Natural Inspiration

I was never an outdoorsy person until a few years ago, when an interest in birding and a desire to go for walks in new places got me out and moving around. But I’ve always loved the beauty of my natural surroundings.

After all, I grew up in Colorado. The Rocky Mountains were visible most of the time, and my father’s idea of a great Sunday drive was up one of those canyons scoring the Front Range, especially in the fall when the aspen were turning gold.

For the past 35 years I’ve lived in California, most of that time in Alameda, where San Francisco Bay is a few blocks from home. From here, it’s just a short drive over to the coast, where the continent ends and the Pacific Ocean stretches out to the horizon. I never tire of looking at the ocean, with its never-ending play of swells rising offshore, rushing onto rocks or beaches.

But I’m a writer. I write crime novels. The sight of waves crashing on cliffs just naturally makes me think about dead bodies. How could I not? The ocean is such a good place to dispose of many secrets, including bodies.

The beautiful Sonoma coast

The beautiful Sonoma coast

After all, the title of the fourth Jeri Howard book came from a warning sign on the Mendocino coast reading, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.”

Since a writer uses everything to hand, it’s only natural that the natural world winds up in my books.

Looking back at my novels, I see plenty of examples. Readers get a tour of the Rockies along the route of the California Zephyr in Death Rides the Zephyr, riding along with Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Private eye Jeri Howard visits Monterey and Carmel in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean. Mendocino is the setting for the climactic chapters of A Credible Threat. Other-worldly Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra, found its way into Bit Player. So did the landscape of western Sonoma County, which is where most of the upcoming Cold Trail is set.

It’s more than just setting, though. Plots and twists come to mind as I view land and water. Pollution in a pristine bay. Scraps and squabbles over precious water resources. Environmental damage caused by people who value profit over resources.

All of these are fertile soil for the mystery writer.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Janet,
    Place is such a big part of creating a believable setting, and the natural world is all around us, even in cities (even NYC shut down for a blizzard last week). I’m a hiker, and as you say, I use nature in fiction all the time. I’ve buried bodies in snow only to have them dug up by coyotes; discovered clues hidden under piles of what bears do in the woods; and found incriminating evidence on river beds. Nature not only sets the scene, it can also set the mood. Nothing like a thunderstorm to herald violence. Or spring breezes and birdsong to emphasize the shocking brutality of a corpse. I’m looking forward to Cold Trail.

    • I’m late coming to this, Janet, but it’s worth the wait. A lovely nostalgic (for me) essay. I always think of setting as a character in our books. It enlightens, hurries the heart, creates atmosphere, and even kills. And as you note, it rustles up the creative muse.

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