When meeting with my readers and fans, I'm often asked where do I get my ideas. My quick answer is from my past experiences. The oft quoted cliché for author's is write what you know. The longer answer to this question is my past travels, family life, and work have shaped my experiences which in turn shape the material I can draw from for my work.
But it is my time with the park service that serves as the inspiration for much of my work. I've worked at iconic parks like Yellowstone and Glacier, but also visited more than half of the nation's park system from the Everglades to Denali, from Acadia to Death Valley and countless parks in between.
Visiting and working in these parks revealed that America is a diverse country, one made up of millions of people, places, and more importantly stories. While working with the park service I had the honor of personally meeting tens of thousands of people from all over the world. In my interaction with these visitors I found people are attracted to the parks for many of the reasons one would expect, the scenery, the wildlife, the history, the recreation, the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. However, many are attracted for other reasons. Some come for the adventure national parks represent, some are drawn to the mystery parks can contain, the opportunity to discover something about themselves, their country and world.
Then there was a select set of visitors who came to the parks for the conspiracies they hold and represent. On more than one occasion, I met with visitors who were convinced Yellowstone national park belonged to the United Nations, while others thought Glacier National Park is the site of a super secret Nazi base hiding a lost gold train. At the North Cascades, I once spent much of an afternoon discussing with a visitor his passionate belief the United States never went to the moon. Other conspiracies I heard included the Park Service's air dropping wolves and other endangered species into wilderness areas to push out cattle ranchers, the Park Service working with the Department of Homeland Security to depopulate the country, and the nefarious disappearance of thousands of people from the National Park backcountry.
These visitors' active imagination became the source for the themes at the heart of my two thrillers. Unleashing Colter's Hell for example, centers around a potential terrorist attack on the park which ignites the super volcano, destroying the United States in the process. Meanwhile, Lost Cause focuses on a extreme right wing militia attack on Civil War battlefields in the hope of starting a second civil war. My next thriller, Need to Know is due out later this year and figuratively takes off after a UFO sighting at Mount Rainier National Park.
Conspiracy theories are fertile ground for writers, especially thriller writers who can take the public's acceptance of simple solutions to complex problems and spin it into compelling stories.
Where will my next thriller go? What conspiracies will it explore? Well to paraphrase the X-File, as long as people go to the national parks, the source of the next thriller is out there.
Do you have a favorite national park conspiracy theory? Please share in the comments section. Perhaps it will turn up in one of my future thrillers!
Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his thrillers click here or follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers