The best writing advice I ever received. For ACFW folks and friends.

The best writing advice I ever received. For ACFW folks and friends.

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From the cutting room floor: Ernestine’s Story. A free bonus chapter from How Sweet the Sound.

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Just like movie outtakes, many paragraphs, chapters, and entire story lines are cut when a novel manuscript goes through multiple rounds of rewrites and edits in order to make the final story as strong and compelling as possible. I thought it’d be fun to share one chapter with you. I’ve edited it some to help it read more like a short story, but most of it is intact as it first appeared in early drafts of How Sweet the Sound. If you read the book and are a fan of the character Ernestine, I hope you’ll like it and perhaps even share it with a friend.

If you have not yet read How Sweet the Sound, maybe this little teaser will inspire you to pick up a copy from your favorite bookstore soon.

Enjoy!

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Ernestine’s Story

(as told by Anni)

“Ou konnen ki sa ou genyen, men ou pa konnen ki sa ki ap vini an.”

(You know what you’ve got, but you don’t know what’s coming.)

 

One of the few people who lived through Hurricaine Frederic to tell about it was a man named Homer Chastang. According to news channels, Mr. Chastang drove his convertible MG to his house on the far edge of Fort Morgan just hours before Hurricane Frederic hit. He thought he’d have enough time to board up and batten down and gather a few more things to save from the storm. But by the time he finished putzing around, the first storm surge swallowed up his little MG, trapping him in his stilted cottage, stranding him with no choice but to ride out the storm and pray. Evidently God heard him through the wind, because when the sun finally broke through the last of the whipped up clouds, Chastang’s home stood unmoved and pretty much intact except for a few shutters hanging crooked from their hinges, some missing shingles and a section of siding which had disappeared.

Good thing, because his house was the one Mama chose to rent for us the week we headed to the coast for our annual vacation before the start of school. We weren’t sure what to expect, and Mama and Ernestine grew quieter the closer we got to the beach. I didn’t care if there was a house or not when we got there I just wanted to see the ocean and show Jed a fun time, since he’d never had a vacation once in his life. I couldn’t believe it when he told me that and neither could Mama, so she agreed—however improper it looked—to take him along with us. There were strict conditions, of course: Jed would room with Solly. Lights out by 10 pm. And neither of us were to emerge from our bedrooms in the morning until we were fully dressed—unless of course we were wearing out swimsuits and a cover-up.

Jed had no trouble getting permission from John and Hettie Devine.

“She said they’d be glad to be rid of him for a week, that they needed a break,” Mama had frowned after she hung up the phone from talking to Hettie about the trip.

We hoped this week would be spared from the mess Alabama’s weather had been since Frederic. Seven tornadoes touched down within five days of each other as recent as May, nearly wrecking the towns of Southside, Lineville, Louisville, Clayton, Theodore, Gulf Shores and Hubbard’s Landing. Folks said Mississipi and Arkansas had tornadoes, too, but nothing like the killer ones that were hitting Alabama. Made me wonder what kind of a fall we were in for, the worst time of the year for hurricanes. People say the connection between weather and people is just a myth, that the aching they feel in their bones hours before a storm comes–even when the sky is bright and clear—is coincidence. But I wasn’t so sure.

Took an hour for us to drive from Bay Spring to Gulf Shores, and it took the whole of that hour before I felt the weight of all the pain of losing Daddy and that spring and summer to blow off my shoulders as we barreled down Highway 59 towards the beach. As we got closer to town, we saw some of our favorite spots to eat and visit had been rebuilt. Others were in the process of rebuilding. Still others sat in sad, abandoned piles. Construction equipment surrounded what was left of the Pink Pony restaurant. The hippie and tattoo stores were all open for business, wind chimes clanging, incense burning and tie dye sheets waving as we passed. The Original Oyster House and Mikee’s restaurant were open, too, and my mouth watered at the smell of greasy onions and crawdaddys, fish and meat cooking.When Highway 59 ended at the ocean, we turned right down Highway 182. Sand dunes higher than I’d ever seen were pushed aside by plows to open up the streets and I wondered if states up north looked like that in the wintertime. Remnants of stilt homes lined the beach like the bent up legs of sandpipers running from the incoming tide. Before Frederic, the rental homes lined up along the highway like rainbow rows of stick candy at a dime store counter.

The phrase “Beachy Keen” was painted in purple letters on a sign above Homer Chastang’s front door. Shaped like a flip-flop and painted bright orange, the sign welcomed us to the home, painted mint green and surrounded by a wrap-around, white railed porch. We climbed the stairs to the double doors which were locked up behind hurricane shutters. Inside, the dank smell of uncirculated air greeted us, along with a guest book placed by the owners on the front table. A note in a picture frame instructed us to “Please sign in and tell us something about your vacation! We love to hear from our guests!” On the wall hung a collection of framed photos of Mr. Chastang with different folks on fishing boats holding up strings of red snapper, and one in particular of him and an enormous blue marlin. I figured it was the same blue marlin stuffed and hanging above the fireplace.

Comfort and Mama shared a room, as did Solly and Jed, and me and Ernestine. I threw my duffel bag on one of the twin beds and ran out to the back deck, kicked off my flip-flops and ran out the back doors, down the steps toward the ocean. Not yet noon, the sand was cool and soft as powdered sugar. The beach sat empty and quiet, almost eerie—nothing like previous years when families, beach towels and umbrellas peppered the sand from horizon to horizon, diaper-clad toddlers with wide-brimmed hats chased seagulls and hunched down on chubby haunches to pick up shells.

Jed met me half-way, and the two of us barreled into the surf. The pulsing water pushed against us and threatened to knock us over.

“This is awesome!” Jed threw his shirt way up onto the beach, then turned and dove into an oncoming wave. He shook the hair off his face when he surfaced.

“Lucky you’re a guy—I gotta get my swimsuit on. Let’s go back for a minute. We can come right back down.”

“I’ll be fine. You go on and I’ll wait out here.”

“Our rules are nobody swims alone in the ocean. Come back with me. It’ll only take a minute.”

“You and your rules,” Jed winked at me as he trudged out of the ocean and we walked back to the house.

“Rules are the reason you got to come, you know.”

“Yeah, and I know it does some folks good to break the rules now and then.”

I felt my face grow hot as I remembered dancing close to him before all hell broke loose at the cotillion.

“You two didn’t waste any time.” Ernestine greeted us from her claimed spot on the big wood rocking chair on the deck.

“No ma’am. The water’s great.” Jed stretched out on a lounge chair next to her while I ran in to pull on my suit.

Not a handful of minutes later I flew off the deck leaving Jed in my wake. “Last one in’s a rotten egg!”

He followed me in the water and tossed one of two inner tubes at me and settled his rump into the other one. We floated and talked and floated some more as the current carried us pretty far down the beach. Before we realized it, the Beachy Keen was a speck in the distance. Too small, I knew, for Mama’s comfort.

“We better paddle back a bit.” Hands over their eyebrows to shield the glare of the sun, Mama and Ernestine peered out at us from the deck way down the beach. After paddling back to the front of the rentals we hopped off our tubes. “Let’s ride the waves so we can make sure we stay closer.”

We jumped and gamboled over the waves, letting the foam-edged swells lift us off the scratchy ocean floor and gently deposit us again. I missed one, and the wave right after it came at me too quick, dunking and disorienting and rolling me onto the shore. I wiped the hair off my face and shuffled back out toward Jed until I was startled by a sharp jab on the side of my foot. “Dumb glass. I wish people’d quit bringing bottles to the beach.”

“What happened?” Jed followed as I hobbled back to the shore.

I lifted my foot up to show him, a trickle of blood running down the side. “Stepped on a piece of glass is all. Better clean it out.” The pain worsened and began to throb by the time we reached the house.

Sa ki rive ou—what happened to you, child?” Ernestine got up and helped me inside where Mama helped Comfort and Solly, back from the Piggly Wiggly, unpack groceries and bags.

I sat on a high stool and pulled my hurt foot up on my other leg. The pain grew worse by the second and my foot turned marbled shades of red and purple. “I stepped on glass. Hurts pretty bad.”

Ernestine rested her glasses on her head and leaned in to examine my foot real close. “That’s not from glass, child. That’s from a sting ray.”

“Sting ray?”

“Oh no!” Mama turned on the hot water and searched the unfamiliar cabinets for a bucket. “C’mon, let’s get you to the clinic. You’ll need a tetanus shot, ‘cause you’re out of date. You can keep your foot in the bucket of hot water on the way to pull out some of that venom.”

I don’t know which hurt worse, the poison or that darn hot water. It took almost 45 minutes to get to the Baldwin County hospital back up Highway 59, and by the time we got there, I nearly passed out from the pain when I tried to stand up. The nurse helped me onto a skinny stretcher in a room where a medic stuck a tube in my arm. They gave me some morphine and a shot, which was nothing compared to the pain in my foot and leg.

“Lucky for you, he didn’t leave a barb in there. Still, no playing on the beach for a day or two until the swelling goes down. Don’t want it getting infected.” A doctor with a salt and pepper colored beard patted my arm and gave a couple prescriptions to Mama.

“You look like Trapper John.” I embarrassed myself as soon as I said it. The morphine buzzed in my head, making me loopy.

“I get that all the time,” he laughed and patted me on the head. “Y’all take care now.”

###

“To the couch, young lady.” Mama nudged me toward it when we returned to the Beachy Keen. The windows were wide open and the sun, casting a pink and orange glow on the walls, sank into the ocean.

“I’m fixing something good tonight.” Ernestine clanged pots and chopped vegetables from the kitchen.

“Does it involve the Holy Trinity?” I asked.

Wi, apa pou Bondye Trinité. So you can smell it already, eh?”

“Holy Trinity?” Jed heard me reference that as he came up the deck steps with Solly.

Di ti gason an. Tell him, child.”

“Bell peppers, onion and chopped celery. So since there’s three of ‘em and they’re inseparable in real Creole cooking, they call ‘em the Holy Trinity.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of hot, tired and hungry.”

Ernestine whooped and cackled from the kitchen. She chopped some more, and the garlic, veggies, and grease made my mouth water.

“C’mon, let’s go watch.”

Jed helped me rest my foot up on a stool as we sat in the kitchen watching Ernestine pull the heads and tails off crawdaddies, boil rice, and stir veggies in bubbling butter until they turned tender and brown on the edges. She scraped it into a giant pot, set the stove on low, and wiped her hands on a dishcloth before turning toward us.

“Jambalaya se yon tradisyon,” Ernestine explained. “My mother taught me, her mama taught her, and her mama taught her.”

“You from Louisiana?” Jed asked.

Non, I grew up in Natchez, Mississippi. But I’m from Port-au-Prince.”

“Haiti?”

“Wi, Haiti. That’s where most of my traditions are from.”

“I didn’t know Creole folk are from Haiti.”

“They’re not, necessarily. Some of the cultures are similar. Especially since I came here as a tiny baby, I seem more Creole than Haitian. Every place I lived mixes together. Like this sassafras.” She threw a pinch of it in the pot. “Mama learned to put sassafras in our jambalaya from the folks in Natchez. But my family—we came from Haiti.”

“You gonna tell him the whole story, Ernestine?”

“If he wants to hear it, I will.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’d love to.”

“Okay. You two go on out to the deck. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Comfort, Solly and Mama were already out there lounging, so we joined them. And while the jambalaya slow cooked and the first stars began to glimmer in the sky, Ernestine told her story.

“Many things good and bad played in to the way my life turned out,” she began. “Many things happened before or right after I was born, and my mama and my brothers told me those things.” Ernestine passed Jed a yellowing photo, edges torn and rumpled, of a handsome black man with dark, intense eyes. He  held his chin high and wore a military uniform with many ribbons and pins gathered on his jacket.

“This is my Papa. Jean Manuel Veilleux. One of the few things I keep with me all the time. He was an ofisye, an officer for President Leconte at the time of the Haitian Revolution. Things were such a mess. Cacos—peasants, revolutionaries and others—were wild from hurting and hunger. Leconte had bon lide—good ideas. He had been exiled, but when he returned to Haiti he appointed my father and others to make the country better by building bridges, paving roads, helping teachers and bringing phone lines to people who never had them before.

“Still, many opposed him, and one day, in August, 1912, an explosion occurred at the National Palace. Leconte and hundreds of soldiers were killed. My father, he was lucky. He was visiting a village in the mountains about putting in more phone lines, so he was not killed then. My father, he already had six mouths to feed—my mother and five brothers. He tried to stay low and do his job. But when Mama found out she was pregnant with me, Sam came into power and things got worse.”

“Sam?” Jed asked.

“Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. He was what you call a dictator. Came into power in 1915, three months before I was born. He didn’t want old regime, so he put my father and 166 other soldiers and heads of families in prison. When the cacos and others tried to fight back, he killed them.”

“He killed your father?” Jed asked.

“Yes, child. And 166 others.” Ernestine sighed. “My mother, then, she had the six of us and no where safe to go in Haiti. Father had friends at the Haitian Consulate in New Orleans, and those friends had friends in Natchez. The Toutant family. They were kind enough to take us all in. We lived with them and they gave us room and board while Mama cared for their children and did the housework. It was good, fair work. Yon fanmi bèl bagay. A wonderful family.”

“Then how’d you come to live in Bay Spring?”

“The good Lord, He brought me here. And the way Mama and the folks in Natchez helped raise us, God’s hand was in that, too. As each of us turned 18, Mama made it clear we were to go out on our own and make lives for ourselves. My brothers had no trouble finding work. Two of them found work on a ranch in Texas. Another worked his way through college and now he’s a doctor. Another runs a Creole restaurant in Natchez. My other brother—the one closest to my age—he married Parrine Toutant, the youngest daughter of the family.” She stopped and smiled as she thought about them. “They have nine children and still live in Natchez.”

“You ever see them?”

“Sometimes I go back if I have the chance. But they’re busy with their own lives. It’s good, though. My place is here with you.” She locked eyes with Comfort.

“Wait, so how’d you get to Bay Spring?” Jed asked again.

Ernestine thought for a moment. “Renmen. Love. I fell in love with a sailor. Jobs weren’t so easy to find for an 18-year-old black girl, so I stayed on with the Toutants and helped Mama. I was 23 when I met Martin Aleman. He was from Natchez, too, and when the war broke out, he sign up for the Navy. Asked me to come to Pensacola with him. I said no, unless he marry me, so we married and left for the base on the same day. Made a real nice home for ourselves there. And Martin learned to fly, which was his dream.”

“He was a fighter pilot?”

“He was.” She handed Jed a second yellowed photo of a handsome man in a WWII Navy uniform. She gazed out over the ocean as tears filled her eyes. “Which is how I lost him. His plane was shot down over the Pacific.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jed, who appeared to regret that he’d asked.

“I was sorry to lose him, too. But now I see God’s hand in it. First it was very hard. The Navy had no use for a young, black woman just widowed. So eventually, I packed up the few things we had and got on the train to go back home. When the train stopped in Whistler, Alabama, I got off to stretch my legs and picked up a newspaper. That’s when I found this classified.” She passed Jed a section of newspaper, almost as yellowed as the photographs. The ad was circled in pencil:

HARLAN PECAN COMPANY
Seeking house help, child care, cooking, cleaning
PAY FAIR WAGES
Ask operator to ring 513 Bay Spring Highway

“Well, I knew I could do that kind of work. So the operator connected me, and Mister Harlan—“

“Daddy,” said Comfort.

Ernestine nodded. “He came and picked me up. Hired me on the spot.”

“You sure have been through a lot,” said Jed.

“Yes, child. I have. But like Anniston and that sting ray, I tried to deal with the pain before the poison of it got to my heart. Nan tout bagay, Bondye ap travay pou byen tout moun ki renmen l’. God works for good. Romans 8:28.”

“That’s how come you’re so grateful all the time,” I said.

“Mostly, yes. Oh I have my times when wonder about God and His ways. I wonder why I lost my father before I knew him. I wonder why I lost my husband before we had a chance to have children.” She looked at me and Comfort. “But now I know. Bondye tande doulè mwen.”

“What’s that mean?” asked Jed.

“God heard my pain and gave me you.”

Strips of bell pepper, onion and chunks of celery fell over the mounds of white rice, along with crawdaddy meat and shrimp tumbling out after it. We sopped up the roux with Comfort’s homemade sourdough bread slathered in butter. The day was a holy trinity of joy, pain and resting in the goodness of God’s strange and wonderful plans.

*****

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Be sure to leave them in the comments, below.

Also, this painting is one I found and which captured my heart by the amazing artist, Sally Binard. I feel like the woman here really captures Ernestine. Be sure to visit Sally’s online portfolio for more incredible paintings of the people and culture of Haiti.

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What’s a cat food factory got to do with it? On research and novel writing and a sample of How Sweet the Sound

I must’ve switched majors at least twenty times when I was in college.

I wish I was exaggerating for my poor parents’ sake, but I just couldn’t settle on one subject.

I liked them all.

Politics and history, literature and poetry, pre-med and genetics and microbiology and plant biology and even organic chemistry. (Except math. I hated math.)

Eventually, I finished (!) with a bachelors in nursing (which I also love to this day). And while at the time all that major switching felt confusing and uncertain and even dizzying to my roommates and family (for the love, Amy, just PICK something!!!), now that I’m a novelist, I know why I had such a hard time settling in to one subject of study.

For every page of a book of mine you read, you can be sure there are at least ten pages of research behind it.

And I love every second of the research I do for my novels.

In fact, research might be my favorite part of novel writing. Take How Sweet the Sound. It’s set in 1979 and 1980. In one scene, the protagonist, Anni, is at the beauty parlor flipping through a Seventeen magazine. I had to research who was on the cover of Seventeen that month. That led me to eBay and vintage magazine web sites.

Moreover, the entire book is set on a pecan orchard, which I had no clue about except for driving past them on the highway on the way to the Alabama gulf coast. I bought books on pecan cultivation, watched YouTube videos on pecan harvesting, scoured agricultural websites and read tens of copies of newsletters published online by pecan growers all across the South.

I researched cars of that era, top ten song lists, foods, clothing, hair styles, cotillion rules, square dancing, the biology and weather patterns of Mobile Bay, plants of the region, birds, dialect, the history of the Freedom Riders, and so much more.

My second novel, Then Sings My Soul coming March 1, 2015, takes place partially in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution, and partially in 1990’s South Haven, Michigan. I won’t even begin to tell you how much research that one took!

As another example of novel research and a special treat, I thought I’d share the first few paragraphs of How Sweet the Sound with you, and in particular, I want you to notice the mention of the cat food factory. It was a real place, and it really did provide ice to folks back when Hurricane Frederic hit the area. You can click here to read the website from which I gleaned this information: Remembering Hurricane Frederic : The Alabama Weather Blog. (Make sure you read Tom’s comments on that page.)

So see, for those of you who suspected I was a great big nerd, now you know for sure!

*****

How Sweet the Sound

CHAPTER 1

I thought I’d lived through everything by the time I was thirteen. Hurricane Frederic nearly wiped the southern part of Alabama off the map that fall, and half of our family’s pecan orchards along with it. Daddy said we were lucky—that the Miller pecan farm down the road lost everything. The Puss ’n Boots Cat Food factory supplied our whole town of Bay Spring with ice and water for nearly a week until the power and phones came back on along the coast of Mobile Bay. Anyone who could hold a hammer or start up a chain saw spent weeks cutting up all the uprooted trees and azaleas, pounding down new shingles, and cleaning up all that God, in His infinite fury, blew through our land. Like most folks who lived along the coast, we’d find a way to build back up—if we weren’t fooled into thinking the passing calm of the eye meant the storm was over.

If I’d only known this about Hurricane Frederic—that the drudging months leading up to Thanksgiving would be the only peace we’d see for some time. Weren’t no weathermen or prophets with megaphones standing on top of the Piggly Wiggly Saturday mornings to shout warnings of storms and second comings to us.

The only warning was the twitch of my grandmother’s eye…

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Want to read more of How Sweet the Sound? Visit your local, independent book seller, or click one of the retailers on the sidebar here to get yourself a copy. I’d be much obliged. And besides that, you never know what else you might learn from all the research embedded in this little tale!

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P.S. Here’s a really old Puss ‘n Boots cat food commercial: