Shannon Baker is a lover of mountains, plains, oceans and rivers and can often be found traipsing around the great outdoors. Tainted Mountain, the first in her Nora Abbott Mystery Series, is set in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she lived for several years and worked for The Grand Canyon Trust, a hotbed of environmentalists who, usually, don’t resort to murder. It involves man-made snow on sacred peaks, uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, kachinas, murder, and a woman determined to make some sense of it all.
Shannon now makes her home in Boulder, Colorado. Surprisingly, Nora followed her and the next book in the series is set in this beautiful location.
Research Slut by Shannon Baker
Not everything about writing novels is great. It takes lots of time I could spend outside playing. I have to deal with the ugly face of rejection—more frequently than I’d like to admit. Trying to work out complicated plots hurts my head. Getting the words right with all the craft and expert writing advice swirling around my brain is enough to make me crazy(er).
One thing that is great about writing novels, though, aside from getting to play god to a world of my imagination, is research.
I guess it won’t hurt my reputation much now, so I can confess that I actually liked term papers when I was in high school. I secretly enjoyed history class and though I read more fiction for fun than I read non-fiction, I love learning obscure facts and trivia laced into the story.
My plots and characters are often a product of the really cool stuff I learn while researching. For instance, when I moved to Flagstaff and found out about the controversy surrounding Snowbowl and man-made snow on a mountain peak sacred to thirteen tribes, I got curious. Off I traipsed with my brand new Flagstaff library card.
The conflict over man-made snow, climate change, environmentalists, and Native American religion seemed perfect for a mystery and I couldn’t wait to get down to writing it.
I read several tribes’ creation stories that centered around the San Francisco Peaks. These people have been around this area for a couple of thousand years and they find important plants and perform vital ceremonies on the mountain.
I stumbled across several books about the Hopi tribe. Now, that’s an interesting culture with a rich history. This tiny tribe, destitute and insular, believes it is responsible for the balance of the world. The Whole World.
How could I not be drawn to that?
I did some super-fun in person research. One summer morning I drove a few hours to the Homolovi ruins north of Winslow. Along with a tour of the dwellings and ruins, a few Hopi tribal members talked about their farming techniques and their reliance on native plants. One generous young man took the time to explain to me why the Hopi corn is planted in disarray instead of nice neat rows. He told me why his corn grows green and strong in the arid climate. Let me give you a hint, it has very little to do with fertilizer, barometric pressure and high and low fronts.
Another day I ventured even further to a public dance at Second Mesa in Shipolovi. I was an obvious outsider. The Hopi haven’t been treated well by white folks in the past. Their sacred relics have been stolen, outsiders broadcast their secrets, and overall treated them with very little respect. The Hopi now have some pretty strict rules, such as no photography, no sketching, and they frown on note taking.
Their dance was amazing. I was so nervous I’d do something offensive I stood as still and silent as possible and watched. But they wouldn’t let me be a fly on the wall. During one break, when the kachinas filed out of the plaza, the Hopi clowns gathered up all the white folk and sat us in the middle of the plaza. They had some good-natured fun with us and in the end, piled many gifts into our hands.
I was welcomed into the home of one young woman. She explained a lot about kachinas and gave me some history of the Hopi migrations that brought them to the three mesas in Northern Arizona.
I wouldn’t have traipsed off on my own like that if I hadn’t been chasing a plot.
For Tainted Mountain I had to learn about uranium mining and watersheds. I sought out a hydrologist at Northern Arizona University. I interviewed a manager at Vane Minerals about their mining operations close to the Grand Canyon.
For those of you who didn’t like school, maybe novel writing that involves research wouldn’t be your idea of a good time. I know people around me can’t believe I do this for fun. The most frustrating thing about the research is not being able to use all the neat stuff I learn. That’s okay, I figure if I write enough books, I’ll be the perfect dinner party guest.
If you’re a writer, what is your favorite research story? If you’re a reader (and who isn’t?) what is the best fact you’ve learned from a book?
Shannon, I almost hate to write a story that requires a lot of research because I get carried away, start looking for out-of-print books in out-of-the-way places, and surf websites and blogs until my eyeballs weep in protest. The most interesting thing I learned concerned early 1800s history in central Illinois. In 1811-12 there was a great earthquake and lots and lots of aftershocks centered in the New Madrid fault in Missouri that set the Mississippi River flowing backwards for a time. I spent a lot of days reading about that event and had to work it into my novel. Research is addicting.
While Tainted Mountain is available from your favorite online bookseller, if you’d like to support our indie bookstores, you are welcome to contact Broadway Book Mall in Denver. They may still have signed copies of Shannon’s books, and they will be glad to help you.
“Baker’s series debut brings Native American culture and big business together into a clash that can be heard across the mountains. Fans of J.A. Jance’s Joanna Brady will see similarities in Nora Abbott.” —– Library Journal