I was sick for the release of Sick Puppy, so I was hoping for the best for Dead Pile. Louise, our dog aka “Fucker,” did die last summer (RIP, Louise–we don’t know what got her up in Wyoming, but there are lots of critters bigger and badder than she was unfortunately), and the horse who inspired Lily, my Katniss, got caught in barbed wire and nearly died.
Then Eric—ok, I’ll admit it, Hank is largely based on Eric, more than any of my past male leads—was in a horrible car accident.
Y’all pray for our household. I don’t like these prophetic book titles! And Eric has asked me never to include characters inspired by loved ones again!!!! (Although my friends have variously suggested that either I treat my books like a voodoo doll and include my stalker, or write in all my friends and family and call the next one MONEY MOUND).
And then it was time to write Dead Pile, my 3rd Maggie novel, set in Wyoming.
Wyoming slogans abound: The Equality State. WYNOT. The Cowboy State. The BIG State. Like No Place on Earth. The Wonderland of America. The Sagebrush State. That’s WY!
Whatever the slogan, WY is one thing for sure: WILD. Well, two: Wild and Windy. It’s also the keeper of my heart, along with my kids and my husband Eric. I spent two idyllic childhood years there and vowed all my life to return. It only took marrying my adventurous husband and reaching the age of 48 to get there!
When I set out to write the Maggie books from our beloved Snowheresville cabin on the Eastern Face of the Bighorn Mountains near Sheridan, WY, I was on the hunt for stories. Anecdotes. Color. Little nuggets of authenticity to make the books hum and zing. While writing the Katie and Ava books, I relied on my notebooks of anecdotes from the years we lived in the US Virgin Islands. West Texas, Houston, Texas Antique Mecca, and New Mexico with Emily and Michele were super easy to recreate because of my close, recent ties to the areas. But I hadn’t lived full time in Wyoming since my childhood, and I can’t remember what I eat for breakfast most days.
I soon found that the wildlife and scenery are so ripe for description that writing them is effortless. Plus, larger than life characters are the norm, not the exception, and yarn spinners easy to find throughout the state. The problem became sifting through the mountains of material for the best pieces for the stories I planned to tell instead of having to hunt for fodder. I now have a WY notebook to rival my Virgin Islands one.
One summer—before we had our team of Amish workers from Montana stay with us for a week to build our fence at Snowheresville—we kept our horses on a gorgeous ranch on Little Piney Creek outside Story, WY. (I could end this blog on that sentence and have given you half the inspiration for the trilogy!) The rancher and his son were great guys, and, yep, storytellers. Apropos of God knows what, they were telling us about a man who reported his wife’s disappearance a week after she’d “gone missing.” When asked why, he explained to law enforcement that she liked to ride off into the mountains by herself, but this time, “a mountain lion musta got her.” No charges were filed, and the man was free to marry his sweetheart immediately. Hooray for true love, right?
That led to me asking about the big pile of dead cows out on the back edge of the ranch we were on. (I’m not sure why—just work with me here. It’s where the conversation headed.)
“What killed them?” I asked. “Lightning?”
“Ah, no. Various things. That’s our dead pile. Where we stack up the dead things.”
“The dead pile?”
“That sounds like the name of a novel,” I said.
The rancher smiled. “I’d read that one.”
(I hope he’s true to his word. I’ll be sending him a copy.)
The words stuck with me, even if the story about the man who murdered his wife and covered it up with the thinnest veneer of a mountain lion excuse didn’t make the cut into these books—maybe some day into some other one. As always, the story followed the What Ifs.
What if the dead pile contained more dead things than just cows and horses? Wouldn’t it be a great place to hide a body? Remote by design, because no one wants to look at or smell that kind of thing. And speaking of smell, what better camouflage for the smell of something dead than something else dead?
Yep. Maggie and I could work with that, so I did. Along with a (wonderful, truly wonderful) experience with an Amish family, a ranch along Little Piney creek, Crow Fair in Hardin, MT, and a host of tales and tellers too long to mention.