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.
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.
A while ago I started to notice that my daughter, the perpetual self-promoter of a good time had by all, wish you we here, wasn’t posting as much on Facebook. And I missed her, where was she? Then one day at an outing my friend asked me if I had seen my daughter’s recent post on Instagram.
“No,” I replied. “I’m not on it.”
“Not on Instagram?”
Well how dare I.
So I opened up an account to see what was going on and lo and behold all those friends of mine who I thought were just becoming recluses were posting their life events on Instagram, and I didn’t even know they had left Facebook.
Of course there are those who like to post to all media outlets in one gigantic swoop, which Instagram allows, as long as the photo is from your phone. I discovered that. But my mind is reeling because I sat up in bed last night and instead of counting sheep I counted all of the social media accounts I now have.
Let me explain, I am an author. I am self-published. Hence, I have to promote my books. I’d had Facebook since my high school reunion years ago, and opened up a twitter account soon after. I tweet. I had a Pinterest account before I began writing, to check out recipes and ideas for my back patio. Now I ‘Pin’ about my book, or my blogs. But things are getting out of hand.
I have two websites. I have a website called The Durant Family Saga that chronicles my research journey for the historical fiction trilogy I am writing. I have an author website page, and I have an outdated Blogger site that I started years ago called LivingintheFingerLakes that I haven’t posted to in months because I am too busy keeping up with all my other social media.
Did I mention I also have a Tumblr account? I forgot the password. I think I am on Reddit. I link to colleagues on Linkedin, I stumble on Stumbleupon, I review on Goodreads, I post to communities on Google Plus, and I have an Amazon Author page which one person started a discussion on about 18 months ago. I answered him. He didn’t reply.
Dear God, help me. It’s pathetic.
I stumbled upon a review of my first novel in the Durant Family Saga: Imaginary Brightness. It was not entirely unflattering, not glowing either, but I appreciate anyone taking the time to post on social media their opinion of my chronicle of the family of the famous robber baron Dr. Thomas C. Durant. However, I realized while reading it, the reviewers were dismayed I ended the story abruptly because they wanted to know more about what happened to Durant family siblings.
So to be clear, readers, understand this: I wrote a trilogy. I had to. I don't like reading long books. Maybe that's why, in a recent visit to the library, I picked up The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati's 737 page fictional tome about two spinsters, both medical doctors working in New York City in 1883. I started reading it against my good judgement and have not been able to put it down since. This does not bode well for me, as I have to finish other books for work, and for my monthly book club meeting.
In all fairness, I can't behoove any author who chooses to write these long works of fiction. If one has the time and inclination, one can get caught up in a time and place for hours, days, and at the rate I read, weeks.
But when I had to decide what to do with all of my research, I decided early on to write a trilogy. I had too much material to cram into one book, or so I thought, knowing I favor books that are 300 pages in length. And there has been an advantage to me to do so.
Firstly, I kept discovering new material. Old newspaper articles that I may have missed before would pop up in my research to reveal that one of my characters spent time training to be a nurse in England. An archivist for New York City court emails me he found a long lost divorce case file, now if I could just get my hands on it. I had time. It would all come out in book three after all.
Secondly, the brief interlude between books allowed me the luxury to mull over my characters and their motivations. A recent breakfast meeting with one of my beta readers changed my whole perspective on how I was planning to write the narrative of the downfall of one of my main characters in book three. We contemplated: was he an egotistical maniac or a true artist at heart?
These types of meandering thoughts come at a snail's pace. They don't just pop up in my head without a lot of debate and thought. I like the process of peeling away at the characters in my story, one book at a time. And I like the idea that my novels are readable in one month for those people, like me, who live busy lives.
I'd hate to think people might be racing through my descriptive narrative to get to the end of the story, which is what I sometimes find myself doing when I become impatient with a story. Or maybe I'm just spoiled, like so many people these days, expecting instant answers to my question: what will happen next?
To be honest, I'd have to admit that at least the author of The Gilded Hour provided me closure in one reading. My poor readers had to wait until I figure out how to write the last book in the trilogy. Lucky for them, the third book, The Night is Done, is now available.
An Amish family came out of the train station. They marched in a line, Father, Mother, son, two daughters; plodding along with their hats and bonnets, coattails bobbing, skirts swishing along the sidewalk. It struck me as odd to see them there of all places, (as if the Amish don’t need or use modern transportation) even though there are several Amish communities in the Finger Lakes region where I live. But I still couldn’t help but wonder: where were they going? No van was waiting to pick them up, the nearest bus stop was at least a mile away, and yet, they weren’t fazed by this, they had—purpose.
Soon after they passed by my windshield my daughter came ambling out the doors of the station, iphone in one hand, her eyes plastered to its screen, her other hand dragging along luggage. I hadn’t even noticed if the Amish had luggage. I scanned the parking lot looking for them. Poof, they were gone.
“Did you see that Amish family?” I asked her when she got in the car.
“No,” she replied.
“But weren’t they on your train from New York?” I said.
She shrugged. “Possibly.” And she went back to examining an email from work.
Months later as I read David William’s When the English Fall, a dystopian novel set in an Amish community near Lancaster, PA, my mind wanders to the vision of that family and wonder if I have sacrificed my own sense of purpose to stay connected to a virtual reality. In William’s novel, a celestial storm knocks out the power grid throughout most of the world. Planes fall from the sky, villages, towns, and cities go dark. Only the Amish appear unfazed by the event as they are used to living off the grid.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.