Blast from the Past: Texas: It’s like a whole other country*

from Patreon

Some time ago, someone asked me why I set my books in Texas. I wrote the following essay in response:Many myths exist about my home state of Texas, some truer than others, some as far-fetched as any fantasy novel. Texas is a land full of contradictions, from the stark beauty in the spare barrenness of the Llano Estacado to the lush greenery of the piney woods of East Texas to the incomparable variety that can only be found in a state so large that it incorporates a variety of ecological regions from desert to marshland and everything in between. Some areas are hot and dry, others hot and humid.

It really does take about a full day to drive from top to bottom of the state–not that I’ve tried it. I did, however, once drive from San Antonio to El Paso–twelve grueling hours in a car with a caged and not-sedated part-Siamese cat. Every single time another car passed us, the cat would yowl, as only Siamese can. I never thought I’d survive the trip!

The Texas of television and the movies is only a tiny slice of the myriad of realities–it’s not just a Red State. It’s not just a bunch of rednecks looking to punch cows (or people they dislike), and it’s most definitely not only made up of cows, cowboys and big oil–though they definitely play a huge part in the state’s makeup and history. It’s a huge state chock-full of contradictions and crazy characters–just like the country it belongs to.

I chose to set my series in Texas, because as with many of us, the place we consider “home” often holds mixed and opposite feelings. I have a love/hate relationship with Texas that leads to my own characters’ relationships. Like Keira, I consider the state home, but as she did when she hit human-version adulthood, I, too, began to wander. First from the Austin area to San Antonio, then to El Paso, to Midland, and then Dallas. Eventually, I made my way back to San Antonio, until the turn of the millennium, when I found myself aching for the East Coast–where we’d lived for a few years when I was a child. I got to experience South Texas, Central Texas, North Texas, West Texas and the Hill Country–all jewels in their own right, each with unique characteristics. Pretty good prep for my later career as a writer, huh?

As had some other writers before me, it wasn’t until I left that I could appreciate my home state’s wonders and accept those things I found (and still find) deeply wrong.

Separation for me brought a certain equanimity and an ability to see Texas and Texans from the outside as well as granting me that unique insider’s view. Writing in my fictional town allows me to settle some old ghosts, as well as evoke the familiar emotions that keeps my fierce love burning, despite the machinations and ridiculous politics, the bigotry of some of its citizens, and the ingrained belief that somehow, this state isn’t really part of the union…no kidding. With that in mind, I create a fictional Texas that has some of the best traits, some of the worst traits and hopefully balance the two within a story about people–because to me, that’s what writing is all about: characters. Laura Lippman may have Baltimore; Dana Stabenow owns Alaska–but I’d like to claim the Texas Hill Country as my own space to play in. So, without further ado, a quick primer on the Texas Hill Country–with tongue firmly in cheek.

The following things are NOT found in the Texas Hill Country:

  • Saguaro cactus (the big tall ones): look further west…like Arizona. You will find a lot of prickly pear and other smaller cacti. (Though I understand if you got confused by seeing the first iteration of Matters of the Blood. The cover designer went with a saguaro. I had little input.)
  • Pine trees: (those are east–Houston, Galveston), instead, you’ll find live oaks, mesquite and cottonwoods (cottonwood in Spanish? Alamo)
  • Lots of lush grass (most grasses in the Hill Country is non-existant…at least the kind you think of on suburban lawns. You’ll see mostly sparse, scraggly grass in the rural areas and very much human-imported and tough to grow lawns in the ‘burbs.
  • Oceans–the Hill Country is smack in the center of Texas, hours away from the Gulf Coast
  • Vampires: nope, not even vampire bats–just loads of other kinds of very useful bats that eat the mosquitoes and June bugs
  • Wolves: wer, or otherwise. However, in East Texas, the endangered red wolf inhabits the marshland between Houston and Beaumont, one of the most thickly settled areas of the state.

Things you CAN find in the Texas Hill Country:

  • Ranches: with cowboys and cows and barbed wire – side-by-side with McMansion subdivisions/resorts and the requisite millionaires
  • Hills: lots and lots of rolling hills built on porous limestone
  • Water: lakes (mostly man-made via dams); some are even underground in gorgeous grottos
  • Wine: The Hill Country is the center of the award-winning Texas Wine Industry. No laughing!! There are some really fabulous wines here.
  • Parks and recreational areas: loaded with ’em, unfortunately, it’s often too hot in the summer to even *think* of camping out, though people do
  • Caves: loads and loads; the base of the area is limestone–everywhere, you can even see it in the drinking water from the tap (yes, I know, ick)
  • Golf Courses: loads and loads, even professionally rated courses used to play the Masters Tournament.
  • All sorts of ethnicities: from the Mexican natives who once owned the land, long-established settlers from “back east”, Alsatian descendants still keeping their cultural traditions, Germans, Polish, Spanish, French, Canary Islanders, and many, many more.
  • Bluebonnets–In the spring, they bloom all over. A common tradition is to have your family photo, wedding photo, etc. taken amongst the bluebonnets. Google “bluebonnet photos”. They’re pretty. They’re a weed. And highly illegal to pick…because it’s the state flower. (I shrug at this–it’s not like they’re endangered!)
  • Horses: not of the wild persuasion, they always belong to someone else. Yes, there are still horse and cattle rustlers in Texas…only now, they’re just called thieves.
  • Armadillos: a.k.a. road kill. They’re built like tiny tanks, but no match for a speeding, or not speeding car. Slow waddlers, they’re most often found flat in the middle of the road.
  • Deer: all sorts, mostly white-tail
  • Javelina: a really ugly boar-like creature that a lot of guys love to hunt
  • Feral pigs: exactly what they sound like; they’re extremely ugly, nasty and have no natural predators…except for the 2-legged shotgun-toting kind
  • Big hair: yeah, I admit, it’s everywhere. But for every big-haired woman, there’s at least three others that have sensible ‘dos.

Some famous Texans from this region:

  • Lance Armstrong
  • Michael Dell
  • Kinky Friedman
  • Molly Ivins
  • Lyndon Johnson & Lady Bird Johnson
  • Tommy Lee Jones (I totally saw his house!)
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan

As you can see–variety isn’t just a word, it’s a plain fact. The Texas Hill Country is an amazing place that remains very special in my heart, and now in my books.

* Texas Tourism Slogan from the early 90s