“Writing to the Edge” (by Sandi Ault)

Adventure is a mystery-crossover category that we haven’t discussed much yet on this blog, but we’re correcting that today. Sandi Ault’s series of novels featuring Jamaica Wild, a Bureau of Land Management agent, are chock full of adventure, as EQMM readers will discover in our August issue (mailing to subscribers in just a few days). It contains the series sleuth’s short-story-length case “Wild Justice,” and provides a good introduction to the novels, which have won both the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the WILLA Literary Award (presented by Women Writing the West). But Sandi Ault doesn’t just write adventure; she lives it. She and her husband live high in the northern Rockies of Colorado with a wolf “companion” and a Missouri wildcat. And that’s not all, as you’ll see . . . —Janet Hutchings

I don’t remember too many times in my life when I wasn’t sporting a fresh cut, scrape, bandage, cast, crutch, sling, splint, or barely-healed-but-still-visible wound. I am the only person I know who can claim six—yes, six!—head injuries (two in childhood and four in so-called adulthood) and still survived with the ability to count that high. This would all make sense if I were Evel Knievel or a member of Seal Team Six, a participant in the X Games, or possibly even in the cast of Cirque de Soleil. But no . . . I am an author. And one would think it would be hard to do all that damage while sitting at a desk typing, right?

I swear it: The writing has definitely contributed to my variety of badly healed bones, crooked digits, and scars. It is not so much the occasional rough dismount from the keyboard or the lifting of tons of books to shelve and un-shelve them in search of the one with that elusive but wonderful quote. Rather, it’s the research portion of my work that I blame. Because the WILD Mystery Series crosses over from mystery fiction into adventure, I tend to do the bulk of my research in the great outdoors. In the wild, to be specific.

Like the proverbial dilemma about the egg, I am not sure which came first: the adventurous research or the writing. I have pretty much done both ever since I was able. But I do know that when an idea for a story seizes me, it usually comes out of an adventure I have experienced firsthand, or one I am (hopefully not) dying to experience but will seek out as soon as possible—and lay it on the fact that I have a really cool idea for a book.

I often wonder how much this same thing is true of all of my comrades in the crime-fiction genre? Or is it just those of us who write adventure that have a broken bone, lost tooth or toenail, or big gnarly scar for every book and short story we’ve written? I know some of my pals who write police mysteries have done a lot more than the occasional ride-along. But do all those cozy writers sample poisons disguised by flavored teas (in safe doses, we hope) or try stabbing a pork roast with a knitting needle to see what the wound would look like? Just how far do we have to take this research thing to write credibly?

In my case, I have been accused of taking it too far, indeed. Right—or, perhaps better said: write—to the edge. But there again, which idea came first: the one for the adventure or the one for the adventure-based mystery? Or is a deadline just an excuse for another daring exploit, another trip to the back country, another risky mission out amongst the elements?

Alas, I can’t say. I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I love to write about my adventures chasing hard-to-find petroglyphs and discovering ruins in almost-impossible-to-get-to places. And I love to have an idea for a plot and then go on an adventure to experience the setup firsthand. Even if I did crack my skull on the left side of my frontal lobe and pass out dangling from a rope ninety miles from anywhere, I was thrilled to discover the pristine ancient cliff dwelling I rappelled to in a remote and desolate canyon. And my close encounters with mountain lions, bears, and especially wolves in the wild have given me more joy than any Christmas could give any child. And when I chose to set Wild Inferno on a wild-land fire, and draw upon an exciting time in my life when I was a wild-land firefighter, all the firefighters I interviewed for that book echoed my reason for doing that dangerous job: When you are right on the edge, when you are staring death in the face, you are more alive than at any other time in your life. And so it goes with the job of researching for the WILD Mystery Series.

Not that I don’t pore over books and wear out my welcome with librarians too. What writer doesn’t? But a paper cut hardly rivals the time I shot out of the raft on the San Juan River in roiling whitewater. Or got chased out of a remote New Mexican mountain village by a mob of angry Hispanic Penitentes who didn’t like a white girl investigating their secret, sacred places of worship and burial. Or the encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, deadly heat, cold, snow, and horses that fall lame in the middle of miles of dry arroyos in the high desert with only enough water for one of us to make it—me, or the horse. Or the threats to me and my family for being a white girl in the middle of a culture-rich but closed-and-stricture-bound Native American tribe, trying to write as fast as I can before the People and all their cultural richness vanish amidst our cell phones and fast cars and 3D televisions. This is writing to the edge. To the edge of the knife of change, which cuts through all permanence and makes ribbons of that which it severs—ribbons that fly and fray in the wind and are worn to wisps of memory for a time, and then finally forgotten. Forgotten, but for the books written and the stories told. Only they remain.

I think for the whole time I have been writing adventure-based mystery fiction, I have actually had an ulterior motive: I have been hurrying as fast as I can to write about that which is so precious to me and is so rapidly vanishing. The Tiwa culture. Wolves. Mountain lions. Bears. Ruins, petroglyphs, the wild. To experience any or all of these, to savor them, to be humbled by them or to bask in them even for a moment is an indescribably precious gift to me, even if it might cost me my life one of these times when I am not so incredibly lucky as I have been up until now. And so I write right to the edge. Out on the rim of the cliff that holds the memories of the earth and its original people, the crude but amazing dwellings of the first Americans, the four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged and crawling things, the swimmers and slitherers to whom this world once belonged. Out beyond the safety of four walls and a digital thermostat where violent weather, harsh elements, scarcity, and unpredictability can suddenly change the landscape and make your survival a questionable commodity. To the edge of desolation where I might not see another human being for weeks at a time, suffer the lack of comforts and amenities, but discover something within myself and about life that rivals all the riches of civilization.

To the edge where a line is crossed and I know that I can never come back the same—where I start to feel more at home among the wolves and the cougars and the bears and the rocks and the trees and the land, and I cannot fathom living anyplace where I can’t see for at least a hundred miles. Only then am I changed enough to come back in like a spy from the cold, back to civilization’s strangeness where I write about my experience. Only then can I write . . . to the edge.

Of course, there’s a cost to all this: Time works on me like all those other vanishing things. Lately, I am noticing aging joints that creak and ache and dull throbbing pains from old injuries. A slight hearing loss from shooting way too many firearms and being on the line during roaring wildfires. Recurring dreams peopled by speaking stones and singing trees that feel more real than the furniture in my living room. The occasional odd sensation that I am navigating the river when I am driving. No more can I wear summer clothing without a scar or two in plain sight. But in the light of my adventures, this is a cost I would gladly pay all over again.

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21 Responses to “Writing to the Edge” (by Sandi Ault)

  1. Barb Goffman says:

    Sandi, your adventures have always amazed me. I live vicariously through you.


    Everything you said here, as I would expect, is VERY WELL SAID! You are a great inspiration BUT I do wish you’d be careful with yourself!! Miss you!!

  3. Sandi: Most people have heard the adage, “write what you know” but I was taught that the other half of that was, “learn what you don’t know.” You do that so fantastically. And it’s true. I know that I certainly had a better feeling for my character, Jade, when I took a lever action rifle in hand and fired it, or learned the recurve bow, and (most fun for me) flew in a bi-plane. And a writer also draws more on older experiences. I could relate to fear very strongly by recalling the time that I was cleaning the lion’s cage and the lion started to paw the adjoining doorway open. As long as we keep it safe and keep it legal, experience cannot be topped. In other words, we never actually murder people before writing about it. 🙂

  4. Dean Wyant says:

    If an author is not writing to the edge, they’re not doing it right. It is the difference between a good book and a great book. At times, over the edge is even better.
    I thank you for your suffering so that we (the readers) may be completely enthralled. But please, do stay safe.

  5. You writing always grabs me and takes me for a ride….excellent work….even in your blogs!! Good job….but you need to slow down a little….us old guys can’t take living on “your edge” like this!!! Now where are those crutches and pain killers….????

  6. Melody says:

    Fans of special writers wait for the next book to be cranked out no matter what. But in the case of Sandi Ault’s fans, they truly understand the heart and soul behind each book and never get anxious for the next installment in a series. We know that waiting is what we do and then we savor each and every word over and over again. We live the moments as if we are experiencing them for ourselves and feel a deep sadness when we turn the last page. If the fans are like me, I go back to the beginning and start all over. I know these characters, I pet Mountain, I cry when he is hurt and I am afraid when I read about the danger. Perhaps we are a cult and our following is odd to some. But if you get deep inside the soul of each and every book you will know that what you experience is special and what you know about the cultures is a secret that you should keep close to your heart.

    • Sandi Ault says:

      Wow, Melody! That was so wonderful. And the writer in you has put it so eloquently, too. You keep writing and reading, and I’ll do the same! Thanks for making it so worthwhile for me to write, knowing it is treasured by folks like you.

  7. Tracy Kerns says:

    Great blog – I am anxiously awaiting Wild Justice as well as the next installment in the WIld Mystery Series.

  8. Dimi says:

    Amazing writing as usual – your word choices always make it thrilling. You have an old soul and it is obvious you care about the land and it’s story – thank you for sharing.

  9. Sandra says:

    I can’t wait until the next book!!! I love your stories!!

  10. Scott Johnson says:

    Keep it on the edge. That is what captivates me and keeps me wanting more adventures from you! Can’t wait until the next installment.

  11. RT says:

    A real storyteller tells real tales and you’re one of the best! Just don’t take the real life dramas too far and deny us your talent!!!!!!!

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