New article: “Looking Ahead to Summer in Brevard”

Hi, folks. My newest freelance article is up at Fisher Realty (Brevard, NC). Here’s to summertime in the mountains!

To read, click here.

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New lines: “The Cheshire Cat and Alice”

Hi, all! Here’s a quick new excerpt from my historical novel-in-progress. For more information, go to my Work-in-Progress page.

This scene is set in Charleston, South Carolina, 2004. Enjoy!

Charleston street corner

Charleston street corner

* The Cheshire Cat and Alice *

When all else fails, go see your best friend. This is an attitude I’d adopted in graduate school (the third time), when I was finally there for the right reasons, and had also begun to see Harry on a regular social basis.  Whenever I found myself overwhelmed by Harry’s Charleston-ness, and by my anxiety over fitting into his family and by what—if I’m brutally honest—had begun to gnaw at the edges of my intellect: the notion that we weren’t entirely right for each other, I’d pop over to the College of Charleston and bother my best friend, Tolliver Jackson.

Tol was, at the time, a new assistant professor in the College’s Department of African-American Studies. We’d met at a graduate school social my first week in Charleston, at the house of the Graduate Dean and Provost—a lovely ranch with a wide yard, in an up and coming neighborhood in West Ashley. There had been a game of beer pong in the carport (what can we say? We were grad students) and I’d been running the table all night. What my fellow grad students didn’t know was that, not unlike Dr. Johnny Fever from the 1980s TV show WKRP in Cincinnati, the more inebriated I get, the more coordinated I become.

You remember the episode, don’t you? Dr. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap are involved in some midnight, on-air contest involving shots and hitting a buzzer to answer trivia questions. Johnny Fever, a laconic leftover from the ’60s, gets quicker and more accurate the more drinks he consumes. Venus Flytrap, on the other hand, gets tanked.

Anyway, it’s classic 1980s television. Worth wasting an hour on.

But back to Tolliver and me, and how we met. Tol challenged my beer pong supremacy with a bet that he could land the ping pong ball in a full Solo cup of beer perched on my head. A la William Penn and the apple.

I took the bet and Tol hit the shot, and half an hour later we were swinging in the Dean’s Pawley’s Island hammock in the backyard, barefoot and counting stars through the breaks in the canopy of waxy crepe myrtle and oak overhead. Tol was a startling six-foot-five inches tall, five years older than me, and had been born and raised on a Georgia sea island. His skin was such a deep mahogany, all that showed when he smiled in the dark while we were swinging was his wide, white, perfect smile.

“You look like the Cheshire Cat,” I’d told him.

He’d given the ground a push with his long-boned foot, which was hanging from our hammock, and up we swung, the ropes creaking from the effort.

“Then that makes you Alice,” he’d said.

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Because of 80,000 words: A new novel excerpt

Today I hit 80,000 words on the first draft of my novel manuscript. 

This is a big deal, y’all. My kids are 9 and 6. The last time I hit 80,000 words on a novel manuscript was over a decade ago. I am pretty darned psyched.

To celebrate, here’s another excerpt from the first draft of my historical novel-in-progress. It’s a time-jump, parallel-time novel, and so this is told from the 2004 pages (the others are set in 1804), and it’s from my “modern” protagonist, Gamble’s, point of view. She’s an art historian and art restoration expert at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and she’s working on unraveling a ghost story: on finding out more about a girl she’s seen in an alley–a girl who may not be of this world.

You should know: Gamble is divorced, and she has a black Lab named Kipling. Fun fact: the scene below, when her gentleman neighbor asks after the dog, is straight out of my life.

I hope y’all enjoy it! For more information, see my Work-in-Progress page.

Street scene, Charleston, South Carolina

Street scene, Charleston, South Carolina

* Archives and Liars *

I wanted nothing more than to dive into the girl’s life. By this, I mean into her history: to find out who she really was, and perhaps to discover why she was talking to me. I’d have to do it with subtlety. Because what reputable historian walks up to any sort of archivist and says, “Hi, I’ve come to research this ghost/time traveler/crazy person who’s been talking to me from the past”?

On second thought, I don’t know. Archivists are mysterious creatures. Maybe one would believe me.

Still, witch hunts may have shifted a bit from the 1600s—no more burnings at the stake, deaths by pressing, drowning or hanging—but they still exist. In the art world, they hang your credibility. Ghost you from the best jobs and fellowships. This is what could happen to me should I reveal I was funneling my considerable clout and museum resources toward the unraveling of a ghost story.

I’d have to be more than subtle, I thought, my pace slowing and mind beginning to settle and stop rocking, like a canoe making an eddy after exiting a white-foamed rapid. I tucked my hands into the pockets of my suit jacket (there’s a chance I’d been gesticulating wildly to myself as I thought-walked, one of my best and most off-putting habits), and waited for the car backing out of the nearest driveway to pull into the street. The window rolled down and a white-haired gentleman appraised me with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s dark, Ms. Vance,” he said.

I nodded. It was. “Hi, Mr. Smythe. Yes, well, I’m almost home.”

“How’s Kipling?” He asked, face wrinkling as he smiled. You had to smile when you thought about Kipling; anyone who knows her does. “You sure she doesn’t need a date with my Rolly?”

I grinned. “Sorry, sir. She’s fixed.”

“Damn shame,” he said, shaking his head. He said this every time. “A damn shame. Alright, then, you be careful walking home.”

“I will. Goodnight.”

He raised a hand, waited for me to skirt the back of his car and be on my way, and pulled out onto the dark street.

I was pondering on my research plan—just how I’d get it all done—as I took a left into the driveway of 353 Church. I tight-rope-walked one of the long concrete pavers down the drive like a kid, because it’s fun and because being silly sometimes calms my brain. I wondered, would it be possible to enlist help? Research of this strange magnitude always went well with help.

“Gamble.”

Harry. He sat at the top of my stoop, Kipling at his side with her front paws draped over the wooden edge. He was scratching her ears and she was loving it, the traitor.

“Hey, Harry.” I stopped in front of them, crossing my arms. A defense move, to be sure. I waited.

Heyward Hunt Sims was a catch, according to all reliable Charleston sources, past and present. I should know better than most: I’d caught him. We were together—dating and married—a total of four years, eleven months and seventeen days. Then I’d let him go. It had been like releasing an Alaskan salmon to the wild during the salmon run. I knew he’d get scooped up by a brown bear pretty quick.

He waited for me to speak, loving on Kipling like it was nothing, like it came so easy to him. It was. And it did. I should know: I’d had those hands on me before. They were wonderful liars, just like Harry.

 

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News for writers: Upcoming writer’s retreats at gorgeous Earthshine Lodge in WNC

IMG_4024Exciting news for my fellow writers in need of RETREAT!

I just spent the morning at 3,000 feet, on a cool, misty mountaintop alight in spring green, brainstorming with Ali Lien, the co-founder and co-owner of Earthshine Lodge in Lake Toxaway, N.C. I’m crazy excited–literally, kid-on-Christmas-morning excited–to announce that I’ll be directing a series of writer’s retreats there, hopefully beginning in Fall 2019.

We’re still in the planning stages, but our hope is to provide a series of long-weekend retreats tailored to different types of writers in different stages of their careers, who may have different creative needs. Retreats will be crafted to appeal to established writers simply in need of peace and quiet and time to write, to beginning writers eager for workshop time and manuscript evaluations, to any writer in between. We’re also planning on a retreat specifically geared to writers who are also parents: this, my friends, will include childcare.

There will be roaring fires in stone fireplaces, campfires and star-gazing IMG_4037outside, hiking on the established trail system, and potentially even yoga! There will be gorgeous views of the Pisgah National Forest and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. And there will be coffee. Lots of coffee.

Trust me, y’all. This place is magic. I can’t wait to show it to you.

Be on the lookout for more information and news in the coming weeks.

IMG_4075 IMG_4070 IMG_4069 IMG_4067 IMG_4066 IMG_4061 IMG_4058 IMG_4056 IMG_4043 IMG_4030

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In praise of teachers, who are the candle lighters

With my mom, my first teacher--and a public school educator for 30+ years.

With my mom, my first teacher–and a public school educator for 30+ years.

Well, I had this teacher who ________.

This is the start of an answer I’ve given hundreds of times at book clubs or venues where I’ve been a featured author or speaker. Because someone always asks, “What inspired you to write?” Or, “How did you know you were a writer?”

Good heaven, if I tried to fill in that blank with the countless teachers who have challenged, taught, encouraged, frustrated, believed in, and loved on me during my lifetime, the sentence would never end.

I attended proper school for 21 years. That’s more than the average bear. It’s K-12, college, and graduate school (twice). It doesn’t include preschool, Sunday school, or classes in art, piano, voice, and more. It’s leaving out church camp, sports camp, theatre, sports in general, youth fellowship, and after school activities guided by teachers, like student government, high school theatre, choir.

It doesn’t count the mentors I’ve had over the years in the form of my own parents and relatives, family friends, writer friends, speakers and workshop leaders at writer’s conferences and retreats, the dads involved in our 1980s YMCA group of “Indian Princesses” (Good Lord, the ’80s), the random physical therapist, my master gardener neighbors and relatives, the guy in Lowes who taught me how to rewire a Depression-era lamp, the older counselors at the summer camp where I worked for years, and, most recently, a nice young man named Jerry on YouTube, who taught me how to make a Captain Marvel star for my 6 year-old’s birthday party.

Teachers are everywhere. Teachers are everything.

But this week, we celebrate the school teachers. The ones who worked and studied their tails off, many for multiple years and with multiple student loans, in order to best do these jobs. The teachers in the classrooms and on the playgrounds of this country. The people who have given a major portion of their lives to a cause—and yes, I mean that exactly as I type it: a CAUSE—bigger than themselves, and certainly bigger than their meager paychecks.

A week ago teachers in N.C. marched on Raleigh, as they did in many other states. They did it for a myriad of reasons, but to demand appropriate compensation for the vital, challenging, people-building work they do. Literally, they are shaping tiny citizens—our country’s future, perhaps even humanity’s future.

No, I’m not exaggerating. Not for a second. But really, if you question why teachers march, or why we take the time to celebrate the work they do, you’re not paying attention.

For the love of Pete, I am utterly DONE with incurious, un-attention-paying people. DONE, I say. But that’s for another post.

This one’s about teachers. Mine, in particular. And about how thankful I am for their work on my behalf. For their patience. Their humor. Their ability to see something in me I might not have seen myself, and to nurture that something for those 21 years of schooling. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am, and who I am, without my teachers.

I tried to thank several of my teachers (notice I did not type “former”: a teacher is never “former” because their influence is unending—a voice you hear, a moment in time remembered always, in the oddest of moments) in the acknowledgements section of my first novel. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see another one published, and so I went big, and in doing so inadvertently left some of my teachers out because there are so gosh darned many of them!

For years, my public school teachers created community in our classrooms—thoughtful spaces where I felt smart, and challenged, and part of something. I felt this particularly in many of my high school classes. Now, as an adult, I value community on the cellular level—it is vital to me and the people I love in ways I never imagined. Teachers started that.

Well, I had this teacher who let me color outside the lines.

Well, I had this teacher who asked me to sing a duet.

Well, I had this teacher who held my essays up as examples.

Well, I had this teacher who gave me a part in a play.

Well, I had this teacher who told me not to let my perpetual tardiness affect my good work in his class.

Well, I had this teacher who insisted I was a writer.

Well, I had this teacher who treated me like a scholar.

Well, I had this teacher who asked me to read, at a county-wide event, the poem I’d written in honor of my grandmother’s death. When I couldn’t get through it (the grief still fresh), she stepped up beside me onstage at the podium, took the poem from me, and with her arm around my shoulders, finished it for me.

Now that I’m a mother with two children in public school, my appreciation for teachers has grown and changed. I’m well aware of the challenges we all face, parents and teachers alike. No one is perfect.

Why is it that “educator” is a position out of which we expect perfection? In every job, every career, mistakes are made. Is it because most teachers are women, and our society expects the same sort of mythical maternal perfection of teachers as we do mothers? Is it because we entrust our beloved children, our most valued gifts, to the care of these educators? Then, for heaven’s sake, we should value what they do just as highly as we expect their job performance.

Margaret Fuller, a 19th century American journalist, women’s rights advocate, editor, book critic, and more, once said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” I believe this speaks to the heart of what teachers do. They share knowledge, and in doing so share light.

I like to imagine my teachers standing in a line, in the coming dark. Young and old, male and female, an array of colors, each holding a candle—much like a candlelit church service—and they pass the light from one person to the next, on down the line which never ends. I light my candle from theirs, and so do my children. In this uncertain, confoundable world, I truly believe education, and educators, may be the only things which keep out the dark.

* If you’d like to learn more about why public school teachers marched recently, why they need to be paid what they deserve, and why they’re still teaching, many are talking and writing about it. Ask them.  

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“You can’t put the milk back in the cow, Opie”… and other thoughts on Earth Day

My family, hiking along the Davidson River in The Pisgah National Forest.

My family, hiking along the Davidson River in The Pisgah National Forest.

The following may be my favorite quote in relation to Earth Day:

Aunt Bea: “Opie, you haven’t finished your milk. We can’t put it back in the cow, you know.”

Happy Earth Day, all! To put it simply: I love the Earth, I love a quote quote, and I’ve written a good bit about Earth Day over the years. Here are a few links:

“Sometimes you just gotta hug a tree” (2013)

“Celebrate Earth Day by reaffirming connections to each other” (2015)

“The power of our places” (2017)

I hope you enjoy them. And I hope, wherever you are, you get outside today, and every day.

* If, for some reason, you are having trouble accessing the links to my old The Greenville News columns, try googling my name and the title, and a link should come up. For example: “Katherine Scott Crawford The Greenville News the power of our places.”

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Weekly Lines: “The kitchen house”

New lines from the rough first draft of my historical novel-in-progress, set in parallel time: in both 1804, and 2004. Told from the perspective of my 2004 protagonist, an art historian and restoration expert named Gamble. Enjoy!

IMG_5265* The kitchen house *

The girl, the girl. I have not forgotten the girl, though you’d think I had with the way I tend to run on. It’s just that for my story to make any sort of sense, you must know where I live. I live in the larger of two kitchen houses at 353 A Church Street. My kitchen house is deliciously old, and you can’t take a step without the house creaking, some whispered admittance of its 267-year-old story.

Kitchen houses were the law in Charleston, once upon a time. Because widespread fires had destroyed hundreds of homes on the peninsula, between the years 1740 and 1860 home owners were required to build separate structures, away from the main house, to serve as kitchens. That being the case, many of the oldest surviving homes in Charleston, including Catherine’s, have one or two kitchen houses which have served many roles over time: as servants’ quarters, stables, offices, and more.

But back to 353A Church Street. The ceilings are low, because people tended to be short. It suits me more than fine. Usually, I like a bit of air above my head, with plenty of room for my thoughts to circle and swirl. But since my divorce, I sought comfort and coziness. Often, the house felt like a hug. There’s a huge, working fireplace in the small living room, complete with an original hearth and nooks for bread baking. It appeases my personal need for an historic aesthetic to know a person’s been cooking there since 176_. The eighteenth-century brick in the courtyard between my small house and the other is sloping and lovely, just as Catherine promised. Kipling and I like to sit at the wrought iron table out back, admiring the [?] vines winding their way up the side of our house and watching the chimney sweeps and blue jays do battle above the [?] tiled roof.

The mail carrier, whose name is Joe, brings my mail all the way to the back, which makes me feel like a real local. In the warm months—of which there are plenty—Joe wears the white shorts and matching sun helmet of the United States Postal Service. He’s tall and stork-like, so he straddles the green Bermuda grass growing between the parallel brick pavers that follow the line of the drive. I admire his knees, most because I’m short. I think Joe’s knees reach about the same height as my hips.

I have loved my life at 353A Church Street, despite the dissolution of my marriage being my reason for moving there. I have loved it in spite of the sleepless nights, the agony of wondering what I could’ve done different, the worry of time wasted, the smudging of ghosts along the stairwell. I have adored, more than I ever imagined I could, the emptiness of my queen-sized bed. I no longer stay on “my side,” as I did when Harry and I were married, but at first opportunity made of myself a snow angel in the middle. I sleep in the bed spread wide, my limbs stretched and pointed as long as they can get. When we first moved in, I suctioned myself to that bed like a starfish, unwilling to move until Kipling put her paws up on the foot of the bed and insisted I take her outside.

More than anything else, 353A Church became my refuge, my rehabilitation station, when I needed it most. It never bothered the kitchen house that I was a non-native divorcee, childless and hoodwinked. That I was a low-born mountain girl in the land of palmetto trees, unwrinkled linen suits and monogrammed seersucker.

I always felt, not only did the kitchen house not care about these things, it held me closer because of them.

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Weekly Lines: “A Freeing and a Clutch”

These new lines from the very first, very rough draft of my historical novel-in-progress are told from the point of view of Gamble, my modern protagonist. For more info on what I’m writing, check out my Work in Progress page, and earlier posts.

IMG_6488* A Freeing and a Clutch *

Any time I’d ever driven away from Charleston I felt an odd combination of euphoria and longing, in a place I suppose most would call the gut. It didn’t matter if I was cresting the new, cable-stayed Arthur J. Ravenel Bridge, high over the Cooper River, or waiting on the drawbridge at pretty Wappoo Creek on my way south towards Savannah—or even if I simply took multi-laned, concrete-encased Interstate 26 and headed west: I felt it, each and every time. It was both a freeing and a clutch. It was as if I’d been released into the world, yet at the same time, pulled ever backwards.

Now that I’d been in the past—now that I knew for sure I’d lived at least one lifetime there—the feeling made more sense. History had always seemed to me, as an art historian and general restorer of old stuff, ever present. I never could shake the impression time was always doing its loop-de-loops in the air around us when we walked through the present, like one of those stunt pilots in a Red Baron biplane at a Depression-era air show. I just couldn’t understand why no one else could see the contrails. I felt like a tomboy in dungarees, eyes glued to the sky, while everyone else looked down at their phones.

But there was more to it than that. This was Charleston. And Charleston was complicated. The city was over 300 years-old: it had lived much more than a little. Charleston had seen canoes and U-Boats, hosted princes and pirates, been bloodied and bruised, shamefaced and proud. It told, ever and always, an unflinching American story. No wonder it captivated—no wonder it was so difficult to leave behind.

The city’s history was heavy. You can’t be home to the New World’s largest slave port and think it’s all going to be sunshine and mint juleps, all charm and manners. Every place you set your foot in this city has been touched by human bondage. Black, white and brown, freed and enslaved lives have intertwined here since the beginning. For a visitor, especially, it gives a simple walk through a private, lush, gorgeously-fragrant Charleston courtyard a heaviness they might have otherwise missed, to know the softening bricks you trod were trod not so long ago by people without freedom.

So maybe it’s the past which clings to me as I leave this city, or maybe it’s slavery. Maybe it’s the fact there is ancestral memory in my bones: that my past self remembers my present. Perhaps we all feel like this, leaving a place we love. Letting go is never easy.

None of the above, however, explains why I felt like this each time I left Charleston on a temporary trip. After all, I was always coming back. At least then.

When Tolliver and I drove away from Charleston, this time, we took rural SC Hwy 61 toward Aiken. He drove, and I watched out the window as winter marsh and mudflats turned to sod farms, as young pines broke with yellow pasture. The sky outside was pale and thin, the sun burning through it like light through a shroud.

I felt the freeing, and the clutch. And wondered if it would always be thus.

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First Book Love, Book Clubs & Tea Towels

Ready for my book club appearance. I put on makeup for the first time in two weeks!

Ready for my book club appearance. I put on makeup for the first time in two weeks!

I believe I’ve mentioned before my undying love of book clubs. Since my debut historical novel, Keowee Valley, was published waaaayyyy back in 2012, I’ve met with dozens of book clubs to talk about it. These “meetings” never fail to run me through a range of emotions, always ending in grateful joy.

Book clubs have been around since books were invented, and they’re all different: formal, informal, strict, or devil-may-care. Some clubs stick to fiction, some nonfiction, some a mix of every genre imaginable. Some book clubs are just for women, some just for men, and some for everyone. Some book clubs start through church, or work, or the local library. Trust me: even if you live in a town with one stoplight, there is a book club (and if not, you can easily start one).

For an author, book clubs are especially wonderful places to be introduced. Booky people talk about the books they love with other people. Book clubbers BUY books! Book clubbers love to read!

At every book club event to which I’ve ever been invited, I have been fed, welcomed, and feted, in ways big and small. I’ve been given space to talk, and been asked the smartest, most insightful, funny and interesting questions. At every book club I’ve had to really think about many of my answers.

Yesterday, I was the guest author at The Cliffs Valley Book Club, in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina. The Cliffs Valley is a mountain community not too many miles south of the North Carolina border. Fifty women from that community and others had gathered to hear me talk about Keowee Valley, historical fiction and history, writing, my newspaper column, and more. They treated me to a delicious lunch (soup and salad and salmon and cookies, oh my!). They bought all the books I had on hand. (Note to self: bring more books next time.) They made me feel so very welcome.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to talk about Keowee Valley. It was my first book, and I have first book love for it. I wrote it in a rush of inspiration, filling it with everything I loved about history and adventure and romance, and the land where I’d grown up: the South Carolina Blue Ridge, and the Western North Carolina mountains. But I finished writing it in 2007, and it was finally published by Bell Bridge Books, an independent press out of Memphis, Tennessee, in September of 2012. That’s nearly 7 years ago.

In between the writing of Keowee Valley and now, lots of stuff has happened. Stuff upon stuff. I traveled to Costa Rica and Scotland, taught at three different colleges, had two babies, spent three years in graduate school (and graduated!), lost one old dog and gained a new puppy, made and lost friends, became a newspaper and magazine columnist, became an aunt, tried and failed to write another research-heavy historical novel, and ever so much more. I used to think my brain could hold infinite amounts of information–I am, after all, a champion of random knowledge (you probably want me on your Trivial Pursuit team). But “mom brain” is real, and I’ve forgotten things.

Sometimes, I worry that at book club meetings, the members will know more about Keowee Valley, and remember more, than I do at this point. After all, they’ve just read it: everything is fresh and new. I lived with the story for years, and brought it to fruition, but have had to concentrate on other things. Things like jobs, and children, and new creative work.

So I love it when book clubbers (it’s sort of cracking me up to call them this: I’m picturing well-read ladies rocking out to techno in a strobe-lit night club) ask questions which force me to dig deep. Yesterday, in fact, one reader asked me, “What have you learned from your writing?” It took me completely aback, it was such a good–and complicated–question.

I went to graduate school for writing. I went at a time in my life which probably wasn’t the best move: I was a college professor with a two year-old at home and was pregnant, and gave birth to my second child, during the program. My brain was mush, but I was desperate for a creative life. I learned so much in that program, about craft in general, it’s impossible to pin it all down. I answered that my writing has taught me to slow down, to sit still with my story. That it’s taught me to consider the reader: not in a marketing sense, but in a real, story-building sense.

There was so much more I could’ve said, when answering that question. I thought about it long after, as I drove my car back up and into the higher N.C. mountains and home, rain splashing my windshield, just in time to pick my kids up from school.

Molly, the all-around awesome woman who’d invited me in the first place, gifted me with two tea towels. These tea

Readers get me. These tea towels came from Dogwood gifts in Flat Rock, N.C.

Readers get me. These tea towels came from Dogwood gifts in Flat Rock, N.C.

towels speak my language.  Molly had read enough of my writing–my novel and my many newspaper columns–to know exactly what to get me. It was thoughtful and fun.

And this is why I love book clubs.

I’m ever so thankful my first book love, Keowee Valley, continues to be read and enjoyed. This is, of course, what ever writer dreams about. I promise: I am writing so danged hard on the next novel!

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Weekly Lines: Scene from my novel-in-progress

teaI’ve decided to dedicate a page here, at my author website, to Weekly Lines: scenes I’ve decided to share from my work-in-progress. For more info about the novel itself, click my Work-in-Progress page, here.

Today’s lines involve my 2004 protagonist, the art historian and restoration expert, Gamble, and her best friend, an African-American History scholar named Tolliver. They’re in Aiken, South Carolina, at a venerable old horse farm, taking tea with a pair of old lady cousins who have a mysterious portrait to share. Enjoy!

* First Flush *

It was apparent Miss Saralee and Miss Corrine did not often receive visitors. They made us sit through high tea—complete with tiny ham, tuna, and pimento cheese sandwiches; cheese straws and potato salad, dainty Limoges finger bowls painted with cherries (I lifted one discreetly to check the maker’s mark. I am, if nothing else, a historian) and filled with sliced kiwi, strawberries and blueberries; multiple pours of black Indian tea with cream, and at last a silver tray papered with profiteroles, an assortment of chocolate truffles, and, delightfully: Oreos.

“I like double-stuffed,” Miss Corrine said, oval brown eyes widening in delight, before biting in.

I snickered, Tol squeezed my knee under the drape of the tablecloth, and Miss Saralee smiled, black kiwi seeds caught between her front teeth.

“There’s been a change with you two since last time,” Miss Saralee announced, much more than asked.

I thought she’d expound, but she sat like the Sphinx at Giza, and didn’t so much as blink. Tol and I looked at each other. It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. I knew that look. It said, Have at it, babe.

“Oh, leave them be, Saralee,” Miss Corrine said, “Can’t you tell they’re in the first flush? They’re like to get all het up if you pry.”

See: she said it like this, all sweet and helpful-seeming, but there was a distinct twinkle in her eyes. I don’t think she meant a word of it. I think, just like Tol and me, these ladies had a long and permanent connection. They could say one thing and mean another, and no one else would know what they really wanted.

Which is all to say, I think Miss Corrine totally meant: Come on, Saralee, make ’em talk. Get to the juicy stuff.

“They are grown adults, Corrine,” Miss Saralee countered, then swiped a tongue over her teeth. She pressed her lips together and opened them on a pop. “Lord have mercy, Tolliver here is the most fully grown man I’ve ever seen.” She leaned across the table, her shaky elbow bumping a tea cup. I reached to steady it. Big mistake: it made her turn on me.

“And you,” Miss Saralee said, a lionness recognizing the weakest antelope in the herd. “You’re looking rather rosy, rather satisfied. Young lady, you are even more in love than the last time I saw you. I don’t blame you one bit. He’s a catch.”

“Mm hmm,” Miss Corrine agreed on a long, impressively lascivious hum.

“Me!” I said, determined not to remain alone in this. “What about him? He loved me last time, too.” Indignant, I rubbed my scapulae against the ornate mahogany backrest of my chair, then crossed my arms. Beside me, Tol vibrated with silent laughter.

I gave the ladies my best stare-down, then turned to my partner in crime. He should’ve looked incongruous, at six-foot-five, in the dainty ornate chair, a full silver tea service set before him. (The ladies requested he pour.) He’d even dressed down a bit for the trip, as he’d been rather limited with the clothes he’d kept at my house: Dark jeans, a round-collared dove grey sweater, and a pair of matte black leather oxfords, scuffed to perfection. His beard had grown thick in the weeks I’d been away, and I was glad he’d not shaved yet. I loved the way the silver threaded through it around his mouth; it made him look like a medieval knight who could also deliver a lecture at Oxford. This was Tol in informal mode—his damn outfit still looked as if it had been made for him. And I was almost positive the sweater was cashmere.

Miss Saralee waved a gnarled hand in the air: a literal pshaw. “Oh, he was, too. Anybody could see it. You just had it written all over your face, dear.”

Well. That’s true. Like I said, I’m no poker player.

Tol folded his napkin and set it to the side of his place setting: an elegant effort at let’s move on. “That was delicious,” he said, as if we’d not just endured ruthless teasing by two wily nonagenarians. “It was so good, in fact, I can’t eat another bite. How about it, ladies: Is it time to see the portrait?”

Miss Saralee narrowed her milky blue eyes, and they almost disappeared in her wrinkles. For a moment I thought the push had been the wrong move. But then she nodded. “Yes, I do believe it’s time.” She looked to Miss Corrine, who gave a regal incline of her head. “I asked Baker to put the portrait in the library, under the lamps, so you could give it a study.”

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