Cowgirl 101 author Laina Villenueve reflects on the past to create fiction.
When I was in my twenties, I did something incredibly risky. I can’t tell you what it was because that would spoil a pivotal scene in Cowgirl 101, but I can tell you I made a choice back then when I was riding horses through the California High Sierras that I would not make today.
After I finished an associate’s degree in what is now called Equine Sciences, I spent each summer in the backcountry and each school year typing up my experiences. I always left the backcountry with wagons of memorable experiences and a distinct lexicon that I shaped into fun stories. I ran copies myself and shared them with my community college professor, friends and family. In 2012, some of those experiences contributed to Take Only Pictures (I gave Kristine my experience of riding an unfamiliar trail and taking directions from the mule) but mostly I built a fictional story in a setting I adored.
When Becky Harmon encouraged me to revisit that setting, Cowgirl 101 took shape quickly, and while I don’t plan anything I write, I do have a vague sense of what the push-apart will be. For Cowgirl, that was the stupid thing I did so many years ago. I went back to my journal and read what I’d written more than twenty years earlier to be able to write the scene from Daisy’s perspective as vividly as possible. As the newcomer to The Lodgepole Pine Pack Outfit, Daisy is in problem-solving mode and has only a vague sense of what could go wrong.
The conflict between my characters grew from that collision of my youthful pride with my adult guilt.
Jo, the seasoned cowgirl, does not react well when she hears what Daisy has done. Her harsh words come from a legitimate place of fear that she can substantiate with disasters from past seasons. So much can go wrong in the backcountry. Not only is there the horse you’re riding, a string of three mules loaded with gear that can tip and fall off, but there are also plenty of narrow trails where any one of your animals could lose its footing and fall. How did I ever do my job without worrying that I could get hurt or that something could go very wrong and it would be up to me to fix it? Jo takes the position from my adult perspective. From experience, she knows exactly what could have gone wrong.
The conflict between my characters grew from that collision of my youthful pride with my adult guilt. I have run that scene from my memory over the years with different effects. I have told it for entertainment, and I’ve puzzled through it to try to figure out how I “should” have solved the problem. Maybe it’s being a mother or maybe it’s being in my late forties, but telling that story in Cowgirl 101 troubled me greatly, so much so that I lost sleep.
I do much of my writing away from the computer. When I take the dogs for a walk, or when I’m drifting to sleep, I will visualize the scene until it’s right. This is why I started writing in the first place. It kept my mind busy when it took ages to settle my twins down for the night. It’s worked for five books, so naturally, I ran through Daisy’s problem while waiting for sleep. For this scene, I had a hard time putting Daisy in the saddle. I kept seeing myself, kept reliving my actions, and they scared me! My heart pounded, and my breath quickened. My entire body tensed in anticipation of disaster. Even though I knew how it all turned out, that I was fine, that Daisy would be fine, I could not stop imagining the alternative.
Despite the worry that scene created, I’m glad I gave Cowgirl 101‘s Daisy the chance to make a bad decision. It sure had a bigger impact on her story than it had on my life. Good and bad, scary and exciting, these thoughts and experiences swirl and simmer in my subconscious and contribute to every story I write. I love it when those experiences, trimmed or slightly altered, click into place to fit in a story, and that often happens as I’m waiting for sleep. These nights, I’m remembering what it was like when my wife was completing her post-doc in a research lab. Sifting through the stories of her experiences is worlds apart from reliving an event from my past, and I’m searching through some of her choices as a new plot unfolds.
Cowgirl 101 is available for pre-order now and purchase on August 13, 2020.