Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Discussing the Rules of Murder with Julianna Deering

An Interview with Julianna Deering by Barbara Early

I have to admit, when I heard Julianna Deering’s first Drew Farthering mystery was based in part on Father Knox’s Decalogue for mystery writers, I was intrigued. I had a lot of fun looking to see how she would try to break or bend each of these rules. So I’m really excited to be able to talk with DeAnna…um, Julianna…about the rules today, and how she--and others--might have broken them.

Father Ronald Knox
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

Barb: I can see the logic behind the first part. Many readers try to solve the crime along with the detective, and I can imagine it might be a bit frustrating to some readers to have their theories all in place, and then a new character comes in and dashes it to pieces.

Julianna:  Yes.  It would be totally unfair to have a point of view character grieving about the dear departed and then the reader later finds that that same character was the one who engineered the departure.  It can be done (and was done beautifully by Mrs. Christie), but it must be done fairly or the reader will definitely feel cheated.

Barb: Well, since Rules of Murder is told in two points of view--Drew and Madeline, I surely hoped one of them wasn’t the killer.

Julianna:  I can confirm or deny nothing.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Barb: Here’s something you can “get away with” in an Inspirational. Am I right to assume the supernatural agency is God?

Julianna:  God is definitely present in the novel, but I didn’t want to use the deus ex machina method, where a supernatural power sweeps in and solves the problem.  God is present in this book more as a fix for what the characters need personally.  But one of the maids is certain she has been menaced by the ghost of the first victim.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Barb: When I hear secret passages, I think of Scooby Doo. I think there was one or two in every episode. But I can see where this could be used as a lazy shortcut to a locked room murder, not that you use it like that. I’m trying to recall if I’ve read or seen other examples. I remember them from Nancy Drew, and I know there was at least one in Murder, She Wrote. A vagrant actually living in a secret passage--and thus a witness to a murder.

Julianna:  The secret passage bit was fun.  Father Knox says that if one must have a secret passage, it should be in a place likely to have one, an old mansion or castle, that sort of thing.  Mine, of course, was in a modern office building.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Barb: Well, I think you avoided a long, tedious scientific explanation. Personally, I think an undiscovered poison might be a good idea--not to give any homicidally minded people out there any ideas…

Julianna:  Ah, the mysterious cause of death.  Those are always fun.  And I think I managed a rather simple “undiscovered poison” for the book.  Of course, the victim didn’t appreciate it at all.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

Barb: Do you know what the motivation behind this rule was? Was it an overused stereotype or prejudice at the time?

Julianna:  I think people often assume this is prejudice on the part of Father Knox, but I think he had merely had enough of the stereotypical exotic foreigner always being the killer.  It was quite a popular scenario in the 1920s and ‘30s, and he wanted writers to be more creative.  Of course, being as contrary as I am, I had to include someone from China in the cast of characters.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

Barb: Aren’t all amateur detectives a bit intuitive? How did you handle this one?

Julianna:  This rule I broke by breaking Rule #2 in a roundabout way.   Drew does have a hunch about one particular place he goes to get some information and later on he realizes that something was a happy coincidence.  Then he remembers that he asked God to guide him, to show him what to do.  He hadn’t realized it before, but then he says that, since he had prayed, why should he be surprised at an answer.  Why indeed?

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

Barb: Now, I have seen some interesting examples that played with this rule. Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger comes to mind, where an amnesiac detective begins to suspect himself in a homicide he’s investigating. And I think one of the draws of Gone Girl is that they play with this same idea of an unreliable narrator. I wasn’t quite sure how you toyed with this.

Julianna:  Well, since Drew is in fact the series hero, this is one rule I could only bend.  He is a suspect for a time, especially since he was on very bad terms with the first victim, but dear Drew really hasn’t a murderous bone in his whole body.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

Barb: I have to admit, I feel this is a wise rule. I remember getting irritated reading a mystery novel where the detective--a first person narrator--asked to use the bathroom and didn’t return until a scene break. And yes, she found a clue in the bathroom. But did you actually hide information from the reader?

Julianna:  No, not really.  Drew has some suspicions he keeps from Nick and Madeline, and Nick chides him for that, citing this particular rule.  But my actual readers get to see what Drew sees.  It wouldn’t really be playing fair if they didn’t.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Barb: Now, in some cases, the sidekick, or Watson, serves as narrator for the story, allowing a little distance from the brilliant detective, to give the reader a little more time to solve the puzzle. But Nick isn’t a POV character for the story. Is he a stupid friend?

Julianna:  No, actually Nick is about Drew’s equal in intelligence.  Even though he’s the butler’s son, he went to Oxford along with Drew and is now in training to manage Farthering Place.  Drew does tease Nick with this rule, trying to get him to admit his suspicions of one of the characters they both are very fond of, and Nick’s reaction isn’t quite what Drew expects.  Nick isn’t stupid, but he doesn’t always think through some of the things he does.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Barb: I think every mystery television show out there has played with doubles--some more than once. What do you think is the key to breaking this rule effectively?

Julianna:  Again, you have to play fair with readers.  Yes, you want to surprise them and puzzle them, but you have to have the clues laid out for them to see . . . if they’re clever enough to find them in the middle of all the red herrings.  I think mystery writing is just sleight of hand.  Get your readers focused on something that isn’t important so they won’t see you fiddling with what is.

If you'd like to enter for a chance to win a copy of Rules of Murder, leave a comment with your email address below. So you don't get spammed for the rest of your life, you might want to leave it in a format not instantly recognized, such as Dorothy (at) WizardofOz (dot) com.



Drew Farthering loves a good mystery, although he generally expects to find it in the pages of a novel, not on the grounds of his country estate. When a weekend party at Farthering Place is ruined by murder and the police seem flummoxed, Drew decides to look into the crime himself. With the help of his best friend, Nick Dennison, an avid mystery reader, and Madeline Parker, a beautiful and whip-smart American debutante staying as a guest, the three try to solve the mystery as a lark, using the methods from their favorite novels.

Soon, financial irregularities at Drew's stepfather's company come to light and it's clear that all who remain at Farthering Place could be in danger. Trying hard to remain one step ahead of the killer--and trying harder to impress Madeline--Drew must decide how far to take this game.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Detection Club and The Golden Age of Mystery




By Lisa Karon Richardson

Following the Great War there was a period of optimism. The war to end all wars had been fought, and there was hope that the world would never again witness such horrors. It was a time of glamour, hope, and opulence. A time that remains edged with silver in the eye of history. During this time the mystery novel reached a pinnacle of creativity and wit. It is now known as the Golden Age of mysteries and it has left readers a rich legacy of choice stories to pick from.

In 1930 some of the best practitioners in the art of detective fiction joined together to form the Detection Club. The members included: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Baroness Orczy, E.C. Bentley, Father Knox, and several other well known authors.

They had an oath that members were required to take during an initiation ceremony. “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Their guiding principle was fair play with the reader. All the clues had to be laid out so that, if astute, a reader could solve the crime too. They met for dinner in London regularly and the group actually published several books. Usually anthologies or with chapters written by different authors in a sort of round robin style.

It was as a member of this group that Father Knox came up with his list of rules which the mystery writer should not break. Proving that she is nothing if not individualistic, our own Julianna/DeAnna promptly set out to break them all. AND YET she still managed to craft a story that pays homage to the traditional mysteries that the members of Detection Club wrote during the Golden Age of Mysteries.
I really hope that you will pick up a copy of Rules of Murder and let the glitter and glitz of a bygone era sweep you away. In no time you’ll be as insouciant as Nick and Nora, as suave as Cary Grant, as cunning as Hitchcock. Well… maybe not, but you’ll feel as if you are all those things while you’re reading!

The Detection Club still exists, and I think they'd do well to invite our own DeAnna to join!

If you like mysteries, (and who doesn’t?!) what is your favorite type? Traditional, cozy, police procedural, hard-boiled, PI, something else?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ten Rules of A Book Release Party for RULES OF MURDER!



This week we are celebrating the release of Julianna Deering's  RULES OF MURDER, the first book from the new Bethany Publishing series with amateur British sleuth DREW FARTHERING! Visit all week to learn more, and let us know in your comments if you'd like to be the drawing for a copy!

Congratulations Julianna!


Rules of Murder is a fun romp in the style of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. And if you like cozies or Downton Abbey or both, you need to let the butler take your wrap and join us out on the terrace! You will recognize some of our waiters, but one of them might be the real Drew or his sidekick Nick. So far Madeline hasn't made her appearance! We are hanging out at Farthering Place or what the locals call Beaulieu Palace House... Don't be intimidated. Drew is very relaxed about his title!


Teasing this delicious murder mystery along is Father Knox's Decalogue - the ten rules of what not to do in a murder mystery! Leave it to our friends here, and Drew, and Julianna to try breaking them all.

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow:

(A man of few words, Jane Austen never gave us any point of view from Mr. Darcy. Thankfully for the movie version 1995 Pride and Prejudice,  Colin Firth tells the story with just one look!)

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course:
This  early photo of Errol Flynn makes a dashing prototype for Drew. Minus a few quirks.


(I wonder if Julianna will ever tell us who most resembles the real DREW?  or Nick?)


3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable:
Always a touch of class! Mr. Cary Grant



4.  No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end:


No poisons involved in the goodies, either. And the recipes are very short!


5. No Chinaman must figure in the story:
Oh. ChinaMAN, I thought they didn't want us to use CHINA.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right:
What's a party at the Inkwell without JLM?
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
You know where we are going with this one... It's a crime to be this good looking, Aidan Turner!
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader:
Was it the blond Orlando Bloom, the brunette Orlando and was it long hair or short?

9. The stupid friend of the detective must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind. His intelligence must be slightly but very slightly below that of the average reader:
"You have bewitched me, body and soul."
(Matthew MacFadyen)

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. And if you know anything about Julianna Deering and her alter ego DeAnna Julie Dodson you had to be expecting this. (and oh my. Richard Armitage with a cat? Hand the woman a paper bag. She's hyperventilating!)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mending The Doctor's Heart by Tina Radcliffe

by Anita Mae Draper


Mending the Doctor's Heart
by Tina Radcliffe
Apr 2013
Love Inspired


I really enjoyed this book!

Mending the Doctor's Heart grabbed my attention within the first few pages with one of the oldest romance conflicts - the hero and heroine were both after the same prize which in this case was a job. Both had put their lives on hold thinking they were the only candidate for the position. Both were suffering emotionally and looking for a release of their pain. Both thought their hearts had an impenetrable seal. Would they both survive? Or would their pain devour them? Who was the stronger of the two?

This well-written story flows from emotional highs to gut-wrenching lows without warning. You never know what to expect when you turn the page, but it always touches your heart. The adversarial aspect between the two main characters could have had a negative impact if the author had allowed them to spend their time together in arguments and snide remarks. Instead, their dialogue was realistic, touching, and even humorous in a natural, spontaneous fashion.

Mending the Doctor's Heart is a medical-themed read and even without being a member of the medical community, I related to the main characters, Dr. Ben Rogers and Dr. Sara Elliott, because they were people with real problems, quirks and phobias like everyone else out there. Their dreams as well as their fears play a huge role in how the story unfolds with all the complexity of today's society. I joined them for the bumpy ride, and I liked it. I may have bawled in the final chapters, but I sighed with satisfaction as I read the epilogue.

I've known the author, Tina Radcliffe, for several years and although I've bought all her books, this is the first one I grabbed from my To Be Read pile. My question now is ... why didn't I read it sooner? And I still have two of Tina's books to go. :)

Back Cover Blurb:   Rivals of the Heart

A new job in Paradise, Colorado, seems like the perfect fresh start for Dr. Ben Rogers. Only problem is, Dr. Sara Elliott has been counting on getting the same job. Once they negotiate a shared trial run, Ben expects working with Sara to be less than pleasant. Instead, he finds himself drawn to her. She's dedicated and compassionate, exactly the type of woman he used to want—when family was an option. Yet Ben is surprised to learn that Sara's life is just as emotionally complicated as his own. And if there isn't room for both of them at work, how can they make room for each other in their hearts?


Read an Excerpt

Mending the Doctor's Heart, Apr 2013, Love Inspired is available for purchase at HarlequinAmazon, and other online sites.


Do you like books where one or both main characters work in the medical profession and the story is set in a medical facility? 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

NEWS! Tina Radcliffe has sold another romantic short story to Woman's World.  Check out the August 22, 2013 issue at your favorite newsstand.

Tina's  been scribbling for years. She has sold dozens of stories to the Trues & last count: eight romantic shorts to Woman's World. In 2010 she achieved her goal of selling her novel length fiction to Harlequin Love Inspired.  Originally from Western New York, she left home for a tour with the Army Security Agency stationed in Augsburg, Germany. 

While living in Tulsa, Oklahoma she spent ten years as a Certified Oncology R.N.  Her next move was to Colorado, where she spent six years as a library assistant and cataloger and worked for a national mail order pharmacy.
  
Tina's manuscripts finaled in the Golden Heart twice and in 2012 her second release, Oklahoma Reunion, was a Carol Award Finalist.

She continues to write fiction & non-fiction from her new home in Arizona (she keeps moving west!) and hangs out in Seekerville.   

She is represented by Meredith Bernstein. (Meredith Bernstein Literary Agency)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Taken By Surprise






Are you ever taken by surprise?

I know I am.  I know I usually have an idea of what I expect to happen day in and day out.  And, most of the time, that's pretty much what happens.  Oh, yeah, I might have chicken instead of hamburger for lunch.  Or I might decide it's really too hot to get out and weed the flowerbeds as I planned to do.  (Okay, I'll be honest.  I always hope it's too hot to actually get out there and work.)  But, for the most part, things just tick along as usual.

Once in a while, though, something does not go as planned.  There's an accident or an emergency.  One of my cats gets sick.  The check I was expecting doesn't come.  Or I have a sudden, urgent expense that is not least bit in the budget.

I recently had a stretch like that.  I had to have surgery, and my insurance has a huge deductible.  I had to replace my air conditioner (and where I live, without air conditioning, you pretty much die).  I had to have a root canal, and I don't have dental insurance.  I was reeling.  But you know what?

God wasn't in the least bit surprised. 

He knew what was ahead for me, and He provided for me.  If any of those things had happened even a few months before they did, I would have been financially ruined. 
But He provided in a most wonderful way.

He sees us.  He knows us.  He knows what we need. 

And He is wonderful.

Psalm 147:5
Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.

Isaiah 42:9
See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare;  before they spring into being I announce them to you.”

Psalm 139:1-4
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise;  you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down;  you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.

Psalm 139:13-16
For you created my inmost being;  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;  your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.




DeAnna Julie Dodson has always been an avid reader and a lover of storytelling, whether on the page, the screen or the stage. This, along with her keen interest in history and her Christian faith, shows in her tales of love, forgiveness and triumph over adversity. She is the author of In Honor Bound, By Love Redeemed and To Grace Surrendered, a trilogy of medieval romances, as well as Letters in the Attic, The Key in the Attic, The Diary in the Attic and, coming up, The Legacy in the Attic, contemporary mysteries. Her new series of Drew Farthering Mysteries will debut in the Summer of 2013 with Rules of Murder from Bethany House.  A fifth-generation Texan, she makes her home north of Dallas with three spoiled cats.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Empathy, Imagination, and Deep Point of View

by Suzie Johnson
Inborn empathy, I believe, is a gift from God. Some people have it, and some people don’t.

But can you learn empathy if you don’t already have it? I think it’s safe to say most of us have imaginations. And if, as a writer, you can touch the surface of your imagination, then you can keep going deeper until you feel whatever it is you want your characters (and consequently your readers) to feel. 

That’s empathy.

Have you ever wondered how an actor cries on demand?
photo by djayo at http://www.sxc.hu
Some actors have drops squeezed into their eyes as soon as the camera pans away, so that on their next close-up they can squeeze the tears out. I’ve heard some pinch the inside of their leg. 

But other actors cry real tears that touch deep and very raw emotions. I heard one actress say that whenever she had to cry, she thought about her father and imagined what her life would be like if he died. Her imagination led her to empathy. Those are the scenes that reach out and grab the viewers by their heart-strings.

Because they’re real.

Writing, like acting, must touch something deep in the reader, whether it’s joy or sorrow, in order to give them a satisfying experience.

photo by rolve at http://www.sxc.hu
In my upcoming novel, True North, Joe and Lisa Kendall are grieving the loss of their son. Each is grieving in their own way; each in their own time. As a writer, it is my job to put the reader into either Joe or Lisa’s shoes – maybe both. But I’ve never lost a child that I’ve held in my arms. I did have the broken heart of a miscarriage followed shortly by a hysterectomy at a very young age, losing the dream of future children. I know what those feelings are like. But I don’t know the feeling of losing a child I’ve held close to my heart, and built memories with.

How then could I represent this in an honest and true way in my writing? It had to be more than thinking, “Oh, I’ll bet they feel this way and they’ll react in this other way.” No. I had to dig deep inside myself, hit a few nerves, then dig deeper still. I had to imagine the early years with my own child, and then imagine the unthinkable.
photo by buzzybee at http://www.sxc.hu
It wasn’t easy. It was beyond painful. Then, because my hero’s viewpoint is important to the story, I had to do it all over again through the eyes and heart of a father. I still get a little teary-eyed when I think about all I’d imagined. But if I didn’t bring a tear to my own eyes, how could I possibly bring one to the reader’s eyes?

This could, I think, also be referred to as deep point of view. I really never thought of it that way until recently. After the final edits and galley proofs were done on True North, I had a moment of panic when I realized my characters had a lot of internal thought. Maybe it was too much. Would that read as boring? I didn’t know what to do. But when I asked my editor about it, she said she and the publisher had a discussion about it when they first bought the book. They felt it was deep point of view and was necessary to the story because of the grieving process that became part of the conflict.

I had to think about this for a while. And I still wonder. Did my imagination lead me to empathy? Did I reach this deep point of view that will elicit a tear from my readers? I hope so. It made me cry, and – not that I want the reader to feel real pain – I hope it brings a tear or two to their eyes so they come away with a complete and satisfying experience from the book.

If you’re a writer and your manuscript doesn’t feel right, could it be that it isn’t touching your emotions? If so, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Try deepening your imagination, dig a little deeper, and see if that changes your story up.

Do you think empathy and imagination are tied together?
What gives you a satisfying experience as a reader?
If you’re a writer, how far do you go to elicit emotion in your characters?

True North is Suzie Johnson’s second novel. Her first novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, is out now from White Rose Press of The Pelican Book Group. She is a regular contributor to the Inkwell Inspirations blog, a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. Suzie and her husband live in the Pacific Northwest with their naughty little cat on an island that is definitely not tropical. Together, they are the parents of a wonderful grown son who makes them proud every day – even though he lives way too far away. You can visit Suzie at the following places:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Had a Popsicle yet this summer?

By Niki Turner

It's hot here in western Colorado, and that whole "it's a dry heat" thing doesn't really make it any easier to endure. Hot is, well, hot, and we don't have AC or a swamp cooler. So, in search of a brief respite, Popsicles (aka ice pops and freezer pops in the USA) ice lollies (England), freeze pops (Ireland), icy poles (New Zealand) or ice blocks (parts of Australia) are the summertime treat of choice for everyone from the smallest grandbaby to the oldest in the household. (Oh, dear, that would be me.)

Popsicle photo: Popsicle popsicle.jpg 

Popsicles, to my surprise, are much older than I thought.
The story goes that on a chilly San Francisco evening back in 1905, an 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson was making himself a soft drink, using a cup and a stirring stick to blend a powdered mix with water. Somehow he got distracted and left the concoction on his front porch overnight. In the morning, he discovered the drink had frozen with the stick inside, making a handle of sorts. Eureka!
Amazingly, by the time it occurred to Frank as an adult that such frozen treats might be marketable, no one else had thought of (or stolen) his idea yet. He patented “frozen ice on a stick” in 1923 and started making what he called “Eppsicles” and his children soon termed “Popsicles.” A year or two later, Epperson sold his patent to the Joe Lowe Co. The nickel-priced novelties soon took off like wildfire. (Well, really cold wildfire.) These days, the brand name is owned by Unilever, but most of us refer to all ice-on-a-stick as “popsicles,” the way we call all tissues “kleenex.”

Read more: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2010/07/a-brief-history-of-popsicles/#ixzz2ZpNRiF9A Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
I had no idea Popsicles were almost a century old, did you?

Do you remember your first Popsicle? I don't, but I do remember watching this PSA every Saturday morning and wondering what on earth pomegranate juice was.


Seriously, who knew anything about pomegranate juice in the '70s and '80s?

I never made my own Popsicles, because for some strange reason, we never had plastic wrap OR toothpicks at our house. Today, we have both... but I still don't make my own Popsicles. "Otter Pops" (something else I never had as a child) are the frozen treat of choice. Why? They are cheap, plentiful, and tasty. (And low-calorie, but we don't mention that in our male-dominated household.)

FYI, "bomb pops" came to be in 1955 (perhaps the fruit of the Cold War, no pun intended.) and are still a favorite for many.

There's an interesting Bible verse in Proverbs 25:13 (The Message):
Reliable friends who do what they say are like cool drinks in sweltering heat—refreshing!
I call those Popsicle friends, and they are few and far between. It's my heart's desire to BE one of those folks when my own friends are in hot water, when the pressures of life are heating up around them, to be the one who brings refreshing, who brings life. How about you? How can we refresh one another when life is hot and dry and miserable?


For the rest of you: Did you ever make your own ice pops? What's the best recipe?


For you history buffs: What treats did folks cool off with before the Popsicle?




Monday, July 22, 2013

I Fell in Love Up a Rutted Road


By Sharon Kirk Clifton

Lisa Says: I'd like to welcome to the Inkwell today a dear friend and wonderful writer, Sharon Kirk Clifton.  In Up the Rutted Road she brings 1950s Appalachia to life through the eyes of a young girl, complete with revival services, grape Nehi, and coon dogs. The story is poignant and beautiful in their presentation of a way of life that finds joy in simple things. Although targeted to middle graders, I frankly enjoyed it and I think our readers would too. And now, without further ado; here's Sharon.

Sharon:
Sharon Kirk Clifton Writer and Raconteur
In late 1990, three years into my career as a professional storyteller, I applied for, and received, a grant to travel through southern Appalachia, researching the oral tradition and culture of the area for my Jack’s Mama program. With my younger daughter, Dawna, at my side, we set out in June 1991 to travel up many a rutted road, interviewing scores of folks, from college professors and regional storytellers to coal miners, cultural center staffers, folks hanging out at senior centers, and anyone else with a story to tell.
Below are snippets from some of their stories, accounts I treasure because they enriched not only my Jack’s Mama storytelling persona, but also the characters readers encounter in my first middle-grade novel, Up a Rutted Road, set in eastern Kentucky in 1950.

* * *

“How old do ye reckon me to be?”
Only a little younger than God, I wanted to say, but courtesy required me to understate my guess. I scratched my chin with my thumbnail and studied his leathern face. Life had etched wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, creases so deep one could drive a jolt wagon through them.
“Seventy something?” I said, shooting him a half grin. I glanced sideways at his wife, sitting in a rocker nearly identical to his. She looked over her spectacles at me, grinned, and went back to her mending.
He straightened his spine and leaned back. “Ninety-two!” His face said this was a game he liked to play. “And, come spring, if’n the Good Lord lets me linger, I’m leadin’ another mule train over these here mountains. Northerners, flatlanders, pay good money to let an ol’ mule skinner like me take ’em acrost.”
When he admitted this might well be his last trail ride, sadness darkened his chicory-blue eyes for a fleeting second. He quickly moved on to another subject.
“’D’I ever tell y’uns about how we used to shoe turkeys?” Now he wore that special grin we taletellers don when we’re about to launch into a story, albeit, a true one in this case.

* * *

I watched as the elderly Melungeon woman lifted aside the chintz drape that served as a door to the inward parts of her humble cottage. With halting steps, she soon returned to the cluttered front room, cradling in her arms a mountain dulcimer. It could have been a newborn baby for all her care. In her right hand, she held a turkey feather and something else I couldn’t see well. Whatever it was, she laid it on the little table beside her chair. Then she smoothed the fabric of her worn cotton apron and gently placed the instrument on her knees.
“This here’s my dulcimore.” She drew the feather over the strings, pausing to tighten the wooden peg of one that had gone flat. As the fingers of her left hand pressed the wire strings in front of the frets, she got a rhythm going across the worn strum hollow. For a moment or two, she just played. Then her voice joined the sweet melody.
“In Scarlet Town whar I was born, thar was a fair maid dwellin’. Made ever’ youth cry, ‘Well-a-day,’ for love of Barbr’y Allen.” A quiet peace washed over me, as I listened to her sing the soulful “song ballet.” She graced me with a couple more Appalachian folk songs before setting aside the dulcimer and handing me the object she had carried in along with the feather.
“A record?” I said. “You’ve made a record of your beautiful playing?”
She chuckled at that. “Well, not me, exactly. Some folks come down from a museum and recorded my playin’ and sangin’. I cain’t for the life o’ me figger out why.”
“Who were they? What museum were they with?”
“Uhm…” She thought for a moment. “The Smithsonian. You heard of it?”
My grin was so broad, I thought my face would crack. “Yes’m. Indeed I have heard of the Smithsonian.”
She handed me the 45 rpm record. “I want you to have this. They gave me several so’s I could hand some out.”
* * *

“Stand still.” I spoke softly, so as not to agitate the dog. “Smile for the sake of the old man. He’s watching every move we make from behind that curtain. Don’t show teeth.” The dog soon quieted, stretched, yawned, and sauntered toward us. As we gave him a good scratching, the door to the ancient single-wide opened slowly. A tall man who looked to be in his 80s filled the entrance. No gun in sight. Good. The dog had accepted us, so maybe the master would, too. He hadn’t shot at us, at any rate. His granddaughter had warned that he might, being wary of strangers.
I introduced myself and Dawna, and soon we were inside the dim, stuffy trailer sipping sweet tea, while I told him of our mission.
“Is it all right with you if I record our talk?” I said.
He wiped his hand across his mouth and chin. His whisker stubbles made a scratching sound. “I reckon so.”
As I reached into my bag to get my little Sony cassette recorder, he unfolded himself from his chair and went to the kitchen. He opened an upper cabinet door and lifted a large hand gun from its shelf. Dawna and I looked at one another. Is this our cue to exit? I wondered. But we stayed seated and smiled.
He held the weapon out as one might display a pie for approval. “This here’s my gun.” As if we needed to have the object identified. What was I expected to say?
“It certainly is a nice one. I can tell you take good care of it.”
“Yup. Gotta keep ‘em oiled and in good working order.”
“Are you a good shot?”
“Yup.” I didn’t doubt it.
He set the gun on the coffee table that separated us. For the next hour or so, he told us about his childhood and life in the mountains. Though he didn’t mention the gun again, I never forgot it was there. Perhaps that was the point.

* * *

As we journeyed through eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Georgia that June, we fell in love with a people. Early on, I met with Dr. Loyal Jones, founding director of Berea College’s Appalachian Center, who adjured me not to portray the people as ignorant clodhoppers, à la The Beverly Hillbillies and Li’l Abner.
“We have a rich cultural heritage,” he said. “Honor that. And listen to the language. Listen closely. Get the idioms right. Realize you’re not hearing uneducated rustics who don’t know ‘proper’ English. You’re hearing echoes of Elizabethan English—no, even earlier than that. Chaucerian English. Especially in the speech of the older generation.”
Dr. Jones and I also discussed the oral tradition of the predominantly Scottish, Irish, Scots-Irish, and German people who settled the region. One can learn much about a people from their folktales and lore. Both reveal core values. For example, the stories that comprise the Jack cycle of tales reinforce highlanders’ esteem of:

·      Home and family, for, though Jack is always going off to seek his fortune, he invariably returns to hearth and home.
·      Helping others less fortunate or in need of rescuing, whether it be an old, hungry hunchity woman or a beautiful princess in peril, for Jack is no respecter of persons.
·      Setting things akilter to rights, for when Jack leaves home, he enters a troubled world and takes it upon himself to fix the parts he can.
·      Sowing good seed, believing “what goes around, comes around” and “what you sow, you’re going to reap.”
·      Independence, for Jack leaves home to make his own way in the world; however, though he first tries to solve his own problems, in the end he’s not too prideful to accept some help himself.
·      Eschewing charity, for one can accept help or needed provisions only if one gives in return something of equitable worth.

Readers of Up a Rutted Road will see all of these values expressed in the lives of the McCain and Holcomb families and one mysterious hermit who keeps showing up in the most unexpected places.

Lisa Again: Thanks for coming to the Inkwell, Sharon! I always love it when we have a chance to visit. When I was little my great grandma lived in a "holler" in Kentucky. This post took me back there and I could hear her voice again. 

Up the Rutted Road is available on Amazon here
And if you'd like to learn more about Sharon, you can check out her blog here