One book critic said that you could always tell when something dramatic was going to happen in a Tony Hillerman novel – he’d start talking about the clouds! Tony had a gift for portraying people connected to nature. The Navajos live their lives connected to the earth through their beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, art, and daily living, and the Hillerman books never failed in drawing this portrait of a people immersed in their environment.
I’ve read every Hillerman novel and I am unabashed to say that he was a strong reason for my integration of the landscape, weather, and geography to give a strong sense of place in my books. The other reason was because I grew up with a strong sense of place in my life.
I lived the first twenty years of life in a small town in the panhandle of Texas, northeast of Amarillo. It was a fair-sized town (17k or so) that was a historical boom town because of the discovery of oil in 1926. The boom had already settled down by the time I got there, but it was still a vast country laced with dirt roads from all of the exploration that was done.
The town also sits on the bluffs of the Canadian River, whose riverbed in that area was typically a half-mile wide although the river itself was on the order of ten to twenty feet wide (except after rainstorms). The remains of the ancient river valley made the whole countryside one of sharp ups and downs, with gullies, arroyos, canyons, mesas, and rocky points a little higher than the rest, all dotted with cactus, yucca, buffalo grass, and canyon bottoms full of cottonwood trees. Add to that square miles of slowing rising and falling of grass plains and you run out of eyesight.
It was BIG country. You could see horizon to horizon and the sunsets stretched forever. I grew up attached to that country. The sky is huge; the billowing clouds are huge; riding the river beds in a dune buggy showed the river bluffs to be huge; the variations of the rocks, trees, grasses, vegetation, plus the antelope, the deer, the herds of horses, the army of cows – everything is huge. That country settled in me like it must have settled in the Indians and the first settlers.
The Southwest is bigger than Texas and contains colors and light like no other place I’ve ever been. Incorporating that level of scenery allows my characters to feel the country, feel the privilege of being in it, and reflect the uniqueness of living in it. My readers, then, feel the same sort of privilege and the same sort of awe, and that gives me an advantage in conveying the characters themselves.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.