Peevish Pen

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

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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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
—A.E. Houseman

My cheery tree has more blooms than I've ever seen on it before. In the eight or nine years since we planted this tree, it's never produced many cherries. This year, at least, the profusion of blooms promises a bountiful crop.

Spring is all about promises. From elsewhere in my yard. . . .

The bridal wreath also promises  many blooms.

The crape myrtle is devoid of blooms now, but they'll come later. Right now it is not devoid of Chloe the kitty, who clings to one of the branches.

The dogwood branches are still mostly bare. But there's just a hint of green on the tips.

A slip from Granny Sallie's lilac, that I transplanted from Smith Farm spring before last, is doing well and promises blooms. This is an old-timey lilac with a wonderfully sweet  fragrance.

The oaks are mostly bare, but—if you look closely—you can see they have a tiny bit of green.


A few tulips are up at the old gazebo. In a few weeks, it will be surrounded by lush greenery.

The peach tree near the mailbox is loaded with blooms, too. It was supposed to be an ornamental peach, but it produces small and sweet fruit.

A little primrose that I planted last year survived the winter.

The redbud will be covered in blooms in a week or so.

The violets are already blooming everywhere. So many blooms to look at; and I've already used up three score and four of my years. 

Every spring, I can't look at everything hard enough.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

This Pleasant Land

Two weeks ago, when I was doing a book-signing at Ferrum College, I purchased a book from Jean Thomas Schaeffer, who was among the other book-signers.  She didn't have a book of her own, though; she had This Pleasant Land: A Blue Ridge History that her late father, Max S. Thomas, had written.

Because I'm interested in Blue Ridge history, I bought the book. I'm glad I did. Thomas's posthumously published recollection about the Walnut Knob area of Franklin and Floyd counties was a delight.

Thomas's bio, on the back cover, establishes his credential to write the history of his region:

As I read, I loved traveling back in time to learn how the region had changed since it's settlement in the late 1700's. Thomas's research was not based on material dug out of books, but on oral histories from his family and neighbors. From page 1 of the Introduction:

As a kid, I'd get around and make friends with old folks, give 'em a start and they'd tell a lot. All of my grandparents were born in the first half of the 1800s, and they passed on to me, as a boy, information from themselves and from their parents and grandparents—information going back to the time of the 1700s. Some of the first settlers in this part of the Blue Ridge were their grandparents.

Thus begins a book rich in both history and culture of the area. I won't go into all the info in the book—you can see the table of contents on the Harvestwood Press site. The book is very readable—like having a conversation with Mr. Thomas—and it's a treasure for those of us who love the Blue Ridge. I heartily recommend it.

One delightful surprise (for me, at least) is that Thomas's book answered a question I'd been asking for more than a year: When did mules first appear in the Blue Ridge? 

Why was I asking this question? Last March, I reviewed a book set in the Blue Ridge area in the 1760s—in which a mountain settler owned a mule. Although I liked that book, I was pretty sure that mules weren't in the Blue Ridge that early; after all, they didn't become popular work animals until after George Washington began breeding them in 1785. I was pretty sure that oxen and horses were the only work animal options. But I could never find a reference to when the mule appeared—until I read Thomas's book.

"Chapter 7—The Middle Years (1820-1869)" provided my answer.  From the third paragraph on page 19: "There were more farm animals than earlier, and horses were replacing yokes of oxen. Perhaps the biggest change in farming was the introduction of the mule." So the mules came to the Blue Ridge after 1820. Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for answering my question.

This Pleasant Land is available from Harvestwood Press for $15.95. If you're interested in a copy, e-mail

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring 2010 Arrives

According to the calendar, spring officially arrived last Saturday. However, the first sign of spring in my world didn't arrive until Tuesday.  How do I know spring is here?

Is it when the snow is gone and the grass turns green and the cats cavort in the warm air?

No. Is it when the crocuses bloom?

No. Is it when the tulips pop up?

No. Is it when the daffodils bloom?

No. Is it when the windflowers bloom?

No. Maybe when the forsythia blooms?

No. When the phlox booms, maybe?

No, no, no.

Spring officially begins when Emma, the senior dog. . .

. . . gets her makeover, and emerges from her shaggy winter self into her sleek spring self:

Yes, that is the same dog. (One of Emma's previous spring makeovers is here.) Emma is not—as a nice lady in the vet's reception room asked—pregnant. Emma, who has never had an actual waistline, is pudgy.

But the sheared Emma is the one true definite sign of spring around these parts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Neat Stuff

While I was in Roanoke today, I stopped by the city market building where my buddy Susan Alkadhra has a really neat shop, Gone Coco. She was having a half-price sale, so I couldn't resist this all-cotton jacket. I really like its patchwork look.

And, the best part—it's reversible.

Susan, who is an accomplished spinner and knitter (as well as the inspiration for my book Ferradiddledumday), gave me a woolen pillow that she'd knitted from scraps. It has all my favorite colors and is wonderfully soft.

Here's the other side.

I love it when I come home with neat stuff. Dylan, the senior male cat, had to inspect what I'd brought in. He found something he thought was pretty neat, too—the bag:

To each his—or her—own when it comes to neat stuff.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

2010 Publishers Day

I always like to go to Virginia Festival of the Book on Publishers Day, which is held on Saturday of the weeklong festival. The Omni is packed with writers and readers, browsing and attending workshops.

This year, since I have a new book, I spent much of the day sitting in the atrium at the Cedar Creek Publishing table with two other Cedar Creek representatives.

Me, Laura Thompson, and Sally Honenberger. Photo by Linda Layne. 

Since I was promoting Ferradiddledumday, my Appalachian version of Rumpelstiltskin, I decorated my section of the table with my down-home dood-dads—the quilt and assorted critters. The sleeping horse that snores (Thanks, Polly & Robyn!) was a big hit with several children who passed by:

Folks come from all over Virginia to attend the Festival. I saw several old friends, such as Fred First who wrote the wonderful Slow Road Home and blogs at Fragments from Floyd.

I met some new friends, too, such as Michelle Erich from the Slushbusters blog. In fact, she posted my picture on her account of the festival.

I always love to wander among the numerous displays and check out the new books and displays. One table that caught my eye was my first introduction to the steampunk genre—Nick Valentino's  steampunk adventure novel, Thomas Riley. That table attracted lots of visitors.

I slipped away from my table and the exhibits to catch a couple of SCBWI presentations, both of which I enjoyed. "Terrific Kids' Novels Adults Will Love Too," featured Kathy Erskine (Mockingbird), Fran Cannon Slayton (When the Whistle Blows), Sara Lewis Holmes (Operation Yes), Sue Corbett (The Last Newsboy in America), and Irene Latham (Leaving G's Bend).

I was familiar with only two of the authors. I'd attended a workshop that Sara Lewis Holmes had done at the 2008 CNU conference and had read (and loved!) her Letters from Rapunzel. I've crossed paths with Sue Corbett a couple of times; her Twelve, Again was one of the first paranormal middle grade books I read (and loved!) I have a feeling that I'll be ordering and reading all five books featured at the presentation.

The other SCBWI presentation was "Getting Published—Picture Books to Young Adult," with agent/author Laura Rennert and authors Deborah Heiligman, Bonnie Doerr, Emily Ecton, and Ruth Spiro. It was interesting to hear how the authors were published. (And also interesting that several years ago, I'd queried Ferradiddledumday to Laura Rennert, and she'd rejected it very nicely.)

The presentation I attended was the "Agents Roundtable" with Laura Rennert, Jenny Bent (another agent from her agency had rejected my middle grade manuscript not long ago), Erin Cox, and Simon Lipskar. The general theme of their presentation was stated by Lipskar: It's a challenging time for book publishing, but agents are all looking for great books. I didn't learn much new from this panel, but I've heard a lot of agents speak at various conferences through the years. 

The picture I took before the presentation began was interesting—lots of orbs overhead and a strange glowing white thing at the left:


I can't explain the weird things in the picture, so I'll leave it to you—were those orbs the ghosts of books that died because agents rejected them?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Writer Stuff Continues

I'm on a writerly roll lately.

Last Tuesday, I signed copies of Ferradiddledumday at Ferrum College's Women's Leadership Conference. Four authors had a table in Franklin Hall, where most of the conference events were held.

I taught at Ferrum from 1999 to 2006, so it was nice to return and visit former colleagues. It was also nice not to have to tote books in; the college bookstore ordered 25 copies; I signed fifteen for buyers and the rest will go onto the bookstore shelves.

Today, some of my winnings from the CNU contest arrived:

 This is the first trophy clock I've ever won. I think it's a really cool clock. My check should arrive next week—which will also be really cool.

The coolest thing, though, were judge's comments about my entry, "The Query Letter From Helen," in which a clueless author wanna-be with a failing marriage queries a publisher in all the wrong ways.

Here's what the judge said:

This is a truly hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny story, beautifully done and just so delightful. The way Helen's marital humiliation is woven in is deft and so much fun; there is even an astonishing poignancy to the work-in-progress of her efforts to integrate her catastrophes into her art, even as we laugh and laugh. I think the story overreaches at moments, trying too hard at a few points for laughs that are too easy; but as a whole this is simply fantastic, a perfect comic tour de force with a surprisingly potent resonance for any aspiring writer. 

Kind of makes my day—which was already a pretty good day, since I spent it at Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. But I'll blog about that tomorrow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Another Bookish Week

Warning: Writer stuff again!

I've been on the road again. Last Tuesday, I visited the Piedmont Writers Group in Martinsville. I'd visited before, so I knew I'd be among a good group of ladies. Some of them have books; others have books-in-progress. I spoke about my publishing experiences—self, vanity, and small press—and read a bit from Ferradiddledumday. Then I answered questions. Like my last trip, I had a good time.

Thursday, I traveled farther—to Newport News for the CNU Writers Conference. The conference actually started on Friday afternoon, but I didn't want to have to leave at the crack of dawn, so I drove down on Thursday afternoon. I've attended several CNU conferences, but was unable to attend last year's because of health problems. I always stay with my former roommate from college, but this time—because of water problems that prevented flushing and showering—I stayed with her daughter.

Brian Haig, the keynote speaker, provided an excellent "Strategy for Fiction" workshop Friday night. Another good workshop was Sean Heuvel's "Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs . . . For Writers." Basically, a writer needs all of these to help with book promotion. Even though I use all three, I still learned some new things.

Later Friday evening, I was one of the open mike readers. Naturally, I spent my five minutes reading from Ferradiddledumday. Friday night was also the "One Page Critique" session, in which an agent and an editorial assistant commented on the offerings. I'd submitted the opening from my YA work-in-progress. The critiquers didn't care for it—the main characters (jock and the cheerleader and nerdy girl) were clichés, 1972 isn't appropriate as a setting because YAs aren't interested in the 70s and want contemporary settings, etc.  Since I'm only 10 chapters in, abandoning this book (or rewriting as mainstream fiction) is no big deal.

Meanwhile, on his Friday "Arts and Extras" blog, Roanoke Times arts writer Mike Allen wrote about Ferradiddledumday. His post is archived here.

On Saturday, I had a session with the editorial assistant for the first 10 pages of my MG novel. Since I'd workshopped chapter 1 two years ago with a New York editor who'd loved it and encouraged me to take it in certain directions, I hope the editorial assistant would like it, too. Nope—her comments were the exact opposite of what the editor had told me two years ago at CNU. Hmmm. Whom to believe?

I skipped the last session—and the awards ceremony—Saturday afternoon so I could make it home before dark. I have enough trouble seeing at night without the possibility of rain—and rain was predicted. When I told one of the organizers, I was leaving, she implored me to stay. I'd entered two stories in the writing contest—fiction and juvenile fiction—but I'd never won at CNU before so I couldn't see staying.

Fortunately, I made it within 40 miles of home before the hard rain hit, and I made it home before dark. Waiting for me was an e-mail from a friend who stayed through the ceremony. She congratulated me on taking first place in the fiction category. Now I can look forward to receiving a check in the mail.

Sunday afternoon, I journeyed to Roanoke for my SCBWI crit group. Our policy is to e-mail our pages to the others a few days before we meet, so we can have time to critique. (We don't waste time reading our work to the others, so our whole meeting time is used for in-depth discussion.) Only four of us were there, but we had a good meeting. I'm impressed at how well everyone's work is progressing.

Another writerly week down. In the coming week, I'll do a booksigning at Ferrum College's Women's Leadership Conference on Tuesday, pop into a Valley Writers meeting in Roanoke on Thursday, and hit the road for Charlottesville and Festival of the Book on Saturday to signing copies of Ferradiddledumday at the Cedar Creek Publishing table.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Bookish Week

Warning: Another post about writing activities.

For more than a week, I've been involved in (or with) writing-related stuff. It's been great. That's why I haven't posted for a while. Here's what I've been doing:

On Friday, February 26, Lake Writers met at the Westlake Library. Much of the meeting was involved in discussions about writing related things. A few people read some of their latest work and the rest of us gave them some suggestions, but most of the meeting was just sharing news and discussing various aspects of writing. A good meeting.

On Saturday, February 27, fellow Lake Writers Sally Roseveare and Karen Wrigley and I participated in an "Ask the Authors" session at the Bluebird Bakery and Grill in Downtown Moneta. This was the first author event that the Bluebird had done, so no one quite knew what to expect. The bakery area where we spoke  was packed. (Sally blogged about it here.) I was going to take pictures but my camera batteries were dead, although John had recently recharged them.

We'd hoped that a lot of the audience would be aspiring writers, but most were readers. No problem there—but not too many asked questions. We three read from our recently published books and talked about our experiences in getting published, where we got ideas, etc. Naturally, we had plenty of copies of our books with us:

Sally's latest book is Secrets at Sweetwater Cove
a Smith Mountain Lake murder mystery.

Beyond Woofs and Whinnies is a collection of messages 
from animals Karen's communicated with.

 My book (as you've read on this blog many times lately) is Ferradiddledumday
an Appalachian version of Rumpelstiltskin.

The interesting thing about our books is that they all result from help from Lake Writers. I was the first reader ("literary mid-wife") for Karen's book several years ago, and I was the one that suggested the title. My forte is diction, syntax, and other English teacher stuff. Karen and I spent a lot of time at coffee shops, my kitchen table, her table, etc. going over the manuscript. Sally—who has an eagle eye when it comes to spotting typos—was the last "literary midwife" for Karen's book.

I was an early reader for Sally's book, too. While I tore apart an early version of her first book (Secrets at Spawning Run) and Arrrgggghhed! at her cliches, I couldn't find anything major wrong with her second. Heck, I found very few minor things, and I was amazed how well her plot was crafted.

Ferradiddledumday began a few years before there was a Lake Writers, but I found my illustrator—Bruce Rae—at Lake Writers. In 2005, I handed him the manuscript and said, "You want to see what you can do with this?"

On Tuesday, March 2, my neighbor Claudia Condiff and I had planned to attend Sharyn McCrumb's presentation at Trinity Church, but the surprise snowfall dumped close to four inches by Tuesday night and roads were slick. Hence, we were snowed in. Here's how my oak tree looked when I went to feed about 4 PM:

Luckily, by Wednesday's Pen Women luncheon, the roads were clear. The grass and trees were covered when I left home, but—by the time I reached Roanoke—the snow was gone. Pen Women had a show & tell session instead of a speaker. Two members had new books: Ethel Born's book about rural postal deliveries was already out and president Peggy Shifflett's book, The Living Room Bed, will be out in mid-March.

On Thursday night, I returned to Roanoke for a Valley Writers meeting. We conducted some necessary business regarding the club's website, but most of the meeting consisted of readings followed by comments.

On Saturday, March 6, Karen and Sally and I had a book-signing at The General Store at Westlake. We were joined by Barbara Roberts, who had a new book, Not in My Wildest Dreams.

We four had a good time at The General Store. And those little quiches that owner Rita fed us were scrumptious.

Here I am at The General Store.

All in all, not a bad eight days. And next week, I'll be even busier!