And we have our first fiction submission to the blog! No part of this story may be reproduced in any way without permission from the author.  Enjoy! Comments are encouraged. We love hearing from our followers and enjoy getting to know you.


Frances Campbell tottered along the garden path with a split oak basket over her arm, the nagging pain of arthritis creeping up her elbow. Sue, her housekeeper, followed along behind her. It was early October but some of her roses—mostly the Knockout variety—were still in full bloom, and Shannon had dearly loved roses. It was Shannon’s birthday, and when the roses were still blooming, Frances put on a bouquet on her grave.

Red roses in basket

Frances shook her head, her gunmetal gray curls bobbing. She couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast that morning and had failed to recognize her own neighbors at the Food Lion last week, but every little detail about her sister remained as clear as the day each had happened. Maybe it was because she was the younger prettier sister. Maybe it was because Shannon would be young forever, never peering into the mirror trying to remember if she took her blood pressure medication while trying to smooth a sagging chin. Or perhaps it was because she died chasing Frances as she ran from the sobbing from the church, calling her name over and over as her feet skimmed along the sidewalk even lighter than the firefly for which she was nicknamed.

“She hated that nickname,” Frances confided to the roses in her basket. She clipped at a steady pace, eager to leave a remembrance for the sister she never meant harm to fall to. “She thought it made her sound fragile, and in the end, she was fragile. How I’d like to forget that day!”


like a BIGBANG~!

“Are you talking about Shannon again?” asked Sue, making a bored face.

Shannon fixed her with a stern look and snorted. “As though anybody ever talked about anyone else!

“It was that fool Jim Whitaker. We went together two years, and I knew he’d marry me eventually. But no, no. Shannon grew up tall and sprightly, with eyes as green as Bermuda grass and a headful of wheat-colored curls. She didn’t steal him from me, but he was smitten from the day of her sweet sixteen.”

“It’s been over fifty years.” Sue shook her head. “There’s plenty of folks who remember it, but you’d be happier to quit dwelling on it.”

“Folks laughed at me.” Frances felt a ragged breath trying to free itself from her tight chest. “I loved both of them, Jim and Firefly. I thought if I showed up at the wedding and voiced my opposition, they wouldn’t marry when they saw how I’d been hurt. Look, they’ve both been churchyard dust for ages now.” Frances pointed at the cemetery across the street from her home, orderly rows of tombstones and spires pointing toward a dusk sky.

“I don’t ever see you leaving flowers on Mr. Whitaker’s grave,” said Sue.

“Well, I will this time. He was a nice man, just a fool. He married a nice girl from White’s Chapel, and he died of leukemia the next year. Shannon and I were blessed not to have to put up with that kind of lingering death.”

Frances paused to gauge how full her basket was. It was full to the brim and reminded her of the church on Firefly and Jim’s wedding day. There had been bowers and bowers of roses, orange blossoms, and azaleas. Her sister was as elegant and lovely as a white lily under the altar, but she’d looked stricken when she seen Frances crying in the doorway.


Bride holding her wedding flowers behind her back

“Don’t my feelings matter?” she’d cried from the back of the church.

Jim had looked as if he had a sneeze caught in his nose, as bored as if the situation was nothing but an inconvenience, but Shannon had ran after her as she fled the church. Over half the church had ambled outside to watch, the provocation too great not to eyewitness.

“Frances! Frances! Come back!” Shannon had called, her lacey veil dragging behind her in the red clay dust of the parched street.

She’d never even heard the car coming. Probably never felt it, the coroner said.

But still! Still.

Frances looked at Sue and held her basket high. “I’m going across the road to leave these for Firefly. I’ll be back in time to peck at dinner.”

Sue made a sound of annoyance in the back of her throat and went in the house.

Frances limped toward the cemetery, a half-century of memories thick on her mind.

She’d cried, “Shannon! Firefly!”

But the green eyes before her had been as vacant as windows without curtains, and her veil torn askew just enough to reveal a thin trickle of red from the left ear. The crowd in the street had murmured impressionably, the doctor leaning down in his tuxedo and saying her neck was broken.

“It’s done. I never meant any harm though,” said Frances. Tears fell from her rheumy eyes.

A golden spark caught her eye, and Frances sucked in her breath. A firefly! And in October. The magic sparkle hovered in the general vicinity of Shannon’s tombstone. France hastened her pace.

“Shannon?” she asked. “You there?”

It made a soul satisfying tableau as she approached the cemetery. The light of the firefly against a slate gray evening with little amber stars cutting through the clear sky made her heart glad.

Cemetery night


“I forgave you long ago. I hope you forgave me.”


Frances dropped her basket and stooped to gather it. Bother her arthritis! She looped the handle over her forearm and straightened.

The horn honked, first a short warning and then with the true blare of an emergency. She raised her free arm to shield her face. The headlights weren’t on so she hadn’t seen it. They switched on at the last second, blinding her so that she couldn’t see the end, but that didn’t matter.

The twinkle across the road told her everything she’d ever wanted to know.


An Exciting New Development

Hello all!

In an effort to cast a brighter spotlight on Southern fiction, Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft is now accepting submissions for Southern poetry and short stories.

Please note that submission does NOT guarantee acceptance. No payment will go to the author, cash or otherwise. Appearance on the blog is the only compensation you will receive. By submitting to this blog, you are agreeing to these terms. All rights remain with the author. All works should be scrupulously proofread before submission for consideration.

Please submit your work to

That’s orchardrest (AT) outlook (DOT) com

We look forward to showcasing your work.

vintage kerosene lamp

vintage kerosene lamp with inkstand and a stack of old books

Interview with Author Charlsie Russell

Charlsie Russell, award-winning author of gripping Southern Gothic novels was kind enough to grant us an interview. Her books, a compelling blend of romance and suspense, make for some of our favorite winter evening reads here at Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft. Masterfully executed plot twists married to eerie atmospheres and frank sexual tension will have you turning the pages until the sun rises.

Author Charlsie Russell

Author Charlsie Russell

Welcome to Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft, Mrs. Russell. We’re delighted that you could join us today. Here at the Loft, we maintain that you are one of the South’s great undiscovered authors. Your biography is telling. You worked for years before self-publishing your novels. How many years did you query agents before making the decision to self-publish?

C.R.:  I spent seven years trying to publish traditionally. This was before and during the dawn of the digital craze—originally pooh-poohed as a potentially popular format (before Kindle, before, Nook, etc.). But remember, even digital publishing, though offering a new outlet for thousands of unpublished authors, was still controlled by digital publishers who served as “gate-keepers” for what would or would not be published.

Like the “format barrier” attributed to digital publishing, self-publishing also carried a stigma, the implication being the author, in the opinion of real publishers, not being good enough to make the cut. Further, it was true then, and remains true today, the big publishers offer writers professional editing, typesetting, copyediting, and beautiful cover art, all nominally for free, in addition to the all-so-important distribution. These aspects of book production are not free for the self-published author. The internet has proven a great equalizer when it comes to distribution—especially when one considers the ease with which self-published digital books can be distributed today.

Not ready to accept that I wouldn’t make the proverbial cut, I forsook the then “pseudo-publishing” digital world and spent time, money, and heartbreak submitting, rewriting, and resubmitting my work to both agents and editors. In fact, I would say I submitted my work to twice as many editors as I did agents. The catch-twenty-two of “you can’t get a publisher without an agent and an agent won’t be interested unless you have an offer from a publisher” was offset somewhat by Romance Writers of America and other national writers groups’ developing relationships with the New York publishers, making access to many editors easier—at least the submitter had a name to send his or her partial to. The truth of the matter is New York was swamped with submissions, as were the agents that dealt with New York.

What did agents say to you in their responses? Did you ever think you weren’t cut out to be a writer?

C.R.: I submitted my work to Pocket, Kensington, Harlequin, Silhouette, Dorchester, Harper Collins, etc. etc., all the big houses with romance imprints. At the time I was making these submissions, I had written four books—two contemporaries and two historicals (my Gothics, The Devil’s Bastard and Wolf Dawson). Over the course of the next seven years, I received scores of standard, one line rejections—Thank you for you submission. It’s not for us at this time or something to that effect. I’d also received two requests for partials and two for full manuscripts (one from an editor and one from an agent). In the end, they didn’t want them. When I did receive a meaningful response as to why my work didn’t fit with an individual house, the bottom line was it wasn’t romance. But if not submitting to a romance editor, it was never clear to me where I should submit my multi-genre work. Many a romance writer writes multi-genre; however, and this is strictly my opinion, the publishing houses at the time seemed to reserve their multi-genre works of fiction for their “established” authors. For the thousands of us on the outside looking in, there was no place to go, and I could have gone on forever going nowhere. So, pushing the stigma aside, I self-published, and I did it the old-fashion way: I wrote my books, I typeset my books, I created my covers, and I sent my prepared manuscript to an offset printer and had my books printed at a cost I couldn’t afford. I do pay an editor to edit my work—she’s an old friend, which helps some with that expense. What I didn’t have was distribution—and that’s another book industry catch-22. To capture the interest of a distributor I needed an inventory of thousands of books (paid for upfront, folks, to an offset printer). Many a self-published author has ended up with garages and storage sheds filled with unsold books. That mistake I did not make.

That’s where matters stood until technology eased publication with print on demand and digital books. Today, Lightning Source (owned by the major book distributor Ingram) prints my paperbacks on demand and ships them wherever they need to go. The inventory of my digital books, of course, is unlimited. Amazon and Smashwords just spit ’em out as required. For this author, things are great—okay, I still haven’t mastered marketing, but at least the warehousing and distribution systems are in place for when I do.

Please don’t take my experience to mean I am opposed to traditional publishing. I’m not, but the industry was not only swamped, it had a strangle-hold on what books made it to the bookstore shelves. Print on demand and digital publishing are exactly what were called for—they opened things up.

I never stopped believing my work could garner a readership, which would never exist without books. I was a writer, the only question was if I’d ever be a published one. That I took into my own hands.

That’s the kind of take-charge attitude paid off. Wolf Dawson is our favorite novel by you, and it won the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal in the romance category. We’re hoping you have a few more tales with a supernatural bent up your sleeve.

Wolf Dawson

Wolf Dawson

The fact that you’re a serious history buff is evident in both your novels and your blog. How do you infuse sound history in your novels without making them read like textbooks?

C.R.: I have always loved history. It seems, however, it’s taken me a lifetime to really appreciate the value of history. Recall the old adage, “you can never read just one book.” At least, you can’t and come up with any modicum of truth. I’m now wise enough to know that you can read hundreds of books and still not come up with the truth, which is, in my opinion, quite often subjective. But you can come up with a pretty good “shades of gray” picture. History isn’t black and white.

I will readily admit that I am not without prejudice. I’m opinionated and I have things I care about and things I love and respect. You’ll note that all my novels are set in Mississippi. My home state is a subject I like to tell myself I know a little bit about, yet every time I start researching, I realize how little I do know and how much more there is to learn. But those are just facts. Some things I simply “feel.”

Regarding weaving history into my novels, I start with my characters and set them in a time period remote from the one I’m living in, but one that has survived, in a sense, via knowledge passed down to me by my ancestors. The South is unique in a sense, in that it has been isolated to some extent from the rest of the country. Some would say that’s bad—such isolation keeps out good influences, well, the reverse is also true. Besides, what constitutes a “good” influence? Being like the rest of the United States doesn’t qualify for me.

Much has been lost, for sure. Things do change for better and worse, but they do go on. In my books I try to pass on certain values and historical points I believe to be of import, but I try to weave those facts and values into the story, taking “living breathing” characters with lives and personal troubles of their own, just like people today, and have the history touch them and then have them pass that history and their take on it back to us. In other words, have them give it to us from their point of view, or their point of view as I perceive it to have been.

I also try to take into account how they would be seeing the history going on around them. I consider how we look at history being made today and how it touches us—medical care, gay marriage, the Supreme Court assuming the power to create laws, abortion, war in Iraq…etc., etc. I try to have my fictional characters view events occurring in their day in that same way—as something ongoing, not as a matter already decided, because for them, it wasn’t. In my stories, the history is peripheral, influencing the characters, yes, sometimes forcing reactions, but the characters’ story is occurring within a historical period. It is they, not the history, driving the story.

From the time the reader meets Wolf Dawson or Eli Calhoon, there’s little doubt as to who’s driving the plot, but it is a rare pleasure for the reader to immerse themselves in a historical read that isn’t dry.

Your novels feature striking wars between the sexes. Where does most of your inspiration come from for these gasoline and match relationships?

C.R.: The graphic sexual content in my stories is residual from my days of writing romance and is more pervasive in my earlier works than in my more recent ones. Graphic content is present in all my work.

Sexual conflict/a love interest, exists in most “escape” fiction. I cut my teeth on Zane Gray (sweet romance) and Frank Yerby (who created earthy, passionate, and even violent romantic themes). Unlike a true romance novel, where sexual conflict is the story, the sexual conflict in my novels is a major sub-plot to the story. Conflict of some sort drives any story, so my hero and heroine start out at some level of opposition to each other pertinent to the plot and are shortly thereafter burdened by a mutual sexual attraction that is character, not story, driven. In my opinion, the sexual tension adds spice and satisfaction to the plot without sacrificing the plot itself.

As far as inspiration for those romantic relationships? The truth would probably be that it’s biological/stimulating/titillating. I could blame it on Zane Gray and Frank Yerby, and decades of reading escape fiction, but then the old adage comes to mind, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Truth is I think the sexual content of their work is what led me to become their fan, not the other way around.

Does your family read your work? What do they say about it?

C.R.: My family does not read my work. In part this harks back to question number three, especially as regards my children. You see, they have no desire to consider what I know about sex, much less read the proof in print. The sexual content present in my books embarrasses them, not that they’re prudes, but rather because their mother wrote it. My two daughters are married and both are appalled that I’ve given their respective mothers-in-law copies of my books. The sad part is that my stories are so much more than a couple of tastefully graphic sex scenes.

I have asked my husband, who is very much aware that I do know a thing or two about sex, to read my work for critical critiques. No, not on the sex scenes, but on technical points. He has a law enforcement/counterintelligence background, which proves useful. I cannot, however, get him to read much of anything. He’s retired and derives his entertainment from repeats of Law and Order and NCIS, so I have to make do with reading excerpts to him out loud and requesting suggestions.

If you had to choose a single life-defining moment that shaped you as a future writer, what would it be?

C.R.: Charlton Heston holding out his hand to that little mixed-blood Chinese girl at the end of Sixty-five Days in Peking and saying, “Here, take my hand.” And she did. Oh, those surprise and all-so-satisfying endings are, in my opinion, where all good stories should lead. They are, when all is said and done, what make the journey worth it.

Wolf Dawson was our most recent read by you, and we were blown away by the ending. We’ve heard this was one of your most quickly written novels. What’s the story behind Wolf Dawson? How did you conceive of a werewolf story and finish it so quickly?

C.R.: Wolf Dawson was my second “published” novel, my second historical, and my second of what I call a Southern Gothic, though it might deviate some from the true application of that term. An old plantation, a dark hero, a reluctant bride, and an evil enshrined in local legend…my kind of story and I hoped it would be for readers, too. Maybe that’s why it came so easily to me. As a rule, I don’t make outlines, and I sometimes pay the price by having to go back and create one—that’s particularly true for complicated mysteries, but that was not the case with Wolf Dawson. The story flowed from beginning to end. That’s not to say there were no rewrites; there were, but I got the basic story down the first time with no major plot changes.

As for werewolf stories, I’ve had werewolves on my mind since I was a little girl and saw Lon Chaney, Jr. transform into one of the things in The Wolf Man. I have never ever considered one to be a good guy, rarely even sympathetic—okay, Jacob in the Twilight series would be an exception, but in general, I consider the things bad.

My true inspiration for the animal haunting the woods around White Oak Glen derives from the shape-shifting legends of Indian lore (a better fit for ole Jake, referenced above), no small part of which flavors the South and its literature. I pictured Jeff’s half-blooded grandfather in front of the fire filling his grandchildren’s heads with all manner of tall tales, some with not even an iota of truth, but wonderful stories nonetheless, stories a loving grandson would believe until a violent act shattered the premise and proved the legend false—or did it?

You’re known for standalone novels, but we know that you’re working on a sequel to Camellia Creek. What made you decide to write a sequel? When can we expect Honor’s Banner out?

Camellia Creek

Camellia Creek

C.R.: I didn’t plan it that way. The seeds of Honor’s Banner were sown in Camellia Creek. Even though the latter had reached its satisfying conclusion with the epilogue, the murder of Treasury agent Alan Guthrie, which had brought Major Seth Parker into the lives of Eli and Alice Calhoon to begin with, had scarcely been addressed. Clearly the satisfying ending for that plot point had not been realized and furthermore, Guthrie’s murder was a “whole other story.” When I wrote in Eli’s sister Becky, toward the end of Camellia Creek, I had the stage set. Expect to see Honor’s Banner out in November 2015.

If you could give a piece of advice to other aspiring Southern authors out there, what would it be?

C.R.: By this question, I’m assuming you’re referring to Southern writers writing about the South, otherwise there’d be no cause to specify region. A writer can write about anything. With that assumption in mind, here’s my take on the matter: Be true to the South. Depict her as you perceive her to be, not what others perceive her to be or what you think others perceive her to be. Don’t be afraid of offending anyone by not denigrating the South. Anyone worthy of your patronage would not expect you to. Put your stories in the context of history, but first learn the history and be proud of it, because it’s something to be proud of.

That’s a fine perspective. Because of the insular nature of the South, the culture varies surprisingly from one county to the next. Then there’s a trend for critics to call most any Southern book “stereotypical”. Our culture is diverse, and most of us are writing what we know or have lived. The critical reception of most Southern fiction demonstrates a lack of understanding.

Thank you for stopping by. Expect to see more of your work on here, and we’ll be looking forward to Honor’s Banner.

For those of you wanting to learn more about Mrs. Russell, she blogs about all manner of things from history to writing at Loblolly Writer’s House.

Loblolly Writer's House

Loblolly Writer’s House

Join us again soon for reviews of Southern fiction and interviews with some of the South’s most talented writers.

One Lavender Ribbon

One Lavender Ribbon was presented to me as a choice through the Kindle First program–of which I am a proud and smugly satisfied member. Once per month, they email me and offer me one of four free books an entire month before it goes on sale. As a result, I’ve read books that I normally wouldn’t give a chance, and I hope that I’ve been helpful to the authors by them leaving them an Amazon review in return. I have consistently been delighted with Kindle First.

I picked up One Lavender Ribbon because I’ve been aching for a good WWII era romance here lately. I blame it entirely on a wave of nostalgia I’ve been riding lately, missing some loved ones who have gone on, people with WWI, WWII, and Great Depression stories that I never tired of hearing. Needless to say, One Lavender Ribbon was a welcome addition to my Kindle Carousel, and I found myself delighted when the heroine moves south to Florida to renovate an old, stately home on the water.

Adrienne is a 28 year old divorcee whose heart is guarded after her cardiologist husband cheats on her. She uses her divorce settlement to leave the hustle and bustle of Chicago and fulfill a major dream: purchase a home on the water in Florida. Adrienne spends her unemployed days fixing up the home, and she discovers a cache of old, WWII-era love letters in her attic. As the reader will soon find out, Adrienne is compelled by nosiness, ahem, curiousity, and she can’t rest until she finds out more about soldier William and his long lost love Gracie.

Adrienne strikes up a friendship with the elderly William, and she develops a friendly relationship with his handsome grandson Will. Adrienne wants to help William find true happiness after several disappointments, but grandson Will’s heart is on guard and he is suspicious of Adrienne’s good intentions. It isn’t long before the story is blooming two potential romances. Will both couples give in to true love in the end?

I enjoyed the prose. It flowed smoothly. The author, Heather Burch, is a born storyteller and her joy at spinning a tale is evident in the seamless plot and transitions. I thought William, also called Pops, was a splendid character, truly characteristic of what makes his generation so great. Incorporating the vintage letters into the novel made it all the more a pleasure to read. The language was mild, and while there was plenty of chemistry and sexual tension, the novel was not graphic or distasteful. The older I grow, the more I appreciate an author’s gift of conveying passion without writing trash. This book is appropriate for nearly all ages to read as a result of the author’s writing style.

The book was not without its flaws. As much as I rooted for Will’s and Adrienne’s romance, I walked away feeling that they wouldn’t make it five years as a married couple, much less fifty. Adrienne’s interference always makes Will angry, and the novel’s explanation of why he was such a brooding, reserved person didn’t satisfy me in the slightest. The novel touched on how he was protective of his Pops and how he was angry and hurt that his missionary parents spent more time on their work than him, but it in no way explained why he was such a stick-in-the-mud control freak. Also, I found myself questioning Adrienne’s relationship with her ex-husband and her generous divorce settlement. She was only 28, and he would have had to have been older to provide her with enough money to buy a grand house and fund unemployment. A lot of cardiologists are still in residency after their fellowships complete at this age, and so the plotline fell into the category of “nice fantasy” for me, at least financially. The backstory to the elder William’s failed romance was more or less hinted at. I felt it deserved more detail and was glossed over.

Now nit-picking complaints aside, I think One Lavender Ribbon is a sweet, charming romance that deserves a second look. I read it in only two days, despite my complaints, and while it veered on the predictable at times, it was a truly worthwhile novel. This is the kind of novel that you read poolside or curl up with under an afghan with a hot cup of spiced tea on a drizzly afternoon. Contemporary romance usually leaves me feeling that I wasted my time, but One Lavender Ribbon was a cut above the typical book in this genre. I thought the book was engaging enough that I will definitely read Heather Burch’s next romance novel.

Delta Wedding

We’ve talked about more contemporary novels of late than the classics so it’s with a joyful heart that I turn to the past this afternoon. A popular book on Harper Lee has reignited interest in the perennial favorite To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I find it altogether charming in some aspects, I feel fervor over that particular book has swept away attention from other just as deserving Southern classics. I cut my teeth on Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, and if I could only read ten books for the rest of eternity, it would certainly make the list.

On the surface, Delta Wedding is the story of the Fairchild family’s preparations for the wedding of their second oldest daughter Dabney’s wedding to (gasp!) the plantation overseer Troy. Taking place over the course of only a few days during the sumptuous year of 1923, this novel is not to be confused with modern day wedding preparations. It is the constant threat of tension and the relentless psychological undercurrent behind every conversation that spurs the reader on through the novel in an attempt to find out what truly defines each character. The Fairchild family is large and sprawling. Disagreements from a hundred years earlier are nearly as fresh as they day they happened. Every character is a masterpiece in tribute to the flawed human condition.

At the center of the boisterous preparation is nine year old Laura McRaven, a cousin to the Fairchilds, who travels alone to Fairchild plantation for the festivities. Her desire to be beautiful and animated like her Fairchild cousins is evident, but Laura feels set apart due to the sudden death of her mother, Annie Laurie. She wanders through the Fairchild’s an observant and sensitive child, and it stuns her that people casually use her mother’s death to mark the passage of time such as when a family member says she had a dress made up “before Annie Laurie died”.

Dabney is the second oldest and most beautiful Fairchild girl, arguably the character of her generation that most fully embodies the characteristic Fairchild traits. Vain, slightly selfish, and highly popular, she has “gotten ahead” of her oldest sister, Shelley, the intense but intellectual older sister who has no desire to be the heroine in the family. Just as her aunt Annie Laurie inexplicably married a Yankee, Dabney too is marrying beneath her station–to the plantation overseer, no less. Dabney’s and Shelley’s desire to be close but inability to find much common ground other than blood resonates through their awkward interactions.

At the center of the family drama is George Fairchild’s weak marriage to Robbie. Robbie comes from humble beginnings, and George’s aunts slight her for it. She uses a prior occurrence in which George risks his life on the train tracks to save his niece Maureen as an excuse to try to escape the tension of their class differences, stating he will always care more for the Fairchilds than her. George himself is buckling under the strain of what it means to be a Fairchild. Indeed, his brother Dennis has been dead for ages, but it is Dennis who mysteriously reaps all the family’s love and credit despite his ghostly status through the pages.

Despite the complexity of the subplots I’ve already covered, they only scratch the surface of characters presented and dilemmas agonized over in this book. I haven’t covered Ellen Fairchild, mother to Dabney and Shelley, who is an outsider from Virginia. Her reticence and caring is in such contrast to the Fairchild family’s bright animated ways that an entire book could easily be written on her subtle but strong characterization. The pace is languid. The prose shimmers. The tone makes you think that calamity is always on the horizon yet life hums along at its normal pace. Does this sound like real life to you? It does to me.

Delta Wedding is a psychological portrait of the Southern human condition. More conversation than action and looking to the past more frequently than it looks to the future, this novel proves more than any other Faulkner’s often quoted line about the past never really being past. I have had people complain to me that the book is a little “Faulkneresque”. I use this novel as a litmus test to see who really understands Southern literature and who does not. At it’s core, Delta Wedding is about the balance between belonging and alienation that resides in each one of us.

You can pick up your own copy of Delta Wedding here.

You can read more about Eudora Welty here.

Southern Man (Legacy of Fortitude, Book #1)

It was with a wary heart that I agreed to review “Southern Man” by Connie Chastain. I don’t enjoy leaving bad reviews nor do I relish finding a book so inane that I can’t finish it. When I read the blurb to “Southern Man”, I thought that it would surely fall into one of the aforementioned categories. After all, it’s a novel about the underbelly of feminism and an intimate look at the Boomer generation. This reviewer is a Feminist (with a capitol F, no less) and is frequently bewildered by the Baby Boomer generation. Needless to say, my putting my hands on this book seemed a dire recipe for a disaster of the broadest magnitude. But then I read a little–and the prose was good! And then I read a little more–and I had sympathy for the characters! And before I knew it, I had read the whole novel because I liked it.

“Southern Man”, set in Georgia around 1983, is the story of Troy Stevenson, a former college football player and conscientious corporate executive, who has a budding alcohol problem. His college sweetheart and adoring wife, Patty, is ready to forgive and move on, but Troy moves out to their lake house temporarily to confront his demons. Meanwhile at his workplace, a thoroughly hardboiled and unpleasant young woman by the name of Brooke Emerson lusts after Troy. What happens next embroils an entire community.

Ms. Chastain excels at penning a smoothly flowing, polished prose that is years ahead of first novel status. The artful way her sentences move, weaving one scene into the next, left me with high hopes for the rest of her novels. Despite this novel having a large cast of characters once you add in the cast of Troy’s workplace, I got to know each character well. They were powerfully and beautifully sketched. I developed a soft spot for Troy’s wife Patty Stevenson, a true woman of God with a magnificent and admirable devotion to her husband. Ms. Chastain sketches a Christian but passionate marriage with all the prowess of an armchair psychologist. I think the following scene illustrates Patty best, which shows what happens when her “friends” try to find out why Troy isn’t living at home.

“I know,” Nelda agreed. “If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times–‘Who would have thought Troy Stevenson would turn out to be such a fraud and a rat?'”

“Not that we ever said that,” Jackie said. “But I have to admit it’s pretty lowdown of him to run out on you and the kids that way.”

It was one thing to sit and suffer through a bitter rendition of problems in their homes and marriages; one thing to listen, bored and appalled, at their put downs of their own husbands, revelations Patty tried not to listen to and certainly did not respond to. However, it quite another to listen to them transfer their bitterness to Troy.

When they finally paused in their caustic dialog, Patty spoke in a deep, trembling voice.

“I won’t have someone come in here and trash my husband in his own home. I want all three of you to leave now.”

While I thought it wonderful that Troy and Melissa’s children took part in their story as children are too frequently made little more than window dressing, I did find them to be present too much. They were, at times, too precocious and twee to be entirely believable. I also found pacing to be slightly off in a few places. Troy’s nascent drinking problem emerges too late for my taste (although the lingering guilt over a teen-aged drinking episode was exceptionally well done and poignant) and could have been covered in greater detail. I also thought Brooke’s attempted seductions would come earlier in the novel than they did.

Very minor criticisms aside, I heartily recommend this novel to lovers of Christian fiction, readers like myself who are weary of Southern stereotypes, and all those Baby Boomers who have looked on with incredulity as their revered places of work have become tainted by “modern” policies that do more harm than good. Troy Stevenson is a well-crafted Southern hero that I believe encompasses the contemporary Southern man (it was set in the 80s, but that is near contemporary to me) much better than any that I have read of late. While I typically veer toward pre-1900s fiction, I can say with a clear conscience that this is a novel that I will be rereading and would like to see some WWII or roaring twenties fiction in the future from this author.

If you’d like to take a chance on an indie Southern author, I don’t believe anyone would be disappointed in Ms. Chastain’s elegant prose. If you wish to visit her website, you may view it here.

She Flew the Coop

Here is another book by Michael Lee West, completely fictional this time, and it’s the perfect novel for those of you who enjoy the dark Southern Gothic side of life. I unabashedly cop to a writer crush on Mrs. West. It’s hard not to support a nurse-turned-writer (so much like myself) who happens to live in my hometown. She’s not only a wicked writer but knows her way around a kitchen. She runs a blog that will add to the numbers on your scale in the morning. Perhaps one day I’ll get the pleasure of meeting her in person, and then we can exchange baked ham recipes while divulging future plot lines.

The seemier--but realistic--side of small-town life

“She Flew the Coop” is one of West’s first books, and I’ll say it: one of her hands down best. It begins in Limoges, Louisiana, 1952, and Olive Nepper has just downed a coke laced with her Momma’s rose poison because an important member of Limoges society has gotten her in the family way. While Olive drifts in a coma, the world of Limoges is slowly revealed through the characters’ reactions to Olive’s pregnancy and suicide attempt as well as the revelations of their hopes, flaws, and struggles against the prison that life in small-town Limoges can be.

Much of the ensuing drama revolves around Olive’s parents, Henry and Vangie Nepper, both pillars of the community. Both are suffering from a mid-life crisis, the effects of which are slowly ripping their marriage apart without either realizing it. Vangie, who has long been treated as a simpleton, has no real role in life other than to serve Henry’s meals and care for Olive. She yearns to have control but lacks the bravery to grab it. Henry Nepper, the town pharmacist, is unmistakeably out of love with his aging wife, and has been having an affair with his soda counter girl and the local hussy, DeeDee Robichaux.

“She Flew the Coop” is bursting with dozens of other colorful supporting characters that feel as fresh as if you pulled them off your sidewalk, and their stories are sure to amuse you, horrify you, or simply make you think. From the errant preacher to the woman-crazy funeral home embalmer, they’re all here, and they paint with dark humor the kind of life you find in many towns–and not just Southern ones. Mrs. West has an innate gift at taking the “stereotypical” character and turning it on its ear so that it is reinvigorated and full of life.

A word of warning: While this book is not to be compared with many popular books such as erotica novels which shall go nameless, it is not a book for children. Sexual situations are portrayed in detail and may not be for everyone. Mature language is utilized, and offensive crimes are committed. That being said, it is one of the most thorough, detailed odes to “civilized society” in a rural town that I have read in a long time which is why I recommend it. The prose is lush, descriptive, and bursting with nuances. It is not a book to be quickly skimmed under a beach umbrella but to be slowly savored. The writing is mature, articulate, and has the ability to transport the reader word by word to a town that feels as if you’ve always lived there. If that isn’t enough for the reader, Mrs. West artfully sprinkles in a few recipes as you read so that they seem a part of the novel itself, and they truly are.

In parting, some delicious quotes:

“Gardens come and go, but I find myself getting attached to certain perenials. My tulips are bridesmaids with fat faces and good postures. Hollyhocks are long-necked sisters. Daffodils are young girls running out of a white church, sun shining on their heads. Peonies are pink-haired ladies, so full and stooped you have to tie them up with string. And roses are nothing but (I hate to say it) bitches–pretty show-offs who’ll draw blood if you don’t handle them just right.”

“The first time I saw my father-in-law’s cotton, I though of the Original Sin, gardening being the root of the South’s downfall.”

“Now that Olive was grown, I didn’t know what to do with myself. You could build your life around one single thing, like a view or a child, but that was risky. You had so much to lose.”

If you enjoy Southern Gothic fiction, pick up “She Flew the Coop”, and let us know what you think.

Mrs. West

Mrs. West

Call for Material and Important Question

We at Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft strive to review Southern fiction of varying genres and give you an idea
of what makes a worthy read. We advertise on social media as we are able, but we don’t receive many requests or suggestions. If you know of a work of Southern fiction that deserves credit, let us know. If you know someone who values Southern fiction the way that we do at the Loft, recommend this blog.

In order to access quality material and report back to our readers, we have to slog through quite a few books. For every post you can read about a deserving book, we have generally discarded 3-5 novels that don’t meet our requirements for recommendation.

Some are cliché.

Some novels beat the same tired ideas and fail to inject a fresh angle.

Some novels beat the same tired ideas and fail to inject a fresh angle.

Some are sadly stereotypical. I am very proud to say that the South consists of more than a campy cast of redneck soap opera characters. Listen to me: Vicky Lee does not always escape her wife beater-wearing husband to marry a rich plastic surgeon and fear her past will resurface while ironing out issues with her beautiful but rebellious daughter. This imaginary segment of the Southern population has been written to death. STOP.

This character is in 15-25% of books we handle. We'd be singing Frozen's "Let It Go" right now, but that would be cliché.

This character is in 15-25% of books we handle. We’d be singing Frozen’s “Let It Go” right now, but that would be cliché.

At Orchard Rest Writer’s Loft, we see the South in the face of a woman as she drops off the kids at soccer practice after a hard day as CEO. We see the South in a time worn index card with Mimi’s prized peach pie written on in it in a nearly indecipherable hand. We see the South in the face of an aged, bent woman who can tell us from first hand accounts the plight of her grandmother who was forced to do back-breaking work at the hands of people who bought her. We see the South in the faces of children hopping through a scorching August county fair with blue and pink cotton candy in hand. It is omnipresent in the lilt of a syllable lasting a hair too long, a look in the grocery store when you motion for the person who is holding five items to move on ahead of your $200 dollar cart, the press of a hand in sympathy at a funeral home visitation. We press on, we invent, we create, we coexist, we mourn, and we laugh. We are made of colorful, imaginative, intelligent, hard-working men and women. We confront our checked past with our hope for a beautiful future.

Our past is a myriad of diverse cultures, successes, mistakes, beauty, and art. It shouldn't be so hard to tell our great stories.

We don’t wish to see someone’s cartoonish creation of the South. We want to hear stories from Southern men and women who have truly lived the South and walk with it hand and hand–even when they reside in new areas of the country and even the world. We wish to uncover authors who are on a first name basis with the South and can uncover all the marvelous and terrifying stories that are hidden in the nooks and crannies of our everyday lives.

There's never a need to romanticize our mistakes, but there are lots of aspects of Southern life that few authors write about.

There’s never a need to romanticize our mistakes, but there are lots of aspects of Southern life that few authors write about.

In light of this, I ask you an important question: Would this blog be more compelling if we were to review all the books we read, good and bad?

Should we share the good and the bad?

Should we share the good and the bad?

There are worlds of stories to tell, but only a few are told. What do you think? Chime in!

The Raven Boys…or How I Tried to Take a Break From Southern Fiction and Found Great Southern Fiction

I have a small confession to make. I don’t always read Southern fiction. I know, I know. As it turns out, I am a reader of many appetites. My first love will always be seeing the South portrayed in a positive light with gorgeous, fascinating characters and preferably, with a hit of historical drama thrown in. But sometimes a girl needs something else. I mean there’s a whole world of literary characters out there just waiting to set up residence in the empty rooms of our hearts. The world is a more arcane and glittering place when it’s also inhabited by fallen angels, French cooks, and star-crossed modern day lovers. As a reading treat apart from the Southern Gothic novel I’m currently working on, I picked up a copy of “The Raven Boys” by Maggie Stiefvater, the first of a paranormal and fantasy trilogy. Can you see where this is going?

It was a Southern young adult novel in disguise.

I was delighted. I also wanted to drive to Virginia and simultaneously hug and then viciously pinch the author because she fearlessly and seamlessly managed to do something that I didn’t even know could be done, and I know deep down in my petty, jealous heart that I will never be able to pull off a contemporary young adult fantasy trilogy that just drips with a Southern accent. So, Maggie Stiefvater, if you’re reading this, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for inspiring me with this awesome trilogy, and I also want you to know that I despise you for being a much better writer than I am.

The 1st book of my new favorite trilogy.

The 1st book of my new favorite trilogy.

Blue Sargent is a high school girl in Henrietta, Virginia, who lives in a large extended family of women with psychic abilities. Blue, who doesn’t possess the gift of telling fortunes or seeing spirits, has the strange ability to amplify the reading of any psychic just by being in the room. Blue is lovably independent and refreshingly embraces what makes her different from other teens instead of pining to be head cheerleader or an all-star academic. The only fly in her ointment is that everyone agrees if she kisses her true love, she will kill him.

I know what you’re thinking: That doesn’t sound Southern. Why are you wasting my time with this?

Have you visited Savannah, New Orleans, or Charleston? Part of the romanticized element of the South is our love of the supernatural, our plantations filled with ghosts of spurned lovers, our quaint infatuations with “that which cannot be explained”. You can’t visit a major Southern hub without being bombarded with major advertising regarding ghost tours and tales of the undead. The fact that Stiefvater could tackle this topic so well shows me just how big her writing chops are. Wait, there’s more.

Enter the Raven Boys, a group of self-confident–dare I say cocky?–young men who attend Aglionby, a pre-Ivy League High School for the uber-rich. Gansey, the leader of an unforgettably hodgepodge group of Aglionby boys, has an obsession with ley lines, energy roads that map the globe and the hope that Welsh king Glendower is buried on the ley line in Virginia. Legend holds that whomever wakes Glendower will be granted a favor, and Gansey intends that he should be the recipient. Brooding, harsh Ronan along with mysterious, quiet Noah, and the impoverished but determined Adam round out the masculine group.

Their paths cross with Blue in a Henrietta restaurant, and when Blue finds Gansey’s artistic, scholarly journal regarding King Glendower’s magical sleep, the novel sets off blazing on a mad quest to find and wake the ley line that houses the storied King.

Most charming in this first novel of the trilogy is Adam Parrish, the most unlikely Raven boy to ever attend Aglionby. He lives in a trailer park and works three part-time jobs while suffering an abusive father in order to try to better his future. Gansey constantly tries to make up the difference between his own posh circumstances and Adam’s meager ones, and the strife it causes in his friendship with Adam, who is desperate to claw his way out of Virginia poverty on his own terms, is almost palpable. Adam is attracted to Blue, and we see hints that Gansey may be as well. However, Adam’s background is closer to Blue’s, and for the first time, we see Blue questioning her socioeconomic circumstances as she watches the rest of the Raven boys spend money however they like. Blue and Adam are even self-conscious regarding their Henrietta accents, and numerous references are made to Adam’s inability to culture his voice when something is bothering him.

This novel is wholly believable in that it focuses most on the relationships between these coming-of-age characters instead of supernatural elements. Oh, those elements are included, but the important thing to remember is that they are judiciously sprinkled in. This is no in-your-face Twilight melodramatic tweenie novel. This a novel for the thinker. As I sit here contemplating the success of “The Raven Boys” I would be remiss not to ask that isn’t a large part of the Southern world a study in class disparities? Don’t we all try to connect the mysteries of yesterday with the circumstances of now? If you are an adult who loves young adult with fantasy elements or if you have a teen who can’t be sold on oldies but goodies like “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “The Raven Boys” is probably a good bet for some well-written, cleverly disguised contemporary Southern bliss.

The author, Maggie Stiefvater, looking like a boss.

The author, Maggie Stiefvater, looking like a boss.

In case my post was too long or convoluted: This book is excellent. As soon as I finished it, I turned to page 1 and started over.

Amazon Link to “The Raven Boys”

Appalachian Serenade: A Novella

I admit with a certain amount of chagrin that I don’t naturally gravitate to Christian fiction. It holds as much merit as the next genre, and while I do enjoy the idea of not being sucked into a plotline replete with explicit, badly written sex and gratuitous cursing that does nothing for the sake of the dialogue, sometimes I find the genre can get too immersed in the moral of the story to adequately develop the plot or characters. While I was perusing Amazon last week for “something different” but had no idea what that something might be, I ran across “Appalachian Serenade: A Novella”. The cover intrigued me, a quick check of the author bio confirmed that she was a born and raised Southern author, and–lo and behold!–the price was free! I took a second look. I have family roots in Appalachia and confess that the title lured me in. Only now, in my early thirties, am I beginning to admire and cherish the wonderful mixed bag of ethnicities and cultures which weave the quilt of the Appalachian culture.

It turns out the author, Sarah Loudin Thomas, is serving this novella up as a light hors d’oeuvre to her summer release “Miracle in a Dry Season”. You can try out her writing for free, and hopefully if you enjoy the novella, you’ll be enticed to pick up the novel later. This is a common and efficient sales tactic by current authors to help make you a loyal reader–and it works. I was pleased enough with Mrs. Thomas’s work that I will probably purchase “Miracle in a Dry Season”.

Did I mention it's free?

It’s the summer of 1945 in Wise, West Virginia. The summer is long, times are hard, and our soldiers are beginning to drift in from WWII. Delilah Morrissey went to Chicago years before with a handsome husband in tow and planned on never seeing Wise again. However, her prince turned out to be a cruel man, and upon his death she acquired a mountain of debt. She returns to Wise to live with her sister, brother-in-law, and their child. Feeling the urge to contribute to the household (her brother-in-law is less than pleased to take her in), Delilah finds work in the general store.

There she strikes up a ready, if somewhat stilted, friendship with the storekeeper Robert, a kind man with a big heart. The attraction is mutual. However, Delilah is certain that Robert doesn’t want children, and children are something she has hungered for her whole life. Robert has a secret from his past that haunts him every time he looks at Delilah which leads to the awkward nature of their friendship. With a host a small town characters to pump fresh life and verve into a sleepy small town setting, “Appalachian Serenade” is a fast, easy read with a smooth, flowing plot.

Mrs. Thomas excels at character development. It is obvious through her smooth, polished depictions of ancillary characters that she is a daughter of the South. I have seen many books on Amazon that declare themselves to be gentle fiction similar to the Mitford series, and I scoff at those claims. While this novel lacks much of the whimsy found in Mitford, the quirks, dreams, and faults of each character are made plain so that no character is made to seem unimportant or worse yet, filler material. If Mrs. Thomas wished to compare her work to Mitford, I would not be offended at all.

I enjoyed Delilah’s character the most. She was well-developed and seemed almost a real person to me by the end of the story. She has a knack for knowing what customers in Robert’s store need but have forgotten, and she fetches it for them before they go, delighting Robert and the customers alike. Mrs. Thomas was also adept at delivering family conflict as evident through the small scenes where Delilah is in her brother-in-law’s home. She crafted a terse, abrupt man with only a few well-crafted sentences.

I did feel there was a bit much repetition through the novella. In almost every scene, Delilah is ruminating on whether she can care for someone who doesn’t want child. When she isn’t languishing for want of a baby, Robert is obsessing over whether she can love a man who can’t provide a child. While I realize this was the framework for the novella, I began to grow weary of both their plights by halfway through the work.

Out of a total five stars, I will assign “Appalachian Serenade: A Novella” four stars. I recommend the book to lovers of gentle fiction, admirers of small town life, and anyone who enjoys an engaging, well-written novella to pass a rainy afternoon with. At the current price of free, there is no reason not to go claim your own copy and enjoy the breezy, refreshing town of Wise, West Virginia.