A New Chapter

A retired BLM biologist rewrites his life story as a mystery novelist.

story by Susan Nelson

Last June, I found myself hiking way down into the dramatic depths of Joseph Canyon in far northeastern Oregon. With each step, I walked deeper and deeper into the setting of the novel, Coyote Staircase, a mystery starring Tom Kreuger - or rather his alter ego, Clair Button.

In addition to his fame as a published author, Clair is also a retired BLM wildlife biologist turned botanist, just like the protagonist who serves as the main character in his mysteries.

While historical fiction tends to weave actual incidents from history into the lives of fictional characters, Clair's stories are all the more intriguing because most of his characters (and I mean characters!) are descriptions or composites of former BLM colleagues and people he met on the job. His characters live in settings that come from his life experiences wandering the outback on public lands from Colorado to Arizona to Oregon.

Clair says his 28 years with BLM - in addition to two with the Post Office and another two in the U.S. Army - left him with endless story material. Thus his stories' settings are based on reality even if his villains and non-BLM characters are fictional.

When I asked Clair if technical writing of reports prepared him for creative writing, he said, "No, not really. It may have given me experience with grammar and vocabulary, but writing environmental assessments and planning documents was stifling compared to fieldwork where you can learn and explore. My coworkers on the other hand gave me a lifetime of one-liners that I have been able to sprinkle throughout the series..."

A New Chapter

Joseph Canyon serves as the setting
for Clair's novels - and his life

Clair has created a hero for all BLMers. His protagonist Tom Kreuger is a hands-on scientist who has the ability to annoy his supervisors by skirting the rules. But he continually amazes his cohorts by solving crimes armed only with his rapier wit, acute curiosity, and an uncanny ability to wield the scientific method.

Clair told me that he wrote his first book, Cow Cookies, for himself with no idea that it would lead to another career. After his friends read it, they talked him into getting it published.

Clair has since found that writing for readers other than himself has caused him to change his style. With Quicksand Plot and Coyote Staircase, he included more characters and moved his hero backward and forward through different periods of his life.

Initially, Clair used a professional editor. Since then, he has relied on the advice of his wife, also a former BLM employee, as well as his colleagues in the Baker City writer's group which he organized after he retired in 2006.

Although Clair had only a vague idea of what he would do in retirement, he knew he'd continue his passion for natural resources. And indeed he has. In addition to his fiction, Clair also manages the website for his local chapter of the Oregon Native Plant Society. If that weren't enough, he takes care of the greenhouse at a local senior center. Plus Clair recently reconnected with other members from his Army platoon in Vietnam. Then just last year he successfully ran for City Council in Baker City where he's since been able to help make decisions involving his local environment. Not to mention publishing three novels!

Clair Button's advice for anyone considering creative writing is to write what you know. But one more immediate suggestion for us is to get to know Tom Kreuger. Clair says he's got two new novels in the works, and I have a feeling we'll all be seeing a lot more of this BLM hero.