Three Head of Zeus crime writers discus the distinctly different and highly evocative settings for their books.
Wyoming is the size of France but has the smallest population of any state in the union. All that open space seems to foster big personalities and fascinating characters. Starting with Open Season in 2001, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett has taken on environmental terrorists, animal mutilators, crazed cowboy hitmen, corrupt bureaucrats, and violent, dysfunctional families.
Game wardens are unique because they can legitimately be involved in just about every major event or situation that involves the outdoors and the rough edges of the rural new west. Often, they’re too far from town to call backup in an emergency so they’re forced to deal with situations with their experience, weapons, and wits. Their districts can encompass 5,000 square miles of rough country filled with wildlife, history, schemes, and secrets. By necessity, they’re lone wolves.
I’ve ridden on patrol with game wardens to try and get it right. I think I have, because the novels and the character have been embraced by the game wardens themselves (as well as their long-suffering wives). I try hard to portray their lives accurately, and in 2005 I received a certificate of appreciation from the Wyoming Game Warden Association.
When I think of Joe Pickett, I don’t think of an action hero. I always picture him as he is: alone in his pickup truck, accompanied by his dog, perched on a mountain under a huge blue sky, contemplating hundreds of miles of raw Wyoming landscape laid out in front of him.
I knew long before I ever thought I’d write a novel – or a series no less – that if I did, I would set it in North Georgia. The geography of the Blue Ridge foothills in my home state of Georgia not only inspires my writing as a place of solace and solitude to work, but it also serves as the heart of just about everything I write. I consider the rural setting of my fictional McFalls County just as important a character in my books as the people themselves. The unmarked dirt road, in my opinion, is one of the most mysterious and truly frightening places left on earth. As a writer, I’m drawn to the uncharted woods where the surreal feeling of both the familiar and the unknown coexist to create an atmosphere that can’t be found in the city.
Bull Mountain and the follow up, Like Lions, were both inspired by the area the stories take place in and by the people that call North Georgia their home. Up there, family is paramount, so I knew I wanted to tell a story about a Southern family. Combine that with the idea of how deeply the South was affected by prohibition and it’s after-effects, the rise of bootleggers and outlaws from that era, and my love of Elmore Leonard, and you’ve got the inspiration for my current McFalls County series.
I pull from my own life and experiences when writing Kate Shugak. I was born and raised in Alaska, so the setting was Alaska. I was raised with Aleuts so the protagonist was an Aleut. And it’s always easier to write in your own gender so she was a woman. I think the rule I set for myself was that the only research I could use was my own memory and the Alaska Almanac Book of Facts.
Kate Shugak was born Alaska Native, raised partly in a white family, and then sent away to school in one of Alaska’s larger cities, Fairbanks. Because of this, she is able to cross cultural, geographical and ethnic divides in a way few of her generation can.
Setting is always the first thing that clicks into place. When I decide what the setting is, I figure out who lives there and what they’re up to. Just before I wrote the first Kate Shugak novel I’d visited the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where the Parks Service is hated with the fire of a thousand suns. Boom! Setting and victim in one go. So long as people keep behaving badly on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News, I’m in business.