As a writer, I often venture into unfamiliar territory to make a story ring true. It’s part of my job. There are times when the Internet is invaluable for research. There are times when interviewing a source can give me what I need. But the best times are when I get out of my comfort zone to do personal research and nail the details I can’t get any other way.
Since this is Harlequin Intrigue’s 25th Anniversary, I’ve been doing a series of blogs, memories of books I’ve written over the years. Ten years ago, I sold a ranch trilogy to Intrigue.
The Sons of Silver Springs was set in New Mexico, one of my favorite places to visit. Rather, I had visited Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the small towns and pueblos in the area several times before. What I hadn’t done was spend any time on a ranch. I got on the Internet and found a ranch near Las Vegas, NM, that took paying guests. Of course that was in the summer and this was the winter holiday season. Nevertheless, the owner said they had guest quarters in their basement if we wanted to come out and stay there. I agreed.
I used to ride horses on a regular basis—anywhere from one to three times a week—for ten years. And I used to spend time on a dude ranch for adults in Michigan where the ranch hands took the advanced riders on hair-raising excursions. But at the time we landed at the New Mexican ranch, I had a deteriorating knee and hadn’t ridden in eight years. Getting back on a horse (via an old tractor tire as a mounting block) was like riding a bicycle. All the instincts kicked in, which was great since our first ride was New Years Day night and I got the retired lead horse who made me work hard to keep up with the others.
The idea of going to the ranch was to learn to “move cows” across the river the next day. I asked that the owners keep the night ride short (so I could get back on a horse in the morning!). They took us all over the property, including a couple of locations that made it into the books. One was a wash made by the river when the rains came. I never realized it would be so deep, like giant tire treads made when the earth was wet. In one of the books, my hero and heroine hid in the wash when the villain was shooting at them. The other location was a cave up on the hillside. The rancher’s wife thought I might be able to use it for a love scene. In fact, I used it for the love scene in all three books. My little joke with her. Three and a half hours later, we were back at the ranch. They invited us to use the cowboy hot tub on the front porch. Um, it was 20 degrees outside, so we declined.
The next day, I did get back up on that stubborn horse and found that once he saw the cows he got a couple hands taller. His ears went up, he pranced a bit, then he charged. Those cows took one look at him and ran for their lives. Right across the river. Taking down the fence. We didn’t get to cross them after all—they crossed themselves.
We’d driven through a snowstorm to get to the ranch, first crossing several other ranches, getting in and out of the SUV to open and close gates. We were given a truck tour of the property and of the herds—horse and cows. I distinctly remember the pop of breaking wood as we drove over the bridge, and the owner telling us they were constantly repairing it. I remember the grandeur of the place and thinking “this must have been what the old West was like.” When we rode out that night, I felt like I’d landed in the old tv show Bonanza. Which was ironic, because when I saw my cover for book 2—The Lone Wolf’s Child—I would have sworn Hoss Cartwright himself posed for it.
All those physical details are things I never would have gotten from the Internet or from books. Nor were the personal things the owners shared. How difficult it was to keep the ranch going. How the ranch had been much bigger but was split among brothers decades ago (those ranches we crossed to get in). How the owner had two absent siblings who co-owned but didn’t want to run the ranch. He had to send them money each month. Their share. His share was $600 a month and he worked 7 days a week to make it. The only way they kept going financially was because the wife drove into Las Vegas, NM, to work as a nurse at a hospital. Her income helped keep their dream alive.
The things I learned in three days filled three books with details that I never would have imagined on my own. I was able to live a different life in my head and the stories are richer for it.
Have you ever had the chance to try something different, something that let you imagine doing or being someone else? Comment for a chance at winning one of the Sons of Silver Springs books.
Harlequin Intrigue: STEALING THUNDER
Intrigue's 25th Anniversary