It is a modern-day irony that the wide-open spaces of the American West are becoming less settled–less populated than in the 1800s of Wild West fame.
Some places are losing population at the rate of 7% a year. At that rate, in ten years, there will be nothing but ghost towns and interstate highways.
What happens to the people who hang on? How do they manage that downward spiral?
Law enforcement in these areas includes all the usual problems plus some rather large extras–modern-day cattle rustling, illegal roundups of wild horses, poaching of dinosaur bones, grave robbing of prehistoric sites, hi-tech hunting of endangered species, armed and angry Constitutionalists, etc. etc. All that must be done with little manpower and less resources. Not to mention the fact that locals, who elect their sheriff, often have different idea of the job than what is required by court decisions and federal mandates.
In short, being a sheriff in America’s rural outback is today’s impossible job.
Samantha Nielsen is a smart, no-nonsense, practical-to-a-fault sheriff who just happens to hear voices and see ghosts. She was the fourth generation to grow up on her family’s ranch. She couldn’t wait to leave and was gone the same day she graduated from high school, never expecting to return. However, when her husband died in a mysterious freeway accident, she packed up her daughter, and came home to the only job available–sheriff. The night she won election, she couldn’t celebrate because she was fairly sure she’d been elected because of her family, not her own qualifications.
Three and a half years later, she’s facing re-election and doubts she’ll get the votes this time because she’s done too good a job, meaning she’s annoyed too many locals, and because she knows too much about the wealthy baron of the state. Not to mention that she’s failed to be as colorful as her mother and grandmother. A part of her still wants to leave, would be relieved to not be reelected, but she’s still not sure where she’d go. Her daughter loves the ranch and she has unfinished business.
Want a hard job?
A sheriff in rural America has to deal with all the usual law enforcement problems–drugs, domestic violence, gangs, robberies, traffic, etc.
Plus a few unusual ones–modern-day cattle rustling, grave robbing of prehistoric sites, international poaching, search and rescue missions the size of military operations, etc.
Typically such a sheriff will have little money, less manpower, and an overwhelmingly large territory to patrol. Some counties in the American West are larger than eastern states. Malheur County Oregon is larger than the state of Massachusetts, for example, and has less than 35,000 people.
Now complicate matters with court decisions on environmental matters that often put the sheriff at odds with the same people who elected him or her.
The result is an impossible job and a perfect set-up for a novel.
Rainbow Horses about Sheriff Samatha Nielsen of Drinkwater County, Idaho, who is haunted by the mysterious death of her husband (some blame her) and faced with the possibility of losing the family ranch. At the same time she needs to figure out why Hollywood has come to town, a billionaire businessman is buying up land, and someone is trying to scare off some students doing research on chuckars (a species of bird). That’s, more or less, a regular day in one of the most remote wildernesses on the continent–a place some call the American Serengeti.
Writing an historical novel requires research. Writing a present-day novel requires legwork–an old journalism term for getting out and getting the story, using your legs. You go places, meet people, take pictures, etc. etc.
Most people think that the research that goes into historicals takes longer. Not true. Historians have usually sifted through the raw material, organized and determined what’s important and then put it in a written form with references that makes the novelist’s job much easier. A present-day novel requires that the novelist have journalism skills, such as being able to do an interview. Even before the interview, you need to figure out who has the information you need and how to get access to that person.
For Rainbow Horses, I interviewed rural sheriffs, environmentalists working on issues in the American West, ranchers, hunters, and taxidermists. I toured several large rural counties, a wild horse refuge, a bird refuge, petroglyph sites, and the largest extent ghost town in America. Some of it was fun. Some of it was work. All of that took time.
The Title: Rainbow Horses refers to an old Native American tradition that identifies the seven directions with colored horses.