Sandy Dengler

Sandy Dengler

When I was ten, I wanted to be a paleontologist. But I never explored the possibility, nor was I encouraged in it. After all, in rural Ohio in the ’40s, educated girls could be teachers or nurses. Maybe. Period. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Sputnik, no one would have thought to encourage me in any science at all.

I earned a BS in zoology (Bowling Green State University) and an MS in desert ecology (Arizona State University; that’s the one in Tempe). At ASU I met and in 1963 married the world’s greatest man. We raised two daughters who turned out pretty darn good. While Bill served as ranger and naturalist in the National Park Service, I enjoyed a career of freelance writing. It is still my passion.

Now I live in Port Townsend, Washington (look for the dot on the extreme northeast tippy-tip of the Olympic Peninsula), not far from the girls.

In between those milestones, any number of adventures have informed my writing:

–Never having been west of Chicago as yet, I leased a horse south of Alpine, Texas and spent three weeks in the Big Bend backcountry. The Sheriff of Laido series that I’m working on over half a century later takes place in the Big Bend; the memories are still that strong.

–Researching book series, I travelled around Australia and Ireland alone, taking notes and pictures. Do you know that if you walk into a library in formal business attire, the whole world is yours? They just go all out for you. And you don’t want to know what my blood pressure was as I got into a rental in Ireland and drove away on the WRONG side of the road, SITTING ON WHAT OUGHT TO BE THE PASSENGER SIDE, for pity sake.

–I took a job as a wrangler at a kids’ camp near Yosemite, each day endeavoring to keep 40 active youngsters on their horses for the duration of a 45-minute ride. Horses have always loomed large in my life—quite handy, for the Sheriff of Laido series is set in 1887, where horses loomed large. I still have the saddle I bought in 1953 from Sears, Roebuck.

–Port Townsend has a strong maritime presence, and Bill and I got out on the water. I have spent most of my sailing time in the galley of a schooner, cooking for the crew. The hard part? They’re strictly vegetarian and my motto, borrowed from a BBQ joint, is, “Vegetables are not food. Vegetables are what food eats.” We took the basic sailing and navigation courses (also small engine repair, which is most useful) that the United States Power Squadron offers, and I recommend them highly. It gave me a bit of knowledge about boats and ships.

–At the age of 58, I volunteered at the University of Oklahoma, building exhibits for the Ancient Life gallery in their new Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, working closely with paleontologists. One thing led to another. I completed my existing writing contracts and turned to study full time. Bill, bless him, helped me through it; he did wonderful things, like cooking and laundering. I earned my PhD in Paleontology in 2005, fulfilling that five-decade-old dream.

I am a paleontologist.

Why Fiction?

Not only is the skill of conveying information useful for keeping civilisation going, teaching is personally satisfying. And every writer, I claim, is a teacher. The most mundane of potboilers teaches something—what poor editing looks like, if nothing else. And fiction teaches better than non-fiction. The reader reads non-fiction with a firm mindset, evaluating and criticising as she or he goes. Those defences are down in fiction; like the pied piper, a good story carries the reader along a road of the writer’s choosing. Fiction can bypass the suspicious brain to reach the heart.

My favourite example is a movie, not a book. For Navajo children, butchering for meat and hides is a necessary way of life. So some researchers asked them, is it okay to kill animals? Of course it was okay. They then showed them the movie Harry and the Hendersons, a fluff PG piece; kid stuff. And they asked the same question. Noooooo! It’s not okay! Fiction teaches the heart.

What were the public mores in the past? How did people get by without velcro? Why did ordinary folks so gleefully go to war? What were the disasters, the financial conditions, the joys? People are the same, but circumstances vary drastically. I can take you into some of those worlds.

In order for fiction to work, of course, the story has to grip the reader’s interest in the face of TV, movies on demand, video games, hanging out with friends, FaceBooking, texting—and ever more new distractions every day. I am convinced also that good work requires strong characters to provide both positive and negative role models (for adults, too). And if your work teaches nothing else, it should model grammatically correct language, thank you very much.

So should everyone write a book? Absolutely! A personal memoir if nothing else; your voice and experiences are unique. It is how the future will learn about the past, how your progeny will learn about you. I invite you to have at it, and to join me in one of life’s most deliciously pleasurable pursuits. Writing.