Shannon Baker spent twenty years in the Nebraska Sandhills, where cattle outnumber people by more than 50:1. She also moved seven times in less than ten years, from the Nebraska Sandhills, to Boulder, CO, Flagstaff, AZ, back to Boulder and did a short stint in southwestern Nebraska. In addition to the Kate Fox Mystery series, Baker is also the author of the Nora Abbott Mysteries. Here’s the story behind her latest Kate Fox Mystery, Dark Signal.
The control thread
“It seems there’s generally a thread running through all my books about women taking control of their own lives. I’ve had lots of mother/daughter relationships going on, and I’m not sure if that’s me working out my own therapy or just writing what I know. After all, I’m a daughter and a mother.”
Baker said readers shouldn’t worry about her books being all women’s lit. “I’ve got a husband/reader who keeps me from getting too squishy. Whenever I write what he calls a ‘kitchen scene’ he points it out to me, usually with his snoring. Kitchen scenes are those where I put characters in a static place and they have heartfelt talks. Tension, for sure, but no action. When my husband’s eyes start to droop and glaze over, I know I’ve got to bring out the big guns, knives, or some other lethal object.”
Baker said she hadn’t come across any western mysteries revolving around trains when she read Barbara Nickless’ Blood on the Tracks, which she called fabulously dark and twisty.
“I wanted to include the railroad because it is so much a part of the west,” Baker said. “Many small towns were established about ten miles apart because that’s the distance it took a train to need to take on more water. It was a bonus that my husband was a BNSF conductor for forty-two years.
“When I asked him how someone might be killed on a freight train, he didn’t hesitate. It was fascinating, and not a little unsettling, that he rattled off a method complete with the hardware I’d need, how to install the device, and exactly how to make it work.”
Baker said she always wanted to write about the Sandhills. “The people there are quirky and the way of life is vastly different from what most people are familiar with. I was really happy when Kate Fox popped into my head. She’s nothing like me. She’s smart and competent, able to deliver calves, put up hay, build a fence, and repair a tractor. I love hanging out with Kate because her take on her family and the folks around the Sandhills makes me laugh.”
After Stripped Bare released last year, Baker enjoyed seeing the reactions of people from the Sandhills town where she used to live. “They love trying to figure out who is who in the list of characters. The truth is that each of the characters is an amalgamation of two or three people, not all of them Sandhillers.”
When she started writing about the railroad, Baker thought the research would be easy since her husband is a retired railroad conductor. “Turns out,” Baker said, “he doesn’t like to talk about it. Maybe it’s like a war veteran. His standard line is, ‘It’s a do-nothing job and I do it better than anyone.’ I know that’s not true. He eventually coughed up the details I needed and added a few I hadn’t thought to ask. I think I’ve trained him well in the art of mystery writing because he’s getting pretty good at plot points.”
Double Trouble Contest Code: #TakingControl
And then there’s Jezebel’s influence
Jezebel is Baker’s two-year-old Weimaraner. She said, “Our standard joke is: you know black Labs, yellow Labs, chocolate Labs, and then there’s Jezebel, the Meth Lab. But she’s ours and we love her.”
As with any large dog, Jezebel requires exercise. “We try to give her a desert romp every morning. We’ll walk five miles and let her take off. She does 10-15 miles, I’m sure, always keeping us in sight. But one morning, I stayed home from the walk and my husband emailed me a horrible picture. Jezebel, who is convinced everyone loves her, barreled into a group of javelinas.”
Let’s put this in context — javelinas are native to the Americas and are not a pig. They look a lot like wild boars. And they stink. In fact, javelinas smell so bad they earned the nickname skunk pig. If you’re downwind, you can smell the herd coming.
Baker said, “Apparently, one of them went after Jezebel and jabbed her back thigh with his tusks. Jezebel didn’t seem all that affected, but I took her to the emergency vet. She ended up with surgery and stitches and drains and a lot of icky stuff. She’s all healed and hardly scarred.”
The real problem, according to Baker, is she’s not sure Jezebel learned her lesson. Too bad there aren’t any javelinas in Nebraska, that could make a great scene.
Learn more about Shannon Baker and Dark Signal on her website at shannon-baker.com.