A manuscript starts with an idea. In odd free moments, I’ll think about a general plot line and setting and how much research these would require. Some ideas die at this stage. Others live because I envision characters who intrigue and entertain me. Before I begin writing, I name the major and some secondary characters and predict the role each person will play in the story. Like real people, they don’t always behave the way I expect.
Writing the opening chapters is the most difficult and the most exciting part of creating a book. I also enjoy getting to know the characters, including details of their backstories that readers never see. Although I rough out the plot, surprises always pop up, and I discover inconsequential events and casual dialogue hold vital clues.
Unlike some writers, I enjoy revising. I usually begin by tweaking content and structure and end by polishing sentences.
The least pleasant part of the process is getting the book published. First you have to find a publisher. Then you go through the production process, which means responding to an editor’s comments, debating fine points with a copy editor, sharing your ideas with a designer, and developing a marketing plan. No matter who publishes your book, a writer spends a lot of time finding reviewers, writing blogs and articles, attending conventions, giving talks, and doing anything else that will get the book into readers’ hands.
The last stage, sharing your work with readers, is a pleasure.
The tasks overlap. As an idea fights for a foothold in my brain, I’m writing or rewriting, looking for and/or working with a publisher, and promoting earlier books. As I write this (another task), I’m
* beginning a manuscript about a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer diverted from writing her thesis on Jane Austen by a young Amish man’s violent death on her friend’s failing farm;
* preparing a talk on Show Me the Sinister Snowman, and
* searching for a publisher for Caught by a Tale, a mystery featuring a rookie freelance crime reporter and her mother, a retired history teacher and aspiring storyteller.
Here’s a sampling of Caught by a Tale.
My grip on the steering wheel relaxed as my destination, a white clapboard church with a squat bell tower, appeared on my right. I’d arrived with ten minutes to spare.
A towheaded boy in a NASCAR baseball cap bounced a basketball in front of the parking lot’s rope barrier. He tucked the ball under his right arm and glanced at my Washington, D.C., license plate. “Hi. Welcome to the First Annual Mountain Spring Storytelling Festival. Are you a teller, ma’am?”
“No, I’m Laurel Hunter. I’m interviewing Belle McCutcheon at three o’clock.”
His tanned face lit up. “Oh, you’re the media. Take that space in the middle.” He pulled a folding chair to which the rope was tied out of the way.
After I parked and got out of my Honda, he came to meet me. “Miz Belle isn’t back yet, but she said to escort the media to her green room. I’m Buck Hensen, ma’am.” He pointed to a purple square of cloth pinned to his Hornets t-shirt. “I’m a volunteer.” He grinned. “That way Mom has to let me go to the ghost concert Saturday night.”
Concert? Right. That’s what storytellers called their performances. I smiled back. “Good planning, Buck.”
“The green rooms are in the church’s—I mean the community center’s—basement.” He led me to the converted church’s back door and down broad stairs into a hallway smelling of fresh paint. I guessed the depressing cooked-spinach green color resulted from mixing donated leftover paint. Walking backward ahead of me, Buck said, “Miz Belle’s the only one with her own green room. The others gotta share.” He pointed to a red paper star. “I taped that to Miz Belle’s door.” He tried the knob, but the door was locked. “You can wait in the other tellers’ green room. Would you like a glass of sweet tea or lemonade?”
“Lemonade, please, half a glass. She’ll be here any minute.”
“Maybe not. Miz Ruby says Miz Belle came late for both her weddin’s.” He led me into a large kitchen, took a pitcher of lemonade from an old refrigerator, and poured me a drink in a paper cup.
“Thanks. I sat in the car nine long hours. I’ll take this outside and stretch my legs.”
“Okay. I’ll come along and shoot some hoops.”
Buck’s earnest sweetness reminded me of my stepson at that age. “I’ll be glad to feed you the ball.” And let him feed me more inside news on the festival.
Walking toward a basket affixed to a telephone pole, I saw a white Buick with Missouri plates. “That’s my mother’s car.”
“I know her! She told my class about the New Madrid earthquakes this morning. One kid accused her of, you know, makin’ a good story better. She swore ever’ word was true—the Mississippi ran backwards and lightning came from the ground.”
“Mom used to teach history. She never rewrites it,” I assured him, “just as I always stick to facts.”
He grinned. “From what Miz Ruby says, you two must be the only ones here who don’t stretch the truth till it hurts. Maybe tellin’ is different in North Carolina than in Missouri.”
With me established in Buck’s mind as part of the storytelling community, I needed only gentle promptings to induce him to reveal that the festival sponsors were worried about losing money, that director Leo Paxton recruited Miz Belle to come because they used to be “mighty friendly,” and that the commissioner had approved use of town’s park only after the director invited Miz Marilu to tell.
“To be fair, she’s a good teller,” Buck said, obviously repeating a conversation he’d overheard. He missed a three-point shot. “She’s just not very creative. Tells the same old Daniel Boone stories and Jack tales. Miz Belle’s got a better repo—repo—”
“Repertoire,” I supplied. “Both women are introducing new stories here.” In less than an hour. Where was Belle? She’d responded to my interview request with enthusiasm and winning self-deprecation. And she’d said three today was the only time she had half an hour to talk to me.
At three thirty a horn blast at the lot’s improvised gate announced her arrival. Buck ran to move the barrier, and I walked to the back door.
I’d dressed in jeans and a salmon-colored cotton top, an outfit comfortable for driving and appropriate to the down-home look of Belle McCutcheon’s attire in her publicity photos. To my consternation, she stepped out of her red Lincoln dressed for a garden party. Her red-trimmed white dress flattered her tall, slender figure, and a matching wide-brimmed white straw hat added glamour and subtracted a decade from her fifty-two years. At five foot three, I would have looked like a toadstool in that hat.
I extended my hand as she approached. “Good afternoon. I’m Laurel Hunter.”
She hesitated, a celebrity smile on her lips.
I added, “The freelance writer interviewing you for American Life.”
She grasped my hand. “Of course. I’m so pleased you’re here. Please give me five minutes to return a call on the church’s landline. No cell phone service here, you know.” She hurried down the steps and sequestered herself behind her star-marked door.
On her Amen Corner CDs, she spoke like Dolly Parton. Now the storyteller’s voice hinted at rather than proclaimed her roots in the North Carolina mountains.
She kept me waiting in the depressing hall ten minutes before opening the door. “So sorry, Laurel.” She leaned toward me from the doorway with a conspiratorial smile. “PBS wanted to talk about a documentary on Appalachian storytelling. You know how television people are.”
She had established her status as a big-time teller. Fine. Most people show off for writers. But why wasn’t she inviting me in?
A tiny frown wrinkled her brow. “Do you have the time?”
Since the diamonds in her wristwatch were twinkling at me, she obviously was initiating a runaround. Stifling my unease, I looked at my Timex. “It’s quarter to four.”
“It kills me to do this to you, Laurel, but I don’t have time for the interview today.” She sighed and shrugged. “Leo begged me to tell at the opening concert, and I just couldn’t refuse.”
She’d been on the schedule for weeks. She was brushing me off, and not at all subtly. She wanted something. Swallowing my annoyance, I smiled. “Of course. We can talk afterward.” Apply a little honey. “I enjoyed your Amen Corner CD again as I drove from Washington today, and I’m eager to hear about your new material.”
“How sweet of you to say so. Which story is your favorite?” Her tone was casual, but she was challenging me, testing to see whether I’d really listened to her stories.
As always, I’d done my homework. “The food fight at the church supper. It’s hilarious, a classic.” For a moment I thought I’d overdone it, but it’s hard to overpraise a performer’s work.
She nodded approvingly. “PBS asked me to tell that one, and one of my new Mountain Boy stories.” She turned on her toothpaste-commercial smile. “I’m truly sorry, but my schedule during the festival is as full as my grandmother’s jars of bread-and-butter pickles.” She paused to make sure I recognized the reference to one of her stories. “I’ll be delighted to talk to you Sunday evening after the crowds leave.”
I’d told her that I had to leave at noon Sunday. She’d positioned herself to demand something—probably veto power over what I wrote—in exchange for an earlier interview. No way. My research indicated her career had stagnated and she needed exposure in the small but influential arts magazine as much as I did. I called her bluff. “What a shame we won’t be able to talk. I’ll have to rely on other interviews.” I remembered Buck’s gossip. “Fortunately I’m spending an hour with Marilu Alexander tomorrow morning.”
Belle’s lips still smiled, but her body stiffened. “I’m sure your editor wouldn’t want you to base your article on a baby bird’s chirps.” She pursed her lips and closed her eyes. “I’ll be as rung out as a kitchen mop, but you can come by after Leo’s reception tonight.”
Bullies usually cave. “Thank you.” Back to spooning out honey. “I’m eager to hear how you massage passed-down family stories into concert pieces.”
“Part of the art of storytelling.” She stepped back into the room—a serene oyster white—and went to a new MacBook Pro on a folding table. “To save time, I’ll print out some of my notes on two of my new Mountain Boy stories. Meet me at Mountain Manor at seven thirty.” She hit the commands. “Please excuse me. I must get ready.” She hurried past a threadbare brown couch into a bathroom and closed the door.
Waiting for the pages to emerge from a portable printer, I fought a moment of laptop envy and admired a large black leather briefcase beside the laptop.
Buck tapped on the open door. “Miz Belle,” he called, “the golf cart is here.”
“Thank you, Buckaroo. Please be a sweetheart and tell him to give me a few minutes.”
He puffed out his pre-pubescent chest. “Sure thing, ma’am.”
Reflecting that Belle probably could manipulate males of any age, I put the printout into my daypack and walked out with Buck.
His ten-year-old’s face was puzzled. “You drove all that way for a few minutes of talkin’ and somethin’ she could have emailed to you?”
A reporter in the making. “I’m going to interview her this evening. The notes she gave me will help me prepare questions. Can you tell me how to get to Mountain Manor?”
“Sure. That’s a fancy company retreat that got turned into a bed and breakfast. Turn left and go straight out of town for two miles.” He ran outside ahead of me, said something to a man in a gold cart, and rushed back to me. “The concert starts in five minutes. I can show you a shortcut.”
“Lead the way.”
He trotted toward a narrow opening in a ten-foot-high rhododendron hedge bordering the parking lot. From there he led me through the backyard of a neat white Victorian to an alley that ran a block between houses and businesses and ended on a street bordering a large park. We crossed the pedestrian-filled street and walked toward the back of a big beige tent.
“See ya ’round,” Buck said, heading for a large oak tree, one of four shading the tent from the September sun. Hands reached down from the branches to pull him up.
The tent’s sides had been rolled up, and people with red or yellow cloth patches pinned to their clothes were entering from all directions to search for empty folding chairs. I gave up looking for Mom among the hundreds already in the tent. Pinning on my blue cloth press pass, I walked around to the shadier side of the tent. An empty seat three chairs in gave me a chance at any breeze and a good view of the austere stage. It resembled a giant wooden box turned upside down. This wasn’t a big-budget production.
A sign on a central support pole said, “No Cameras. No Recorders. No Cell Phones. No Crying Babies.” I’d have to ask the PR guy for permission to photograph the performances.
A tall, slender man with a face younger than his salt-and-pepper hair and goatee indicated ran up the four steps to the stage carrying a hand mike. “Good afternoon, friends,” he called, and the crowd returned the greeting. “Thank you for coming. I’m Leo Paxton, director of North Carolina’s newest storytelling festival.”
My attention faltered as he bragged about the tellers appearing the next three days. I scanned the crowd: about ninety percent white, sixty percent with some gray hair, and ninety-nine percent cheerful. I focused again on the festival director. He was dressed more informally than I’d expected—in running shoes, faded jeans, and a black T-shirt bearing the festival’s logo, its name in purple over the outline of mountain peaks. His accent indicated he came from these mountains.
I took a small notebook and two pens from my daypack as he introduced Marilu Alexander, the Rose of Rowan County.
A longhaired blond bounced up the stage steps like a high school cheerleader and greeted six hundred strangers as though they were personal friends. A petite but voluptuous thirty-something, she wore a sleeveless boat-necked blue blouse and a flaring white skirt with her trademark red roses embroidered along the hemline. Her wide cheekbones kept her from being a conventional beauty, but her vitality compensated for the flaw.
Pushing back an errant strand of hair, she waited for quiet. “Mighty glad to see y’all here on a Thursday afternoon.” She spoke with a soft, slow drawl, and her tone promised intimacy. “I always pray for a sweet audience like you when I tell a story for the first time. This is a family story my great-great aunt, Auntie Aurelia, told me when I was a little bitty girl and the family was putting up peaches from her orchard. She had lots of stories about her ornery brother Nate. Today I’m going to tell you my childhood favorite, Nate’s talking dog.”
She stepped back and took a sip of water from a bottle on a stool. “Nate thought he was the smartest thirteen-year-old ever to put on shoes. He’d set his mind on goin’ to a Presbyterian mission boarding school and getting’ a real education. One summer day he was hurryin’ to the railroad station in town hopin’ for word on when a preacher would come through to talk to him about a scholarship. When he trotted by a neighbor’s cornfield, cows were chomping on the young corn. Most days he woulda chased them out. Instead he went right on by. Then he felt guilty. So when he came close to the neighbor’s house, he told Barker, his collie dog, to stay behind a bush.
“The neighbors’ two little boys were picking worms off tomato plants in the garden. Nate hollers hello and they run to him and ask where he’s headed.
“He tells ’em and says, ‘Where’s Barker?’ He whistles for the dog. Then he bends down and pretends the collie is whispering in his ear, telling him the cows are in the corn. The boys are skeptical about a talking dog, but they hightail it off to the cornfield. Nate goes on to town, but the message hadn’t come.
“As Nate walks back, the boys come runnin’ to fuss over Barker, but he won’t talk to them. The little one starts braggin’ about how their fine peaches will be ripe in a few days.
“Nate loved peaches, and he began to scheme to get him some. He bends down and pretends Barker is passing on a warning: The crows are so big this year they’re picking peaches and carrying them to their nests. Better set up a scarecrow.”
Despite the uncomfortable chairs tilting on an uneven lawn, people sat quietly, those around me smiling. I focused on them, watching their reactions as Marilu told how Nate scattered crow feathers in the orchard early the next morning and came back two nights later to fill his shirt with peaches. A couple days after that he sneaked out of a brush arbor revival while the preacher warned sinners to repent or face the devil. Nate helped himself to a few more of the neighbor’s finest peaches and stuck pointy leaves into the new scarecrow’s hat. In the moonlight the leaves looked like the devil’s horns.
She paused too long for the chuckle that didn’t grow into laughter before going on. “The next time Nate walked to town the boys called to him from the tree where they were picking the last of the peaches. The older boy says, ‘I expected to see you go by yesterday.’
“‘Yesterday? Why?’ Nate isn’t laughing now.
“’For your meetin’ about the scholarship,’ the boy says. ‘The railroad man gave me the message two days ago. I told your talkin’ dog. Didn’t he pass it on to you?’
“Nate was never right sure whether the boy was pullin’ his leg, but right after that Barker got so scared during a thunderstorm that he lost the power of speech. And that ends the talking dog’s tale.”
The audience applauded but not enough for a third bow. Mom had said tellers polished their tales through trial and error much as stand-up comics do. Obviously this story still needed work. Even so, fans were lining up near the stage with CDs for her to autograph.
The festival director came back onstage and rambled on about the coming programs. He was stalling. I realized why when a golf cart pulled along Marilu’s fans and stopped. Belle let a bald man with a cane help her step out of the cart. She’d changed into a blue denim skirt with large quilted pockets and a matching quilted vest over a white blouse. No designer dress now.
As Belle disembarked, a small gray-haired woman with deep frown lines motioned for Belle to hurry up.
Onstage, Paxton took a fraction of a second to hide his relief, but he spared no praise for his tardy star.
The audience received Belle even more enthusiastically than it had Marilu. Belle made a few warm-up remarks and commented she hadn’t told this story before out of deference to the wishes of her late grandmother.
Then she began: “One of my earliest memories is going to Granny’s farm in the cove to put up peaches. My job was to whoosh away the flies with a cardboard fan from a local funeral parlor. To keep me working, Granny’s Auntie Effie would tell stories about her ornery brother George.”
Another peaches and ornery brother story?
Belle paused a fraction of a second as the audience murmured. Then she continued. “I’m going to tell you one of my favorite stories, about my Great-Uncle George and his talking dog.”
Incredible! She was telling the same story!
Marilu grabbed the bald man’s cane and ran toward the stage screaming, “I’ll kill the thieving bitch! I’ll kill her!”