Appalachian Thursday – Place as Character

If you haven’t caught on yet, I LOVE these Appalachian Mountains. And my hope is that when I write about Appalachia in my books the sense of place is so strong it’s practically its own character. I even go so far as to lead a workshop about “Setting as Character.” And I’ll be leading that very class at the John C. Campbell Folk School May 15-17, 2020.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach classes at several regional writing conferences and book festivals. I really enjoy sharing the tips and tricks I’ve learned and hearing from writers at all different stages of the process.

I’m always excited about leading a class. But I’m SUPER excited about this one!

The folk school began in 1925, based on the model of Danish folkehojskole. These rural schools have no exams or degrees but rather focus on “learning for life.”

In the early 1900s John C. Campbell came from Wisconsin to the Southern Appalachians where he and his wife studied mountain life from Georgia to West Virginia. They learned about everything from farming practices to folk ballads to handicrafts. After John died in 1919, his wife Olive and her friend Marguerite Butler, decided to take what they had learned to start a folkehojskole in Appalachia.

They approached a storekeeper in Brasstown, NC, with the idea and promised to return in a few weeks to see if the locals were interested in helping. When they returned they were met by more than 200 people who offered labor and supplies to make the dream a reality.

Today, the school offers a variety of classes including handicrafts, music, art, nature studies, and writing. And in May, I get to be one of those teaching writing! If you’d like to learn, write, and talk about your writing, I hope you’ll consider joining me. See you in Western North Carolina!

Inside an Author's Head

I’ve been working on wrapping up edits on my story for 2020 while brainstorming future stories. Which means I’ve been living inside my author head lately. And I thought maybe you’d get a kick out of taking a peek inside . . .

  1. When an author appears to be listening to you intently she’s probably really noting your eye color, hair color, and expressions for a future character.
  2. OR she might be noting any distinguishing characteristics (moles, birthmarks, tattoos) in case you were to be kidnapped or otherwise need to be identified. Well, not YOU, a character LIKE you.
  3. Quiet moments during dinners out probably mean the author is eavesdropping on the couple behind you to pick up some great dialogue.
  4. Although we really are interested in knowing more, all those in-depth questions about your job, that problem at work, or your favorite hobby MIGHT be related to research for a new book.
  5. When we agree to watch football it’s so we can read player’s jerseys for future character names. Wilson Lockett . . . hey, that’s pretty good!
  6. Staring into space is NOT daydreaming. We’re plotting. Plotting STORIES. Stop being so paranoid.
  7. When an author suddenly jumps to her feet while saying, “Oh my goodness, that’s PERFECT!” She’s just figured out how to kill off a character while totally making the reader think it was someone else.
  8. Don’t check our Google search history. It’ll make you uneasy.
  9. Dogs are our muses. Okay, maybe that’s mostly me, but I write better when my dog is in the room.
  10. And the last thing you need to know about what’s going on inside a writer’s head is that we’re often second-guessing ourselves. Wondering if the story’s any good. Hoping SOMEONE will read what we wrote. Praying what we meant to tell the world is communicated in a way that makes sense.

So if you like what a writer writes–tell her! Write a review. Send an email. Recommend the story. We’re all alone inside our heads here–give us a wave!

Appalachian Thursday – Sustainable Eating

My great-grandmother was on the sustainable eating bandwagon before it was even a thing. Of course, she called it “surviving.” She mostly ate what the family grew, foraged, or hunted. They took what they needed with a little extra to “lay by.” Sustainable. Not to mention practical.

Just before Christmas I was listening to the radio on my way home from work and heard some chefs suggesting simple side dishes that would suit any holiday meal. One of the recipes featured green beans. The chef commented that her kids had gotten into sustainable eating and interpreted that as eating a plant-based diet.

Okay, fine.

She then went on to describe a recipe for haricot verts (those skinny, French beans) in a delicious sounding dressing. But I REALLY have to take issue with her discussing this dish and sustainable eating in the same conversation. She mentioned that you can get haricot verts pre-packaged in the produce section.

So. It seems she was suggesting that it’s more sustainable to eat pre-washed green beans that come in a plastic package than to eat meat. I checked one of those bags in my own produce section. It came from Guatemala by way of Florida. I think my great-grandmother would wonder what she meant by “sustainable.”

I’m not trying to give anyone who prefers a plant-based diet a hard time. But I do think if you want to eat sustainably, you have to look deeper. My suggestion is to do what Grandma Jane did. Eat food produced in your neighborhood (or at least your state). Eat it when it’s in season (FYI strawberries don’t grow in January unless there’s a greenhouse operation nearby). And don’t assume there’s an easy answer.

So how about you–how did your great-grandparents eat?

2020 Vision

In 2012 I wrote my vision statement–a statement of my goals as an author. I think it’s important to not only create such a document, but to revisit it regularly to see how I’m doing and what needs to change. So as 2020 gets underway (and since today is Epiphany!), I thought I’d check in with my writing goals . . .

  • Share my faith and love of Christ with the world through my novels. Ensure each novel has a clear, Christian message that can be easily grasped and incorporated into daily living for my readers. I’ve gotten quite a few comments about my books having a clear Christian message without beating anyone over the head–that sounds about right to me.
  • Use my writing as a platform to reach broader audiences with the message of Christ through speaking, blogging, book signings, book clubs, etc. Stay humble and accessible. This stays the same. I’ve continued to do signings, interact with book clubs, and keep up my blogging. As for staying humble and accessible–that’s NOT hard. This business has given me far more opportunities to check my ego than I’d like!
  • Be a good steward of any money I make. Prayerfully use the money to support the ministries God has given me. While I’m not exactly pulling down the big bucks, I am grateful that writing supplements our income and that I can use it to support several ministries in a small way
  • Invest in myself and other writers through workshops. Attend and lead classes. Always strive to make my writing better and to encourage other writers to share their faith through writing. I continue to coordinate the writing contest at a local conference and teach classes every chance I get. I continue to attend conferences to network and to LEARN.
  • Continue to build a supportive writing “family” made up of other writers, friends and fans who will help cheer me on while I do the same for them. That would be YOU along with so many writers I’ve gotten to know along the way. Thanks for joining me on this journey!
  • My goal for 2015 was to work on growing my writing to the place where I could work my “day job” part time and focus more on writing and all that comes with it. -As of February 2020 my “day job” will scale back to 30 hours per week (basically four days) so I can use that extra day to focus on writing and marketing. I’m excited and a little nervous about this change!
  • My goal for 2018 was to raise the stakes in my writing. To be willing to take risks and push my stories into places and subjects that might feel uncomfortable to me at first. -With my most recent story–When Silence Sings–I stepped away from romance and moved toward historical women’s fiction. I wrote a character who was pretty awful and not fully redeemed by the end of the story. My 2021 book will follow a similar path with a father/son story.
  • So what’s my goal for 2020? I’m striving to reach beyond the bounds of Christian publishing with appearances at secular book events and outreach to general market outlets. I want to be an Appalachian author who writes about faith rather than a Christian author who writes about Appalachia!

There are few things more satisfying to me than having a plan and making progress. I’m a list-checker-offer. Can’t wait to see where I’ll be in another few years. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I do know God’s plans are bigger–and better–than mine.

How about you–do you set goals (I’m NOT talking resolutions here!)?

Appalachian Thursday – Breakin' Up Christmas

We’ve rung in the new year and Christmas is over . . . or is it? I’ve written before about Old Christmas–the mountain tradition of celebrating the holiday on January 6 due to some calendar confusion dating back hundreds of years. But there’s also an Appalachian tradition called “Breakin’ Up Christmas” that only goes back a hundred years or so.

It allegedly originated in southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina (Galax and Mt. Airy)–not too far from where I am now as the crow flies. The idea was to extend Christmas over the time from Christmas Day to Epiphany (Old Christmas). That way, folks could “break up” the fun of Christmas and make it last a long time.

I suspect this was the result of several factors–long cold days that needed cheering, down time on the farm well after the harvest and well before spring planting (even the hog-killing was done), and a good old-fashioned fondness for whooping it up!

Traditionally, breaking up Christmas was a sort of moving celebration that would shift to a different house each day (night!). There’d be food, music, and dancing that lasted well after midnight. Sounds fun but exhausting!

There are (of course!) variations on the lyrics. Here’s one version:

Hooray Jake, hooray John
Breakin’ up Christmas all night long.
Way back yonder, long time ago
The old folks danced the doesey-doe.
Way down yonder alongside the creek
I seen Santa Claus washing his feet.
Santa Claus come, done and gone
Breaking up Christmas right along.

So, if you don’t want to turn loose of Christmas just yet, feel free to break it up for a few more days!

Blowing Out the Old

I’ve written in previous posts about new year’s traditions like first-footing and eating lucky foods. But do you know about blowing out the old for the new year?

The idea is to throw open all the doors and windows in the house just before midnight so that the old year can blow out and the new year can enter unimpeded. Some folks limit this to just opening the back door for the old year to make its exit. (I don’t know about where you are, but it’s typically cold here!) I like the whole house method, though. Seems like you’d get an actual breeze that way!

I appreciate this image of sending the past merrily on its way. I sometimes have a tendency to hang onto the past–to dwell on things I can’t change. Words I shouldn’t have spoken. Kindnesses I’ve neglected. Opportunities I let pass me by. (Or the ones I didn’t and should have!) There’s something about the changing of the year that makes us want to hit the reset button and do better this time around.

Releasing the old junk seems like a good first step.

How about you–what would you like to see blown away from the past year?

Appalachian Thursday – The Day After Christmas

snow dog

It’s over. Christmas is done. Anyone tempted to take the tree down? Oh, the kids are still out of school and maybe there’s still family to visit, but for so many people these are the days when the blahs strike. The anticipation has been building since Halloween and maybe the day met your expectations–or maybe it didn’t. Regardless this is the, “what now?” moment before New Year’s crashes in on us.

Well, there’s a song for that. Good King Wenceslas was the king of Bohemia during the 10th century. You’ve probably heard his song–a Christmas carol. Except there’s no mention of Christ and the song is about the day after Christmas, also known as the Feast of St. Stephen. It’s about a king–a rich ruler–seeing a poor man and reaching out to help him. And better still, the king encourages his struggling servant in helping the poor.

Hmmmm. Sounds right to me. Sounds like a lovely way to spend the days after Christmas–reaching out to help someone. You could:

  • Clean out your closets and donate good, gently used items to a charity.
  • Speaking of charities–there’s still time to give financially before the end of the year.
  • Volunteer–at the animal shelter, a nursing home, a children’s home, a food pantry, your church–options are plentiful!
  • Write a note to someone . . . on paper . . . and mail it.
  • We’ve all eaten too many sweets–make a pot of chicken soup and take it to someone who could use a pick-me-up.
  • Call your grandmother, or mother, or uncle, or cousin, or–well–you get the idea.
  • Write a book review to cheer your favorite author (really, these are HUGELY cheering!).
  • Tell someone you love them. Maybe several someone’s.

And just in case you don’t know all the lyrics to the song, here’s your after-Christmas inspiration. It definitely sounds like it could be set in the hills of West Virginia to me!

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

I didn’t mean to inhale the WHOLE thing!

leo-thistleIf you’ve followed this blog for very long, you know that I insert the occasional poem–mostly mine–but someone else’s now and again. I think of poetry as condensed stories. It’s the essence of life boiled down to words that will often fit on a single page. Intense, rich, something to be nibbled and savored.

And then I picked up Dog Songs by Mary Oliver.

And next thing I knew I’d read every single poem. At first, I just dipped in here and there. Then I flipped to the front and read straight through. Even to the acknowledgements. Here is a kindred spirit–a poet who loves dogs.

Or, loved dogs. Mary Oliver died in 2019. But her paean to dogs lives on.

You see, I love poetry and I love dogs. And while poetry is normally something I like to enjoy a little at a time–to roll around in my imagination and drip word by word onto my tongue–dogs are something that should be taken all at once. Dogs are for getting down on the floor and burying your hands in their fur and laughing.

So, it’s only right that Dog Songs should inspire a similar reaction. Go ahead. Read them ALL. Laugh, smile, cry. Just enjoy this litany of dogs none of which lived long enough but all of which brought incredible joy. The God-ordained job of dogs in my opinion.

Inhale the whole thing.dog songs

“You may not agree, you may not care, but if you are holding this book you should know that of all the sights I love in this world—and there are plenty—very near the top of the list is this one: dogs without leashes.” – Mary Oliver

Appalachian Thursday — What’s My Theme?

new-header-1.pngI’m looking at updating my website and I’m trying to be intentional and thoughtful about it. I’ve already switched up my header and I’ve taken the first steps toward developing a shinier, sharper, more professional site. As part of that I’m looking for a tagline–a theme for my writing if you will.

Since my first book hit shelves five years ago I’ve stuck with “Appalachian Blessings.” Which is fine as far as it goes. My stories are definitely Appalachian and the word “blessings” covers a lot of ground from the touch of supernatural I like to weave in to the simple blessings my characters experience.

But I want to dig deeper. What’s the unifying theme of my stories? I have some thoughts about that. But it occurred to me that asking readers might be a good way to get some insight. Sometimes, when you’re really close to something, it’s hard to see it.

So today, if you’ve read my books, my question for you us–what’s my theme? In your opinion, what idea or notion or thread runs through my stories?

Thanks for jumping in and thanks for being a reader!

Are you waiting to experience joy?

door swagOur pastor has been doing a great series called Songs of the Season that focuses on a different Christmas carol each week. Yesterday was Joy to the World.

So, of course, we talked about joy (and yes, he does invite the congregation to interact!). One of his comments got me to thinking about how often we WAIT to experience joy. I know I’m guilty of thinking joy will come when _____________. Fill in the blank.

  • When I get married.
  • When I find that dream job.
  • When we by a house. (When we pay off the house!)
  • When I have a book published.

Our pastor’s parting challenge was to ask God where we need to be finding joy in our circumstances. Which made me think about how much joy my writing brings me. I find joy in . . .

  • Holding a finished novel.
  • Interacting with readers at readings, signings, and online.
  • Hearing from readers about what my stories mean to them.
  • And just writing brings me incredible joy–that act of creation.

And what do I catch myself focusing on instead?

  • Will my editor like this story or will it need to be changed?
  • Will I get another contract when this one is finished?
  • How are my reviews?
  • How are my sales?
  • Should I be marketing more? How??

And suddenly, the joy of being an author is sucked right out of me.

This morning I went to get a mammogram. And in the spirit of the season I took a signed copy of When Silence Sings. When the girl “taking my pictures” was done, I gave her the book and said, “Merry Christmas!”

She was downright excited! She told me she’ll have time off next week and can’t wait to read the book. She even asked about leaving a review. It was a JOYFUL moment. Those are the moments I want to live in. And I’m determined to be more conscious of not letting those sneaky what ifs rob me of my joy.

Where can you find joy today?

 

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