Vindication Among the Volcanoes

I was on a tour of steamy Central America recently, traveling to ancient Mayan archaeology sites and present-day Mayan towns in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. Did you know that Guatemala has 37 volcanoes? It’s okay, I didn’t either. Over the centuries, tens of thousands of Guatemalans have been killed and whole towns leveled by earthquakes. Three of those volcanoes are still active on a daily basis. Below is a photo I took of a steam and ash eruption from Fuego, the “fire volcano” near Antigua.

But I digress, as I inevitably do. Decades ago, when I was in screenwriting school, I wrote a romantic adventure screenplay that I titled Call of the Jaguar. It takes place largely in Guatemala. The story is about a woman, Rachel McCarthy, who, on her 40th birthday, finally gives in to the mounting evidence that her materialistic husband, Brad, has been cheating on her. For years. After confronting her husband and his lover with a birthday cake and a knife and making the front page of the local news, Rachel goes off the deep end and decides to search for the man she should have married, the lover from the Peace Corps days of her youth. Patrick is now an archaeologist working on a secret location in rural Guatemala, which is in the midst of a civil war.

I’m not telling the rest of the story here, but of course, as I am at heart a suspense writer, things go terribly wrong on Rachel’s quest to find Patrick. Although I had spent time in Yucatan, Mexico, among the Mayan population, I had never visited Guatemala until this recent trip, and I wrote this screenplay long ago, pre-Wikipedia and other easily accessible internet sites. And like all authors, I live in fear that I totally invented the history of the civil war in Guatemala. After all, we only know what we read or hear, and the version we get is often totally different from the experience of the actual people involved. And we writers tend to be an insecure lot. Personally, I always tense up when someone opens a conversation with “I read your book.” Yikes, what’s coming next? (Please tell me I’m not the only apprehensive author.)

So it was with some trepidation that on my Central American tour, I quizzed our trip leader, a Guatemalan, about the civil war in Guatemala, which thankfully has been over for many years now. What was I going to do if I got it all wrong? Rewrite the whole dang screenplay? Sometimes it’s best not to ask, but if I totally screwed up, I was prepared to fall back on the “it’s fiction !” excuse.

But lo and behold, I somehow magically got the basics correct: federal troops vs rebels (federales and insurgentes in my story), with the federales siding with big landowners to take land and rights away from the common people (many of which are Mayan). Halleluiah! I must have had some idea of what I was writing about when I crafted Call of the Jaguar.

How sweet and how reassuring to be vindicated! I’ve had readers email me to say I made a mistake in one book or another, only to find out that the reader didn’t understand all the possibilities. Speaking of earthquakes, one of those readers wrote to me to say that the earthquake in the opening of my romantic suspense, Shaken, was all wrong. Earthquakes, she wrote, never ripple through the earth, but shake violently. Guess what, dear reader, depending on your surface location and the depth and position of the epicenter of an earthquake, the tremors you feel may roll through the ground like the incoming tide, shake the surroundings until they crack or fall, or simply slip sideways with single booming noise and resulting swaying after the slip. (I’ve had the joy of experiencing all three types.)

But I’m digressing again. I never came close to selling the screenplay version of Call of the Jaguar. (Hey, it’s really, really hard to sell screenplays!)

So I eventually turned the story into a novella, which I now give away on Amazon and elsewhere. My character, Rachel McCarthy, has quite the adventure among the Mayan ruins in Guatemala. And I had a good, hot, steamy time exploring ancient pyramids in the jungle, too.

I’m sure I got many other aspects wrong in Call of the Jaguar, but hey, it’s fiction!

Cluttered Brain, Cluttered Office

I don’t understand how I became so disorganized. I take that back. If I’m honest, I know exactly what happened. During the COVID quarantine with all of its shutdowns, I craved a little more variety. No, I take that back, too. I became absolutely crazy to have a variety of activities and experiences again. Now my life is more chaotic than ever, and my office shows it.

Take my small bulletin board, for example. There’s a calendar with all sorts of reminders scribbled on it, from trips that I’m taking and happy hour dates with friends to mundane things like putting out the trash and paying estimated taxes. Yes, I’m old school like that. I find electronic reminders way too easy to ignore, especially since I have a tendency to leave my cell phone at home. (Hey, I’m hiking and kayaking and swimming and dancing; what the heck do I need a cell phone for?)

Then I have a couple of photos that make me smile. (Sorry, photographers, I long ago lost the identification for these magazine pages.) I love that image of the white polar bear against the white snow; seeing the black skin of its footpad and toes is such a startling contrast. The little weasel reminds me of wildlife surprises I experienced on hikes. This photo may be an ermine in its summer coat, or a long-tailed weasel. My weasel experiences were in Mount Rainier National Park and along the West Coast Trail (aka Lifesaving Trail) on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

FYI: Never trust a weasel. They are cute devils, but sneaky and slippery thieves. Both times I was the victim of their treachery as I was eating lunch and enjoying the scenery while perched on a rock with a couple of food items spread out beside me. A slight rustling alerted me to see an adorable little red furry face appear from a rock crevice, snatch my most expensive food item, and vanish before I could even say “Hey!” I believe my thieves were martens, but all I know for sure is that they were fans of expensive cheese.

(Incidentally, if you don’t know weasels, you should watch the PBS documentary, “The Mighty Weasel,” and you’ll be fascinated, too.)

Also on my bulletin board, I have a list of knots I’m supposedly learning to tie. I did take a class, but now I’m so out of practice that I need to look up each knot on YouTube to even remember what those names refer to.

There’s a fantastic drawing of a gorilla, given to me by my artist friend Avery while I was working on my second Neema (signing gorilla) mystery. And then there’s the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, which is an outline for screenplay structure but also serves as a great reminder for a suspense novel.

This all helps me to remember that I should be working on my latest novel, which is a crossover between my Sam Westin wilderness series and my Neema series. I look at this little bulletin board beside my desk and think about wildlife and gorillas and how I can get the two stories together. Somehow, this chaos will resolve itself into a readable book, in between trips and hiking and kayaking and dancing and such. At least I hope so.

Most people probably use bulletin boards to organize ideas or events. Somehow, mine just displays the chaos of my life. And that’s only my small bulletin board. You should see the rest of my office.

Just Do It! The Journeys of Writing and Traveling

I am a nature gal, and so the mysteries I write often take place in the great outdoors, where I spend as much time as I can. But getting started is often difficult for me.

Often, before I go hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, or scuba diving, I ask myself whether the activity will be worth the effort of preparing. The weather might be windy, snowing or raining. I might need to get started on my journey before dawn. I try to be careful and plan for the unexpected, taking a first aid kit, all the appropriate gear for the environment, food and water, a light. And duct tape, an essential for every outdoor expedition. Every year the preparation seems more difficult than the last. Despite all this, I always find that the effort expended is worth it.

Nature has an indescribable majesty and beauty. Even the same place can be experienced differently at different times: a hike might take me through a flower meadow one time and a frosty autumn scene the next, the creeks might be rushing streams or mere trickles. The snow might be mush that will soak my clothes or sparkling icy crystals that will scour my skin if I slide over it.

Watching the sun rise or set over water or mountain peaks, seeing a mountain goat or a weasel or an octopus in its natural habitat is always a deeply moving experience. Underwater, I often meet creatures I can only identify later from a reference book or website.

In the North Cascades, I’ve witnessed avalanches that I used in my most recent novel, Cascade. The slot canyons and natural bridges and rocky trails I explored in Utah became the setting for Endangered. At Mount Rainier, I nearly collided with a bear cub on an overgrown trail. That ended up in my novel, Bear Bait. The underwater antics of sea lions in the Galapagos were featured in several scenes in Undercurrents. Physical challenges and encountering unexpected difficulties, well, those are character development, for both myself and my characters. All good stories have conflict. Ultimately, nature brings us closer to ourselves in ways we sometimes don’t expect it to. So when I’m thinking it might be nice to just stay home and drink my coffee and pet my cats, I tell myself “Get a grip, Pam. Start packing, load that kayak, find all your scuba gear. You don’t know what might happen.”

I have similar feelings about writing the next book. It too will be a journey. So, just as I prepare for my outdoor adventures, I do the research, I prepare, and then I sit down at my computer and expect the unexpected. In both instances, I tell myself, “Just do it; you’ll be glad you did.”

And so far, I’ve always been proud that I made the effort.

Can I Write a Crossover Novel?

I’m not a bestselling author, but I still have loyal fans who write to me, especially readers for my Sam Westin Wilderness Mysteries, which currently includes six books, and my Neema the Gorilla Mysteries, which has three. The number one reason fans send me email is to ask when the next book in the series will be out. This question makes me simultaneously cheer and groan. While readers excitedly report that it took them only two or three days to finish the book, I remember that it took me ten or twelve months to write and publish it.

So, I recently had the bright idea to solve this dilemma by writing a crossover novel, in which the characters (or at least the main ones) will appear in the same novel. Bright idea? The problem is that these two series are very different. The Sam Westin mysteries always involve wild animals in wild places, so there’s a lot of hiking and descriptions of rugged areas. The Neema series involves captive gorillas that are learning American sign language, and a beleaguered small-town police detective who gets drawn into vague mysteries when the gorillas observe something frightening and give him cryptic clues, such as snake arm and tree candy. (Poor man, trying to interpret gorilla signs that could be vital clues about a crime or hints about what Neema wants for lunch.)

How the heck am I going to get these two series to mingle? What the heck could these characters ever have in common? In the Sam Westin series, I’ve already focused on cougars, bears, sharks, and wolverines, so I decided to include wolves in her next adventure. How could captive gorillas and wild wolves ever mix? And the answer is: of course they don’t! And they won’t in this next novel, either.

Although my books include a lot of animals (obviously), the crimes are always committed by humans. So I need a human thread—something mysterious, of course—to bring the gorilla world and the wildlife world together. I mulled this challenge over for a while on my break for the last five months. (Some would say this was actually my prolonged period of procrastination, which I have perfected over the most recent years.) While I was in Vietnam last November, I met a fascinating woman who works for the Red Cross locating refugees and their relatives in the United States and elsewhere. I asked her a million questions about immigrants (both legal and illegal) and refugees, which are a legally designated and protected category of migrants here.

Migrants who come to the U.S. are often seeking to join relatives who are already here, and sometimes groups of migrants get broken up, either by the need to travel separately or by one person successfully entering the country while another can’t.

So I plan to have one undocumented immigrant mysteriously killed in the vicinity of the gorillas, leaving behind a toddler who cannot speak English. (Sorry, but this is a mystery and we all know some tragedy is called for.) Poor Detective Finn gets to figure out what happened to mom and who the heck this abandoned child is and how she connected with the gorillas.

Meanwhile, Sam Westin is going to backpack into North Cascades National Park in hopes of finding wolves that have been reported there, only to discover an injured foreigner and an injured horse lost in the wilderness. And then someone will try to kill them all before they can reach civilization.

Okay, there are so many questions left. Who the heck is the foreigner lost in the wilderness, and why is a horse wandering in the woods? And most urgent of all, who is shooting when Sam is trying to rescue the unfortunate man and beast? And what is the possible connection between the abandoned toddler and the illegal migrant Sam has encountered?

I’m not going to tell you all that (okay, so far I only have vague ideas about those challenges), and I can’t even tell you the title for my new novel, because the Neema series books always have “The Only” in the title, and the Sam Westin books are usually one word (Endangered, Bear Bait, Undercurrents, Backcountry, Borderland, Cascade). So what title can I use that will make sense? And how will I advertise this crossover novel?

Only time will tell whether writing a crossover novel will please the readers of one series and introduce them to the other (thereby saving me a year of writing another book), or whether I’ll be the next victim running through the woods, trying to escape angry fans.

Disturbing Coincidences

Ever had that oh-no-no-no feeling that you’ve written the same book as another author? Or borrowed a character’s name, or inadvertently duplicated a clever conversation from another book?

This sort of thing has happened to me multiple times. After I wrote my first Summer “Sam” Westin mystery, Endangered, I sent it out to multiple editors at publishing houses. They all told me that it was very good, but way too similar to Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat.

What? At the time, I’d never heard of Nevada Barr. But I bought the book, and dang, if the editors weren’t right! We both had female park ranger protagonists and cougars in our plots. We even wrote in similar styles! Nevada and I are clearly twins separated at birth.

So, I rewrote Endangered, making my protagonist an internet blogger type working for conservation nonprofits and outdoor adventure organizations. I changed my writing style a bit. And finally sold that book, along with two sequels, Bear Bait and Undercurrents.

Since then, I’ve published three other books in the Sam Westin series, as well as my three Neema the Gorilla Mysteries, and my Run for Your Life trilogy. For years now, Nevada Barr has been one of my favorite authors. Jodi Picoult is another.

A few years ago, when I read Picoult’s latest novel, Leaving Time, I immediately panicked. Like my Run for Your Life trilogy, the protagonist of Leaving Time is an orphaned teenage girl. And elephants romp through both our plots. Yikes! I emailed Jodi Picoult about the similarities. She was kind enough to reply, and said she wasn’t concerned.

As a lesser-known novelist than these two famous authors, I worry that readers may think I’m borrowing from them. But hey, my trilogy came out before Jodi Picoult’s novel, and really, the plots and tone of hers and mine are nothing alike. Then, just as I was working on my book Cascade, which includes a wolverine, Alice Henderson’s first novel, A Solitude of Wolverines, was published. Wildlife researcher, wolverines, winter setting… Not such a similar plot to Cascade (thank goodness), but still a lot of similarities. Her latest book, A Ghost of Caribou, is set in Washington State. Where I live and hike and write. (But not about caribou.)

Am I on the same brainwave frequency as these other gals? It’s downright scary! When I wrote my Neema mysteries, I came up with the name Neema by perusing lists of words in Swahili. I didn’t want to use any name close to Koko, the real signing gorilla that I used for inspiration. Now, just a couple of days ago, I read an article about a gorilla named Neema in the Munich zoo, who (sadly) rejected her baby.

I just can’t get away from all these coincidences. But hey, I just Googled “Neema the gorilla” and guess what? My Neema mysteries top the results list. Either the Munich zookeepers and I are on the same wavelength, or maybe that gorilla is named after my Neema.

So, I guess I’ll stop worrying about all this. At least until the next time it happens.