CHOOSING CHARACTERS AND SETTINGS

A while back, someone asked me why I had chosen to give one of my main characters a Mormon background in Shadows Among the Ruins. My reply  is that I wanted Jemimah Hodge, the forensic psychologist, to stand out, to be different, and to have a host of life’s traumatic events as part of her story. So, why a Mormon? Quite honestly, I have always found that religion to be every bit as interesting as Catholicism. What drew me to it was not the religion itself, but the aspect of it which had become such controversial headlines over the years: the Fundamentalist sects that embrace the practice of polygamy. I did not intend to make judgments on anyone’s religious beliefs. It is fiction, after all, and life gives us so many subjects to draw from.

I wondered how a young woman from this culture really felt about her father having several wives and multiple children. I also wondered about how the wives themselves felt about sharing their husband with other women. Granted, when a young person is brought up in a particular lifestyle, it is all they know. Yet I wanted to explore a character who did not agree with everything going on around her. One who was single minded, independent and outspoken. Jemimah Hodge is all that and more. I gathered additional information from several television shows which depict the polygamous lifestyle. I watched every episode of “Sister Wives” and observed the faces of the three women as they tried to appear so jubilant that their shared husband was bringing yet another wife into the fold. Personally, I would have never stood for it. It was heart-wrenching to see them expending so much effort trying to convince their husband and each other that it was all right. Deep down in their hearts, I don’t believe they thought it was okay. The husband spent far more time with the new fiancee  and it appeared that he preferred her company to theirs. There was no doubt in my mind that he was acting like a love-struck teenager.

I also like to treat the setting for my stories as one of the characters. The town of Cerrillos is a wonderful little town with a magic quality about it. Right in the center there is an old trading post, an old Catholic church, and an opera house from the 1800s. It resembles an abandoned movie set, yet there is a daily hustle and bustle which gives it a remarkable energy. Although I might intimate in my book that they have a high crime rate, in actuality they do not. It is a peaceful little burg surrounded by magical hills, and populated by some very nice people.

The Crawford Ranch is actually based on the Cash Ranch, a place where an old cowgirl named Hazel Cash ruled with an iron hand from the mid-forties all the way up to her death in 1979. She was a five-foot tall ball of energy, who smoked Pall Malls and drank Jack Daniels whiskey. She herself had a colorful life, having been the proprietress of the first country music bar and lounge in Santa Fe and the owner of two well attended cathouses during the fifties. I was married to her grandson and spend many weekends out at the ranch, a life which I quickly discovered I was not cut out for. On one occasion, the mare was ready to foal and Hazel decided I should help. I followed her to the barn, knowing I wasn’t going to be much help at all. I stood around like a dummy, my feet glued to the ground. She singlehandedly delivered the foal and although it was a beautiful experience, she never asked for my help again. My brother, Ricardo, took care of the ranch for us until the will contest matters were settled, and he provided much more information about the area than I would have ever remembered.

The San Lazaro Indian Ruins are also a magical place and really are one of the few privately owned ruins in New Mexico. Originally they were part of the Cash Ranch, but after Hazel’s death the property was sold and the new owner borrowed money on the ruins and eventually defaulted.  I was fortunate to be able to introduce the ruins to local art dealer, Forrest Fenn, who ultimately purchased them and has done a tremendous job of excavating the area and documenting each find. He has written a comprehensive book on the pueblo, The Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo. (The character Tim McCabe in Shadows is based loosely on Forrest.) His most recent book, The Thrill of the Chase, is a great read also It’s a wonderful memoir with a treasure hunt woven between the pages.

I am an avid people watcher, and my characters grow from what I see and from people around me. In the coming sequel to Shadows, I use several of my own life events to bolster the characters. When my brother Jimmy was fighting Cancer, I used his struggles with an aluminum walker to indicate the problem Jerry Frazier was experiencing as he maneuvered a walker in the story.  By far, I still consider myself a fledgling writer, learning a little bit every day. Some days the words flow like honey. Other days they are as slow as molasses.

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