Living (in) a Fantasy Novel

gabriella mountain 111814_200This past week I set up a crowdfunding campaign for a new project: a series of very short novels (or novellas) about horses (of course), magic (because I write quite a bit of fantasy), and Tucson (where I live, and where, so to speak, the magic happens). It’s a “heart project,” in that I’ve wanted to write it for a long time, and it’s about a place and a cast of characters that are very near and dear to me. It’s literally coming from where I live.

“Your life is like a fantasy novel.”

I get a lot of that. I live in the Arizona desert, I have a herd of magical horses, one of my dogs materialized out of the desert air (and has the sky-blue eyes to prove it). We have to explain our weather, our landscape, and our plant and animal life to visitors from the rest of the world. Yes, it’s often hotter than hell, those mountains are right there, and watch out for the cactus!

Really. I mean that. Watch out.

Fantasy as a genre, despite all the “comfy-cozy” stereotyping, isn’t about the warm fuzzies. Those fuzzies may have teeth.

cholla_200That’s teddy-bear cholla. Don’t hug it. You’ll need pliers to pry out the spines–and boy, do they hurt. They’re like fishhooks.

Magic has a price: that’s one of the rules of the fantasy genre. In the desert, the plants are out to get you, the terrain is downright unforgiving, and the climate, especially in summer, is an ongoing challenge.

For the humans and their domestic animals who end up here, either by choice or by necessity (and sometimes both), the survival tactics of the temperate zone tend not to work. The seasons are different. We expect the summer heat, it’s notorious, but we may be caught off guard by the winter storms that roar across the desert, bringing driving rain and bone-penetrating cold.

Even if we think we expect the heat, we don’t necessarily realize how precious water is, or how important it can be to make sure we’re within reach of it. We may not recognize where it’s likely to be, either. That nice, wide, sandy road that looks so inviting under the desert sun has a sign on it: “DO NOT ENTER WHEN FLOODED.”

That sign is not kidding. Sandy “roads” in the desert are dry riverbeds. Washes, arroyos. Highways for desert animals, and for humans on their horses or in their ATV’s. Until it rains–and then the wall of water comes roaring down off the mountains, and it’s swiftwater-rescue time for the overly bold or the simply didn’t know, who decided that little stream was only a few inches deep and they could cross it without trouble.

That’s the world we live in. When the sun is shining, it may be too hot to easily support human life. When the rains come, sometimes after months of nothing at all, they come with such abundance that the desert overflows, and we go from bone dry to all awash.

And here I am in the middle of it, with all those (currently fuzzy and rather dirty) white horses. The other night when I went out after midnight to check on them, an owl watched me from a fencepost. I could hear the coyotes singing. The next morning when I went to let one of the mares out for her breakfast, she was wearing a blackbird on her head–one of the flock that’s lived here for years. I’ve surprised a gila monster beside the house, and repatriated a rattlesnake from the dogs’ yard to the desert before the dogs could get into the kind of trouble dogs will get into.

That’s magic. The tropes of fantasy fit remarkably easily into the landscape. Dragons? Look at our mountains, and the clouds that swirl over them.


It’s all there. All I have to do is shape it into story.




Living (in) a Fantasy Novel — 15 Comments

  1. I am reminded of the harsh terrain, desert and mountain, in Courtney Schafer’s two novels. There is magic…but there is also terrible danger.

  2. Over the last year I have become increasingly aware of just how risky it is to live on Earth. (I started to write “how fragile the Earth is” and then I realized that Earth isn’t fragile; it’s just very, very changeable.) I took a road trip up the Oregon/Washington Coast, around the Olympic Peninsula, and then over to Mt. Rainier. On the coast, the signs read “tsunami evacuation zone.” Farther east, it was “volcano evacuation zone.” I saw the damage that remains from the last serious eruption of Mt. St. Helens. And then later in the summer, I experienced my first California earthquake. This on top of significant drought in both Texas and California and a growing awareness of just how brutal sunshine can be, much as I love it. (And flash floods. Yes.)

    Looking forward to fantasy that is aware of all that!

  3. Indeed.

    I think jumping cholla might be re-named as hunting cholla. And they hunt by myriad means…and yet, so beautiful in the light.

    Magic is afoot.

  4. When I arrived in Arizona, I was told by a long time inhabitant that it should have been called the “Don’t Touch Me State.” I arrived in mid-July, and I was living at the north edge of Tucson (Mount Lemon was behind the house, and the city lights did not interfere at all with stargazing). Coveys of quail, jumping cholla (I still remember the percolating noise before they launched their pods, rattlesnakes, howling coyotes, and the rest. I remember walking to the edge and looking down at the city to see individual storm cells forming, and it struck me how truly alien this land is – especially when I considered it was underwater eons ago. Everything was alive (and not exactly welcoming), in the places that looked most desolate, and roads in the city trailed off into nothingness where the city was still being developed. Throw in a university that has beautiful rose bushes, a NASA center, and the surrounding military bases (I worked out near the Bone Yard, which looked like a spaceport for retired cruisers), and yes – it is definitely the perfect setting for fantasy!

  5. Ah yes, the desert. I recently finished a stint living in Las Vegas and am still amazed at the beauty of Red Rock and the surrounding desert where tortoise and big horn sheep dot the landscape.
    I can’t wait to read your stories. Thank you Judith.

  6. What a contrast to Germany.
    We have few natural desasters, the worst are some winter storms or a rare bad thunderstorm. Our volcanos are dormant. The earthquakes along the Rhine river are few and not very strong. Sometimes, there are bad winter floods, but even they are rare. We have almost no poisonous animals or plants that hurt you when you touch them (worst is stinging nettle and the pain stops within 10 min, with no lasting damage).
    I have come to appreciate that after time spent in the US and Australia. I can feel *safe* here.

    And yet, I admire the magical land of the desert. With great respect. And I’m very much looking forward to your project.

    • It is a big contrast–such a vast landscape, and still so wild. Humans have lived here since the Ice Age, and the Old Ones built sprawling cities along the watercourses and on the heights. But they haven’t really trampled it down until the past century or so.