More from the Archives of the Little Pink Phone: Character Insight

When I found pictures of the stairway descending from the mesa at Acoma, I recognized an image I used in Ghost Sickness, the fifth Mae Martin mystery, and looked for the scene that featured it. In my search for the word “stair,” I assumed I would find the gallery scene with the paintings of the stairway.

 The stairway

I found it, but first, I discovered a connection I hadn’t consciously created. A major character in the book, Acoma Pueblo artist Florencia Mirabal, left her family—one of the last families to live on the high mesa—and eventually settled in Truth or Consequences. For Florencia’s house in T or C, I selected the one that is, like Acoma Pueblo, perched up high, with an extraordinary view … and a stairway. Writing the book, I was unaware of the parallels.

Mae pulled the truck into the weedy patch of dirt that qualified as a side yard, drawing near to the porch’s side steps. The front steps led to a long, winding set of stone stairs set into a steep cliff, giving the little house the feeling of a castle. On their way in, she and Niall paused on the porch, looking down at Main Street and the view of the Rio Grande and Turtleback Mountain beyond the town.

 Mae said, “This is such a perfect place for an artist to live. It must have been hard for her to leave.”

Then, I found the scenes featuring Florencia’s stairway paintings.

  • Several small canvases with what appeared to be drafts of the work she had in mind stood around her, images of a narrow rocky staircase like a crevasse in a mesa.
  • Clemens circled the room again and paused in front of a pair of paintings. Both showed the exact same scene, a stone stairway winding between steep rock walls. The perspective was slightly distorted, suggesting multiple parts of the twisting path seen from different angles. A shadow of someone’s legs and a foot lifted to take a step fell on the stairs, but no human figure was shown. One version of the painting was in shades of yellow, brown, and gold, the other in shades of blue.

Much of the mystery centers around Florencia’s art and her separation from her family. I knew I was writing that part. But I didn’t realize how her choice of a home reflected the one she left but never let go of in her paintings. And since I didn’t realize it, I think it was her choice, not mine.

The view from the stairway

Inspirations: From the Archives of the Little Pink Phone

My sister called it a Barbie phone. It’s tiny and pink, circa 2009. I used it through 2019. I’d given no thought to the pictures on it for years, and had never downloaded them while it was my working phone, so I’m not sure why I finally did—but I’m glad I did. On it, I found pictures of Truth or Consequences and Santa Fe in the years during which my books are set. The work in progress, book nine, takes place in 2013.

When I took these photos, I was collecting material for my books. I chose the settings through Mae Martin’s eyes, her delight and awe in discovering New Mexico, and the feeling of deep change and emergence that her new home gives her.

In Shaman’s Blues, Mae is often struck by the intensity of the light in Santa Fe. Encounters with outdoor art trigger key moments for her, for Jamie, and for the boy Jamie tried to help.

The nearly-dry Santa Fe River plays an important role, as does the image of the Lady of Guadalupe. I took a picture of this blue door in Santa Fe one year, and the next year the Lady had been painted on it.

As I look at the colors in my old pictures, the book’s title echoes them. Blues.

I’ve also photographed settings that had meaning to other characters or played roles in later books, and will share some in future posts.