26 Pickup: The Half ton
“I’m just curious, when I read your books, I sometimes have a map and follow the roads and trails you use in your novels and they’re pretty accurate for Johnson County and Bighorn surroundings—why did you decide to develop the fictitious Absaroka County in your books?”
I remember when I was doing the research for The Cold Dish, the very first Walt Longmire novel, and was doing ride-alongs with Larry Kirkpatrick then sheriff of Johnson County he said, “You’ve got a mistake there in the first chapter.”
“And what’s that?”
“If you take a right on Fort Street, the next street on the left isn’t Aspen.”
All I could think was that I wasn’t going to fight that crap for the rest of my life—hello fictitious county. I’m not the first author to do such a thing, with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, James Hilton’s Shangri-La and so many others. I think a novelist needs a certain amount of creative freedom. As my friend Curt Wendelboe once said, “It’s not a documentary.” If people want literal fact, then they should probably read non-fiction, but what I’m concerned with is something far more elusive, truth.
For me, one of the big reasons for creating Absaroka County was to move the environs to the Montana border where I could have the characters be in closer proximation with the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations. You have to remember that at this point, Walt Longmire wasn’t going to be a series, but rather a stand-alone novel. As things turned out, it was a fortuitous decision.
Another reason for not only the fictitious county but the made-up county seat, Durant, is that Buffalo, the actual seat of Johnson County is just too big. Approaching five thousand people, buffalo has a police department and that’s a complication that I didn’t want to have to deal with, not that I may not sometime in the future. It’s an interesting difficulty that Durant would get large enough to have a police department and that Walt would have to share his duties—something he’s not used to doing.
Back to your question, I had lunch with some of the staff from the Wyoming Office of Tourism one time and they mentioned how much they valued the books and I thanked them but asked why? They said that an awful lot of people get in touch with them about the locations of novels that take place in Wyoming and that the thing they appreciate is that I include street, route and even trail numbers so that people like yourself can follow along or even visit the places where the novels take place.
I can see how an author would be lured by the possibility of being able to just make everything up, but the challenges of working your fiction in the real world are just as enticing to me—besides, it’s a heck of a lot easier if I don’t have to remember all that stuff. I have enough of a hard time remembering where I live without pinning my address and phone number to my Carhartt…
See you on the trail,