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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

To Read or Not To Read

Since I'm get elderly and don't have as much time left as I used to, I'm getting pickier in my reading selections—or at least in what kind of novels I don't want to read.

I don't want to read about misery. I did a blog-post about that back in 2008: I don't want to read about abuse to children or animals. I don't want to read about graphic violence, so I don't want a blow by blow description of someone's murder/torture/decapitation/etc. I don't want to read horror (though I used to love Stephen King) because there's enough real horror in the world. I can tolerate a little misery in my fiction as long as it isn't too bad and something good comes out of it, but I don't need a misery overload. (Some novels I've recently read and liked that included some misery were Necessary Lies, The Eduction of Dixie Dupree, and In the Unlikely Event, but those novels had a lot of redeeming value, too.)

I'm not keen on science fiction (unless Ray Bradbury wrote it), and—though I used to watch Star Trek and Next Generation every week—I'm not interested in reading about space travel. I'm not much into thrillers (the exception being a Lee Child novel). I'll read an occasional romance, but I want it to be realistic and non-formulaic—and have  characters I can actually identify with and a small town setting, like this one.

I don't want to read a novel that isn't nicely wrapped up at the end. I don't want to have to read the next in a series to find out what happens to characters I've come to care about. A sequel is fine—same characters but different story line, or same setting but different characters—but I want that sequel to also have a logical ending. I hate cliffhangers.

I don't want to read a novel that's loaded with errors. While I'll forgive the occasional typo in a self-published book (Heck—I recently corrected a dozen of them in Them That Go a year after it was published!), I don't forgive continuing misuse of punctuation. Recently, I almost bought a book on Amazon whose description made me think I'd enjoy it. Then I "looked inside" and saw that the author had repeatedly used a hyphen with a space on either side when she meant a dash and—in several places—had put periods and commas outside quotation marks when she wasn't British. Plus she'd started the book with a description of the character driving somewhere. Nothing actually happened for the couple of pages I read before I decided I wouldn't waste my money or my time with that book.

I don't want to read a novel where characters speak every word in phonetically-spelled dialect. I'm picky about dialogue.  I want word choice, grammar, and sentence structure—and only occasionally a phonetically spelled word—to reflect the characters' dialect. Earlier this year, I encountered a self-published Appalachian novel where the characters spoke long sentences with an occasional grammatical error inserted. There were no regional expressions, and the dialogue didn't ring true.

I don't want to read a novel where situations don't ring true either. In the above self-published novel,  a couple of children (who were looking after a relative's ill-tempered workhorse) tried to get the horse out of a shed where it was eating cow feed. They dropped a pitchfork from the roof into the horse's tail, twisted the handle so it stayed in the horse's tail, and then tried to pull the horse out by the handle. The horse backed out, but ran off while the pitchfork kept pricking its hindquarters.

Books with mistakes where horses are concerned really bother me. Having owned horses from 1977 until until six months ago, I know a good bit about them. I found several problems with that scene: (1) A farmer is not likely to keep a bad-tempered horse that won't stand while he hitches it. Trying to plow with an uncooperative horse would be a disaster. (2) A pitchfork twisted into a horse's tail won't twist very far because of the tailbone. (3) An ill-tempered horse would have kicked the daylights out of the kids. (4) Even if a pitchfork could have been twisted into a horse's tail, the horse would have stepped on the handle when it backed out and dislodged the pitchfork itself. (5) The horse would likely have foundered from eating all that cow feed—didn't those farm kids consider that?

Another self-published novel I read a few years ago had some people, allegedly knowledgeable about horses, find a wandering Tennessee Walker with its legs wrapped in plastic wrap. They go on for a bit about how the horse was sored, how horrible soring is, how they need to call a vet, etc.—but they didn't take off the plastic wrap and hose off the horse's legs so it might get some relief. And, the reader eventually learns, neither did the guy who—in order to save the horse from mistreatment—took the horse from a barn where it had been sored and released it in a neighborhood where it would be found. Why didn't he take off the wrap?

Though I am now horseless, I still like to read novels that have horses as characters. But I don't care for books in which the author has no clue about equine nature. I liked most of Year of Wonders  by Geraldine Brooks, but when I got to the part where the young woman canters bareback through the town while carrying a baby and her belongings, and then this: "I was halfway down the road and going at a canter, when I realized that I could not let it end so. I turned then in the saddle and saw him standing there, his gray eyes fixed on me. I raise my hand to him. He lifted his in return. And then [the horse] reached the bend that leads to the Bakewell road, and I had to turn away and give all my attention to the downhill gallop."

So—she turns away from the direction the horse is going and raises one hand, leaving the other hand to secure the baby (which fortunately sleeps through all this) AND guide the fast-moving horse. Then she gallops the horse down a long steep slope while carrying a baby (which is tied to her via a sling) and her belongings (which might have been tied to the saddle, but surely the galloping would cause them to flop up and down). Scenes like this are accidents waiting to happen. You don't gallop down a very steep hill unless you want to experience the horse somersaulting. You let the horse carefully pick its way down.

Another novel I read years ago—by a big-name author, no less—had a woman put her horse in an otherwise empty barn that she'd come across and leave the horse for a couple of days while she hid out elsewhere—and the horse was fine when she returned.

A best-seller that I reviewed here thought that General Lee's horse Traveller was a mare, not a gelding. Arrggh! (You can tell from the picture below that Traveller was not a mare.)

(Note: Authors who don't know much about equines might take a look at these links to articles about writing about horses:,, and Or they should ask a horse person for advice.

So—what do I want to read? I like Appalachian and Southern lit. I like novels with a strong main character who accomplishes something. That character should also be likeable. I like characters who are three dimensional and believable. I like a definite setting—I don't care if it's made up, but it should seem like a real place. And I like a well-crafted and believable plot. If the book is historical fiction, I want accuracy.

And I want a happy ending.

If you have any recommendations for books I might like, please leave love the titles in the comments.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The F&P Railroad

From 1880 until 1932, the Franklin & Pittsylvania Railroad ran through what is now my front yard and slowed down at the Novelty Depot to grab a mailbag from a hook and toss off another. The narrow gauge railroad, which made its first run on April 16, 1880, ran thirty-one miles from Rocky Mount in Franklin County to Gretna (then called Franklin Junction and later Elba) in Pittsylvania County. (The railroad's timeline is here.)

The rails probably went through this section of my lawn to the Novely Depot in the distance.
The road at left was once the old Louis Island Road.

Nicknamed "the Fast and Perfect" by locals, it was neither neither fast nor perfect. Beset by many problems, it never even made a profit. But the stories about it are pretty interesting—and Tex D. Carter has done a commendable job documenting some of these stories, as well as giving a brief history of the railroad, in his 35-page self-published book, The Old Fast & Perfect. (He plans a larger book in the future.) Available from Carter when he does presentations and also from Amazon, the book gives an interesting glimpse into a part of local history. 

This page from his book features a photo of the locomotive:

. . . and pages 30-31 have photos from some of the depots along the line near where I live—the Glade Hill Depot, the Union Hall Depot, Novelty, and the Pen Hook (it used to be two words) Depot.

Carter relates some of the accidents that happened along the line. On page 12, he refences a January 1915 Lynchburg News article about wreck near Union Hall, in which the train "derailed and two passenger coaches rolled down a steep embankment. While the passengers were "shaken up," none was seriously hurt. Other accidents resulted in fatalities. Carter included a photo of a brief news article about this accident: "Frank Haley of Franklin Junction, hostler on the Franklin and Pittsylvania branch of the Southern Railway, was run over near Union Hall to-day, severing both his legs, from which he died in a few hours.He was thirty-five yers old and is survived by a wife and children." He briefly mentions another accident, in which conductor Nathan Rucker "was killed while inserting a coupling pin between two cars."

The train never ran over twenty-five miles per hour, but still had ome problems staying on track. A quote from the back cover:

Carter has used a collection of pictures, news articles, letters, and recollections to tell this interesting story of the railroad that cut through two counties. If you're from Franklin or Pittsylvania counties, you'll enjoy reading about this regional history. Even if you ain't from around here, and you're a railroad buff, you'll enjoy the book. Since Carter is planning a much more detailed book in the future, this one will give you a good preview of what to expect.

Tex D. Carter holding the proof copy.

I have enjoyed reading my copy of The Old Fast & Perfect. I think Arlo the cat did, too.

Arlo wonders how he can use a spike from the F&P as a bookmark.
At $5.00 per copy, this little book is a bargain!

Note: I mentioned Tex and the F&P in my earlier blog-post about the Penhook Pottery. Clay from Pittsville was hauled to the pottery via the F&P.

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