Finding Inspiration – Smith, Rash & Cash

App writersThe Appalachian Studies Association held their annual conference in Asheville this past weekend. Can you believe it? An entire association dedicated to the study of Appalachia.

While I didn’t have a chance to go to the full conference, I was able to attend the keynote event. It featured Appalachian author Wiley Cash interviewing fellow authors Lee Smith and Ron Rash. I mean, how could I NOT attend? If you aren’t familiar with these storytellers, check out Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, Rash’s Serena, and Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. Or anything else any of them have written.

The event was a delight and there was much worth repeating, but here’s my top takeaway–if you want to write well, hang out with the old folks.

A common theme among these wonderful authors talking about how they became writers and where they find their inspiration was spending time with their elders. I think this is common among those of us who have grown (are growing) up in Appalachia.

When I was a kid there wasn’t a youth group. There weren’t any community activities or programs for the youth. Oh, sure, when we had community events (the bean supper at Lucille’s, swimming at Aunt Bess’, or Toad’s wiener roast) the kids would run off and get into trouble together, but we always ended up back in the company of adults.

One of my most precious memories is curling up in Dad’s lap where he sat cross-legged in a room full of men talking, smoking, and playing music. The sweat would dry on my skin as the rumble of voices and laughter lulled me to sleep. I don’t remember what they talked about (oh, how I wish I did), but I think I absorbed those stories, those tall tales through my very pores.

On Sundays we went visiting. We’d sit in family members’ living rooms wearied by the drone of adults talking about weather and people and politics and even religion. And while there was many a Sunday when I would have given the last slice of chocolate cake to be set free, now I recognize how precious that time was.

When I write these days, it’s almost as if my fingers on the keyboard are tracing out voices imprinted deep in my memory. I don’t write stories so much as I find them again. As if I were sitting, once more, among the old folks.

Only this time I’m listening . . . and writing it all down.

Appalachian Thursday – Onion Sets & Sweet Peas

farm market

It’s officially the time of year when seed catalogs become irresistible. I pore over gaudy pictures of corn with luxurious silks, scandalously red tomatoes, strawberries glinting like jewels, and squash that make me wonder why I don’t eat vegetables ALL the time.

And I begin to dream of gardening.

Of course, the dream is nothing like reality. There’s no thought of the tractor breaking down while disking the garden. I forget the bazillion rocks we “harvested” from the freshly plowed rows on the farm each spring. And weeds? Come on . . . as long as we don’t let them get ahead of us . . .

But my husband is the voice of reason. And he reminds me that I’m not even very good at gardening. Last summer I estimate that I got at least $15 worth of cherry tomatoes from the $14 plant I kept in a pot out front. (We won’t talk about the cost of potting soil.) And my herbs are certainly a savings over buying those plastic packs at the grocery store. As long as I remember to use them. Last summer’s potatoes were certainly a savings since I just planted some old, store-bought spuds that had sprouted in the pantry. I at least broke even on that one.

And yet . . .

When I see the sign at Southern States advertising onion sets. And picture sweet peas flowering on a trellis made from baling twine . . . well. Thank goodness for nostalgia. I think it’s mostly what sells my books.

Redeeming My Characters

BooksLike children, I’m not supposed to have a favorite character. But Frank Post (along with the Talbot sisters) stole my heart. Frank is a blend of so many men I knew growing up. Men who were tough, flawed, opinionated, and most of all tender-hearted beneath those gruff exteriors. There were a few times I even thought about stopping by for a visit on trips home. (Oh right, my characters aren’t REAL!)

This week, I’m sharing Frank’s thoughts about doubting faith.

FRANK POST — THE DOUBTING ONE
Miracle in a Dry Season & Until the Harvest

I think I would’ve liked going fishing with the disciples. Especially if that Thomas feller was along. I’m a lot like Thomas—don’t hardly believe a thing until I can get my fingers wrapped around it and see it with my own eyes.

And there’s been a time or two in my life when I felt left out—like Thomas must have when all the rest of his friends were talking about seeing Jesus back from the dead—alive and kicking. There it is, written in John, chapter twenty. “But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said unto them, ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.’”

It’s hard, when everyone else sees a rainbow while you’ve got our head down, chopping firewood and digging ditches. For a lot of years, I just kept my head down. I figured if I wasn’t meant to see what other folks did, I’d just stop looking for it. Jesus probably didn’t want the likes of me anyway.

Thing is though, when enough people tell you how pretty the rainbow is, you get a hankering to see it for yourself. Except I didn’t want to admit the truth of that, so I put conditions on my belief. Like Thomas, who wouldn’t believe until he put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side.

That’s when I heard about a woman in town—she had a child and no husband, so I knew she’d made mistakes, too. And even though the gossips talked about her behind her back, she stepped up and fed anyone who was hungry that summer the drought was so bad.

I ate her food—best I ever had. And for just a minute there, I caught a glimpse of that rainbow. Eating a plain bowl of beans, I could see how love was supposed to look. I could smell it and taste it and it hit me like it must have when Thomas finally saw Jesus and knew he really was God.

“After eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace be unto you.’ Then saith he to Thomas, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’”

I’m glad at least one of the disciples was as hard-headed as me. And although I might not have seen Jesus in the flesh, I surely have seen Him—still see Him—in the way poor, sinful folks reach out to give one another a hand. So if you’ve got your head down like I did for so long, you might try looking up and around. Jesus, he’ll sneak up on you, if you let him.

Five Years an Author

the bookThis year will be the fifth anniversary of the release of my first novel–Miracle in a Dry Season. Which is kind of hard for me to believe! Half a decade as a published author. And while I fall in love with each and every character I write, Casewell and Perla will always hold a special place in my heart.

A few years ago I wrote a series of devotions from the points of view of some of the characters in that initial Appalachian Blessings series. So over the next few weeks I thought I’d share those with you. Starting with Casewell.

CASEWELL PHILLIPS – THE CARPENTER

Isaiah 44:13 – The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house.

I remember the first time those words in Isaiah caught my attention. I guess I’d had a way with shaping wood all my life. Even when I was a boy, Dad would show me how to knock a few boards together to make a sled or a crate for potatoes. I even carved a few things that might’ve looked like what I wanted—a dog, a bird, a person.

So when I saw God was talking about a carpenter, I sat up and listened. I was a little bit proud of what I could do with a few pieces of wood in those days. I might’ve misread that verse the first few times. It sounded like a good thing, using my God-given talent to make something that looked like a man.

But there’s the danger of reading just a verse or two. Turns out, God was after Isaiah about the futility of making idols whether cast in metal or carved in wood. That’s when I read more than just the few lines that first caught my eye.

A little further on, verse 18 says, “They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.”

That was me for the longest time—blind and hard-hearted. Then I met Perla. I judged her pretty hard there at first. Everyone knew she had a child and no husband, but God opened my eyes. And then he opened my heart and I realized I’d been putting my faith in what I could do on my own. Looks like I was my own man-shaped idol.

So I read that chapter in Isaiah a few more times and turns out there’s a part on down there that says, “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.”

Turns out an idol can be made out of anything—money, things, people . . . pride. I guess a lot of folks thought Perla was the one in need of redemption. Me, I think we all are. And the best thing any of us can do—carpenter, teacher, doctor, or farmer—is figure out what our idols are and hand them over to God for blotting out. I thank him every day for making me a carpenter, a husband, and a father who finally had the good sense to let God be my redeemer.

Appalachian Thursday – Pocketknives

pocketknivesI had no idea something as common and everyday as a pocketknife could stir such passion. Last week I posted a link to an essay in Appalachian Magazine titled “The Kind of Men Who Carry Pocketknives.” Man–the clicks that link got!

Since I don’t see men whipping out their knives so much these days, I guessed maybe carrying them had fallen by the wayside. Not so if the comments on that post can be trusted.

When I was a kid, most men I knew had a pocketknife on them. Dad carried a Case knife if I remember correctly. My brothers carried them. I even had a small Swiss knife I kept in my purse. (Those tiny scissors were next to useless.)

Knives had a bazillion uses. The one that came to mind when I posted the link was the way Dad would pull out his knife to open Christmas presents. He’d carefully slice the tape so as not to damage the paper. A holdover from days when they saved the paper from year to year. It was sheer torture for us kids, wanting to rip open our own packages while being expected to politely wait for Dad to surgically open his.

Now I miss it. Durn gift bags.

Here’s a handful of things I saw my dad do with his pocketknife over and over again:

  • Slice an apple.
  • Cut baling twine.
  • Kill tics (yuck, I know).
  • Cut a switch for a naughty child.
  • Skin squirrels or rabbits (deer required a larger, skinning knife).
  • Clean fingernails.
  • Sharpen sticks for roasting wieners or marshmallows over a fire.
  • Sharpen the knife itself on a whetstone. I can still hear that gritty whisking sound if I close my eyes . . .

Of course, the knife was cleaned after the ickier uses, but it does bring to mind a story Dad loves to tell about the local fur trader in our neighborhood. Dad stopped by Colman’s house one day when he was skinning a groundhog (a pungent job, trust me). As they chatted, Colman wiped his knife on his pant leg, reached into a box of windfall apples, sliced one, and offered dad a bite.

I know you aren’t supposed to carry a knife in your pocket a lot of places these days. Then again, there are still places where it’s expected. So, I fished one of the several pocketknives floating around in our kitchen drawer out and dropped it in my purse. I know it’s going to come in handy.

 

Appalachian Thursday – Character Names

Yes, I know it’s Friday.

At least now I do.

I’ll blame it on the holidays throwing me off. All day yesterday I thought it was still Wednesday and so I neglected to get this post ready and up. But here it is, a day late and hopefully NOT a dollar short.

Readers have commented on how unusual the name of the heroine in my most recent story is (A Shot at Love in The Christmas Heirloom still $2.99 for the digital version). So where did I get the name Fleeta?

Meet Fleta Hickman.Fleta and Rex A real West Virginian.

No, my character isn’t based on this lovely lady posing next to my grandfather, Rex Loudin, but she is the inspiration for the name. Although I added an extra “e” so readers would know how to pronounce it.

I don’t know much about the real Fleta or how she got HER name. And my Fleeta didn’t know where her name came from, either. But then, she’s less sentimental than I am.

Here’s a snippet from the story so you get the feel for MY Fleeta’s personality. She may fall for Hank eventually, but the first thing she falls in love with is his . . . rifle.

Fleeta noticed a second man catching up to Judd. He was shorter and thicker—though not heavy by any means. His hair was sandy—almost blond, but not quite. More the color of honeycomb. Fleeta thought he looked pleasant enough and started to smile. Then she froze as she got a good look at the rifle slung over his shoulder. It was a Woodmaster—a Remington seven-forty, thirty-ought-six, and if she wasn’t mistaken it was brand new. Her breath caught in her throat and she forgot to blink. It was the finest rifle she’d ever seen. And a semi-automatic at that. She wanted to reach out and touch it so bad she could almost feel the silk of the wood and the ice of the steel.

Someone elbowed Fleeta in the ribs. “I said, this here’s Fleeta Brady. Fleeta, you know Judd dontcha?”

Fleeta choked on the spit she’d forgotten to swallow. “I do, but it’s been years since I last saw him.”

Judd looked at her with serious eyes that let her know he wished her to be at her ease. She gentled under his look and shifted her focus back to the second man. Apparently, she’d already been introduced, but she had no idea what his name was.

“It’s short for Henry,” he said with an easy smile. “Folks started calling me Hank before I could talk, so I didn’t get to have any say in the matter. Fleeta, though, that’s unusual. Is it a family name?”

Fleeta blinked. “I have no idea. My parents died when I was a baby. Is that a Remington seven-forty?”

Hank blinked back. Twice. “It sure is. Just acquired it over the summer and thought I’d bring it to West Virginia and see how good it is at getting me a deer.”

“The gun won’t have any trouble. Only thing that could get in its way is the one firing it.”

Judd made a sound that might have been laughter, but Fleeta ignored him, her eyes riveted to the most beautiful rifle she’d ever seen.

Christmas in Appalachia

Christmas treeWhile I suppose we were relatively modern when it came to my childhood Christmases, the old-timey traditions are still hanging on in the mountains. And there are some I very much think we should revive for broader use. Here are a few of my favorite Appalachian Christmas traditions:

VISITING – My 85-year-old cousin and I were lamenting the fact that no one visits anymore. It was customary throughout the year, but especially on Christmas day. The idea was to simply get out and see your neighbors. In my experience, the older folks stayed at home awaiting company while the younger ones did the traveling. You didn’t stay long, but there were refreshments–fruitcake, cider, cookies–and it was bad luck not to partake lest you spoil the Christmas Spirit.

CHRISTMAS GIFT – If you go a bit further back, there was a tradition of carrying small gift items like candies in your pockets as you went visiting. If you met another visitor the first one to say, “Christmas Gift,” would win a gift from the other.

DECORATIONS – There was plenty of greenery to be had–pine, holly, or even bittersweet–and it was simple enough to cut a tree. Decorating the tree was another matter. Common decorations included popcorn strings, paper chains, seed pods wrapped in the foil from chewing gum wrappers, gingerbread cookies, and scraps of bright fabric.

SERENADIN’ – No, not caroling. The idea was to gather as many noise-making items as you could lay your hands on–cowbells, shotguns, pots and pans, etc. A group of serenaders would then sneak up on a neighbor’s house after bedtime and commence to making as much racket as possible. The neighbor would light a candle or two and invite the seranaders in for refreshments. If the neighbor heard the group before they got started, he’d fire off a shotgun to let them know they’d been “caught.” And then he’d invite them in for cider anyway!

A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW – This had a couple of meanings. First, it was a welcome for visitors or even strangers–light for the path and warmth for the feet. Second, it indicated that the Holy Family would be welcome and wouldn’t have to sleep in the stable.

TALKING ANIMALS – Okay, so this is just superstition. I think. The idea is that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals can talk. I actually worked this one into The Sound of Rain with Judd remembering a time he and his brother Joe snuck out to the barn in hopes of chatting with the family’s livestock.

So if you see me next Tuesday, watch out. When I holler “Christmas gift,” I’ll be expecting a little something. And in turn, I’ll be sure to tell you what Thistle had to say at midnight the night before.