“Boots on the ground”isn’t just a military phrase; it can also apply to writers. After four years of library, online, documentary, and telephone research, I finally drove several hundred miles to see the scene of the crime I’m writing about in “Desert Wind.” And guess what? Putting my boots on the ground is changing the climax of the book.
I can’t give you the plot details of “Desert Wind,” only say that like the first six Lena Jones mysteries, the book is based on real life (and real death), a semi-closed case I learned about while still working as a full-time journalist. What I can also tell you is the difference in merely having the facts of the decades-old crime related to me as opposed to standing on the very ground where lives were lost. That difference is the amount of emotionality I, as a writer, can now bring to the
experience. Seeing is believing -- and reacting with outrage and compassion.
There’s also the difference between theory and fact. Theory is a picture in your mind; fact is the pungent scent of juniper and cedar. Fact is the muted din of traffic coming from a miles-away road. Fact is the red dirt you’re standing on and the sting of sand blowing into your face. Fact is the rough texture of lava spewed millions of years ago from a now-extinct volcano. Fact is the salty taste of sweat dripping into your mouth as you stagger up a steep incline to view a sage-dotted valley below.
In other words, fact is a sensory experience, not an imagined one. Writing teachers tell us that to set a scene, you must use all five senses: smell, touch, sound, taste, and last of all, sight. You’ll notice that I put sight last. Thriller writer David Morrell once said at a conference I attended, “In writing, sight is over-used. To really deepen a scene, to bring it alive, I use the sense of smell.”
Could I have imagined the scent of juniper and cedar if I hadn’t traveled to the place where the true events in my book actually happened? Oh, sure. I’m a writer. I can imagine all sorts of things. But would I have known there were juniper and cedar trees in the area? Of course, if I’d concentrated on the flora and fauna instead of history. And I could have imagined the color of sand, the feel of lava rock, the taste of sweat -- all of which I’ve experienced before, but in different places at different times. Yes, I could have recalled them from my own life and re-imagined them, but would I have experienced that sensory overload all at one, followed immediately by the emotion that swept over me as I viewed the scene of the crime?
I doubt it.
Originally, I had planned to set the final pages of “Desert Wind”in a motel room because I’ve always liked the sterility and anonymity of motel rooms. The un-personality would be a nice contrast, I thought, to the bloody events that had gone before. But after standing on what I now consider to be sacred ground, I decided to let the ghosts in, to pay them their due, to let them speak in the same voices they’d used as I stood in their footprints.
In the end, being there made all the difference.