Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2018 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Changing Times

"The times, they are a'changing," sang Bob Dylan more than forty years ago. I can remember when that song was new.

Around here, the country is changing, too. Franklin County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

With growth comes power. The wooden stake with the orange ribbon marks marks where the big power lines will go. The large yellow building in the background is our shop. That's how close the lines will come to us.

On the other side of the road, the lines will cross this field and go through where the woods are now. Some of the woods will, of course, have to go.

On the far side of the woods, the line will run through what's now a hayfield (and sometimes a pasture). Before long, a gravel road paralleling the power line will go through this field and through where the woods soon won't be.

The lines are marked in the woods. They're hard to see in the picture below. Look for the orange ribbons. Imagine a swath a hundred feet wide. Imagine big poles carrying wires.

That's how this part of the county is changing. I hope I can remember what it once was like.



Wednesday, January 30, 2008

January 30, 1897

The cabin that William E. Bernard built in 1854 is falling in. Last month, a high wind took out the top of a chimney. The porch—replaced in the 1960s—rotted away a few years ago and the porch roof pulled loose. The tin roof has rusted. Windows sagged and collapsed. Even the chestnut logs are falling prey to insects and decay. No one has lived in the cabin since 1959.

But a little window—about a foot square—is still there. William cut it through the logs so he could sit by the fireplace and look across the hillside pasture at the grave of his wife, Gillie Ann, who died January 30, 1897. She was 58.

The pasture is gone. Woods have filled the hillside, so the little graveyard is no longer visible from the homesite. William joined her over a decade later. For a while their graves were marked by simple stones. Hers was carved; his was just a flat stone. Several decades ago, their children provided a big double headstone to mark their graves. But the old stones still remain.

Trees now grow from their graves; no doubt the roots entwine and join what little remains of their bodies and their wooden coffins.

After the cabin falls and little window is gone, after the termites and decay have their way with the remains, will anyone remember a husband's devotion?


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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Assorted Writing Advice (from experts)

Warning: If you’re not a writer-wannabe, this post will be boring.
If you are a writer-wannabe, this post might be discouraging.

Sunday, when I was doing a book-signing at Barnes & Noble, an older gentleman stopped by the table to chat with me. Specifically, he wanted to know how to get his book published. I explained that I was a self-pubbed author and that normally my books wouldn’t be at Barnes & Noble. They (and I) were here because of a book fair. I explained that getting commercially published was much better than self-publishing.

He was under the impression that authors made five or ten dollars per book (highly unlikely except for the biggies) and that a publisher would pair him with a well-known author who’d co-write with him. He thought an author just sent a manuscript in and that was that. (I’ve run into a lot of aspiring writers who had the same ideas.)

I explained as best I could that commercial publishers get thousands of submissions a year and only publish a small percent of what they get. I explained that bookstores want a deep discount (up to 55%!) on the cover price, plus the publisher, printer, warehouser (Ingram, Baker & Taylor), and distributor all take a cut. I told him about how agents also get a cut, but they often negotiate better deals with a publisher than an author could.

I recommended he take a look at Writers Market to learn what publishers take his genre and to learn what goes into a query letter. I recommended that he take a look at the books on the shelves that are similar to his and see who published them. I also recommended he visit Valley Writers (a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club) and get some input from members.

His manuscript isn’t ready to send in yet. All 400 pages are in longhand. I don’t think he’s had any input from other readers. I’m guessing that his, like many other manuscripts by first time authors, probably needs some work.

Many aspiring authors have misconceptions about what the writing and publishing world is like. So, if you’re one and are still reading this blog, let me give you some advice—from other people. From people far more qualified than I:

Stephen King is one of the 200 or so novelists who makes a living writing novels. His book, On Writing, is pretty good. But just in case you don’t have time at this moment to read the entire book or even some excerpts, take a look at Stephen King’s “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes.”

My favorite tip: #3: “Be self-critical. If you haven’t marked up your manuscript, you did a lousy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don’t be a slob.”

Once you’ve read King’s advice, move on to John Scalzi’s “Utterly Useless Writing Advice,” which is actually not utterly useless. It tells you stuff you need to know. I especially like his tip #3, too, that answers the “But what if I don’t want to write stuff I don’t want to write” question.

Now, if you’re still reading, Scalzi has some more good advice you need to know in “Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice.” (Warning: if you didn’t like his previous advice, you’ll like this even less because it’s probably not what you want to hear, even though most of us need to hear it if we want to be real writers.)

If you’ve read all three of the above, you ought to be either (1) inspired, or (2) ready to quit writing.

If you’re a teenage writer, Scalzi also has some advice for you in “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing.” Actually, if you’ve ever been a teenager and you now write, this is worth a look. (I love this sentence: “Blogging very often takes the form of what writers call ‘cat vacuuming,’ which is to say it’s an activity you do to avoid actual writing.”)

Gee, giving advice is easy when it’s someone else’s.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Writers Conference Revisited

Another Highlight: Ferreting Out the Truth

Listening to Sharyn McCrumb is always a treat, especially when she tells how she writes. That’s what she did in her “Telling It Slant: Using Historical Events in Fictional Works” session at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference.

McCrumb is a stickler for getting details right. (Her readers will tell her if she gets anything—no matter how small—wrong.) She does considerable research for each of her books and is careful to always consult more than one authority. In historical fiction, writers can invent characters, but they have to get the setting—and the details— right.

She related info about how she researched hangings while she wrote The Ballad of Frankie Silver, a novel based on the first woman hanged in North Carolina. Many folks she talked to described a scaffold for the hanging, but Sharyn couldn’t find evidence that scaffolds were built as early as 1833. Evidence of other hangings in the first half of the nineteeth century showed that a rope was thrown over a limb, the soon-to-be-executed one stood on the bed of a cart, and the cart was then moved forward. Plus no one was sure that Frankie would actually be hanged until right before she was; the sheriff expected a rider to come any moment with a reprieve from the governor. Why built a scaffold that might not be used?

To illustrate poor research, She read us a passage that romance writer Cassie Edwards had plagiarized from an article about ferrets and inserted as dialogue into her romance novel, Shadow Bear (Signet, 2007). In the scene after Shadow Bear (hunky Indian) and a hottie pioneer woman succumb to their mutual burning intense physical attraction in his woodland tee-pee, their conversation turns to ferrets.


Pioneer hottie Shiona hears a ferret outside the tee-pee, so the discussion turns to the habits of black-footed ferrets. Now, ferrets are normally found where prairie dog towns are—not in the woods, so they wouldn’t be nearby, but that’s beside the point. Hottie has read about them in her father’s books; Shadow Bear has observed them in the wild; they talk about them. Actual passages of dialogue go into great detail about ferrets. Like this (as quoted here):

"In their own way, they are a peaceful enough animal," Shadow Bear said... "They are so named because of their dark legs." "They are so small, surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail," Shiona said. "While alone in my father's study one day, after seeing a family of ferrets from afar in the nearby woods, I took one of my father's books from his library and read up on them. They were an interesting study. I discovered they are related to minks and otters. It is said that their closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population." p. 220

Except Edwards didn’t actually invent this dialogue. (Like who would?!) She copied it from an article she’d read online.

Some bloggers, who figured there was something fishy (ferrety?) about the scene, did a bit of Googling, found the original source, and outed Edwards. Word spread through the blogosphere faster than beating tom-toms. Or stampeding ferrets.

Paul Tolme, the writer whose work Edwards had, uh, referenced without citation, wrote a Newsweek article about Edwards’ plagiarism of his original 2005 ferret article,“Toughing It Out in the Badlands.” It’s a hoot.

The original bloggers, now joined by others, kept Googling and ferreted out examples of plagiarism in Edwards’ other novels. Signet, her publisher that had stood by her during the Shadow Bear incident, dropped her faster than—er—a hot ferret.

On January 12, 2008, the New York Times did an article about the plagiarism. And other blogs are mentioning the plagiarism, like this January 16 entry on Live Granades (“like a blog, but explodier”).

If there’s a moral here, it’s that writers should do real research—not cut and paste from the Internet.

McCrumb does her research. As a reader, I appreciate it.

And, as far as I know, she’s never mentioned a ferret in any of her books.


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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference

(The Highlights)

Saturday I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at the Jefferson Center. Approximately a hundred other writers attended sessions led by writing professionals in the Roanoke area. Organized by Dan Smith (editor of the Blue Ridge Business Journal), the conference offered something for poets, fiction writers, and freelancers—plus it provided an opportunity to network with fellow writers.

My only regret is that I couldn’t attend all the sessions—only six of the twenty or so offered. I But I learned a lot from the ones I did attend. Telling about all the sessions would make for a long blog post, so I’ll give the highlights from the two that addressed freelance writing.

Cara Modisett, editor of Blue Ridge Country, told those attending “What Magazine Editors Want” that regional magazines are great places for writers to start. These magazines “celebrate small stories”—what isn’t mainstream. The most important person in a regional story, she emphasized, is not the writer, but the reader. She looks for writers who know the readers of Blue Ridge Country—mostly older, retired women.

She listed some valuable tips for pitching an article idea to a magazine:
  • Know the readers and the magazine.
  • Know the anatomy of a magazine, the sections it contains.
  • Every editor looks for something different, but it's a good idea to start with short pieces (100--300 words).
  • Follow the guidelines. Many editors prefer a pitch or a query instead of a submission.
  • Plan your pitch. Your cover letter should include where you’ve been published and the pitch for your main story. Include a couple of clips of stories close to the kind of story you’re pitching.
  • Know a magazine’s time-line. Pitch early; it might be a year before your article is published.
  • Support your work. Photography is a plus.
  • Write well and fact check.
  • Be original. Blue Ridge Country buys first North American Rights and one-time photo rights.
  • Pay attention to the tone of the magazine and to the lead—how a typical article starts, the length of quotations, tense (Blue Ridge Country stories are in the present tense), voice, transitions, etc.
  • Pay attention to sidebars.
  • Don’t over-write. Write short rather than long. (Blue Ridge Country wants a 50-50 photo ratio.)
  • The story isn’t all about you. No matter how short the story is Blue Ridge Country wants another voice: quotes. When getting quotes, use live interviews rather than email. Email quotes sound stilted. The best interview is a conversation. (The writer can provide the who/where/what, but the whys and hows make the best quotes.)
  • Editors don’t want stories that sound like press releases, so avoid the second person point-of-view. Don’t question the reader, either—show and tell instead.
  • A travel piece isn’t about place; it’s about people. Follow side-roads and talk to people. Share history.

Modisett likes the initial query (with clips) snail-mailed; otherwise email is fine.

Gene Marrano, editor of the Cave Spring Connection and the Vinton Messenger, host of WVTF’s Studio Virginia, and freelance writer for several local publications, spoke about “Freelance Writing in This Region” Freelance writing in this area “won’t pay the rent” because “Roanoke is a small pie and everyone is slicing it up.” He suggested that freelancers have a variety of interests to write about and be willing to adapt to a variety of things. He listed some local magazine/newspapers that pay, such as the Main Street Newspapers (Cave Spring Connection, Vinton Messenger), Bella, City, Venues and the new weekly, The Roanoke Star Sentinel. Pay for local publications runs from $35—$100 (not enough to pay the rent!). He related his experiences and how he learned on the job by working his way up in local publishing and broadcasting. Even though he edits two weeklies, he still freelances for several other publications. Naturally, he stressed the importance of time management.

Some of Marrano’s hints:
  • “If you’re going to write about family, there has to be a universal truth.” Otherwise no one cares what your kids do.
  • “Celebrate the small stories.”
  • The tone of a magazine reflects the tone of the editor.
  • Be on time for your deadline.
  • Take decent pictures that you can submit with your story. Most local publications prefer a submission accompanied by a picture.
Both Marrano and Modisett told many of us freelancers valuable stuff we need to know.

If you aspire to write for pay, conferences are one way for you to learn what you need to know. The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference told a lot of us what we needed to know.

I hope it will be an annual event.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Blogthings, Anyone?

I spent some time today playing around with Blogthings, little quizzes that are supposed to reveal something about the person taking them. Here are the quizzes I took and what they revealed.

The personality quiz, "How Rare is Your Personality," told me that mine was rare:

Your Personality is Very Rare (INTP)

Your personality type is goofy, imaginative, relaxed, and brilliant.

Only about 4% of all people have your personality, including 2% of all women and 6% of all men.

You are Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, and Perceiving.

"The World's Shortest Personality Test" (one question!) was pretty close:

Your Personality Profile

You are dependable, popular, and observant.
Deep and thoughtful, you are prone to moodiness.
In fact, your emotions tend to influence everything you do.

You are unique, creative, and expressive.
You don't mind waving your freak flag every once and a while.
And lucky for you, most people find your weird ways charming!

"What Be Your Nerd Type?" revealed (not surprisingly) that I'm a literature nerd. (OK, this isn't a Blogthings quiz, but it's close.)

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Literature Nerd

Does sitting by a nice cozy fire, with a cup of hot tea/chocolate, and a book you can read for hours even when your eyes grow red and dry and you look sort of scary sitting there with your insomniac appearance? Then you fit this category perfectly! You love the power of the written word and it's eloquence; and you may like to read/write poetry or novels. You contribute to the smart people of today's society, however you can probably be overly-critical of works.

It's okay. I understand.

Drama Nerd

Artistic Nerd

Gamer/Computer Nerd

Social Nerd


Science/Math Nerd

Anime Nerd

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

I'm a little skeptical about the results of
who I was in a past life, though:

In a Past Life...

You Were: A Banished Magician.

Where You Lived: Australia.

How You Died: The Plague.

Another quiz was "What Type of Writer Should You Be?"
(No, that's not my picture below. Plus, I write with a computer.)

You Should Be a Joke Writer

You're totally hilarious, and you can find the humor in any situation.
Whether you're spouting off zingers, comebacks, or jokes about life...
You usually can keep a crowd laughing, and you have plenty of material.
You have the makings of a great comedian - or comedic writer.

Looks like that one was correct! Or maybe they say that about all the quiz takers.

Banished Australian magician who died of the plague? Yeah, right. . . .



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

January 1965

I’m not the only one who’s been going through boxes of family stuff lately.

Eileen Lawlor, who was my sophomore year roommate at RPI (Richmond Professional Institute, now VCU), was going through a box of her recently deceased mother’s things and found this picture from January 1965:

Yes, I am the thin person in the RPI nightshirt. Yes, that is a head-full of curlers I’m sporting under the frilly curler cap. Nancy Lewis, who I remember was an occupational therapy major, also has curlers. At night in Founders Hall dorm, almost every girl wore curlers.

You see, 1965 was still the dark ages—before hot curlers or electric curling irons. Our hair dryers were hat-boxed sized. We pounded manual typewriters that made a such racket people in nearby rooms couldn’t sleep. Our radios were the size of a shoebox. We listened to records that we played on a turntable. There was one phone at the end of the hall for a dozen or more girls to use. There was one black and white TV in the dorm parlor for a hundred of us to watch. The dorm wasn’t air-conditioned, but it had steam heat in winter. When the heat cut on, the racket drowned out the typewriters.

The school computer, used to make student schedules, was the size of a large room. I know, because I once worked during advance registration and had to carry punch cards from the registrar’s office to the computer people. Punch cards? Well, they were—aw, heck! They’re so out-dated no one needs to know.

Back in 1965, we didn’t dream that one day we’d have our own computers, cell phones, tiny devices that stored hours of music, curling irons, hair dryers that were the size of our hand, etc. E-mail didn't exist; we hand wrote letters. Life was simple then.

I'm glad personal computers were invented. Thanks to the Internet, I found two of my previous RPI roommates—Eileen who lives in Massachusets and Polly, my junior year roommate, who now lives in Newport News (Hi, Polly! I know you’re reading this blog!). I'd lost track of them for decades.

Eileen didn’t scan the picture and send it via email. She snail-mailed the actual picture inside a hand-written card.

Kind of like old times.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

January 20, 1961

I remember what I was doing on this morning in 1961.

I was a sophomore at William Fleming High School—the old Fleming that faced Williamson Road, the old Fleming that eight months later became James Breckinridge Junior High and was eventually remodeled/rebuilt to become Breckinridge Middle School.

On the morning of January 20, 1961, my classmates and I were herded upstairs to Mrs. Ruth Painter’s biology room to watch John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Other classes had already gotten the chairs, so some of us had to sit on the long black lab tables to watch the live telecast on a small black and white TV.

Did we know we were watching history in the making? I think our teachers had told us that we were. We heard JFK say “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country” I doubt any of us realized then how famous these words would later become.

After JFK had finished his speech, a famous poet—Robert Frost—came forth to read a poem he’d written for the occasion. We’d heard of Robert Frost. His poems were in our literature book. Somehow the old man didn’t look like we expected a famous poet to look. He was—well, old.

He had a bit of trouble reading. The wind blew and we could see the page shake in his hand. Plus the sun was in his eyes. He gave up trying to read and recited from memory, “The Gift Outright.”

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Those of us stuffed into the biology room thought that was the poem that was typed on the paper. We were impressed that he could recite it.

But “The Gift Outright” wasn’t what was typed on the paper. Frost had written a special poem for the inauguration—this poem:

For John F. Kennedy
His Inauguration

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country'd be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded His approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood--
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison--
So much they knew as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what now appears:
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
"New order of the ages" did we say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
'Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the flowry of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom's story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an's and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.

Better late than never.


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Friday, January 18, 2008

After the Snow

. . . came the ice:

The jewels loosen on the branches,
And lightly, as the soft winds blow,
Fall, tinkling, on the ice below.
—John Greenleaf Whittier (“The Pageant” 1869)

The branches weren't the only things ice-covered this morning. My favorite under-the-tree bench (actually a glider) isn't an inviting place to sit today.

The forecast is for another snow tomorrow:

Tomorrow: Snow showers early will become steadier snow in the afternoon. Cold. Temps nearly steady in the mid 30s. Winds NW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of snow 70%. Snow accumulating 1 to 3 inches.
Tomorrow night: Snow in the evening will give way to partly cloudy conditions overnight. Low 16F. Winds NW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of snow 70%.

So, are the above pictures after the snow, or before the next snow?

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Snow

The first snow of 2008 wasn’t deep—two or three inches— but it was pretty. Roanoke—to the northwest—had gotten a dusting of snow earlier in the week, but this is our official first snow of the year.

Here’s the view from my study window on Thursday morning.

Later the snow stopped, and freezing rain started. The trees and bushes iced over.

By late afternoon, the precipitation stopped, and I scattered seed for the birds.

This provided entertainment for the cats, who really didn't want to go out.

On Friday, the sun will come out and make the world sparkle. When sun shines on snow, I always think of Robert Frost’s “ten million silver lizards out of snow.”

Here’s the poem:

A Hillside Thaw
by Robert Frost

To think to know the country and now know
The hillside on the day the sun lets go
Ten million silver lizards out of snow!
As often as I’ve seen it done before
I can’t pretend to tell the way it’s done.
It looks as if some magic of the sun
Lifted the rug that bred them on the floor
And the light breaking on them made them run.
But if I though to stop the wet stampede,
And caught one silver lizard by the tail,
And put my foot on one without avail,
And threw myself wet-elbowed and wet-kneed
In front of twenty others’ wriggling speed,—
In the confusion of them all aglitter,
And birds that joined in the excited fun
By doubling and redoubling song and twitter,
I have no doubt I’d end by holding none.

It takes the moon for this. The sun’s a wizard
By all I tell; but so’s the moon a witch.
From the high west she makes a gentle cast
And suddenly, without a jerk or twitch,
She has her speel on every single lizard.
I fancied when I looked at six o’clock
The swarm still ran and scuttled just as fast.
The moon was waiting for her chill effect.
I looked at nine: the swarm was turned to rock
In every lifelike posture of the swarm,
Transfixed on mountain slopes almost erect.
Across each other and side by side they lay.
The spell that so could hold them as they were
Was wrought through trees without a breath of storm
To make a leaf, if there had been one, stir.
One lizard at the end of every ray.
The thought of my attempting such a stray!

Over on her Blue Country Magic blog, Anita F. has posted pictures of the snow in Fincastle (two counties west of here)—and another Robert Frost poem.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

January 17, 1941

At 3:00 p.m. on January 17, 1941, my brother—Robert Lee Smith—was born. I arrived four and a half years later, but I never knew him. He was what was then called a “blue baby”; he had a heart defect. He died at 7:00 p.m. the same day he was born.

Decades later, a cousin told me that the Smith males were prone to heart defects and high blood pressure. My grandmother lost a son in infancy; so did her oldest daughter. My father, the only surviving male child in a family of girls, died of a stroke in his mid-sixties. He had high blood pressure.

My mother never got over losing her first child. Recently, I came across her scrapbook among items in one of the multitude of boxes John and I moved from her attic when we sold her house in 2002. These boxes, which I’m just now getting around to looking through, yield secrets of her life that I hadn't known much about.

Mama saved the birth certificate, the death notice, and all the cards she received when her son was born. A few cards, no doubt sent as soon as word went out about his birth, congratulated my parents on becoming parents. Later the senders sent their condolences. All went into her scrapbook.

On one page, she handwrote this:

Never, as long as I live, shall I forget the feel of it—that feeble breath stirring against my heart. Always there will be that sick emptiness, and the sound of a tiny broken wail whispering in my ear. For that was all I ever had of my baby. It died that night there, where it had been born. May God bless it and keep it from all sickness, sin, and sorrow until we meet again.

Mama was confined to the hospital for days after the birth/death, so she missed her baby’s funeral—a home burial on the Smith family farm. I remember she once said that Aunt Lucy, her oldest maternal aunt, bought a burial outfit. My father dug the grave beside that of his sister Myrtle’s son and buried the last male bearer of the Smith name in that branch of the family.

Clyde Wesley Pasley (left) who lived for a few weeks in 1924;
Robert Lee Smith (right) who was born and died on Jan. 17, 1941.

For years afterward, every January 17, my mother had a memorial notice placed in the Roanoke World-News on her son’s birthday. I was about six or seven when the last one was published. In her scrapbook, I found some memorials that she handwrote and some that she clipped from the paper.

In 1943, this appeared in the paper, “In loving memory of our dear baby, Robert Lee Smith, who died two years ago, January 17, 1941”:

Farewell little “Bobby,” a sad farewell.
Your loss on earth no tongue can tell;
Your stay on earth was short but sweet,
I hope in Heaven we shall meet.
Our life has never been the same,
Our home is lonely still.
We sometimes cannot understand
Why such should be God’s will.

When I was a child, Mama always called him “Little Brother” whenever she spoke of him. I have memories of visiting his grave when we visited the farm—sometimes Mama brought flowers from home to put on his little grave. Once she planted lily-of-the-valley which lived for a few years. When she was in her mid-80s, she wanted an angel for his grave, so we bought one. The last time she was able to get up the hill to see the grave was the day we placed Bobby’s angel in front of his tombstone.

My mother died April 17, 2004, a bright Saturday morning. She held onto life for as long as she could even though she was in extreme pain. She hadn’t lived in reality for a while at that point and didn’t know who I was. I had no experience with human death; I certainly wasn’t experienced in helping anyone cross over. I held her hand and encouraged her to go to the light but, always afraid of the unknown, she resisted.

Finally I said, “Bobby your baby is waiting for you. Go to the light and you’ll see Bobby.” She started to babble, “Bobby my baby, Bobby my baby,” over and over. And then she was gone.

Happy birthday, Little Brother. Thanks for being there when I needed you most.

On January 17, 1968, in First Methodist Church in Newport News, John and I were married. This January 17, we celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.



Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Letter From Afar

I received a fan letter in yesterday’s mail. Now this in itself is odd enough. As a primarily self-pubbed/print-on-demand author, my books aren’t widely distributed. Heck, they aren’t “distributed” at all, except to a few local shops. Granted, my POD books are on and, but somebody would have to know they’re there to actually find them.

My best-selling book (the self-pubbed Patches on the Same Quilt) has sold about 1,800 copies in seven years. This is not great. For a commercially published book, it would be abysmal. Had the Smith Mountain Arts Council not backed the first press run and set up appearances for me, Patches wouldn’t have sold as many copies as it did.

My POD books haven’t sold as well as Patches. The, ahem, “best seller” of the bunch—The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories—has only sold a little over 500 copies. Most of us who self-pub (or POD-pub) do so because our books fit small niche markets. Our readership is usually in our local area. Consequently, we don’t expect huge sales figures or whopping profits.

And those of us who are “under-published” usually don’t expect fan letters, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we get one. The one I got yesterday came from an 89-year-old WWII veteran who lives in Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia, and who had been given a copy of The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories by a woman who lives within 20 miles of me. They’d both been in Canada at a reunion of WWII training squadron; her father-in-law was a member of the RCAF.

“I have always loved short stories,” Mr. Taylor wrote, and went on to say how much he’d enjoyed “Chosen Child,” one of the longer stories in my collection. He mentions that he “several times burst out laughing.” He also told me he’d compiled a couple of books of his own stories, Taylor’s Tales, Vols. I, II, and III.

It’s always nice to hear from a fellow writer, and his letter made my day. Sometimes we don’t know how far our words will reach, and I’m humbled and appreciative that my words reached halfway round the world.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Literary Daze

The past week was a whirlwind of literary activities.

Friday was Lake Writers, where discussions are always stimulating, both in the meetings and at lunch afterwards. We decided that instead of an essay contest this year, we’d have a fiction contest. While one format was discussed at the meeting, a few of us doing lunch together decided that we needed to tighten some suggestions and loosen others, so we’d get entries but the entries would be easy to judge. We’re tossing ideas around via email until we arrive at something satisfactory to all (or most). Our waitress was a former student of mine from a couple decades ago (she still looks like a kid!). It’s always nice to see a former student. After lunch, some Ida B. Peevish fans asked me to sit at their table and visit, so I did. One had contributed a letter years ago.

Wednesday, I had a writers meeting in Rocky Mount and then I attended the Franklin County Library’s book club, which met at Ferrum College where Dr. Marcia Horn led a discussion about Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. About 18 attended. Marion, who was the first to discover the wonderful book, has already blogged about it. Marcia, a former colleague of mine from my adjunct instructor days and who teaches a Holocaust course, gave a lot of insights into the events surrounding the Holocaust. Part of the discussion was about whether such a thing could happen again, and participants listed places where it was (Rwanda, for instance).
I’ve read three interesting biographies this week. Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s biography, although she wasn’t involved in its writing. Charles J. Shields did meticulous research to reconstruct parts of her life. Since he used so many sources and attributions, the book is believable. But is she really how he portrayed her? I guess we’ll never know. Alan Alda’s Never Stuff Your Dog was a well-written autobiography that I enjoyed. He included many of life’s lessons that he learned, including not to stuff your dog. Marion lent me her copies of both these books.

Today, I finished Lucky, Alice Sebold’s memoir of her rape. I’d loved her debut novel, The Lovely Bones; now I understand where she was coming from when she wrote it. Amy H. lent me this book.

It's nice to have friends who read books that I like—and who'll lend them to me.

. . . I live in a world where the two truths coexist; where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand.

—the last line of Lucky, by Alice Sebold ( Little, Brown & company, 1999)

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Old Christmas 2008

January 6 is Old Christmas—the 12th day of Christmas. In rural Virginia, the day was unusually warm. Last year I posted the "Old Christmas" poem.

To celebrate this year's Old Christmas, Maggie plays with her favorite Christmas present that a neighbor gave her:

The ultimate border collie toy: a squeaky squirrel on a rope.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Reality Shows

I’ve been writing redneck humor since 1998 when Jeff Foxworthy was at his peak. I’d been a fan of the genre since I was a kid. I have fond memories of watching Tennessee Ernie Ford and Minnie Pearl on TV. Later, I loved the Andy Griffith Show. And even later, I’d loved the 1989 MMT production of Steel Magnolias and was impressed with the hairdresser/main character Truvy (played in the 1989 movie by Dolly Parton, a redneck icon if there ever was one).

Also, that redneck joke was floating around: Q. “How do you know you’re in a redneck town?” A. “You can buy live bait and rent videos at the same store.” I thought, what’s even more incongruous than live bait and videos? Live bait and beauty services!

Deciding that what America needed was a female redneck humorist, I originally created “Peevish Advice”—in which Ida B. Peevish, a Truvy-type advice-giving beautician, also sells live bait—as a one-shot humor article for Collage, a Roanoke publication I wrote for. My mythical town, Rock Bottom, was an exaggerated Mayberry populated with characters that were even quirkier than the original Mayberryites.

In 1998, I was also writing for Blue Ridge Traditions. When I hand-delivered a story I was submitting to the editor (this was pre-email), I showed her “Peevish Advice” to get her opinion. She wanted it for BRT, and it became a regular (or is that irregular?) column. At first, I wrote all the questions myself. Then readers (including several of my writer buddies) started sending in ideas.

When BRT changed hands and changed its focus to regional history and culture, the column no longer fit. In 2004, the Smith Mountain Eagle picked it up.

My column is, of course, fiction. But sometimes stuff I write about turns out to echo reality. For example, a few years ago when some lake buddies suggested I write about what to do about the geese problem at Smith Mountain Lake, the Slick Water Lake (a location added to my original setting because my lake buddies thought they were being left out) committees suggest “cove border collies.” A few months later, I read an article in the Roanoke Times about how a lake in another state used a border collie to herd the geese away.

But the strangest echo of reality was today's Roanoke Times article about a new reality show that starts January 11 on the CMT channel: My Big Redneck Wedding. For years, I’ve included occasional wedding advice in my column. (Should the bride’s dress been blaze orange or camo”? Blaze orange, of course, so she stands out.) Now actual weddings will probably feature some of the stuff I thought I created. And a lot more stuff that I didn’t even think of, doggone it!

From CMT :
MY BIG REDNECK WEDDING: Fistfights, shotguns, ATVs and John Deere dresses highlight these over-the-top weddings.

And from MovieWeb:
CMT is gearing up to premier its latest reality series entitled My Big Redneck Wedding. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the cable channel has ordered eight episodes of the show for air.
Each episode will feature a different wedding by the "most down-home country couples" as they prepare for their nuptials. The series will focus on the weddings' "rustic eccentricities," including a four-legged best man, a romantic beer-can canopy, a celebratory shotgun salute and a reception filled with mattress surfing and mud wrestling.

The series will debut January 11th, 2008, at 9:pm

“Rustic eccentricities.” I like that term.

When Pink Sneakers productions issued a casting call, they wanted a particular type couple. Reality Wanted gives the specific details about the ideal candidates (all participants have now been selected):

CMT is currently casting for the new series “My Big Redneck Wedding.” This show will document the planning and preparation it takes to pull off a truly fun, down-to-earth, redneck nuptial. From denim wedding dresses, to camouflage tuxedos, shotgun salutes, and arriving at the reception on an ATV—anything goes, as long as it’s rowdy and redneck!

We are currently looking for couples who:

  • Appear to be between the ages of 18 and 45.
  • Are planning a super redneck wedding.
  • Have set a date anywhere from September to December 2007.
  • Would like to share their lives and wedding day with us.
  • Are redneck and proud of it!

We are scheduled to begin shooting immediately so if you or anyone you know meets this criteria please email us. . . . Please be sure to include your name, contact information, wedding location, and a photo of the bride and groom.

I don’t have cable, so I probably won’t see the show unless one of my writer buddies surprises me with a tape.

Meanwhile, if you know any of the happy couples and have been wondering what to get them for a wedding present, may I suggest this.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Big Chill

You can read the full text of Shakespeare’s poem, “Winter,” from Love’s Labour’s Lost here, but several lines describe our recent weather:
When icicles hang by the wall . . . milk comes frozen home in pail . . .blood is nipp’d and ways be foul. . . when all aloud the wind doth blow. . . .

For a couple of days, the winds howled.

Last night, the temperature dropped into the teens. Tonight is supposed to be a new low.

I don’t have “icicles on the wall” (the winds dried up the recent rain) or milk frozen in the pail, but I do have ice in the horse tubs. Several inches of ice.

Watering wasn’t fun. I couldn’t get all the ice out of the tubs before I refilled.

Don’t know if my “blood is nipp’d,” but my fingers got really cold and my arthritis is making its presence known. I’d planned to go to Roanoke tonight, but figured I couldn’t drive well with achy legs.

And don’t even get me started on “ways be foul.”


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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sarah’s Key

Tuesday, I read a whole book—the first time I’ve ever done that since I was a kid.

For months, my writer buddy Marion has told me how good Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, is. Tuesday, I borrowed her copy. Once I started to read, I couldn’t stop. I finished it in less than eight hours.

Sarah’s Key is a novel about the Holocaust. But it’s set in France, and—while fiction—is based on a real event in which the French police cooperated with the Nazis by rounding up the French Jews, detaining them for a few days at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, and then separating families by sending them off to Poland.

Part of the story takes place in 1942 and is told in third person point of view about 10-year-old Sarah, who locks her brother in a closet when the police come for her family. She thinks he’ll be safe, and she’ll soon come back to get him. Only she can’t. After she finally escapes from the Vel’ d’Hiv’, and—with help from a French farm couple—it takes her weeks to get back to her apartment, which has since been rented to another family.

Part of the story takes place in 2002 (and later) and is told in first person by Julia Jarmond, a magazine writer assigned to write about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ and whose architect husband is renovating the old apartment that used to belong to Sarah’s family. Julia becomes obsessed with learning about the Jews who used to live in the apartment and what happened to them.

From the publisher’s website, here’s the synopsis:

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

Sarah’s Key is one of the most compelling books I’ve read lately. It has so many layers of meaning, so many intertwined themes and events.

The Franklin County Library selected Sarah’s Key for its next discussion. Looks like I'll be attending the meeting next week.