Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Storytelling Roots

Have you ever read a book expecting tension and mystery (and maybe a touch of romance) but been hooked by the historical background of the setting? I just finished a novel that fascinated me with details of the development of New York City’s Central Park in 1857. This rich background enhanced the contemporary plight of the homeless and the elderly while the plot spun around a murder investigated by a lawyer and her romantic interest, a sexy detective. My attention was riveted by the many subplots, and I lost sleep turning pages. Exactly what a writer wants to accomplish.

I have to confess that I am attracted to historical tales but I wasn’t expecting one here. In the current  zeal to categorize, this novel might be described as a hybrid genre or genetically modified storytelling, but I would call it a contemporary story with roots in the past. An old standard doesn’t need a fancy name.

The western North Carolina county where I live is poor by today’s standards, but rich in family legends. One neighbor owns a home continuously occupied since 1763. I am intrigued by the settlers who put down roots in this area and stayed to raise children and grandchildren’s children. Seemingly embedded in their DNA is respectful recognition of past communities. An archaeological dig identifying the oldest fort in the country is forty miles north of us. The Cherokees’ reservation is sixty miles to our west. And we live on top of the first gold rush site in America. Folks still travel here from all over to try their luck mining the creeks along Vein Mountain Road carved out of the wilderness in the early 1800’s.

I started blogging about my neighbors because I like to reach backward and see the beginning of stories that are lived today. ( My locale is not unique. All over this country there are stories to tell. Buddhapuss Ink’s own Tracy Lawson (debut novel Counteract out this month) wrote a nonfiction book based on her great-great-great grandfather’s journal detailing his travel in a horse-drawn wagon from southwest Ohio to New York City.

I recently wrote a short story about the flood of 1916 in my area. I was able to find eye witness accounts gathered and recorded by a wise journalist years ago. Those reports made a credible backdrop for a fictional murder mystery with characters inspired by period photographs. When I learned through research that one of two survivors of the Little Big Horn lived in this county during the flood. My imagination took off.

An adjacent county was the setting of Frankie Silver’s trial. The 1823 legend is still alive because a New York emigrant wrote down her neighbors’ stories when she moved to the Toe River Valley in 1928. These interviews combined with newspaper articles preserved a tale that later appealed to 1990’s readers when there was a renewed emphasis on women’s rights. Frankie may have been a victim herself, but she was hung for her husband’s murder and dismemberment. Judging by the frequent plays and stories still written about her, she might garner more sympathy today.

I am a member of the local historical society and have associations with many who are interested in the lives of our forefathers. Actually, I’ll use anyone’s ancestors to write a story. The background has to be accurate, so attention to detail is imperative. When I write that a horse and buggy was parked on Main Street next to a Model T, I better be certain that it was within the realm of possibility. 

Historical fiction does not have to be centered on an event, but detailed description adds credibility. Ken Follett comes to mind with his account of the lawless days of twelfth-century England when bishops controlled the villages where great cathedrals were built. Follett sifted through history to enrich his tale but recounting facts does not provide enough tension to hold a reader's interest. They are hooked by character and plot, so a mystery needs a protagonist with a conflict and challenges. And maybe a dead body or two. 

This is a great age to be a writer. Margaret Mitchell had to carefully piece together Civil War background with news articles and interviews. We have the Internet where bountiful information has been recorded, analyzed and stored. Saturated investigation is possible, but having time for it, well, that's another story. 

Today's issue of our #WW Writer Wednesday was written by our own Georgia Ruth. We hope you enjoyed it, and we encourage you to check out her links, and leave comments for her.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on the Writer Wednesday series now that it's almost 6 months old. What have you enjoyed? What type of articles would you like to see in the future? Leave a comment, drop us a line, send a smoke signal…we're all ears.  ~The Black Cat

Georgia Ruth lives in the foothills of North Carolina. Now retired, she managed a family restaurant for ten years and worked in sales for fifteen years. Both experiences produced rich soil for her fertile imagination. Georgia is a member of Sisters in Crime and Short Mystery Fiction Society. She has stories published online for Stupefying Stories and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and in print, Mystery Times Ten 2013 by Buddhapuss Ink. Her story “The Mountain Top” will be published in a Sisters in Crime anthology in 2014. Her website is

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