Giving Directions in Appalachia

For the first 18 years of my life I lived in a place where the driving directions included the phrase, “Turn off the paved road.” I love that so many places in Appalachia can be reached not by driving down highways or paying attention to street signs, but by following more . . . organic descriptions. Majestic trees, creeks, barns, big rocks, and even livestock provide directional markers in my neck of the woods. You might be told to “Turn left at the Millers’ Farm,” even though the Millers left twenty years ago and someone named Johnson lives there now. Directions can also turn into eloquent descriptions of the countryside. “Go on down the road a piece, you’ll see some rolling fields off to your left. George Smith farms those fields, keeps as nice a farm as I ever seen. When you top out on a little rise, you’ll see a big old maple on the right–prettiest tree in the county come October. Turn there.” But my all time favorite directions were given to a photographer acquaintance of mine. He was traveling the back roads of Western North Carolina photographing pockets of Appalachia that seemed frozen in time. (I highly recommend his books, especially The Face of Appalachia.) He asked for directions to a particular farm and was told to, “Turn at the horse.” He asked what to do if the horse wasn’t there. He was assured that it would be. And over the course […]

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When Only an Expletive Will Do

Remember in the movie A League of Their Own when Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball?” Well, turns out there’s no cursing in Christian publishing. Nope, you just don’t do it. Now there are plenty of folks out there debating whether this should be so, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. I’m fine with no cursing. I kind of like it. However. Sometimes, when writing my rough around the edges West Virginia characters, they get an itch to cuss. It’s just natural among many of the men in rural Appalachia. Ladies, not so much, and things like the “f” word are relative newcomers, but so many of those other curse words are just a mode of expression. So how do I get around it? Thus far I’ve come up with a handful of euphemisms, but I’m hoping you can help me with some more suggestions. I’ve used “woods colt” to describe an illegitimate child (I really like that one). But, of course, the word that replaces (bas____) might also be used as a pejorative and not a descriptive word. I’ve also cut my cussers off mid-stream as in, “He’s a real son of . . .” and there’s always the option of just saying, “He cursed.” But somehow a character saying, “Oh piddle,” doesn’t have the same effect as, “Sh__.” And while I don’t say those words myself (preferring piddle, poop, pooh, fiddlesticks, etc.), […]

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Appalachian Wednesday–Blackberry Time

Summer is a fruitful time in the soft, green mountains of Appalachia. The black raspberries are done (no recipes here, I just eat them as I find them!) and now it’s time for blackberries. (Early apples soon to come!) The season promises to be prolific with enough for me AND the bears. When it comes to blackberries there are pies, jellies, jams, sauces, salads, and even sweet tea. But really, I think most of two things–cobbler and wine. My great-grandmother was a believer in blackberry wine to cure most things. A family story goes that when my brother was a baby he had an, er, intestinal upset that doctor’s couldn’t cure. A tablespoon of blackberry wine from Grandma Jane and he was good as new! So here’s a recipe from a booklet titled, Oppis Guet’s Vo, Helvetia. It includes recipes, household hints and cures collected by Eleanor Mailloux from the residents of a Swiss Village near where I grew up in WV. “On a lovely August day, find yourself a blackberry patch and pick a couple of gallons of berries. Put in crock and cover with water. Let set for a day–whenever you think of it mash and stir. Strain into containers and add 3 1/2 cups sugar to every gallon of juice. Usually, blackberries don’t take yeast, but for your first try you might add 1/2 cake dissolved yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water–add to juice and stir well. Ferment until […]

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How to Have Your Photo Taken and Like It

It’s time for a new headshot. I like the one I have–my hair is nice, I look pretty good. But it doesn’t have much in the way of personality. And it definitely doesn’t offer any hints at my brand. There’s nothing that says Appalachia, or everyday miracles (never mind the miracle of hair cooperating), or nostalgia. So this weekend the plan is to try for something a little more . . . intentional. Photographer Kristen of Phil + Kristen Photography has been volunteering at the children’s home (my day job) and her work is gorgeous. So I asked her to see what she can do with me. The plan is to take photos outside, in the woods (Appalachia). And we’ll contrast me in nice clothes with the rusticity of the surroundings (everydayness). And we’re going for a sunshiny look (miracles). And we may work in some old books or other props (nostalgia). Phew. Now all I have to do is get over feeling all self-conscious about this. It feels kind of weird to have a photo shoot. It might be alright if it were about getting a nice family photo to share with my parents. Or if it was somehow work-related (when I did PR work I sometimes filled in as a “model” on photo shoots). But I’m a significant part of my brand. I’m the face that goes with the books I write. And this is part of the job. So here’s to […]

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Appalachian Wednesday–Learning to Milk a Cow

It was a sad day. Jim came home not long ago and let me know that our source for raw cow’s milk had dried up, so to speak.  I tried almond milk, but really, they’re not fooling anyone. So it’s back to the ultra-pasteurized, homogenized stuff that was milk once upon a time. Sigh. Maybe that’s why I decided to give a family in the novel I’m currently writing a milk cow. I mean, someone should be getting the good stuff. And Emily will have enough milk to make homemade butter, whipped cream, and cheese. Yay! It’s pretty easy to give a character a cow. You just send her down to the stockyards and buy one. Or she could get one from a neighbor. Or a nearby dairy farm. Easy-peasy. And then, of course, she’ll need to milk said cow. I grew up on a farm. I know how this works. You apply pressure from the top down, fanning your fingers. And you strip the udder dry each time you milk. Got it. I watched my dad do it for years. I even know how to make butter and how to skim the cream. I watched my mother do it for years. And I could probably get away with that much detail. But turns out there’s SO much more to it. Details like: What breed is the cow? (Different breeds have different temperaments and give varying amounts of milk with higher […]

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Visiting–An Appalachian Way of Life

I’m worried that the art of visiting is drifting into obscurity. I was writing a scene earlier this week and a character invited guests to “come in and sit a spell.” This was a common phrase when I was growing up. Even if you were just dropping something off, hurrying on to your next appointment, you’d get invited to come in and visit. On Sunday afternoons, Dad would often load us up in the car and we’d go visiting. We’d go see my great-aunt and uncle or my grandmother. Sometimes we’d stop by Aunt Bess’ or Gail Phillips’. All kin of a sort. Generally, my brothers and I would head off somewhere to play while the adults visited. Then there was “visitation” at funerals. This was often the evening before the actual funeral. Family would go to the funeral home and receive anyone who wanted to come pay their respects. It usually lasted a couple of hours and someone would always look in the casket and say, “Don’t he look natural.” Visitation still happens, but it too, seems to be fading away. And I think, what it boils down to, is that we just don’t take the time anymore. We pack our schedules so full, there isn’t time to sit on the front porch with a neighbor and watch the fireflies come out. Pardon me, lightning bugs. We’re too busy to go sit in the living room and eat pound cake with […]

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