9 Unlikely Things I Learned While Writing The River Maiden

One of the things I love best about writing is research. I'm a naturally curious person, so it's just the way I operate. It's one of the reasons that I fell into training in my corporate life. I just wanted to know how things workphone pics 232ed and I didn't mind explaining what I learned to other people. It struck me the other day when I caught myself reading up on the parking brake of a 1990 Honda Civic, that I've learned some unexpected things on my way to finishing this novel. There are the obvious things; Celtic lore, Appalachian culture and off the grid living. Naturally,  my Gaelic vocabulary has increased about ten fold.  there are also some unlikely things. These are things that I wouldn't have thought of until I got to that point in the novel, things that I probably wouldn't have Googled if I hadn't been writing this book.

1) The basic geography of Nova Scotia.

2) This looks like an awesome place to spend a summer vacation.

3) The little blue house on Ransom St. that I used to live in is no longer blue, no longer has a porch swing and has fallen even further into disrepair.

4) The basics of moonshining. I watched a lot of how to videos. Here's a relatively short one.

If you're interested in moonshine or moonshiners you should check out these videos about the late Popcorn Sutton who was part of the inspiration for the appearance and voice of Alex Budge.

5) How to malt barley and corn for making liquor.

6) Recipe for peach brandy.

7) The path of ocean currents from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Maine.

8) The basics of disarming someone with a handgun. Just one of the many ways it pays to be married to a former Marine.

9) And, of course, this is the parking brake of a 1990 Honda Civic.

Big doings on the Once and Future Page

So, I'm stuck here with a sick child today which means no writing is happening. But I'm trying to make the most of it by updating some much needed information on the contemporary fiction series that I'm working on. As you know I'm currently editing/revising/slashing/burning the manuscript for The River Maiden. But wanted to provide a little peek into where the series is going. As I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, I'm working on outlining the whole series. With that in mind. I have given The River Maiden its own page and added pitches for the next two books Old as Stone and King of Mist to the Once and Future page.  Also on the Once and Future page I have added a copy of the ballad that Sarah is researching for her dissertation. She calls it The River Maiden (hence the book title). It lays out the mythos for the entire series. Although the series is interwoven with many actual Celtic legends, The River Maiden (the ballad) is made up by me. I tried to follow common conventions and structure of traditional ballads. I also included themes like the lame king, cauldron of plenty and stone that will be very familiar to students of Celtic lore so that this would assimilate aspects of Celtic culture that readers may already be familiar with.

On the page for The River Maiden (the book) I have added a new excerpt. This is a flashback to Sarah's childhood that I recently added to the manuscript. For those of you who have read the other excerpts, I won't force you to go hunting for it. I'll reprint it right here. I hope you enjoy.


Childhood Memories

Mòrag jumped when she heard the door to Mama’s room upstairs open and close. She held her breath as her heart beat in time with her mother’s footsteps through the hall and down the stairs. She reached a shaking hand out to gather her crayons that were scattered across the worn table. Maybe if she cleaned up her mess, Mama would feel better.

She put the crayons neatly in her box and closed it. She rose to go put the box in it’s place on the little bookcase in the parlor, but Mama was blocking the doorway. She stared hard at Mòrag, like she was a problem that needed to be solved. It was the same way she looked at the puzzles they liked to work on to pass the time when they got snowed in. Mòrag stood there beside her chair, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot wondereding what to do. She never knew anymore how to behave around Mama, not since the bathtub.

Now, Mama lived like a ghost; there but not there. She didn’t talk. She rarely ate though she sometimes came to supper, like now. Her skin hung from her bones. She almost never spoke. Some days Mòrag tried to make Mama feel better, but it never seemed to work. Just today, she had painted a picture for her at school. It was the prettiest picture that she had ever done. She ran all the way home from the school bus stop with the paper streaming behind her like wings. She was so excited, sure that something so lovely would cheer Mama up.

Mòrag had found Mama and Granny in the vegetable garden. They’d been digging up weeds and their hands were covered in dirt. Mòrag went straight to Mama who was on her knees between the rows. “I made this picture for you, Mama! Look! It’s like a fairy tale.”

Mama looked up from what she was doing. Her gaunt face was smudged with dirt and some of her hair had come down to drift around her face in little wisps. For a second, just a second her mama smiled at her. Looked her right in the eye and smiled at her like nothing was wrong, and Mòrag could almost see the old Mama. The one that used to play with her and love her.

Then Mama looked down at the picture and it all changed. Her eyes darted across the picture from one thing to another taking in the castle and the princess, flowers and sunshine and her face became a mask of rage. Mòrag watched as the old smiling Mama drained away and was replaced by something terrifying. Mama slowly lifted her hand to touch the painting. Mòrag thought about pulling it away because her hand was so dirty. The fingernails were green from the weeds and there was black soil every crevace. Before she could though, Mama grabbed the painting and tore it from Mòrag’s hands crumpling it and causing the thick paint to flake off and scatter in the dirt. A raw pained sound came from Mama’s throat like a wounded animal as she slammed the painting to the ground and began to stab it with the trowel that was in her other hand.

“A’ mise, mo bheancachd.” (Come with me, my blessing.) Granny said grabbing Mòrag gently by the shoulders and pulling her toward the house. Mòrag walked toward the house still watching Mama over her shoulder as she began to throw dirt on the painting that was now in tatters. “Tha Mami glè sgìth.” (Mama’s very tired.)

That’s what Granny always said, Mòrag had heard it a thousand times in the last couple of months. She wanted to ask why Mama was so tired. Why didn’t she eat? Why didn’t she play anymore or talk above a whisper? Where was the mother that had loved her? She wanted to ask her Granny all these questions, but she couldn’t seem to get them past the big lump in her throat.

So she just cried. She hated crying. It made her feel like such a baby. Big girls in first grade didn’t cry. Babies cried. She hated Mama for making her cry. Granny tried to make her feel better with a biscuit with honey on it. Mòrag tried to take a couple of bites to show Granny that she was alright. She’d show Mama too. She’d get out her crayons and draw a picture just as pretty as that painting, but this time she would give it to Granny or Ol’Duff.

That’s why her crayons were all over the place when Mama came downstairs for supper. Mama stood there staring as Mòrag until Granny stepped between them. She put a bar of soap in Mama’s still filthy hand and gave a short nod toward the sink. “Nigh do làmhan.” (Wash your hands.)

Mama didn’t argue. She just turned to the sink and began scrubbing the dirt off her hands. Mòrag took the chance to step into the parlor and put her crayons away. She stayed in the parlor, but watched through the door as Mama stayed at the sink giving her hands a good hard scrub with hot water. She was still scrubbing when Ol’ Duff came in through the back door. He usually only stayed around the farm in the winter, but Mòrag knew he was here still in the late spring on account of Mama. Duff was the only way that Granny could get a break from watching and caring for Mama.

He came in and took off his old and patched overshirt and hung it on a peg by the kitchen door.  Mòrag liked Ol’ Duff. Most people couldn’t see past his often dirty wornout clothes and his long hair and beard. They just thought he was a drifter or a hippy, but he had kind eyes, and always a good word for a lonely little girl. Mòrag glanced over to her little shelf on the bookcase and the box of tiny wooden animals that Duff liked to carve for her.

Without a word, he stepped up to the sink where Mama was scrubbing her hands. Steam was rising from the sink. Duff whispered something to Mama that Mòrag couldn’t hear as he reached over and turned off the tap. He grabbed a towel from the rack beside the sink and used it to gently dry Mama’s hands. Mama let him dry her hands, but she never looked at him. She would shift her eyes everywhere, but Duff’s like she was afraid to look at him.

“Tha biadh deas.” (The food is ready) Granny said in her brisk manner as she set the serving dishes on the table. Mòrag went into the kitchen and straight to her chair which was next to Granny’s. Mama and Duff sat on the other side of the table. As always in spring supper was made up of whatever they could get from the garden and the forest. Tonight it was fish that Duff had caught that morning along with spinach sautèed in bacon grease and mashed potatoes and some sliced radishes. There were also biscuits that Granny made every morning.

Since Duff started coming into the house for dinner, they had fallen into a routine of eating supper and talking about their days. Duff would talk about the wildlife he’d seen and what he would go hunting for the next day. Granny would talk about the still and how it was working and what plans she had for the garden or foraging. They both made a point of asking Mòrag about her school day, and the antics of the other kids in school.

They were almost like a normal family. Granny and Duff tried very hard not to act like there was a ghost sitting at the table, but they all knew she was there. She would pick at her food. Sometimes she even took a bite, but most of the time she just pushed it around her plate and stared down at the table. The rest of them tried to ignore her, and most of the time she made that easy to do.

“Did you have your spelling test today?” Granny asked. She always spoke English at the dinner table on account of Duff not having the Gaelic.

Sarah swallowed the bite of potatoes she had just taken and mumbled. “No, ma’am. That’s tomorrow.”

“Then we’ll go over your words while we do the dishes.” Granny nodded to her. Spelling and dishes was also becoming a routine.

“Sing any good songs in music, this week?” Duff asked her. He loved to hear Mòrag sing.

“There is this one funny song about a cat named Don Gato. He falls down and breaks a bunch bones. It sounds kinda sad, but the song is really funny.”

“Well, sometimes you gotta laugh or else you’ll just cry.” Duff said with a wink. “Maybe you can sing it for me when you’re done with…”

Suddenly Sarah felt eyes on her and looked up to find Mama watching her. Silent tears streamed down her face. The others noticed too and stopped talking. They all sat there for a frozen moment staring at Mama while she stared back at Mòrag. Mama looked so sad, but Mòrag didn’t believe that look anymore. She’d seen little else but sadness from Mama in the last couple of months, and her sympathy had just about run out especially after Mama had destroyed her painting.

Feeling a little reckless, Mòrag did something she had never done before. She lifted her chin ever so slightly and looked her mama right in the eye. She waited to see if Mama was going to say anything; maybe explain why she had destroyed the painting, why she had turned herself into a living ghost, or tried to drown her baby a couple of months ago. Mama didn’t say anything. She just sat there staring at Mòrag with fat tears rolling down her sunken cheeks.

When her mother didn’t speak Mòrag just shrugged in indiference and went back to eating her dinner. She cut off a bite of fish with the side of her fork and was scooping it up when she heard Mama’s fork clatter onto her plate and Mama’s chair scrape across the wood floor. With an explosive energy that none of them had thought her capable of, Mama had sprung up from her chair and tried to reach across the table for Mòrag. Her fingers hooked like claws went straight for Mòrag’s throat. Fortunately, Duff was quicker and stronger. In a flash he was on his feet. He wrapped his arms around Mama pinning her arms to her side. At the same time Granny jerked Mòrag’s chair back from the table and put herself in front of it in case Mama got loose.

Mama and Duff struggled for a moment until the soothing rumble of his voice saying “Easy, Molly, easy now.” found its way through the rage that had once again clouded Mama’s brain. When he got her calmed down enough that he could get a better grip on her, Duff walked Mama outside into the yard. Granny went to the window to watch them. No doubt Mama would calm down a lot faster without the sight of her daughter. Little Mòrag pulled her chair back up to the table and picked up her fork again. She stared down at her plate for a few seconds, but couldn’t bring herself to eat anymore. She pushed her plate away and stalked out of the kitchen and up to her room.

Sitting on it

It's been a while since I've updated the blog. This is mainly because I was pushing hard to have the book ready for beta readers by Christmas. Unfortunately, the flu got in my way by running through the family not once, but twice since I finished writing the book. When you throw in holiday preparations and a rather slow Alpha reader, you have a recipe for disaster. So I missed my deadline (GASP!). I know, it was a self-imposed deadline and I was sick in bed or bowing down to the porcelain god, but still I have an innate aversion (or dare I say horror) to missing deadlines. I mean the "dead" in deadline is there for a reason, right? On the upside, much of the time I spent in bed sick was spent thinking about my characters and the feedback that my Alpha reader, my husband, gave me and mentally plotting out the next book in the series. I also spent plenty of time thinking about my next move. Namely the question facing a lot of authors today; Do I zip this out to market via KDP and CreateSpace or do I attempt to sign with an agent and get a wider distribution and maybe a little marketing help (and yes I know that help would be very little)? On the one hand, publishers are loath to take a chance on a new author with a series, and they would take a bigger chunk of the pie so to speak. On the other hand, it takes a lot of work to get noticed out there in the big bad reading world and my little historical fiction shorts while getting terrific reviews, aren't exactly selling like hotcakes. So, while my piece of the indie pie might be bigger, the pie itself (at least so far) is barely even snack size. What's a girl to do? I'm going to sit on it. That is to say, I'm going to hold off  publishing this book until I have something more. Here's the plan:

1) I'm outlining the rest of the series, or at least the rest of the series involving the main characters as they stand now. This will give me a clear picture of where it's going and it will enable me to write a synopsis of each book.

2)Using the bird's eye view of the series from Step 1, write a pitch for the whole series with which to query agents. I believe that this series could be very commercial. I also believe it will fit nicely into the newly minted "New Adult" category that seemsso popular right now. It has enough of contemporary fantasy aspects to appeal to a young audience, but the characters and subject matter are definitely more mature than Young Adult. Imagine a Twilight style love triangle (no vampires or werewolves, I promise) with DaVinci Code style themes and you're coming pretty close.

3)Query, query query while working on my platform and trying to build an audience. That will likely include a trailer or two that I already have worked out in my head. Luckily I know a good filmmaker, my brother, who I might get to help me with that.

4) Write, write, write the second book. Hopefully, this one won't take more than a decade to write.  But the writing/editing of it will most likely determine the timeline of the rest of the plan. I'll keep querying until I get a bite or finish the second book. If no agents or publishers have bitten (I really promise there are no vampires in this series.), then I will likely publish them myself in close succession. That way I can hopefully whet the reader's appetites with the first two books enough to get them to buy a third and fourth, fifth, and who knows by then I might even plan a series for the next generation of characters.

At least that's my plan, and it feels pretty darn good to start off the new year with a plan.

Now for some details about the first book. The working title right now is THE RIVER MAIDEN. Here's a working cover. 

And here's the pitch:

Raised by her Scottish Grandmother in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sarah MacAlpin grew up with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. She's worked hard to get to where she is and at 25 she's got her life planned out, that is until she meets Dermot Sinclair.

Plagued by nightmares of a tragic past and murky visions of the future Sarah pushes on toward finishing her dissertation. In spite of her hard work and planning the world around her seems to be spinning out of control. Her relationships with her boyfriend and her best friend are falling apart and the new guy in town seems to be dogging her every step. He's friendly enough and can help with her research, but she can't help thinking there's something that he isn't telling her.


If you're interested in reading further. There is a large chunk of the book available to read on Authonomy. If you read it there, please leave feedback. It will only help me. If you're interested in being a beta reader (kind of like a beta tester for software) and getting to read the whole thing once the edits are done (naturally in exchange for your feedback), please let me know in the comments here or through my Facebook page.

Thanks as always.

I hope you all will have as exciting a new year as I expect to.

So, what's your book about?

The picture you're looking at is a picture of the complete first draft of my first novel. It's in need of some serious editing, as any first draft should be, but it's done. I actually managed to put all the action that's been going on in my head onto paper.

I know you're probably thinking, 'Wow, big deal. We all write books. Hell those NaNoWriMo people do it in a month." And maybe you're right. But, have been working on this book off and on since shortly after I married my husband. In the time that it's taken me to get this plot out of my head I have;

  • had two babies
  • changed jobs three times
  • been laid off TWICE (1 company went out of business, 1 eliminated my department)
  • bought a house
  • started a small business
  • survived postpartum depression
  • wrote and self-pubbed two short ebooks
  • and beat myself up about eighty gazillion times for not finishing the book sooner

It finally took my younger child going to school to give me enough hours in the day to actually move the needle on this thing more than a millimeter at a time.  Once I was able to treat it like a job, albeit a part time one, it only took me a little over a month to fill in the blanks on this outline I've been toting around for the last year or so. And now, I've finally done it. Now my head is filled with visions of possible covers and book trailers and marketing plans.

"So, what's your book about?"

I confess I am frequently flummoxed by this question. Seeing as I've lived with these characters in my head for over a decade, I really should be able to sum it up easily. But if I say what the whole series is about, then I'd give away some major spoilers. If I say what inspired it, that would probably just be confusing to people who aren't Scotia-phile  genealogy folklore and politics nerds like me. That would also totally skip over the spiritual aspects of the journey that the main character is on. If I described it from that purely academic standpoint, you would never get that at it's heart it's a romance but not the kind that most people think of when they hear romance. There's a mystery, but it's not a mystery. There's paranormal stuff and some romance, but it's not a paranormal romance (No vampires or werewolves. I promise). There's danger, but I don't know that I'd call it a thriller. There's a love story...sort of.

Clearly, if I'm ever going to market this thing, I'm going to have to get a lot better at the 30 second elevator speech. I'm hoping that the editing/rewriting process will help clarify things. And I might want to settle on a title.

In the meantime, you can find some excerpts here.

Yawn and stretch...

"Bye Sweeties, have a good day." The kids jump out of the side door of the minivan and the door slides closed. I smile and wave to the school staff and take one last look at T and see her trotting into the school all skinny legs and backpack. K is already halfway to the building. Third graders are just too busy and too cool to hang around with their little sisters. As I pull out of the school parking lot I breathe a deep sigh. It's the third day of school and I'm starting to relax a bit from the frenzy of getting all their supplies taken care of and their clothes cleaned and ready to go, all the anxiety of whether or not they'll like their teachers or have friends in their classes. We've already survived our first night of ADHD homework. T is adjusting to kindergarten and I think after she finishes testing the boundaries with her new teacher, everything is going to be fine.

So, I turn my steering wheel northward to town to spend some time with the characters in my book who have been sorely neglected over the past couple of months. I look forward with relish to the new change in my lifestyle now that both of the kids are in school all day, five days a week. Previously, I had to content myself with writing for a maximum of nine hours a week plus the rare exception when my husband worked from home and sent me off to write. These were the few hours while T was at her half day preschool. I would head to a cafe and try to produce as much as I could in the space of three hours before having to stop and pick her up. If I were writing non-fiction or a how-to book, I probably could have gotten some writing done at home, but it's hard to write a novel when little voices keep intruding to ask for snacks or juice or to inform me of what transgressions the other has committed. My children are wonderful and gifted and I could not love them more, but they are also extremely talkative. K is an auditory learner which means that to encode what he's learning into memory, he has to say it. T is sassy and independent and while she's not an auditory learner she is a talker.  So it  feels like it's been at least four years since I've completed a thought in their presence, and with the exception of those 9 hours a week while T was in preschool.

Now, I have a blessed eight hours, five days a week to myself and oh the things I'm going to do. My head is brimming with plans to thoroughly clean the house, get everything organized like a pinterest pic. I'm going to spend hours every day working to finally finish this book. I'll finally get John Campbell that feedback on his new project that he's been waiting for so patiently and start reading other projects on authonomy. I'll put together a marketing plan and really stick to it. I'll make audio versions of my The White House and A Fond Kiss. I'll get started on those book trailers for the novel. I'll once again be as efficient and productive as I was in my corporate days. I can just see it. So, I drive all the way to town with the taste of freedom in my mouth.

When I get to my favorite writing spot, I manage to snag my favorite booth in the quiet section at the back where people sit alone working on their laptops, not up front where groups like to chat and have meetings. I get a cup of dark roast coffee because only people who just pretend to like coffee drink anything else. I fold some junk papers that I dig out of my purse and stick them under the table's wobbly leg, because nothing is going to ruin this glorious return to work after my summer funk. It's not until I sit down and pair my Bluetooth keyboard with my iPad and open up the file for the chapter I'm working on that I realize I've left my headphones at home. Now, instead of my character's own soundtrack or my thought clarifying Chopin, I'm supposed to write to the cheesy cafe music and the buzz of half a dozen conversations going on within twenty feet of me. She's heartbroken at this point in the story and I just don't know that I can get into that head space with the musical equivalent of C-SPAN and overheard conversations from neighboring tables about what their children's Sunday School classes did last week in my ears. I try, I really do. Still after an hour, all I have to show for it is one paragraph that I'm not entirely happy with.

Clearly, writing is not going to work today. I'll edit that last chapter I wrote, that'll help. I read into my bag only to discover that I have also left my little bag of post-its, colored pens and highlighters at home and every pen I have with me is black. Nice. Not ideal for editing. Finally, I pull out my little notebook that I like to use as a sort of journal, something I write in when my thoughts are as unfocused as they are this morning. I have to content myself with this. Sure, it's not the project I wanted to work on, but it's better than nothing. Right? As usual, I'm mentally kicking myself probably harder than I should for not being prepared.

Now that I'm home, I'm putting together a work bag so that next time I'll have all of those tools together and won't have another morning like today: Copy of manuscript & outline, markup tools bag, extra set of headphones, and an extra dose of patience with myself.

Just a little taste...

Summer is hard for me as a writer because my kids are home and there is much shuttling, feeding and referee-ing that goes on. While I do have a share of down time, it's super hard to get into that writing mindset when there is someone in the next room who any minute is going to need a snack or a mediation. On the upside, I'm almost caught up on laundry and am actually enjoying spending time with my little ones. With that said, I'm posting a short excerpt from my WIP for your perusal, feedback, titillation...


"This is Sarah MacAlpin interviewing Alex Budge, October 12th 1995. Also present, Randy Budge and Dermot Sinclair." Sarah said into the microphone before setting it down on the little table facing Budge. They had returned to their original seats on the porch each with a jelly glass of Budge's best stump water to sip while they talked.

"Simon Budge was my grandaddy." Budge said with great significance looking directly at Sarah. "And he did teach me that song you're talking about. But I'm not much of a singer, so I'll tell ya the story he tolt with it."

"Alright." Sarah would keep her talking to a minimum as long as Budge kept going.

"My people come from Scotland back in the colonial times, and they been passing this story down all that time. I can't say how much it's changed, but here 'tis as I learnt it." He leaned back took a deep breath as if he were gettting ready to sing after all. When he spoke again his voice had a far away quality as if he was in a dream.

"Long ago when Scotland was just a wild place with different tribes running their own territories, a family came over from Ireland and made to take over the place. They wanted control of the land. Now, some say they were more civilized than the tribes that were there before, but I don't know that that's true. They say that these fellers tried to get the tribes to all work together, but the old folk, that's what my grandad called the old tribes, they weren't havin' it. They fought over everything and some of 'em made friends with the new tribe and some of 'em resisted. The new people maybe didn't mean any harm, they just thought their ways were better, and they couldn't get why some of the old folk didn't want to change.

So one day the king o' the new folk goes out wandering to think. He's trying to figure out how he can get everybody to come over to his side and get along. So he gets tired and he stops by a riverbank. While he settin' there, up swims this girl. Now, she's about the prettiest thing the king's ever seen and she's wavin' to 'im, 'Come on in, the water's fine'." Budge gave a beckoning wave.

"So he goes in for a swim. Only this girl is so pretty he doesn't pay attention and they drift downstream to an island. Now, the king thinks they're lost, but she says it's her home and he should come and meet her family.

So, she takes the king to meet her father, but her pa is old and sickly and lame. The king starts to wondering who's gonna take care of this girl and her people when her pa dies. He thinks they've got to be pretty poor if they're just living on this island and he's never even heard of her tribe before. But then she takes him over to the hearth and shows him their cookpot. It's a big ole iron kettle and every time he sees someone go to the kettle and put in a bowl or a ladle, it comes up full of food. He keeps watching and thinking that kettle's got to be empty, but they still keep comin' up with food, and they're not even scraping the bottom.

Then she takes him and shows him a cave that's hidden under a hill, and in that cave is a big stone.   And she tells him, 'This is the heart of our people.' Only he's got a different heart in mind. Remember, she's the prettiest girl he's every laid eyes on. So, he kisses her right there in the cave and tells her that he loves her and wants to protect her when her father dies.

Now, just when that happens, a big storm like a hurricane comes up and hits the island.

When the king wakes up he and the girl aren't in the cave anymore, but on shore. And the island is gone. But they find that big iron cookpot on the beach too. So he takes her back with him and makes her his queen. They work to bring the tribes together. The old folk see that she's with him and she's one of them. And they see that he's got this cookpot that never runs out, and they start coming over to his side.

It goes slow, but by the time their son becomes king, all the tribes have come together and since his mother taught him the old ways and his father taught him the new way, he was a good king."

It seemed important to Budge that she understand that the king was good. Sarah nodded. "Did your grandad ever tell you any names for this king or the queen?"

Budge took a sip of moonshine from his glass and shook his head. He blew out a breath     so thick with fumes that Sarah had to blink fast to keep her eyes from watering. "No. He never said names. He did say that the queen's people were older than names. Old as the stone, he used to say."

It was an expression that Sarah had heard before, one that Granny had used. "Do you know where in Scotland your people came from?"

"Can't say I do." Budge shifted in his chair and took another sip of moonshine. "That museum in Franklin says the Budges are Lowlanders. Way I figure it, we been here so long it doesn't much matter."

It mattered to Sarah though. It could help her trace the source of the song. She tried not to show her frustration. She glanced over her shoulder at Randy. He was leaning against the post gazing out at the mountain. Turning back to Budge, "Did you teach that story to your grandchildren?"

"Aw most of em don't have time for an old man and his old stories. 'Cept for Randy over there. He likes learning the old ways." He gave her a wink and a devilish grin, "And you have a lotta time for tellin' stories while you're mindin' a still."

She smiled back at him. That was a fact she knew all too well. She'd learned many a song by the ever present beat of a thumper tank. She was glad she had found Alex Budge. Even if he hadn't known the legend behind the song, she'd have been happy to know him. She laid her hand over his knarled work-worn one where it rested by his glass on the table. "Thank you for talking with me. I appreciate your help."

He turned his hand over to grasp hers his face serious. "I'm glad you could record it. You'll make sure people remember."

She gave his hand one last squeeze before switching off the recorder and beginning to gather her equipment. Dermot pushed himself up off of the top step to help her. Sarah looked over to where he'd been sitting and noticed that his jelly glass was empty. She hadn't taken more than a couple of polite sips.  There hadn't been much in the glass but it was strong. Fortunately Dermot seemed pretty steady.

Sarah was just stepping down from the porch, Dermot by her side when a thought occurred to her. "Hey, Budge?"

"Mmm?" He had been looking into his jelly glass in deep concentration.

"You know a man they call Old Duff?" She realized that she missed the old man, and felt guilty for not having done more to keep track of him.

Budge let out a hearty belly laugh and slapped his knee. "Shoot, girl! Everybody in the hills knows Grant MacDuff! He comes round this way at least twice a year."

Sarah couldn't help smiling back at the man with his dirty worn clothes and missing teeth, and his jelly glass full of stump water. He and Duff and Granny were why she did what she did. Their beauty and their humanity hit her so hard sometimes it took the breath right out of her chest. They were people who lived and died in these hollers and without someone like her their culture would die in these hollers too. "Well, next time he passes this way, you tell him I was here."  She felt tears pricking the backs of her eyes.  and tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. "Tell him I remember everything he taught me."

The old man gave her a solemn nod. He knew what it meant to her. Sarah started to turn away again, but his voice stopped her. "Wait! You never did tell me the secret to your Granny's peach brandy."

Sarah gave him a knowing smile before walking back up the porch steps. Slowly, She leaned over Budge's chair and planted a kiss on his weathered cheek before whispering Granny's secret in his ear.

Budge looked at her closely as if he could verify the truth of what she said in her eyes. After a couple of seconds he burst into gusty laughter accompanied by more knee slapping. "Ha! I knew it! I just knew it!"

Sarah and Dermot climbed into Randy's truck for a ride back down to their car. When they pulled away from the house they could still hear the old man's cackling laugh.


Remembering two icons

Although I grew up in Virginia, I am the child of Tarheels, and we always knew who our fellow Tarheels in the world were. I knew that James Taylor spent a good chunk of his childhood in Chapel Hill. "Carolina In My Mind" was a song that I learned at a very young age. I knew that Charlie Rose, David Brinkley and Jim Lampley (Class of '71, same as Mom) were all Tarheels. My father was in New Orleans in 1982 when James Worthy and Michael Jordan et al took the Heels to the National Championship, and I was on Franklin Street enjoying the bonfire in 1993 when we did it again. There have been many iconic Tarheels since the founding of the Old North State, but today I have to talk about two that have touched me the most and have shown the best of us to the world. They are Andy Griffith and Charles Kuralt. My appreciation for these men and their work probably makes me seem older than I am, but they are a part of the North Carolina that I knew growing up, and they both shared a skill at telling stories that speaks to the heart of a story loving Tarheel like me. 

I mentioned that I grew up in Virginia, but every summer for at least 2 weeks my brother and I were packed off to our grandparents house in Wake Forest, NC. Not to be confused with Wake Forest University, I mean the town of Wake Forest which is just north of Raleigh and when we were kids was little more than a stop on US Rt. 1. It's a very different town now, but back then it was a world apart from the Washington D.C. ex-urb where we lived. At Granny's we had air conditioning in only one room of our nearly 100 year old house. It was a town of shaded avenues and old homes, homemade peach ice cream and sweet tea and late night drag racing down Main Street. We even had our own fishing hole at my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe's house where we learned to fish with bamboo fishing poles. In short, it was a lot like Mayberry which wasn't always fun for us cosmopolitan Northern Virginia kids.

But every afternoon at 4:00 on the local UHF channel, there was The Andy Griffith Show. I rarely missed it. It helped me appreciate the simple goodness of where I was. It was a small town world free of fast food chains and smart phones and Starbucks, and in the 1980's it was a world that was fast disappearing. But the Andy Griffith show reminded us of the best of that world. Every little town in America had it's Floyd's Barber Shop, and it's fishing hole and soda fountain\drug store. It was a simple way of life that allowed the show's writers to distill things down to what's important. Even when the people of Mayberry got a little crazy and even if he got a little out of his depth, Sheriff Andy Taylor would always work his way around to the right solution with a patience and kindness that is sadly missing in much of the world today. Griffith used his incredible storytelling ability to create Mayberry and its people out of the the rural North Carolina where he grew up, but it could have easily been a small town anywhere in America.

I'm sure some folks will remind me that it was almost exclusively a white world on the Andy Griffith Show, and you're right. But we are talking about the 1960's here, and much of the South was still segregated. Although The Andy Griffith Show shied away from the racial issues of the day, it did however address many issues of the human condition and it showed a humanity in all its characters that is worthy of attention.  Andy Griffith showed similar grace in the rest of his career and life. One of my favorite roles of his is the cantakerous diner owner with the heart of gold in the film Waitress. He was curmudgeonly but sweet, much like a favorite great uncle. In fact, for many of us Tarheels he always sort of felt like a favorite uncle and I know I can speak for a lot of them when I say I'm so glad that we have his vast body of work to remember him.

I've been trying all day to sum up how I feel about his passing, but honestly it's been hard. I don't think I could say it better than my old  friend David Robinson.

Dear Andy Griffith,  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Your passing saddens me. You are my favorite television childhood memory. Strangely enough, withstanding my own fallible nature, you are part of what has made me a man. Your character in the Andy Griffith Show should be used as an example of what a man should truly be. With authority comes responsibility and that power should not be used without wisdom and intellectualism. Gentle but firm, righteousness without indignation, understanding without escalation.  You are my secret Mr. McBeevee and the silver dollar you've placed behind my ear are the values and lessons taught to me through your show.  No doubt there is special place for you in the heavens; you deserve no less. Good night, Paw. We will miss you. 

Another Tarheel who held up a mirror to America was Charles Kuralt, who died fifteen years ago tomorrow.  It seemed so fitting to me that the man who spent much of his career highlighting the best of the American individual passed away on the Fourth of July. From "Charles Kuralt's People" at the Charlotte Observer to his "On the Road" segments at CBS to his books, Kuralt brought attention to average or even forgotten people of America doing great, amazing or sometimes just crazy things. There was Levi Fischer Amish postmaster, Billy Bird Steam Train Engineer, and Joseph Charles cheerful waver. All of them ordinary American people doing extraordinary or  even simple things with passion. Without Kuralt to tell their stories, we probably never would have known about most of these people. But Kuralt had a knack for recognizing the sublime in these hidden people and bringing us their stories with a generosity of spirit that I think few journalists today can afford. He showed us that even those who seem the most ordinary among us have stories worth telling.

Whatever your feelings might be about Charles Kuralt and Andy Griffith as men, their work stands up as love letters to the American people; not people waving flags and singing jingoistic country songs on the Fourth of July, but real people going about their business making the most of the freedoms we have. These two great storytellers did what great storytellers do. They held up mirrors to our society and showed us our own beautiful humanity. Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you.

Of Sense and Substance

Let's get started with a few quotes. "The boy's name was Santiago." Paolo Coelho - The Alchemist

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four day now without taking a fish." Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man And The Sea

"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping beside him." Cormac McCarthy - The Road

What do these first lines from arguably very different books have in common?

It's simple. They get right to the point. They don't mess around with flowery description. They don't set the stage by telling you everything you need to know about their environment. They don't tell you the writer's opinion of the characters. They just drop you right into the action or emotion of the story. Coelho begins The Alchemist with a simple telling of fact and we are immediately attached to Santiago. This statement is evocative chiefly because it plays on the reader's ingrained sympathy for the young and the sparse language clues us in on the type of environment in which he lives. It's beautiful in its efficiency. Likewise, Hemingway effectively sets up the conflict that drives The Old Man And The Sea with one bare sentence. It conjures image of an old man at sea in a small boat and his desperation at not catching a fish for so long. We don't know Hemingway's opinion of fisherman. He doesn't tell us how we're supposed to feel about it, but the old man's desperation still comes through with the accounting of many days he's gone without a fish. McCarthy is a bit more descriptive in the opening line of The Road, but that description comes to us through the character. We don't know what he looks like, or what the woods look like, or that he's hungry. We don't even know what he's feeling aside from the physical sensation of cold, but we are gripped by the heart-wrenching image of a man in the rough caring for a child.

No, this is not a discussion of the importance of great first lines, though they are important. I'm more concerned with the very first of Strunk and White's "Reminders" from Chapter 5 of The Elements of Style. That is to "Place yourself in the background." I have no doubt that this was positioned at the top of the list because of its importance and because it makes the best starting point for developing your own style. They write:

"Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing rather than the mood and temper of the author...to achieve style, begin by affecting none--that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style."

The key take away from this when writing fiction is to let your characters tell the story. The story is the "sense and substance" to which they are referring.  A "careful and honest" writer is one for whom the story and not the style is paramount. By contrast a careless and/or dishonest writer is one who may become so enamored of a certain style that their story becomes overshadowed by the writing. This is a particular pitfall of genres like historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy. Where the story is set in a world not familiar to the everyday reader, writers may find themselves too caught up in creating the setting. Some writers become so concerned with the environment that they are writing in that the reader loses interest in the story. For example, I recently read  a piece of historical fiction (that I will not name) in which the writer was so interested in mimicking a circuitous 18th century mode of speech that her sentences were sometimes rendered incomprehensible. Compounded by the fact that the novel was set in the late 19th century, the story was buried under the writer's affected style. This is precisely what Strunk and White are exhorting us to avoid.

As a test, try writing your story as a newspaper article, not a feature article like you might find in your local paper, but pure wire service type news. Just the facts. This can help you separate the "sense and substance" from the "mood and temper". It can also give you a point to start from if you decide to rewrite something.

But, you may be asking, how am I supposed to distinguish myself as a writer without affecting a style? We read on:

"As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts..."

In essence, focus on your story and trust yourself. YOU will emerge through the telling of your story. If you are honest and write naturally without affectation, your style WILL come out. You are unique, and no one but you is going to write with your voice.  In Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, Les Edgerton uses an interesting exercise to illustrate this very point. In the exercise you take a favorite passage from a classic book. Strip it down to the actions only, and then rewrite the passage in a way that is natural to you. Don't over think it, just write and trust yourself. When I tried this, I used a passage from Jane Eyre which I had read countless times. Despite the many times that I had read and reread and analyzed Charlotte Bronte's words, when I rewrote the passage in my own voice the "sense and substance" were the same but "mood and temper" were entirely mine. I highly suggest trying this exercise, it can be a real eye opener.

So, take a step behind the curtain and let your characters strut and fret upon the stage.