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 – John Henry’s Big Bend Tunnel

dave

The Big Bend Tunnel is that way just the other side of Hinton . . .

I love researching my stories. Especially when I turn up something fun that I just flat out didn’t know. Like that John Henry, the mythical “steel driving man” of folk ballads, took on a steam drill in southern West Virginia.

My next novel, When Silence Sings, is set primarily in Thurmond, WV, which was a booming rail town in 1930. My editors suggested that my characters were having to travel too far by train to get to other towns and wondered if I could tighten up the geography. Ah, the challenges of writing about REAL places!

Well, I needed a train tunnel. And quickly discovered that the Big Bend Tunnel is conveniently located for my story. Yay! So I read up on the tunnel to make sure it fit the timeline. Absolutely! It’s over a mile long and was completed in 1872. It shortens rail trips by about seven miles by boring straight under Big Bend Mountain.

AND . . . it’s where John Henry beat a steam drill during construction! When blasting rock to build a tunnel men drive steel bits into the rock then insert explosives in the holes. John Henry was the striker who swung the hammer to hit the bit. His shaker would have turned the bit between strikes (now that’s a brave man!).

The story is that the contractor for the tunnel planned to bring in a faster steam drill to replace men. Well, John Henry couldn’t let that pass so he took on the machine and according to the song won but exerted himself to the point that it killed him. Today, there’s a statue of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel. I still haven’t figured out how to work a John Henry mention into the story so I thought I’d share the details with you.

There are lots of versions of the lyrics but Pete Seeger’s may be the best known.

John Henry was about three days old
Sittin’ on his papa’s knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
Said, ‘Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.’

The captain said to John Henry
‘Gonna bring that steam drill ’round
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down, Down
Whop that steel on down.’

John Henry told his captain
‘A man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me Down
I’d die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.’

John Henry said to his shaker
‘Shaker, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ thirty pounds from my hips on Down
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord
Listen to that cold steel ring.’

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord
The steam drill only made nine

John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor Heart
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer and he died.

 

New Year’s Evolutions – Hope for 2019

PlanningWhat is it about the turning of the year that makes us want to reassess our lives? To pledge to do better or to, at least, not make the same mistakes we did last year?

I’ve never been a fan of new year’s resolutions, but I do like the idea of making plans. This year I invested in Susie May Warren’s Brilliant Writing Planner and I’ve spent part of my holiday time off watching the accompanying videos and . . . well . . . making plans.

A big part of that is simply the stuff I know I need to do:

  • Finish this round of edits for When Silence Sings,
  • Tighten the synopsis for the book after that one,
  • Write my blog posts each week,
  • Teach at/attend a conference or two,
  • Do some marketing around my next release in November . . .

But the planner is challenging me to think bigger than all the “usual” stuff. I’m also pondering:

  • What are my writing-related dreams?
  • What goals do I want to focus on?
  • How does writing fit into the rest of my life?
  • What’s my daily inspiration?
  • What habits would I like to make more ingrained?

I love how the planner isn’t just about writing. It focuses on my goals, dreams, and ambitions across the board. I can include my day job, growing my faith, health-related habits, and so on.

Having spent just a little time hashing out where I want to go in 2019, I think I understand why this resolution/turning-over-a-new-leaf/taking stock thing is so appealing. It focuses on hope. This process assumes I can do better, accomplish more, grow and evolve.

And hope is the very best fuel for the spirit.

Romans 15:13 – May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

What are you hoping for in 2019?

 

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.

Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Saints

devotionalAppalachia is about people as much as it is about place.

We have a lovely Christmas tradition at my church. Our pastor gathers scripture for each day of Advent (December 2-24 this year) and assigns them to volunteers who then write a short entry for a devotional that’s handed out to the congregation.

I think this is our third year and I LOVE reading the thoughts and ponderings of my church family each morning. Of course, I also LOVE sharing my own thoughts. This year I was given two scriptures–the first being Psalm 90, a Psalm of Moses. Not your typical Christmas reading. I’d just been to visit one of the saints of the church (in her 90s) when I sat down to write my entry for December 4. I was struck by how much she and Moses had in common. And so I wrote this about one of the amazing people in MY Appalachia:

EVERLASTING
Psalm 90

Establish the work of our hands . . .

Her mother made the dress, stitching love and hope into every seam. A 1950s confection of white lace over taffeta, sleeveless with opera length gloves, tea length.

Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children . . .

There was one child, a girl, a pearl without price. Now the child watches over the mother, offers what comfort this world holds.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us . . .

Her brother survived the war. After peace was declared, his plane crashed in the ocean. Afflicted with just twenty-one years.

The years of life are but toil and trouble . . .

Oh, but the joy of a good man. A good marriage. Sixty-seven years. She can close her eyes and see him on the day she wore white lace over taffeta.

You sweep the years away like a dream, like grass renewed in the morning . . .

She knows the joy of thrusting her hands into soil, of making flowers grow, of inviting life to spring from the earth. The pot on the windowsill reminds her.

A thousand years in God’s sight are nothing more than yesterday . . .

Without saying the words, she loves these mountains that are as old as the world. Older than she is or ever will be. Made from the same dust.

The Lord is her dwelling place.
From everlasting to everlasting . . . God.

Favorite Books of 2018

reading 2018I often say the biggest downside to writing books is the way it cuts into my time to READ books. Still, I manage to squeeze stories in! I aim to read a combination of Christian fiction, Appalachian stories, books that are getting lots of hype, and nonfiction. Keeps me entertained as well as informed about the current market!

And while I’ll still read a few more books in December (Where the Crawdads Sing is next), I thought I’d share some of the stories I’ve particularly enjoyed this past year (with a runner-up in each category).

Christian Fiction – The Lacemaker by Laura Frantz. Sigh. Laura writes romance SO well. I’m actually reading less traditional romance these days, but I know Laura will always come through with all the sighs. And she did! There’s a reason this book won a Christy Award. (I also enjoyed Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin–but then, I enjoy MOST of what he writes!)

Hyped Book – A Man Called Ove by Frederick Bachman. I adored this story although I probably would have given up on it if I hadn’t been listening to the audio version. Ove is what you call an unlikeable character and the other characters weren’t thrilling me all that much, either. But as Ove’s history and heart was slowly revealed I fell in love. Like much of the rest of the reading world. (I also came late to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which, while a tad adorable, captured me utterly!)

Appalachian Fiction – Bearskin by James McLaughlin. NOT my typical story, but oddly captivating. It’s set in the mountains of Virginia and includes some seriously bad men running drugs across the border from Mexico. Several wildly violent scenes. But it also has lyrical writing that celebrates the mountains I love so much. And a wonderfully optimistic ending. A book I was surprised to enjoy so much! (And while it’s non-fiction, Dreama Berkheimer’s Running on Red Dog Road reads like good fiction–her growing up years in Beckley, WV.)

Non-fiction – Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin. Okay, I’m a bit obsessed with how awful our industrial food system is. Joel is a Christian-conservative-environmentalist-farmer who cares passionately about quality food and takes God’s command to steward the earth seriously. This book is fantastic and just might change the way you look at food and farming forever. (And I thoroughly enjoyed Praying with Jane by Rachel Dodge–a 31-day walk through several prayers written by Jane Austen. What a delight!)

 

The Christmas Heirloom – A Thanksgiving Excerpt

quoteWhile our novella collection—The Christmas Heirloom–is mostly set during the Christmas season, I couldn’t resist working Thanksgiving into my story. I mean, my heroine is handy with a rifle and the Monday before Thanksgiving is the opening day of deer season.

Romantic? Maybe not, but it sure fits my Appalachian stories! So, in honor of the first day of deer season, here’s a Thanksgiving excerpt from A Shot at Love, my contribution to The Christmas Heirloom.

Hank expected to miss being with his sister Molly and her family for Thanksgiving, but the Markley clan was keeping him well occupied. After a quick breakfast of biscuits with molasses, they set out through a skiff of snow with James intent on getting his first deer. When they spotted a four-point buck, Judd and Hank fell back while Abram led his twelve-year-old son in taking down the animal with a single shot.

James looked like he’d won the biggest prize at the county fair. Abram tousled his hair. “Good job, son. Quick and certain, that’s the way to do it. Don’t take the shot if you’re not sure you can make it. Few things are worse than wounding an animal and having to track it down.”

James nodded. “Yes sir. Can I dress it out?”

Abram hid his smile. “We might help some, but any hunter worth his salt dresses his own deer.”

James pitched in and the four of them had the deer ready to drag home in short order. Hank was grateful there were four of them to take turns dragging it out over rough and rocky terrain. Once they got to the house, they hung the deer from the limb of a massive pine to let it cool in the chill, November air. There was plenty of work to be done yet, but for now it was time to join the ladies for a Thanksgiving feast.

The turkey Hank won at the shoot sat as the centerpiece of a laden table. Lydia and her mother Rose had toiled for two days preparing fluffy yeast rolls, sweet potato soufflé, fried cabbage, mashed potato and rutabaga, cornbread dressing, creamed onions, something called leather breeches which appeared to be a sort of bean, and three kinds of pie. Hank couldn’t imagine who would eat it all until he saw Judd and Abram tuck in. He hoped they wouldn’t think less of him for not eating half a pie all by himself.

“And now, in longstanding Markely tradition, it’s time for an afternoon nap,” Judd announced after they’d helped the ladies clear away the remains of the meal.

Even James, who had likely slept little the night before in anticipation of their hunting trip was more than happy to sprawl in front of the fire and close his eyes. And Grace, although nearly nine and prepared to fight napping, didn’t argue near as hard as she might have on another day.

Hank settled with the family in the front room where lazy conversation gradually gave way to soft snores. And yet, he found he wasn’t the least bit sleepy. The pleasures of the day filled his spirit in a way that made him want to simply spend time appreciating being invited so fully into the bosom of this good family living in this beautiful place. Finally, he stood and tiptoed to the back door, letting himself out into the bracing air. He’d see if he couldn’t walk off at least a little of the huge meal he’d eaten. He also wanted to ponder those life changes he’d been carrying around in the dark corners of his mind.

Thirty minutes later, Hank realized he’d let himself become so lost in thought that the roll and sway of the mountain land had lured him into . . . getting lost. It was a hard thing to admit and he wasn’t quite prepared to consider his cause hopeless, but when he’d crested this most recent hill the view wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. He thought he’d be able to see a curl of smoke from the Markley’s chimney beyond the next rise, but instead there was a mountain looming that really shouldn’t have been there. A blue jay sat on a bare limb cocking its head his way and jeering in that coarse way jays do. For a minute, he had a notion to follow it when it flew, but decided not to grasp at straws.

He peered around in all directions, unsure of where to go next and wondering if maybe he should just stay right where he was until someone came along. This surely looked like a path that would be used regularly. It wound through the edge of a field near the tree line. A cow stepped into his field of vision. Or, it might just be a cow path. Still, where there were cattle, people couldn’t be too far off.

Still weighing his options, Hank sat on a fallen log to give himself time to think. The tree had fallen years ago, and its stump was almost hollow—rotted from the inside out. It was the sort of timber that looked good from the outside, but failed to produce. It made Hank ponder what his life would amount to if it were measured in board feet. He’d been feeling a bit hollow lately—like the heart had gone out of him. If he were honest, he’d have to admit it had something to do with seeing Judd and Larkin so happy. They had a child now—the main reason Larkin hadn’t come along on this trip. Little Lavonia was barely walking, and the young parents agreed traveling with a child not yet two would be a trial for them all. Sweet Lavonia had wormed her way into his heart just like James and Grace were quickly doing. Maybe there was more in this world for him than playing second fiddle for the Waccamaw Timber Company.

The jay he’d noticed earlier landed on the punky stump and dipped his head as though peering inside. The bird snatched a fallen leaf in its beak and flew to a low branch, tilting its head to consider Hank. He’d known jays to be curious, but he’d never known one to take such an interest in him.

“You act like you’re after something,” he said aloud.

The bird dropped its leaf and bobbed along the branch, eye now focused on the stump. Hank turned his attention back to the hollowed wood and noticed that the leaves inside didn’t look natural. They looked more like someone or something had piled them there—stuffing them in. Could it be a nest of some sort? Hank wondered if they had critters in these hills he didn’t know about. He poked at the mass with a stick, finding the leaves formed a sort of cap that came away revealing . . . what appeared to be a gun cleaning cloth. He fished it out and something tumbled onto the ground at his feet. He picked the lump up and found it to be an embroidered cloth pouch with a weighty something inside. Tipping the bag, a piece of jewelry—really beautiful jewelry with intertwined hearts and a glinting purple stone—dropped into his hand. Well now. Had he stumbled upon someone’s secret cache?

Distracted, Hank didn’t notice the soft sound of footsteps approaching until they were nearly upon him. He startled and caught himself before toppling off his log as Fleeta Brady hove into view, head down and muttering to herself.