The Desert or the Woods?

What’s more mysterious?

When I first moved to Vermont from the southwest, I was as enchanted as I was told I should be by every New Englander I met. The green everywhere felt like I’d fallen into a fairy tale. The soft air caressed my face instead of dragging hot dry fingernails across it. And there was flowing water everywhere!

I didn’t think it would be a problem coming up with murder mystery plots. The afore-mentioned deep dark woods, the swift river currents, the campers and hikers who try to get as far away from cell phone coverage as they can. It’s rather creepy out there with the silence (no distant traffic sounds carried on the hot wind), the menacing chitter of unknown creatures, the shadows that seem to follow you like eyes in a portrait.

Then the culture shock set in, and I hit writers block. Don’t get me wrong. New England has culture, tons of it. Libraries, universities, theater groups, book groups. Book writers. The desert just has heat and grit and a lot of strange-looking people who revel in being different. Which means, of course, that they end up resembling each other.

One thing they have in common with New England is that they just want to be left alone. In the desert it’s hard to find them. In the eastern woods, it’s real easy to stumble upon them and then hope they’re carrying that shotgun for squirrels.

I tried widening my knowledge of the area. I went for long drives and found it was easier to get lost in Vermont than out in the desert. I hadn’t realized how much I had come to depend on that fifty-miles-in-any-direction view to keep me anchored. Even after I bought a small compass, somehow it didn’t help to know where north was if there was a solid wall of green mountainside all around me. I discovered that you can go for a hundred miles looking for the town that the car navigation swears is just ahead. The only signs you see give you the name of that spooky little road that runs off through a gap in the trees. Sometimes I’d find a town and could make a guess at its name by the clever signs on the shops. Sometimes I would simply come to a T, turn right or left on a mental dice throw, and after another twenty miles bang on my steering wheel and cry, “But what road am I ON?”

I really didn’t worry about being lost – states are small enough here that if you just keep going, you’ll hit Canada (border) or New Hampshire (Connecticut River) or New York (flat!) or Massachusetts (rush hour!). I expected to find a lot of coffee shops in New England, preferably with outdoor seating where I could contemplate a beautiful green view and work on my latest novel-in-progress.

Surprise.

Unless you live near a university in the middle of a town, cafes of any type are thin on the ground, especially ones with outdoor seating. People looked at me very strangely when I asked. I finally realized that nine months out of the year here, you’re risking hypothermia sitting outside. Anyway, I was a struggling writer, and a college-town five-dollar cappuccino isn’t my cup of tea. I was told there are nice riverside parks, BYO-Coffee. I haven’t found any yet and nearly got arrested trying to find one. How was I supposed to know it was some New Yorker’s summer cottage on the river?

Gas stations sometimes have a picnic table outside, useable three months out of the year if you don’t mind sucking up the fumes from the pumps. No vista to contemplate and no pedestrians to talk to. Just folks in a hurry to get where they’re going.

So I thought, get closer to the ground. I went for long walks hoping for inspiration. The villages here have three or four blocks of sidewalk which constitute “downtown”. Past the last house, the roads are inches from the trees, forcing you to walk out on the tarmac with your heart thumping at every blind curve, wondering if you’ll end up like Stephen King, famous as much for his broken bones as his books. There’s a reason his novels are dark, people.

In the desert, I would sit out on a high dune, stare at the far horizon and come up with dead bodies. There’s tons of them out there, just ask any southwestern CSI. Tons of reasons for them too, with convoluted back stories and a plethora of motives that can stretch across several states. The desert is such a great place to lose a body, it’s a short step to thinking up reasons for finding one.

In New England, murder seems to come mostly from pride and short tempers which lead to impulsive and immediately regretted killings. The cops generally know whodunnit before they even get there. My son’s on the Volunteer Rescue Squad and often laments the too-many desperate deaths, things like overdoses, suicide and freezing to death. Not to mention the stupid deaths, people who don’t realize you can’t just go for a stroll in the woods in January wearing a plastic windbreaker. And you can’t ride a boogie-board over the rocks, and you can’t bungee-jump off a picturesque but short bridge.

Trying to design a long-term mystery novel can be a challenge. But I’m getting braver. I poke down those spooky roads and scuttle through tired alleys that haven’t been gentrified yet, just to see what I can find. I read the paper and attend town meetings to study the resentment caused by the latest housing development that’s pushing out the oldtimers. I wonder about the people who might be holding a serious long-term grudge against the neighbor who legally built a fence so it blocks access to a favorite squirrel-hunting trail or shot their dog while aiming at a rabbit.

I’ll come up with something.

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