In a recent interview, I was asked this question: You have a knack for choosing stunning locales, such as in RECKONING AT RAINROCK. The land is its own character. Does that come from living in your part of the West?
It wasn't something I'd ever thought about in quite that way before.
In recent years, I have branched into the Western genre with a handful of short stories, six novels (two of them, DISMAL RIVER and RECKONING AT RAINROCK, for OTP), and am currently about 85% done with a seventh. Prior to that, my writing had primarily been in the detective/mystery genre, most of it featuring my blue collar/Illinois-based PI, Joe Hannibal. For the Hannibal stories and books, the locales tended to be more urban and so "the land" really didn't figure into them all that much. To enhance the settings and mood, I did use "the elements"—i.e., the different seasons, the weather, darkness, etc.—but that was about it. The terrain, as it were, was basically established by buildings and streets and other man-made features.
But then I moved from Illinois, just north of Chicago, to west central Nebraska, out on the hinge of the panhandle.
You can't not live out here without quickly gaining an awareness of the land. People out this way are grounded in the reality that they are very much OF the land, not merely ON it. That's true everywhere, of course, but in an urban setting, where much of the ground is covered by concrete or meticulously maintained lawns and you only ever see just a slice of the sky squeezed in between rooftops and tall buildings, one can lose sight of the fact.
I first started gaining my own appreciation for the land, its vastness and majesty and power, during the initial six months that I lived in Nebraska. I re-located here to assume a new job at a different facility for the company I was employed by for 40-plus years. So for that first six months, I lived out here alone while my wife and family remained back in Illinois to get our house sold, etc. Among other things, this meant that on average of every other weekend I would travel back and forth to be able to spend time with my wife and see my daughter and grandkids. Because I avoid flying if at all possible, this meant I drove the 1500-mile round trip each time. I'd work on Friday, go back to my motel and grab a quick nap, then hop in the car and drive all night (11-12 hours, depending on if I had to pull over somewhere and grab a few extra Zs) in order to be in Rockford Saturday morning. My wife would be waiting, she'd make me a big breakfast, we'd visit and catch up on our smooching and so forth. In the afternoon, I would grab some sleep. Saturday evening we would visit our daughter and grandkids, then go out for supper, maybe a movie. About mid-morning on Sunday, then, I would have to head back to Nebraska so I could get there in time to catch a halfway decent night's sleep before returning to work on Monday.
It was on those long drives back to Nebraska that I really began to get a feel for the West and its "big sky" country. I would drive for hours and watch storm clouds pile up above the far horizon, miles high it seemed, and then rain themselves out before I ever reached them. I saw sunsets so beautiful they'd make you cry. I saw horizontal lightning dance across the sky. I saw full-arc rainbows—the kind you find in picture books, not just sections of colored bands like I'd only ever actually seen before.
On weekends when I wasn't driving back east, I'd explore the far corners of Nebraska, learning its history and landmarks, and on occasion venture into neighboring South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado. I visited museums, hiked the Toadstool badlands, strolled through restored Pony Express stations, stood in the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail. In the nearby town of North Platte, I even drank a couple beers standing at the same bar—the exact same bar—where Buffalo Bill used to drink back in the day.
In other words, I immersed myself in the land and its history and its feel.
I fell in love with it, and knew immediately that I wanted to try and capture it and present it in my writing.
I'd long had a hankering to write in the Western genre. After moving to Nebraska, it became a compulsion. To the north of where I settled (the town of Ogallala, which has its own colorful history) lie the vast Sandhills. There are only two other places on earth with similar geographical features—the Argentine Pampas and the Russian Steppes. I knew there had to be a thousand stories there. In the midst of the Sandhills runs the Dismal River. Sorry for the cliché, but the name and the locale simply sang to me. (Every writer hears certain names and/or phrases and simply knows he/she is going to use them somehow, some day in their writing.) So I had the title and the background for my first Western novel—DISMAL RIVER.
I spun off a real historical event as the basis for my story. After that, the plot and the characters to carry it seemed to leap almost full-blown into my head. My biggest challenge, as I saw it, was to effectively capture and present the land. To give it the prominence it needed and deserved. I strived to do that in DISMAL and—where it was appropriate to the locale—in all the writing I've done since.
That's why the interview question, coming three or four years later and containing the phrase "the land is its own character" was so good to hear. Like I said, it wasn't something I'd ever thought about quite that way before, yet it's very perceptive and altogether fitting. For the right setting and the right story, the land does play an important—sometimes even crucial—role … And should be recognized accordingly.
Wayne D. Dundee