How Real Should Writers Get?

We’ve all read those novels. You know the ones.

  • The heroine has been riding in a covered wagon for two months when she meets the dashing cowboy who saves the wagon train. He finds her lovely in spite of the fact that she hasn’t washed her hair since late winter and it’s now well into spring.
  • The heroine is lost in a storm in the English countryside. When the hero finds her the rain has made her hair spring into ringlets that cling to her cheeks and her gown is, err, also clinging to her curves.
  • The modern-day heroine is volunteering in a community garden where she ends up working in the mud with at-risk children. When the hero encounters her he can’t resist swiping a smudge of dirt from her adorable cheek.

And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with all that. Often, it works. As readers we don’t necessarily want to think about going to the bathroom, sweating, or having a really bad hair day. I don’t know about you, but I’m reading to escape much of that!

yikes~And yet. Here’s how I look after taking Thistle for a hike and helping my own personal hero with yard work. I went into the bathroom to start washing up and couldn’t stop laughing. Let’s see . . .

Her skin glistened while errant curls sprang from her brow. Her cheeks exhibited a rosy glow of health and Joe Dashing simply could not take his eyes from her.

No, I guess he couldn’t. Thank goodness my husband was working in another part of the yard and I was able to get myself into a semblance of order before he saw me.

So as a reader, how real do you want writers to get? I wrote a heroine who was fuller-figured than her peers and was absolutely covered in freckles. But she was still attractive–especially to the hero. I’m writing a character now with a significant birthmark who is otherwise stereotypically lovely.

What do you say? Do you want more physically flawed characters? Or would you rather preserve the illusion that there’s such a thing as someone who looks good all the time?

I think I’ll go with minor flaws, but I’m not giving any character I write hair like . . . well . . . like mine after a stint in the yard in the heat!

Appalachian Thursday – Back on The Farm

We just returned from spending several days at The Farm in West Virginia. My niece is the eighth generation of my family to grow up on that land. The house we stay in is just a few months older than I am since my parents built it while Mom was pregnant with me. Everywhere I step there’s a memory underfoot.

Not only is it a beloved spot because of my growing up there, but I’d also argue it’s one of the prettiest places in the world. And now the nearby town of Buckhannon is getting downright hip with some good restaurants, music and art venues, and–yes–a brewery. Because a town can’t be hip without a brewery.

It’s come a long way from my high school days and I love it even better now. Come on, take a stroll with me . . .

Helping to Rescue Smokey Bear

SmokeyIn The Sound of Rain my hero, Judd, is shown a 1950s poster of Smokey Bear. His boss–who is also my heroine’s father–wants Judd to serve as a sort of liaison with the forest service in their efforts to preserve forests. Although I only mention the poster and Smokey in passing, it was fun to do a little bit of research about a childhood icon.

For example, it’s Smokey Bear, NOT Smokey the Bear. And he’s named after “Smokey” Joe Martin, assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department in the 1920s.

And now Smokey has entered my life once again!

On New Year’s Eve I took Thistle to the national forest near our house for her daily hike. As I pulled into the parking area I noticed something over in the trees. Upon closer inspection I discovered a full-size Smokey Bear sign leaning against a tree.

Odd, I thought. It seemed like a pretty remote spot for Smokey to campaign about the danger of forest fires. Especially since he wasn’t bolted down.

Then, that evening, I checked a local news site because our weather had turned downright awful. And what did I find but a piece about a Smokey sign being stolen from a local fire station!

Anyone with a tip as to his location was asked to contact the Sheriff’s office or the fire department. So I did. Turns out it WAS the missing bear. He’s back home now and being reattached to his post more securely.

I was even interviewed by the local newspaper.

Helping get Smokey home was the highlight of my new year’s weekend. Who needs champagne, countdowns, or midnight fireworks when you can be part of getting Smokey home?

Appalachian Thursday–Rubber Boots

bootsMud boots, gum boots, rain boots, rubbers, wellies, or, you know, plain ole rubber boots.

I don’t suppose they’re uniquely Appalachian, but they certainly are ubiquitous to every mountain farm I’ve ever set foot upon.

Some evenings, when I’m short for time, instead of taking Thistle for a tromp in the national forest, we simply cross the creek behind the house, follow a critter trail along the water’s edge, and come out in a neighbor’s pasture where we happily trespass. I wear my rubber boots for such excursions for most of the reasons someone invented rubber boots.

  • They keep my feet dry if it’s been raining or is a dewy morning.
  • They’re ideal for crossing creeks that aren’t too high, but lack strategically placed rocks for hopping.
  • They protect against mud and other squishy stuff found in pastures.
  • They keep the poison ivy at bay.

Plus, they make me happy.

There’s just something about clomping through the pasture with my blue jeans tucked into a pair of rubber boots that makes me feel, well, countrified.

Tuesday I donned my boots on a perfect, early-October afternoon for just such a walk. The forest was cool and shady still, the creek gurgled happily along, and the sun slanted throuCreeksidegh the trees into the pasture in a way that made me glad to be alive. A soft breeze played with my hair and Thistle chased squirrels, real and imaginary. Goldenrod nodded in the edge of the field while the birds sang God’s glory.

I have an author photo of myself sitting beside the creek in a dress, wearing rubber boots. That, I think, captures my Appalachian brand and my books. Even fancied up, there’s an element of practicality–of the everyday–that keeps everything grounded. Just like walking in the beauty of the woods and the grasses and the waters in my rubber boots.

Bees, Rattlesnakes, and Bears – oh my!

rattlesnakeYou know it’s a doozy of a hike when the least scary thing to happen is a bear thundering off through the brambles.

That’s how my hike with Thistle started one evening last week. And we weren’t much alarmed. After all, the bear was leaving. Then Thistle ran on ahead and in short order came streaking back past me.

While hiking with my husband that morning she’d gotten into some yellow jackets (bears crack those nests open like pecans this time of year). I thought, surely that hadn’t happened again. I called her to me and two yellow jackets flew from her fur. Okay, it had. We ran down a side trail where she wallowed in some tight brush, divesting herself of any insects. Which was good since I had that MAJOR allergic reaction 15 years ago. (I’m theoretically cured after 7 years of shots, but who wants to test that?!?)

We made our way to a stream and gathered our wits. The bees were quite a bit scarier than the bear. Even so, we had hiking to do, so off we went, taking the long way around. As we came back down the mountain on a nice, wide trail, we stumbled across the scariest thing yet.

A rattlesnake.

A yellow phase timber rattlesnake to be specific (I only learned this later). And when I saw it, stretched full length in a sunny spot on the trail, Thistle was standing tail to tail with it. Or tail to rattle. My dog had no CLUE there was a snake in the world.

I convinced her to come to me with some treats and we stood there for a moment, marveling. (I did–Thistle just wondered why she had to wear her leash and might there be more treats?)

Then we went the even longer way around.

One of the themes in my upcoming novel, The Sound of Rain, is how we’re never really safe. No matter how many precautions we may take, bad things will still happen in the most unexpected ways. It’s just how this fallen world works.

My first thought after such an eventful hike was that maybe I should give up hiking until the first good freeze. But honestly, I love walking in the woods. It’s my freest, most creative time. And it’s something my husband, dog, and I love to do together.

So, I’ll keep hiking with the bears, the bees, and the rattlesnakes. Because, as my characters also learn, we may not be safe, but we are secure. Not because of any precautions we’ve taken, but because of who we trust.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.”

The Best Laid Plans

BearI like to make plans. I like for things to fit neatly together–preferably in an attractive pattern. For example, over the weekend I bought fried chicken at a deli for a church event. I really, really, REALLY wanted to suggest to the clerk that he should put the breasts and wings in one container and the legs and thighs in the other.

It would have been more equitable.

But this is NOT how life works. (In case you didn’t know.)

I took Thistle for a walk up Bartlett Mountain on Saturday. The road starts out paved, switches to gravel, and then becomes a dirt track. If you’re determined, you can go all the way to the top of the ridge on a bear trail.

We went high enough to get a good view of the mountains with their first tinge of autumn color, then turned around and headed back down. I was walking along making it a point to notice how delightful life was right at that moment. It was a soft, misty afternoon with the smell of autumn in the air. I had my dog and an evening to do as I pleased. Idyllic really.

That’s when Thistle spotted the bear. Thankfully, she’s a smart dog, so she just sat in the road and waited for me. I called her back, leashed her, and proceed to encourage the bear to move along. The bear wasn’t being aggressive, but neither was she leaving. Mostly, she seemed curious about us. While I wasn’t afraid, neither was I eager to satisfy the bear’s curiosity. So we backtracked, found a bear trail through the woods (ironic, right?) and pushed our way through the trees down to the gravel section of the road.

Bear behind us, it occurred to me that my afternoon idyll had been disturbed. There I was, appreciating a simple pleasure, when a bear threw a wrench in the gears.

And ain’t that like life.

You’re on the downhill, coasting along, taking in the scenery and–wham–bear. Talk about unplanned. Talk about a piece that doesn’t fit the pattern.

I think God is working on me in this area. I want Him to lay out His ten-year plan for me (twenty would be even better) so I can check each item off my list and feel the satisfaction of a to-do list that is DONE.

But bears keep popping up. They’re not necessarily scary, just unexpected and often inconvenient. But maybe, just maybe, they’re meant to push me toward the path I should have been on all along . . . And maybe, just maybe the unplanned path is the better one.

Appalachian Thursday–People Like These

goldenrodThistle and I often hike in the national forest near our house. I never know who we’ll run into up there–hikers, hunters, cyclists, foragers–there’s quite a variety of folks. Yesterday, though, was unique.

We pulled into the gravel lot and I noticed some people poking around in the tall weeds. If it were July, I’d assume they were picking blackberries, but this time of year I couldn’t think what they’d be after.

Thistle hopped out of the car and headed straight for the closest human being, since human beings are her favorite thing. Next to treats. I followed and saw that our neighbor was a young man, hair in a topknot, cigarette dangling from his lips. And he was . . . picking flowers.

And not just picking flowers–he’d assembled a gorgeous little bouquet of blue and white asters, goldenrod, thistles, and ferns. It was straight off of Pinterest. I exclaimed over how pretty it was and commented on the thistle, telling him that was my dog’s name.

He got excited and called out to his two friends, exclaiming over knowing the name of the flower that was the same as the name of the dog. Now, his friends were also, um, not stereotypical flower pickers. T-shirts with no sleeves, cigarettes, a beat up cowboy hat–and a handful of purple asters.

They greeted me, cocked wary eyes at Thistle, and climbed into their car. Three good ole boys and their perfect nosegay of autumn flowers.

I wanted to ask them who the flowers were for. Someone’s mother or grandmother? A girlfriend? Their own pleasure? I wanted to take a picture of a redneck boy holding a bouquet suited to a flower girl at a wedding as ash fell from his cigarette.

But I didn’t do any of that. I just tucked the image away in my heart. Because those were my people. Mountain people. Contradictory people. People who will bring you flowers, but would rather you didn’t ask any questions.