Category Archives: main characters

A Character Taken from Real Life

All my characters have roots among real-world people—after all, who can write in a vacuum? But behind Elmus Rooksby, This Madness of the Heart‘s founder of Grace and Glory Bible College (later taken over by arch-villain Jasper Jarboe), I was always conscious of one real man, a professor of mine.

“Elmus Rooksby laughed with his whole body when he was happy. Almost like a glowing sphere of faerie dust, he brought joy wherever he went. His bald head shone, his blue eyes sparked, his feet almost danced, and even if he didn’t actually do it, his arms seemed to stretch out and gather you into his warmth. He was a huge teddy bear of a man, and my pleasure at seeing him was genuine. For the first time in days I felt myself relaxing, safe in the comfort of his limpid goodness.”

I find goodness extraordinarily difficult to portray. It’s like wrestling with the Pillsbury Doughboy: no matter what I do, it wants to snap back into something cloying, boring, superficial, sugary—and white. Villainy, now—that’s easy. Just like it’s easier to rake someone over the coals than tell them you love them. Goodness finds its strength in being vulnerable. Evil has its roots in rage and hate—and wards its weakness behind colorful walls like nested puzzle boxes. Take JJ, for example:

“From where I stood I could see his piercing, electric, “Billy Graham eyes”—in another man perhaps even bedroom eyes. But not in Jasper Jarboe. Those deep-set blue eyes opened out on the world like caves of dirty ice, radiating none of the heat of the sensualist. His lips were thick and red, repellent on such a man in their woman’s softness. His tongue flicked out serpent-like, leaving a sheen of spittle in its wake. His absurd ski-jump nose sloped out from puffy cheeks, overshadowing a too-small chin and incipient jowls. The powerful lights exposed his teased pouf of thinning hair for what it was, chilling me with the unsettling image of a malicious overgrown infant, bald but for its newborn peach-fuzz.”

Burt Lancaster as Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry

Comparatively, such descriptions are so easy to write!

But back to Elmus. Perhaps good people are difficult to describe because they’re so rare. How many truly good people do you know? Really? And what constitutes a “good” person, anyway?

I spent uncounted hours across the desk from this professor through the years, watching his every move with the critical suspicion that becomes second-nature to a woman competing for a place in academe. Never did I detect a flicker of sexual tension (always on my radar), or defensiveness—physical, emotional or intellectual. He met me with his whole person, right there, open, available to me, always eager to offer anything he could that might be of help. The man listened. And when he listened, he heard. He expressed compassion for impossible situations without offering meaningless solutions or platitudes. He looked across the desk at me with real grief in his eyes when I was in trouble. On the rare occasions when he actually offered advice, his words were wise. And he never, ever turned the conversation to himself unless I asked.

In his less serious moments, I used to imagine that his habitual joy was about to burst the constraints of his portly body until nothing would remain but brilliant dancing motes of light. I never heard him spread a vicious rumor or tear another person down. His apparent love for humanity—individually and as a whole—never struck a false note.

He didn’t tolerate viciousness or grandstanding in his seminars. I always wondered after he’d shut down such displays just how he’d done it. His soft word spoken into student chaos was like oil on troubled water. The calm was immediate and irreversible, although the culprits often seemed confused by their sudden silence.

The only times I remember seeing him roused to anger were during the days that inspired Madness: when vicious, self-serving bullies were taking over some local colleges, firing brilliant and gentle scholars, and replacing them with doctrinally “pure” puppets. I realized then the absolute rightness of my professor’s emotional presence also embraced righteous rage in the face of injustice . . . righteousness without the slightest taint of self-righteousness.

Elmus Rooksby, a good man. The man behind the character is gone now, but I’m content with my memorial to him.

In the process of writing this post, it occurred to me to see if classic paintings of “goodness” were as rare as my own experience of it. I found 1 painting in 2 hours of web-crawling that was exactly what I’d had in mind:

Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Man, 1475

Two other paintings came close:

I freely admit that these choices are subjective, but since this is my blog, that’s OK, right?  Anyway, below are far more common images that came up in a search for “Renaissance paintings of men.” I would say that their expressions range from selfish, cruel, and arrogant to sad, confused, and shallow.

The most obvious explanation for this disparity is that most of the portraits painted then–and now– were done by commission, which would have meant there was a higher than normal percentage of arrogant money lenders among the people whose portraits were painted . . . But I also wonder if,  like me as a writer, these painters found goodness difficult to portray. Or perhaps its presence among the ordinary run of human beings was rare enough that they didn’t often have the chance to paint it.

It’s an intriguing question for me, and I’m sure I’ll pursue it in future books in the series. And, of course, it’s at the heart of the Yeshua’s Cat books: how to portray Jesus of Nazareth, with all the complexities of his nature . . .

It’s good to know that the tasks I’ve taken on will always be beyond my abilities to perfect! I’ve never like being bored.

*** Portions of this post were originally written for the Jane Reads Blogspot

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Durham’s Eyrie and the Howard (Steamboat) Mansion

Howard Mansion Living Room

Something I’ve discovered while talking with readers is how fascinated people are by how an author gets from general ideas to a finished story. For me, one huge part of preparing to write is setting up locations–almost as if I were preparing to shoot a film: that means deciding exactly where the book’s action will take place. Not just Appalachia, but a particular ridge, and a particular holler, with a river and a mine and a town with streets and businesses. Not just a college, but a college with its own unique personality and reason for being, with its own history. And not just a big old house, but an architecturally viable and complex one, with its own history and odd little quirks.

So when I decided that my ill-fated college founder was going to build himself a house, it had to be one that worked–on all those levels.  Durham’s Eyrie is that house:

The house rose like a fortress from the hillside, surrounded by ancient tulip poplars. In the distance, under the eaves of the forest, I could see the family crypt. But the house itself held my eye, as always. Red brick towers and turrets, peaks and gables rose from a limestone foundation into three stories of massive wall. Decorative chimneys towered above the slate roof, and relief sculptures carved in red sandstone flowed up the main shaft. Moorish columns flanked the broad entryway above the front steps, framing the jewel-like stained glass doors.

But how did I get from “I need a big old house,” to the house I just described? Well, first I knew it had to be Victorian, because that was the time period when Obadiah would have been setting up housekeeping. Second, no self-respecting coal baron–and particularly not one fleeing a curse–would built a light, airy, clapboard Painted Lady: he’d build a castle.  Once that was decided, all I had to do was start doing research on Victorian mansions . . . stone mansions. I didn’t want to go far afield in my research, because I wanted something authentic for the area. And since I was in Louisville at the time, that’s where I started looking.

Howard Mansion in 1900

Enter the real-life Victorian mansion built by the Howard family of Ohio River shipyards fame and located on the northern bank of the Ohio. You can see it set back from the Jeffersonville, Indiana waterfront, right across the river from Louisville. Durham’s Eyrie would have been built around 1880, ten years before the Howard home, so the period was right, and I was already familiar with the house. Add a few blast screens to cover the oversized windows, and the building could almost withstand a siege. What more could I want? In the end, except for its location, the Howard house reinvented itself almost exactly as Durham’s Eyrie–at least on the outside.

Edmonds and Laura Howard 1904

By the way, the “Howard Home”  (as it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), was built in 1890 by Edmonds J. Howard of the Howard Shipyards family. Today it welcomes visitors as the Howard Steamboat Museum, featuring displays from the shipyards and  Howard family history.

Howard Boatyards, 1901

Anyway, with the house selected, I needed photographs so I could play around with visual details as I wrote. So I went, camera in hand, to ask the Howard Museum docents if they would let me creep around places tourists didn’t normally go, so that I could get an idea of the house’s layout for my book . . . and they very kindly took me all around, even onto the third floor and into the attics. Unfortunately (for my purposes), much of the house is now used for the steamboat displays and looks little like it did when the family lived there, so I’ve supplemented my own photos with some turn-of-the-century photos from The Howard Steamboat Collection at the University of Louisville.

And . . . the stained glass doors described in Madness are not from the Howard house, but from the Old 851 Mansion in Louisville.

So follow me now on a virtual tour of the original inspiration for Durham’s Eyrie. Below is the main entrance, with the original beveled glass. As I just said, for This Madness of the Heart I changed the doors to resemble the ones at the Old 851 Mansion since the Howard glass doors weren’t stained glass.

Howard Mansion front door and Old 851 Mansion

 

The main entrance of the Howard mansion faces the stairway leading up to a landing and on from there to the second floor.  In Durham’s Eyrie, Jack’s magical stained glass window was on the landing where the red and gold glass is in the photo.

Jack’s stained glass glowed above a daybed, filling the landing like a half-remembered dream. Mythical birds and flowers intertwined in a jeweled mosaic through fantastic trees, dappling the dark stairs with their bright shadows. Fragile, delicate, glorious, this window Jack had fashioned for Viola rivaled Tiffany at its height. We stood silent, worshipers at a shrine.

Main staircase from front door and Looking down at landing from 2nd floor

 

The room where Viola entertains guests (and torments college administrators) is a combination of several Howard rooms, including the  room at the top of this page. There’s a period photo of the parlor below and an alcove in the dining room–which inspired the “cherries” in Viola’s windows.

My tale of high tea at Durham’s Eyrie floated through the air around us as I painted Probeck’s predicament amongst the tea cups, his stunned face splashed red with the light of the cherry windows. I enjoyed the afternoon all over again, and this time I didn’t have to choke back the laughter.

Howard Parlor 1905
Dining Room alcove with cherries

 

Viola’s library is partly based on this old photo of the Howard library, although, since no bookcases have survived in the house, I used other Victorian libraries as models as well. Viola’s desk is based on this handmade original from the Howard mansion.

He led me straight to Viola’s library, a handsome room lined with glass-front bookshelves that doubled as her office. Viola beamed at us around the gilded oak leaves and acorns festooning her heavy carved oak desk. The giant secretary towered over her, transforming her for a moment into a bright-eyed child rather than the matriarch she was.

Howard Library 1904
Howard Library 1905
Viola’s Desk

 

Here’s another view of the dining room (with cherry window), and the masculine domain, the smoking room.

Howard Dining Room 1905

 

Smoking Room

 

You can see the master bedroom (Viola’s) below, both in my recent photos and the 1905 versions:

View into the bed-sitting room
Master bedroom dressing room
1905 view into the bed-sitting room
1905 master bedroom
1905 Master bedroom tower

 

The bathroom and water closet . . .

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The third floor isn’t open to the public–or at least it wasn’t in the mid-90’s when I visited. Below are the bedrooms, including the tower bedroom I used as a model for Djinn’s room at the Eyrie.

Djinn only stared and then led the way to her room, an attic tower with folded shutters and a round ribbed ceiling. Djinn walked over to a heavy roll top desk, pulled out a large sketchbook, and started drawing with quick, fluid strokes. The soft scratching of her pen was the only sound I heard. Even the house had ceased its creaking.

3rd floor tower and bedroom

 

Djinn’s desk and tower bedroom

 

3rd floor bedrooms

 

And last, the attics . . . hobby horses, bicycle frames, and a stuffed owl!

Left: stuffed owl and bicycle frame. Right: hobby horses

 

I hope you enjoyed your tour! Any details I didn’t explain probably came out of my own teeming imagination.

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To Write in Dialect or Not?

When I began to write This Madness of the Heart, I was faced almost from the first paragraph (well, actually the second) with a choice: to try to write Appalachian mountain speech as I’ve heard it, or use common American English. I experimented with both, and there was just no contest. I had to try the dialect.

Yes, writing dialect can make conversation harder to read, and it alienates some readers. I even had one reviewer accuse me of showing contempt for the region by writing incomprehensible dialect. And, of course, writing in dialect is much harder than writing straight English prose.

But what happens to the gentle man from my childhood whose voice still rings in my ears, if instead of the following remarks spoken in dialect . . .

“My head’s a-spinnin’ so even God Almighty couldn’t say what I’m a-feelin’ one minute t’ the othern’n. First I’m fit to bust Jasper in the jaw fer creatin’ sech a hardness amongst the good folks o’ this town; then I’m nigh t’ bustin’ int’ tears o’er pore Welby; then I’m a-studyin’ on oilin’ up the ol’ shotgun and featherin’ int’ Jasper fer what he done t’ Delmar Peabody!”

. . . he should say this instead?

“My head’s spinning so fast even God Almighty couldn’t say what I’m feeling one minute to the next. First I’m about to bust Jasper in the jaw for creating such hardness among the good folks of this town; then I’m about to bust into tears over poor Welby; then I’m thinking about oiling up the old shotgun and laying into Jasper for what he did to Delmar Peabody!”

For me, the man’s heart disappears, along with the huge warmth of his presence.

 

And Sheriff Lyle Embry, with his laidback drawl—what would he be, if instead of these words . . .

“Dad blast it all t’ hell n’ back ag’in, Herbert! Don’t be a- pitchin’ it int’ the woods that-a-way as soon as I go a-turnin’ my back! Dig yerself a hole an’ cover thet trash plumb over with dirt! Lookit how yon trees is all gormed up an’ benastied now!”

. . . he said this?

“Doggone it all to hell and back again, Herbert! Don’t pitch it into the woods that way as soon as I turn my back! Dig a hole and cover that trash over with dirt! See how those trees are all spattered and nasty now!”

Perhaps only my own memory would be violated. Maybe the reader wouldn’t care one way or the other. But for me the closeness of the mountain people I’ve known would be lost in the tidying up of their speech to fit a more common mold. The scent of mountain air would disappear.

 

I do know that writing in dialect was extremely difficult for me. I couldn’t just rely on memory. I listened to recordings and studied academic verbatims. I studied the various ways Appalachian dialect is written down, and the variations that exist among people with different degrees of access to television and urban culture. Check and double check. Write and read and listen. Return to recordings of mountain speech, letting it roll over me again and again.

No, I couldn’t have written Madness without dialect. It seems to me that much of a people’s soul is carried on their speech. Regional speech patterns flow with the rich silt of blood and flesh, history and struggle, life and death.

How could Carter Bayless say any less than this?

“Thus saith th’ Lord God, I be a-makin’ th’ sun t’ roll down th’ sky of a noontime. I’ll be a-bringin’ dusky-dark ont’ the earth in th’ midst o’ day. I’ll be a-turnin’ yar cornivals t’ mournin’ an’ yar ditties t’ dirges. Ye’ll be a-fallin’ broke an’ ruint int’ yar graves an’ niver rouse agin!”

If you read This Madness of the Heart and have an opinion, I’d be delighted to hear it!

Who Is Miranda Lamden?

Who is Miranda Lamden? As the main character in C. L. Francisco’s new gothic mystery-thriller series, she deserves an introduction. If you were to come across her on campus at Obadiah Durham College, she’d resemble many other 30-something university women–tall and athletic, with a flyaway tangle of long dark hair, and an apparent preference for denim and comfortable shoes. Large eyes, prominent cheek- and jawbones, and a wide flexible mouth lend her a striking appearance, but not conventional beauty.

When Miranda isn’t teaching religion and philosophy to college students from the backwoods hollers of Kentucky where coal once ruled, she’s out gathering material for scholarly books on folklore and obscure religious practices. This Madness of the Heart opens in the midst of a worship service in one of Appalachia’s remaining snake-handling churches, where Miranda is struggling with a momentary lapse in concentration.

Snake Handling, Lejunior, KY, 1946. Photo, Russell Lee

 

Miranda normally keeps her balance in situations like this with techniques developed by the discipline of phenomenology. Depending on whom you talk to, phenomenology is a philosophy, a psychological theory, a research technique, or a combination of all three. Very simply speaking, it has one core idea: human perception of phenomena in the world (how we experience life) is subjective and finally knowable only by the one who is experiencing it. Out of this basic conviction comes the idea of the researcher as participant observer. This is someone who does his or her best to leave behind all personal prejudices, the many invisible lenses that make up a person’s worldview—to bracket them, shut them away into a closed compartment of the mind. When this is done successfully, the observer is free to merge into the mindset of the people being studied, taking on their responses and perceptions without judging them by his or her own standards. Questions of truth do not arise, nor does “truth” have a place in a phenomenologist’s working vocabulary.

 

The training required before anyone can claim to be a participant observer is intense. It’s not so much a question of learning objectivity, but of simultaneously observing whatever exists to be seen, along with mastering the skill of taking on the intellectual/emotional/spiritual mindset of the culture being studied. Such research requires lengthy periods of trust-building and on-site experience in understanding how an unfamiliar people think and feel.

In the first chapter of Madness, Miranda lets her mind wander, and relaxes her bracketed self. She has become comfortable enough with her hosts (and sufficiently tired) that she forgets to approach their worship as a disciplined participant observer. She becomes vulnerable to her personal fear of snakes–an almost unforgivable error, considering her years of phenomenological study and her many published books on the spiritual experience of cultures around the world.

When Madness opens, Miranda is gathering material for a new book on Appalachian folklore and superstition.

 

As a female professor in a small private college in the patriarchal backcountry of southern Appalachia, Miranda walks a fine line between her feminist principles and the gender roles expected of her by her neighbors. But apart from her own skills at protective coloration, Miranda hails from a conservative Virginia family. She knows the social drills, and where the Rubicon’s crossings lie–valuable know-how when it comes to informal PR for her relationship with artist Jack Crispen. She faces an even more delicate balancing act with her own obvious spiritual gifts and the closed-mindedness of most of her friends and colleagues. Her personal beliefs (when she admits to them) tend toward what she calls panentheism–not pantheism, or belief in many gods–but belief in the presence of deity in all of the created universe.