Monday, May 21, 2012

Author of a Red, Red Rose, Susan Coryell, Talks About Her Inspiration, Research and the Paranormal

A RED, RED ROSE by Susan Coryell (L&L Dreamspell, March, 2012)

What inspires you to write?  A frequently-asked question. My first book, EAGLEBAIT, a young adult novel about school bullies, spun off my experiences as a middle school teacher observing bullying every day. My just-published cozy mystery/Southern Gothic, A RED, RED ROSE, began with a Revolutionary War estate in Northern Virginia where I lived.  I visited the house—no sign of a ghost. However, I learned that every time a child went inside an interesting observation came up: “Did someone die in here?” or “I’m afraid of that fireplace.” My writer’s antennae went up and I began plotting the story: A 20 year-old from New Jersey is invited to a historic Southern estate for the summer. Adopted by an aunt and uncle when her parents were killed in a car crash, she hopes to discover the cause of a mysterious family rift which seems to surround the horseback riding death of her grandmother. The estate harbors a ghost. When I retired to Smith Mountain Lake, I decided to move the setting south.

 I began my research. Smith Mountain Lake was formed in SW Virginia some 50 years ago by damming up several rivers and flooding a huge area of farmland and homes.  Only those structures at high elevation escaped the flood. Several days of intense research at a local museum resulted in a treasure trove of story possibilities. “Big House,” also known as “Five Oaks” was one of the few remaining homes with a historic background. It became the prototype for Overhome, the family estate Ashby, the protagonist, visits. I discovered a wonderful vignette about Yankee invaders who made the owners serve their slaves dinner. A plat showing the family cemetery separated from the slave graves inspired part of the plot.

Scouring newspaper stories for historical background, I found one article chronicling four Christmas celebrations—one for each year of the Civil War in Southwestern Virginia. I asked permission to use the info in my book and the author graciously agreed. This served as the basis for the diaries Ashby finds in the attic of Overhome. Another article about a doctor who lived in Roanoke gave me the inspiration for Rosabelle, the Scottish nanny, kidnapped and enslaved in Africa for five years before coming to Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War.

Articles that chronicled moving of graves for building the Lake and the construction of the dam were helpful. A UVA professor provided info on African American graves, cemeteries and burial rites.
The research enlivened my fictional characters and events, though I did not necessarily set out to write historical fiction. One male reviewer on Amazon wrote that while he did not especially care for ghost stories, he loved the history on which the story was based.

Which brings me to the paranormal. On her first night at Overhome, Ashby encounters a strange presence in her room in the oldest wing of the house. I am not one to believe in ghosts. I have had no experience with them whatsoever. Fortunately, I have colleague writers who do and have and they were my resource and inspiration. I mistakenly went to my writers’ group one Friday when we were not meeting. Lo and behold, two other writers made the same mistake. Serendipity! They were both ghost-busters. We spent two hours on my manuscript—I was actually in a sweat trying to keep up my notes as they threw out ideas. Near the end of our session one of them looked at me seriously and said, “I KNEW there was a reason I came here today.” Goose bumps! But what it did for my story! Rosabelle, the ghost, is quite a character. I’d like to meet her. Let me clarify: I’d like to meet Rosabelle on a good day.

What propels my writing—characters, plot, love of words? All of the above, but I always begin with a theme. For A RED, RED ROSE, I relied on my interest in the culture and society of the South where hard‑felt, long-held feelings battle with modern ideas. A RED, RED ROSE reveals clashes between Northern and Southern values, city and country living, wealth and attitudes about the Civil War, family ties and bloodlines.

What inspired A RED, RED ROSE was mystery, history, culture and ghosts. And one more thing: I am a native of Fairfax County, Northern Virginia, which some folks here in Southern Virginia consider a different state—sure inspiration for my “outsiders” theme.
About Susan: A career educator, I have a BA in English and an MAIS in writing, English, and education. I’ve taught English, speech, drama, reading, and English as a Second Language to students from 7th grade through college. I once taught a course to teachers. I married my high school sweetheart and we have 3 children and 6 grand children. I live at Smith Mountain Lake in my home state of Virginia.

A Red, Red Rose by Susan Coryell Reviewed

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