Tag Archives: Arkansas

Long Ago Spring

7022544797_ba8bdde317We’ve had a few nice days here in Northwest Arkansas. Temperatures in the sixties, warm sunshine, pleasant southerly breeze, birds singing, water sparkling so bright it blinds you. Spring in the middle of winter.

In some ways, I hate it, because I know winter isn’t over and this is like Nature teasing us before slamming the lid down again. On the other hand, it’s a bit like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Any break from winter is a welcome one.

Driving home from grocery shopping with the windows down, having a hard time paying attention to the road because it was so pleasant, I got to thinking. For some reason, the pleasant weather put me in mind of spring when I was young. The winters were harsher then, and lasted longer. More snow, more cold, and spring was definitely a welcome occurrence.

I grew up out in the country, and it didn’t matter what the weather was, my friends and I tromped all over. We had some favorite places we like to go, but pretty much everything was fair game. I lived not far from Glade Creek in Madison County, and I couldn’t tell you how many trips we made up and down that creek bed, in all kinds of weather. Hot, cold, snowy, icy, it didn’t matter. If we got it in our head to do it, we did it. I’ve walked miles of it on ice, stumbled along the banks in summer trying to keep my feet dry, made our way to some select pools to go swimming… the adventures were endless.

In the spring, though, there was something special about exploring the countryside after a long, cold winter. The creek beds had great piles of debris washed up from winter rains, and there was no telling what you’d find. The days were warm and pleasant, birds sang everywhere, and even the sparkles off the water seemed brighter, as if the water was laughing at being cut loose for another warm season.

All our familiar haunts looked strangely new, and the urge to explore them all again and again grew as the grass became greener and the trees leafed out. Birds were131 - Castle media (2) everywhere, building nests, singing in the trees. I grew up on a farm, so we’d see calves playing in the fields, get to watch hawks soaring overhead. Going to school was torture. Why be cooped up in a classroom when there was so much to do outside?

This was before gaming consoles turned into babysitters. My friends had an Atari (I don’t know which one, wasn’t aware there was more than one model), and I can remember us playing Pong on it at times. There were other games as well, but I can’t recall them. But our time on the console was rationed. And we’d grow tired of it eventually anyway. It wasn’t quite the same as playing games in the arcade, for one, and for another… well, there were things to do outside. We’d already spent too many days cooped up due to nasty weather. Sure, we went out in it a lot, but you can only take so much of that bone-shaking cold and wet feet before you figure it’s time to go back in and do something where it’s warm.

Remembering all this made me want to get out and tromp around again, maybe recapture some of the feeling I had when I was a kid. Unfortunately, that was almost forty years ago. I’m older, more jaded and, unfortunately, fatter and lazier. Of course, maybe if I tromped around out there, I’d not feel so fat and lazy, and maybe even not so old anymore. It’s something to think about.

But I’ve got the memories, memories from a time before cell phones and internet, GPS and Facebook. I don’t know that we actually had it better than the kids do today, but it sure feels like we did.

I’m glad I got to grow up like that.



Change is in the air.sumac

The first yellow leaves have peeked through on the walnut trees, some of the first to turn. Down lower, at the side of the road, a few sumac leaves have turned red, a bright shade that catches your eye even as you speed by.

Overhead, the sky is a lighter blue, a different shade from that of summer when it can turn white from heat. The clouds look like dirty wool, their flat bottoms gray, white on their puffy tops as they tower into the heights. Look off across the hills and their shadows turn the landscape into a fall shadowsstudy in light and dark that makes your heart beat a little faster and brings a smile to your lips.

Higher up yet, the sun shines, its light gentler. It lies on the land like liquid gold, especially in the early and late hours, throwing cool shadows across the road, shadows that move in the cool breeze.

And that breeze feels different, too. It carries a sensation of relief, as if nature is taking a deep, relaxing breath and luxuriating in the release from summer’s brazen heat and merciless sun. Scents waft on that breeze, too, scents of autumn that are hard to name, hard to pin down, but always welcome, scents that are heady as a drink of cool wine but far more satisfying.

Even the grass is getting in on the act. Look out in the hayfields and you see tall stalks with purple at the top, a deep maroon shade that makes the field look like a royal cloak. Some of the weeds have dry seed pods that wave and rattle in the breeze, adding to the birdsong and chorus of crickets going all day and night, a lonely yet comforting sound that speaks of rest and enjoying a good fire of an evening.

At night, the stars shine brighter, turning the trees into gently moving silhouettes that stand out black against the gray of starlight. Out among those trees, you hear the chuckle of a nearby creek, the water trickling and laughing over rocks, carrying the first colored leaves in a gentle voyage to somewhere else.

Magic floats in the air, one that gets in your blood and makes you smile. Squirrels scamper around, storing nuts for the winter, and you get glimpses of deer in the woodsDeer, some of them topped with magnificent antlers, their heads bobbing up and down as they browse acorns from the forest floor, their white tails flashing like lights through the trees.

If you look close, all those trees have begun a subtle change. Where in summer they were a deep, uniform green, now they’re showing variations on a theme, just as they did in the spring, though not so obvious. Some are lighter than others, and the cedars are darker than ever. If you listen closely, you might hear their joyous laughter in the breeze, the kind of laughter you hear among friends of an evening before rest.

Soon, the leaves will fall, the trees will be bare. Geese will honk overhead as they flee the encroaching cold. Birdsong will disappear from the air and the skies will turn gray, feeling that way even on the clearest day. Winter has its unique beauty as well, but it doesn’t hold a candle to that of autumn. From the last songs of summer birds to the echo of a chainsaw deep in the woods as someone stocks up on firewood, from seeing a hawk cruise overhead, fleecy gray clouds for a backdrop, to watching a chipmunk perch on a log surrounded by a riot of fall colors, this is a special time of year like no other.

Oconaluftee-ValleyEnjoy it, revel in it. Autumnlight is far too brief.


Location, Location, Location

This past week I managed to get the first season of Justified. For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it’s the story of Raylan Givens, US Marshal. At the opening of the series, Raylan is stationed in Miami, and he’s about to kill some drug cartel hit man he’s given 24 hours to get out of town.

Of course, this doesn’t go over very well with his superiors, who remind him that the Marshals haven’t done that kind of thing in about a hundred years. So he’s shipped out of town—back to Harlan County, Kentucky, his home and the one place he didn’t want to go.

I won’t tell you everything about the series. If you want to watch it, I’d hate to ruin it for you. Suffice it to say there’s plenty of crime going on in Harlan County, which is situated in eastern Kentucky and is in the heart of coal mining country. Of course, the coal mining companies don’t drill holes in the ground anymore. Instead, they take the top off the mountains and let the pollution roll downhill into the streams and creeks. There’s plenty of room for stories in this setting, and I’m a big fan of it because of its authenticity. Enough of a fan to forgive them for using areas of Southern California to stand in for Eastern Kentucky. They go to great pains to make it look right (the pilot was shot in Kentucky), and they have to do it for budgetary reasons, so I’ll let ’em slide on this one.

Besides, the stories are just too damned good.

Here’s the thing: I watch it as much to get pointers as I do to enjoy the show.

My major story is set in Arkansas, as you well know if you’ve followed me, but I believe I have trouble keeping it authentic. And I think maybe that happens because I’m too close to the setting.

Years ago, when I made some rather lame attempts at writing horror, I wanted to follow Stephen King’s lead of setting novels in his home state and set my stories in Arkansas. I also made an attempt at writing some paranormal/post-apocalyptic stories that took place in Arkansas. I didn’t feel like I was doing the surroundings justice when I wrote them, and I spoke to a great aunt who was a writer about it. She told me that she wasn’t able to write properly about the hills of Northwest Arkansas until she got away from them, had some emotional distance.

Maybe there’s some merit to that.

Part of Lyle’s initial story is set in Santa Monica. I used it for two reasons: 1) I knew the territory I was gonna write about and, 2) I figured it was a place a drug lord like Chapo Guzman could sneak in and out of fairly easily. I ended up going what I think might be overboard on the descriptions of places like the Santa Monica Pier and the 3rd Street Promenade, and I was able to do it because these areas held fond memories for me and because I had some distance from them.

One of the authors in our group, Pamela Foster, has at least two books set in her home turf of Humboldt County, California. Now, while I can’t speak for her reasons, I suspect loyalty to home was one of them, along with the fact that these stories involve Bigfoot, and Humboldt County is one of the epicenters of sasquatch activity—whether you believe in them or not. I also suspect it was easier for her to put in her descriptions because she’s got some distance from the place (Pam, feel free to agree with or contradict me here; that’s the whole purpose of my posts: to invite comment. Hint, hint). Her descriptive passages are so spot on that I can feel the cold fog roll in off the ocean at night, and hear the drip of water off the eaves.

I’m not sure if I’m capturing my surroundings as well, no matter how hard I try.

How do you do justice to some of the white trash trailer houses here? Or the still prevalent feeling that this is an agricultural state, and that as a result farming is still a major thing?

How do you include apt descriptions of the rolling hills, the dark, mysterious hollers, the way Spring feels so damned welcome after a long, gray winter?

What’s the secret to telling you how it feels to be somewhere and feel like you’re about the only person for miles around?

How do I include that subtle feeling of menace you feel when you’re in certain parts of the countryside, when you just know there’s likely some marijuana moonshiner or meth cook watching you really closely?

I mean, there was a time when, if you spotted a pot patch out in the woods, it was probably a good idea to retrace your steps exactly for fear of tripping a booby trap. There are probably places out there where this is still true.

How do I capture the fandom for the Arkansas Razorbacks that permeates the area? Even if you don’t care a whit for


the Hogs, you can’t escape the bumper stickers everywhere and the Go Hogs boosters that pop up around every corner.

For that matter, how do I capture the atmosphere of Fayetteville, a college town with all the usual liberal trappings of a college town, set amidst a sea of conservative farmers and rural people? Fayetteville—along with Eureka Springs—is a local refuge for neo-hippies, and you see them all over town, driving their Subrarus and Priuses, Love Mother Earth stickers screwing up the appearance of otherwise nice looking vehicles.

And there’s so much more. I’ve not even included the way country music and the lifestyle it describes are pervasive here. It’s hard to go anywhere and not see some 4×4 pickup without a Rebel flag or maybe something across the top of the windshield saying Stone Cold Country By The Grace of God. And I’ve lost count of the number of stickers I’ve seen that say Why, Yes, I AM clinging to my GUNS and RELIGION.

This is the South, baby. Live with it.

So what’s your solution? How do you capture that local feel, whatever your local may consist of? Any words of advice for me or other writers on how to do this when you’re really close to your subject?



Points of Contention

We had what I’d consider a couple of points of contention in writers group last week.

Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. I mean, it ain’t like we threw ms pages at one another or had screaming fits. We’re not sensitive artists by any means. (I have to wonder if there can really be such a thing. I doubt a truly sensitive person will last long in the creative arts because criticism and the ability to take it are integral parts of anything creative.)

I’ll start out with Greg Camp’s story.

Greg is reading a Western he’s written about a man named Dowland. Dowland is a Confederate veteran (kudos to Greg for not making him the typical Union veteran just because they won) who’s come west, as many did, to get away from his past, and, it sounds like, the Recent Disagreement in particular. Of course, this is an incomplete picture because I don’t get to be there for all the readings.

Anyway, one of the things the group tends to get on Greg the most about is that ephemeral thing called sense of place. At least, it’s ephemeral for me. I have a rough idea of what it means, and I think I manage to put it in most of the time. But I have a hard time differentiating between description and rooting us in the scene. For me, description does root me in the scene and gives me that sense of place. I generally manage sense of place by stretching out my description of what’s around the characters or what’s happening around them. Usually a mix of both.

Greg’s scene involved Dowland and another man sneaking up on a cabin where they felt another character, a young boy who’s latched onto Dowland as a sort of father figure, is being held captive by the bad guys.

Now, as the scene unfolded, I saw the pine trees, the mountains, felt the wind blowing, smelled the pine sap, all that stuff, even though Greg didn’t necessarily spell it all out for me.

But there were others who said he didn’t have a sense of place.

Now, for me, there’s always been this ongoing argument: as a writer, it’s my job to tell you the story. But I’m to tell it to you in such a way that you are engaged in it.

That doesn’t mean I have to hold your hand the entire way.

For instance, one story I tried writing some time back involved a scene that’s common here in Arkansas, and contained a description that included some Queen Anne’s lace, a flower that grows pretty much everywhere around here during a certain part of the summer. When I showed that scene to my friend, he said I should explain what Queen Anne’s lace is and I disagreed. Why? Because I’m not gonna lead you by the hand. Neither am I going to bog you down in needless detail. To have the flowers there was important. To describe them in detail wasn’t. If you really want to know what they are, look ’em up.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I often see things like this in other novels and I haven’t a clue what it is or what it looks like. That’s fine. If I really want to know, I’ll find out. If I don’t, it’s not gonna distract from the story for me.

 I didn’t need Greg to tell me of all the scents, sounds, and sights to be in the scene. Is that a shortcoming on my part? Well, I’d like to think not. It’s like the graphics in a video game: sure, the better they are, the prettier the game is. But what are awesome graphics if the games sucks? Nothing. Sense of place, to me, isn’t half as important as the story. Entertain me and I’ll fill in some of the gaps. And by filling in those gaps, I’m engaged in the story.

Another point we had was in my story. Early on, I have Lyle’s son Cody call him out on what he’s been doing by saying that he and his sister knew their dad was cooking meth in the car because they could smell it. A couple of people had problems with this, and they were different problems, too, though possibly related.

The first problem—and it had come up before—was that they didn’t like Lyle putting his kids in danger like that, by hauling them around in a car he’d cooked meth in. Now, to be perfectly clear, he wasn’t hauling them around in it while he was cooking, which is a big difference. But it can be reasonably argued that residue could endanger Kendra and Cody and you wouldn’t get much disagreement from me.

The problem came because some of the other members of the group said they really like Lyle, and this makes them uneasy about him. That it’s the one thing about him they don’t like.

Well, my first argument is: do you know anyone you like everything about? If you do, you don’t know them very well.

The second point about this, which I came to with a little help from a friend, is that most of those objecting to this are women. I don’t mean that in a chauvinistic way, either. Women and men just view this kind of thing differently, and therein lies one of those weird contradictions of personality that makes our characters real. We all do things we aren’t proud of, and Lyle agonizes about it later in the book. He regrets it. More than once, and admits he just didn’t think about what he was doing.

But more than that, he didn’t think about it because men and women view keeping children safe in different ways. To women, you don’t do anything that even remotely resembles putting them in any kind of danger. Men, meanwhile, view it from a caretaker’s point of view, which says, “I’ll do anything to provide for my children.” Yes, that means that sometimes we later wonder why the hell we took that particular approach to that particular problem—such as cooking meth in the same car you haul your kids around in—but that’s just us. It doesn’t make us wrong or right.

Besides, I can’t stand characters who don’t make mistakes.

So, I left it the way it is. Why? So I could torture Lyle with it later, and because mostly it’s men who read crime fiction. They won’t question what happens, for the most part, until Lyle does. Or, if they do, they’ll at least understand why he could make such a stupid mistake.

And, to tell you the truth, I hope Greg leaves his scene the way it was, too. I was there. I crunched across that forest floor with Dowland, smelled the pine resin, felt the heat lying like a blanket all around me. I thought it was an exceptional passage.

But that’s Greg’s decision, just as it was mine to leave things as is with Lyle.

That’s the thing about these points of contention: we need them. If we didn’t, there’d be no need for writers groups, editors, or any of that. We’d just send our stories in and everybody would be bestselling authors without effort.

And where would be the fun in that?

Much better to listen, consider, and respectfully agree or disagree (or agree to disagree).

One last point I’d like to make. When I asked my daughter her opinion on Lyle cooking meth in the car, she said she just got the idea they were smelling the leftover scents. She even compared it to walking into a smoker’s house and smelling the cigarettes even if the person isn’t smoking right then. You can still tell when you’re in a smoker’s house. It stands to reason meth would leave the same evidence in the air, and that the person cooking it might not smell it anymore.

If I ever write a novel that doesn’t have something wrong with it, that tells me that I’ve probably written one so bland that everything is wrong with it.

And I’ll trash the damned thing.



Another “Stuff” Post

Okay, first of all, yes, I’ve changed my theme again. It’s not that I’m so much indecisive as I’m experimenting. I actually wanted to use this theme last time I switched but didn’t realize how versatile it is (for those of you who don’t use WordPress, you can sort of try on your themes before using them. Except they don’t always look like you can make ’em look when you activate them). Mostly I’m looking for something I can proof that’s easy on my eyes. I not only proof in my text box, I also proof after I publish the post because I sometimes spot mistakes there that I don’t see in the text box. My daughter liked the last theme I switched to, but it wasn’t my preferred one, so now I’ve switched to this one.

Besides, I’m kind of a gadget guy, so I like to change things up occasionally. I get bored leaving it one way. Heck, I tend to buy new watches (yes, I still wear one of those) just because I get bored with the one I’ve got.

Okay. Now that’s out of the way.

I just came from my writers’ group. I didn’t take anything to read tonight, which turned out to be just as well. This group has been around a long time, over twenty years, if I’m not mistaken. It’s run by Western author Dusty Richards and an old newspaper writer named Velda Brotherton. For those of you who read Westerns, as of this year Dusty has written 100 books. He has written some for the Ralph Compton estate as well as several under his own name. Considering that Westerns, as far as I can tell anyway, aren’t a real hot commodity in publishing right now (which is sad, in my opinion), I think that says something for him that he can get his stuff published.

Anyway, because our group is so old, attendance fluctuates. When I take reading material, I usually make twelve copies because that seems to be a happy medium. Some nights are like tonight in which I’d guess there were well over twenty people there, and others it’s more like ten or fifteen. You just never know from meeting to meeting. They’re a punctual group (they have to be), starting promptly at 6:30 P.M. and ending as close to 9:00 as possible. It rarely runs over that. Each participant can bring five pages of whatever work they want, and that includes poetry. We pass around copies, the author reads it aloud, and then everyone is free to comment on it. In other words, what we have is a critique group.

I like that. I mean, we joke and stuff, so it’s not 100% business 100% of the time, but we do keep our nose pretty close to the grindstone, simply because of time constraints. In order for everyone to read their material, it’s necessary.

We have a pretty diverse group, too. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I do sf/f and I’m starting to experiment with crime fiction. We have a couple of mystery writers, one other guy is doing a space opera, there are a couple of romance writers, and one who thought she was a romance writer but then evidently figured out she wrote chick lit. Nothing wrong with that. We have one woman named Jan Morril (I hope I spelled that name right) who’s writing what I guess you’d call a historical novel. If I understand her history correctly, she is originally from Hawaii and is at least part Japanese. Her book, which she’s calling Broken Dolls, is about a Japanese family from California interred in a camp in Arkansas during World War II and the people they meet. It’s excellent writing, and I don’t understand everything that’s happening because I’ve missed large chunks of it. But what I’ve read is impressive and I’d like to read the entire book. I hope she finds a publisher for it, because it deserves to be out there. Anyway, we also have  a couple of humor writers who tend to do sketches rather than full-blown novel-length pieces, but that’s okay, too. There’s room for all kinds.

The thing is, I thought that’s basically what all writers’ groups did: got together and critiqued one another’s work. It’s interesting to me because it lets me sample stuff I wouldn’t normally read (and some of it I never will), and it’s been interesting educating most of them in what goes and doesn’t in sf/f. They just weren’t that familiar with the genre.

It seems. though, that the group my daughter belongs to doesn’t do that. They do a prompt session where they spend five minutes writing some kind of little flash fiction thing, and they’re given five words to use in a story for the next meeting (please correct me if I’m wrong, Jesi). From what I understand, it’s a small group, about eight people if I remember right, and they meet once a week just like my group does.

Now, I’m not one to criticize another group. It’s not like I’ve got the ultimate wisdom on what a writers’ group should be and/or do. But, while I like the little prompts and such that my daughter’s group does, I have to wonder if they’d get more out of it if they did some critiquing. I say this because I have grown considerably as a writer since I started going to this group I’m in and, with the exception of sharing whatever good news there might be (I’m still waiting for someone to jump up and down screaming “I got an agent!” or something similar), critiquing one another’s work is all we do. Well, that and eat the wonderful desserts one of the women brings every week.

So is anyone out there reading this part of a writers’ group besides me, my daughter and Russell (I know he reads this because he’s commented a couple of times)? If you are, what does your group do? Do you think critiquing should be a vital part of what a group does, or are there other ways to help group members?

I ask these questions because, as I said, this is what I pictured writers’ groups doing before I joined this one, and I think  I would have been surprised if they’d done anything else. But maybe my exposure to such things is too limited or something, so it’s gotten me to wondering and I thought I’d ask.

Well, I believe that’s enough rambling this time around. Let me know what you think in the way of groups. Or my new theme. I want it to be different but easy to read at the same time.