Lightning Wolves and the Importance of Setting

This summer saw the publication of my eighth novel, a western steampunk adventure called Lightning Wolves. It’s the sequel to my 2011 novel Owl Dance and continues the story of the Russian invasion of the United States in 1877. You may not remember this seminal period in history, but I can assure you it involved airships, ornithopters, lightning guns, and automata. That’s the steampunk part of the story. The adventure comes from the characters living the experience. There’s Ramon Morales, the former sheriff trying to find new direction in life. There’s Larissa Crimson, a bounty hunter with a natural talent for machines and a desire to make the world a better place. There’s Curly Bill Bresnahan, an outlaw who has stumbled on a terrible weapon he hopes to use for his own gain. Their conflict and interaction drives the story forward.

This brings us to the western aspect of the story and the importance of setting. In a very real way, Lightning Wolves was inspired by my commute to work. If that doesn’t sound very inspirational to you, I should explain that my commute to work starts in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just a couple miles from the site of Billy the Kid’s trial, to a mountain peak on the Tohono O’Odham reservation 50 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. I make this drive once a week. Along the way, I pass through several places both famous and important to the region’s history.

The end of my commute!

I grew up watching Westerns, but I often find history more fascinating than fiction. For example, John Nakayama was a Japanese farmer who settled in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley early in the twentieth century. He and his family were instrumental in cultivating robust varieties of green chile that are so much a part of both the state’s economy and heritage. It wasn’t hard to imagine a Samurai warrior displaced by the Meiji Restoration starting down the same path a little earlier in the state’s history.

My commute to work carries me by the turnoff to Tombstone, Arizona. Although the gunfight at OK Corral put Tombstone on the map, the region had a rich history even before Wyatt Earp considered moving there. Tombstone was founded by Ed Shieffelin as a mining camp near the San Pedro River, which cuts through rolling land carpeted by chaparral. In my story, the army recruits people from Arizona to fight the Russians in California and Oregon. If this had happened, Ed and his brother Al would have faced difficulties developing their claim when the only people in the area were Apaches and a gang of cattle rustlers who called themselves the Cowboys. Taking one of the mine tours in Tombstone, inspired the idea of the Shieffelin’s working with an inventor to build a machine which could tunnel into rock.

Descending into the Good Enough Mine

The area around Tombstone provided even more story inspiration. Although the Cowboys, led by the Clanton family, are famous from many western movies, not many of those movies explored how they made their living stealing cattle from Mexican ranchers and selling it to the United States Army. On the river’s banks near Tombstone is one of the few standing Spanish Presidios, dating back to the 1700s. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate seemed a wonderful place for characters to seek shelter during a sand storm.

My commute to work also carries me through the Council Rocks region of the Dragoon Mountains where Cochise met with General Howard in 1872 to sign a peace treaty. It was known Geronimo frequented this area as well. The Council Rocks are a dramatic formation of yellow rocks strewn over a several-mile area like a natural fortress. It’s easy to see why the Apaches used this area as a stronghold and I knew it had to be the setting for one of the climactic encounters in the novel.

A natural fortress

Setting, for me, is more than a simple backdrop. It can provide inspiration for plot when we pay attention to the kinds of stories that have happened in similar places. Setting can provide inspiration for characters when we look at the people who have been drawn to those places and the conflicts they had. Sometimes those conflicts are with people who want the same land. Sometimes those conflicts are with the land itself. While it’s true that the type of story we want to tell will drive the setting, sometimes it’s fun to start with a setting and see where it leads you.

Lightning Wolves is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords in print and ebook formats.

8 thoughts on “Lightning Wolves and the Importance of Setting

  1. Not only is this a great writing tip, I think it’s cool that you fill some of your long drive creatively, thinking up stories. It sure beats sitting in the car cursing the commute.

    • Thank you, Julie! As it turns out, I’m often on the road late at night when the only folks with me are the long-haul truck drivers, who are usually quite mellow when they’re not dodging the weekend warrior traffic! So yeah, not even a lot of cursing at traffic to do. Thinking up stories is a great way to fill in the time. I could probably be even more productive if I’d get a digital recorder, but I find it difficult to compose orally. I prefer to let the images form, then get them down in the computer later.

  2. Sometimes setting can be inspirational to writing or sometimes it can just be distracting. Congrats on making this work for you. I know when I think of things to write, though, I just gotta write them down right away or out the window they go and that’s hard to do while driving.

    • I would agree that one has to be careful not to let setting dominate a story or distract from it. It’s like research in historical fiction or including scientific fact in one’s science fiction. It’s possible to include so much that you’re writing about the place, the research, or the science and not telling a story. That said, I think a sense of setting helps place a story in context.

      I recognize that many writers live in fear of forgetting some detail if they don’t write it down instantly and I used to be like that myself. I found it very liberating to let that go. I think the first time I realized I could give myself a little more leeway was when I inadvertently deleted an entire scene from a short story I was writing. I freaked out, but there was no choice but to write it down again. I was just as happy if not more happy with the new version.

      When I’m driving, I’m not really composing. I’m visualizing an event. Although I’m making it up as I go, the experience feels more like memory. The more I allow myself to re-live that memory, the easier it is when I sit down to compose to pull out the important details and discard those that don’t move the story forward or enhance it.

  3. That is a glorious (albeit very long) commute. I love that part of the country too. Did some work in the region as an archaeologist in the ’90s. Of course you can’t get everything into a single book, but Kartchner Caverns and the quaint mining town of Bisbee are my two favorite destinations when I travel through there.

    Right now my WIP is centered on the Gila Wilderness but does range widely from there taking in the beauty of Southern NM. I will probably have a similar list of special locations when I am done. It is hard not to be inspired by the West. Like the Northern NM sunset last night….whoa was that beautiful.

    • Working as an archeologist in that region would be wonderful! As it turns out, Kartchner caverns did appear briefly in a cameo as some of our characters stumble into an upper chamber. I love Bisbee as well. It’s a great area. The novel’s 1877 time period puts us just a little before the mines in Bisbee got started and history is a little altered. However, I suspect it would still appear in my steampunk timeline, just with a somewhat altered history.

      I agree, the Gila Wilderness is wonderful. I love exploring there and even took the cover photo that appeared on the first edition of a short story collection set in Mogollon.

  4. Okay, full disclaimer up front: I’m jealous. I hate driving, but that’s such a beautiful route. Where I live it’s all flat lands and cornfields. Blah.

    This post couldn’t be better timing. I’m currently working on the rough draft of an urban fantasy that borders on second world. It came out of a challenge “urban fantasy plot line with epic fantasy world-building”. So the setting is uber important and this post made me realize I’ve been letting it slide lately. Thanks so much for writing this!

    Loved the pictures too. They added a lot.

    • You’re absolutely welcome! I have to admit, I do this drive enough that it gets monotonous, but thinking about the settings helped to keep it interesting.

      I think the challenge of epic world-building is to give it just the right touch of authenticity. One way you can do that is to use lessons from your own travels. How do you and your friends react to familiar spaces? How do you react in more unusual spaces? Is it different or the same if the travel is for business or pleasure? How do you react to friendly neighborhoods vs finding yourself in one that’s kind of sketchy? Thinking about that can help you pick just the right details to give depth to your story.

      Good luck with your writing!