J. Frank Dobie, the Texas Folklorist and author, said writers should walk the land they write about.
Editors and agents and those who advise writers insist that we should write about what we know. If we’ve been there, we know the scents and sounds and feel of the space that surround our characters. We can only put our readers there if we have been there ourselves. Steam punk, futuristic sagas and space odysseys not withstanding. Those authors have to know their worlds in even more detail than the rest of us that write earthbound novels.
This lesson was driven home to me while I was working on the story of Martín de León, the founder of Victoria, Texas for my dissertation. I knew young Martín had grown up in the town of Cruillas on Mexico’s northern frontier where Spanish King Carlos III had encouraged the development of a new silver mine.
In Central Mexico, where I am from, silver mines are found aplenty in the pine-covered mountains of Queretaro, Taxco, and Guanajuato, among many others. All of them high in the steep hills and valleys of the Sierra Madres, all scented with the tangy smell of pines and cedars.
When it came time to write the book on De León, I started it with young Martín running up the steep road, the mountain air cool in his lungs, as he goes to beg his father if he can join Bernardo de Gálvez in his expedition against the British in 1779.
Several months later, I was back in Mexico to complete some further research. With Dobie in the back of my mind, I decided it might be worthwhile to see Cruillas. Perhaps I could get a picture of one of the old homesites to include in the book.
Crossing the border at Matamoros on the Rio Grande, I caught the bus south toward San Fernando and Ciudad Victoria. On the map, Cruillas and its adjacent town of Burgos looked like they were right on the road, just south of San Fernando and north of Ciudad Victoria. But we drove and drove and no stops. No Cruillas. When we got to Ciudad Victoria, I got off the bus and asked why we hadn’t seen Cruillas.
“No, Señora,” the bus driver said. “You would have had to get off at San Rosario. But,” he added helpfully, “that bus is going back north and can drop you there.”
I promptly changed buses and sure enough two hours later, the bus stopped. “San Rosario,” the bus driver called. He let me out and drove off. San Rosario. In the middle of the flat barren desert. No town. No church. No nothing. Just the empty road and the bus disappearing, headed north.
Across the road in the distance. I saw a tiny square shack. I walked over and found it was a small country store built of 4×8 sheets of plywood, one each for the four walls, and one each for the four propped open ‘windows’ and two for the roof. In it I found an elderly Mexican man selling Cokes, candies, chewing gum and snacks. To whom, I’m not sure. I asked for Cruillas.
“No, Señora,” he said, with a long drawn out, sorrowful note of regret. “The bus has already gone up to Cruillas.”
“When will it be back?” I asked.
“No, Señora,” he said again, drawing out the words. “It won’t be back until tomorrow.”
“But where can I stay? Is there a hotel somewhere?” I looked around at the barren desert.
“No, Señora,” he slowly said again. “The only hotel is in Burgos, farther in.”
“But I need to get to Cruillas,” I insisted.
“Well,” he hesitated looking up and down the road. “I could take you.”
I immediately thought about the drug wars and the dead bodies of disappeared dumb Gringas gone forever in the deserts of northern Mexico.
“How much?” I said.
“$200 pesos,” he said.
“Let’s go,” I said.
He let down the 4×8 ‘windows’ of his little store, twist-tied the corners with wire, and off we went on a rutted asphalt road across the flat desert in his ratty ’58 Ford. He honked as we went passed a small ranch “to let his wife know he was going in-country” he said.
An hour later, we made it to Cruillas. A tiny adobe village in the middle of the desert, no pines, no mountains, no cool air. It has the requisite church, plaza and, sure enough, a small hill nearby which must have been the silver mine long ago. To my unbounded amazement, there were houses that dated back to the 18th century. I took a photograph for the book of a home that could easily have been the residence of the de León family. Mission accomplished.
We started back to catch the south-bound bus at San Rosario. Suddenly a large Suburban came racing toward us, siren wailing, lights flashing, officers with guns hanging off on either side. Federales. I knew I was dead or in jail forever.
“No, Señora,” he drawled. “It’s just the new police cruiser. Lo están estrenando.They are just trying it out.”
I had to change the first page of my book. No pine trees, no mountains, and no cool air in young Martín’s lungs. J. Frank Dobie was right. Boots on the ground.