Writing Historical Fiction

Lorraine
Ladies were not part of the battle, but when you’re doing a reenactment with only a handful of folks, the ladies might hide in the trees and fire off a dozen or so rounds to add to the ambiance.

Oh dear.

As I hope most of you know, I write historical fiction. But not VERY historic. I’ve written as far back as the 1940s, which means when I want to do research I can often pick up the phone and just call someone who was alive then.

But this past weekend I went to a reenactment of the Battle of Kings Mountain. That would be a Revolutionary War battle fought to the south and east of where I now live. And while there were only a handful of folks depicting the unexpected overthrow of the British, it was oddly moving when the battle was won and a spectator yelled, “Go USA!”

I attended because some friends are reenacters. And VERY authentic, too. Their clothing is all handmade and true to the period (no buttons for the ladies and yes, Lorraine was wearing stays). The muskets were reproductions of the real deals and while they weren’t firing musket balls, they did use paper powder cartridges as the soldiers would have.

Seeing men firing long rifles against the beauty of the mountains brought history to life in a way I hadn’t expected and it occurred to me . . . shooting

One of the main reasons I don’t write fiction from longer ago is all the research that’s required. I love to jump into stories having a pretty good idea about what daily life would have been like so I can focus on the people. (Lazy? I won’t argue if you think so.)

But with friends like Dennis and Lorraine if I DID want to write a story from the late 18th century, and I had a question . . . I could just pick up the phone and ask it. My family’s history in Appalachia certainly goes back that far. Brothers David & Elijah Phillips left Massachusetts for what is now French Creek, WV, because they were Patriots and their father and brothers were Loyalists. A family divided!

Like I said at the beginning. Oh dear.

My problem isn’t trying to think of something new to write, it’s deciding which of the hundred stories bouncing around inside my head I’ll give a voice.

Lest my editor or agent see this and get worried, I have no plans to write a Revolutionary War tale. It’s not really my brand. But maybe one of these days . . .

Appalachian Thursday – Porch Sitting Weather

Olivia kisses
Porch-sitting at the farm.

While it’s still a little early to proclaim the season changed, we are getting the loveliest taste of fall this week. Which means it’s prime porch sitting time!

The house we live in has the sorriest excuse for a front porch. But it’s still a porch and I’ll take it. Because the need to sit on the front porch is embedded in my genetic material.

Porch sitting is simply a way of life in the mountains. It’s for work, for socializing, for relaxing, and for keeping an eye on the neighborhood (people AND critters). Characters in my novels do all kinds of things on porches–cry over men, talk about weddings, wait for family, digest meals. Porches make an appearance in pretty much all of my stories.

Every dog I’ve ever had loved ducking under the porch. Sometimes wild animals move in under there (we had a skunk for a time). If the porch is high enough, kids will, too. The porch light serves as a beacon of welcome. Once, we slept on the porch.

On these cool, pre-autumn days, my husband and I will take a glass of wine out after dinner to sit on our skinny little excuse for a porch and enjoy some lazy talk. No serious topics, no important decisions, just chat. Because porches bring that out–that desire to idly talk about nothing in particular. At peace and in communion. Waving to the cars going by.

Probably, if we could get the people we don’t see eye-to-eye with to sit with us on a porch with a glass of lemonade (or something stronger), we’d learn that we have a lot more in common than we ever realized.

Just don’t disturb the bird nesting in that hanging basket. The eggs should hatch any day now.

Life After a Hurricane

flood2
The great room and kitchen. That small desk is one of the few things I regret losing.

My heart is heavy for the folks in Texas who are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They’re dealing with a horrific mess that won’t be tidied up quickly. But I do want them–and anyone else who feels like the worst has happened–to remember that God often does some of his best work through the worst messes.

We’d had floods and hurricanes before Floyd blew through Conway, South Carolina, on September 16, 1999. As a matter of fact, I owned my very own pair of chest waders. They were camouflage and they kept me dry when I had to park my car and wade the quarter of a mile in to our house overlooking the Waccamaw River.

Floyd didn’t amount to much in the way of hurricane winds, but it surely did dump an excess of rain. The problem with rain in a place where the land is flat and near the ocean, is that runoff has nowhere to go.

Although our house sat on a rise near the river and was a good three feet off the ground, the water just kept coming. We moved what we could to a neighbor’s second story bedroom. We wrapped the legs of the poster bed in trash bags and piled belongings on counters or on top of furniture we never liked. We loaded clothes into more garbage bags and stowed them in the kayak with our three dogs.flood1

Then we abandoned ship, paddled to high ground, and drove to my in-law’s in upstate South Carolina.

When we returned a few days later, the water was still rising. When the water crested, the only part of my car still showing was the tip of the antennae. Water in the house stopped just shy of the light switches. On a perfectly sunny, early autumn afternoon, we paddled our kayak through a set of French doors and into the great room. Light reflected off the water and shimmered across the vaulted ceiling. There was a stillness. An unexpected peace.

That was in September. Less than four months later, in January of 2000, we loaded what we’d salvaged into two cars and a moving van and moved to Western North Carolina. Eighteen years later, life in the mountains is good. And mostly dry.

We still look around at the beauty of the mountains and the changing seasons and marvel at our good fortune. Neither one of us misses the ocean or the flat land or the long, hot summers. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.

And all it took to move us, was a hurricane.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13, NIV)

*This is an abbreviated version of an essay I wrote for “When You Pass Through Waters: Words of Hope & Healing,” a collection of essays written to help raise funds for those affected by record flooding in SC in 2015.

Appalachian Thursday – Staghorn Sumac

sumacIt’s a running joke with my husband and me.

I say shoo-make.

He says soo-mak.

Clearly he’s wrong and just enjoys aggravating me. Oh, I know, I know. If you look up the “official” pronunciation it says that either soo-mak or shoo-mak is acceptable. There’s no mention of tagging “make” on the end. But the folks from Merriam-Webster probably haven’t spent a ton of time in Appalachia, so they can be forgiven.

In addition to offering endless fun with pronunciation, sumac is lovely and tasty. I long thought the velvety red tips were flowers, but I finally looked it up and turns out that’s the fruit–or drupes. You can steep them in hot water, strain the liquid, then sweeten it to make a sort of lemonade (tartness is due to malic acid). The drupes can also be dried and ground to make a tart spice (a key ingredient in za’atar).

Critters will also eat sumac, although I don’t think it’s their favorite. I got tickled by this line from the USDA data sheet about the plant: “The germination of sumac seeds is enhanced by their passage through the digestive system of rabbits, ring-necked pheasants, and quail.”

Indeed.

While I NEVER recommend going out into your backyard and eating anything you aren’t 100% certain is safe, I will set your mind to rest (at least a little) about staghorn and poison sumac. The poison kind has white berries and grows in really wet habitats so it’s somewhat easy to avoid. Which you should do since I hear it makes poison ivy look like a mosquito bite (it has the same urushiol).

So, join me everyone, and let’s say it together . . . shoo-MAKE!

 

Appalachian Thursday — Making Ice Cream

porchOne of our favorite summertime treats growing up on the farm was hand cranked ice cream. Of course, when you have a cow that delivers lots of creamy milk, the ingredients aren’t hard to come by. I suppose we made other flavors, but good ole vanilla is what I remember best.

Dad would set the churn up on the back porch (where we spent lots of time in the summer–see photo). Mom filled the internal cylinder with the appropriate ingredients–cream, sugar, vanilla. Then ice was added to the bucket, rock salt poured over the top, and the cranking began.

We always wanted to help crank, although I suspect we (or at least I) were more hindrance than help. The churn sat on the edge of the porch with the little drainage spout extending into the grass below. We’d stick our fingers in the drip, drip, drip, then taste and marvel at how salty it was.

Once Dad deemed the ice cream ready, we’d immediately pull out the dasher and dig in. Well, after we fought over who got to lick the dasher.

As an adult, my husband and I made ice cream with an old, hand-cranked maker his dad gave us. It was more work than I remembered! After the ice cream was “made,” my husband packed more ice around the cylinder, covered it with a towel and set it aside.

I asked him what the heck he was doing. “Curing it,” he said.

I was mystified.

Well, it turns out you can pack your freshly churned ice cream in ice (or stick it in the freezer) and it will harden. Just like store ice cream.

Who knew?

It was certainly delicious and, well, sturdier, after the ice cream had cured, but I think I’ll always prefer it uncured. Meltingly soft, so you almost have to hurry to eat it–kind of like summer itself, gone before you fully appreciate it.

Then again, I may just be sentimental.

Appalachian Thursday–Lost Summers

rocksRemember when June meant school was over and you had long, hot weeks stretching out ahead of you before you had to think about having a schedule again? Of course, I grew up on a farm, so there was plenty to DO with gardening and haying and general choring. But even so, summer seemed like such a FREE time.

I can even remember–are you ready for this? Being bored! Yes, I got bored on occasion and soon learned not to complain to my mother about it. “Bored? I can give you something to do . . .”

And boredom bred creativity. Out of boredom came the idea to transform a rotted out chestnut tree stump (American chestnut–HUGE stump) into a playhouse. We also had the idea to carpet a clearing in the woods with moss, carefully transplanting sheets of the stuff and then trusting the Good Lord to work his magic (and He did!). We also roamed and rambled, built dams in creeks, got dirty, skinned our knees, read books in the hayloft, went swimming, and a hundred other country summer things.

Of course we got in trouble, too. There were bad decisions and mistakes were made, but I don’t think any of my ER visits happened in the summer. (I do remember a broken toe, but you just wrap tape around that.)

The upshot is we survived and I think we were better for having summers to fill with our own schemes and plans. We worked hard when we had to and played harder when we didn’t. It was wonderful and it gave me such rich material for my writing.

What’s one of your best summer memories?

 

Memorial Day–It’s Not Just Hot Dogs

Veteran
My father-in-law, James Walter Thomas, Sr.

Memorial Day is set aside for remembering those who have died in the service of our nation. Originally, it was proclaimed in honor of the Civil War dead by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The order became official on May 5, 1868, and was first observed on May 30 of that year (next year is the 150th anniversary!).

Memorial Day has also been called Decoration Day because it was the tradition to decorate the graves of those who died in the war. The day was moved to the last Monday in May in 1971 to ensure a three-day weekend (cause that’s what really matters–right?).

In 2000 a resolution was passed to try and help remind Americans of the true meaning of the day. Signed by Pres. Bill Clinton it include a bullet “Encouraging individual department and agency personnel, and Americans everywhere, to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.”

So I encourage you at 3 p.m. this afternoon, to stop whatever you’re doing and say a prayer of thanks for those who have died to protect us and for those who are, even now, willing to do so.

I’ll be thanking God for some of the veterans I’ll be remembering:

  • James Walter Thomas Sr., my father-in-law, who served in WWII.
  • Bill Johnson, a neighbor, who was a  WWII fighter pilot.
  • Arthur “Judd” Loudin, my great-uncle, who lost part of his lung in the war.
  • Gail Phillips, a cousin, who had WWII shrapnel taken out of his leg in my memory.

All of them are gone, but certainly not forgotten. Who are you remembering this Memorial Day?