Friday, May 6, 2016

Dirt Roads

By Robert Bailey

In rural north Alabama and southern Tennessee where I spent the majority of my childhood, it isn’t unusual to be riding down a highway and see a dirt road leading off to a house or a barn.  Occasionally, you’ll see a patch of dirt that leads to a destination that can’t be seen from the highway.  In those instances, you won’t know where the road goes unless you turn…   

When writing the first draft of a novel, every author is different in how they approach the process of getting from “once upon a time…” to “The End.”  

For me, I start with a situation:  legendary law professor returns to courtroom after forty years of teaching to help a former student, i.e. The Professor, or five year old African American boy witnesses the Ku Klux Klan brutally murder his father and vows to bring the killers to justice, i.e. Between Black and WhiteThen I think about how I want the story to begin and end. The beginning of the story is the setup for the situation I have imagined, so it is fairly clear in my mind. The ending is a bit murkier; I have a general idea of how I want the story to conclude, but I want to give my characters wiggle room to change the ending if they see fit.  I also want to allow myself the freedom to take a few “dirt roads” along the way. 

Once I have the beginning and ending, I write the story as it comes into my head, typing a few notes in bold and all caps at the end of a session for where I want the story to go the next day.  With the first draft, I don’t outline—I just make things up as I go, never losing sight of the ending I have in mind.  Along the way, I will typically venture into some areas of plot or character that aren’t exactly on the way to my destination.  These are what I call “dirt roads.”  Many times, these dirt roads end up being cut from the final draft.  However, sometimes they lead to magic.

The best example of a magical dirt road for me is the “Musso” character in The Professor.  When I began the novel, I just wanted Tom to have a bulldog.  I had no idea that Musso would play a pivotal role in the plot.  But when I got to the part of the story where Tom has to decide whether to practice law again, I took a dirt road that led to Musso doing something that still makes me cry when I read it.  

Writing the first draft of a novel is a scary journey.  There are times when I know exactly where I’m going and others where I don’t have a clue.  And, at least for me, there are always a few dirt roads…  ___________________________________________________________________ 

Robert Bailey is the author of Between Black and White released March 2016 by Thomas & Mercer. His debut novel, The Professor, won the 2014 Beverly Hills Book Award for legal thriller of the year and was an Amazon bestseller, spending several weeks at #1 in the legal thriller category. Robert Bailey was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of a builder and a schoolteacher. From the time he could walk, he's loved stories, especially those about Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Robert obtained a Bachelor of Arts in History from Davidson College in North Carolina. Law School at the University of Alabama followed, where Robert made Law Review, competed on the school's trial team and managed to watch every home football game. For the past thirteen years, he's been a civil defense trial lawyer in his hometown of Huntsville. He's married to the incomparable Dixie Bailey and they have two boys and a little girl. When Robert's not writing, practicing law or being a parent, he enjoys playing golf, watching Alabama football and coaching his sons' little league baseball teams. He lives in Huntsville, Ala., where he practices law with the firm of Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne. He can be found at his website FaceBook and on Twitter

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Free State of Jones – A Southern Saga

By Doyne Phillips, Managing Editor for Southern Writers Magazine    

William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Nothing could be truer especially in the South. And because of that there are always stories that continue and grow as they go. The Free State of Jones is just such a story. With an upcoming movie in June starring Matthew McConaughey I expect it will grow even further.

During the Civil War some of the citizens of Jones County Mississippi were against slavery, succession and the Confederacy. One reason was Jones County had the smallest population of slaves. As the men of the county went off to fight with the Confederacy their beliefs made it easier to see reasons to desert and many did. One in particular was Newt Knight. Knight deserted after the Battle of Corinth and returned to Jones County. There he joined with fellow deserters and former slaves to  fight against the Southern Army that was taking their livelihood away from them with taxes and thievery.  Knight and a troop of 1,000 men eventually became powerful enough to run most of the Confederates out of the county and temporarily hoisted the Union Flag at the county courthouse in Ellisville. They then declared Jones County as the Free State of Jones.

Knight went on to have a long life with 7 children by his white wife  and 5 children by a slave that had once been owned by his grandfather. The children finding it hard to find mates ended up marrying each other which led  to interracial marriages and a small settlement of  Soso MS which a majority of  citizens were biracial. With the common thinking of the South at that time and the “one drop rule” there was a lot of animosity towards Knight and his descendants.

Knight was a hero to some but to the local Confederates, Knight and the notorious Jones County was shameful. So in 1865 they renamed the county Davis County after Jefferson Davis and County seat of  was renamed Leesville after General Robert E. Lee. In later years there was a vote and it was overturned and the names returned. Knight’s status as hero or traitor ebbs and flows with history and the current sway of social standards. For local History Professor Wyatt Moulds, a direct descendant of Newt Knight’s grandfather, the movie is an idea whose time has come. As for history I have always been fond of  the idea that the truth and history are close relatives but not identical twins.

As for the saga’s growth I expect the animosity and hero worship of  Knight will continue. I am reminded of the split decision on the book and movie The Help. Some saw it as fairly accurate and others just a polluted version of an outsider. The beauty of it all is the South has many stories that have yet to be told due to the historical and social opinions that have existed. But as Bob Dylan said, “These times they are a changing.”  


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Writing a Historical…A New Appreciation

By Rodney Page

So…after authoring several Beltway thrillers and whodunits, how different or more difficult could writing a historical be? After all, plots are plots and characters are characters, right?

Not so fast!

I took the benefits of writing novels set in current time for granted.

A character must communicate…easy, he picks up the cell phone, calls or sends a text. Problem solved.

Another character needs to travel…equally easy. She hops on a plane, gets on the interstate or calls a cab.

What about ‘place?’ We usually set our stories in environs with which we are familiar. We know where the strip malls, highways and eateries are. Depending on the type scene, we know how to describe a bustling airport or a secluded cove on the lake…we’ve been there.

And there’s the blessing of the Internet. A character needs to know something, anything. He sits at his computer and Googles away. Better yet, he employs a nerd, or a hacker who can research anything, break into any database in the world and presto, the facts needed to advance the plot appear on the monitor.

Now, consider characters undertaking those same activities…communicating, traveling and obtaining information…and the narrator’s sense of place is the nineteenth century. Hmmm…that’s exactly what I faced writing Murcheson County.

An entirely new mindset was needed to write the book. In a sense, time slowed down. No phone call, but a letter requiring two months for delivery. The trip to a wedding on the Georgia coast, not a three-hour drive but a two-day journey by horseback. Notification of an out-of-town death, not by email, but an obituary in the weekly newspaper a month after the fact.

The challenge of presenting a reasonably accurate sense of place taxes one’s imagination...and research skills. Even if using familiar locales, what did they look like 160 years ago? Where now there are trees, were they once pastures? Was the road no more than a rutted path? If the house or building remains, how has it changed?

And there’re the bedeviling little details…If a character falls ill, what were the remedies of the time? Exactly what was the process for cotton cultivation? Georgia seceded, but what was the vote at the Secession Convention; what were the opposing factions? Sure, Confederate currency was viewed as relatively worthless, but what did a gallon of corn liquor cost? Of course, Sherman ravaged Georgia, but what restrictions were placed on his foraging parties?

Needless to say, I have a new appreciation of historical fiction authors. It’s a challenging genre. However, I encourage anyone to give it a try. It will the stretch the limits of your imagination, hone your research skills and force you to put yourself in a time other than the present.
Rodney Page’s business career included a variety of senior management positions and consulting engagements in companies and industries ranging from startups to Fortune 50 firms. A graduate of the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, in 2005 Rodney authored Leading Your Business to the Next Level…the Six Core Disciplines of Sustained Profitable Growth, a hands-on guide for companies navigating the perils and pitfalls of a high growth environment. An avid student of history and political junky, Rodney combined those interests with his lifelong desire to write a novel. His first, Powers Not Delegated, was published in 2012. Rodney’s second novel, The Xerces Factor, and Murcheson County, a historical novel set in Georgia in the nineteenth century was released in 2016. His short story, Granny Mae’s Journey appeared in Steps in Time anthology. He has a murder mystery, The Fourth Partner that will release in the Fall of 2016. Rodney lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina. His passions include hiking, photography, history, reading, and, of course, University of Georgia football. Rodney’s social media links are:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Gone But Not Forgotten

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

(Warning: may contain spoilers)

You gotta love this title.
A good protagonist is like a good friend.  Over time we get attached to them as if they were members of the family.  So when writers decide to kill them off, a little piece of us dies with them.

The Grim Reaper is no stranger to series like House of Cards, The 100, Game of Thrones and, like the title implies, The Walking Dead.  Cop shows and mysteries feature death in virtually every episode, but when the deceased is a fan favorite, it's a shocking turn of events.

In a recent conversation with a writer friend, I was mourning the loss of a primary character on one of the few dramas I follow, The Blacklist. After my rant, they in turn bemoaned the impending doom soon to befall a key character on a drama they follow just as avidly.  All of this is on the heels of the recent blockbuster Batman vs Superman, in which a beloved character meets their demise.

Meanwhile, here I am, still getting over Edith Bunker dying on an episode of Archie Bunker's Place in 1980.

I also never figured out why it was necessary to kill off Dan Conner in the final 1997 episode of Rosanne, when it was already going off the air.  But then again, Rosanne was often funny that way. Or not funny that way.

Getting rid of a main character on a TV series is sometimes the result of a pregnancy, a contract dispute, or some other irreconcilable difference.  Fortunately, writers of book series don't get painted into such corners with actors, so literary deaths have a bit more intentionality to them.  It seems the more dystopian the setting, the more likely it is that one or more of the good guys won't make it to the last installment.

No matter the medium, extinguishing a popular character is a bold move.  More than one author has faced backlash from angry readers afterwards.  J.K. Rowling alone has made postmortem apologies all but an annual tradition. As far back as 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt the brunt of a perturbed public when he killed off Sherlock Holmes. The outcry was so loud that he soon resurrected the storied sleuth.

If a main character must die, it should further the plot and not be merely for shock value (or publicity). If it provides fodder for subsequent episodes that deal with finding the person's killer, for example, at least they did not die in vain.  The bereaved audience will find solace and satisfaction as justice is sought and served.

At the very least, the impact a character death has on the reading or viewing public must be given appropriate consideration.  They need time to grieve, so let them attend the funeral, hear the recollections of the deceased's friends and family, and basically say goodbye in their own way.

Since there are innumerable ways to bury a protagonist, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.  If you should find yourself with a good reason to try it in your novel, proceed with caution, but be encouraged by those who've gone before you.  Obviously some writers are making a killing doing it.

Monday, May 2, 2016


By Sheri Wren Haymore

In the most memorable stories, the protagonist gets what he desires against all odds. Despite evil forces, or society, or cataclysmic misunderstanding, or the gears sticking in the time machine—whatever the opposition, he overcomes the odds.

I propose that the most interesting characters are deeply flawed and become heroes in spite of their flaws and against all odds. In fact, it’s the protagonist’s imperfections, more than whatever admirable traits the author may bestow on him, that draw us into the story, make us curious to know how it’s all going to play out. We want to know how he’s going to overcome his flaws in order to reach his goal. 

We want to believe in redemption.

So how does an author craft a flawed character without creating a caricature? Just as you get to know a friend the longer you do life with her, so your character will reveal herself by her dialogue, her actions, and especially her reactions to the events in her story. In fact, it’s when you, the writer, peel back her reactions that you get at her flaws. And when you unveil the ugliness of her flaws, then you can discover the story she really wants to tell.

Recently I read a novel that I liked in which the main character habitually wakes up hungover; so far, a flat character.  A tragedy is revealed to explain his four-year binge; more dimension. As the story deepens and the guy reacts to events—with kindness, then cynicism, then inexplicable rage—now we get at the heart of his problem. He feels responsible for the tragedy. Guilt is one of the ugliest flaws of all, and it was up to that author to birth the character’s heroism out of that very flaw.

Allow me to use my own novel, A Higher Voice, as an example. I stitched together a likeable character in rock legend Britt Jordan—quirky and funny, creative and kind—and then I began to unravel him. Britt has a ragged past and more than a few secrets; no surprise for a rock star, but a particular dark memory torments him. He reacts to each new disaster with inordinate desperation to make things right. Here was my quandary: I liked this character too much. I had to walk away from the manuscript for a while before I could get up the nerve to do what I knew I must. Finally I ripped him open and penned such an appalling act of arrogance that he seems beyond redemption. In fact, a reader admitted that she closed the book when she learned how heinous his secret was. And yet it’s out of that arrogant flaw that the breathtaking humility of his heroism emerges and finds significance.

It takes guts to create a believable flawed character and then draw meaning from his story. But you’ve got this, fellow authors, and I look forward to your next stories!
Sheri Wren Haymore is the author of two novels so far, A Higher Voice and A Deeper Cut. Sheri grew up in Mt. Airy, NC, and still lives thereabouts with her husband and a pup named Cercie. Together, they've made a living running a couple of small business, and made a life doing the things they enjoy--traveling, hiking, camping, kayaking. Sheri loves music and yoga, inventing gourmet meals from random ingredients, laughing with friends, and most especially spending time with her daughter. A graduate of High Point University, she has burned more pages than most people will ever write, and is currently scribbling a third novel, which may or may not survive the flames. My social media links are (@sheriwrenauthor)   

Friday, April 29, 2016

Fact of Fiction -- Choosing Your Setting

By Leeann Betts

So you have a great idea for a book. You’ve done some character sketches. You know where the story is going. The only thing that’s left, apart from the writing, is to decide where to set your book.

Your hometown? No, too many people know you there. That little town where you went on vacation last year? You loved the soda shop, the green grocer’s on the corner, the barber with the cool twirling red, white, and blue sign. And what about the man at the post office? All the stories he told you about bank robbers and--wait a second. Was the main street through town called Main Street? Too boring. You want a street name that goes with the title of your book. Something more literary, more foreshadowing.

Scrap that town.

But wait a minute. Maybe not. Maybe that town is perfect. Except for the Main Street thing. And the fact that Pelican Lane--perfectly aligned with your book’s character arc, by the way--runs the wrong direction.

What’s a writer to do?

Simple. Do what you do best. Make up a town. Sure, draw from this town that you liked so well. But give it a new name. And while you’re at it, maybe it needs to be in another state.

I choose to set all my books in fictional towns for a couple of reasons. I don’t want to be constrained by what a real setting would be, and I like to make things up.

Blame it on the writer in me.

Here’s how I come up with the name of a town:
  1. I look at my book and my title and come up with something that goes with it. For example, in my latest Carly Turnquist mystery, Five and Twenty Blackbirds, Carly and Mike are at Mike’s college reunion in Raven Valley, AZ. The college team mascot is a blackbird, so Raven Valley was pretty close.
  2. I checked to make sure there wasn’t a Raven Valley, AZ by searching on the Internet.
  3. I looked at towns near my desired setting and saw how they were laid out. I did this by some actual visits to the area, and you can also go on Google Maps and look at the Earth View of addresses in the real town.
So go ahead. Put on your thinking cap. And make up a town. Or a city. Or an entire world.
Leeann Betts writes contemporary suspense, while her real-life persona, Donna Schlachter, pens historical suspense. No Accounting for Murder and There Was a Crooked Man, books 1 and 2 in her By the Numbers series, released in the fall of 2015. Book 3, Unbalanced, released in January. Book 4, Five and Twenty Blackbirds, is released in April, with more planned for later dates. If you like accountants or are an accountant, check out Counting the Days: a 21-day devotional for accountants, bookkeepers, and financial folk. Leeann and Donna have penned a book on writing, Nuggets of Writing Gold, and Donna has published a book of short stories, Second Chances and Second Cups. You can follow Leeann at and Donna at  All books are available at in digital and print, and at in digital.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is Fiction Just Shades of an Author's Truth?

By Annette Cole Mastron, Communications Director for Southern Writers Magazine

As Lord Byron said, "Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction." So, is fiction just shades of an author's truth?  I came up with this question as a result of an article that floated through my Facebook newsfeed last week. 

It caught my eye because of the title from New York Magazine, "The Real-Life Gone Girl Is 80, and still terrifying." The New York Best Selling novel "Gone Girl" expanded to a film was an unusual psychological thriller. It was masterful in how it took the reader through the story from the perspectives of the two protagonists. It is a story that stays with you because what you think you know isn't at all as it appears, much like real life. 

A psychological thriller has all the bells and whistles of a thriller. It layers the characters emotional unstable psychological makeup, ultimately driving the plot. 

As an author of fiction, you can take a true story and make it your own. Use the basis of the facts and weave into your unique book.  Your characters will develop an obvious and not so obvious tormented relationships complete with moral ambiguities for your protagonists. Don't forget to develop pathological tendencies in your protagonists. 

In a recent interview with The Hollywood ReporterGillian Flynn author of Gone Girl, states, "My interest is in turning over a rock and seeing what's underneath. It's a personality trait more than anything; it's what made me want to become a crime reporter, even though I was not suited for it personality-wise. [I wanted to explore] those bursts of violence, where they come from and how they unite people together. I wanted to figure out what drives people to these sorts of extremes." Flynn admitted in the same interview to including truth in her book, "I certainly put some of that in the story line. I was a Missouri kid in New York working at my dream magazine and got laid off and had to figure out what to do with my life next. I did have more time to write; [Gone Girl] was the first of the three books that I wrote while I didn't have a day job. I think it let me overwrite -- I probably wrote two books and had to chop it back to one."
So yes, when you come across a true story consider taking bits of the truth and turning it into an unforgettable psychological thriller book. Incorporate elements of mystery, drama, action and psychological horror. 
Who knows? You may have a best seller on your hands.