Out in the Desert

As I write this, it’s late at night, here in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains in Tucson. I can hear a great horned owl calling outside. Sometimes that deep, bass whoo-whoo-whoo comes from one side of the house, sometimes the other. Occasionally the coyotes start up, sounding like a bunch of frat boys having a party out in the desert. Inside the library of Endicott West, I’ve got James Cohen playing some nice Nuevo flamenco guitar at low volume, mixed with Jorge Renan playing some more traditional stuff.

I was playing that kind of music while I was writing The Mystery of Grace, but that was in the middle of a particularly bad winter in Ottawa and the music helped put me in the mood for the Southwestern setting of the novel. If there were owls outside, they were big snow owls, down from the north. The coyotes were quiet, though you could occasionally see one come wandering down the middle of the street late at night.

I’m not sure how it is for other writers, but music plays a huge role in the background of my books, probably because it does so in the background of my life. I won’t go into too much more detail here because it’s come up in lots of interviews over the years, but I’m pretty much always listening to music, unless I’m playing it myself. When I’m writing, I’ll often put on music that has some connection to my story. So for The Mystery of Grace there was a lot of Calexico, mariachi music, Nuevo flamenco, and what I think of as desert guitar—music similar to those Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtracks, but less orchestral. Like The Cadillac Hitmen.

I’m working on another Southwestern book while I’m here in Tucson. It’s one I started last winter and the above-mentioned music has all played in the background while I’ve worked on it. But the funny thing is, when I’m actually here in the Southwest, writing with the window open and the sounds of the desert coming in, I don’t need the music. The natural gossip of this desert neighbourhood seems to be enough.

I find that I usually enjoy writing about someplace I’m not. If we’re at home in the city, my stories gravitate to rural settings, or ones set in an entirely different landscape, like the desert. If we’re up at the cottage, surrounding by whispering pines, with the mist coming over the lake in the morning and a woodpecker hammering away in the near distance, my story ideas usually find themselves heading for city streets.

So this is different. And pleasant.

Unfortunately, I won’t be here long enough to finish writing this current novel in a desert setting, but I finally understand friends like Guy Gavriel Kay who head off to write in places like Italy, or wherever their the book happens to be set.

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