How Did I Get to This Place?
My husband and I and our three-year-old son came to western North Carolina back in 1975—a decision we’ve never regretted. It was a major change from our upbringing in suburban Tampa, Florida and our jobs as teachers in a private school, but we plunged into farm life with all the enthusiasm of the naïve Mother Earth News and Whole Earth Catalog readers that we were. Our neighbors were happy to teach us how to milk cows, churn butter, plow with mules, butcher pigs and chickens, raise tobacco and beef cattle, and numberless other skills that were part of a farm life that had changed little in a hundred years. In exchange, we provided unskilled labor and my husband’s carpentry and plumbing skills. We were also an ongoing source of quiet amusement for the neighbors, as we struggled to learn what they knew so well.
Our early years on the farm were a blur of activity—growing tobacco, milking cows, raising a big garden and two boys—hard, fulfilling work that, unbeknownst to me, would turn out to be the perfect grounding for the books I would eventually write. At the same time, we got to know our older neighbors, whose speech patterns were strange and beautiful to me and whose stories about the past settled in my heart, awaiting a future use.
Times changed. Our boys went off to college; we still had beef cattle and made a big garden but we no longer grew tobacco and, with only two to feed, we no longer raised a pair of pigs to butcher or kept a milk cow. With time on my hands, in 2000 a friend and I co-authored a book Community Quilting by Karol Kavaya and Vicki Skemp (my married name) about the forty-some quilts our community of newcomers had made. Seeing my name on a published book reminded me that I’d been an English major, that I’d once thought I could be a writer.
A brief class at a branch of a local community college left me with the beginnings of a mystery novel about a middle-aged widow living on a farm in western North Carolina. When, at the final class meeting, the teacher told me I didn’t have the passion it took to write a novel, I took it as a challenge. And the Elizabeth Goodweather Mysteries were born.
After six published mysteries about the doughty widow, I began to be restless and to think of stepping away from the mystery genre. I was tired of the semi-obligatory yearly murder for Elizabeth to solve, but I wasn’t tired of the locale—the county in which I live is an endless source of material. And there was one thing in particular that seemed to be calling me: the Shelton Laurel Massacre, when, during the Civil War, thirteen men and boys accused of supporting the Union were executed by a Confederate firing squad.
It took some time. My previous novels had been written under contract and with a deadline. Now I was on my own, “no direction known,” trying to figure out how to tell a complicated story, the primary sources of which are muddled, misleading, and often downright contradictory. I wanted to use historical characters and I wanted to stay true to what was known about them. So I spent several years reading everything I could find about the event—books, primary sources, blog posts and comments, even census rolls. I interviewed descendants and walked historic locations. Still I didn’t know how I would tell the story. I knew I wanted to tell it from both sides—because there are still those who see the event as a legitimate military action, not a massacre. And, interesting as the real story is, I would have to do some improvising to turn it into a novel. Finally, it began to come together to the point that at times it seemed the characters were telling the story, not I.
As Naomi Mitchison put it: “We know certain historical facts…. We try to imagine what went on in other people’s minds and what they may have said or done, beyond the secure facts. Here and there it is just possible that I may have guessed right.”
My life goes on in its quiet way—gardening, baby-sitting my three-year-old granddaughter several days a week, taking pictures and blogging, teaching writing classes and workshops, doing some editing, and continuing to add to a collection of short stories I hope will see publication eventually. In these strange times of 2020, I am exceptionally blessed.