Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Importance of Place in Novels

What about the places in Circle of Hurt—are they real locations?

Riverby is real, yet fictional. The real Riverby is on Farm Road 100 twenty miles northeast of Bonham and two miles south of the Red River in extreme northeastern Fannin County. It apparently developed around a school established for the children of tenants from the nearby Morgan and Goss plantations. By 1936, when the first population statistics for the community were reported, Riverby had twenty residents and one business. Its population remained the same, although it reported no businesses after the mid-1940s. From 1977 through 2000 Riverby reported a population of fifteen.

I had never heard of Riverby until about fifteen years ago when I visited a team roping facility there and enjoyed a meal with the cowboys on a Riverby Ranch.

My fictional Riverby is a small town, but not that small. It is based on physical characteristics of the town squares of Commerce, Cooper, and Honey Grove—maybe a little Ladonia thrown in. It is called Riverby because it is by the Red River. The fictional town in this book is geographically close to where the real Riverby is. 

Honey Grove likely provided the primary inspiration, because the old buildings downtown are truly unique. Also, some of the characters were inspired by people I knew who lived in Honey Grove. I found these people to be fascinating in real life and I hope they are equally fascinating in fiction.

Scenes outside of town, (and there are many) are primarily based on the area around Klondike in Delta County.

What about Prigmore’s General Store? Is it real?

Prigmore’s is loosely base on Silman’s on the downtown square of Cooper. It was a hardware, grocery, and general supply store complete with lunch counter. There is also a lot of Adrian Mercantile thrown in. This Panhandle store leaned toward the rustic, cowboy, farming way of life where fresh hides were often seen on the porch and the inside smelled of harness and tack and feed. You can really get a feel for the place that is no longer there in Rivers Ebb.

Is there really a place known as Hurt Hill?

Yes, there was and is, but you would need a guide (or me) to find it now. I especially remember an old well hand pump in the front yard that remained there long after the house was abandoned. My father leased land just west of Hurt Hill late in his life and leased bottomland west of the hill when I was a boy. I remember helping him (mostly watching and fetching) dynamite stumps in the bottomland and planting cotton there. I picked a lot of cotton in the field where pivotal scenes in the book take place. 

This scene from Rivers Flow, my 2004 novel, also takes place in those bottoms east of Hurt Hill: 

The bottoms were different in daylight. Humidity, copperhead snakes, and mosquitoes were more of a threat than panthers. It was still dark in the deepest part of the woods, but Blue Bottom creek was dry enough for Jake to hide in. Today, he was big brother, and he liked that role better than being little brother. As he looked over the creek bank, Jake saw a small cottontail rabbit hop up and sit between Tuck’s legs.
When he opened his eyes to look for Jake, Tuck saw the rabbit and smiled. Jake looked toward his parents to see if they were watching. They were not, so he began easing his way around the cotton field to tell them without disturbing the rabbit. As Jake approached, Rance downed the last of his iced tea and leaned back on one elbow. Mattie straightened the ragged quilt they were using for their picnic then lay her head against Rance’s thigh. Jake held one finger to his lips and pointed toward Tuck.
Mattie sat up to get a better look. “Just look at that.” She pointed toward her son. A small squirrel had moved to the other side of Tuck, sat back on its haunches, and intently watched the small boy. Tuck paid little heed to the squirrel or the rabbit, but seemed to welcome their presence. As he started toward the woods to find Jake, the rabbit and squirrel followed. Jake looked at his parents and shrugged.

Was there really a picker shack and a farmhouse on Hurt Hill? 

Yes. I used to pick cotton (pull boles) in the bottomland just below it. I remember migrant workers staying in that shack one of the years we harvested cotton there.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Story Behind the Cover of Believing in a Grand Thing

The cover of Believing in a Grand Thing

My original idea for the cover of this book was a cowboy or western scene on the front—maybe a kneeling cowboy with a cross in the background.  But we see of lot of those in yards all around. We tried a few great photos that were in public domain, but the lights just did not come on for me.

Something about the way the cowboys (or models) sat their horses; or the way they put their boots in the stirrups; or the way they held the reins; or the way they wore their hats always bothered me. Something just wasn’t right and I couldn’t express what.

Again, Jan came through. She asked, “Do you still have that shot of Marion on his horse at his daddy’s grave?” 

My light came on quickly this time. I knew I still had that photo. It was taken on the next to last day of our wagon and horseback trip across Texas that I chronicled in Biscuits Across the Brazos. We were almost home, coming to the end of our fourteen day, 325 mile journey when it was taken. 

I saw Marion lope ahead as we neared Shiloh Cemetery and knew where he was going. When he stopped at his father’s grave, I pulled a throwaway camera I had bought on the trail out of my saddlebags and took the shot. I knew it was a special moment, but never imagined it would one day be on the cover of a book. Of course, it is also inside Biscuits Across the Brazos

If you look closely, you will see a slight hazy glow around Marion and his horse’s back legs. Unintended, but I like that a lot. I am certain Marion would, too.

Marion’s mom now lies beside his father and Marion is laid to rest a few feet away. 

The Cover of Circle of Hurt

Circle of Hurt and Believing in a Grand Thing—joint launch 3/28 
With the launch date fast approaching, readers have questions. In the days before the launch, I will try to answer some of them. More questions will be welcome at the launch or through e-mail or social media.

What Can You Tell Us About the Covers on both books?

We worked diligently to come up with real photos that matched my description of the general store, the table and chairs, the ambiance of the place, but we just could not make it work. When we could not capture the right scene with a table and chairs inside the right kind of room, I decided a shack might work, with wooden boards as the background. 

Maybe we could find an old house that might come close to the description of the picker shack. The real picker shack was clearly in my mind, but it is long gone—swallowed up when they constructed Cooper Lake.  Jan suggested a drive around my old haunts in Delta County. Maybe we could find one that matched my memory. She drove so I could watch for one. 

We borrowed Granddaughter Taylor’s camera, since ours is very old. I recalled seeing an old shack near Charleston a few years back, but we couldn’t find it. Shacks I knew around Klondike were just too far gone for human habitation. As we drove by my cousin Marion’s cabin, Jan slowed and pulled over. 

She looked at me, smiled as if she had just had a revelation, and pointed to the cabin. “What about that one?”
A light bulb had switched on in her artistic head, but my bulb was still dim. Marion had been gone for two years, and that cabin contained a lot of fond memories. It’s in excellent shape, built by Marion and his sons-in-law only a few years ago when the original one burned. 

I shook my head. “That cabin is only a few years old. The picker shack would have been maybe a hundred years old when the novel takes place.” 

Jan smiled. “Yes, but wasn’t this one built to look old?”

She was right. Marion’s cabin was a cross between the picker shack in the book and Tee Jessup’s rented farmhouse. It could serve as either. And Marion would be pleased. My guess was that his family would be, too.
I wasn’t sure how it would all come together, but Jan’s enthusiasm was contagious. I knew she wouldn’t mind, but I texted Marion’s wife Pat to get her permission to drive on her property and take some pictures. She said sure and we pulled into the driveway I had traveled hundreds of times to visit Marion, play poker, or attend a family gathering. Memories washed over me with a warm glow. 

As Jan began taking photos of the exterior of the cabin, I caught her enthusiasm. This might work. We discovered the side door was open, but I was hesitant to go inside. Not because Pat might mind, but because of the memories. Sure enough, the table where we had weekly poker games looked ready for players. Besides poker, I had presented at least one program to a ladies’ club there. Of course, there had been many family gatherings. Tears wanted to come, but I held them at bay.

Jan took more photos of the table and chairs and I realized that this setting, the old jukebox and a few other things might have partially inspired the scenes inside the general store described in the book. After what seemed dozens of shots, I turned and saw Jan with her camera inches from the wall, snapping more photos. 

I was puzzled. “What are you doing?” 

She kept on clicking. “You said you wanted boards for the background, didn’t you?”

Days later, she showed me her concept, saying, “I feel as if I’m on the inside of the cozy cabin stealing a look at the story that is taking place outside.” 

That worked for me.

She and Vivian Freeman got together on the concept and colors and the rope and that’s how the cover of Circle of Hurt came to be. I like it a lot and I hope readers do, too.

More about the other book cover next.