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.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Old Farm, New Farm

Philemon Sutherland—some sources give his name as Southerland—was one of the pioneer settlers of Franklin County. You can see where he was on this part of the settlers’ map of Franklin County.

His 700-acre plantation was located between where I currently live and my Union Hall farms. The pictures below are how some of his fields look like now.

 Philemon Sutherland was born before 1758 in Prince Edward County, which is a few counties east of Franklin County. He and his brother William—they were known as Phil and Bill—enlisted in Captain John Morton’s rifle company at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. They were to serve a two-year term. The company marched to Norfolk and then went to Philadelphia, where Phil joined General Washington’s army and was in the Battle of Trenton in December 1776. Then he was apparently mustered into Daniel Morgan’s division and fought in the Battle of Brandywine. At some point, while the brothers were up north, Bill was killed. (For a while, there was some confusion as to which brother had been killed.)

Phil served out his two years and returned home to Prince Edward County. But he again volunteered and “marched to Little York in Virginia, and aided in and was present at the capture of Cornwallis [19 Oct 1781].”

After the war, Phil married Frances “Fanny” Penick, daughter of William and Judith Penick, on 9 April 1782 in Prince Edward County. They were soon living in Franklin County, where their children were born: Polly (1782), Nancy (abt. 1783), Ransom (abt. 1787), Philemon II (abt. 1789), Judith (1791), Joseph (abt. 1797), Anna (20 May 1799), Hope Ann (abt. 1800), and Louise Keziah (23 Nov. 1806).

From various online sources, I know that he was fairly wealthy. The inventory of what he owned when he died on 11 July 1811 covers pages 450 to 454 of the Franklin County Will Book 1 that covered the years from September 1786 to July 1812. It’s also online, here:

He must have been a learned man. The books he owned included a Johnson’s dictionary, 2 Bibles, and English reader and Bible, 3 volumes of Davies’ sermons and 1 of Martin Luther’s, Watt’s hymn book, a Guthries grammar, and others.

At the time of his death, he owned considerable livestock: a yoke of work bulls and a yoke of steers, 26 head of cattle (and an additional 2 cows), 26 head of sheep, 65 head of hogs, and 10 pigs. He also owned 9 horses: a black mare, a bay mare, a sorrel filly, 2 sorrel horses (I assume “horse” means gelding), 2 bay horses, a sorrel stud, and a bay stud colt.

He also owned slaves: Ephraim, Ned, Isaac, Peter, Riley, Hercules, Abednigo, Andrew, Eady and her child Betsey, Agnes, Dicey, Milley, and Jane.

Phil died in 1811, leaving his widow Fanny with 14-year-old Joseph, 12-year-old Anna, 10-year-old Hope Ann, and 5-year-old Louise at home. Daughters Polly and Nancy had married a few years earlier. Were any of the older sons still at home, or had they married also? How did Fanny manage? Might this have been the house where she bore and raised her children and lived out her life? Or was this dwelling built later?

Fanny never remarried. In March of 1840, when she was in her mid-70s, she applied for a widow’s pension. (In 1838, Congress had passed an act “granting half pay and pensions to certain widows” of Revolutionary War veterans.) She died in 1863.

Part of Phil and Fanny Sutherland's old farm is now our new farm. My husband and I recently acquired 120 acres of what was once part of the Sutherland plantation.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Cover Cabin Door

Because I'm self-publishing Them That Go, an Appalachian coming-of-age novel, I'm responsible for lots of things besides just writing the book. One is cover design. Luckily, I know a guy who is adept at Photoshop and who can translate my ideas into something workable. But getting the cover just right takes time. I wanted to use a cabin door on the cover—specifically, the door on this cabin:

The above picture of my grandparents' home was taken in 1946. My grandmother is in front. The cabin isn't in such good shape anymore.  Recently, I posted the picture on Facebook for "Throwback Thursday," and several folks thought I should us it as the cover.

But the family cabin doesn't fit the novel. While it's a double-pen cabin with a dogtrot between the pens like the cabin in my book, the similarity ends there. The cabin in my book has a front porch. It has woods in front with a path going to it. A high mountain looms over it. My grandparents' cabin is not in a "holler" like the one in my book, so it's not going to be on the cover—just its door.

Here are some passages from Them That Go in which Annie, the 17-year-old narrator, mentions the cabin: 

  After I change out of my school clothes, I head deeper into the holler to see how Aint Lulie is doing. When the weather is warm, she will either be sitting on her front porch or else standing in her cabin door. But she is always waiting for me. “Come in, Honey, I swear you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she will always say.

  Annie provides some history of the cabin here:

 Aint Lulie’s cabin is a double-pen with an enclosed dogtrot between the two rooms. The part she mostly lives in was built around 1790 when Absalom Byrne, who’d seen the area a decade earlier when he was in the Revolutionary War, came over the mountains with his new wife and settled down. He’d gotten his land patent a year or two before, girded the trees so they’d die and be ready to cut and build with, and he’d picked out his cabin spot near a spring and sheltered by the mountain. He’d dragged big rocks near to where he’d build his cabin so he’d have foundation stones and chimney stones waiting. That fall he went back to Botetourt County, stockpiled some supplies, married his intended, and by early spring they had started for their new home.
My grandparents' cabin—at least the pen to the left—was built around 1852 by the previous owner, William Bernard. Later my grandfather covered the logs with clapboards from his sawmill. I don't say whether the cabin in the novel is clapboarded or not.

Annie's description of the interior and part of the outside:
The cookstove is . . .  on the opposite side of the fireplace from where we sit and the stovepipe connects it to the chimney. Aint Lulie has banked its fire for the night. After I leave, she will bank the fire in the fireplace and go to bed. She will not let the fire go out. “Not letting a fire go out is a sign of always having everything you need,” she says. She is a great believer in signs.

This room where we sit snug near the fire has all Aint Lulie needs. Besides the cookstove and fireplace, there’s her bed, a chest, a pie safe, a table with two chairs, a rocking chair, a cupboard, a washstand near the back door, and rows of shelves along one wall where she keeps some of the things she’s canned. Two iron skillets and some pans hang from the wall near the stove.

She keeps her clothes and her flour barrel and things she doesn’t use everyday in the other room, which also has a bed and dresser. As far as I know, no one has ever slept in that bed during my lifetime. But the bed is ready should it be needed. When I once asked her why she never builds a fire in there, she replied, “It’ud be a waste of good wood with nobody in there to keep warm.”

Some things from her garden—potatoes and cabbages and apples and dried herbs—are in the loft where it’s cooler. If it gets too cold, she climbs the steep steps and covers them with an old quilt so they won’t freeze. She keeps her slop jar in the dogtrot, for privacy I reckon. But she mainly uses it only at night or if it’s too cold or rainy for her to go to the outhouse.

The room where she does most of her living has a front door and window that both face the road, which you can’t see because of all the trees. In the old days, a pasture and some cleared cropland was there, but there’s no longer a need for such. Scott would have cleared the woods and pastured his cows there if he’d lived, but that won’t happen now.
     Aint Lulie’s back door faces her garden spot and the mountain, and there’s a narrow path that branches on the right to the outhouse and on the left to the spring. Aint Lulie still uses the spring sometimes even though she has the pump near the house. She’s not one to let go of the old ways.

A main theme of the novel is about staying and going. According to Aint Lulie, "There's always been them that go and them that stay in ever' generation." People use a door to come (and stay a while) or to go. The door is important in a few scenes.

So, what does the front cover look like? Here 'tis:

The novel should be available in a few weeks. Stay tuned to this blog for updates.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Welcome Back

If you enjoyed Lin Stepp's novel Saving Laurel Springs (that I blogged about last August), you'll likely enjoy her latest romance novel in the Smoky Mountain series, Welcome Back. Both are about women who are returning to a situation they left, both are rich in family values and a strong sense of place, and both leave you feeling good.


In Welcome Back, 48-year-old Lydia Cunningham returns to the family orchard in Maggie, North Carolina, after living and working for the past decade in Atlanta. She'd left her family because she could no longer tolerate living in the same house as her overbearing and abusive mother-in-law. Lydia's husband John—who had promised his dying father he'd look after his mother—seemingly did nothing to stop the verbal abuse of Lydia and their four children. Lydia found a job she loved working at a college in Atlanta, and soon she was joined by her three teenage sons. Her daughter, whose grandmother turned against Lydia, stayed behind with her father. For ten years, sons had no contact with their family and daughter was estranged from her mother. The two sides did not see each other during that decade, although John sent child support payments to Lydia, and Lydia wrote to her daughter Mary Beth, who often didn't get the letters. But now Lydia's abusive mother-in-law has died, and the family land might be in financial trouble. . . .

So—there's conflict and estrangement within a family. A lot of wounds to be healed. All this makes for considerable family tension and leads to some interesting plot developments.  I'm not going to give those away, but I will reveal that there's a "ghost" and a couple of calico kittens. Welcome Back is an enjoyable and suspense-filled read.

Chloe like the calico kittens part.

One of the things I like best about Welcome Back is its sense of place. The family orchard and homeplace are important to many of the characters, but the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains play an important part in the story.

The theme of the book is probably best captured in this line (p. 121 of the Advance Reader Copy that I received): "You have to face your ghosts, your fears, and banish them." A good message for all of us.

Arlo contemplates the book.

Welcome Back will be released by Kensington in a few weeks, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon.

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Monday, February 08, 2016

More of What Doesn't Work

Warning: Another in a multitude of posts about self-publishing, so you're likely to be bored if you're not an "under-published" writer like I am. But I included pictures of cats.

"Doing more of what doesn't work
 won't make it work any better."

I heard a professor say this in a class I took in the mid-80s for teacher recertification. I can't remember his name, only that he taught at UVA.

No matter how many times George tries, he's not going to fit in that box.

Recently, I was reminded of what doesn't work for self-pubbed writers when I read a HuffPost article, "Dear Self-Published Author: Do NOT Write Four Books a Year." From the article:

Beyond the fact that the marketplace is glutted with an overwhelming number of books already (many of dubious quality), writing good books simply takes time, lots of it. There's no getting around that time. It involves learned skills, unhurried imagination, fastidious drafting, diligent editing, even the time to step away, then step back, to go over it all again. And, unless you're a hack (and we know there are plenty of those out there), isn't the whole point of this exercise to write good books?
I'd recently become aware of some of these articles about cranking out books to keep your name out there. But if you're a self-pubbed author, your name isn't "out there." It's hidden.

I'm also aware that some authors can crank out several books a year, and that some of the books are worth reading. Author John Scalzi, who refuted the above article in "How Many Books You Should Write in a Year"  apparently can do that. His post is worth a read. So is Larry Correia's "Fisking the HuffPo, because writers need to GET PAID." But Scalzi and Correia are pros who earn money writing and their goals are to write books that readers enjoy and will pay for. The more they write and the faster they write them, the more they will earn. They're not self-pubbed writers who have no fan base (outside of family and friends) and who are unknown by most potential readers.

Apparently, lots of self-pubbers are cranking out books. A 2014 Publisher's Weekly article reports that there were over 450,000 books self-pubbed in 2013—and that doesn't include Kindle books. How many were multiple books from the same author is anybody's guess.

The Big Three in 2013 were Amazon’s CreateSpace which registered 186,926 ISBNs last year, followed by Smashwords which registered 85,500 ISBNs and Lulu which had 74,787 ISBNs. The different Author Solutions divisions had 44,574 ISBNs.
Author Solutions is, as many already know, a vanity-publishing conglomerate, not a real self-publisher. Its imprints want big money for their publishing "services." But I'm digressing.

The fact remains that self-pubbed authors face a lot of competition from a glut of books. And most won't be successful. This article, "Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon," pertains to Kindle but can probably also be applied to self-pubbed print books. A Publishers Weekly's story from last fall, "New Guild Survey Reveals Majority of Authors Earn Below Poverty Line" doesn't bode well either.

If some authors are cranking out four books a year, how do they have time to promote them? From my own (albeit limited) experience, I know the main way I sell my books is directly to the reader at book-signings or presentations. A lot of the buyers are friends. I couldn't ask my friends to buy four books a year from me. While some could afford it, a lot can't.

I confess that I'm a slow writer. Them That Go—which I began in 2007, finished in January, and is on track to be self-pubbed via CreateSpace at the end of this month—is likely to be my last book. I can't see myself doing more of —well, you know.

If self-pubbing isn't working especially well for most of the 450,000, why are so many doing so much more of what doesn't work?

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Reading Appalachian Fiction

While I was writing my Appalachian novel, I avoided reading fiction so I wouldn't be influenced by what I read. Now that the novel is in a time-out phase before I self-publish it, I've gone back to reading. I really had a hankering to read Appalachian lit.

For some reason, I hadn't read one of Sharyn McCrumb's earlier ballad novels, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. While it was published in 1992 and is out of print (in actual print), an e-version was recently made available—with a beguiling cover.

But I'd recently acquired an old copy, so that's what I read.

The book is flat-out, doggone good! For one thing, the two-sentence opening paragraph could be a lesson in how to write good openers:
Nora Bonesteel was the first to know about the Underhill family. Death was no stranger to Dark Hollow, but Nora Bonesteel was the only one who could see it coming.
It includes who (Nora Bonestell, the Underhills), where (Dark Hollow), and what (death, and Nora Bonesteel's ability to see it coming). It piques the reader's interest—how did the Underhills die? and how did Nora know? Since I wanted to know, I kept reading. And reading. I finished the book in two days—with a little encouragement from my kitty friends, Tanner and his sidekick Arlo.

This book is one of McCrumb's ballad series that features Nora Bonesteel, a mountain woman who has "the sight." I'd read about Nora in other books and found her an intriguing character.

Sharyn McCrumb gives an introduction to The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter on her website. Once you read it, you'll want to read the book.

While The Kirkus Review gives a concise summary of the plot, they miss the point on the prose by a country mile. Unlike the Kirkus reviewer, I found McCrumb's prose riveting.

According to the Publisher's Weekly review, "McCrumb weaves Appalachian folklore and death, in natural and unnatural forms, into a story that meanders like a mountain stream through the hills of east Tennessee before rushing to its turbulent conclusion." That pretty much sums it up, but a lot of interconnected events happen in the book, and McCrumb brings them together masterfully.

The book is a page turner. If you like Appalachian lit (my favorite kind), consider this a must read.

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