There are stories hidden in the hills and hollers of Appalachia, and you can find them if you do your homework. Sharyn McCrumb is just the author to unearth the facts, sprinkle them with a little mountain magic and bring them to life in her fiction. McCrumb's latest book, Ghost Riders, continues the immensely popular ballad novel series for which she is best known. Set in the Appalachian Mountain region of North Carolina and Tennessee, the books are inspired, or perhaps more accurately fortified, by musical soundtracks she compiles herself before beginning the writing process.
"When I'm developing a character," she explains in a telephone interview, "one of the things I ask myself is what music does this person listen to? I have a theory that people who listen to Eminem, for example, and people who listen to Bach probably don't have the same speech patterns, or even the same cadences. So while I'm working on a particular scene, I listen to music that the character would listen to. I use a lot of Irish music: harp, hammered dulcimer, fiddle tunes. I try to get into their heads via the music."
During her tours and readings for the previous ballad books (which include The Songcatcher, The Rosewood Casket, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, and If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O) McCrumb noticed that people outside the Appalachian region, even great fans of her novels, were not familiar with the music that was tied to them. "I realized that some people didn't even recognize the song reference in some of the titles, so I devised a program with a folk singer, Jack Hinshelwood. He's an award-winning bluegrass musician, and he often tours with me now. I do readings from a novel and he does the songs and music related to it."
Aside from collecting the "character music" and completing the actual writing, McCrumb also does an abundance of historical and geological research for her books, particularly with a novel like Ghost Riders that takes place largely during the Civil War. "I spent four years doing research for this book," McCrumb points out, "because even though it's fiction I had to understand politically what was happening."
Since Ghost Riders uses present-day Civil War re-enactment as a vehicle for the historical part of the story, McCrumb had to make the re-enactment scenes authentic, as well. There are many Civil War buffs, historians and re-enactors who would be unforgiving about a slip-up. "You see," she says, "they take it very seriously why, the color of the horse could be a three-day debate so you really have to do your homework." (The mother of teenagers, McCrumb probably gets a lot of mileage out of that advice.)
The two characters who really come alive in the novel are Zebulon Vance, North Carolina's Civil War governor, and Malinda "Sam" Blaylock, historical figures McCrumb says she chose because she not only "really wanted to tell both sides," but because she wanted to show the difficulties in choosing any side. "Prior to the firing on Fort Sumter, Governor Vance had been going all over the mountains begging people not to leave the Union, but when his state pulled out, he felt he had no choice but to go with her, so he was kind of forced into it. I thought he was perfect to tell the Confederate side."
Malinda is the wife of Keith Blaylock. She cuts her hair, straps down her bosom and takes off to join the Union army after her husband enlists (despite his own misgivings about the side he chooses) to "look after him." With characters as colorful as this, a story as potent as the Civil War and a writer as competent as McCrumb, who would argue with the odd inaccuracy? But as she writes in her Author's Note at the end of Ghost Riders, the nitpickers are out there. "My personal favorite so far was the Texas gentleman who tried to tell me how they pronounce Arrowood in east Tennessee, unaware that Arrowood was the name of my east Tennessee grandparents." Oops. He should have done his homework.
"I grew up with this whole idea of narrative connected to song," McCrumb says, describing her childhood in the Appalachian region. "We would be making the several hours' journey to see one set of grandparents or the other and my father would tell me stories. But he would also sing, and the songs that he liked tended to be short stories set to music, like the ballads."
McCrumb now lives on 80 acres in the Virginia Blue Ridge, less than 100 miles from where her great-grandparents settled in 1790. "We have a pen full of ducklings and geese we've raised for the last eight weeks that are due to go out on the pond soon," she says enthusiastically. "We get them from a nearby hatchery when they are just three days old. They arrive looking like dandelions. [She pronounces it "dandy-lions."] But I love to sit on the bank and watch them gliding along; it's my tranquilizer." Of course, McCrumb does a lot more than watch the ducks swim and daydream. "I try to write between 500 and 1,000 words a day," she says of her writing schedule, "depending on how hard it is, and where I am in the book."
As the mother of teenagers, she chooses to work late at night, starting around 11 p.m. "because then it's dark and quiet, and I can focus more. Then the next night I spend the first half hour reading over the work from the day before and revising. That gets me back in the mood I remember the tone and direction of the narrative and I move on from there."