How to write fiction set in our Southern Arizona Borderlands

I’ve written about Tucson and Southern Arizona for a long time as a reporter for publications here and around the country. But that was journalism, and my copy was confined by the rules of the trade.

It wasn’t until I started writing fiction that I got a real education. If you like reading novels and want a peek behind the curtain, consider this a primer.

Fiction demands so much more than journalism – more scene setting, more character description, more of everything. It makes you dig deeper.

I’ve published two books – “Double Wide” and “Champagne Cowboys” – in a series featuring former baseball player Prospero “Whip” Stark. The third is in progress. 

When his career ends with a cooked-up cocaine scandal in Mexico, Whip returns to the States and buys an abandoned trailer park – also called Double Wide – in a saguaro forest west of the Tucson Mountains. 

His plan is to hide out with his dogs and figure out what to do next. But he gets caught up in the lives of the outcasts, tramps and small-time outlaws who drift into Double Wide and become his tenants.

They’re fun to write about. But so is the desert itself, which I’ve tried to make as much of a character as Whip and the others.

I chose the setting figuring the desert light, the monsoon storms and the screaming coyotes would provide a cool opportunity for description, and they do.

But after you’ve word-smithed the desert several times there’s a temptation to do it more, to push it further. That’s a mistake.

Take the art of describing sunsets. Everyone is familiar with those dramatic, blood-red scenes we’re often treated to in real life and every month in Arizona Highways.

I wrote more than 300 stories for Highways and understand well the power of sunsets, along with that of the mighty saguaro. But can I recreate the desert’s unique beauty in words? Can I top the images readers already hold in their minds?

I wrestled with how to do that before deciding that I can’t, and it’s best not to try. My approach now is to select a few well-chosen words and leave the details to readers’ imaginations.

The master, Hemingway, called that the Iceberg Theory. “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” he said. Hemingway believed that words left unsaid, if they’re the right words, can be more powerful than those on the page.

It’s also fun to use the Sonoran Desert as a tool to reveal character, especially that of someone seeing it for the first time.

My latest novel, “The Flying Z,” is a contemporary western crime novel that’s also part love story. It describes the lives of Southern Arizona rancher Will Zachary and newly-arrived Harvard grad Merry O’Hara as they try to build a life together while battling a drug cartel trying to take over the ranch.

In one of their early scenes, Will and Merry are riding horses in wide-open range country near Patagonia. Merry is cranky. Will has just rescued her from smugglers, and on top of that she has no bars on her cell phone.

The universal crisis! No bars! Imagine!

“Go ahead and remove a limb, why don’t you,” Merry says and asks if she can use Will’s land line.

“Don’t have one,” he says.

“Does your cell work around here?”

“Had one of them once but folks kept calling. Check between the cushions in my truck.”

“Good Lord. Where the hell am I?”

“Paradise.”

Merry harrumphed. “Looks like nowhere to me.”

Think about what that short bit of dialogue revealed about the characters. Will wants nothing to do with modern life or modern technology, and please, no phone calls. His horse and the land are all he needs.

But Merry is getting the hives without her phone, and the desert is like nothing she’s ever seen. In her eyes it’s bleak, brown, virtually treeless, and the plants have sharp spines that promise to make her bad day even worse if she lands on one.

Her reaction is common to those seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time. But it’s also common that after a period of time, people fall in love with it and decide to stay.

That happens to Whip. He’s doesn’t exactly love the place at first, sneering that “Tucson has never had water, money, jobs or shade.”

But in my novel in progress he’s come around. A character reminds him of his early opinion and says, “Now you like it, right? The desert got into your blood.”

“It took me a while to really see the seasons,” Whip says. “Now I can tell what month it is by the color of the mountains.”

In response to my first two books, I’ve received numerous emails from readers chiding me for not liking Tucson. With pitchforks raised, they stood ready to defend their beloved Old Pueblo.

Hold on, letter writers. I’ve spent most of my life here, met my wife here, raised a son and buried a few beloved dogs here. I like Tucson. It’s my home.

Those criticisms were Whip Stark’s, and we don’t always agree. I’m not him, you see.

Another important thing to know in writing about Tucson – the Santa Catalina Mountains must play a prominent role. We see them every day. They watch over us and give us reason to wonder and dream.

If they do that in real life, they must do the same in fiction.

In my book in progress, Whip drives into the Foothills to meet with a psychic named Madam Luttrell. He says the Foothills have the best addresses in Tucson, and adds this description:

“Very little crime, the cars purred respectfully, the wandering deer were polite, the houses rambled across big lots that came with magical morning-coffee patios and sometimes a tennis court, and when the sun was setting, the views down to the valley were panoramic, thrilling and soothing at the same time.”

The Madam has recently suffered the loss of her teenage son, and she and Whip are talking about it on her patio at sunset. At one point, Whip says something that upsets the Madam and she takes a moment to let her anger subside.

“Staring out at the mountains helped,” I write. “The Catalinas have healed more hurts than all the high-dollar shrinks and counselors in the valley put together.”

And there’s a crucial lesson I learned the hard way – handle your canine characters with great care. In “Double Wide,” I had a bad guy send one of Whip’s dogs to heaven.

Of all the comments and letters I’ve received, the demise of this pooch generated the most outrage by far.

A woman approached me at an autograph table to say she loved the book. Then she wagged a finger and said, “But you should never kill the dog!”

Dispatch any mustache-twirler you want, in the most creative and bloody way, and no one will raise a peep.

But kill the dog and you better duck.

Finally, I’ve figured out that some of the things we take for granted are difficult for non-desert dwellers to grasp, like pronunciations.

In advising the audio-book reader for “Double Wide,” I thought his biggest problem would be pronouncing Tohono O’odham. To head off potential trouble, I sent him a recording of an O’odham speaker giving the correct pronunciation.

The reader did a fantastic job with that and with the book in general. But there was a small glitch. He pronounced Gila Monster with a hard G, which has become a family joke.

When we hear any mysterious sound at night, my wife and I look at each other and say, with a hard G, “It’s the Gila Monsters!”