Setting/towns/geographies move me. I fall in love with the slope of a hill, the rustle of leaves, the way sunlight changes colors on the face of a rock cliff. I am fascinated with the how and why a place takes on a certain personality, how culture develops. Less populated areas intrigue me, where people are forced to be more self reliant, and where everyone knows everybody else’s business.
The Katie books came about because of my nearly ten years in the Caribbean.
The Emily books exist because of my coming of age in the Texas Panhandle (Amarillo) and lifelong affection for New Mexico.
But not many people read a book with the setting as the main character; sure, a supporting role is good, but that’s all. So when I started planning a three-novel addition to the What Doesn’t Kill You romantic mysteries—over a romantic dinner at Cafe Amelie in New Orleans on a moist September night in 2013, with my partner-in-love/crime/storyboarding, my husband Eric—it wasn’t just the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico that came to mind. It was Katie’s former paralegal and BFF, Emily Phelps Bernal, too. I had in my mind a three-novel arc with titles Heaven to Betsy, Earth to Emily, and Hell to Pay. I wanted each title to work thematically with a female character.
Actually, that conversation was a follow-up to a longer one on the road a month before with one of my BFFs, Amarillo native Stephanie. She joined me for a few days on the 60-cities-in-60-days book tour. I was fascinated with her job helping kids and their families in the Child Protective Services system. I grilled her mercilessly about the possibilities for abuse in the system. We talked about mutual friends Betsy and Walt, a hilarious Amarillo couple who were an endless source of comic relief, and what I could pull from them. Stephanie poured her heart out, and I hung on her every word.
On a day of hiking in Pedernales Falls in February 2014, Eric and I batted around more ideas, some of them good, some not so much. We focused in on plots involving New Mexico, with motives and criminals that would be as different as we could dream up from the Katie books and, at that time, the soon-to-be-released first Michele novel, Going for Kona. Over the next six months, Eric and I continued to discuss Emily and the Panhandle/NM, and it rattled around in my brain. Every time I talked to Betsy or Walt, I incorporated humorous elements into scenes. Stephanie continued to inspire me with her heart for children.
Nearly a year after my first conversations with Stephanie, Eric and I were on our America the beautiful Redneck-Writer-Roadtrip, and the subject of the Emily books came up again. I took notes while Eric drove. We finished the trip with ideas for each novel. I burned up the internet looking for silver, turquoise, uranium, and other natural resources in NM. When I found areas with a history of minerals, metals, or gems, I researched the industry around it. I studied the topography on Google Earth and considered the towns: the people, the business/restaurants, the schools, the crime. I wanted to explore Native American religion and beliefs in the Emily novels, so I considered their history in each area. I traced routes on Google Maps. I measured distances. How long to fly in a small plane from X to Y? How long to drive from Y to Mexico?
I kept scribbling notes. A humiliating and painful end to Emily’s previous marriage sending her back to her hometown. An absent father. A troubled relationship with a conservative mother who had a checkered past. An Apache attorney/rancher with a wry sense of humor and dark secrets, as her employer and love interest. I’d settled on a small New Mexico town near the Mescalero Apache reservation as the New Mexico setting, triple decker sandwiched between glorious mountain ranges, with a number of horse ranches in the area. It was close to Los Alamos and the border to Mexico. The list grew. The re-entrance of Collin into Emily’s life. Horses. Beautiful, wonderful, heroic horses. I dreamed of bringing in my other protagonists for supporting roles. Of including anecdotes from my life growing up in Amarillo. (Another writer asked how I could come up with details such as a boat-like Toronado that could only turn left, which ended up driven through the front window of a Toot ‘n Totum convenience store. I don’t come up with them. I just observe them and include them. Thanks to my friend Robin for living that one. Great fodder, Robin.) A colorful cast of characters around Emily. I ran across pictures of houses and rugs and furniture and ranches and scenery to include. I bought books on Mescalero Apaches and the Panhandle Hopis and studied them, expanding my knowledge through internet resources until I’d identified elements I could use in the novels.
And I had come to know Emily. Big-haired, rodeoing, crown-wearing Emily. Wounded Emily, reckless and lacking in self esteem. A product of her own reckless, self-reliant rodeo cowboy father, the man who disappeared and left her doubting whether she could be loved. Her wonderful backstory (I always wish I could include more when I draft a novel, but it slows it down too much. I would love to write about her college days.) and the way her heart for children took her by surprise, almost too late.
Coming down to the wire, I got scared. I didn’t want to offend people I care about with my portrayal of the town that shaped me. I have a love/hate relationship with the past and the people and the place. I didn’t know if I could go home again, figuratively or literally. In fact, it had taken me twenty-five years to do just that. You can read me vomiting up my heart on that issue here, LOL.
Now, I’m not going to give away any of the stories here. I’ll just say the main characters were inspired by real people (sometimes more than one person went into the making of one character), and the plots ultimately were a mix of current and historical events and pure “piglets of my imagination,” as we say in our family.
Emily went home again, to Amarillo. And so did I.
And it was incredible.