Tag Archives: folklore

Creating New Worlds

 

Writing novels is all about creating alternative universes with stories that play out according to the laws the author creates. People often ask how I create these worlds . . . so here’s a brief explanation, using This Madness of the Heart as the model.

coal mine fire

For me, creating a fictional world always begins with research—or at least research comes close on the heels of the original germ of inspiration (that is, if I want my created universe to resemble reality as we know it). Before I knew anything else about This Madness of the Heart, I knew I wanted to write a book about a sleazy preacher-man in a small college town deep in the old coal fields of Kentucky. Right there I had several general research subjects:

  • the history of coal mining in Kentucky

  • small towns in Appalachia, layout and architecture
  • small Appalachian colleges, size, administration, issues, architecture

  • different types of religious groups and pastors in Appalachia

 

 

And that was just the setting for the story. When I started considering the characters, research subjects literally popped out of the trees. For instance, Miranda:

  • She lived in an Appalachian old-growth forest: what would it have been like?

  • What was involved in gutting and remodeling a 100-year-old chapel for a home?
  • Her hobby was quilting: I needed details of Appalachian quilting patterns and techniques

  • She was researching Appalachian superstition: I needed to find reliable examples.

 

Jack Crispen was a military vet with PTSD, who worked as a carpenter and stained glass artist. In his spare time he was a caver and a binging drinker, so:

  • What PTSD symptoms did military vets often experience?
  • How would a single artist in a small studio make stained glass windows?

  • I needed details on Kentucky caving
  • What exactly was involved in making moonshine, and were there different kinds?

 

Viola Ricketts was the last living descendant of coal baron Obadiah Durham, whose entire family, except for himself, had died in a fire caused by a vodun curse that still haunted the family, so:

  • I needed to know more about vodun among Southern plantation slaves

  • What kind of home would a wealthy coal baron build in the mid-late 19th C?

 

And that doesn’t take into account things like the violent deaths of various sorts that I needed to study, or the characters’ names. To make sure that the names were authentic I spent a couple of days wandering through old graveyards, copying names off tombstones.

 

Of course, if I hadn’t had a fairly good grasp of much of my subject matter, I couldn’t have written the book at all. For instance, I needed no research in any of these areas:

  • College faculties, departments, and their personal and political relationships
  • Appalachian ecosystems and hiking trails
  • Living with cats
  • Teaching religion and doing first-hand research using a phenomenological model
  • Religious charlatans
  • Southern and/or Appalachian society
  • Southern/Appalachian worship practices
  • World religions
  • Spiritual/paranormal phenomena
  • Women’s support groups

And then there are the maps. I always make maps to help orient myself geographically in the broad area where the story takes place. Madness has one of my maps inserted just before the first chapter (below). I often make interior plans of buildings as well, especially if they’re large.

Once I’ve mastered what I see as the essential research topics, I soon start feeling the need to write, whether the plot is complete or not. Having the broad strokes of my new world laid down allows me to begin weaving imaginary details freely. I know the practical limits and essential imagery involved in every aspect of the story. It’s kind of like understanding the basic skills, proportions of ingredients, and appliances involved in baking a cake before deciding to create new recipe. Some things you can change as you will, other changes result in disaster!

“Angustia,” Remedios Varo, 1947

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Bringing C. L. Francisco and Blair Yeatts Together

 

Bringing C. L. Francisco and Blair Yeatts Together

I imagine two women walking a little apart in an autumn wood where filtered sunlight hangs in the air like rainbows cast by stained glass windows. They might be sisters, although separated by many years: one has dark hair with ruddy highlights, while the elder’s hair shines silver in the shifting light. Both are tall, with the easy gait of serious walkers, loose denim skirts swirling around their legs as they stroll. Each gazes at the wood intently, reaching out to touch the trees . . . a beech here, an oak there . . . eyes shining with pleasure. The same surety of a benevolent Creator’s love undergirds both, rising up through the fallen leaves like an unfailing spring. But there they part ways.

The younger woman knows herself wounded and angry, torn from her roots, unable and unwilling to return to them. Life for her is a trackless horizon, where she must make her own way among a maze of confusing choices,

. . . a life rent by the emptiness of years alone, of stubborn search and dead-end roads, a renegade among the certain, a voiceless stranger in the garrulous crowds.

The elder woman has made her peace with that old pain, accepted the paradoxes, and learned compassion for herself and the ghosts of her past. Her eyes dwell on the infinity of light surrounding her. She falls back into shadow only rarely, and when she does, she knows the light holds her still.

Yeshua’s Cats speak with the voice of the older woman. The Miranda Lamden Mysteries live in the younger woman’s world, overlaid with the hindsight of the elder. But they are both the creation of a single heart. I hope this post may help you bring them together. I’ll also say that, with the exception of a few creative details necessary to establishing a pen name, all Blair Yeatts’ memories and thoughts shared in posted interviews are C. L. Francisco’s own, although offered from the perspective of that younger self.

 

Blair Yeatts’ This Madness of the Heart was my first book, apart from a mammoth PhD dissertation and an unpublished memoir. I finished the original draft almost 20 years ago, as a way of venting my hurt and anger at the dirty tricks and character assassinations in the fundamentalist takeover of a conservative protestant denomination. As often happens in revolutions, a zealous minority overwhelmed a more moderate and less vocal majority, and then ruthlessly silenced those who disagreed with them. The previously loose-knit denomination had a cherished history of settling doctrinal disagreements locally: churches had simply split, becoming the 1st, 2nd, etc., churches in a given town. Dissent was in their blood, like the freedom of the individual believer. But this ultra-conservative minority targeted the whole assembly of churches in an iron-fisted power grab.

Once the coup was accomplished, dissidents had two choices: either bow to the doctrines of the new power elite, or leave the church. The denomination of my youth was swept away in a furor of self-righteous certainty. Pastors, professors, and church leaders were driven out. Hearts and lives were broken. Doctrine was narrowed, warped, and set in stone. Callings scorned and contracts withdrawn, women clergy left to find ways to minister among people with a wider view of God’s mercy. A few powerful men now controlled the hearts and minds of the denomination’s mostly oblivious members. There was nothing I could do . . . so I wrote a book.

 

 

Unfortunately, trying to read Madness’ original draft felt much like Harry Potter opening the screaming book in the Hogwarts’ library: the anger I’d poured into it flamed from its pages. I realized this at the time and set it aside—for almost twenty years—until I could return and treat it as a mere story. Then I wrote most of the anger out, leaving a fast-paced tale about a slimy charlatan with an honorary divinity degree in a haunted hollow in Appalachia. The story is admittedly over the top . . . vengeful ghosts don’t play feature roles in most grifters’ lives. But where evil thrives, its deadliest mass tends to hide beneath the surface . . . often masquerading as holiness.

I found myself alienated from the Christian faith during two periods in my life: first for the decade spanning college and my early twenties; second, beginning with the fundamentalist takeover and stretching across another 10-15 years. I still find myself at odds with much of the organized Church. I wrote The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat as an expression of my own faith in a Jesus of Nazareth who speaks with love and compassion, untouched by the legalism he challenged. A cat’s voice seemed appropriate for the task. The first book has now multiplied into four, with a fifth on the way.

 

The Miranda Lamden Mysteries have roots in those secular years, as well as in my lifelong love of mysteries, starting with Nancy Drew and most recently Charles Todd. They are not Christian mysteries. Neither are they “cozies” (emerging from a cozy mystery feels to me like struggling out of wad of cotton batting back into the realities of life). Ugly or not, if a thing is part of human experience, it’s fit to write, and read, about. Violence is part of life, and so are pain and tragedy; they belong in novels, and you will find moderate amounts in mine. But I also write about what I call “spirit” or “faith” or “redemption”—pick whichever word you like: without it the unremitting darkness of despair grinds human beings into something subhuman.

I write mysteries I’d like to read: novels of danger and intrigue, with depths of love and pain, where characters wrestle with despair and disaster, and fight their way through to the light. They surmount capricious hazards without toxic overloads of violence or sex. Spirituality and questions of meaning drive both cast and plot. I don’t strive for great literature, but for a read an intelligent mystery-lover would welcome at the end of a long day—and have difficulty putting down. I don’t guarantee happy endings, but I never end a book with despair and shattering loss of meaning . . . endings may be bittersweet, but they’re always suffused with hope.

 

If you’re a Blair Yeatts reader, would you like Yeshua’s Cats? If you’re a Yeshua’s Cats reader, would you like the Miranda Lamden Mysteries? Here’s my take.

Yeshua’s Cats are intended for a Christian audience, although reviewers have repeatedly assured readers that their appeal is much broader. The two most recent books, The Cats of Rekem, and Cat Born to the Purple, have both been chosen for Indie Reader’s “Best of” new book list for 2015 and 2016 respectively. But if you’re a devout atheist, or not at all spiritually inclined, I suspect you wouldn’t like them. If you’re a cat-lover you might leap all other boundaries and enjoy them anyway.

The Miranda Lamden Mysteries are full of spiritual matters of one sort and another, since Miranda is a professor of religion and an expert on paranormal phenomena . . . they’re for spiritually curious readers. But if you’re a conservative Christian who thinks preachers can do no wrong, you won’t like the first book. If you believe that you’re in possession of the only truth, and don’t care to consider anyone else’s perspective, you won’t like any of the books in the series. Like Miranda, I’ve spent much of my life in institutions of higher learning, and I’ve seen too many people convinced of the unassailable rightness of their own opinions, mistaking the echoes of their own thoughts for the voice of God. That way lies the Inquisition.

Goya, “Scene from the Inquisition”

So why did I reverse direction and decide to claim these mysteries as my own? I think the presidential election made my choice for me: the tragedy of my denomination is now replaying on the national stage, and my mysteries have become appallingly relevant. In Miranda’s words, from This Madness of the Heart:

How had we stood by and let such a man amass so much power? Why were the good people of the town not fleeing the contamination of his spirit? How could they not sense the heart of hate beneath his harangues? Any amount of violence might erupt from the bloodlust JJ was whipping up among God’s elect. Religion! Why did the search for ultimate love so often end in hate?

“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

I realize that choosing a side in a divisive political—and religious—controversy may alienate me from some of my readers. I hope not. But for me this has become a matter of conscience, and keeping faith with myself . . . as well as with my faith.

Freedom of conscience has always been our privilege in America, but it didn’t come free: it was bought with the lives of people desperate for liberty, and its defense lies in our hands today. I pray we will have the strength and integrity to preserve the freedom our founders entrusted to us.

 

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Pen Name “Blair Yeatts” reverting to C. L. Francisco

 

For many personal reasons, I have decided to drop the pen name “Blair Yeatts” and publish the Miranda Lamden Mysteries under my birth name, C. L. Francisco.  I have withdrawn This Madness of the Heart from the market, and will be re-releasing it soon, with a number of edits. The other books in the series will follow. I’ll explain more fully after the holidays!

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Gothic Lit: Is it religious?

Someone recently asked me if I thought there were any ties between religion/mysticism and gothic lit.

It’s an intriguing question! But I’d say there are virtually no ties between religion/mysticism/spirituality and gothic lit—at least not the friendly sort. But let’s define some terms. Any decent professor would do the same. These are my own, BTW, cobbled together off the top of my head.

The Ambrosian Rite
  • Religion: an organized body of belief about the ultimate meaning of life, often involving religious professionals (priests or the like). Although a religion may also be a worldview like humanism or atheism that denies the existence of Absolute Being, when I speak of religion here I’m assuming belief in deity.
Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy
  • Mysticism: a worldview that believes human beings can and do experience union with Absolute Being. A mystic is someone who enjoys or seeks this union. Since mysticism is a life choice with serious spiritual discipline, it doesn’t easily lend itself to gothic lit. (Can you imagine a gothic novel about Saint Francis?)
Mexican Deer Dance
  • Spirituality: personal/individual search for and experience of Absolute Being, including ritual practices. Spirituality is often part of religion.

Clear as mud?

David Hume and Adam Smith

Gothic lit has its roots in a backlash against the Age of Reason during the 18th-19thcenturies, when irrational, passionate, and supernatural aspects of human life began to explode into popular fiction. Gothic lit has gone in and out of vogue over the years since then, and today is often divided into horror and romance. Its most obvious elements are endangered females, villainous tyrants, “gothic” architecture/haunted ruins, paranormal phenomena, a sense of dread, and melodrama. Want more? The Internet will satisfy your every need.

I said relations between religion/spirituality and gothic lit aren’t friendly, because their purposes are at odds. A religion seeks to preserve its beliefs and institutional structure, and sometimes grow through missionary activity. Religions don’t take criticism or ridicule kindly, nor do they appreciate literature that extols what is to them sin and evil. Spirituality, while individual and personal, expresses the deepest yearnings of human souls—and human beings don’t like having their deepest experience cheapened and belittled, or questioned, either. Not that gothic lit inevitably does any of these things, but since it’s deeply rooted in anti-establishment (ie, anti-organized-religion) themes, it often does.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Take the paranormal—visions, psychic powers, the occult, vampires, etc. Look them up in any thesaurus and you’ll find them equated with devilry and black arts. It may not be PC, but religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (which make up much of Western religion) tend to consider the paranormal evil. Let us never forget the Burning Times. Yet gothic lit often relies on the occult both for its villains and heroes. To make matters worse, the villains (and heroes) are often clerics who have fallen into unspeakable evil—which religious institutions don’t like to admit happens, and certainly don’t want romanticized where it does. But since an essential part of gothic lit’s appeal is playing off cultural taboos, institutional anathemas are often just good press.

In short, while gothic lit may be full of possibly “spiritual” themes and entities, it’s usually neither religious nor spiritual. Notice I say “usually.” There are always exceptions.

Here’s the problem: good, evil, right, wrong, and sin are finally judgments we make from behind a screen of invisible cultural and personal preconceptions—Christian, Vodun, or Atheist. Human beings can’t help it. Please don’t think I’m saying here that everything is relative and anything goes; check out the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for my position on that! No, I’m talking about how we pronounce judgment on everything that is Other.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter: gothic lit and spirituality (as opposed to religion) don’t have to be antagonistic. Yes, vampires are evil. But does that mean that spirituality isn’t part of a vampire’s existence? Take Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, for example. Can’t we as human beings hold ideas in our minds “as if,” without passing a priori judgment?

I didn’t realize that I was writing a gothic mystery when I wrote This Madness of the Heart because I’d bought into cultural stereotypes that disparage “gothic” fiction as something vaguely nasty and predictable. When I wrote Madness, I wrote what I knew, and what I know is spirituality opening up unexpectedly in the midst of everyday reality. I wrote about fear, and violence, and bigotry, and hate, all meeting along borderlands of spiritual reality . . . and discovered I’d stepped into “gothic” space.

Mea culpa. I have no excuse. No dewy-eyed fainting damsels, no emotional excesses, no human sacrifices. Just fiction that overlaps action and drama with spiritual vision. Gothic lit.

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*An earlier version of this post was written by Blair Yeatts for http://www.cerebralwriter.com/blog

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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.