#12: The Best Medicine

26 Pickup, the Half-ton

One of the joys of reading your books is the humor; I always find myself laughing out loud, and I was just wondering how important that is to your writing process and what writers make you laugh?
-Mike Reeves

Hi Mike,

It’s kind of essential to the whole process for me; I can’t envision a character without thinking about what kind of sense of humor they might have, as it is so essential to whom and what they are. If anything, I have a hard time being serious enough to write crime-fiction…

It’s a tricky business, because no reader has the same sense of humor, and what one reader finds hilarious, another finds completely offensive. Vic is a good example in that I have a few readers who are constantly lobbying for me to get rid of her because of her language, but I don’t think they realize what an addition she is to the ensemble. Sure, she’s profane and irreverent, but she provides an important counterpoint to what could otherwise be very bucolic books. I like to think that for every reader that picks up one of my novels and puts it down because of Vic’s language, there’s another two who find her hilarious.

People often ask me what the biggest differences between Walt and me are, and I always tell them that the main difference is that I haven’t had the heartbreak in my life that Walt has. Those tragedies have left him with a sense of humor and coping skills that are formidable. He’s the narrative voice of the books, and I think his benevolence is one of the strong suits of the series no matter how bad things get, Walt’s not going to lose his faith in humanity or his sense of humor. There are a lot of folks in law-enforcement who read the books and the one thing they say over and over is, “It’s the humor in the books that gets me—it’s my favorite part.” Being a cop is a tough job and having a sense of humor is almost more important than a bullet-proof vest.

Whenever I’m doing writing workshops, students will ask me how you get the reader to empathize with your characters, and I always tell them to give their characters a sense of humor. Inevitably, the next thing out of their mouth is that they aren’t funny. I’m never quite sure what to say to that because I believe that everybody has a sense of humor, it’s just a question of exercising it. That having been said, being funny and writing funny are two very different things. I don’t know how many writers I know who are absolutely hilarious in person but show no sign of it in their writing. I’m never sure if it’s because their humor doesn’t translate into the writing or that they just don’t want to take the chance of turning away readers.

For the record, here are some writers I find truly hilarious. John Steinbeck, not so much The Grapes of Wrath but pieces like Sweet Thursday, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat. Mark Twain will always be a favorite with his ribald understanding of humanity. George MacDonald Fraser, the entire anti-hero Flashman series but especially the McAuslan trilogy. Richard Russo’s dry humor never fails to crack me up, Erma Bombeck is immortal in my eyes, my buddy Bill Fitzhugh is pretty damned hilarious, and Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is still one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Christopher Moore always gives me a gut laugh, and Dorothy Parker hasn’t lost her edge after a hundred years. Joseph Heller is the only writer I know who could’ve made WWII funny, and James Thurber’s sense of whimsey is always a treat.

See you on the trail,
Craig

“Who You Know…”

26 Pickup #13

I’ve started writing my first novel and have been having trouble keeping things straight, how do you keep everything in your head with eighteen novels?

-Arlen Roth

Hi Arlen,

You know, I haven’t had much of a problem along those lines,but I’m not sure why. I know I’ve slipped up a couple of times, but it’s been something that Walt might actually mess up, calling somebody someone’s daughter when they’re actually a niece, but that’s something we’re all capable of slipping up on in real life—at least I know I am. 

I hear tell there are writers who have great big bulletin boards on their walls to keep the continuity straight. I can see how that would be helpful, but so far, I guess I’ve just been lucky.

The way I see it, I spend at least eight hours a day with the characters in my books, which is more than I spend with my family. I mean, you generally can keep all the relatives in line, but after a few books it does start getting a little more problematic. I do base an awful lot of my characters from real people, and I’ve often said that my favorite quote about writing is the one from Wallace Stegner—“The greatest piece of fiction is the disclaimer at the beginning of each novel that says no one in this based off of anybody alive or dead…” 

One of the things that gives me an advantage in remembering is that I love circling back around drawing up characters and situations from previous books, and for that, I have a secret weapon… It’s no surprise that living in a place like Wyoming I have a lot of time to drive and think, and one of the co-pilots I take with me is my audio book maestro, George Guidall. It’s amazing how much reading you can get done in eight hours of driving, and George makes it truly painless.

As an example, I was working on the outline for Daughter of the Morning Star and decided that if I was going to head up on the Rez for the majority of this book then I was going to go back and see what I’d done previously in As the Crow Flies. It was interesting because I retained the majority of the story, but there were a lot of details and smaller characters that had slipped my mind.

One of those was a character with only a handful of scenes in As The Crow Flies whom I brought back for a page in Daughter of the Morning Star–the tribal officer who never speaks. As a matter of fact Walt teases him by asking him if he barked too much and they cut his vocal cords. It was a challenge writing a character with hardly any voice, but Charles was fun…

Or was it Bill..?

See you on the trail,

Craig

“Twenty-five or Twenty-six?”

26 Pickup, #14

So, are you going to change your Instagram and Twitter handles to Ucrosspop26?

-Nina Adams

Hi Nina,

Probably not… You know, when I bought the land where my ranch is about thirty years ago, there really wasn’t anything much in Ucross other than the Foundation, which is an artist retreat, the U-turn Inn, which was the model for Henry Standing Bear’s bar, The Red Pony, and Sonny George’s Junkyard, which I attempted to immortalize in my novel, Junkyard Dogs. I remember when I told my friend Mike Terry that I was building a ranch on the land he said, “Oh Craig, there’s nothing but outlaws out there.” He was right, and I blended right in.

In the thirty years I’ve been in Ucross some things have changed, the bar and the junkyard are gone, but the foundation has flourished, and we now have a marvelous research center in the middle of town named for my good friend Raymond Plank, who passed a few years back and who was the B-24 Liberator pilot I used as one of the models for Lucian Connally. The foundation is where I do my annual Ucross Longmire Christmas Reading. I miss the bar, it was a raucous place where you’d find Scottish sculptors sitting next to Powder River cowboys, a marvelous cross-pollination of thought and ideas. Though I miss the place, it’s probably better for my writing output that it’s gone—besides I’m a respectable, married man, and I’m not sure if Judy would go for me hanging around in bars.

I don’t think I could’ve chosen better though. I truly enjoy being out on the road and touring all over the globe (by the way Penguin/Random is putting together a monster tour for Hell And Back this year), but my favorite place in the world would have to be Ucross. There’s nothing I like better than writing or sitting by the wood-burning stove and spending time with Judy. I know there are some artists who derive a great deal of their energies from having a lot of tumultuous commotion in their lives, but I’m not one of them. I prefer a quiet, undramatic life—saving the spectacle for my books, and poor Walt.

As a catalyst for your question, yes, the population boom has finally struck Ucross, Wyoming, after forty years and according to our three road signs, our population base has burgeoned from twenty-five to twenty-six… Now, I’ve talked to all my neighbors about the latest going-on, and none of us can come up with any recent additions—no new babies or people moving in. We’re kind of at a loss, and I’m thinking the state is up to some shenanigans in an attempt to bolster the population base of northern Wyoming. Personally, I’m thinking my neighbor and current governor of the state, Mark Gordon is involved with this skullduggery in some way, but I’ll be seeing him at the International Hemingway Association Conference here in the home state next month and will confront him with the issue. 

Nope, I’ll be leaving my handles as they are because who knows what the state will do next year, but yes, I will be changing the bio on the back flap of the books. One wants to be accurate, after all…

See you on the trail,

Craig

“The Great White North”

26 Pickup: #15

Roxane Fridirici: I enjoy reading 52 Pickup and the insights into the World of Walt as well as Inuit writing.  Could we please learn more about Walt’s time in Alaska?

Hi Roxane,

That idea is actually in the wings with a novella called Tooth & Claw which is centered around a portion of Walt’s time in Alaska where he was working as security on an oil rig and called in to do a rescue/evac as a winter storm is coming and there’s a strange blip on the radar near the party that needs retrieving… I’ve spent quite a bit of time up in Alaska and have often described it as “Wyoming on steroids”. There is just so much lore about the place and mysterious incidents that I don’t see any way of avoiding that period in Walt’s life. The novella is about two-thirds of the way finished, but I’ve still got some work to do—especially if I end up turning it into a full-fledged novel, which is always a possibility when I’m actually writing.

Walt is in a very bad place in the piece and Henry’s been dispatched by parties unknown to check on him. Of course, when Walt goes winging it out toward the Arctic Circle into the teeth of a storm in an old C119 clamshell to save some hapless survey crew, guess who’s there to watch his back?

I’ve long been fascinated by the Nanuq, or Great White Bear,ever since I almost stepped on one when part of a fishing trip in Alaska, but that’s a story for another time. I’m a big supporter of Polar Bear conservancy and think we really must keep those magnificent animals from going extinct from climate change and over-hunting. The Inuit have long stalked the Great Bear with the utmost of respect for the animal’s prowess in strength, intelligence, and cunning. Even in death, the skull of the bear is placed on a bench so that it might “watch” the celebration of dancing and feasting in its honor. Afterward, the hunter takes the skull of the bear out onto the sea ice and may only return after hearing noises that will indicate that the spirit of the bear has continued on its spiritual journey.

Polar Bears are one of the few animals on the planet that actively stalk human beings, because with so little interaction with us, they simply have no fear. In Alaska I was talking with an old Inuit man whose son had just gotten a job in a geological crew as a spotter, and I asked him what a spotter was? He said that when they’re out on the ice shelves of the North Slope that as soon as the plane landed, they jump out and begin assembling an aluminum tower with a pivoting seat on top for the spotter, who climbs up there with a .416 Rigby rifle. Evidently, when some of those bears come off the floating ice after hibernation, they’re hungry and nothing stops them from coming in and trying to haul a member of the party away for lunch—and I mean nothing. 

Sounds like a Walt and Henry situation, now doesn’t it?

See you on the trail,

Craig

#16 – “No More Pencils, No More Books”

26 Pickup—The Half Ton: 

It might be interesting for Walt and/or Henry to get involved in something if they visited either one of their alma maters.

-Wayne Heggemeier

Hi Wayne,

Oddly enough, I’ve been giving that some thought since visiting Walt’s stomping grounds at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books which was held on the grounds of the University of Southern California last month. Interestingly enough, both of them got football scholarships and ended up in California. I guess that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise in that it was the sixties and California was where everyone wanted to go. 

I can see either of them being called back for some kind of alumnus celebration, but I’m always thinking of something that might tie-in with the past… Henry’s Berkeley Bears weren’t as fortunate as Walt’s Trojans that collegiate football season, but anything after the Rose Bowl, January 1st in 1963 would be game. I see the both of them finishing out the scholastic year, but then, after graduating and being notified of their eligibility from the draft board, they would’ve only had a certain amount of time to show up for bootcamp. Walt would’ve likely been looking at a trip across country to Parris Island, South Carolinaand Henry would’ve likely been sent to Fort Benning, Georgia. Sounds like a Route 66, cross country road trip to me.

They would’ve likely gone back to Wyoming/Montana for a brief goodbye, but the truck Walt inherited from the family ranch would’ve likely stayed in Los Angeles, giving the guys the opportunity to take one, last, transcontinental jaunt together—unless they drove north and then angled southeast. 

There are a lot of questions at this point–what was their mindset as they set off to war, what would they have taken with them, would the 1960 pickup make the trip easily? Then there’s the year itself, which was something of an upheaval with the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights protests, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Space Race… To say the least, there was a lot going on.

One point of interest is that the Great Cheyenne Nation itself is divided into two major parts—the Northern Cheyenne in Montana, and the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma… Would the Bear have responsibilities there, family he needed to see as he passed through? Would there be problems with a white and a Native traveling together in that period?

They would’ve both been in their absolute physical prime and feeling as if they had nothing to lose considering what they were confronting in their young lives… Yep, it sounds kind of interesting to me.

See you on the trail,

Craig

#17 – The Industry of Young Men

26 Pickup—The Half Ton

“Why did Henry live with his grandmother in high school?”

-Corey Arnett

I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Revolution is the industry of young men.” I think it’s safe to say that Henry Standing Bear was a revolutionary at any age. I think the Cheyenne Nation had some rough edges in his youth, which probably led to him being in a number of scrapes. The first time we even hear of him interacting with Walt was an altercation over the water fountain, which led to a full-blown fist fight.

A youthful life can be tough anywhere when you’re something of an idealist, and I think the basis of the Bear’s revolutionary bent is founded in some pretty outrageous ideas such as a universal equality. All kidding aside, the Rez can teach kids some hard lessons, and I think that’s what happened with the Cheyenne Nation. He was big, smart, and tough, and I think rather than taking him on headfirst, his mother and father decided to pass him off for a period to the only person they knew who was tougher—his grandmother.

We never learn how Henry’s grandmother came to live on the outskirts of Durant, but I’d imagine it had to do with a man. Walt refers to her as a witch, but Henry corrects him in saying she was more of a medicine woman, the kind that used to embarrass him by pulling over and picking parts off roadkill.

There may have been another, alternative reason in that the school system in the white towns was usually better than thoseon the Rez. Henry’s parents probably knew that he needed to be challenged if he was going to rise to the level to which they thought him capable and figured a more advantageous schooling might serve him better. 

They were right. With his academic record and being one of the best high school running backs in the Rocky Mountain West, he got a scholarship to the University of California/Berkeley. Well, that school was a hot bed of social unrest though the sixties and turned out to be the perfect spot for him at the time, reinforcing his revolutionary tendencies. When asked by a young man why he chose UC Berkeley, not particularly a football powerhouse, to go to school, the Bear responds that he wasn’t particularly interested in football by that time and had decided to major in revolution.

So, it would appear that his grandmother didn’t exorcise all those rough edges after all.

See you on the trail,

Craig

#18: Things That Go Bump In The Night

26 Pickup—The Half Ton

#18 Things That Go Bump In The Night

I have seen a theme of visions and spirits in your stories, beginning with The Cold Dish. I love it, and it appears the theme is getting more intense–especially in Daughter Of The Morning Star. Does this have anything to do with Walt’s deep connection with the land and the Cheyenne?

-Liz Snair

Hi Liz,

I like doing what I call writing in the margins–it gives me the opportunity to include things that may or may not normally be included in crime fiction like humor, history, social commentary, or mysticism. I think it adds a component to the novels that provides a richness they might not otherwise have. It’s a risk, in that there are always going to be people who don’t like those kinds of things, but I think it’s a risk that’s worth it. Anything you do in a book that raises it above the mediocre is going to risk incurring the ire of some reader, whether it be humor, politics, religion, or spirituality. All these elements have a personal taste involved with them and one reader’s devil is another reader’s detail. I think it’s worth the risks becausepeople who are looking for a reason to not read your books are usually going to find one, but the people who enjoy all those layers are going to find something unique. 

In answer to your question, I think it would be hard for me to not include the mystical qualities in my books, but especially the spirituality that’s such a big part of Native life. For the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow that other-worldly element infuses everything. One of the things I’m consistently aware of when I’m standing around a campfire with my buddy Marcus Red Thunder is that my kind of people have only been around here for a couple of hundred years, whereas his have been here for a couple thousand and might know a little more about what’s going on around us.

The next Longmire book, Hell And Back, certainly exemplifies that and it’ll be interesting to see the response. It’s a different kind of book that goes off the diving board and into the pool of mysticism that I’ve toyed with over the years, so after seventeen books, I thought it was time to shake things up a bit. They say all haunting is regret, and I think Walt has carried that burden so long that it’s time to deal with it.

It’s always a fine line with the good sheriff simply because he’s not a believer, and you must make room for the readers that aren’t of that persuasion and allow them to see something else.This novel is going to push those elements about as far as I’m willing to go, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing career and maybe one of the most revealing of Walt Longmire to date.

See you on the trail,

Craig

19: Beautiful Downtown Hatch

26 Pickup—The Half Ton

Do Walt and Vic ever get to Hatch, New Mexico like he always wants to do?
-Mary Negus

Hi Mary,

I’m not sure how the whole Hatch, New Mexico thing in The Cold Dish and subsequent books started but it might’ve had something to do with my grandparents living in Hobbs, which is the New Mexico alternative to Ucross, Wyoming. I remember when we were filming Longmire the New Mexico crew would ask me how I felt about my Wyoming show being filmed in New Mexico and id say, “Fine, my grandparents live over in Hobbs…” Then they would give me a blank look in that they had no idea where that was.

When Longmire was in production, we’d go down at the beginning of each schedule and it was a nice break in February. I think Hatch came out of my travels down there when I’d go to visit my grandparents. I just thought it was a nice little town and maybe a little more low-key than places like Santa Fe or Albuquerque, and that would appeal to Walt.

Winters are long here in Wyoming but its my favorite time of the year because I lay up about fifteen cords of firewood and settle in and get to work—easily the most productive time of my writing year. It’s a little harder on Judy, so I try and get her out for a warm-up usually in March or so. That, and those trips to France in April keep me happily married.

Walt will never leave Wyoming, but he is predisposed to a melancholia that tends to strike in those dark months and I can see him smelling roasted peppers and catching the lilt of soft, Spanish voices. I think we saw some evidence of that in Depth Of Winter even though his life was in peril the whole time. The scene behind the rubble of the old chapel with Bianca Martinez is an example.

I really like New Mexico and the folks down there were wonderful to work with and hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to get together again, someday. Longmire is still lingering there in the top-twenty shows on Netflix and the books are always on the New York Times Bestseller’s list for the last twelve years, so there’s always hope. The newest piece of information that lit up the rumor mill is that all the big sets down there had been bought up by a producing element. So, we’ll see what happens.

I did get an interesting piece of mail a few years back and it turned out to be from the mayor of Hatch, inviting me down for a visit. He was very complimentary of the books and promised me a key, if they could find it… Sounds a little like Ucross.

See you on the trail,
Craig

#20: On The Beach

26 Pickup-The Half-Ton

Randy Murphy: Will there be a book about Walt on a December vacation with Vic on the Caribbean Island and getting drawn into something? Maybe include a little voodoo …
Do you have an “idea folder” where you jot down little ideas, sayings, quotes that may (or may not) fit some future story? If so, how full is it?

#20: On The Beach

Hi Randy,
Walt on a beach, huh? It does seem like the sheriff has earned a vacation, doesn’t it?

It seems to me that the greatest philosophical question is the mountains or the beach—a long time ago I went with the mountains, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss a little sand between my toes occasionally. It’s odd, but as I roam around Wyoming I run into a lot of veterans, and I’ll be darned if the majority aren’t Navy… I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise in a land-locked place that there were young men who wanted to see the sea. Walt didn’t get much of a choice since he was drafted by the Marines, but I figure he spent enough time with the anchor-clankers.

​That brief little excerpt where Vic spent some time alone in Belize, had an amazing resonance with readers, but I guess that’s to be expected, wondering what the characters do in their time off. It’s tempting, I have to admit, but I have a sneaking suspicion the next beach time Walt will have will be back on Johnston Atoll after Vietnam. Possibly a story that combines the two?

Yep, I’ve got folders full of ideas, because if I didn’t have those folders, I’d forget the ideas. Usually, I start off with a number of things such as what’s the message I’m trying to get across in a novel, or an interesting story or situation that might provide a background or plot, and then what kind of effect is this particular story going to have on the characters? It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle and all the parts have to fall into place. I’m pretty sure that if somebody were to go through the files, they wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails concerning what’s in there.

​The story file is pretty sizeable, probably because of my concerns about running out of ideas when I agreed to continue the characters as a series after the first book, The Cold Dish. The big thing for me was to not become repetitious or formulaic, so I started collecting ideas—did I ever. Some of them stay pertinent, but some of them fall away or become of less interest. The key to writing a novel is choosing an idea that’s not only going to hold the reader’s attention but also hold the writers for the year that you’ll be working on a project. I’ve never found myself in a situation where I’ve gotten bored or wanted to give up on a project, thank goodness.

​The Johnston Atoll story has held my attention over the years. Maybe it’s the idea of Walt on some rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with long hair, a beard, flip-flops, cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, wandering around and trying to decide if he’s going to rejoin humanity or not.

I think we all sometimes know how that feels.

See you on the trail,
Craig

#21: Sweets For The Sweet

26 Pickup—The Half Ton

#21 Sweets for the Sweet

Why did you choose Mallo Cups as Virgil’s calling card?

-Scott McCreery

Hi Scott,

You know I love snooping around in the candy section of the Cracker Barrel restaurants whenever I’m there in that it’s a road trip down memory lane. I’m a sucker for old-fashioned candies and they usually come through. I had a friend who was crazy about Moon Pies and hadn’t had one in years, so after finding them there I sent him a box and I still pick up a Mallo Cup or two every time I’m in the place. I still remember collecting those Mallo Cup Play Money cards from Altoona, Pennsylvania when I was a kid and I guess it made an impression on me—maybe I thought I’d get rich.

​I had to laugh when I saw that Lee Child’s TV Reachercharacter needed a signature candy bar that would be both relatable and authentic and tagged the Clark Bar from Boyer, the same folks that make Mallo Cups… I had to wonder, are they aware that I’ve been using their product for fifteen years? It kind of reminded me of when Pappy Van Winkles suddenly showed up on Justified… Oh well, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

​When I came up with the character of Virgil White Buffalo in the fourth Longmire book, Another Man’s Moccasins, I figured he needed a calling card. It would’ve been simple enough to make it a feather or something from the natural world, but there were problems with that in that you could never be sure if Walt was getting a message or that a stone had been kicked or a feather had just fallen off a bird—it had to be something more definitive. 

​Anyway, whenever I’m coming up with the details of a character, the first thing I take into consideration is their age. Age can be indicative of a lot of details, such as appearance, tastes, and a myriad of other things. First off, it had to be something a man of Virgil’s age would have known, something that would have a part of the wrapper or something that would age appropriately and something not too plentiful or it could simply be mistaken for trash. I see Mallo Cups occasionally, but not so often that they would go unnoticed like say a Snickers Bar wrapper or a Coke bottle.

​It’s gotten to the point that I use the Play Money cards as bookmarks or stuck in the sun visors of all my vehicles. It’s funny because I’m not much of a sweets person, either with candy bars or deserts but that doesn’t mean Virgil isn’t. 

​My seven-year-old granddaughter, Lola, saw one on the center console of my car and asked if she could have it and I told her sure. I watched as she carefully unwrapped it and studied the card as she gnawed on the chocolate-covered marshmallow cup. “What’s this worth?”

​“What does it say?”

​“Twenty-five cents.”

​“Well then, it’s worth twenty-five cents.”

​She studied it some more, still unsure. “Where do I go to get my twenty-five cents?”

​I nodded, sage-like. “That, Kiddo, is a question for the ages…”

See you on the trail,

Craig