Tag Archives: Miranda Lamden

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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This Madness of the Heart out in e-book and paperback!

“This Madness of the Heart” out in e-book and paperback!

The paperback 2nd edition of  Madness is now available in the CreateSpace Store, and on Amazon! The Kindle format is also live on Amazon.

 

Here are some of the reviews coming in:

 

Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan, Editor and Senior Reviewer

“Evangelical religion, supernatural forces, and romance seldom collide under a single cover, but This Madness of the Heart combines all three and more in a gripping piece that holds the rare ability to grasp and attract reader attention from more than one direction . . . Mood and setting are exquisitely placed throughout the story . . . the plot moves deftly with the skill of a thriller, the stealth of a cat, and the fine-tuned precision of personalities well developed.

“The result is a blend of supernatural thriller, romance, and mystery that will thoroughly engross anyone looking to break free of genre reads with a powerful journey through competing spiritual perspectives.”

IndieReader Review: 4 1/2 stars

“An adventurous and richly drawn mystery, with the age-old primal conflict between love and hate at its core. Vigorous and lively, engaging from beginning to end, the lyrical poetry of Francisco’s writing carries just enough supernatural spookiness to add a delicious chill!

While Jarboe fits many of the nastiest stereotypes of the fundamentalist preacher, others – particularly his retired predecessor, Elmus Rooksby – show themselves as models of warmth, generous love, and human kindness.

Can Professor Miranda Lamden untangle the threads of a crime involving an old family curse, a secret religious fellowship, a business partnership gone sour, and family relationships embittered at their roots before it’s too late?”

Self Publishing Review

“Francisco is an engaging writer, a fun narrative voice . . . great at establishing setting and individual characters. The hints of paranormal phenomena are intriguing throughout . . . The mood combines gothic with the present day, giving it a feeling of “True Detective” (first season), in which backwoods religion and real supernatural phenomena collide – a world where anything can happen. Professor and paranormal investigator Miranda Lamden is an exciting basis for a series . . . the rock through it all.”    

Kathleen Eagle, New York Times Bestselling author of Sunrise Song:

This Madness of the Heart is a wild ride through the dark hills of eastern Kentucky with Miranda Lamden, a professor of religion who spends her spare time studying arcane spiritual rituals–if not participating in them herself. Francisco fields an engaging cast of characters, and throughout she weaves a compelling pattern spun of the Appalachian wilderness and its people. The plot twists kept me guessing, all the way to the very satisfying ending. Fans of Joyce Carol Oates and Nevada Barr should relish this new series, and I look forward to more–the sooner the better!”

Nancy McKenzie, award-winning author of Queen of Camelot:

“Kudos to C. L. Francisco for an absorbing read and an original thriller, with intriguing characters and hair-raising plot twists (protagonist Miranda Lamden is solid gold)! This Madness of the Heart explores the genesis of hate and the power of forgiveness in a small college town in eastern Kentucky’s hill-country, where a haunting spirituality–both Christian and pagan–drives this fast-flowing mystery to an electrifying close. But beware: pick it up and you won’t be able to put it down again—I couldn’t!”

Gail Godwin, author of Evenings at Five

“Blair Yeatts can certainly write!”

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Jane Reads Blogspot:

“This Madness of the Heart is amazing . . . I haven’t read such a good gothic mystery in ages! I was intrigued from the beginning, and hooked from the first chapter. Even though there are many twists and turns in the plot, each time, I thought, “I did not see that coming!”

“I highly recommend This Madness of the Heart to all fans of gothic mystery and suspense—and particularly to fans of Barbara Michaels and Sharyn McCrumb.

“Five out of five stars!” (kitties)

 

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Miranda Lamden and Yeshua’s Cats Together!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how This Madness of the Heart (and all the following Miranda Lamden Mysteries) fit together with my Yeshua’s Cats series–and why I feel certain the two series can coexist as books by the same author. But since my reasons are more feelings and instincts than logic, I’ve had trouble putting them into words.

So I did what I often do when I need to make sense of something: I created a piece of art (below). After all, what good is an art therapy degree if you can’t use it to clarify your own confusion? If I’m lucky, by explaining the image I’ll be opening up what lies behind it!

The Sleuth, Chi Rho, and the Cat

So, what are you looking at here?

First, I chose a Hubble image for the background: “Interacting Spiral Galaxies” . . . surely ideal for this project, since galaxies don’t often interact–anymore than churchfolk and professor-sleuths! It felt like a propitious beginning.

Hubble, Interacting Spiral Galaxies

Three interlocking circles fill the foreground. The center circle pulses with a glowing gold and green light; the Christian Chi Rho emerges from its heart.

What is the Chi Rho? Like most symbols, it has different meanings across cultures, but for me it’s a symbol used by early Christians in the first three centuries after Yeshua’s birth–before Constantine transformed it into an imperial banner (the cross didn’t emerge as a Christian symbol until after the year 500).

Chi Rho, early 3rd C catacomb

The Chi Rho gets its name from the two Greek letters that overlap to create the symbol: Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, or Christ. In the image above, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are added. I like the visual effect of the Chi Rho better than the traditional Christian cross, probably because it has “rays” like the sunburst. Anyway, the central circle is meant to be the Christian faith–not the organized religion–but the living faith of all the individuals who hold themselves to be Christian.

The circle to the right is the cat Mari, from Yeshua’s Cat, turning aside from a path in a green forest to investigate the central circle. In her circle she represents all of the natural universe. Creation.  Everything that exists naturally, apart from the intervention of humankind. This natural order also includes human beings, since they’re part of the universe–but not their civilizations, which (to my way of thinking) have crossed the line into something aggressively unnatural.

The totality of the natural world–as we know it on Earth–is flowing back from Mari’s search like the tail of a comet.

The circle on the left is where Miranda, my detective, lives. Her circle is the world of human civilization–urban, complex, multi-cultural, and often unsure exactly what they believe. Many, like Miranda, have roots in Christianity, but have turned away from the church. Spinning out from her circle is a spiral of different world religions. In her circle Miranda, like Mari, has paused to examine something about the Christian faith that has caught her eye.

Both Mari and Miranda live outside the Christian fold, and they approach it from opposite directions. Mari moves from the non-human, natural environment, Miranda from a detached, urban, academic world. Still, both find themselves intrigued by the center circle. Mari has the easier approach: Yeshua introduces himself by saving her life, and she joins him as a friend. But Miranda has been scarred by her Christian experience; she mistrusts the church and its agendas. As a professor, she sees all religions as examples of the human yearning toward the divine. Truth claims don’t enter the picture. She simply records what she observes, without making judgments. Her methods are catlike: she steps cautiously toward anything new, not committing herself, poised to slip back into the shadows if conflict threatens.

I knew a number of women like Miranda in my years apart from the church. Their worlds were full and rich, and they didn’t screen their experiences through a Christian worldview. Yet they were sometimes attracted by a light shining out from this tradition many of them had left behind.

. . . maybe the light shone through a person
a man like Elmus
or as comfort in the midst of  evil
perhaps through the One’s presence in some crisis of their own
or simply in prayer and meditation.

But today we live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to say, “I believe.” The language is lost. What does it mean to believe? Who are we believing in? People who live in the secular world can’t respond to most Christian overtures–because they don’t understand the words anymore. God-talk is becoming literal non-sense to those outside the churches.

People like Miranda are who they are, just as cats are cats. Each responds to life according to their gifts . . . but for some reason those inside and outside the churches are drawing further apart.

Perhaps we might learn from the effort, and love, we put into cross-species communication with our cats (and dogs, gerbils, birds, and ferrets) . . . and look at the incomprehensible human beings around us as if they concealed inner selves as delightful, unique, and full of surprises as a cat’s. It’s not really such a stretch.

I happen to find the lives of alienated Christians intriguing, perhaps because I’ve been there myself. And if the polls are right, their numbers are growing. Their honesty is often fierce, like their determination never to be taken in again by faux-Christianity and self-serving lies. Sadly we don’t have to look far to find the lurking predators they’re avoiding. And that’s what This Madness of the Heart is about.

Miranda peers into the light of Christian faith–but she looks from a place apart. Her own experiences haven’t shown Christianity to be that promised “light to the gentiles.” So she watches, examines, records, and considers. In the meantime, I feel privileged to narrate her journey.

 

Click here to visit my Yeshua’s Cats site.

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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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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.