Writing a novel can be a bloody business.
‘Course I would rather do it any day than spill real blood, but rarely a writing day goes by when I’m not “licking my wounds,” “battered,” or just plain depressed at my paltry efforts to put letter after letter and have them say something meaningful to more than me and my cat. To line up letters to make words, then to line up roughly 250 words on one page and then do it again for 250 to 350 more pages after that… *runs screaming off into the sunset*
And then there are days that are filled with wonder and awe. Those days when one word opens up vistas of drama and character development and theme that I’d only hoped for. I rarely feel victorious, just extremely grateful when a character turns to me and says, “Yes, you’ve got it now.” (With “Finally” added under his or her breath.)
In honor of one of those awe days, I’m sharing one of my favorite locations in Arizona. Not a destination as much as a sidebar, and a very awe-inspiring one, albeit with a shadow of blood and cruelty beneath the surface of the land.
My urban cowboy and I had stepped out in Tombstone and then began to drive (well, meander) into the rest of southwest Arizona. No particular destination…until I saw the name Fort Bowie on our map. It was at something called a “pass,” which for you coastal elites out there means a lower elevation between mountains, used frequently for Manifest Destiny-type exploration to get the wagon trains, etc., over pesky mountains or by fierce Native tribes ambushing settlers in efforts to drive back the MD-type settlements.
Apache Pass is a name I’ve read in hundreds of western paperbacks and heard in plenty of westerns. It’s tucked between the Dos Cabezas Mountains on the north and the Chiricahua Mountains to the south. The Chiricahua Apaches lived in the area, Geronimo the most famous and deadly of them all. After scores of ambushes of wagon trains and regiments and settlers in the narrow pass, the U.S. military established a post smack dab in the middle of it, holding the fort, as it were, for a thirty years of war. Much cruelty on both sides later, Geronimo surrendered and the Chiricahua Apache were sent to not very nice places in Florida and Alabama.
It was late afternoon when we arrived, our trusty rental car sprayed with road dust. We gathered water bottles and flashlights and began hiking, passing a couple tourists heading out before the sun set. We hiked and hiked (and hiked) and eventually found ourselves on a plateau. Wide adobe walls, crumbled and smoothed by weather stood like molars along grassy mounds. As we explored, the ruins of the stables, the barracks, the parade grounds, the cemetery, the Butterfield Stage depot began to fade into oranges and purples then blues and blacks. A wide, pale moon shone so brightly I had to squint. We moved through headstones and walls, finding a place to sip some single malt and wait for the ghosts to appear.
Silence fell and under the moon the walls glowed. The massacres and skirmishes, the hangings and betrayals moved just under our feet, and as we walked, they followed us. The path was narrow but on either side, if the moon wasn’t hidden by clouds, we saw steep drop-offs and vistas below. We walked more swiftly, as if the closer we got to our waiting car the more we needed to get out of the pass and its history. And when our shoes finally skidded across the gravel road, I turned only to see [insert dangerous cliffhanger here, or maybe just my urban cowboy with a pizza].
To this day, after getting through that cliffhanger with pluck and courage, I think about that eerie night and the lonely buildings, and purple prose squirts from my keyboard (you don’t know how many times I had to delete “my thundering heart” and “silent screams of the forgotten”). While hopefully my novel’s prose won’t be purple, I want it to be something that evokes a mood and haunts, a bit, after the book has been finished. And I want that sense of awe and gratitude. And a really, really nice book deal.