Location As Character

Location As Character, Guest post by Robert Dunn

A LIVING GRAVE is the first book of a series featuring Katrina (Hurricane) Williams. A PARTICULAR DARKNESS is the second. The fact that A LIVING GRAVE became a continuing series, I think, owes a lot to one of my favorite characters—the Ozarks location.

Location As Character, Guest post by Robert Dunn
I’ve always been a fan of books that use their environment as a character to shape and define the actions of the people who live within it. The Katrina Williams series is set in a fictionalized version of my own home, the Missouri Ozarks. It is a dark world where murder collides with modern day bootleggers, mobsters, bikers, and a sinister figure in the forest who may or may not be real.

My take on what I like to call, Ozarks Noir, was inspired by other rural mysteries that have shaped the fictional American landscape over the last few years. I’m proud to say that my books have been compared favorably to those of a master. James Lee Burke has stamped his mark on several locales and made them almost the personal possession of this characters. He practically holds the title to Louisiana and New Iberia Parish in the pages of his Dave Robicheaux novels.

More recently, Ace Atkins has staked out rural Mississippi as the home for The Ranger, Quinn Colson. Location can serve as more than a character too. The Longmire books by Craig Johnson and the Joe Pickett novels by C.J. Box are filled with the living, breathing, west. At the same time they define and create a whole modern western genre.

When I decided to write a novel about a female main character I was stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m an old, guy, what do I know about being a woman, let alone one who has Katrina’s troubling experiences? So, when it comes to the world she inhabits I fell back on that old dictum, Write What You Know.

I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks after my father retired from the military and finally settled us. At that time and place the rural world was just beginning to give way to the suburban. It was actually a pretty good place for a kid to grow up. It was a world filled with ball games, lake fishing, river swimming, and my least favorite, hay hauling. I only did it a couple of summers but ¢2 a bale for a day of following a tractor, bucking hay onto the trailer, then stacking it in the barn is not an easy memory to let go of. I guess that’s the thing, none of them are easy memories to be shed of and who would want to?

Location As Character, Guest post by Robert Dunn
Since I began writing I’ve been setting stories from the mundane to the fantastic in that world. There was a zombie novel with Lovcraftian old gods in a cave, followed by an alien siege story. They mostly got stranger from there. When I thought about writing a mystery there was no other place to set it. I thought about how I wanted things to work out and where they should begin, who the characters were and why they were the way they were. But it wasn’t coming together. And if it wasn’t working for me I knew for sure it wouldn’t do so for anyone else. I thought a lot about why and I even took a couple of trips to the Ozarks to get a new feel for the old places.

What was missing?

Home. The world had changed and I didn’t know the new one like I knew the old one. I stepped back and started over. My character, Katrina (Hurricane) Williams is a woman who was one of those leading edge female Army officers. At a time when the Military was officially keeping women from combat postings they were fighting wars with no front lines. Women were at war, taking fire, but at the same time unacknowledged. More than that, they were denied.

Changes. It was about the shift from an old way to a new one and the damage that inflicts on those who make it happen. To show that, I brought her back to our home, the one she and I share. But I took a new look at what it is and what it was. Then I stated writing my Ozarks as a melding of the old and new, my memory, my idealizing, with the world the way it is.

Katrina, is a bit of a ghost in her world, haunting old America even as it becomes the modern world. Her lake world of deep green foliage, wooden boat docks strung with bare bulbs, country music shows, and warm life, is colored by terrible events from a world away. I’ve never been to war. I can’t write that experience, but I know home and how home is taken away and shoved into memory by the events of a life. So that’s what I wrote.

The Ozarks became a character more than a location in A LIVING GRAVE. It engulfs the characters and in the case of Katrina, it tries to shield her from the trauma of war and betrayal. It fails. And because the location is another flawed character, a flawed home, I hope we can all relate and find ourselves in that world for a little while. That’s not up to me. It’s up to the reader to judge how I did. But I will say this to anyone who chooses to read the Katrina Williams series, welcome to my home.

Location As Character, Guest post by Robert Dunn
I wasn't born in a log cabin but the station wagon did have wood on the side. It was broken down on the approach road into Ft. Rucker, Alabama in the kind of rain that would have made a Biblical author jealous. You never saw a tornado in the Old Testament did you? As omens of a coming life go, mine was full of portent if not exactly glad tidings.

From there things got interesting. Life on a series of Army bases encouraged my retreat into a fantasy world. Life in a series of public school environments provided ample nourishment to my developing love of violence. Often heard in my home was the singular phrase, "I blame the schools." We all blamed the schools.

Both my fantasy and my academic worlds left marks and the amalgam proved useful the three times in my life I had guns pointed in my face. Despite those loving encounters the only real scars left on my body were inflicted by a six foot, seven inch tall drag queen. She didn't like the way I was admiring the play of three a.m. Waffle House fluorescent light over the high spandex sheen of her stockings.

After a series of low paying jobs that took me places no one dreams of going. I learned one thing. Nothing vomits quite so brutally as jail food. That's not the one thing I learned; it's an important thing to know, though. The one thing I learned is a secret. My secret. A terrible and dark thing I nurture in my nightmares. You learn your own lessons.

Eventually I began writing stories. Mostly I was just spilling out the, basically, true narratives of the creatures that lounge about my brain, laughing and whispering sweet, sweet things to say to women. Women see through me but enjoy the monsters in my head. They say, sometimes, that the things I say and write are lies or, "damn, filthy lies, slander of the worst kind, and the demented, perverted, wishful stories of a wasted mind." To which I always answer, I tell only the truth. I just tell a livelier truth than most people. 

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Location As Character, Guest post by Robert Dunn


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