WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW (RESEARCH WHAT YOU DON'T)
)Originally published on www.ricktreon.com on May 5th, 2020)
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Then research the things you don’t.
I think Stephen King said it best in On Writing when he likened writing novels to digging up dinosaur bones. Sometimes you only find a hipbone and you have to craft a story around that little bit of imagination. Other times, it comes to you intact, the entire story and plot ready to be written. I’ve had a bit of both, but Palo Duro was one of the stories that came to me whole.
When it came to writing Palo Duro, I knew I wanted to do a couple of things. First, I wanted to write a love letter to the canyon, to West Texas A&M, and to the history of the Panhandle as a whole. My adopted home, this place has been an amazing area to “grow up” (I moved here when I was 18 to attend WTAMU).
Second, I wanted to write an adventure story like the kind I grew up with. Indiana Jones, Explorers — those eighties movies that were just fun adventures. Even though the story takes place in a modern-day setting, my goal was to infuse those nostalgic feelings into the story, to make the reader reminisce about those adventures.
I also knew that, with the subject matter, I would ask the reader to suspend their disbelief in the latter half of the book, which is why I did a ton of research for the procedural portion of the first half. You see, Palo Duro starts out as a missing persons procedural; namely, a young woman who goes missing while searching for Native American artifacts in the caves of Palo Duro Canyon. I knew I needed to get that part of the story right, to make it as factual as possible, because if the reader doesn’t believe the first half of the story, then they wouldn’t accept the second half.
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The old adage of writing is “write what you know,” but I, of course, have never been a State Park ranger, nor have I ever gone missing. So, the next best thing to real-life experience is research. I spoke with several law enforcement agencies (corollary: don’t be surprised by the looks you get from law enforcement when you start asking questions like, “How would someone go missing without a trace?” or “How would you fake evidence on a crime scene?”) including local police and Texas Parks & Wildlife officials on policies and procedures for missing persons cases in a rural, untamed area like PDC. They were helpful, of course, but my biggest source of information came from local media and journalists who were experienced in covering these kind of cases. Specifically, Niccole Caan from Amarillo’s ABC affiliate, KVII-TV, offered an immeasurable amount of information about the procedures during a missing persons story. It was actually Ms. Caan who informed me that search and rescue helicopters are provided by Texas Department of Public Safety and not county or city law enforcement.
Beyond that, I was able to (finally!) put my bachelor’s degree in Latin American history to use when sprinkling the history of the area into the story, and allowing that history to shape and flavor the story as a whole. So, in a sense, I really was able to “write what I know.”