For me, the old saying, ‘grew up at the knee of’ is quite literally true. My grandfather, born in 1873, possessed the knee at which I sat as a child and alternately plied him with questions about his family and begged him to tell me the stories of Sam Bass, the Higgins-Horrell feud, the bell atop the schoolhouse that tolled all day when President Garfield died at the hands of an assassin, and so much more. Is it any wonder I grew up to pursue the penciled information jotted on pieces of notebook paper during those long afternoons at his knee?
I began “doing” genealogy pre-internet, when I traveled long miles to charm busy county clerks into letting me past their gates, faced down dogs of evil intent guarding cemeteries tucked away in obscure fields, knocked on doors of people I’d never met because someone said they knew everything about everybody, sucked on peppermints to relieve the motion sickness caused by scrutinizing microfilmed records, and made timelines and played “what if” games to fill in the empty spaces.
Like all good genealogists, I will be buried with a yellow legal tablet and a #2 pencil (sharpened) so when I make it past the Pearly Gates, I can track down my shadowy ancestors and demand to know all.
So what does all this have to do with writing? Plenty, because it’s often where I get ideas for my little tales. My first published novel, Where Is Papa’s Shining Star? began as an odyssey based on a family secret I uncovered in my forties. Though the book changed direction, it would never have been written had it not been for that chance discovery.
Four Summer Days, a novel I’m hoarding for just the right market (even if it takes 20 years!) is the story of how my great-grandfather shot and killed his step-father in 1876. I heard three different stories, tracked down various accounts in old newspapers (thankfully microfilmed), dug out dusty, crumbling subpoenas (which have since disappeared…hmmm), and found people who remembered hearing about the mountain-top house where the bloodstains on the wooden floor settled too deeply to ever be removed. Only two facts are certain: step-daddy was a bad boy, and great-grandpa got a pass, if not a pat on the back, by the law.
The Face on Miss Fanny’s Wall, a March release from Champagne Books, began when I visited Miss Laura’s, the restored bordello-turned-visitor center in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Standing in front of a parlor wall filled with pictures of some of her “girls”, my heart broke at the tragedy of their lives. Then the genealogist in me peeked from behind the velvet portieres and whispered, “What if someone standing here recognized great-grandma on the wall?”
So, in Miss Fanny, that’s exactly what happens: a young college student on spring break sees a hauntingly-familiar picture, finds a duplicate in a family picture album, and becomes a fledgling genealogist to ferret out long-buried secrets. Not too surprisingly, someone doesn’t want those secrets known. Tessa persists, despite increasingly ominous threats. Meanwhile, she falls in love with the state police officer heading an investigation into some modern-day dirty dealings behind the scenes at Miss Fanny’s. Though Dale tells her to back off, she digs in her heels, and he finds himself also saddled with the responsibility of keeping her alive.
To win a free digital copy (the book won’t be in print for a while), read the first chapter at my website and answer these questions:
What was the name of the pony Francine tried to save from the Yankee deserter?
Where did Francine get the name for her baby daughter?
How did Francine and Remma travel to Cedar Bluff?
Email the answers using the form on the ‘Contact me’ page of the website. The winner will be chosen on Sunday from all the correct answers.
Judy Nickles, writing as Gwyneth Greer, has been creating stories since she could hold a pencil and, later, peck on her father’s ancient Underwood. After retirement from teaching, believing that “Someday is here,” she began to pursue publication. Her love of history and long years of experience in genealogical research provide a boundless supply of story ideas. The Face on Miss Fanny’s Wall is her fourth published novel. She is currently working on a series of cozy mysteries set in a small southern town.
Meanwhile, find me around the web at: