Ah, the natural world. It can be beautiful, enthralling, rejuvenating—and deadly. That gorgeous hiking path through the trees or along the creek can be balm for the spirit, but what if you come face to face with a bear or a mountain lion? Remember the tourists who, a few years back, waded into a deceptively tempting pool at Yosemite and got swept over the waterfall. And more recently, the tourists at Yellowstone who got too close to that picturesque bison and wound up getting tossed—and in one instance, gored.
As noted in the title of Janet’s book Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, taken from a real-life sign on the California coast, the Pacific is anything but. Those sneaker waves can pull you off those photogenic rocks in an instant.
But nature is part of the setting for our books, so we write about it, be it the landscape or critters.
Nature: It Can Kill You
Jeri Howard normally does her sleuthing on city streets and around the greater Bay Area. She has been known to go for a walk in the woods, especially since her fiancé writes hiking books. In Cold Trail, she’s looking for her brother Brian, who has disappeared, and she hikes through a state park, hoping to find him.
The natural world also has a surprise or two for my sleuthing Zephyrette, Jill McLeod, whose job as a train hostess has her traveling between the Bay Area and Chicago aboard the streamliner train known California Zephyr. Jill’s first foray into detective work is Death Rides the Zephyr. It’s set in December 1952 and the train is winding its way along the Colorado River, deep into the remote canyons of the Rockies. The scenery is great, but nature can stop a train:
“Something heavy hit the roof of the train. The loud bang was followed by more thumps, some louder than the others. Jill heard someone screaming as the train slowed and finally came to a stop. “Rock slide,” the conductor said. . . The boulder was about the size of a grand piano. It had been pushed along the rails by the impact of the lead locomotive. Now the huge rock lay in the middle of the tracks, inches from the front of the engine. . . Other rocks, smaller in size, lay around the boulder, and beside the train . . . The Colorado River was below, its water looking black as it rushed along between snow-covered banks and icy rocks.”
My novel The Sacrificial Daughter, featuring geriatric care manager Kay Dexter, is set in Northern California Sierra Nevada. The fictional setting, Rocoso County, has a little bit of everything—mountains, creeks, agricultural land, a historical train that runs between the small city of Rocoso and an old mining town at higher elevations. There’s also a river that behaves itself as it meanders through town. But farther up the canyon the river becomes a destination for rafters who like to tackle its rapids, particularly in a gorge called the Narrows.
Kay is a resourceful woman who is used to dealing with elderly clients and their families, situations that put all sorts of things in her way. But she wasn’t expecting to get hit on the head and dumped into the river:
“The limb I held shifted and twisted, the rocks loosening their grip on the wood. I managed to pull myself onto the larger of the two rocks. Then something hit me. It was a tree branch, a rough-barked pine, six or more feet long. It thudded against the rocks and moved on, pulled by the current. And it took me with it . . . Now here I was, clinging to a branch as the river, running full, fast, and icy cold because of the spring snowmelt, carried me toward the Narrows. Cold, so cold. My hands, my arms, my legs felt like blocks of ice. Shivering overtook me, overwhelmed me. Was I going into shock? The cold water was winning. I had to get out. But how?”
It’s enough to make you stay home on the mean streets, with Jeri!
D. Z. Church
The Natural World: Frisco, the Horse, and the Methodist Owl
The heroine of Perfidia spends her time battling the natural and built environment in 1970s Barbados. Meaning cliffs, bats, and a raging ocean. The heroine of Booth Island finds the island she summered on charged and changed. And Calypso Swale, in Saving Calypso, lives off the grid in the high Sierra, subsistence farming and raising chickens.
The main characters of these books interact with nature as though it lives and breathes. It is both protagonist and antagonist. And they are environments I know. Not unlike, two characters from the natural world; Frisco, the horse, in Saving Calypso, and the Methodist owl in Unbecoming a Lady.
In Saving Calypso, Calypso Swale (Jessie) is an Olympic-level equestrian when tragedy sends her into hiding. Now she exists off the grid, alone, except for two men in self-exile entrenched on the land she calls home. One of those men finds an injured brown and white tobiano pinto and brings it to Calypso in hopes she can save it. Dubbed Frisco, the pinto is a wounded soul, with a story of his own.
“Jessie hadn’t been sure she could heal the small horse, but Frisco tolerated her. More détente than anything. A sharp noise, blowing dust, an animal scurrying from his pounding hoofs set the tobiano pinto off. She never lifted a hand against the shy gelding, she cooed, curried, and fed her shattered boy.”
To bring Frisco to life, I relied on my own experience with horses, my older sister taught dressage, and my younger siblings competed in rodeo. I just rode. Frisco is determined, capable, full of surprises, and above all loyal. The perfect wingman when faced with danger.
As for owls. I was attacked by a great horned owl when I was eight. My father and I were tossing a frisbee in an open field at Suwanee River State Park in Florida. The owl wanted the frisbee. That simple. I never forgot his talons in my hair and the pull skyward. Inspiration for the Methodist owl in Unbecoming a Lady.
The Methodist owl is the alpha predator in the Wanee, Illinois city park. He guards the night, witnessing those things best done in the dark. And he is a thief. Shiny objects are his favorites. He keeps his stolen treasures in the belfry of the Methodist church.
“Cora remained on station a few minutes more; no one else showed him or herself except an owl out hunting smaller denizens of the night. It swooped into the bushes at the fringes of the pond, rising with something small and shiny grasped in its talons.”
He watches over his stolen goods from his perch, ready to attack looters.
“The owl cocked its head at an odd angle before raising then pitching its wings forward. The moment it took to the air, Cora ran for the stairs. The owl snatched at her bonnet with its powerful talons. They tussled over it until the owl relinquished, leaving tears in the bonnet’s straw brim.”
Frisco and the Methodist owl are fully realized integral characters in their respective books. They have personalities, hopes, and capabilities. And each in their way is a hero.
The Methodist owl lives on in the Wanee Mysteries. Frisco, alas, has his moment of glory in a standalone thriller.
A Place to Die For: A Remote Colorado Canyon
I’ve traveled aboard the Amtrak version of the California Zephyr many times, between the Bay Area and Denver. I’ve taken it during the summer and most often during wintertime. The train joins the Colorado River near Green River, Utah, and follows the river some 240 miles deep into the Colorado Rockies. I chose natural backdrop as a setting for the first Jill McLeod California Zephyr mystery, Death Rides the Zephyr.
For much of the western Colorado leg of the trip, the tracks run next to Interstate 70. The canyon narrows at Glenwood Springs and from there on, the scenery is spectacular. In the summer, the river rafters moon the train, but that’s scenery of a different sort.
When the river and the freeway part company, the tracks head through Dotsero then into two more remote canyons—Byers and Gore. This isolation, particularly in Gore Canyon, is why I chose it for crucial scenes in the book.
Gore Canyon is about three miles long, steep and rugged, carved by the river at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, with canyon walls about 1,000 feet on either side of the river—and the tracks. The canyon is roadless and inaccessible, unless you’re in a boat or on a train. Just running the tracks through here was a huge obstacle for the railroad. At one point the river was considered unnavigable through Gore Canyon, and the railroad construction added boulders and other hazards that created even more obstacles. Still, there are Class V rapids and the rafters come to run them. There’s a whitewater festival in the summer.
But, as I said earlier, my trips through Gore Canyon have mostly been in the winter. At that time the ice covers much of the swift-running dark blue water and waterfalls are frozen on the sheer canyon walls. The winter sun leaves the canyon early, throwing it into forbidding shadows, then dusk and darkness.
A perfect setting for a murder on the train. After all, how will the killer get away? There’s nowhere to go.