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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Prolific Historical Fiction Author, Terry White Tells Us about Her Books, and Shares One of Her Short Stories

This was a delightful interview, and I think the readers will enjoy learning more about this author.  She has graciously shared one of her stories from her latest book.
Terry L. White began writing as a child to entertain her younger brothers and sisters. Raised in Appalachia, the eldest of eight children, she had a love affair with books and dreamed of being an author one day. Retired, she still loves writing and works on it every day. She lives in Cambridge, MD. 
Tell us about the genre of your work. 
I work in the historical fiction genre, and I have published two books of poetry. I wrote one book about colonial life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and my publisher suggested a series. So far, my Chesapeake Heritage books span the area’s history from colonization through WWI, and I am working on another in the series set post-WWII. I find it is helpful to have a big world event in order to pin your story to a piece of real history.
Why did you choose this genre?
I have always loved historical fiction because it helped me see what life was like in different times and places. I want to feel the texture of the fabric, hear the shepherd whistle to his dog, hear the grunt of the charcoal cutter cutting wood, listen to the resonance of the sailboat’s lines, and smell the Toll House cookies. When I start a story, it is as if I simply go to that time, place, and report as much as possible about what I see and hear. Perhaps that is what people say is ‘having a channel?’ I am not sure, but it seems as if my life has set me up for this work.

Can you give us the titles of your books, and describe them as well as tell us how we may find them?
Oh my! Here goes: Ancient Memories, The Picker, Mystick Moon, Crazy Quilt, Runaway Hearts, Chesapeake Harvest, Chesapeake Legacy, Imagine, Chesapeake Destiny, Chesapeake Visions, Vienna Pride, Drama Queen Rules, Myth to Me: Songs From the Inner Light, Hang Your Head Over, Hell or High Water, Glinda’s Crystal Garden, Planning Community Events made easy, The Last Priestess, Nazca Star, and Bride of the Condor: a trilogy. All titles are all available on or Kindle, or both.
Chesapeake Harvest, Chesapeake Legacy, Chesapeake Destiny, Chesapeake Visions and Vienna Pride follow the stories of the women in one family. They all live on the same plantation at some point in their lives, and each has some monumental problem to solve in their lives. These stand-alone novels work together to provide an intimate history of a little-known area of the country. While each woman finds love, these are much more than love stories, but rather a record of the strides women have made in regard to the way they are treated by the men in their lives over time.
  • Chesapeake Harvest is the story of Mary Charles who comes to the colony as an indentured servant. Ca: 1640s.
  • Chesapeake Legacy is the story of her bi-racial granddaughter, who is driven from the colony when Indians flee to the Iroquois tribes in the north or into the marshes in order to survive.  Ca: 1690
  • Chesapeake Destiny is the story of an abused wife ca: Revolutionary War. Ca: 1770sChesapeake Visions is the story of a blind girl who must learn to live without servants when Emancipation becomes a reality. Ca: 1865
  • Vienna Pride is the story of a cannery girl threatened by a stalker in an area that produced much of the food for our troops during the last two World Wars. ca: 1918.
  • Ancient Memories is the story of Reincarnation starting in ancient Egypt.
  • The Picker is about a grass-roots musician who cannot give up alcohol.
  • Imagine is the story of a serial killer and the female detective who catches her.
  • Drama Queen Rules follows a woman bent on making a better life for herself despite what others may think or say. 
  • Runaway Hearts is narrative poetry about the Eastern Shore, including the story of Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad. (This volume was read on Radio For The Blind.)
  • Myth to Me is short poetry on many subjects.  Poetry is observation – condensed.
  • Hang Your Head Over deals with secrets and incest set in Pennsylvania mining camp. Ca: 1930
  • Hell or High Water speaks to a rural electrification project that drowns the Sacandaga Valley of New York state. Ca: 1930s
  • Glinda’s Crystal Garden reminds little girls to love themselves.
  • Planning Community Events Made Easy… a how-to for small town festival planning.
  • ….and the Nazca trilogy: The Last Priestess, Nazca Star and Bride of the Condor set in pre-Colombian Peru about the last girl to be initiated and dedicated to the moon goddess as the heart-ripping sun worshippers command their world and a visitor from outer space stops by to find the paradise his father loved. (This series was nominated for an Eppi as a single volume.)
  (I think I got them all! Just call me Mother Goose…)
How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?

In cases of the historical novels, I try to use real places – geographically at least. Place names may be moved to fit the story. I tend to write about places I have been or places I lived in – although some may have been past lives. Names seem to come very naturally and without much thought when a project is rolling. It is almost as if the book is already written and all I have to do is to sit down and take dictation.

How did you develop the character of your protagonist in this book?

 Basically, what a character has to do is to grow. The elements of the story that test the heroine or hero become the things that boost them up or make them struggle. If you do not struggle, you do not grow.

What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?

There are antagonists in each book or there would not be books. Conflict = story.  In the case of The Picker, the antagonist is also the antagonist as the hero is self-destructive. The women of the Chesapeake Heritage stories all have problems they must weather.

How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?
Writing is pretty much writing. I have written news articles, magazine stories, grants, poetry, songs, short stories, long novels, a historical series, children’s stories, press releases… you are telling a story when you write. Just do it.
Why and when did you begin writing?
 I used to copy Bible verses and send them to my grandfather. Later, there were diaries, and a husband who took my books to the dump. One thing followed another. I wrote for my life and the work kept me sane.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I am working on a sixth volume of the Chesapeake Heritage Series, a new volume of poetry, and a pictorial history about Cambridge, MD in collaboration with another author.
What kind of advice or tips do you have for someone who wants to write and get published?
 First of all, I suggest the person read write and write a lot. They should learn the rules of style and grammar. You will find a publisher will not do any of the clean-up work in your messy manuscript. Nor will they check the galley for errors. If you cannot edit your own work – and most of us cannot, hire a copy editor or swap manuscripts with a friend. People who want to be published need to write what they know. I have a degree in American Studies, grew up in Appalachia in a house without plumbing or electricity, worked with antiques and a preservation group of grass-roots dance musician – all elements that come into play when writing historical novels. Do not write about cooking over an open fire unless you have done it.  A broad base of experience is invaluable – including other lifetimes if they have a story that wants to be told. Research is easy online. Write for a newspaper if you can, it will give you an idea of what a deadline really is – and helps you scrap the notion that you have writer’s block.
Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?
 You are looking for a flow, a rhythm, if you will – that is the voice. Surrender to the story and forget about trying to make one of your characters do anything. They know where they are going.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
The very best thing was working my way through schools as an adult and getting my degree from Skidmore College at age 43.  I won some literary awards for a couple of my short stories, and that kept me going. I worked for INI Newspapers on a small town daily where they published every single weekday – including Christmas. I was cited twice for the excellence of my community journalism, but the best part of being a newspaper reporter was having people call me to come and write their story and still remember me ten years later – and produce the story about their loved one!
All my life I believed that being an author was what I was supposed to do in the world, and I often had to support that dream. It did not matter much what the work was, and there was plenty of hard labor. Writing was the goal. Today I realize that all the various things I did, and all people I knew, and everything I experienced was part of the journey. I did the work and I would like to share. The story Autumn Stories is from my newest collection of shorts due for publication in September. Enjoy!
Autumn Stories
Hi, my name is Carol and I am a newspaper reporter, have been for years, which wasn’t always easy because I have always tried to walk for Spirit too. A person might not think the two jobs could go together, but I learned a lot of neat stuff and kept my fingers clean all the time I was with the Rapid City News. Ask anyone. I made my mark all over that paper. People know my byline all the way to Pierre and far into Montana. I always listened to people and wrote down what they said, and I got a reputation for being fair when it came to telling a story straight.
I remember one day my editor, a woman grossly overweight and sporting a full beard, adjusted her wedding photo on her desk and kept me waiting while she talked to someone on the phone.
I could not help but notice that her husband was quite good looking and fit. He was bearded as well, which I like – in a man. I wondered how she did it. I looked normal, but I did not even have a boyfriend.
You see a lot of strange things in Rapid.
I got to go out the first of the month to take a picture of the newest statue for the big Presidents Project. The city, hooked onto the Rushmore tourism thing, and was trying to put a statue of every single American president on the downtown street corners. Last month they installed Teddy Roosevelt, and the month before, it was the guy who played the fiddle. I never could recall his name – I think was it Andy Jackson? Was he a president, or was it somebody else? I will have to look that one up.
Oh yeah, I was talking about my conversation with Cissy Tate. I never could get past the nickname, so I always called my editor Mrs. Tate. I think she might have allowed me the diminutive Cissy, which implied she was somebody’s little sister but she was pushing three hundred pounds.
It took her quite a while to show me two errors on the front page and asked what in the world was wrong with me. “It isn’t like you to be so sloppy,” she shook her head. Her hair, as usual, followed, sprayed to immobility. She swilled her diet cola and stared at me, willing me to be guilty so she could feel good about her having all the power.
I did the pee-pee dance, wiggling in my chair. I hoped she would notice my discomfort and let me go. But no, the woman had all the sensitivity of an armadillo.
I said I thought Fiona Brant was still the copy editor – and ultimately responsible for the paper’s punctuation. Fiona, like many other employees at the paper, did the absolute minimum to get by. Apparently, she passed my story without reading it, hence the errors Cissy found. I try to write right, but sometimes I make a mistake. I think the trouble with the world is that too many people are trying to pass the buck. I do not mind being responsible for my own errors. Nevertheless, just show them to me and do not make a federal case out of it.
“I need you to do a story for me.” Cissy banged the diet soda can on the desk and heaved herself up to stare out the window.
I hoped the editor had an assignment I could live with. If so, I could get home by two and I could nap an hour or so before I ate my supper and drove out to Pine Bluff for the monthly fireman’s meeting. Some of the guys out there were really concerned about the town’s safety. It gave me hope. Pine Bluff was having a hard time fitting into the modern world.
“I want you to find out who is pissing in the city fountain.” Cissy gripped the short drape with a wide and powerful fist. Her last caller had her all stirred up. I figure some little old lady heard about the fountain being sullied and called the paper to lodge a citizen’s complaint. It sounded like a case for RCPD, but what did I know? An awful lot of justice gets carried out by the press if you ask me.
I did not get the problem. The city fountain only worked about an hour a year. I talked to Dave over at Public Works and he told me the fountain was not worth fixing, and that he could not fix it. “You’d think the town would just replace the bitch,” he mumbled through a big cud of Red Man. “They don’t cost all that much, couple hundred bucks, maybe. It’s not like they don’t make the damned things anymore.”
When I hung up, I tried to figure out what Cissy really wanted. I had the idea it was something other than this piddly little civic problem. She had a bee in her bonnet about something, and it felt to me as if she was going to worry me to death about it until I either got it fixed or quit – one or the other.
I was the company’s award-winning reporter two years in a row, and I was not about to hang around the city park to watch some wino take a wiz. “Give me a real story or let me get going.” I said. I had all I could do not to smack her ugly face. I also had all I could do not to tell her to get her hormones checked. Women just do not have beards like that if there is nothing wrong with them.
The assignment stunk in more ways than one. I had an idea the poor old drunks who happened to see that old fountain as a urinal were doing the town a favor. What if they decided to use the water fountain the city put in for the kids to drink from instead? I mentioned that.
Cissy glared at me over her little drugstore glasses. “Get the story,” she said, teeth clenched, knuckles white. I guessed it must have been the Mayor on the phone and not just some old lady with a Joan of Arc complex.
I said I would look into it, but I didn’t say when. Days like that I just hated my job. I also hated to think of the homeless folks out there. It was summer, but winter would come. It always did, and winter was a big deal in Rapid. We had snow from September through June, and yes, often it was butt-deep to a tall Indian, as the locals would say. Last spring I had to laugh when a weathercaster happened to mention it had warmed up to ten below zero and that spring was definitely on the way.
I started talking about some other story leads I had thought about following, and after a while Cissy quit being a complete bitch and let me pick a couple of features to balance the sheer drudgery of reporting the government’s doings to the common man. What you had to do with civic meeting reports was to put the big issues in words a fifth grader could understand and retain.
An awful lot of people in Rapid could not get the retain part, though. There were some stories I wrote repeatedly, trying to help folks understand what was really happening and what they stood to lose.
That Wednesday, Cissy decided I could go out to Porcupine and do a story on an old Lakota grandmother who claimed she was over a hundred years old. (More likely, 90, but time would tell.) Word was, the old lady still kept a store. I was delighted with the assignment and could not wait to meet her. I loved to talk with my elders.
That night I had to sit through the School Board meeting, and put down what each of the board members said about each and every thing on the agenda, and how their decisions could affect the other guy’s children and the teachers’ vacation time. The meeting lasted for three hours. I had all I could do to stay awake. I was up again at five.
Did I mention deadline was 9 a.m.? If I had not had my nap, I would have been up that old creek without a paddle because I had to go in at 6 o’clock in the morning to file my piece on the School Board meeting. To make a long story short, I got my second wind, and I filed my stories before I went to bed, and sent them in an email to Cissy and told her she would not see me until Monday.
I had Thursday for the story about the old woman at Porcupine, and then I had Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for my regular third-weekend-of-the-month off. I felt as if I had all the time in the world for the interview, and in the end, I was glad for every minute of it.
I got to Porcupine early and wandered around the old woman’s store until a couple of customers left. The young woman stood behind the cash register and scowled at me. “What do you want?” she asked rudely. I said I was there to talk to the old woman who owned the store. The woman scowled and led me into an overheated room in the back.
Betty Running Deer was bowed by time. The flesh of her face had melted, exposing the elegant angles of the cheekbones beneath the skin. Her store teeth were large and very white, and her long horny nails had never seen a manicure. She was dozing in her chair when the daughter led me through the narrow aisles of their store and into to the little back room where her mother lived.
Betty wakened quietly, her eyes moved slowly from wall to wall. She entered the world gently, and she must have had a pleasant journey, because there was a half-smile on her face. Her eyes, white with cataracts, looked at me and grew small and hard. “Who are you?” she demanded. “I told Susie not to let you white-eyes in the house.”
“I am Abnaki, Grandmother, not white-eyes.” I inclined my head as my people did when they meet an elder. “How are you today?”
The old woman sucked on a cup of coffee thick with canned milk and plenty of sugar. “Don’t you have a name, woman of the Abnaki?”
“I am Carol... no.... I am Mockingbird... Mockingbird,” I said firmly. Mockingbirds repeat everything they hear. It was the perfect name for me.
“Well, Mockingbird, what do you want?” The old woman squinted at my spandex pants and cashmere sweater. I made a good harvest at the thrift shops. Who knows if you buy a thing new or not? Good stuff is good stuff. She reached out to stroke the soft wool of my top and smiled.
“Will you tell me about the Old World?” I asked, and used the words for the time before the white man came to gobble up the continent.
“It was a long time ago.” Betty shook out her skirt, a bright affair, pieced from a rich woman’s scrap bag. I could see damask, velvet, and thick, raw silk. I was not the only woman in the room who liked second hand stuff.
“I know,” I settled more comfortably on my chair. “I want to learn about it.” I looked back towards the store, where the shelves were stocked with the finest the big Food Mart chain could offer. I heard everyone in town who went to Rapid picked up an item or two for Miss Betty, and she marked everything up a little bit for her share when they bought it back.
And they think white people invented entrepreneurs.
“God made us,” Betty pulled a richly embroidered shawl around her shoulders. It must have been ninety in there, but old people get cold. I hoped if I held the camera, she would get comfortable with the idea of being photographed and then I could catch a really good expression.
People said I made good pictures. It is not as easy as it looks. You have to be patient, to ask the right questions, to wake the subject’s passion for the matter at hand. You have to wait until they forget the camera and what they are wearing. You can make a good picture every time if you wait long enough.
“And then what happened?” I prompted, using the reporter’s most efficient tool.
“And then the walkers learned to walk, and the runners learned to run. The singers sang from morning to night, and the storyteller kept the villagers entranced while she spun her web of beautiful words that looked like butterflies in flight.”
I nodded, unwilling to break her spell. I closed my eyes and saw words rising from the ghost of a woman in a two-hide dress decorated with elk teeth.
“The builders made houses of wood and hide, and the fishers waded in the creeks until the leaves turned to gold in the fall. The weavers made blankets from dusk until dawn, and the cooks, mmmmmmmm– the cooks made the best cakes and soups you could ever imagine.” Betty smacked her gums at the thought of such heavenly food.
I said she had teeth. I did not say she was wearing them.
“If a person was confused, why then, being confused was their job,” she grinned. “My son was like that. He liked to dress in my clothing and braid my hair.”
My notes told me her son died from a drive-by. There was a lot of crime on the res. I felt sorry for her.
“You’re a storyteller?” She squinted at me with a raptor’s quizzical gaze.
“I nodded, and scribbled on my narrow reporter’s pad. I did not want to lose a word of what this wild old woman had to say.
“You are too early,” the old woman bit off her words as if she was scolding a wayward child.
“What do you mean?” I did not see a clock, but my watch was right about half the year. The clock in the car worked, though. I was almost always five minutes early. That was only polite, it showed respect for my elders. You can be a little early, but not late. Late wasn’t good at all.
“You are too young to tell stories.” The old woman set her jaw. Her fingers played with the silky ends of her scanty braids. “A storyteller should wait for autumn to tell her tales.”
I stared at the old woman. “Why?”
“Don’t you know why?” Betty bumped her foot on the floor and the younger woman appeared with another cup of coffee. This time she banged a second white earthenware mug down in front me. It was filled to within about a half inch from the top. The brew looked like hot tar.
I put in some evaporated milk and sugar. It would not have been polite not to share Betty’s offering. You have to understand how The People think about giving.
Giving is a job. Receiving is a job. You have to learn both.
“If you tell stories in the summer, the animals will sit down to listen and forget what they are supposed to be doing and starve. You have to tell your stories in the autumn, when the animals have time to listen before they fall into their winter sleep.” Betty looked at me as if I was touched by a lazy spirit. “A good storyteller is hard to find.” she sucked at her mug and stared at me. “Are you any good?”
I was getting confused. I was supposed to be interviewing a nonagenarian. Most often people that old fell asleep after trying to name all their children, but Old Betty just kept going like that slack-eared rabbit on TV with the big drum. It sure felt like I was the one being interviewed. I should have been getting the “facts about Betty” from her daughter by now, but here she was, getting the facts on me.
Not that time mattered. I did not have to produce even one story until Monday morning deadline at 9 a.m.
That was maybe ten, fifteen years ago. I came across that story I wrote about Betty Running Deer last night when I was cleaning out under the beds. You would not believe the junk I found: old manuscripts, boxes of tear sheets, three manuscripts for novels no one will ever read – a lifetime of writing, gathering dust.  
Betty Running Deer, bless her heart, was right. I have worked my way into my own autumn and it is time to tell my stories. I get calls to come to schools, and I bring the books I write to all the powwows. There are not that many Native American writers, you know.
So, autumn has come. Why don’t you sit down and rest a while? I have a story to tell you.

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