Whither West Virginia?

Writing alternate history is a tricky business. There’s a long way between weed-fueled gab sessions about what would have happened if the American Revolution failed or whatever and writing a story in a believable world that’s diverged from our own in a particular way. Who can really tell what that one change will make?

The conceit of Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines is pretty intriguing: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated just prior to his first inauguration, rather than at the end of the Civil War. That leads to the “Crittenden Compromise,” a group of amendments to the Constitution that permanently protects slavery. Over the years several states emancipate, so that by the time the book takes place in the “modern” era slavery still exists in the “hard four” – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas (united for reasons never explained).

underground-airlines-1

The story itself involves Victor, a runaway slave who becomes an undercover bounty hunter for the US Marshals tracking down other runaways. That means infiltrating the modern equivalent of the Underground Railroad, which is still trying to shuttle escaped slaves to Canada. It’s told entirely from his point of view, which gets deep down into his head as he deals with issues of guilt, anger, cynicism and a bunch else. It’s a pretty good character study that loses its feet a little bit when the narrative heads south (literally) and concludes with some of those twists you don’t see coming that characterize detective stories.

Naturally, most of the world we see is through Victor’s eyes and there are some interesting nuggets about what a 21st-century United States with slavery looks like (spoiler – it’s not a non-racist utopia in the rest of the country), but for the most part it looks like history mostly marched on as we know it. There were, apparently, two world wars, for example (FDR used arms manufacturing contracts as a carrot to get a couple of states to abolish slavery), which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s not necessarily wrong either.

On the other hand, there are some things that maybe don’t quite make sense in a world where the United States never abolished slavery and avoided the Civil War. Would a nation isolated by the rest of the world played any role, much less the same one, in the world wars? Winters gives us a Vietnam analog with a failed attempt by Texas to secede in the 1960s, presumably in recognition of the fact that the Cold War probably doesn’t happen. In her review of the book at Tor, Alex Brown writes:

]The details are extraordinary, although some of the larger questions are left untouched. The biggest omission for me was the lack of world building in the West. Outside a couple of references to Texas, the entire western half of the US is never even mentioned, yet in the real world slavery had a huge impact on the West (says the woman who wrote her MA US History thesis on Black life in the West). Southerners traveling overland often sold some of their slaves to finance their journey. Those left behind were devastated by broken homes, and after the Civil War thousands of freed slaves took out ads looking for their families; most were never reunited. Countless slaves worked in the gold mines, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards in California in the 1840s and 1850s, while even more were cowboys on the plains. Dozens of Black-founded towns are scattered across the West, and, of course, one of the worst race riots in American history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Alt-history or no, you don’t get the modern United States—including its scientific advancements and racism—without the development of the West, and you don’t get the West without Black people.

Which is what makes me wonder about West Virginia in the world Winters created. Here’s a map (helpfully available online and in the front of the ebook preview for those of us who absorbed the audiobook) of the United States of Underground Airlines:

UndergroundMap

As you can see, West Virginia is there, just like it is in the real world. The problem is that West Virginia was literally born in the Civil War. Given the timeline for the book Lincoln was killed before  Virginia voted to secede, which prompted the crisis that eventually spawned West Virginia. Without that, there’d be no West Virginia. That’s not to say there weren’t divides between the folks living west of the mountains and the Tidewater plantation owners that dominated antebellum Virginia politics – there was a pretty good reason to spin the western part of the state off on its own. But given how difficult it is to carve a new state from an existing one, it’s unlikely it ever would have happened but for the breach that was the Civil War.

None of that has anything to do with the story Underground Airlines is telling, of course, but it is an example of how alternate history worlds sometimes raise questions in the peripheral vision that will catch the attention of a few readers, but blow by most. I’m not sure what that means in the long run, but this West Virginian is ready to “repeat to yourself that it’s just a [book], you should really just relax” and just enjoy.

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On the Heartbreak of Mediocrity

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have an anti-hype reflex. If I hear too effusive praise about a book or movie or album my natural skeptic comes out. Nothing can be that good. But we all have our blind spots and mine when it comes to hype is my alma mater’s football program. I tend to get a little irrational.

Every year before WVU sets foot on the field it seems like this year is going to be the big one. Sure, some teams get more hype than others, but they all get some of it. It helps that we usually have a schedule that’s weak up front, so we run up a few wins before we play anybody good. This year that was particularly true, with the hype machine going into overdrive with senior QB Will Grier starting the season as a legit Heisman candidate.

stewie.jpg

And yet, it’s all still hype. Here we are at the end of the regular season with a good, but hardly great, 8-3 record and a realization that we beat all of one team with a winning record. The familiarity of all this made me dig into the numbers a bit and has led me to a sobering, but fairly obvious, conclusion – WVU is only a mediocre football program.

In 2011 WVU jumped to the Big XII from the remnants of the Big East conference, which subsequently rebirthed itself as the American Athletic Conference (“AAC”). So we’ve had seven seasons to see how WVU stacks up in one of the “power 5” conferences, where aspirations of national championships live. In those seasons (all with the same head coach, mind) we’ve gone 51-37 overall, 33-30 in conference. Not horrible, but not great either, particularly when you consider that seven of those non-conference wins were against FCS programs. Digging further, in that time we’ve only won one bowl game (out of five), and our record against teams ranked in the AP top 25 at the end of the season is just 4-19. Against the two big prestige programs in our conference, Texas and Oklahoma, we’re 4-10. All four of those wins came against Texas, by the way, who have been down for several seasons. In those seasons we’ve finished in third place in the conference twice (including this year), with other finishes between fifth and eighth place. Our average conference finish is 5.28.

This is the very definition of mediocre. We generally finish in the middle of a power 5 conference and rarely beat “big” programs. Oh sure, we get a few big wins here and there (hello Texas this season), but those are outliers. Or, as we call them in sports, upsets. They’re games where we play better than we really are, punch above our weight. It’s what mediocrities sometimes do.

That we’ve become a mediocrity is even clearer if you look at what WVU football was doing before the Big XII. In our last seven years in the Big East we were 70-20 (64-20 without the FBS teams), with a 37-12 conference record. We won the conference three times and never finished lower than third, for an average finish of 1.71. Along the way we produced a 10-7 record against top 25 teams and won five of seven bowl games – including beating Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. That’s right, the Big East Mountaineers did something the Big XII ones have never done.

Now, the Big East by that point wasn’t the biggest of conferences (schools like Miami, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse had already left or were on the way out) and the AAC, which rose from its ashes, isn’t one of the Power 5 conferences for football, but maybe that’s the point? Some fans thought we were a big fish in a small pond in the Big East (and would be in the AAC), but it looks like a conference like that is about the right-sized pond for us. Would I love to see WVU win the Big XII and make it into the “playoff?” Sure, but how likely is that to ever happen? We had our best shot in years to make that kind of noise in 2018 and we couldn’t pull it off. Is it really better to struggle to finish mid-pack in a Power 5 conference than compete for a title regularly in a smaller conference? Given the geographical weirdness of us being in the Big XII, I’m not so sure.

All of which makes me think of the film Amadeus.

In spite of the movie’s title being his name, the center of Amadeus really isn’t Mozart. Rather, it’s his lesser contemporary (and rival, of some sort), Salieri, who has to toil in the genius’ shadow. At the end of the film, as Salieri is being wheeled to breakfast, he says to the priest who’s been interviewing him:

Goodbye, Father. I’ll speak for you. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.

Then, to the assembled loons:

Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!

I guess what I’m saying is that after all these years, we maybe need to reconcile ourselves to our fate as mediocrities. Maybe WVU should change its mascot to the Fightin’ Salieris!

Homeland Is Through the 49-State Looking Glass, People!

For its first couple of seasons, Homeland was among the best TV on the planet. Tense and twisty as any good thriller, it had the overlay of asking interesting questions about what drives people (in this case the lily-white costar) to terrorism? Things have slipped considerably since then, but it’s still an entertaining, and occasionally thrilling, show.

The further it’s gone, however, the further Homeland has moved into its own alternate universe. That’s only natural – any fiction is building its own world, after all. But after six plus seasons, Homeland’s America doesn’t look quite like ours does, and not just because President Trump was too wild a plot twist for a show like that.

In its current season, Homeland is charting the fall out of a presidential election that ended with an attempted assassination. One of the newer characters, O’Keefe, is an Alex Jones style radio/internet personality who starts the season on the run from the new president’s henchpersons. He hides out with numerous sympathizers and broadcasts screeds of resistance.

Which brings us to West Virginia.

In the second episode of this season O’Keefe makes his way to a farm in a rural area that becomes his final safe house. When the family who lives there (and some of their neighbors) welcome him, it’s with a story about a site nearby where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. It’s made clear that the site is Philippi, which places the action in West Virginia.

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, I am not making this up. See this write up of the fourth episode:

With the FBI surrounding his West Virginia hideout, O’Keefe and his loyal listeners settle in for a long siege with power generators, jugs of water — and lots and lots of guns.

Or this article from a Virginia newspaper about the actual location where those scenes were shot:

Landon Graham said he was approached in September 2017 about using his rural property to serve as the location for the hideout, which in the show is supposed to be somewhere in West Virginia.

‘They wanted something that looked like West Virginia because that is where the scene was supposed to be. But getting to West Virginia is a nightmare so it’s better to be near Richmond,’ he said.

And still, in this week’s episode, which takes place in the aftermath of a deadly raid on at the safe house, O’Keefe is taken into custody and taken to . . . Richmond, Virginia. This shift of location is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, assuming O’Keefe is being charged with a federal crime (which he surely is), he’d need to be taken to a court in the district in which he was arrested – that being the Northern District of West Virginia (I chuckled imagining my colleagues dealing with the guy). Clarksburg is surely closer to the fictional Lucasville than Richmond, which is in the wrong district, anyway.

Second, there’s later a memorial service organized for those who died in the shootout, which is also organized in Richmond. Again, why have such an event several hours away from where the event occurred? It would be like having a memorial for the Parkland shooting students in Georgia. It took place in a church, not a huge stadium or something. Let me assure you, there’s no shortage of churches in north central West Virginia.

So what’s up? Is this just sloppy storytelling on the part of Homeland? Did they suddenly forget that West Virginia is, in fact, its own state and has been for 155 years? Surely the writers of a critically praised, major network TV series wouldn’t so cavalierly wipe an entire state off the map by sheer negligence.

No, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I’ll choose to believe that in the land of Homeland, West Virginia never actually existed. All those references earlier this season were really to “west Virginia.” Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It has to be. What other explanation is there? They’re playing with the very fabric of existence, people! Millhouse was right!

Milhouse

 

Author Interview – Gerald Swick

We’re back with Gerald Swick, who wants to take you on a trip through West Virginia history.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m the love child of Joseph Heller and Carol Burnett. No, wait—I’m a native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, now living in Nashville. I’m an incorrigible punster, a master of one-liners, and a serious researcher who was half of the research team that solved the 70-year mystery of why the eldest child of Abraham Lincoln was not buried with the rest of the family. Most of all, I’m a writer drawing inspiration and techniques from such disparate sources as academic journals, novels of all types, comic books, songwriting, screenwriting and poetry, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experienced, successful writers in most of those fields share their knowledge with me.

I fell in love with the printed word at a very early age when my mother and my older siblings would read to me, so I started teaching myself to identify words as they read when I was three or four years old. I don’t remember Dad reading to me, but there was an auctioneer named Paul Bastin who could always unload a box of books by saying, “Swick, you’ll bid a quarter, won’t you?” Dad would grin and nod, and we’d be bringing another box of books home. The writing grew out of all that, plus the stories of family history Mom and Dad told.

How did you get involved with research into Abraham Lincoln’s family?

Actually, my research has primarily been into Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds. A friend and I were thinking of writing an article about why the position known as The Hornet’s Nest at the Battle of Shiloh collapsed suddenly after holding out for hours.

A different friend went with me to walk the ground at Shiloh National Battlefield Park. She happened to be reading a biography of Mary Lincoln and asked if I was aware Mary had a half-brother who was killed fighting for the Confederacy at Shiloh. I got to looking into that and realized the Todds weren’t a family, they were a soap opera, and I started researching them seriously. I’ve never written the book about them, but it is a project I want to finish. Finding the letter about why the Lincolns’ eldest son isn’t buried with the rest of the family was a coincidence of Todd research.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

The first two books in my West Virginia Histories series were published by Grave Distractions Publications in late 2017. This series collects most of the 800-plus articles I wrote over 16 years that appeared as a weekly column of West Virginia history in the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram. The columns were very popular and received an Associated Press excellence in journalism award for Lifestyles writing. They were also a factor in the state Humanities Council awarding me a literary fellowship in nonfiction writing.

Over the years a number of readers recommended I put them into a book. When I finally sat down to do that I realized, with over 800 articles to draw from, I needed to do a series of books.

I spent part of 2016 and most of 2017 organizing the columns into themes such as West Virginia women, the Civil War, sports, ethnic history, politics, crime and so on, then divvying them up into eight books based on those themes. Each book in the series will contain 100 articles, including some never-before-published ones written specifically for this series.

Volume 1, Unique People, Unusual Events and the Occasional Ghost, is an introduction to and sampler of the series. Volume 2, Days of Slavery * Civil War and Aftermath * Statehood and Beyond provides readers with background on Western Virginia’s separation from Virginia, incidents of the Civil War within its borders, and the political struggle to be admitted to the Union as a state of its own. There’s also information on the state’s 50th and 100th anniversary celebrations.

Putting the former columns into book format allowed me to include addendums in cases where I found additional information after the columns were published, and this format also gave me a way to index names and places to help genealogists and other researchers find what they are looking for.

Vol. 1 cover

How many books will be in the West Virginia Histories series? Will you be adding new articles to it as you go along?

The publisher and I are planning for eight books, each covering multiple themes, but the series may expand if we feel a given book tries to cover too many themes. That doesn’t apply to Volume 1, of course, because it is an introduction to and sampler of the series, so it contains four or more samples from each of the themes.

I am researching and writing some new material for each theme, e.g., Social Change, Labor, Education, etc., so that each book will contain several never-before-published stories among its 100 articles.

How I originally came to write these columns?

I had been doing other freelance work for the Exponent Telegram and its weekly publications, the Marion Xtra and Taylor Xtra. I conceived the idea for the column and asked the managing editor if he would be interested in publishing it; his eyes lit up like a man who’d just drawn his fourth ace.

I knew people who are interested in history would read the columns, but I wanted to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally read history because they regard it as boring. I wanted to share with those readers how much fun history can be. I regard historical research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt; you never know what you’re going to find when you look behind the next bush. So I wrote in the storytelling style a fiction writer might use, while still sticking to the known facts, and I frequently incorporated editorializing, humor, puns and other wordplay, and occasionally a dose of snark.

For example, I wrote a column on West Virginia’s concerns over pollution throughout the 20th century. Not exactly the stuff for a ripping good yarn, so I enlivened it with comments like, “Mess with the fish, Bubba, and we send in the Marines,” after explaining that in 1913 the U.S. War Department had control over what was dumped in the Ohio River. Later in that same article I cited the 1970 “Kanawha Valley Air Pollution Study” and added parenthetically, “Soon to be a major motion picture starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones.”

In my research I primarily look for stories my readers likely wouldn’t know about, mostly drawn from old newspapers and supplemented by additional research to put the story in context: the feud between William Jennings Bryant and a WVU professor over evolution, for example, or the tornado that destroyed a church during Easter services in Wellsburg; the attempt Kanawha County’s Jews made to have the county chosen as the site of America’s first rabbinical college; the heroic tale of Jim Brown, a black man in Welch who risked his life trying to save two little white girls from an oncoming train, and the story of Minnie Martin, a young woman who saved a passenger train from derailing in Wetzel County. There’s the personal account of the infamous serial killer known as H.H. Holmes concerning what he claimed was his first murder, a man in Morgantown, and the story of a fraud ring comprised of Lincoln County housewives who scammed a soap company—and no, they didn’t get away clean.

The stories are drawn from all parts of the state and cover people and events from the 18th century through the 1960s, the decade in which West Virginia marked its statehood centennial.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

As noted, mostly I write nonfiction, history in particular. My first book was a coffee-table book, Historic Photos of West Virginia, from Turner Publishing in Nashville. I’d been one of Turner’s editors but had moved on to being web editor for the magazines of the Weider History Group when Turner called and asked me to author the West Virginia project. I’ve written for America’s Civil War, American History, Blue Ridge Country, Lincoln Lore, Wonderful West Virginia and other magazines, as well as the new West Virginia Encyclopedia published by the state Humanities Council in 2006and ABC-CLIO’s Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History. With a life-long love of both history and writing, it’s not surprising this is how things turned out, even though I started out wanting to write fiction.

I have had some short fiction published in literary journals and a fantasy anthology. I worked in the game field for years and authored or co-authored short fiction for roleplaying games, like “A Day in the Life of Dennis-O-VCH” and “The New, Improved Fear and Ignorance” for the Paranoia game. If you go to my website, GeraldDSwick.com, you’ll see how checkered my writing past is. Presently, in addition to future volumes in the West Virginia Histories series, I am working on a novel of alternative history, but I generally don’t like to talk about works in progress. Somehow, talking about what I’m working on takes away some of the impetus to get it down on paper.

Vol 2 cover

Do you have any training or background in historical research or are you self-taught? What made you dive in to that field in the first place?

Primarily self-taught. I’ve buried myself in researching the Todds at archives and libraries from South Carolina to San Francisco, and that experience taught me a very great deal about doing historical research. It also made me skeptical of anything I can’t effectively cross-reference. I’m amazed at how much has been written about the Todds in secondary sources that turns out to be untrue when compared to original source material and cross-referenced.

As for the origins of my interest in things past, it developed at the same time I was falling in love with the written word. My parents, who had me late enough in their lives that they almost named me R. U. Joking, often talked in the evenings about their childhoods and early lives, providing a window into a world that had already vanished. Also, growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s there were television programs, comic books, games, and movies about historical events. They weren’t necessarily accurate, but they made history fun and inspired me to read more of it. I have a T-shirt I was given that says, “History Buff. I’d find you more interesting if you were dead.”

I wanted to major in history, but a high school guidance counselor talked me out of it. Like one of my favorite nonfiction authors, John C. Waugh, my training is in journalism, not historical research. Both require fact-checking and multiple sources, but the nature of those sources usually aren’t the same. As things turned out, I’m a man with two mistresses: writing and historical research.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Coming up with viable ideas is one of the most difficult things for me. My magazine and encyclopedia articles were assigned to me by editors. Even most of my published fiction came from assignments in which I was given a worldview to set a story in, but it was up to me to come up with a story and characters that fit within that worldview.

I mull over the assignment, think about the audience it is aimed at and what they might want to read, do preliminary research—even my fiction usually has historical elements to it—and then do some “clustering,” in which I write the basic premise in the center of a page, circle it, and then outside that circle I write any ideas that come to me, no matter how outrageous. A hit songwriter and music publisher, Ralph Murphy, once told me to never quit writing the cluster until I have over a dozen ideas jotted down, because the first ones will be obvious, but by the time I get to the thirteenth or fourteenth idea I’m probably breaking into fresh approaches.

As an example, the editor of America’s Civil War magazine asked me to write about the “First Land Battle of the Civil War” at Philippi. The question I faced was, “Okay, I can relate the events, but what does it all mean?” I concluded that the Confederacy’s epitaph was already written at Philippi: “Too few trying to defend too much with too little, against a people in whom the bonds of Union had become too strong to be severed.” Based on that conclusion, the article was published as “Omen at Philippi.” Anyone interested in reading it can find a link under Nonfiction on my website.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Elizabeth O’Cleary, a teenage Irish girl with Down Syndrome who develops a magical power when magic returns to modern Ireland. I created her for the story “Warriors of Destiny” in the Dragons Over England anthology. This was one of the situations in which I was given a worldview and a deadline, then left to my own devices. The stories in the anthology were based on the Torg roleplaying game from West End Games, in which Earth is invaded from several parallel dimensions simultaneously, each invader setting up a reality based on his or her own dimension. In the British Isles, it was a reality like that of traditional Northern European fantasy stories, while in France the Cyberpapacy had won the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition never ended. I envisioned an initial attempt by the Cyberpapacy to convert all those good Roman Catholics in Ireland to this new papacy. Elizabeth and her recently awakened new friend, a leprechaun named Letitia Blossomwalker, thwart the bad guys but at terrible cost.

The characters formed in my mind after I contracted to write a story for the anthology. I kept resisting the idea of Elizabeth having cognitive disability due to Down Syndrome, but she refused to be written any other way. I never said this in the story, but in my mind she was descended from the Tuatha De Danann, the legendary race with magical powers who some people have said came to Ireland from Atlantis. I imagined that when magic went away, their descendants still had the ability within them but no way to use it; in Elizabeth’s case, that produced the extra chromosome that resulted in Down Syndrome and a blockage in her mind that ultimately she breaks through.

Coming up with character names is another toughie for me. Ironically, shortly after I sent the “Warriors of Destiny” story off to West End, I visited the Presidio cemetery in San Francisco to pay my respects at the grave of a woman I was researching, the Great Western, Sarah Borginnis Bowman, a heroine of the Mexican-American war and later proprietor of some of the finest bordellos in the Southwest. As I was walking away from her grave I noticed a headstone a couple of graves away. The name on it was Elizabeth O’Cleary, the same as my fictional Irish girl, and a chill went up my spine. Odd coincidences like that seem to occur when I write fictional stories about Ireland.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

Well, for “Warriors of Destiny” I had to research Irish history, folklore and fauna, plus the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and Belgian machine pistols. In nonfiction, I’d have to say the five articles I was asked to write about Romania in World War II and one about South Africa’s role in the conflict for ABC-CLIO’s WWII encyclopedia. I knew virtually nothing about either country, so I had to do some serious research and do it quickly, since I also had three other articles assigned for the same publication. A decade later I reused some of the information while writing “Romanian Nightmare at Stalingrad” for Armchair General magazine. That’s why I’m loathe to throw away old research materials.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, man, that’s like asking what the most import lesson is that I’ve learned in life. I’m going to name two: First, rewriting doesn’t mean just tweaking; it may mean finding the kernel of the story that is worth keeping, discarding everything else and starting over. Second, despite all we are taught about finding our writer’s voice, staying true to our vision, etc., ultimately writing isn’t about the writer: it’s about the reader. In genre fiction that means staying true to the conventions of your genre, because readers expect them, but finding fresh ways to present those conventions. In nonfiction it means not cramming everything you’ve learned about a topic into a single article or book; that’s oh, so tempting, but data dumps stink as badly as garbage dumps.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I wouldn’t have to work at anything else to meet bills. I could just research and write six to ten hours a day. So if any patrons of the arts out there are looking for someone to sponsor, you can contact me through my website!

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I read Susan Orleans’s Rin Tin Tin The Life and the Legend in 2012, and I still find myself thinking about it occasionally. She did incredible research and a great job of telling a story both uplifting and tragic. More recently the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series impressed me because the author created a compelling narrative inspired by old, strange photographs of children.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Bringing out volume 3 in the West Virginia History series, which will be titled Crime, Politics, and Other Disasters. It will probably be released in late summer or early autumn 2018. And continuing to work on the alternate history novel.

Learn more about Gerald at his website, or check out excerpts from Volume 1 and Volume 2 of his West Virginia History series.

We All Need Some Light

The other day at work I was doing some research at a different end of the West Virginia Code that normal and came across a provision that made absolutely no sense to me. It’s WV Code §2-1-2, titled “Ancient Lights” for those playing at home:

The common law of England in regard to ancient lights is not in force in this state.

The background for this is that the prior section (WV Code §2-1-1) adopts English common law “except as altered by the general assembly of Virginia” before June 20, 1863. In other words, we adopted Virginia’s law as is when we left the commonwealth during the Civil War. But apparently it was important to exclude from that this law on “ancient lights.” So what are we missing here in the Mountain State?

Turns out it’s a right to light! In some places, at least. Specifically, it’s a kind of easement, which is a property interest that someone has in someone else’s property – think of someone who has the legal right to use a path across their next door neighbor’s property. In England, if a person has a building with windows that for 20 years have received daylight they can prevent someone else from building in a way as to obstruct the light.

Thus, you have things like this on some old English buildings:

Ancient_lights_signs_Clerkenwell FULL

Pic by Mike Newman via Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, West Virginia isn’t alone in not adopting this doctrine, so very few Americans actually have an enforceable right to light. Which is a shame, since, as the song says, we all need some light.

Author Interview – Eliot Parker

A few words with mystery writer Eliot Parker, current president of West Virginia Writers, Inc.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Eliot Parker. I am a West Virginia native. I live in Huntington, West Virginia. I write mystery/thriller novels and short stories.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project

My latest novel is titled Code for Murder. It features Cleveland Homicide Detective Stacy Tavitt who is looking for the killer of Cleveland Browns football player Devon Baker. With little forensic evidence connecting anyone to the case, Stacy sets out to find the killer. When potential suspects in the case are murdered, Stacy realizes Devon Baker’s killer may be more familiar to her than she realizes.

CodeforMurderCover

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

 I write in the mystery/thriller genre. I got interested in that genre when I was a kid. The first series of books I really enjoyed were the Encyclopedia Brown young adult books. I also loved the Scholastic “Choose Your Mystery” book series where you (as the reader) could choose the decisions and actions that characters made throughout the book. The fun part was going back and reading the book and making different choices to see what happened to the characters. From then, I was hooked as a mystery/thriller reader and those same passions for that genre carry over into my writing.

I’ve asked this question of another writer who works in your genres, so I’ll ask it again to see if you agree – what’s the difference between “mystery” and “thriller”? Aren’t all thrillers about figuring out the mystery of what’s happening?

To me, a thriller can be defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen.  A mystery is a story of revelation, with the action more mental than physical.

Eliot

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I write a little bit each day, five days a week. I use post-it-notes to help me organize characters, plot, setting, etc. I usually get up early in the mornings and write for 30-45 minutes. On weekends, I write more and holiday and summer breaks from school (I teach at Mountwest Community and Technical College) allow me to write more. It takes me about a year-and-a-half to get the first draft of a novel completed.

How complete is a “first draft” (since it’s a year and a half in the making)? What goes on after you reach that point?

A first draft for me is one that is complete. It has the exposition, the climax, and the resolution written. This doesn’t mean that all of the writing is great. In fact, a good bit of it will end up taken out of the book or revised significantly. However, when those three parts are complete, I know I have a first draft. After that point, I step away from the manuscript for several weeks (sometimes months). This allows my mind to remove itself from the characters, plot, etc. of the book. Then, when I go back and read it again with fresh eyes, I feel like I am approaching the story completely new, much like a new reader might do.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I love all of my characters. Choosing a favorite character is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. However, my favorite character is Ronan McCullough. He appeared in my novel Fragile Brilliance. I love him because is tough, reckless, but principled. He is my favorite character because it’s so easy for me to get inside his head and his voice when I start writing. I don’t always have that same strong connection with other characters I have created.

FragileCover

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a  that you never would have otherwise?

 In the sequel to Fragile Brilliance, titled A Knife’s Edge, I researched innovative technology being developed that allows law enforcement and hospitals to diagnose a host of illness and physical conditions with just one drop of blood, instead of the vials of blood that are required now. I learned more about blood, blood testing, and the process of analyzing blood through my research. I would never have sought out that information on my own if it wasn’t for the book. Blood freaks me out!

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

 The real part of writing is revision. Writers should know that the first draft is just that, the beginning of the process. Don’t be afraid or surprised to find yourself having to toss out at least 1/3 of what is written and then heavily revise the other 2/3. It’s that process of intense, detailed revision where the novel really finds is core truth and the characters really become what you envision them to be as a writer.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

 Absolutely! I would quit my job and be a writer full-time. I am working on that now, anyway, minus the lottery winnings.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

 The last great book I read was Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. It’s a powerful, moving story about love, saying goodbye, and the pain that comes when we cannot be with the one person that we love more than anything else in the world.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

 I finished the third revision of the next Ronan McCullough novel, titled A Knife’s Edge. It will be out in early 2019. I also have an outline finished for the next Stacy Tavitt novel. I am also working on compiling some short stories that have been published in literary magazines (and some that have not) for a short story collection.

Do you approach your short stories different from your novels (in terms of planning, revising, etc.)? If so, how?

I approach my short stories in the same manner that I do my novels. The only difference is that with short stories, the time spent with those characters and that setting is much shorter.

Author Interview – Cat Pleska

For our first interview of 2018 it’s back to West Virginia to talk with memoirist and editor Cat Pleska.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m a native West Virginian, 7th generation. I have a BA in English, MA in Humanities, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. I am an educator, author, and storyteller. I teach full time in an online Master of Liberal Studies program at Arizona State University (go Sun Devils!). I’ve taught at the higher Ed level for 18 years and have taught writing workshops in memoir and personal essay for many years. I have been a History Alive! character (photographer Frances B. Johnston), an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio (7 years), a book reviewer for The Charleston Gazette, and am a reviewer for West Virginia University Press. I am the president of a small nonprofit, 40-year-old WV traditional press, Mountain State Press. I am a cat lady (bordering on crazy cat lady with 6 cats currently), married to Dan, mother to Katie, and pup mom to one dog.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My memoir, Riding on Comets, was published by West Virginia University Press in 2015. About 15 years in the writing, it is a tremendous life accomplishment for me. I’ve edited 10 books, several through the Press and for another book company, Woodland Press. Most recently, Mountain State Press published Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, with 35 writers across the country (22 from WV) speaking to the difficulties of unity in these troubling times. I wanted for writers to have a format, a forum in which to practice what they do best when dramatic times present themselves, and they each stepped up to the plate creating poetry, prose, and song to exercise their right to speak out and speak up. I am super excited about my new book project, working title: The I’s Have It, a travel/personal essay collection about my travels in Iceland and Ireland. I hope to have it completed by summer and ready for revision throughout the fall.

Comets Cover

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I write primarily in nonfiction—specifically creative nonfiction, as I like personal writing the best. I call myself a memoirist and personal essayist and that is what I’m published in. The occasional fiction piece or poem floats out, but rarely. Because I come from a family of storytellers, and these were tellers of personal stories, not local or regional tales many might know, I was born into the sense of hearing and imagining in my mind the stories of my people first of all. They did not make up stories; rather, they were true stories told on themselves, so to speak, many times to make you laugh or to make you cry. Each time they told a story, which was every time they gathered, the story was the same—the details did not change. So, truth, to me, was always important. When I heard about creative nonfiction back in . . . the early 90s (when I was in college), I was intrigued. I found out creative nonfiction is the truth told with creative techniques (not making it up), but rather the same way one would tell any story: scene, dialog, description. I was blessed with a partial hyperthymesia, which is recall for one’s childhood. Plus, I was lucky enough to simply ask my family for confirmation of details all through my life.

Have you ever had a situation where you were “stuck” in your writing and could see an easy solution if you were writing fictions and could make things up but had trouble sticking to the truth? If so, how did you work around that?

The truth is I was never “stuck” in my writing due to the fact that I was writing nonfiction. The training I had in fictional techniques (this is about using craft, not lying) helped me present what many think are unessential details as essential, because in truth, they are essential. I let the details tell the story of what really happened. So, if I’m writing about going trick or treating, when I was a child, for example, what’s so significant about that event? Well, what’s significant were the costumes I chose: powerful women characters. What else? That I  wandered neighborhoods as a 9 year old alone. What else? That when I returned, I stood by the front door, looking through the storm door glass and saw a massive orange streak of lightning pattern across an absolutely clear sky. Then it streaked again. I end the story with me wondering what that phenomenon was and what it meant. I really did wonder this. After that piece is one in which my dad disappears at Christmas, drunk again. My mom worrying herself into a state of ill health over his drinking jags. What happened to him? Was he all right? What was going to happen when he returned—if he returned? Although it is exactly what happened, you can see how that the event with the foreboding lightning occurred in Oct. and then comes the Christmas story, and the reader might see the strange phenomenon as foreshadowing. That is what we do with our lives: we look for cause and effect. If someone is stuck in a nonfiction story, that’s my go to: this happened (why? which may cause me to back up with a story that explains) or this happened next: are they connected? Once you explore using those questions, it becomes clear you don’t need to alter anything to become unstuck. I just relax and let the real details flow, letting them do the work of revelation, metaphor, symbolism.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

My ideas usually come from reading, especially other memoirs/essays, but also from the two professional magazines I subscribe to: Writers Chronicle and Poets and Writers. I also get ideas from any number of other places I read, from newspapers, to literary magazines, to National Geographic, to Smithsonian, to fiction. I often just hear a word, such as the one I used above, hyperthymesia, and that’ll send me off into thinking about its definition and what it really means to be along that spectrum. I’ll do further research and then think of personal instances that might fit to include as scene and exposition. Sometimes my ideas come from conversations with people who’ll say to me: you should write about that. Sometimes I’ll review prompts from workshops I’ve been in. My ideas come from words, and it just goes from there.

How do you find people you trust to provide the kind of feedback you need during the editing/polishing process?

That’s actually been a long process and it was by trial and error. First of all, I was in college taking creative writing courses and then in workshops across the country, so I learned what effective criticism is and who knows how to do it and who does not. It is as hard to learn to criticize as it is to write in the first place. The skills are different, and not all writers hone how to criticize effectively. Sometimes, they don’t even know they should learn, but learning how to effectively criticize means you learn more about your own writing in ways you hadn’t thought about. I was in writing critique groups early on, too. But I learned over the years that not all groups work well. I have been in a few in the last few years that were very effective, but eventually, I needed to just write and find a handful of people who are skilled readers—for me (and as a general rule, close in development as a writer as you are). In turn, I am often a reader for them, but not always. And there are people I read for who don’t read for me, and that’s fine. I select who I’ll read, based on what they write, how they write, and the skills I’ve learned that would be helpful to them. Not every reader is a good reader for you and you must learn that. Having my work critiqued is never easy for me—to hear. But I’ve learned to shut out the protesting ego and just listen. I wait a couple days before I approach the piece for possible changes, re-read what they’ve written and then decide in a cold, clear light of a new day if the suggestions are valuable for my piece or not.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Since I’m a creative nonfictionist, I don’t make up characters, but I certainly do develop them. You cannot just write about a person and say, well, she’s this or that. You have to show who that person is. For example, when I wrote about my father in my memoir, it would be easy to make him a bad guy since he was an alcoholic. But my dad was also very intelligent, a hard worker, and when sober a really funny, kind man. You have to create the rounded character even though they are not made up. You have to do your homework. I and my family had to come alive on the pages of my memoir and the same goes for any essays I write about anyone. Real people, researched, and fully, roundly viewed. I have no favorites, although I am fond of myself when I was small, say 5. I say that because that was when I became more aware and absorbed the world around me. Things came alive and so did I. My curiosity was profound and my skill as an observer, as an only child in a world of giants, set me off on my life as a writer more than anything else.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

The current essay I’m writing about is the Penis Museum in Iceland sort of tops that list. I visited there, but I’d read about it before I went to Iceland. After being there and being . . . rather amazed (I mean, a sperm whale penis? Wow!) I’m still doing some research. In fact, I stumbled across a video interview with a guy who’s gifting his penis in his will to the museum. Apparently 9 inches, un-inflated, as it were, is pretty amazing.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

 This is crucial to do: edit, edit, edit, revise, revise, revise then let people read it to edit/revise again and again. Do not ever put a book out there that you haven’t gotten professional editing for. Avoid that urge that this is all you can do and it’s good enough. Take out a loan if you have to, but get it professionally polished. Realize that not everyone is going to love your book. Or read it. Do not worry about that. Why should everyone? Not everyone likes Shakespeare, the bible, Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t expect 7 billion people will like your writing, no matter how excellent it is. Avoid that expectation and realize there are even some good friends who aren’t going to read it. That’s fine. Don’t sweat it. Concentrate on and be grateful for those who do read it. Be kind. Be confident you’ve got a good book/writing, and you will if you’ve done your homework. Mostly, enjoy the writing. The sales will come.

Unity Cover

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I would travel half the year and write the other half. When I was 16, I wrote a letter to a person in which I said, “What I want to do when I grow up is to travel and to write.” And that dream has not changed. I’ve been to 8 countries, 4 continents (including no continent—that’s in Iceland and it literally is not any continent, but is a small stretch of land between the American continent and European/Asian continent), and it’s not enough. I’ve written all my life, have been published since 1990, and it’s not enough. So, 1 million in my pocket would set me free to do and be even more. It would be a tremendous blessing.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I’m sort of into the Icelandic authors right now, but I have so many books to be read . . . I’m not ashamed nor will I stop as long as a I have a dime in my pocket buying books—lots of them. I do not care one fig they’re all over the place around here. I’ll get to them as long as the eyeballs last.

Why Iceland? Both as a travel destination and as a focus of your reading?

Because I always wanted to travel since I was very young, my heart leaps up when I come upon a chance to do so. In the case of Iceland, it actually hadn’t been on my radar but a conference called NonfictionNow came up and it was taking place in Reykjavik, Iceland, and I both wanted to go to that conference, one that I had never attended, and to Iceland because a little reading about it told me I’d probably love it (I do!). So, I wrote a paper to submit for a round table event and it was accepted. So, off to Iceland I go. The diversity of attendees was quite fascinating and the conversations were enlightening. But it was the land and its people that fascinated me most. What I found there was a land still forming, but which had a history rich and engaging and that Icelandic is a language spoken that the Vikings would still understand from a thousand years ago. It’s a land where the very pragmatic people believe in elves and trolls (about 50%), where the ministry of highways employs “Troll whispers” to help in highway design. Where there are waterfalls that appear to fall to the center of the Earth, geysers flume, and the land is an incredible glowing green (Greenland is ice; Iceland is green—go figure!). These are just some of the elements that attracted me to Iceland, but the possibility of this still forming land and fascinating citizens (they just voted into law that a company cannot pay a women less than a man for an equal job) fire my imagination of what it would be like to live there. So, I write about it, dream about it, consider what it would mean if I lived there. And by the way: Icelanders love literature, have 100% literacy rate, and almost everyone publishes.

What do you think your next project will be?

As I mentioned, it’ll be The I’s Have It, but beyond that is a novel. I once thought I had two novel ideas and for years I’ve danced around with writing them both from time to time, never really getting very far. A few pages on each at best. But in 2016, I was in Shepherdstown at a local diner for breakfast. It was crowded, so my husband and I were sitting at the counter, drinking coffee, waiting for our order. I was watching the wait staff weave around one another behind the counter, as if they were braiding invisible strands of hair. They moved steadily, efficiently and smoothly and suddenly I realized—this came out of nowhere—that I was not writing two novels; they were the same novel and needed to be joined; that is, braided together. Once I realize that, I started writing the book anew. I was happily into my third chapter when a character came forward that I thought was going to be a minor one, and BOOM! She took over. I haven’t been back to it for while, as I’ve got to reconfigure the whole dang thing—in a way. All I’ve written will work but now it has to be meshed in a new way and I have to think about the structure/theme. Hey! It’s what writers do!

What’s different about the mechanics of writing fiction versus nonfiction?

As for the mechanics, there is not much difference. A good story is a good story, and the elements that make for a good story don’t differ, regardless of what genre you’re writing in (exceptions are hard news writing, scholarly writing, some biographies, although the latter two benefit from using the common mechanics of writing story). Having a facility for detail and good memory, in addition to the fact finding and checking, is a good thing for a memoirist and personal essayist, and a fiction writer as well. My early passive training in a family of storytellers caused me to have a facility with language, sensory detail, dialog, description. Just as someone writing fiction, I know I must have an opening sentence in my nonfiction that captures the audience. I know I have to provide details so the reader can “see” in their mind’s eye what’s going on; There has to be a narrative arc, something connecting the main story themes throughout; I have to build in tension; and writers of any genre who wish to tell a story, true or not, need to think about the universality of what they are writing about: why would anyone read it and care? In the end, the only major difference between writing creative nonfiction and fiction is whether or not you’re careful about fact—what really happened. But you have to break down that fact and think: but what does it mean? What do I think about it and know from it? How did it happen and what was the result? Life is story, and if we’re lucky, we get to tell it.

Aliens For the Defense!

The first novel-length project I finished (which shall molder in box in my close forevermore) grew out of the fact that criminal defense attorneys routinely have their clients try and tell them whopper stories about “what really happened.” My personal favorite is a colleague’s client who explained that he tested positive for cocaine because he was helping a buddy move a couch and when he picked it up a cloud of white powder erupted and flew up his nose. My book took that phenomenon and aliened it up a bit (it involves the Flatwoods Monster).

Now, in my wife’s home state of Wyoming, somebody is trying to sell something similar, but I doubt any court (or defense attorney) is going to be buying. The defendant was arrested for being drunk in public, but he had a good reason:

Police say a central Wyoming man they arrested for public intoxication claimed he had traveled back in time to warn of an alien invasion.

* * *

The man told police he was only able to time travel because aliens filled his body with alcohol. He noted that he was supposed to be transported to the year 2018, not this year.

I suppose time travel isn’t an exact science, even for aliens But don’t worry, the invasion isn’t until 2048, so we’ve got time to prepare.

In the meantime, might I suggest an expert witness should this gentleman decide to go to trial?

Aliens

Author Interview – Carter Taylor Seaton

Joining me this month is another local author, Carter Taylor Seaton. Carter has written a little bit of everything, with her latest release being a biography of a recently departed West Virginia political stalwart.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

Hey there, I’m Carter Taylor Seaton, a gal born and bred in Huntington, West Virginia, as we like to say. After raising a family, I spent about ten years in Georgia before returning to Huntington be sure my grandchildren knew their Nana. I’ve written novels, essays, magazine articles, a non-fiction book, and a biography.

As a Huntington native who left the area then came back, how does that experience effect your writing (fiction, in particular)?

My ten years in Georgia specifically informed my second novel, amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story. While I lived there many of my close friends were gay, but when I came back to West Virginia I was shocked to learn that folks here, in the main, still were quite homophobic. In general, I think most novelists will admit that their lives always creep into their work, whether or not it’s intentional. I certainly see that in my writing.

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Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My latest project is a biography of the late long-term congressman, educator, presidential advisor, and WV secretary of state, Ken Hechler. West Virginia University Press is releasing The Rebel in the Red Jeep in May.

Hechler’s been a presence in West Virginia for as long as I can remember – what’s something you learned about his life that you didn’t know before he asked you to write his biography?

Actually, I knew very little about him other than the fact that he’d held public office for so many years, so almost everything I learned through my research and during our time together was new to me. Yet, for someone whose life revolved around serious issues, I was surprised to learn he loved to sing. Although he didn’t have a very good voice, that fact didn’t stop him.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I prefer fiction, but the non-fiction book, Hippie Homesteaders, was a project dear to my heart because I knew most of those transplanted artisans and musicians and realized no one had ever told their compelling stories. Ken Hechler actually approached me to write his biography. How could I say no to a living legend?

Why do you prefer fiction and are you hungering to get back to it after a couple of non-fiction books?

In a sense fiction is easier, which makes it more fun. Of course if you’d asked me that before I spent four years researching the biography on Hechler, I might have answered differently. I do enjoy the research non-fiction requires, but the footnoting and indexing are tedious to say the least. With fiction, there’s also research, but there’s no need to document it.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

My physical process depends on what I’m writing. If it’s fiction, it first involves a legal pad and a #2 pencil, then I enter it in the computer for edits and tweaks. If it is non-fiction, I start on the computer because all my research is there.

As a former English major, I’m also an outliner. Not one that’s set in stone, but regardless of the genre, I have to know where it is going. So I’m a ‘plotter,’ not a ‘pantser’ (one who writes by the seat of their pants.) The result of too many term papers, I expect.

I think I’m a bit compulsive about having one chapter as tight as possible before moving on. That means I don’t write an entire draft before I revise. I revise as I go. Works for me, but might not for others.

I proof by reading from the back to the front so I don’t get caught up in the story or the sentence structure. Here I’m looking for typos and omissions, not revision opportunities.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I very much liked Cassie, the next-door neighbor of the protagonist in amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story. It’s set in the 80s just as the AIDS crisis is beginning. She’s a lesbian yet, unlike most homosexuals at that time, she never bothers to hide it. She becomes the catalyst for the protagonist’s moral awakening. I’m currently in love with AJ, the headstrong, potty-mouthed gal in the novel in progress.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

Timothy Leary.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

I’m not suggesting writers avoid it, but deciding to self-publish requires a level of marketing that is hard for someone who doesn’t know how to do it well. It takes a tremendous amount of time that could otherwise be devoted to more writing. I did it once, but as a career marketing professional in my former life, I was comfortable with taking on the marketing tasks.

How does the “after publication” period – marketing  and such – differ between self-publishing and trade publishing?

It differs greatly. When you self-publish, there’s no one else to support the marketing efforts. Publishers do a great behind-the-scenes job of getting your book into the hands of distributors and stores, in front of reviewers, and entered into contests. Some of that, particularly the need for reviews and contest entries is much more difficult for the author than it is for the publisher. That being said, you still have to put yourself out there doing lectures, book signings, or appearances regardless of how the book is published. Publishers may book some of those gigs for you, but in reality you still must do lots of that yourself. And be willing to go where your publisher sends you.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

It wouldn’t change it much. I might buy a new laptop so I can work in places other than my “chick cave.”

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I love the way he tells the story from two POVs and how they finally intersect.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I’m already working on a multi-generational novel.

Tell us a little about your multi-generational novel (if you don’t mind).          

Actually, a house that has been in a family for nine generations is as much the protagonist as the young woman who learns she’s inherited it. She has the option of accepting the estate or not, but the stories within the story are told her to woo her into leaving her much loved but hard scrabble life in West Virginia to assume the role of mistress of this Virginia manor. Will she or won’t she?

Carter on Social Media

http://www.carterseaton.com