Embrace the Awkwardness

presentingI participated in the Asheville Christian Writers’ Conference over the weekend. One conferee asked me how to gracefully exit a 15-minute appointment.

If you aren’t familiar here’s how the 15-minute appointment to pitch or share about your writing often goes:

  1. You wait nervously for your appointment time, lurking near the editor, agent, author with whom you plan to meet.
  2. The person with an appointment ahead of you goes over the allotted time and you push closer, trying to make sure the editor, agent, author sees you.
  3. The person ahead of you finally leaves and you swoop into the empty seat ready to pitch your work.
  4. You blurt out something you meant to be coherent and shove a one-sheet, business card, or pages at the person across the table.
  5. You manage to share something about your book, although you’re not sure it makes sense. Hopefully the editor, agent, author says something helpful and/or asks some questions.
  6. You realize your 15 minutes are up, but NOW you remember what you meant to say in the first place.
  7. You try to squeeze it in even as the next appointee lurks behind you.
  8. You finally mumble something you meant to be coherent and walk away.

Here’s the amazing wisdom I offered that conferee–embrace the awkwardness. Nothing about this process feels natural, so don’t worry when–hello–it feels unnatural. It’s okay. Take a breath and know everyone else feels awkward, too. You are NOT alone and agents, editors, authors have seen and heard much worse.

I once spilled a bottle of water on an agent (not my agent) and he still said nice things about my writing and asked for a proposal.

So how do you exit? Say, “Thank you so much,” and then, as you trip over your laptop bag on the way out, give the next person in line an encouraging smile.

Appalachian Thursday – Cover Reveal

While my fourth novel–The Sound of Rain–won’t officially release until early November, I can now share the cover with you. And I’m head over heels for it!

The designers said they wanted to do something a little different this time and I offered lots of suggestions and samples of covers I thought conveyed the “feel” of this story . . . which probably didn’t help them at all.

But that’s okay because Bethany House designers are some of the best in the business and they can be trusted! So here it is . . .

THOMAS_SOUNDOFRAIN_FR&SP.indd

Sigh.

I love the antique, nostalgic feel which is my BRAND y’all! And then those raindrops. And the e.e. cummings lack of capital letters in the title. Lovely!

And, as you can see, Larkin is NOT blonde, but has brown to auburn hair. Well of course she does. As soon as I saw the dress, I wrote it into the story (I was working on edits at the time). It makes me happy to “find” the cover when I’m reading, so I assume others like that, too.

Here’s one version of the back cover copy:

Judd Markley is a hard working coal miner who rarely thinks much past tomorrow until he loses his brother—and nearly his own life—in a mine cave-in. Vowing never to enter the darkness of a mine again, he leaves all he knows in West Virginia to escape to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It’s 1954, the seaside community is thriving, and Judd soon hires on with a timber company.

Larkin Heyward’s life in Myrtle Beach is uncomplicated, mostly doing volunteer work and dancing at the Pavilion. But she dreams of one day doing more—maybe moving to the hollers of Kentucky to help the poor children of Appalachia. But she’s never even met someone who’s lived there—until she encounters Judd, the newest employee at her father’s timber company.

Drawn together in the wake of a devastating hurricane, Judd and Larkin each seek answers to what tomorrow will bring. As opposition rises against following their divergent dreams, they realize that it may take a miracle for them to be together.

Appalachian Thursday–Ollie the Bobcat

bobcatI have an affinity for bobcats which are native to Appalachia. So when a news story ran this week about Ollie, a female bobcat, escaping from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., I tuned in.

I might have been rooting for the bobcat.

Oh, I know, she’s been in captivity since she was orphaned as a kitten and probably wouldn’t do well on her own.

Still.

At any rate, she’s back at the zoo now. News reports simply said she was “found on zoo property.” Hmmm. I’m betting she was still in the enclosure and just didn’t feel like being seen. Bobcats don’t much care to be seen, which is part of what I like about them. They’re subtle.

Allegedly, my first bobcat encounter was at the French Creek Game Farm. Dad was talking with the wildlife officer in charge and I, just a tyke, toddled off into the garage where there were several abandoned bobcat kittens in a cage. I was playing with them through the bars even though the wildlife guy said he had to feed them with gloves. Allegedly.

Dad always has been a storyteller, but it’s a good story, so I’ll keep it.

I’ve seen several bobcats in the wild over the years and once found one in the road, struck and killed by a car, on my way to work. I stopped and moved her. She was utterly perfect–no wounds that I could see. What struck me most were her paws–delicate with soft, pink pads. I would have expected the pads to be calloused, but they weren’t. I carried her well back into the woods, found a declivity, and covered her with sticks and leaves. I would have dug a grave if I’d had tools to do it.

My last bobcat siting was at least five years ago when one camped out under our bird feeder for a half hour or so. My husband and I just sat and watched, took some pictures (photo above), and marveled.

I’m glad Ollie is safe. I have to think maybe she’d just as soon stay where she is. Otherwise, she would have taken advantage of that hole in the mesh netting around her enclosure to find another–quieter–life.

Maybe she just needed a break from all the hubbub. Like we all do now and again.

I’m a cheater

Family photo
Me with two of my best sources for research.

I write historical fiction . . . but I cheat.

I only just realized this as my third novel was about to release last year. I’ve long struggled with genre and fitting what I write into a specific slot. Maybe it’s historical. Maybe it’s romance. Maybe it’s historical romance. OR it just MIGHT be women’s fiction.

Regardless of my dithering, my books are often characterized as historical fiction. Which is fine with me. But then I realized something . . . I don’t work nearly as hard as most other authors of historical fiction do.

I really enjoy the genre and often read it. Right now I’m listening to Newton & Polly by Jody Hedlund. It’s about John Newton–the author of Amazing Grace. The descriptions of clothing, social customs, and John’s time as a sailor are vivid. It all feels very real to me—I know Jody did her research.

Which brings me to cheating. I research very little. Oh, I look up timelines and newspaper headlines for context, but I’m not exactly immersing myself in 18th century England. I don’t have to research conditions aboard ship or the danger of opposing the slave trade. I don’t have to wonder about clothing and bathroom issues. And if I read someone’s diary, it’s just because I want to.

All I’ve really needed to do thus far in my writing journey is listen and ask questions.

The furthest back my novels have gone is 1948. My father was born in 1941 and he remembers a good bit. As did my grandmother who shared many a story before she passed.

It’s as though I’ve been researching my books all my life. In West Virginia, one of our primary forms of entertainment is sitting around telling stories. This drives my husband nuts. He’ll look at me as Dad launches into the story about a dog named Sloomer and mouth, “We’ve heard this one.”

Yes, we have. And hearing it again will only drive it a bit deeper into my psyche—will only make it that much more real when I translate it for my readers.

The upshot is, if you’re a writer, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Digging deep into research—becoming an expert on a specific time period—is wonderful. I have deep respect for writers who spend at least as much time researching as they do writing.

But when I took a notion to write historical fiction, all I had to do was dredge up the stories I heard at my father’s knee. All I have to do is close my eyes and think back to those stories I heard sitting on the porch of an evening.

Common advice is to write what you know. I say, write what you wish you knew.

Appalachian Thursday–Choosing a State Flower

GE DIGITAL CAMERAOn January 23, 1903–114 years ago this week–the Legislature of West Virginia passed a joint resolution naming the Rhododendron as the state flower.

I’ve known our state flower for as long as I can remember knowing there was such a thing. Rhododendron grows prolifically in the state with evergreen leaves in the winter and lovely flowers in the summer.

But I’ve only just learned how the flower was selected.

Back in 1902, Thomas C. Miller suggested a flower be chosen as a state emblem. He put word out through The West Virginia School Journal as follows:

“With the object of securing some definite action on the question [of a state flower], I suggest that on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in the month of November, 1902, not only pupils in our schools, but all who wish to indicate their preference for a ‘State Flower’ shall vote for a first and second choice and have this vote recorded by the teachers in the school district. Teachers will please to keep an accurate record of the vote and forward the same to this office before the 10th of December following.”

He went on to name some possibilities including: goldenrod, mountain laurel and other species of rhododendron, apple blossom, wild rose, and white clover.

On November 26, 1902, laurel (rhododendron is also known as big laurel) was the overwhelming choice with 19,331 votes. The second runner up, with a distant 3,663 votes, was honeysuckle (wild azalea). Apple blossom, which I think might have gotten my vote, received only 1,224. votes. If you’d like to see the full tally, click HERE.

Do you know your state flower? Here in NC it’s dogwood.

Appalachian Thursday–A Looooong, Hiiiigh Bridge

I just got back from a visit home to West Virginia. Every time I go, there’s a moment when I realize I’ll have to drive (or persuade my husband to drive) over the New River Gorge Bridge. I don’t typically have bridge issues. Normally, I just cross them and keep going.

But the Gorge.

Phew.

It all started a few years ago, on a lovely summer afternoon, when I stopped at the visitor’s center to stretch my legs and get the history of the place.

This was a mistake . While it was helpful in terms of learning more about the state that I love, the trip down the 278 steps to the viewing platform was regrettable. Not only could I look UP (way, way up) at the world’s second longest single span expansion bridge, I could also look DOWN into the gorge.

Way, way down. And I could see just how dramatic the distance is between the river and that steel and concrete span. Not to mention how preposterous it is that the thing stays in the air. I mean, it’s HUGE. And there’s nothing under it but air.

Did I mention I have an issue with heights?

Just so you know, it takes two verses of Amazing Grace to get across (over half a mile). And even while singing really, really loud, my brain can still picture all that empty space beneath my tires. Oy. My tummy still hurts. But I did it. Because it’s between my two favorite places in the world and it’s always worth 20 seconds of agony.

Here are a few other things you might find interesting about the New River Gorge Bridge:

  • The bridge is open to pedestrians one day a year on Bridge Day in October (which means one side is open and there’s two-way traffic on the other–I’m SO not driving across that day).
  • On Bridge Day people rapel from the bridge and base jump. They sign up way in advance and vie for the chance to do this. Seriously.
  • The bridge is 3,030 feet long, 876 feet high, 70 feet wide, and weighs 88 million pounds. Did you get that last one? Held up by a single arch.
  • The Washington Monument would fit under the bridge with 325 feet to spare.
  • Throughout the year there are Bridge Walk tours offered. Guides lead guests on a stroll of the full length of the catwalk under the bridge. People pay to do this.
  • When the bridge was opened in 1977 it cut the trip across the gorge from 45 minutes to 25 seconds. Somehow it seems to take longer . . .

If you want to learn more about Bridge Day or the bridge itself, click here. I recommend a visit. Just watch your phobias.

Appalachian Thursday–Snow Day!

GE DIGITAL CAMERALast weekend we had our first good snow of the season. I kept calling it four or five inches until my husband took the tape measure out and proved it was actually more like NINE.

We did the usual snow day things–made lasagna, read, wrote, watched movies, had many cups of tea, hung out with our neighbors (no driving required), bundled up to walk Thistle through the drifts, and posted pictures of the snow on Facebook. Just in case no one else had seen it.

When I was a kid, of course, snow days were a bit more exciting. And in West Virginia in the 1970s, they seemed more dramatic, too. I remember missing almost the entire month of February one winter. It was so cold that a skim of ice would form on the top of the pail of milk in the time it took Dad to walk from the barn to the house.

Poor Mom. Stuck inside with three kids day after day. And it was too cold to play outside. At least Dad had livestock to tend.

I remember the power going out during a snowstorm once. Dad stoked the fireplace and we got to sleep in the living room floor in sleeping bags. Mom made us wear knit hats since those were the days when we still believed you lost most of your heat through the top of your head.

There was tomato soup with grilled cheese. Card games and board games. Sledding and the building of snowmen. We played in the hayloft, which was a smidge warmer than outside. Mittens were soaked through and hung up to dry. Chapstick was applied and reapplied. And someone usually had an accident in their snowsuit.

We also fed the cattle. The winter my older brother had appendicitis, I got to ride on the trailer, cutting the twine on bales of hay, and pushing it off for the cows. Bart, our Black Angus bull, would steal bites of hay from the trailer. He was a sweetheart, though, and I’d scratch him behind the ears anyway.

It got dark early those days and in my memory the house was the coziest place in the world. A nation unto itself. A place where the snow and cold could never reach.

Somehow snow days were more magical then.