The Mystery and Magic of Writing Mysteries

On the surface, it seems as though writing mysteries is a pretty straight forward process. I come up with an idea for a book, write same, and off it goes to the publisher. What’s eerie is finding out long after the fact how much of my own history has magically leaked into the background of my books. For instance, despite having spent nearly twenty years of my life with a man who ultimately died of chronic alcoholism, it wasn’t until several books into the Beaumont series before readers began pointing out that Beau had a drinking problem. Whoa! Who knew? As it turns out, everybody but me!

Several books into the Joanna Brady series my Aunt Alice asked me, “Doesn’t Evie mind the way you portray her in your books?” My mother? She’s in the books? Are you sure? But then I started paying attention, and sure enough, that’s when I noticed that Eleanor Lathrop Winfield bears an uncanny resemblance to my mother, Evelyn Busk. See what I mean about this being a bit mysterious?

Naturally the Cochise County locations in the Joanna Brady books are culled from what I remember of living there first as a child and later as an adult. The mountain ranges were our geographical benchmarks–the Mules, the Huachucas, the Chiricahuas, the Whetstones. We had Sunday afternoon drives and picnics that took us to the Wonderland of Rocks, Cochise Stronghold, and Coronado Pass. There were snowball fights at the top of the Divide. Geronimo, the centerpiece location for Downfall, is a small mountain peak two miles east of our house in Warren. When I was in grade school, it was the site of a daring hiking expedition with my good friend, Diana Conway. Juniper Flats at the top of the Mule Mountains is where my brother, Jim, a longtime Bisbee firefighter, rescued a guy who had electrocuted himself on one of the communication towers situated there. Later, after Jim died in 2001 of an undiagnosed heart ailment, his fallen officer memorial in Bisbee was the inspiration for the fallen officer scenes I wrote into Damage Control.

This week my email items included one from a fellow 1966 U of A alum, Bob Briedis, writing about Joanna Brady number 5, Skeleton Canyon. That’s at least forty five books ago, so after reading the subject line, I paused long enough to take stock of what I remembered about that book. It contains two of my favorite scenes. One occurs when Joanna, while driving the medical examiner, George Winfield, to a crime scene, learns to her dismay that he and her mother have secretly eloped to Las Vegas. Joanna almost wrecked the car, when she heard that news, and it took me by surprise, too. I nearly fell out of my writing chair. That’s when I learned for sure that fictional characters can’t be trusted. Just because I’m not currently writing about them and paying attention doesn’t mean they’re not continuing to do things behind my back.

Typos fixed.

My other favorite scene in that book happens when Joanna, pinned down by gunfire, peels off her bra and uses that as a slingshot in order to create a diversion. That slingshot idea was a variation on a real event back in the day when my sister’s pinto, War Paint, got loose and was out in the pasture. When my sister was finally able to lay hands on the escaped horse, she didn’t have a bridle along, so she whipped off her bra, wrapped it around War Paint’s neck, and led him home.

Believe me, the bra scene in Skeleton Canyon is a distant relation to War Paint’s capture, but I can’t explain exactly how. It’s all a part of the magic of writing. Bill claims that I have a Waring Blender inside my head. Things go into my head through my eyes and ears, go through the blending process, and then leak out through my fingertips into my keyboards fundamentally changed.

Which brings me to Skeleton Canyon, not the book title, but the actual location itself. It’s a rugged, remote place located in the Peloncillos, a small mountain range in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, right on the border with New Mexico. I saw it in person for the first time as a child when my folks took us for an afternoon drive one Sunday after church. They loaded the five of us kids still at home into our secondhand 1952 DeSoto four-door sedan and off we went. Our baby sister was still young enough to ride on my mother’s lap in the front seat, leaving me, as the only girl, duking it out in the back seat with my three younger brothers over who got to sit by a window.

Our trip there and the picnic lunch that followed were totally uneventful. As we packed up to leave, Evie, my adventurous mother, said to my father, “Why don’t we drive home through New Mexico?” And that’s what we did.

Most weather patterns in this country move from the West to the East. The single exception to that rule occurs in southern Arizona when storms that form in the Gulf of Mexico blow through the area from the southeast. This was back in the Fifties. There was no Weather Channel. We knew all about the weather in Bisbee but nothing at all about the weather in southwestern New Mexico. Evidently in the previous days and weeks, it had been raining like crazy on the New Mexico side of the Peloncillos, and the intervening mountains had prevented any rain at all from reaching Bisbee.

As we started down the far side of the Peloncillos, we began encountering running water in the wash that ran next to and sometimes over the road, and the water kept getting deeper and deeper the farther we went. At one point, I overheard my dad say sotto voce to my mother, “The water’s so deep, I don’t think we can go back up the way we came.” And so on we went.

The Animas Playa is located at the bottom of the Peloncillos on the New Mexico side. Playas are ancient, long dry lake beds that are scattered throughout the American West. At least they’re supposed to be dry, but when we got to the bottom that day, the Animas Playa wasn’t dry at all. There was standing water ahead of us as far as the eye could see. The only indication of the roadway consisted of two parallel lines of fence posts with their tops sticking up out the water. With no possibility of returning the way we had come and with five kids in the car, my father had no choice but to do what was needed. He set his jaw, squared his shoulders, aimed for the middle of those two parallel lines of fence posts, and drove into the water.

By the time water started leaking in under the car door and into the footwell, things were more than slightly exciting, and we kids in the backseat managed to stop wrangling about who got to sit by the window. We thought it was a great adventure. As far as my father was concerned, I’m sure it was a white-knuckled trip all the way. When we reached the little burg of Animas, everyone in town was standing on the railway crossing waiting to see who was coming. We were the first vehicle to pass through that way since the previous Wednesday, and they were astonished when we opened the car doors to drain the water and five kids bailed out the vehicle as well.

That was my first encounter with Skeleton Canyon in real life, and when I finally got around to reading the email, I thought it was going to be about Skeleton Canyon, the place. To my utter astonishment, it was about a 1952 four-door DeSoto! My correspondent had grown up with one of those in the family and had driven it to college while he was attending my alma mater, the University of Arizona in Tucson.

I was thunderstruck. I knew all about that real life 1952 DeSoto on our Sunday afternoon drive, but how on earth did one make it into my story? It turns out that at the time of the action, Jeff Daniels, Marianne Maculyea’s husband, was restoring one just like it. I wrote that telling detail from real life into the story, but until my fan mentioned it, I had never noticed.

See what I mean? Writing mysteries really is mysterious and also a tiny bit magical. Once again, I have an email correspondent to thank for giving me something about which to write.

(Note for the Grammar Police. As my high school journalism teacher, Rachel Riggins, always insisted, prepositions are not to end sentences with!)