Archive for June, 2009

What can you be besides a writer?

June 23, 2009

I dreamed of being an archeologist.
Daddy insisted on secretarial school.  (Yes, this was back in the dark ages when fathers did that.)  The dream died.

Fast forward thirty-five years.  My husband and I chucked city jobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved to the hills of northern Arkansas.  I soon discovered I was meant to be an Ozarks-dweller.  I began writing about the area I loved, and before long was a regular contributor to regional, national, and international publications; as well as an Ozarks-based reporter for radio news.

Then I decided to try my hand at mystery writing.  The “Something to Die For” series was born.  Two books into the series I was doing research for a third novel set in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, when the park curator mentioned she’d been cataloging artifacts for Dr. Caven Clark, Staff Archeologist at Arkansas’ Buffalo National River.

Archeologist?  I knew the Buffalo area as a three-county-long landscape with a wild river known to offer canoeing, fishing, and hiking amid spectacular scenery.  I knew the river had cut deep canyons like a mini-Grand, but…archeology? Timidly I picked up the phone and called Dr. Clark.  Yes,
he was willing to help me.  I was IN.

After repeated discovery trips to the Buffalo, after exploring bluff shelters with Caven Clark, after many questions and interviews, I now know that the Buffalo National River area rivals the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico for archeological wealth.  Ten thousand or more years ago Paleo Indians hunted and camped along the river, leaving chipped points.  Centuries passed, and families began accompanying their hunters.  The family groups spent more and more of the year here, learning to scratch soil and scatter seed gathered from wild food plants.  They stayed during the winter, living in dry bluff shelters and caves along the Buffalo and elsewhere.

The word dry is important because, just as happened in the American Southwest, even fiber objects like woven garments, nets, sandals, and cradle boards survived inside the dry shelters.  More commonly preserved throughout were chipped stone hunting points and tools, as well as pottery. (Pottery making began about 500 BCE.)  A legacy of life, a cultural heritage, was collecting.

Then Europeans came.  Spaniards passed through the area during the 16th century, including a party led by Hernando de Soto.  By the early 1800s, white settlers were moving into valleys near the river.  Children and adults enjoyed exploring the world around them, often picking up curious-looking objects they found in caves and shelters or dug up in their fields.  This collecting by individuals continued, year after year.  A cultural legacy began vanishing.

Such “looting” was not yet a crime.  But, by the beginning of the last century, the cultural heritage found in Arkansas had been recognized, and archeologists came to collect artifacts for museums in the East.  The struggle to preserve what was left had begun.  As Dr. Clark now writes: “My job as an archeologist is no longer the digging of square holes for the extraction of scientific data, but the struggle to leave as much in the ground as is possible, to preserve what remains of the past for future generations…(and to) responsibly interpret these remains.”  (Epilogue, A RIVER TO DIE FOR.)
It’s not easy.  There isn’t enough staff to patrol the 36,000 acres of the Buffalo National River.  In recent years, due partly to the ease of advertising and selling objects on the Internet, as well as to the hunger of European clients for American Indian artifacts, looting at the Buffalo and elsewhere has become big business.  It’s often linked with the production and purchase of methamphetamines and other drugs.

Finally, after years of “slap on the wrist” law enforcement, some looting cases have been successfully prosecuted under the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act, which bans the removal and sale of artifacts from public land.

You can see where I am going with this.  Radine, now an archeologist by proxy, was on her way to creating a mystery novel about archeological looting.

Challenging?  Yes.  Fun?  You bet!  Caven Clark let me poke my fingers through the dusty floors of remote bluff shelters, identifying such things as the tiny shells of river creatures that long-ago people used for food.  After one hike I sat in a now well-known Buffalo destination, the Indian Rock House, imagining (as does Catherine King in my novel) what living there might have been like several thousand years ago. Then, stuffed with atmosphere and information, I returned to my office to dream like an archeologist, and to write.  A RIVER TO DIE FOR is the result.

I never worked as a secretary but, by golly, I have brushed the life of an archeologist.  And I was right.  It would have been a great career.


The danger of teaching “You can’t….”

June 15, 2009

We’ve just been discussing the dictum of a well-known and (previously?) respected author who stood before an auditorium full of budding and established writers a few weekends ago and laid down a number of her rules about point of view.  Most had to do with the idea that you can’t write from a POV that you haven’t experienced, as, for example, a man should never write from a female point of view.

I was excited and almost overwhelmed by your responses to that blog.  Comments agreed with my own thoughts.  Her rules were “horsefeathers.”   You can probably think of many, many exceptions to her POV  “rule” beginning with childrens’ stories written from the point of view of , say, a rabbit.

Now then, here’s another rule I heard an author with nearly a hundred published novels to his credit lay down during a talk to another group of wanna-be writers:

“Don’t write in dialect,” he said. ” Too hard to understand, and editors won’t touch it.”

(I might say up front that this author, who writes westerns, has broken the  rule in some of his own novels.)

And so have I.   I did it openly in one of my most popular novels, MUSIC TO DIE FOR, now out of print but soon to be brought back to life by Wolfmont Press.   The book is set deep in hillbilly country in and around Mountain View, Arkansas, and at Ozark Folk Center State Park.  Both are in remote Stone County,  AR, where the first paved road, county-wide,  appeared in the late 1950’s.

My favorite character in MUSIC TO DIE FOR (other than protagonists Carrie McCrite and Henry King) is a one hundred-year-old family matriarch called Mad Margaret Culpeper.  The Culpeper home is deep in the forest, and contact with outsiders is rare unless Margaret’s boys are out selling some of the family’s, uh, product.   (Her oldest boy is 80, I might say.)

Here’s Margaret, talking to Carrie and Henry, who, hoping to save a kidnapped child,  have dared a hike to her home in the middle of the Culpeper compound.

“Elizabeth weren’t ‘special purty  ‘n’ niver had purties to fix up in, but she done good at school.  She were good at poetry ‘n’ thinkin’ up music. Oh, my, she loved music–she had the purty things in her head. She made music all the time.”

And, later….

“Elizabeth niver had friends. She daren’t to bring young-uns home, see, ‘n’ town folks didn’t want a Culpeper playin’ with thur chillern.  She weren’t asked to parties nur other affairs the young folks had….   So she got to spendin’ all her time in the woods….”

Margaret raised her arm and waved it in a wide, circular sweep. “It were out there she met the stranger.”


Every time she opens her mouth, Margaret Culpeper speaks in dialect.  And this book has gathered praise from editors and reviewers, including Library Journal and other notable sources, across the spectrum to local media here in the Ozarks.   Margaret’s speech has often been commented on with praise.

So, what do you think?  What am I supposed to think when someone says “Never write in dialect?”

(This is one reason I never say “never” when I teach or speak about writing. I think the minute you state a rule someone has broken it…beautifully.)


Who, or what, have you been?

June 8, 2009

A highly acclaimed literary author was speaking to an auditorium full of published and wanna-be published writers who had paid to be taught by her.

“Think of all you have been in your life,” she said.  “The obvious ones–daughter or son, student, sibling, confident, friend.  You’ve been hundreds of things.  If you’ve ever boiled an egg you have been a cook.  If you’ve ever pulled a weed, you’ve been a gardener.  You, at this point in your lives, have been hundreds of things.

“Point of View,” she continued, “relates to something that must be inside you and hence relates to what it’s possible for you to put inside your character’s lives.

“First person point of view is always interior and always gut-level honest.  It must always be something you yourself have been.  Third person interior must be the same.  Don’t write inside anyone’s head that you can’t be.  You can’t cross the sex line.  A woman can not write from a male point of view, for example.”

She continued in this vein, but I was already lost, thinking about what she’d just said.  Can’t write thoughts for a male character?  In my own field, mystery, what about Agatha Christie and Hastings?  What about Dorothy L. Sayers and Lord Peter?  And, of course, what about Radine Trees Nehring and Henry King?  And, even if they don’t cross a “sex line,” what about the many, many people who write historical fiction?

At the first break I did approach the speaker and ask her about historical fiction.  True, I have boiled an egg, but in my handy-dandy electric egg cooker and not over a wood fire.  Should I attempt to make the transition to a woman cooking at a fireplace  in the 17th century?  The speaker had no ready answer, only repeating that bit about boiling an egg making me a cook.

The rest–getting water, pouring it in the iron pot, putting logs on the fire, dodging sparks, timing the egg with what…an hour glass?–would have to be the product of my imagination and research.

Ah ha!  Imagination and research?  Aren’t both of those an essential part of the writing life?  And can’t they allow me to, at least occasionally, be what I could never be in real life?

Then why can’t I (especially with the help of men willing to read what I write and comment) be–at least in the pages of my novel, and using imagination and research–a man?

I didn’t remind her that I write mysteries and never in my life have I killed anyone though, in my novels, I have committed–let’s see–at least six murders.

What are your thoughts on this?