Goin’ to Carolina … for My Mind

As a writer, I have been to many writers’ conferences and workshops. However, until last weekend, I had never been to a literary festival. The main difference is that writers’ conferences are geared toward writers hoping to improve their craft; whereas literary festivals are centered around both readers and writers – all lovers of books and reading.

The Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, held the weekend after Labor Day in my home-away-from-home town of Burnsville, NC, was a perfect introduction to literary festivals. Since author Susan Koehler’s debut novel, Dahlia in Bloom, is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this was a fun and informative excursion for both of us.

Highlights included chatting with Malaprops bookstore reps, festival organizers (fantastic, devoted volunteers!), and of course, other authors! Caroline from Malaprops gave me some advice about book distribution. Kathy, one of the festival organizers, told us about CMLF’s partnership with local schools. Authors are invited into the schools before the festival, and then schools bring students to the festival for special events designed especially for young people.

Kathy also told us that the theme is chosen after the close of the application period for authors who want to participate. Instead of announcing a theme for authors to respond to, the selection committee looks at the authors’ applications with an eye toward common themes. This year’s theme was “On the Move: Stories of Migration, Immigration, and Travel.” The authors whose works reflected this theme included Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons, Varena),Andrew Lawler (The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke), and Elaine Neil Orr (Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life).

I gleaned several insights from the speakers. From Mesha Maren, I learned that I am not alone in feeling that my characters deserve more than I can give them. Maren felt this way when she was writing Sugar Run. She put the manuscript aside, but the main character, Jodi, would not leave her alone. Maren made a pact with Jodi to give herself to the story one hundred percent; if she was unable to finish, agent, and publish her story, Jodi would have to leave her alone. I have vowed to give myself one hundred percent to the characters in the middle-grade fantasy I started 15 years ago. I put the story aside (other than brief spurts of communion with the independent teens whom I so desperately want not to disappoint) while I produced three other novels and a comic book. I’m hoping that my return to the mountains later this month will result in, if not fulfillment of the promise to Dune, Kyna, and their friend Cairdeen, considerable motion in the right direction.

Another tip was shared by author Mylène Dressler, author of the “elevated horror” story, The Last to See Me. This is a ghost story that I am looking forward to reading. Dressler advises authors to “make it real for the reader.” Build your world and stick to the rules of that world so that your reader is not jarred out of the story by details that don’t “fit.” I have heard this referred to as “suspension of disbelief.” In a ghost story I am writing, my ghost can sit beside me and knock his knee against mine, so he has substance. Am I the only person who can see and feel him? I still have to figure out the rules on that one!

The one aspect of the conference that troubled me was a noticeable lack of diversity. I hope the conference organizers will brainstorm ways to increase diverse participation in future.

Many of the authors at the conference have roots in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They share with me the love of “place.” So my tip for you, whether you are an author, an illustrator, a musician, or other creative soul, is find the place that inspires you, and give yourself over to it.

A chipmunk gathers sunflower seeds on a stone wall on Cattail Mountain, North Carolina

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