Story Worlds: Places I’ve Been, Part 2

What settings have inspired you? What stories do you associate with them? Which stories will you never forget?

Earlier, I shared how authors thrust us into their story worlds, by mixing words together in such a way that we’re living and breathing alongside the characters.

I’ve discussed where story ideas come from, how settings inspire characters and situations. These are real live places that invoke the muses.

Today, I’m sharing one of those real, live places that conjured a story and spurred me to create one of those story worlds.

For decades, I played tug-of-war with various muses vying for my attention, from art and music to poetry and fiction writing.

My urge to write fiction started in second grade. Over the next ten years, ideas for chapter books, TV shows, and movie scripts sprouted from fairy tales, family anecdotes, Nancy Drew, Hawaii Five-O, and Bonanza. It all started with Mrs. Haan—my second grade teacher and my first muse.

Years later, at Calvin College in Michigan, Dr. Besselsen took up the role when he introduced me to Appalachian culture.

When I was a sophomore, Dr. Besselsen took a group of education majors to Mars Hill College in western North Carolina for an interim class. Mars Hill is a town not unlike Andy Griffith’s Mayberry (Mt. Airy, NC). It’s a place of Smoky Mountain traditions and bluegrass music.

Downtown Mars Hill, NC 1978
Diego J. Lizcano on VisualHunt

What we expected was three weeks of teacher aiding in the mountain schools. What we didn’t expect was being mesmerized by the college’s resident storyteller.

In the evenings, we sat around listening to his lively renditions of “Jack and the Northwest Wind” and “Sody Sallyraytus.” This bearded, white-haired man, Richard Chase, spun his yarns with bewitching blue eyes, dramatic tones, and perfect timing.

Folklorist Richard Chase & Dr. Besselsen

Years earlier, in the 1940s, author and folklorist Richard Chase gathered the southern Appalachian Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales into two books, finally putting the oral tradition into written form for all to enjoy.

In January, 1978, he brought these tales to life in the college lounge for us unsuspecting students held captive by his storytelling magic.

He didn’t merely make the stories come alive. He thrust us into a time when oral tradition was valued, when it was the only way stories were passed down through the generations.

Back in those days, stories weren’t just fanciful ones, such as when Jack uses magic words to produce a hearty meal. Folks also told family anecdotes about frugal Great-grandma, eccentric Uncle Billy, or flighty third cousin Ruby Mae. Both adults and youth were happy to sit for hours at the feet of elderly storytellers, soaking in their wit and wisdom. This suggests a time of family ties, conversation, joy in one’s work, and valuing one’s simple heritage. And contentment. A far cry from nowadays.

Visiting North Carolina was life-changing for me. Not only because of Richard Chase’s stories, but because of local people we interacted with, folks who epitomized these attitudes. We met Mr. Woody, a woodworker who so enjoyed making chairs that he couldn’t tell you how much time it took to make one chair. Or five. Or ten. Not interested in competing with assembly line furniture factories, he still made chairs the way his family had done it for generations.

Mr. Woody, the chair maker

We met the blacksmith, who took time to demonstrate his craft while sharing the ways that Christ is like iron, emphasizing the Bible’s claim that Christ will rule with a rod of iron.

We learned mountain clogging, loitered at the general store playing checkers, and hiked the Appalachian trail. Everywhere we turned, we met content and joyful people, a far cry from those who chase after the rags-to-riches American Dream, stumbling up the ladder of success.

I learned more than the school children did. As we met people and explored the area, I was struck by the number of folks who created meaningful lives by a route much different from those seeking prosperity. As grand-daughter of a self-made businessman, this was foreign to me. It changed the way I thought about work, play, goals, and success.

Back at home, I read all the Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales from the library. Later, I purchased those two books as a memento of January, 1978. They remind me of lessons learned in North Carolina.

My time there evolved into a tale of my own that needed to be shared. As I reflected on our visit, I wondered, “What if there was a clash between big-city northern values and southern Appalachian culture?” This led me to write a short story inspired by people we met on our trip. I submitted it the Good Groceries contest. (I think it was called “Good Groceries” because at the time, the $25 prize would buy a bag of groceries.) It won 1st place, published in Calvin’s student magazine.

**********************
Even after I tucked the story away, memories of the people
and their Appalachian hills stayed with me through the years,
beckoning me to revisit their towns and hollows,
daring me to dig deeper into their lives.

***********************
Five years later, I read it again. Dissatisfied with it as a short story, I determined it could be a good novel.

After fifteen years of researching and writing (in my spare time between work and parenting), All That Is Hidden was born—with the help of my writers group. I consider it my fifth child.

Strategically placed in each section is a family story
told by one of my characters,
stories that embody and accentuate each part of the plot.

That’s my nod to Richard Chase.
That’s my effort to recapture the stirring moments
when he placed a group of college students
under his spell.

I learned a lot about myself while creating the world of All That Is Hidden. I was surprised by how caught up I got in my characters’ struggles. Being an introvert, I get my energy from being alone. But after writing a few hours, I was drained from being with my story characters for so long and feeling their pain.

Then, of course, there’s the effort of re-creating the story world for readers to seamlessly live the experience—to feel the impact of joys and sorrows, colliding in a way that will be felt long after closing the book. It’s what every author wants for their readers.

After finishing the first draft, the journey had just begun. Writing a novel is one thing; revising and editing is quite another. Then there’s the publishing process. It all involves a lot of time, sweat, and risk.

My book is dedicated to both Mrs. Haan and Dr. Besselsen.
Mrs. Haan gave me my love of writing.
Dr. Besselsen gave me my love of southern Appalachia.

Here’s a taste of the story . . .

*******************

The elephant in the room.

In Tina Hamilton’s case, her father’s silent nine years.

That’s the cloud that overshadows her while growing up in Currie Hill, North Carolina, at the foot of the Smokies. The cloud hovers over home. At the bakery. At the ice cream parlor. At church. At family picnics.

“I always knew my father had a secret.
I must have known it at least by the time I was old enough
to recognize the embarrassed hush that fell over
a room of grown-ups the moment I crossed the threshold.
That’s back when folks still talked about it. . . .”

She catches snippets of conversation here and there—at family reunions, from Uncle Ross, Mom’s stories, and arguments between her dad and northern businessman Phil Kepler. Phil has recently moved to Currie Hill to help establish a theme park that her father is trying to derail.

Tina has other problems and isn’t too worried about the proposed park until the night of the town council meeting that will determine the future of Currie Hill—and her family’s. Finally, to sway the tide of votes, the cloud of silence lifts, but nobody is ready for the truth.

******************
“A hush of secrets is different from any other kind.
It’s not like the thin silence after the wind combs and tickles
the leaves of the sassafras tree,
nor is it like the sweet quiet of the morning sky
after it echoes and swallows the chatter of the purple martins.
No, it’s more like the pregnant hush of thick storm air
right before it inhales and gulps the countryside,
and reluctantly lets it go again.”

******************

Watch the trailer (in sidebar) and read reviews on the Books page.

What settings have inspired you? What stories do you associate with them? Which stories will you never forget?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura



17 thoughts on “Story Worlds: Places I’ve Been, Part 2

  1. Those photos of your interim in Mars Hill are priceless! Thank you for sharing them. This one month and these people you knew for a short time grew into an entire world. That is amazing. I’ll remember them for a long time, thanks to you!

  2. I can vouch for Laura’s love of writing fiction from early on. As the big sister in the family, she dictated what would we play, and more times than not, it was “Let’s write a story!”

  3. I still clearly remember when you read chapters from “All That Is Hidden” to the first writers’ group I ever attended. I’m so glad you’ve continued to write though you have many, many responsibilities that could easily claim all your time. Keep writing! Your blogs are quite interesting and take me into worlds that I thoroughly enjoy….
    Karen

    1. Karen, thanks so much for the kind words and encouragement! I remember so many of your writings, too. I can’t look at Easter peeps without thinking of you! Or when I’m overpacking for a trip 🙂

      1. My grandkids love my history with Peeps and constantly give me new recipes for the Peeps Cookbook. And, shoes are still the worst thing to pack for trips….and I take lots of trips these days with so many grandkids in faraway places. It’s fun to connect with you again!

        1. Karen, it’s great to connect with you again as well! Thanks for reading the blog. I’m glad to hear that you’ve passed the Peeps history down to your grandkids. I wonder if they will have shoe-packing adventures, too!

  4. I knew you spent time in the southern Appalachians but it was so interesting to find out more about your time there and the people you got to know. Also that you know how to clog! What a great experience.

  5. Laura,

    Your story reminds me of the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott, who had a Highlander nurse who’d tell him folk tales of the Scottish Highlands. As an adult, he incorporated those tales and dialects into his novels and not only had tremendous success with them, but more or less changed Europe’s perception of the Highlanders altogether.

    As for me, my best writing actually comes in the library. I love being surrounded by books. One of my favorite places in the world is my university’s library, where you could literally get lost in an ocean of other people’s works.

    1. I hope that nurse found out later how her storytelling impacted young Walter!

      Yes, the library is a great place–surrounded by books. I have to limit my visits because I have a tendency to check out too many books at a time.

  6. I love the idea of storytellers. Recently around extended family celebrations, I’ve asked the grandparents to tell stories of their childhood, specifically, how they found Christ as their Savior. What I thought might take up fifteen minutes ran more than an hour. And my only regret was that I hadn’t recorded it all on my phone.

    What settings inspire me? I guess every one. My kids laugh at how I’m constantly suggesting a new story, song, poem, or play based on the things, people, places around us. I admit I was completely shocked that everyone didn’t see the world that way.

    Thanks for sharing your experience in the Appalachians. What a rich history and sweet memories! (Are you in those pictures? or always behind the camera?)

    1. Elizabeth, how wonderful that you got the grandparents talking at length about such personal stories.

      I can relate . . . I’m inspired by most settings, too. But I’ve learned to keep my poetic and story inspirations to myself so people won’t laugh. 🙂

      My friend Mary and I are in the blacksmith picture. I’m on the left.

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