Today I’m so glad to have as our guest author — Velda Brotherton
Ozark Mysteries Influence Stories
For 20 years my job was to interview people and write their stories, either for a feature newspaper article, a magazine piece, a book, or my weekly historical column. During this time I ran across some unusual, often unbelievable, stories. I was also writing short stories and novels. So many of these interviews became fodder for my fiction. As writers, we should always be on the lookout for ideas. Because of these opportunities I have never experienced writer’s block. Something always waits in the recesses of my brain.
One of the tales that stands out, and which I used in my upcoming novel, THE PURLOINED SKULL, is the one about Caveman John. The small town in which our newspaper office was located was rife with tales of interaction between him and some residents. Occasionally I would see him in passing. Unfortunately I never interviewed him, but was privy to many stories about him. He had become a legendary character.
It seems he showed up after the Vietnam War, and took up residence in a cave above the West Fork of the White River. There he lived for several decades, seen only occasionally as he grew a beard and long hair and became one of the town’s favorite reclusive characters. How could we not wonder what his story was? There was much speculation. Unfortunately, he passed away without anyone learning the facts. It took little imagination for his life to become grist for my writing mill. He has an important part in my first mystery, which begins a series that will involve stories I learned while working on that newspaper. All fictionalized, of course. The Purloined Skull will be published by Oak Tree Press in September.
A haunting related to me by a hairdresser friend still begs to be written. She bought the home of a famous local resident I’ll call Mrs. Duncan, who, after an exceptional life filled with extraordinary accomplishments, had died in poverty. Several times my hairdresser friend asked me to write Mrs. Duncan’s story because she haunted her with regularity. One example actually didn’t take place in the house itself. A friend of hers went to a psychic, who told her that Mrs. Duncan had asked that she find someone to write her life story. Knowing the hairdresser lived in Mrs. Duncan’s home, she passed on the request.
I have a draft of the manuscript, but have never had time to finish it. One day while going through some old photos left at the paper and never picked up, I found a picture of Mrs. Duncan as a young woman seated at an organ, which she played for her church. One would think I would get that story finished and out there, with all this other-world prodding.
Back in the mid 1850s a young woman prepared to become a bride. In those days homes were heated and often food cooked using a fireplace. On the eve of her wedding, while trying on her long white dress, she came too close to the flames, the dress caught fire. She screamed and ran through the woods where she died. Over the years every once in a while someone will report having seen a young woman dressed in white running through those woods. The strange thing about these sightings is that fire is never involved. It is told that she comes back to search for her lover who never married and grieved for her until his death many years later.
One of the darkest novels I’ve ever written is A SAVAGE GRACE, about a woman haunted by a demon. It’s with a publisher, but who knows? This woman must learn how to defeat the demon with the help of a local priest. She is an ordinary person, not blessed with supernatural powers. This novel was inspired by several stories I heard over the years about strange objects found near graveyards, objects that could conjure up frightening dreams. I never wrote nonfiction articles about these for fear my colleagues would think me batty. But from such tales whispered on dark nights can come bone-chilling thrillers. I’ve included a couple of photos of cemeteries where I’ve sometimes sat and chatted with those who have gone on. They have some intriguing stories as well. Okay, so I’m a tad batty. Actually, once I’ve held these conversations, I research the deceased to learn about his or her life. I’ve dug up some pretty good stories that way.
From one morbid bit of history told to me by a local historian came my short story, COFFINS. It’s a chilling tale of a deranged grandmother who insisted her two young granddaughters, who died while they were small, be encased in glass coffins and kept in the parlor of her large home. She would daily comb the hair of the youngest, driving their mother close to insanity. The two girls are now buried in a small local cemetery near their mother and grandparents. The story is true. Who could make up something like that? My short stories are available on Smashwords.
One thing I’m careful to do is change the names of the locales and characters when I write thrillers. Basing good fiction on true stories takes a bit of finesse, especially if you live in a small town. Someone will be sure one of your characters is based on their life. Worse, they’ll point out how you got it all wrong. It’s best not to create creepy or evil characters from real life people. They don’t appreciate it. And never, never use their names, creepy or not.
Look around you. Listen when people relate things that have happened to them. Pick up on local legends, twist and turn them to fit your ideas. Eavesdrop on conversations in the booth next to you in your favorite restaurant or at parties. You’ll find so many ideas you’ll never run out. My favorite tee shirt, given to me by my daughter reads: CAREFUL OR YOU’LL END UP IN MY NOVEL. It’s best to warn people, I always say.
Though Velda Brotherton writes of romance in the old west with an authenticity that makes her many historical characters ring true, she also easily steps out of the past into contemporary settings to create novels about women with the ability to conquer life’s difficult challenges. The heroine of her first mystery of a new series is as tough as those western women. Gutsy heroines, strong and gentle heroes, villains to die for, all live in the pages of her novels and books.
She’s been writing since 1985, and published since 1988. In the 1990s four of her western historical romances were published by Topaz/Penguin, two more from Dorchester. For a couple of years she moved to historical nonfiction, but is now back in the fiction game with two western historical romances from The Wild Rose Press and a contract for a women’s fiction novel, Once There Were Sad Songs. Oak Tree Press recently signed her for her first mystery, The Purloined Skull, due out in September.
All of Brotherton’s books are available on Kindle, some of them also in print at Amazon. Two of her books, STONE HEART’S WOMAN and MONTANA PROMISES are available in audio from Audible, Itunes, and Amazon.
Blurb for The Purloined Skull: Going to war with a Cherokee lawman gains investigative reporter Jessie only one solution, and that’s keep everything off the record.
Excerpt from The Purloined Skull
Jessie stood in the woods near a bluff overhang and stared at the camera’s screen and a cluster of human rib bones scattered in the dark soil. The glowing green light mesmerized her and she couldn’t press the button.
An image of Steve’s face, twisted with rage, intruded. A breeze kicked up, dried the sweat beading on her forehead, and blew away the memory with a scattering of last fall’s leaves.
Back to the bones, concentrate.
She’d come home to lick her wounds and figure out how to atone for what she’d done. Getting involved in a story that could call attention to her was no way to do that. What was she doing here anyway?
Hide. Run and hide. All she wanted was to be safe and let the guilt fade away. Why hadn’t she found a job flipping burgers or working at Wal-Mart and let it go at that?
Bones, for crying out loud. Things like this simply did not happen in small town Arkansas. At least they weren’t supposed to. This would be a big story, no doubt of that. She didn’t dare write it.
Take pictures, talk to Seth, take notes, leave them on her boss’s desk and get back to her bat story.
She leaned onto her heels and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. Gazed at the deep-woods grave. Not a scrap of flesh clung to the bare bones. And they were human. Someone had died out here a long time ago. And they hadn’t buried themselves.
Now what? Dear God, now what? Parker would never let her walk away from this story. He’d make her write it, no matter what. And God help her, she ached to do just that.
As if he stood over her now, Steve’s voice raged. “You bitch, have you ever thought of anyone but yourself?”
“It was my job. I wrote a story,” she whispered into the quiet morning, and knew it for the lie it was. She’d ruined his life and her own.
Way more than that. She didn’t blame him for hating her. She hated herself. Had then, still did. The comfort of this place didn’t extend to gaining forgiveness because she dared not own up to what she’d done. As long as no one knew, she was safe.
“Are they a archology find?” Kyle Foster whined, jerking her out of the mental interrogation.
Sucking in a tremulous breath she rose to her feet without replying and framed and snapped the first of several shots, shuffled around, framed, shot, over and over until she’d covered every angle. No danger she’d compromise the crime scene. Kyle’s nosy dogs had already done that.
Bare tree limbs rattled in a gust of wind that carried the scent of rotted leaves and a vague whiff of marijuana emanating from Foster. The bones waited in eerie silence, sad remnants of someone’s life. They made no sound, put off no stench, nor were they impatient to be identified. Just a pile of bones, that’s all. No heart to ache, no spirit or mind to remember and regret.
With a shiver that chattered her teeth, Jessie glanced at Foster hovering nearby, whiskered face screwed into a message of desperate misery.
Without disturbing the dig further, she rose and took some long shots, carefully leaving him out of the frame. She understood his need for anonymity all too well. She could use some of the same. So she’d take the pictures, call the sheriff and let Parker take over from there. Refuse to get involved. Go back to writing her feel good pieces for page five. No more big stories for this gal. No more the award winning J. J. Stone and dreams of a Pulitzer. These days she was just plain old Jessie West. Hiding out where Steve could never find her. If he did, he’d kill her. That he’d promised, and she believed him, didn’t really blame him because she deserved the worst he could do to her.
She licked her lips, returned to the present and replied to the farmer’s question. “Sorry, but these aren’t artifacts.”
“Aw, shoot. So, maybe we could just cover ‘em back up, say we never saw ‘em.”
“You know I have to call the sheriff.”
“Huh-uh, nope.” He shuffled backward, cast a nervous glance upward, as if he expected the drug task force helicopter to sweep down from the sky and carry him off.
“Should have re-buried them, then, Kyle. You called a reporter, for God’s sake. I can’t ignore this.”
The claim echoed mockingly. She’d like nothing better, was so tempted she could taste it. Discovery of the bones would bring her more hurt than they would the mournful marijuana grower. Cedarton, Arkansas was a small town firmly steeped in the old ways, fenced off from criminal activities, from gangs and drug dealers. The only crime out here these days was growing marijuana, which had replaced whiskey stills of earlier days. Somehow that was acceptable to most everyone but the law.
So, what was a dead body doing buried out here in the middle of nowhere?
See Velda’s other works here:
Thanks for sharing with us today Velda. I do hope you find time to finish Mrs. Duncan’s story!