readers copies) for My Loving Vigil Keeping. You'd think it was my first novel, with all the thrill that gave me.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Old Friends

I'm probably the world's worst blogger, because this is such an artificial setting for me. As with most people, now and then something interesting happens. When it does, I like to write about it. Mostly, though, life is a series of small things. Because of that, I choose not to bore you too often with my ordinary life. Lately, it's mostly consisted of reading for research about Comanches, visiting grandkids, proofing and re-proofing manuscripts to get them ready for printing. Are you excited yet? Me, neither.

We're going to Montana next week to visit our son, Jeremy. People ask where he lives in Montana, and it's a bit hard to describe, since it's an enclave on the Blackfeet Reservation just a short distance from the border. There is guvmint housing for Customs guys (The Blues) and Border Patrol agents. There's a large building on the border to let people out and back in, and then a short distance north, another building for the Canadian border workers. Nearest shopping is in Cardston, Alberta, about 20 minutes away. Jeremy has three passports - a garden-variety one, a special guvmint one, and a smaller, credit-card-sized one. As he says, unlike Jason Bourne, it's the same name on each passport.

While we're there, we'll visiting Waterton Park, which morphs into Glacier National Park, once the border is crossed. We'll be visiting some places further north, too, including a coal mine. One of these summers, we'll venture farther north to go to the Calgary Stampede. I do like a good rodeo.

This past Tuesday, we spent the night in Mapleton, Utah, with old friends, Jan and Rick. The purpose of the gathering was a book club, which had chosen Borrowed Light for their read. There were 21 of us, with Martin and Rick in a back room. Martin said later that we were laughing so much they had a hard time talking. Ah, yes. That's what a good book club should be. All's right with the world when ladies can get together and talk books.

We've known Jan and Rick since our salad days in Torrington, Wyoming, beginning in 1972. We were all young and dumb and poor, with little kids. Rick was a social worker. Martin taught theatre and English at Eastern Wyoming College. Jan and I were mostly home with kids, but during the summers, I rangered at nearby Fort Laramie National Historic Site. Jan did sing in the community college concerts. She had an amazingly beautiful voice.

We moved to Provo, Utah in 1975, so Martin could start work on his doctorate. He and our kids went ahead and I finished the season at Fort Laramie. One night before I left to join my troops in Utah, Jan and Rick and I drove to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to see a new movie called Jaws. Scared us all silly. Jan confessed later that she and Rick wouldn't sleep on their water bed for a few nights.

Life moved on. We kept in touch via Christmas letters, and then five or six years ago - maybe more- I stopped in Cheyenne to visit them. We've stayed in better touch since then. When Rick retired and they moved to Mapleton, Utah, we were only a few canyons away. Now we visit our old friends. I never thought they would leave Wyoming - Rick's a native son. He's devote to BYU athletics, so that's why they moved.

Rick had a remarkable career, moving steadily up the state agency ladder until he was the top dog in social work/child advocacy in Wyoming. He did some traveling as a consultant to other states, and is a respected leader in his field. I strongly suspect that Wyoming will never be able to replace that knowledgeable, humble, doggedly determined, fearless man. There are quite a few children who owe their lives to Rick.

Jan, too. When he was out in the field, and not in Cheyenne offices - although it probably happened there, too - Rick brought home broken children to Jan. They would keep them for a few days so Rick could do a more informal, comforting assessment, and have a better idea where and how to place them, for their own safety. Their own children learned to roll with the punches, although Rick says the night he brought home a baby covered in blood was a tough one for his kids. It was the baby's parents' blood.

Jan remembers feeding one little boy four or five helpings of bacon and eggs. Turns out he hadn't eaten in three days. Jan said everytime she asked him if he wanted more, he would just look at her solemnly and nod. These were typical days in Jan and Rick's home. Look up nurture in the dictionary. I'm just sure you'll find a photo of Jan and Rick.

I'm so thankful for people like them. I am reminded of that excellent movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch has just lost the case for the black man accused of rape. He and the children go home, and then Atticus learns that his humble, innocent client has been shot to death while trying to escape. Atticus goes to give the bad news to the man's family.

Scout is sitting, disconsolate, on the curb, with the neighbor lady joins her to comfort her. As near as I can recall, the lady tells Scout that Atticus Finch is one of these people chosen to "do our dirty work."

I feel that way about Rick and Jan. What a noble man. What a courageous wife. He's had successes, and failures, and he has not forgotten them. His job took an enormous toll, but I'm grateful that those helpless children in Wyoming had a prince for an advocate.

Well done, Rick and Jan. You're the best.

I have another set of old friends that I'm in touch with again. Last fall, after a visit to our younger son in northern New Mexico, I started a historical mystery set in 1780 in that area, when the Comanche were at long last beginning to be tamed in that area, or at least, were focusing their considerable energy toward the poor folk in Texas. Spain was pulling back what little border security there was, which meant the citizens of northern New Mexico were pretty much on their own.

I was supposed to be writing that third book in my last Harlequin contract, but I was drawn to these new "friends" of mine. I wrote 15 chapters, then returned to the novel due in January. When I finished that, I wrote My Loving Vigil Keeping, which comes out in August.

My New Mexico story was only on a back burner. I showed my 15 chapters to an acquisitions editor in Seattle, and she liked them, too, to the tune of a four-book contract for my Spanish Brand series. Now the decks are cleared to finish the book. I'm writing it in the style of a Spanish fable, which has turned into a gently humorous approach or a serious subject: life on a dangerous frontera. Widower Marco Mondragon is the brand inspector (yep, they've been around for 400+ years),and his new bride is Paloma Vega. And now there is Toshua, an older Comanche who is just about to enter the story. Paloma is terrified of Comanches, and Marco has told her to nurse the Indio back to health. Marco knows Paloma is braver than she thinks.

They're my old friends now. I've known them since October. Looks like we're going to be in each other's company for a goodly time. If I need a point of reference for their particular kind of courage, I'll just think of Rick and Jan, and other old friends who have influenced my life probably even more than I know.