One of the great joys of reading fiction is the ability to be transported to various worlds, both familiar and exotic. It’s a part of the immersion process of reading: being in the created environment, visualizing the locales, getting a lay of the land, smelling the roses.
I think of the countless novels and short stories I’ve read over the years that have taken me to all parts of the universe and back. And though I’ve never been, I feel empowered enough through these stories to know what it is like to hike through the jungles of Kipling’s India, travel upriver in Conrad’s Congo, or even climb the crags of Tolkien’s Mount Doom.
For writers, setting can be an overwhelming part of their world—as important as a main character or crucial plot development. Imagine Mark Twain without his Mississippi River or F. Scott Fitzgerald without his West Egg and one can see how footing for great works starts with the land underneath.
As Rivers Turn Press readies Spearfinger for its release this fall, my thoughts have turned to setting and how deeply locale is rooted in my own stories. Western North Carolina and especially the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park once again serve as the backdrop for this follow-up to The Devil’s Courthouse, my first mystery-thriller. I was very young when I first encountered these beautiful and majestic places, camping and hiking with my family and friends. At the time, I had no idea that they would serve as backdrop for two of my novels, but through my experiences and research I hoped to have catalogued enough material to re-create these settings as a believable and viable world.
The setting for my second novel, Tidal Pools, was an amalgam of different islands and cities along the South Carolina coastline. Because of plot points that I needed to occur within a certain timeframe, real locations were not an option. Carolina Cruel, my third mystery-thriller, also followed this mixed pattern of real and faux settings. But every city, road, mountain, and trail of The Devil’s Courthouse and Spearfinger are real, and I had to adhere to all distance and time parameters in each work. I knew that readers would be sticklers for accuracy, so I had to make sure everything was correct.
One of my favorite places on earth is the Pisgah campground found on the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. My family spent so much time there when I was growing up that we would have a favored camping site picked out before we even arrived. Once the trailer was parked or the tent was pitched, the site became our own little world with rhododendron and laurel bushes, which skirted the perimeter, providing seclusion. A fire roared in the pit no matter the time of year and served as the gathering place for my family all weekend long. There were several exploring trips made around the campsite including journeys to the hidden stream only a short distance away. My imagination often got the best of me as we played in that stream and certainly provided the catalyst for the mystique and danger of the mountains that I tried to convey in the two Smoky Mountain novels.
From Pisgah we often took daytrips to other parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, traveling through mountain tunnels and watching for rockslides along the road. We visited many of the locations used in The Devil’s Courthouse and Spearfinger including Graveyard Fields, Bearmeat’s Indian Den in Cherokee, Whiteside Mountain (home of the Spearfinger witch) and the Devil’s Courthouse itself. Standing atop the 5,700-foot-tall Devil’s Courthouse, one can see four different states beyond the rolling hills and verdant forests. With its ragged rock face and hidden coverts, the Courthouse is truly an amazing and inspiring place. Whiteside Mountain is equally impressive, with views of what was once all Cherokee lands.
At times, we took side trips from Pisgah to the area known as “the balds,” mountain tops that are mysteriously barren of trees. And as my main characters, Cole and Amanda, do in The Devil’s Courthouse, we would camp there among the stars. My father, who knew the area like the back of his hand, could always point out bear tracks in the mud, spot furry, little “varmints” in the tall grass, and on clear days would show us Cold Mountain and Mount Mitchell sprouting up on the horizon.
Many times, we took day trips to the end of the Parkway and visited the Qualla Boundary, the proprietary lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Coming into Cherokee was like entering a different world. Here we learned much about the Cherokee culture and legends that again play such a large role in both novels but especially my latest. We visited shops, museums, and entertainment ventures that worked their way into much of Spearfinger’s settings and characterizations. With the Boundary’s wonderful citizens playing perhaps the greatest inspiration.
I often camped inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the campground of Smokemont being a personal favorite. At 800 square miles, the park is one of the greatest biospheres in the world. There are over 17,000 documented species of plants and animals there with a potential 80,000 more yet to be catalogued. With oaks as tall as skyscrapers, meandering rivers, lichen-stained boulders, ancient ferns, drooping hemlocks, shy elk, playful squirrels, and curious bears—it is truly an outdoorsman’s dream.
I spent a great deal of time at the Oconaluftee Ranger Station, watching and learning from the always courteous rangers. They taught me much about their day-to day routines. I would ask them about handling dangerous creatures such as bears, wolves, and snakes. They would laugh and point out that by far the most dangerous animal in the park was man himself. I envied their choice of work as I got older, and I hope that if they do read the novels, they will see a little of themselves in the main characters of Park Ranger Cole Whitman and Lieutenant Johnny Whitetree of the Tribal Police.
The park provides some of the most fantastic views: Clingman’s Dome, Chimney Tops and New Found Gap are but just a few. One of my favorite destinations in the park is the climb to Mt. Le Cont along the Alum Cave Trail. The five-mile climb is filled with views of the expansive landscape of the park as well as quirky trail markers such as Arch Rock and Inspiration Point. Almost Le Cont’s entire trail makes it into The Devil’s Courthouse in some way, shape or form.
As Spearfinger is much more Cherokee-centric, the new novel is concentrated in the Boundary and surrounding areas. It was fun researching new settings for the novel as the story takes the protagonists to river-hidden Bird Falls, the tracks of the smoky Mountain railroad along the banks of Lake Fontana, the twisty turns of the Dragon’s Tail near Deal Gap, the aforementioned Whiteside Mountain and more.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the towns and cities of Western North Carolina that also are important to both novels. Asheville, Bryson City, Maggie Valley, and Sylva to name a few are true mountain municipalities that have the Smokies as part of their DNA. Bakersville and Spruce Pine of Roan Mountain also play a vital role in both stories, and I try to do all these areas justice in their description and personality.
There is a sense of freedom found in the peoples that populate these areas that cannot be found elsewhere. Like the mountains themselves, the mountain folk can be at times as reserved as the most placid of waters and at other times as vibrant as a hot pink rhododendron flower in June. They love their dogs, craft beer, music, art, and laid-back lifestyle. If not for mitigating circumstances, I would have joined them long ago.
As I’ve always said, Southern writers know that certain stories can only happen here. There is an aura, a sense of mystery about us geographically that lends to great storytelling. It’s in the land.
Listen closely to the Smoky Mountains and you’ll hear them calling, always telling us their stories, forever enriching our lives.
The Devil’s Courthouse is available now on Amazon and at riversturnpress.com. Spearfinger will have its official release on Saturday, October 29, 2022, at Bearmeat’s Indian Den in Cherokee, NC. It will be available everywhere soon after.
Thanks everyone for your continued support!