Monday, March 31, 2008

Col. Lawrence Allen's House

January, 1863.

Fifty armed and desperate men from the community of Shelton Laurel  enter the town of Marshall in search of the essential salt which they, as suspected Unionists, had not been allowed to buy. They ransack stores and plunder homes -- even pounding up the stairs of Col. Allen's house to rip blankets from the beds of his sick children.

Retaliation is swift; a few days later a troop of Confederate soldiers makes its way to Shelton Laurel in search of the raiders. The result is the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which 13 men and boys (some as young as 13 and 14; most, if not all, non-participants in the raid) are rounded up and executed. Women, some elderly, are tied to trees and whipped when they will not say where their men are; an infant is laid in the snow in an attempt to force the wretched mother to name the raiders and their hiding places.

Civil war -- brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. The families of the victims of the massacre knew the killers. And for years, bitter resentment simmered, breaking out now and then in private vengeance. Over a hundred years after the Civil War and the Shelton Laurel Massacre, our county still was known to many as "Bloody Madison."

Do the old feuds and hatreds remain? Probably not -- though I wouldn't presume to say for sure. But the old house endures, new furbished and landscaped, a private home adorning our little town and inflaming the imagination of at least one novelist.

I'll be drawing for a winner tomorrow and posting the name with tomorrow's blog. Leave a comment to get your name in the hat for an early copy of In a Dark Season.
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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Painting Class

"Zinc white, cadmium red, quinacridone red, cadmium yellow,Hansa yellow, cerulean blue, cobalt blue: the names were as beautiful as the colors. Elizabeth squeezed a blob of each in a careful line along the top of the glossy freezer paper that was her makeshift palette." Art's Blood, p.241)
I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Artist. But there was a time when I had lots of fun playing with paint. Elizabeth's painting class was based on a studio class I took for years at Asheville's AB Tech community college. I love playing with color -- and painting's quicker than quilting, my other artistic outlet. So I signed up for a beginning class. We had a wonderful teacher -- Fleta Monaghan ( )-- who has the gift of helping anyone, no matter how unskilled or uninspired, become a better painter.

After the first class, I joined a weekly studio class where we painted what we liked with Fleta always there to give encouragement and suggestions. ("Vicki, have you considered taking a drawing class?) My favorite thing to paint was big flowers -- not so much drawing (my real weak spot) and lots and lots of color.

Getting lost in painting is like meditating -- bringing your attention to bear on one little thing and shutting out everything else. I've been surprised to find out that many writers are also amateur painters but I think the two go together well. The attention to detail -- learning to see how the light lies just here along this delicate curve or distinguishing the various shades and hues that lurk in a "green" leaf --- that attention, brought to writing, must add depth and richness.

I know my time in painting class enriched my writing. And I love manufacturing "painterly" descriptions of Elizabeth's world. But as I write this I realize: I miss the paint.
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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rainy Day Memories

In May of 2006 my husband and I did a walking tour in the Cotswolds. Today's misty, rainy weather reminded me of that amazing ten days, spent in some of the most beautiful countryside and charming villages imaginable. Yes, it rained almost everyday but never did it dampen our spirits.
We signed up with a company that set up an itinerary for us, booked us in each night at a different inn or bed and breakfast, gave us good maps, and arranged to have our luggage transported from one stop to the next. We were on our own, tramping through fields, meadows, pastures, woods, and villages, carrying only day packs. There's a wonderful system of public footpaths, often hundreds of years old, well marked and running through private and public land alike, from one village to the next.
The homes and villages are sometimes so beautiful that I found myself absolutely aching with longing to live there. A foolish dream, as even the tiniest of quaint cottages starts around a million dollars.
But irrational longing aside, it was a beautiful place to be in May, walking through the lush, green fields, blue-bell woods and villages built of golden limestone -- thinking of hobbits and Miss Marple and Harriet Vane.
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Friday, March 28, 2008

More Welcome Signs of Spring

Finally, after a long winter of standing about in a field that had been reduced to mostly dirt and mud (and worse), the cows have been turned into their summer pasture on the mountain. They're like kids on the first day of vacation, trying to do it all -- exploring the boundaries of their new home while eagerly cropping the tender grass. The girls have had plenty of hay all winter -- and if we get a late snow, they'll be back at the gate, bawling to be taken back to the hay ring. And, during the winter, they've had about twenty acres to move around in, generally in search of the sunny spots. But now! They've sixty-some acres of woods and fields to range and any number of fresh green things to munch. The calves are capering and even the old lady cows are kicking up their heels.
As I was on my way to get a picture of the herd, I was thrilled to notice that our shitake logs were producing once again. Elizabeth has shitake logs(of course!) and like ours, hers are on the way to the pasture. "In the shade by her toolshed, she paused to check the stack of oak logs that Ben had inoculated with mushroom spawn. A lone shitake the size of a silver dollar, its chestnut cap edged with tiny mocha dots, protruded from an upper log.

In the real world it's my husband who drills holes in fresh-cut logs and hammers in little pegs of compressed sawdust and mushroom spawn. The logs that are producing now were inoculated four or five years ago and they've produced a lot of shitakes so far. This year John has branched out and in time we hope to have not only shitakes, but oyster and lion's mane mushrooms as well.

Ben will have to get busy over there in that parallel world!
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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Signs and Portents


For some years now, ever since a friend alerted me to the fact that the Mayan calendar says the end of the world will occur on December 3, 2012, I've kept that date on my desk with the notation 'PLAN AHEAD.' Now, it seems, we have only about two weeks.

Oh dear, oh dear . . .

It's hardly worth bothering even reading the Sun's article '7 SUPERFOODS TO FIGHT EVERY KNOWN DISEASE,' much less taking the trouble to incorporate them into my diet. No, with so little time remaining I'm tempted to recreate a sandwich I had in England a few years ago -- Brie and (English) bacon snuggled into a heavily buttered baguette. Now that's a sandwich.

I'd laugh off this latest apocalyptic warning -- I was laughing it off -- till early this morning, reading The New York Times headlines on the internet, I was shocked (shocked, I say!) to see that this venerable and conservative (grammatically, at least) old lady of a newspaper had used, in a headline, It's as a possessive, when we all know it's is the contraction for It is. By the time I got ready to write this post, the mistake had been corrected but still . .

Could this indeed be the beginning of the end? Signs and portents . . .

And though mail service may be ended and we'll all be too busy to worry about such things by the time I receive my early author's copies, you can still leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to win an early copy of In A Dark Season. The 31st is the last day to enter and I'll announce the winner on April 1.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Among the Joys of Spring

The yellow of forsythia against a blue sky is one of the many joys of spring. Forsythia is such an obliging plant -- easily rooted from cuttings or simply by laying a low-growing branch on the ground with a rock on it till it takes root. And the unpromising spindly branches are willing to burst into bloom ahead of time if you cut them, bring them into your warm house, and put them in water Leave them in the water and those branches will leaf out and tiny white rootlets will begin to sprout. Let your forsythia bush go unpruned and it will send out shoots of six feet or more, turning into a golden fountain. Prune it hard, as some folks more energetic than I do, and the globe or hedge that you've shaped the eager shrub into will be tightly covered with cheerful butter-yellow blossoms. For sheer exuberance, forsythia's hard to beat.

Periwinkle, on the other hand, is shy and retiring. You have to look closely to see the lavender-blue blooms nestled amid the glossy leaves of this hardy shade-loving ground cover. It spreads fairly rapidly and takes well to being transplanted -- making it a good plant to share with friends and neighbors. I was delighted to learn that periwinkle was once known as 'Joy of the Ground' -- apart from its pretty flowers and its willingness to cover slopes, the name alone would be reason enough for me to want to grow this modest charmer.

The pansies that bloom in the bed at our entry way were bought in a flat from a nursery and planted last fall. They endured the freezes and snows of the winter and now they're coming into their own, lifting their cheerful faces to the sun. Of course, that same sun will eventually be the end of the pansies -- they'll grow straggly and give up the ghost in summer's heat. But for now, they're another of the joys of Spring.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Natural Resilience

Knocked down years ago when the bulldozer carved out a road into our woods, this poplar responded by sending up a shoot that has grown into a new tree.

Of course there's a lesson in this but, as always, Shakespeare's been there already. I'll take the easy way out and quote from As You Like It, Act II, Scene 1)

And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Big Words

Big words -- I've always loved them. And in the historical sub-plot of the soon-to-be-released In a Dark Season, I have a character that allows me to use as many whoppers as I can manage.

Allow me to introduce myself – Thomas Walter Blake, the second of that name, native of Charleston, South Carolina, late of Harvard University, and completely at your service. In view of our enforced intimacy, may I suggest that we dispense with formalities hereafter? If it meets with your approval, I shall call you Lydy and I beg that you will make use of my own praenomen, my familiar appellation, my given name . . . in short, please call me Tom.

Lydy’s eyes narrowed. Reckon I’ll stick with Professor, iffen you don’t keer. Hit don’t seem fitten fer a body with so many big words in his craw to be called by a name any common he-cat might carry.

It was great fun imagining a fella like the Professor, sharing a cell with an unschooled farm boy like Lydy. While I was writing this book, my own vocabulary grew as I looked for obscure, multi-syllabic words to adorn the Professor's speech.

And now there's this site - - which allows me to build my vocabulary and provide a meal for someone somewhere. Warning: it's kinda addictive!

I've put up all my pictures from the Easter party I've been going on about -- will probably add more as they come in.

And remember: leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for an early copy of In a Dark Season !
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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Party

The shop tools were shrouded with pastel-dyed sheets and quilts, crepe paper, and balloons were everywhere.

The Easter tree was ready, decked with fancy eggs made in past years.

The barbecue was done to perfection and carefully sauced by a team of seasoned professionals working in strictly sanitary conditons.
And the weather cooperated, giving us a day that was sunny and beautiful, if a bit chilly. It's always fun, trying to recognize the folks who I mainly remember as little kids -- many of them now with children of their own. And there are always friends I haven't seen since the last Easter party or longer, as well as new faces to the county. A fine day, capped off, for the Carolina fans, by another victory.

I'll post a web album of more party pictures, including the egg hunt, in the next day or two and give a link on my blog for the day. But for now -- Happy Easter to all and to all a Good Night! (It's been a long, busy weekend.)

(for more pictures, check out my web album --

and why I can't paste a hot link here, I don't know -- see the following post for one that works -

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Pre-Party Party

Our Easter party is kind of a big deal. It's been a tradition for almost thirty years now -- a big potluck and egg hunt on Easter Sunday. We've watched kids hunt eggs, grow up, and now they're bringing their kids to hunt for eggs. But that's tomorrow. Today the story is the preparty.

My sons' friends begin arriving as early as Wednesday night, and they continue to trickle in till on Saturday we have a full crew of experienced crepe paper twirlers, balloon blowers, decoration bestowers -- all busy transforming my husband's woodworking shop into a venue for our Easter party.

Our friend Bob, (the original of the Doc Adams who twice appears in the Elizabeth stories) hangs quilts for me -- any new ones that our group of friends and quilters have made in the past year, plus others from previous years to fill out the space. My husband starts the pork slow-cooking; Sarah, here on her yearly visit from Nicaragua, hangs some branches of flowering quince with decorated eggs from past years; folks who haven't seen each other for twelve months catch up on one another's doings while dogs (the eleven that live here on our farm and the four that are visiting) weave in and out of the groups of people, adding to the general ambiance.

By dark, food is out in the barn where the pork is cooking -- hot dogs, chicken, London broil, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, green salad, roasted vegetables, apple crisp, cookies, and the ingredients for s'mores. The pre-partiers gather around the fire outside and fortify themselves.

The actual party is tomorrow.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Moonlight March Madness

A beautiful moonlit night -- but inside the house it's Carolina Basketball at 7. March Madness. . . The Big Dance. . . and Carolina is top seed. My younger son's a Chapel Hill graduate, as are many of his friends who are here for the weekend; my husband's a long time fan; and this gathering is an inevitability.

The sofas get rearranged for easier viewing; the cedar chest/coffee table gets put to use as additional seating; and I make a vat of Picadillo to feed ten. My younger son and his girlfriend bring wine and ciabatta and make a salad; I cook rice and we're ready to eat while the Tar Heels trounce the opposing team.


A Cuban favorite that freezes well (and I quadrupled this recipe so we'd be sure to have some to freeze)

1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork (I use hot pork sausage)
2 large onions, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
olive oil
6 tomatoes, chopped (I use a large can of diced tomatoes)
2 tsp. salt
1 tbs. brown sugar
1/4 c. vinegar
1/4 c. stuffed green olives (add in last 15 minutes)
1 tbs. capers
1/2 c. raisins (optional -- I don't usually add them)
1/2 c. red wine

Sauté onions, peppers and garlic in olive oil. When cooked, remove and saute meat. Drain off excess fat. Return cooked vegetables to pan and add remaining ingredients. Cook on low heat for about an hour. Add hot sauce to taste. Traditionally served over white rice.

I've never been a sports fan -- the nearest I ever came was when my younger son played soccer, I found myself beginning to enjoy the games and my foot twitching as I tried to guide the ball long distance. But for the most part I just enjoy watching the real fans carry on.

This game wasn't even close -- Carolina was a foregone conclusion almost from the beginning -- but there was still a fair amount of shouting. And I expect there'll be more on Sunday when the Heels play again.
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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Vernal Equinox

At some moment today, the sun is directly over the Equator, day and night are of almost equal lengths, and the Equinox occurs. Here in the Northern Hemisphere it's the Vernal or Spring Equinox; south of the Equator, it's the Autumnal.

I was poised to get a picture of the sun rising due east but unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. Heavy cloud cover veiled the horizon at the crucial moment. Later, however, the dark clouds began to lift and the sun's rays spread out across the mountains, like a magic wand, ready to bring the world to life.

This second picture was taken a few days ago; the third picture is from the winter solstice. You can see how far the sun has traveled in a quarter of a year. I'm embarrassed to admit that this actually came as a surprise to me, having grown up where I didn't see the sunrise every morning. Of course I'd learned about it in school but hadn't truly grasped how very extensive the sun's back-and forth march was. So now I delight in watching this progress through the year -- and nattering on about it, both in my books and in my blog.

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Leave a comment before the 31st to be entered for a drawing for an early copy of IN A DARK SEASON!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the Last Day of Winter

Green lace dances
Down the willow branches;

Tender crimson leaflets
Set the maple twigs aflame.

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for an early copy of In a Dark Season!
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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Fer Ye?

What fer ye?" the man behind the counter called out back in '75, as we walked into the old hardware store, looking for the bits and pieces that would help us put together our new life on a mountain farm.
There were horse collars and hames, butter molds and milk buckets, horse shoes and horse shoe nails, plow handles and plow points, hoof files and nippers, wood stoves and paint and lard cans -- and mattresses and furniture upstairs. There were seeds and sprays and sprockets, chains and chimney pipe and the Gem Dandy electric churn that became a fixture in my kitchen.

Before the new road opened, making travel to Asheville so easy, Bowman's was the place to go for your hardware needs. There was advice for the asking and there was a wiry little old man who would climb like a spider monkey up the shelves on one wall to fetch down items. Your smaller purchases were wrapped in brown paper and tied with string -- no flimsy plastic bags here! Prices were clearly marked on each item but above the dollars and cents price was a code -- probably the wholesale value – that allowed the staff to know how much latitude they had in dickering with their long-time native-born customers – most of whom ignored the sticker price and opened negotiations with "What'll ye take fer that?"

Our little county seat, the inspiration for Elizabeth's Ransom, is metamorphosing into -- well, I'm not sure exactly what. Long gone are the family-owned drug store, the dime store, the grocery store, even the funeral home. One bank has moved -- one remains. A coffee shop, a taqueria, a computer store, an organic foods store and an assortment of gift shops and galleries have come into being.But the old hardware store endures, with its wood stove in the center where A.J. is keeping warm on a cold day. (A.J., I might tell you, is a dancin' fool -- can dance down 'most all comers on Friday nights at the Depot. And he does a great impersonation of a Soggy Bottom Boy a la O Brother, Where Art Thou? But that’s another story.)

The third picture, taken at the back of the store, is just where I imagined a scene in Art’s Blood: “There had been the occasional encounter in Ransom, the nearby county seat, a somnolent country town that had only recently attained its second stoplight. She’d seen her neighbors most recently in the hardware store where she was purchasing hinges to repair a sagging screen door. All three were gathered around a metal bin, evidently assessing the artistic potential of a mass of nails.”

In the old hardware store the floors are still wooden; merchandise still hangs from the walls. You can buy a wood-burning cook stove like the one in the foreground or an aluminum dish pan or a blue striped gray crock to put down your kraut. There's paint, fishing tackle, guns, ammo, crockery, or a funky cricket fashioned by A.J.’s son from an old pipe wrench, a couple of bolts, and some steel rod bent into legs. And, if you’re lucky, you can still get advice.

What fer ye?
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