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Glen Erik Hamilton ventured to American badlands for the remote setting of new thriller Mercy River

Rocks and a hard place: The rugged landscape of the Oregon Badlands PICTURE: JOE BAUMANN

WHEN a fictional character is forced to confront stark truths about his life, where better to set the story than in equally unforgiving badlands?

In my new novel, Mercy River, Van Shaw travels to a remote Oregon town to help a friend accused of murder, only to find that the town is playing host to hundreds of his fellow Special Operations veterans, there for an annual raucous celebration and charity drive called the Rally. Like myself, Van is a native of Seattle and most of his previous adventures have been in or around that urban environment. Mercy River was a chance to explore new terrain, literally and literarily.

Midway through writing the first draft, my nine-year-old daughter and I made the journey to scout locations in central Oregon and visit lands I hadn’t seen since I was nearly her age. This part of Oregon is not the Pacific Northwest most people envision, blanketed by forests of tall timber and a constant drizzling rain.

While the local counties do have woodlands where the land dips low, much of the territory is high plains desert — arid, rocky, with snow remaining on the peaks a month after the last flurry of winter. A tough landscape but beautiful and astonishingly colourful. Populated areas are separated by half an hour’s slaloming drive along sinuous two-lane roads through the craggy hills.

Location scouting: Glen Erik Hamilton

Most communities here number only a few hundred residents, some a few dozen, and a handful have no people at all. Ghost towns or single homesteads left to rot. Visible monuments to how tenuous prosperity can be.

My imaginary town of Mercy River endures perhaps only because of the annual influx of visitors — almost invaders — and the cold cash that the Rally brings.

As my daughter and I stopped to marvel at the scenery, I made note of features especially attractive to a writer. Roads carved into steep cliffs with no guardrails. Signs cautioning drivers of falling rocks, an almost unnecessary warning given the number of sizeable stones scattered and broken across the asphalt.

One county’s visitor centre mentioned offhand that cougar and rattlesnake encounters are rare but it’s best to keep your children close and to watch your step if you’re venturing off the highway. All lumber for the thriller writer’s mill.

This land would be the right setting for other reasons. A change of backdrop setting would knock Van out of his comfort zone — not that his personal road has ever been a smooth one. New place, new perspectives — and new dangers. My daughter pointed out a barn that had been stripped raw and knocked askew by time and elements, scarred but still standing. Perfect for Van, we agreed.

Mercy River by Glen Erik Hamilton (Faber) is out now