As I write this, winter is swiftly coming to Montana. We had overnight temps in the 20s the other night, and there is snow on the peaks all around us. We won’t be seeing 80 degrees during the day anymore this year, and probably only a handful of 70s. My many green tomatoes won’t be ripening on the vine, and I doubt my bell peppers will either. And let’s not talk at all about the pumpkins.

But the change in weather has made me think about the effects of where I live on what I write. I live in the Rockies at 5,000 feet. It’s high mountain desert here, with prickly pear and sage, but just up into the peaks it’s forest. There are deer everywhere, not to mention antelope, eagles, elk, bear, foxes, moose and so on. It’s a rare day when you don’t see some form of large wildlife. There aren’t a lot of roads here. Privacy and independence is a way of life. There’s a story I heard from a game warden about a kid who got lost and was found two days after he should have, because he came to a fence and though he saw lights from a house, he would not trespass to get there.

I find that the place creeps into my writing in a lot of ways. Some of it has to do with description and imagining the desolation of landscapes. I find that the weather becomes a true character often. In my upcoming The Black Ship, ice and snow and sleet are a constant companion. And while I haven’t sailed on open waters in the winter, I do know how the ice crusts over everything and becomes heavy. I know how the ache gets deep inside and I know how you can’t wear gloves because you have things to do and gloves would just get in the way. Montana has taught me a lot about winter, and a different way of winter than I experienced in Iowa or Indiana.

A lot what I find creeping into my stories is the stalwart independence and determination of people who only depend on themselves. If something’s broken, they fix it or find a way around it. If calamity strikes, they mourn when they have time, but in the meantime, they get on with the getting on. There’s work to do. The people who live in Montana don’t often ask for help, but they give it whenever they can. They know that sometimes that only those gossamer strands of a hard life shared can keep them from death. This is a necessity that grew out of a history of ranching in isolated and difficult conditions, and out of the history of the hard rock miners who went into the bowels of the earth and often did not come out again, and when trouble struck, it was your companions in the mines who dug you out or dragged you to safety.

This is a world where cowboys (and girls) still ride out looking for lost cattle. They ride the fencelines looking for breaks. They carry guns constantly–you might have to put a hurt animal down, or you might find yourself face to face with a mountain lion or bear or rattlesnake, or even a charging moose. This is a place where people live by the light of the day–up at dawn, bed at sundown. Certainly there are many modern conveniences, but those things cannot obscure the fact that there are things that modern conveniences simply cannot overcome.

This land and this people find their way into my novels all the time. They are made out of the fabric of heroes, and sometimes villains.

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  1. 1. Hans Persson

    Privacy and independence is a way of life. There’s a story I heard from a game warden about a kid who got lost and was found two days after he should have, because he came to a fence and though he saw lights from a house, he would not trespass to get there.

    Given the circumstances, I can’t see that as anything other than stupidity. Mostly on the part of his parents and other people around him to instill such dangerous behaviour.

    Where I live (Sweden), it is my legal right to walk in any forest, private property or not.I am allowed to pick berries and mushrooms and camp for one night.

  2. 2. LJCohen

    This is a beautifully written post. I am a born and bred city girl–spent my formative years in Manhattan and still get jazzed up by the energy of a big city. Yet, I have fallen in love with the still and rugged places. We have family near Bozeman and from the very first time I visited, nearly 20 years ago, I felt like part of me had come home.

    I think our landscapes do color our writing. I look forward to getting to know yours.

    best,
    lisa

  3. 3. Scott Marlowe

    No doubt the world around us shapes our writing. More so for some of us the natural one. I live in the pseudo-country (we’re out in what we call the boonies, but it’s only 13 miles from “stuff”; we see deer, coyotes, etc., but nothing more exotic), but oftentimes when I’m out working on the property I’m given an idea of just how hard life would be were we truly living off the land.

    I find inspiration through our camping, hiking, and biking trips to AZ, NM, West Texas. There’s a certain solitude in those activities (plus we typically find the most frequented trails and stay as far from them as we can).

    Excellent post. Thanks.

  4. 4. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Hans: I don’t disagree it was stupidity, but it’s a strong respect for the privacy and to keep your business out of other people’s business. I’ve no doubt the parents took the kid to task and pointed out that emergencies trump the other. But I also think that it had as much to do with the kid feeling independent–that he could and should handle his own problems without help.

    LJCohen: I find Manhattan amazing also, with its deep canyons of concrete and steel. It reminds of Montana in odd ways.

    Scott: I’m the same way, getting a lot from our camping and hiking trips.

  5. 5. Karen Wester Newton

    I moved around a lot as a kid (Navy brat) and it always seemed to me that small towns in the south were more like small towns in the north than they were like cities a hundred miles away.

    I always use the car trouble example–remember this is BEFORE cell phones. In the city, if your car broke down, you could wait for hours for someone to stop. But in the country, the first car to pass you would pull over and see if you needed help. Of course, that was partly because they either knew you, or they knew someone who knew you.

  6. 6. Larry Russwurm

    I remember reading of pioneering people who were usually independent but in serious situations, empty cabin usage and sharing foods was quite allowed. I’m just trying to remember if it was Louis L’amour westerns or Farley Mowatt Canadian north stories that I got this philosophy from. I think it quite likely that it was from both. It might be necessity because pioneering is dangerous. I wouldn’t be surprised if Louis L’amour had a western set in Montana, too, amongst his varied western settings.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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