USING THE BEST & WORST OF LANDSCAPE


“An author knows his landscape best,” Tony Hillerman once said, “he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.”

Piedmont Island, the location for my debut novel, DEFENDING GLORY, as well as the setting for books number two and three, may be an imaginary place, but like Tony Hillerman I know every detail of that incredible landscape. After all, I created it! But make no mistake, this is a place based on truth. Located in the north eastern part of beautiful Minnesota, I have kept Piedmont Island well within the framework of its geographical location.

That means there is not a swaying palm tree, desert cactus, rain forest, or snow capped mountain in sight.

There is, however, a wide woodland expanse of pine, maple, spruce, cedar and birch trees. Four distinct seasons bless these rolling hills, tranquil meadows, and quiet streams and ponds. Surrounded by the world’s largest fresh body of water – Lake Superior, Piedmont Island is also home to a lighthouse still in use to warn captains of lake freighters and small pleasure craft alike to be wary.

Why do I mention the lighthouse? (The picture above, by the way, is of Minnesota's Split Rock Lighthouse, located just south of Piedmont Island.)

Because even fictional places should be based on fact. My research indicates there are 49 documented shipwrecks along this rugged stretch of Minnesota coastline.

Although I have not yet made reference to that imaginary lighthouse or those very real shipwrecks in my books, I expect I soon will. Why? Because Piedmont Island is a small community where troubles outnumber inhabitants. Bad stuff happens to good people. How else can I keep readers up at night turning the pages?

One reader confided this past week she read DEFENDING GLORY in a single day. I was thrilled. That meant I’d done my job as a writer. My story held her interest to the exclusion of everything else that was going on in her life that day.

Another reader emailed to ask where I get my ideas. Each of my stories begin as a grain of sand that through trial and error transforms into a full length novel. I tend to start with a murder. The scenes that follow are determined to a large extent by the characters themselves as they do their utmost to stay alive long enough to solve the crime, but setting does play a significant role in what happens next.

Back to Piedmont Island. Imaginary or not, summers can be cold or wet or they can be hot and humid. Thunderstorms can, and do, appear off Lake Superior with sudden terrifying fury. As do hailstorms, strong northerly winds, and perilous choppy waves. Winter blizzards can be particularly treacherous and deadly, especially if they cause a power outage. But standing there, facing everything Mother Nature throws at it, is the lighthouse. A monument to time. A beacon of refuge and safe haven.

Or is it?


A lot can go wrong there. The heroine could be held hostage or trapped inside the lighthouse. The villain can use it as a hide out, or a vantage place to shoot at the hero. The staircase up to the top of the lighthouse is a great place for a chase scene, and again, all sorts of things can go wrong. Especially if the hero or heroine is afraid of heights.

Hillerman was correct when he said “an author knows his landscape best.” I believe an author should also know the worst of that landscape. And not be afraid to use it. Thoughts?