I’m a cheater

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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.

You’re Never Too Old

I’m closer to the half-century mark than I used to be.

Which, I suppose, means I am undeniably a grown up whether I want to be or not.

But still . . . there are days when I just want my momma.

I recently spent several days at home in West Virginia. I wish it were just because I so love being there, but there was more to it than that. Mom recently had surgery and Dad was due to see his neurologist to monitor his Parkinson’s Disease.

They aren’t getting any younger, either.

So many of my friends are in the same position–parenting their parents in some form or fashion. Which is hard not only logistically, but also emotionally. For all those times I felt like they were smothering me with their rules, love, affection, and support–that’s exactly what I crave now.

And the funny thing is . . . there were moments on this last trip when that’s exactly what I got.

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Sunday evening I sat in the floor at my mother’s feet chatting and halfway watching football while she fiddled with my hair. If you aren’t aware, having your hair fiddled with is one of life’s great pleasures. And it’s something my mom used to do often when I was younger. Sometimes she was brushing or braiding my hair, but there was also plenty of soothing, affectionate fiddling. And for that hour or so, I was a child again, simply  being soothed by my momma.

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Then, just before I left to drive home, my Dad did something wonderful. His health and really his whole way of life is very much in limbo as we try to keep Parkinson’s at bay. He actually seems pretty stable right now,  but we both know there are decisions to be made and tough choices likely up ahead.

As I was saying goodbye, he wrapped me in his arms and said, “I don’t know how, but this will all work out.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear from the man who for so much of my life, seemed to have all the answers. And here’s the best part–I’m pretty sure he’s right.

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.

Top Posts of 2016

chartsI’m kind of a data nerd. I like charts and statistics. Survey results make me giddy.

So, at the end of another blogging year, I like to take a little time to look back over the data. And inside my blog there’s this fabulous little tab titled “Stats” that let’s me do just that. You may not care about blog stats, in which case consider the next few minutes free time to do something else. But if, like me, you dig data, then here we go!

I began blogging in 2010 when I had just over 1,000 views–mostly my mother visiting again and again. By 2013, I’d gotten in the grove with nearly 9,000 views and around 3,000 visitors. So not just my mom. In 2015 and 2016 I seem to have leveled off with around 13,000 views and 6,500 visitors. Is that good? I have no idea, but it feels pretty good to me.

In 2016 I posted 107 times–twice a week with a few extras thrown in. Here were the top five posts for the year:

  1. Appalachian Thursday–Old Christmas (This was carryover from a 1/31/15 post.)
  2. Let’s Talk About Sex . . . In Christian Fiction (Published in October 2011, this post appears to be what’s called “evergreen.” Sex attracts attention. Who knew?)
  3. A Blessing Disguised as a Medical Emergency (If you ever need to boost blog traffic, having a stroke and writing about it is super effective.)
  4. The 10 Comments Authors Like to Hear Most (People seem to LOVE top 10 lists.)
  5. Appalachian Thursday–The Outhouse at My Wedding (I’m guessing the juxtaposition of outhouse and wedding piques readers’ interest!)

Other interesting (at least to me) bits of data include:

  • 89% of my readers are in America; 4% are in Canada, 1% in Brazil (really??); 1% in the UK; and .5% in Australia (thanks Rel)
  • Most people find my blog via Facebook (#1) and Google (#2) with Twitter a distant third
  • The top search term is . . . Sarah Loudin Thomas (people are spelling my name right!)

So what’s my takeaway from all this lovely data? Be honest, be real, stay active on Facebook and be nice to my mom–I still think she’s my biggest driver of traffic.

Appalachian Thursday – 2016

I’m not a fan of looking at the turning of the calendar as any kind of clean slate. I figure most every day is the perfect time to begin doing whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. But in the spirit of the New Year, I took a moment to look back over 2016 in Appalachia. Whether at the house in North Carolina or the Farm in West Virginia, I don’t like to stray too far from my mountains. And flipping through a year’s worth of images reminds me why.