Writing placed-based literature is a great experience because there are always stories embedded in the culture of an area that a writer can use as a springboard.
When I wrote Ephemeral Summer I placed my college-age protagonist, Emalee, in settings that were familiar to me. She attends college in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York because I know the area well. However, like most college-age students she moves around, and in the last chapter, she visits the Canadian wilderness to assist a fellow graduate student track moose in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada.
Although I had stayed in Algonquin twice myself during graduate school (tracking moose), my research on Algonquin went beyond the ecological setting and into the realm of art. While conducting my research I was surfing the Internet for information about the Northern Lights to include in the novel, and stumbled upon the artwork of Tom Thomson, (1877-1917) an artist from the early 1900s who painted landscapes in Algonquin.
Thomson first visited Algonquin in 1912 and fell in love with the place. He stayed, found jobs as a ranger, firefighter and any other occupation that the woods would allow, and painted in his spare time. His paintings are considered the forerunner of a movement of painters called The Group of Seven: a group of Canadian landscape painters who spent considerable time painting in Algonquin from the 1920s-1930s.
As I delved into his story I found parallels to my plot. There is an accidental death by drowning in my story Ephemeral Summer, and Thomson likewise drowned under mysterious circumstances. In 1917, at age 40, he went out canoeing and was found dead a week later. Foul play was suspected but never confirmed.
Like many artists, Thomson did not make a lot of money on his works. Although he did have a patron, and some of his works sold, he became more popular after his death. And that is what is most intriguing about Thomson: his drive to create art whether it sold or not. His story folded neatly into my narrative for Ephemeral Summer. Indeed, for many artists, who create for art's sake, because they feel compelled.
I launched a project to fund my research on a historical novel with a crowdfunding site and it failed. Specifically, what lured me into trying crowdfunding on the site I chose was a podcast interview with one of the founders where she stated that artists are finding backers for their creative projects on their platform, and that 60% of the backers come from within the crowdfunding community itself. Hence, with the thought that I might find a community of like-minded artists, trying to fund projects, who would back the research for my next novel, I gave it a try. Nothing is failure if it is a learning experience and hopefully you can take away some tidbits of advice before you spend a lot of time and effort on your own crowdfunding campaign.
I’ll start with the positive aspects of my experience.
Now the Negatives:
Why am I doing this? As a writer, this question pops into my head all of the time, especially when I am doubting whether all the effort I've put into my work with play out. You know, like I'll win an award, sell enough books to pay my mortgage one month, grab the attention of a literary agent or better yet, a publisher. It can be a lonely existence inside my head; these thoughts swirling with no place to land. I was reminded of this just recently while waiting for a response to a query I sent out to some agents. What if they have no interest in my work? The rejections and doubt can get rather depressing. And then I was reminded of a quote from a book that I've read more than once: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."
There's been an ongoing joke in my house that I've spent too much time submitting my work: short stories, essays, and novels, to contests that I never seem to win. It's like the lottery or something, the chances I'll win are a long shot in today's competitive publishing world. In addition, some contests charge reading fees, hence I've also spent a considerable amount of money on these contests.
Well, it finally paid off for me when my novel The Night is Done won the Adirondack Center for Writing's Literary Award for Best Book of Fiction 2017. After some car trouble and a late start from my home in Upstate, NY and a five hour drive to Lake Placid, I got to the award ceremony just as they were announcing the winner.
In 1837 George B. Sudworth, submitted a paper to the American Forestry Association describing the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains: a primeval forest 'scarcely ever broken by the sound of a woodman's ax', a forest 'truly of virgin character.' Within 100 years the landscape would dramatically change. Men working in the Smoky Mountains as part of the newly created Conservation Corps in 1934, describe the forest as a wasteland, filled with slash left behind by lumber companies who cut what they could and abandoned the rest to the ravages of forest fires.
Indeed, in Elkmont, Tenesee, the Little River Lumber Company did just that. After decades of harvesting most of the virgin timber in the Little River watershed, they sold their land holdings to the federal government for the newly established National Park.
The Little River Lumber Co. is credited with engineering a railroad with technology that allowed harvest of timber at a scale never seen before in the region. In the early 20th century, the company bought up or leased land from homesteaders. And when ownership was dubious, they went to court to make a claim. As they did, the company moved operations into elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level to access virgin stands of tulip polar, chestnut, and hemlock. The company had specialized steam-powered rail engines, called Shay engines. These engines were able to chug up the steep grades and handle the sharp curves. Lumber co. men threw buckets of sand on the tracks for traction.
And as the railroads inveigled their way into the forest depths, so did the the lumbermen and their families. They lived in shacks called set offs. The first ever mobile home, these 12x12 spaces were placed on flatbed railroad cars and trudged up the mountains. Two or three might be set next to each other to house families while the men worked for the company harvesting lumber. Communities sprouted up along with them, stores, blacksmiths, makeshift schools, and when operations were moved, so did the community.
It took a small army to cut and load the trees on the rail cars. Men used steam-powered 'skidders' wheels of long cable let out and dragged up sides of slopes to where the logs lay. The cable was wrapped around the trunks to pull them off the slopes. Afterwards, the men used a crane with a large tong attached to it which lifted the logs onto the flatbed. Once they stacked twelve or more logs, the train carried down them down the steep slopes to town.
Although chestnut trees were plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century, by 1925, a fungus blight was ravaging the forest. It was estimated that in some locations chestnut made up forty percent of the forest cover. Hence, they were an important tree for the ecology of the region. The nuts were foraged by turkey, domesticate hogs, cattle, and humans. The wood was rot resistant, lighter than oak, and used for a variety of utilitarian purposes throughout the U.S. It was a valuable commodity in the Smoky Mountains and the Little River Lumber Co. harvested most of it from the watershed before the blight spread. But once the blight spread, the fate of the chestnut was sealed. When the company came upon trees hollowed out from the blight they left it to rot.
By 1937, the Little River Lumber Co. had ceased operations in what was then the inaugural Smoky Mountains National Park. Families moved, those that stayed were not allowed to cut timber for firewood or building. In addition, the government forbid them to hunt, or to raising cattle and livestock to graze in the mountain pastures. People who could, moved out or were bought out by the government. The old chestnut trees were either dead or dying and although there are still a few places where one can visit old growth forests in the area, a majority of the Smoky Mountains is second or third generation forest. As for the chestnut; scientists are working on a remedy: a hybrid that may resist the fungus. There's hope then that maybe I'll get to see a mature chestnut tree within my lifetime.
Weals, Vic. 1993. Last Train to Elkmont. Olden Press.
Maher, Neil. 2007. Natures New Deal.Oxford University Press
The sound of a stream plunging over a precipice is one sign of spring and on my recent visit to the Smoky Mountains National Park there were plenty of gushing waterfalls; I hiked up to Spruce Flats to get this view.
I went to the Smoky Mountains National Park to conduct research for a novel and to write about place, exploring the mountains in spring. I was especially interested in the area around the Tremont Institute in the park. It was once a thriving lumber community and one of the more famous inhabitants was William Walker. He owned most of Walker Valley before the Smoky Mountains National Park was formed, and this is where my fictional family lives. What drew me to their story is the old growth, or what is left of it at the Tremont Institute in the park.
William Walker settled here in the 1850s and as lumber operations closed in on his valley, he tried to keep his old growth woods from the clutches of the Little River Lumber Company. William lived a colorful life. According to his descendants, he had three wives and some estimate he sired over 20 children. He hung on to his land until 1918, selling it off to the owner of the Little River Co. on his death bed with the understanding that the old trees would be spared. What he never knew was that eventually his trees were cut, post-mortem, by the company and that he was under paid for the land.
A few miles down the road from Tremont and Walker Valley is the only cultural heritage site in the park - Cades Cove. This eleven mile circuit holds what remains of an entire community that once lived there: homes, corn cribs, barns, smoke and spring houses. The people that lived in Cades Cove had full, industrious lives.
Their economy was based on a bartering system with the nearby cities and towns. And they had plenty to barter before the woods were ravaged by blight, forest fire, and habitat destruction. Ginseng, chestnuts, corn, and cattle were just some of the products the people of Cades Cove bartered and sold at markets in Maryville and Knoxville, TN. Luckily local residents (many descendants) from nearby Townsend, Tennessee advocated for preserving the architecture of Cades Cove. It is the only area in the park where you can find everything intact. Which was fortunate because when the government started acquiring land for the park in the mid-1920s they tore down or let buildings rot after their occupants moved out. Just like the natural areas in the park, Cades Cove is a great place to rocket the imagination.
I also found a plethora of reading material at the Smoky Mountains Heritage Museum in Townsend, first hand accounts from people who grew up in the region before their families were forced to move because of the National Park in the mid 1930s. These books are gold mines of information, tall tales, and stories about the families who lived there, their hardships, feuds, and industry. Before a fungus blighted the Chestnut trees, children would go deep into the woods to collect the nuts and sell them at the local stores. They had a miller who came in from the fields at the sound of a bell to mill corn for customers who stopped in with a sack of kernels. His was an important job as corn was a family staple and wheat was hard to grow so flour was usually shipped in and store bought.
The families raised pigs, notched their ears to identify them and let them roam the hills. At harvest time they were lured in with salt and nuts. The meat was kept in a smokehouse and slabs taken off throughout the winter. Game was scarce by the early 20th century due to over hunting. Hunters were lucky to get a 'Gobbler' roosting in a tree, or squirrel meat. I found no references for deer hunting but Elk now pasture in the coves and there are signs everywhere to be aware of them while driving. I've visited the park twice and have yet to see one. But I'll be back for the next season: summer and maybe I'll get lucky.
Connect here for my next post on the history of lumber industry in the Smoky Mountain region.
My last interview with Dean Karayanis, host of the History Author show is now online. Sadly, it will be my last until I publish another historical novel. Something to strive for. This is a great podcast show for anyone interested in history and the people who write about it.
I'm a mother, wife, educator. I'm a writer. Although I try to remain in the present, I find my mind wandering to the depths of my imagination, attempting to tease out the next scene in my novel, a character flaw, joy, despair. I am stretched to capacity to create. Between lesson plans on critical thinking, what to make for dinner, how I'm going to kill off one the characters in my novels, my mind has limited time to stay in the moment.
Even in the car, while driving to and fro different campus sites, I listen to podcasts, gleaning inspiration on writing, marketing, thinking. Oprahs's Super Soul Conversation reminds me what I should be doing: "Time to be more fully present.....starts right now."
I'm soooo sorry Oprah - I listen to your podcast once a week, gaze at the rural landscape streaking past my window, warm earth interspersed with golden corn stubble from last year's harvest, a flock of white geese taking flight, sparkling like dust motes in the March sun. And oh, what did Amy Purdy just say about resilience? I was framing the moment for a scene in my next novel.
I can't be the only one with a creative mindset trapped in the mundane day-to-day responsibilities that keep the family going, the heater operating as winter clings; I learned from a New York Times article, it's true. Many famous artists and writers maintained separate, working lives. Does it mean they produced better art? I know I feel a pressure to create whenever there is a moment: an hour on a Saturday, winter break, spring break, summer. I develop timelines around my school schedule, can I get to 50k words by May? How many weekends and breaks do I have? How much grading to do? Will one of my daughters be in town for the weekend?
If I had more time, if my life weren't segmented into pieces of me, I'm not sure I'd be any better at my craft. As someone close to me once said, 'you work better under pressure, with deadlines'. I don't meander once I sit down to write, the words come to me, have been building over time, while driving, in my journals, in my dreams. My characters speak to me. And I don't let them down.
Writing historical fiction, I have come to learn, is like navigating a slippery slope along a precarious cliff. God forbid you get a fact wrong. Anyone who knows anything about the time period you are writing about will let you know that you did: in the reviews, on the internet, for all to see.
Let’s face it. Getting the clothing down, the setting, the politics and social graces of the times is the easy part. Keeping people entertained in another time period is what makes the story a story. So I have had to take liberties as well in my saga about the Dr. Thomas C. Durant family and their quest to open up the Adirondack wilderness to the New York City elite.
Here are my list of reasons why a writer may look beyond known facts to add more drama to a story as a way to lure in the reader/viewer.
1. When your main aim is to entertain the readers more than educate them.
This is a fine line. Many readers of historical fiction, and tv audiences want to see the characters in the appropriate dress, eating customary food, and displaying the correct mannerisms of the time period. Indeed, I read a review of the Downton Abbey fox hunting episode and equestrians from all over the world had written in complaining that one of the female characters was not holding her riding crop correctly. Jeesh. Were people really paying attention to that? I guess so. That kind of scrutiny puts a lot of pressure on the writers of these scenes. I am convinced however that what really keeps the majority of the tv audience watching Downton Abbey is the soap opera happening upstairs in the dining hall, and down stairs in the scullery.
2. When the known facts don’t explain WHY something happened, or to clarify the characters and motives of the protagonists, even if you have to invent them.
I am dealing with this one. One of my main characters: William West Durant, spent a huge portion of the family fortune building Great Camps in the Adirondack wilderness that never turned a profit. Indeed, when he sold these camps off to the Vanderbilts and Morgans, he LOST money. As he was bleeding out the family fortune with these artistic ventures, he also had the audacity to commission a $200,000 yacht (that’s close to $4 mil. in today’s US dollars) and used it to sail to Cowes and hang out with his old aristo buds at the annual royal yachting events. In the meantime, his sister was suing him for her share of the inheritance. Why then, did he flaunt his obvious wealth to all of their family friends while she was on an allowance of $200/month in London? Did he think she wouldn’t notice? Because William W. Durant didn’t keep a diary explaining all of his motives, he only admitted years later to his oral biographer that as a youth he had never learned how to make money, just how to spend it. But is that an excuse for his scandalous behavior toward his sister? I have to get into William’s head somehow, and use fiction to help the reader believe his motives as I predict them.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Associate Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.