Writing Coyote’s Sacred Landscape

I always try to visit the landscape that my characters explore if I can. There’s nothing like filling your senses with its unique essence. What does it sound like? Is the light the same as at home? And so it goes…

So far I’ve written three of the adventures of Kannon Dupree, the time travelling detective. In Gladiatrix, Kannon paced the streets of ancient Rome investigating a shadowy Egyptian cult. In Hoodwink she lurked around glamorous Hollywood in 1939, to find out who murdered a famous movie director and why he died with a Mayan occult tattoo engraved on his chest. And in Coyote, which came out this month, Kannon is hired to find the missing diary of a Wild West hero. The chase takes her through the middle of an Indian War, via a mysterious convent of nuns banished to die in the desert and into an ancient pueblo city on a cursed mesa sacred to Coyote, the trickster god.

Without a doubt, the fieldwork I did for Coyote will always be one of my greatest adventures. Coyote is set in New Mexico, one of the states that make up the USA’s famous Southwest. It’s an arid, sparsely populated state with natural wonders around every bend, sprinkled with the mysterious ruins of ancient pueblo cities, criss-crossed by the trails of gold-hungry conquistadors and home to some of America’s largest reservations including those of the Apache and the Navaho. It’s also a landscape marked by the roughest edges of the Wild West, holding the remains of besieged forts, the tracks of dashing stagecoaches and frontier towns once ruled by the gunslinger.

Travelling the Southwest filled every sense. The rough touch of the ancient pueblo walls at Bandelier and Aztec Ruins, the gritty taste of the sandstorm that over took me near Farmington, the sight of the incredible red pinnacles of Monument Valley, the smell from the bunches of chillis hung to dry over old Spanish balconies in Santa Fe and the chillingly sweet sound of a Native American’s flute in Mesa Verde.

However… As every writer will tell you, each book presents its own special difficulties. As I wandered around the Southwest, gasping in awe at the landscape and interviewing every different kind of inhabitant that would talk to me, I came to realise that I had a problem.

I could really feel just how sacred this land was.

The Southwest is sacred to many different Native American nations, some of whom have lived there since the last Ice Age, and every natural monument is part of a wealth of mythologies and religious beliefs. The more I was included in this world, the bigger the problem became. How to put an adventure story into a sacred landscape without being disrespectful of those who hold it in such reverence?

Now I’m certainly not saying that my solution is the only one, nor that it works perfectly. Just that it was right for me when I wrote Coyote. My resolution was to make the sacred location I wrote about in Coyote – Big Sun Canyon and everything in it – a fictional composite of impressions taken from different places across the Southwest.

But when I explain this to people, I’m always struck by the paradox in what I’m saying.

The nations of the Southwest hold their land as sacred, but in the end what place on our gorgeous planet shouldn’t be? I guess it all comes down to what each culture decides to hold as precious. I’d love to hear what place or landscape is sacred to each of you.

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