by Laura Crum
How do we choose the background/setting of our novels? I was asked that question the other day, in the course of a class I’m teaching at the local community college about “How to Write and Publish a Mystery.” Of course, I can’t answer how other authors make their choice. But for me, it was easy. I wanted to write about horses, specifically western horses, because horses have been my life. Horses and the cowboy way.
I was raised (in the horse biz, anyway) by a bunch of team roping cowboys, and their particular mindset really shaped me. I notice this quite a bit when I interact with folks that don’t come from that world. There often seems to be a sort of disconnect between us. I was thinking about this the other day and wondering why, and I had a light bulb moment. Its all about the cowboy way.
The cowboy way isn’t something you can learn from a book. Its something you have to live. Its easy to say that its about horses and cattle, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But it really amounts to a lot more than that.
Defining the cowboy way isn’t easy, but I’ll try. It has to do with being willing to get the job done, not whining about cold fingers or mud or dust or heat (or all the rest of the weather that Mother Nature can throw at you). It has to do with a sort of matter of fact physical courage and team spirit as well as an ability to read livestock accurately. Cowboys aren’t usually too chatty (until they’ve had a drink) and they are often pretty blunt. They have both a sense of pride and a sense of respect. They stand out when you put them somewhere in the modern world. They draw the eye. They don’t look much like suburban office workers, even if they choose to wear chinos and T-shirts and sneakers. There is an air of dignity about them.
In truth, a description like this doesn’t make much sense, which is why I spent a good deal of time in my first five novels trying to portray the cowboy way. The old “show not tell” approach. My desire to paint a portrait of the cowboy life as I have known it is a lot of what motivated me to write my mystery novels in the first place.
You might wonder what mysteries have to do with cowboys, and other than the fact that mysteries can be set in pretty much any venue, the answer is quite simple. My favorite mystery author was Dick Francis—not least because of the authentic horse lore that was so often woven into his stories. His jump jockies resembled, in many ways, the cowboys I grew up with and worked with and for– practical, tough, understated guys who could both take a hit and loved working with horses. When I was thirty years old, I decided to try to write a mystery novel based on my background in the horse biz, in flagrant imitation of Dick Francis (who by the way corresponded with me for years—I sent him my books and he never failed to write back with both praise and helpful suggestions).
Having grown up with the cowboy way, I tend to admire folks like this. I’m also disconcerted by those who wear pristine white sneakers that are several years old. Sneakers that have never stepped on anything dirtier than a sidewalk. These folks are dismayed at the thought of walking through horse poop, or God forbid, cow poop, and the notion of wading through such muck to toss some alfalfa hay at the livestock gives them palpitations. Let alone the idea of climbing aboard a horse that might want to buck you off. They can’t imagine why anybody would want to do that.
Since all of my shoes probably have a little dried dung of some sort adhering to them somewhere, and I wade through the dust and/or mud every single day to feed my horses (not to mention I’ve been bucked off more than once in my life), I am in a pretty different space, and my conversations with these folks tend to veer off into mild incomprehension. As in sitting in a room that is perhaps mildly cool, the well dressed lady to the left of me fusses endlessly about the need to turn the heater up, and bundles herself up in her fancy coat and scarf. She looks at me, wearing a light (and very unfancy) sweater and asks, “Aren’t you cold?”
I think about it. I just can’t get my mind around the idea that she thinks this ever so slightly cool room is something to bother about. “Not really,” I say, “it was a lot colder when I was feeding the horses this morning in the rain and wind.” And the thought that goes through my mind is that she needs to try gathering cattle on a blustery day if she wants to know what uncomfortably cold feels like.
I realize that the well dressed ladies of the world probably think I look quite rough and uncouth and they no doubt imagine that I am envious of them, with their high heels, manicured finger nails, shiny little sports cars…etc. But nothing could be farther than the truth. That tidy suburban world holds no allure for me. I like my rough and messy life, full of animals and plants.
As a homeschooling mom, I’ve made many choices concerning what I want my son to learn. I want him to learn to read and write and do math, of course. I want him to learn how the world works. I want him to be able to get along with people…and understand the natural world. I want him to be kind. And I’ve thought a lot about how best to teach him these things.
Currently my son and I go twice a week to a practice roping at my uncle’s small ranch. Here we help gather the cattle out of the pasture and drive them through the chutes. We haze and chase cattle and help the ropers—a group of men ranging from 30 years old to 82. I’ve known these men all my life and used to rope with them, until I gave it up when I got pregnant in my 40’s. But they still treat me like part of the gang.
I don’t agree with them about everything—in fact I disagree with them about lots of things—I would not even bother to discuss politics with them, as we have rather opposite points of view. But I want my son to learn something these men can teach, and most kids don’t get a chance to learn it. To put it simply, I don’t want my son to learn pushy, unkind kid manners from the local suburban soccer team as they play on artificial turf; I want him to learn to be a man among other men. Men who know how to handle horses and cattle, who are in touch with the natural world.
I watch as my boy meets the 82 year old cowboy’s eyes and greets him politely and confidently, “Hey, Burt, how are you?” (And you should see trim, still athletic Burt rope a steer—at 82.) I watch as my child gathers the cattle as part of the team of adults, riding across the big meadow in the sunshine. I watch as he answers promptly, “Yep, I’m ready,” when asked if he’d chase a steer down to the pen for the men. And then he gets the job done. I watch him ride his horse effectively and get a friendly word of praise from 30 year old Mark, who is a handy horse trainer. I watch my kid smile quietly and say “thank you.” My son is learning the cowboy way.
And I believe I am giving him a gift.