Stranger in Thunder Basin is my seventeenth traditional western novel. It was published in April 2009 by Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). In this novel, I continue my efforts at writing traditional fast-action westerns with strong elements of character and landscape.
Stranger in Thunder Basin is in some ways a quest novel, as it is the story of a young man who seeks to find out why someone would want to kill his guardian / grandfather, a man who cared for him like a father. This young man, Edward Dawes, needs to find out not only who did it, but why. Then he needs to see justice served.
Although this is pretty much a straightforward, go-ahead kind of story, it has a few subtleties. The first stranger who appears in the tale is the assassin who kills Jake Bishop. In turn, Edward Dawes becomes the stranger who avenges Bishop’s death, and after that he is a stranger to his own mother. The whole idea of the stranger and of the ways in which one could be a stranger was an interesting one to work with. One aspect of the idea comes from Oedipus Rex, in which the title character says:
Until now I was a stranger to this tale
As I had been a stranger to the crime.
In this context, a person is a stranger because of not knowing, and part of the action of the story is moving towards knowledge. My character Ed, like Oedipus, comes to knowledge about the crime and also about his true mother and father.
Another aspect of the idea of the stranger comes from L’ Étranger (The Stranger) by Camus, which I read in French when I was in college and which I read again (with my old annotations) in preparation for writing this novel. In Camus’s novel, the protagonist commits an irrational act by killing a stranger, and by doing so, he becomes a stranger, or outsider, in the world he lives in. I explored this idea in a non-fiction piece of my own entitled “Stranger at the Lookout,” which I first wrote in Spanish when I was studying in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, and later converted into English. In this essay, I relate an experience in which I, a stranger or foreigner (extranjero) happened upon a scene where a man had been stabbed the night before. At the end of the piece I conclude that I felt a relation with the person who had been stabbed (and possibly killed) and that the person who shed the blood would forever be the stranger.
Well, these are just ideas, and I do not wish to seem immodest as I discuss how I played with them; rather, I hope to show how ideas come from here and there, get tossed into a mélange (I think of it as being like a big pot of soup), and come out in a blend. For my own purposes, at least, it gives me energy to draw from.
A similar effect comes about from field research. When I have a story line that is grounded in a specific place, it does me a world of good to go out and observe that place. In the case of this novel, I had the notion that I wanted to set the story in Thunder Basin, which is an actual place in northeastern Wyoming. It is a vast, relatively untouched area, which a person sort of goes into and comes out of. So, in addition to having an evocative name, the place seemed appropriate to the story. With that in mind, I knew I had to go on a field trip in order to give myself another fund of material or source of sustenance.
I decided to go by myself and camp two nights, so I took a small camper I have for excursions of this nature. We had just had a spell of wet weather, and things were cleared out for the time being, so I hoped for the best. When I got to the Thunder Basin area, after about three hours of driving, I saw plenty of evidence of the recent rains, but as the afternoon wore on, it looked as if I was going to enjoy some gentle late-spring weather with little wind, warm sunshine, and wide, clear skies.
I drove inland, as it seemed to me, until I came to a spot that seemed like a good place to camp. I pulled off the gravel road and followed a dirt road for about half a mile, and there I pitched my camp. I had been poking along, taking notes and snapping pictures, and now that I was stopped, I could take things in at an even slower pace. The spot where I camped was just above a grove of dead cottonwoods, an impressive feature that I incorporated into the story along with many other scenes, large and small.
After spending two nights in the same place, I packed up my camp and headed out for a slow drive through the Thunder Basin National Grassland. At a far point on my journey, I had to turn around because of a washed-out road, so I was obliged to re-trace some of my route. That in itself is an interesting exercise in observation, as a person sees from the opposite direction what he has just driven past without thinking he would see it again so soon. After taking a long way around, I ended up in Newcastle, Wyoming, and from there I drove south on US 85 along a stretch I am familiar with and always enjoy. All this time, I continued to take notes and snap a picture now and then.
When I got home, I found out that the film had not been advancing in my camera, so instead of having a full roll of pictures to help me in my recollection, I had none. But that was all right. I am, after all, a writer, and I did take good notes, which at the time helped me open my eyes and then later helped me re-imagine the scenes.
When I wrote this novel, I had a good sense of place all the way through. That, and my sense of purpose in carrying out my ideas related to the stranger, kept me on track. I feel that Stranger in Thunder Basin is one of the more dramatic novels I have written, and I hope it brings some enjoyment into the lives of a few readers.
This novel came out in April of 2009. A little less than a year later, I was thrilled to learn that Stranger in Thunder Basin won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Mass-Market Paperback Original Novel. This was a great development for me, as I had won in the same category the year before with Trouble at the Redstone and was a finalist the year before that with Raven Springs. All three of these novels were published by Leisure Books / Dorchester Publishing.
In addition to winning in Mass-Market Paperback in 2010, I had the stunning surprise of also winning in the Best Short Fiction category. My short story “At the End of the Orchard,” originally published by Hardboiled Magazine, won here. This story, about 9000 words, is a mystery/noir piece set in a peach orchard and labor camp in the 1960’s. Each of these awards was a great honor for me, and together they marked a milestone that has been important long after the initial euphoria was gone. I would not have made it this far, of course, if it were not for the people who have seen fit to publish my work—most notably, in this case, Don D’Auria of Dorchester Publishing and Gary Lovisi of Hardboiled Magazine, but also all of the other editors and contest judges who have published my work and given me encouragement. I also would like to express my appreciation of readers, friends, and fellow writers who read my work and take interest in it. Thanks to all.
Stranger in Thunder Basin is available at Amazon.