All I wanted to do was kill someone. That was all. Mix in a cast of great characters, add a couple of red herrings and more than a few viable suspects, and finish with an exciting action scene that would (maybe) catch the bad guy. But along the way, I ran into a group of people who wouldn’t leave, no matter how dangerous I made it for them.
I tend to write fiction organically. I don’t outline or create bios of my characters beforehand. I just start writing, and see what happens next. And that’s what I was doing when, about two years ago, my story ended up in a forest in the Missouri Ozarks where my main character is investigating the theft of a tree bark used in herbal supplements. The theft kills a grove of elms, and the sheriff shows up as the property owner’s workers are clearing the dead wood.
All of this was the continuation of my story’s plot, as was my next chain of thoughts. Who would do this job? What characters would I need to create to chop down these trees? And there really was only one answer. Immigrants. Specifically, undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America who come over the southern U.S. border to find work.
Why them? Because of what the land owner would be willing to pay to have this job done—not much. Would he want to pay enough for the employer to provide health insurance or retirement benefits? How about workers comp coverage? No, no, and no. He wouldn’t fund that kind of overhead, not for an unskilled job like hacking apart already dead timber.
And just like that, with no advance planning, my story now included a group of undocumented immigrants trying to earn a living. I hadn’t intended it at all. But there was no other possibility. Any other plot direction would be unrealistic. And here’s why:
Undocumented immigrants make up 30 percent of “miscellaneous agricultural workers” in the United States (documented immigrants comprise an additional 21 percent), according to Pew Research Center estimates based on U.S. government data, including the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. I figure this is the proper job category for my fictional tree-choppers. They wouldn’t fall into the category for agricultural “graders and sorters,” 28 percent of whom are undocumented. Those folks have at least semi-steady employment. Maybe it’s seasonal, but it involves showing up consistently at the same spot, likely for the same shift for at least a stretch of time. Miscellaneous workers—those are the guys on the street corner hoping to get hired for the day. And those are the guys that my penny-pinching property owner would naturally take advantage of.
So on I went with my writing. I made up a murder (or two), a manhunt, and a heated local election campaign. And my band of immigrants kept popping up throughout the book. Whether they were driving the action or responding to it, they became integral to the story. Just like immigrants always have been in America.
I finished Another Man’s Ground and turned it in last October. A month later, the world changed.
Illegal immigration, a fairly constant undercurrent of an issue, had been rising steadily toward the surface of political discourse throughout last year’s presidential campaign. With Donald Trump’s election, almost half the country stated loud and clear that they consider it of huge importance and a cause of the United States’ problems with unemployment and allocation of government resources. The hostility that my immigrant characters face in certain situations was backed not only by my writer’s need for conflict, but by real election results.
And once Trump took office and immediately started issuing executive orders regarding immigration bans and doubling-down on his antagonism toward Mexico, the story of my fictional immigrants became more relevant than I ever could have imagined.
It will be interesting to see the different lenses through which people view this novel, now that so much has changed from when I wrote it. That’s the wonderful thing about fiction. New eras in the real world bring the possibility of new insights into fictional ones.
Copyright © 2017 by Claire Booth
Read an excerpt of Another Man’s Ground here.
Claire Booth is a former true crime writer, ghostwriter, and reporter. She lives in California. Another Man’s Ground is her second novel, following The Branson Beauty.