Stashed Away–The Secret Letters

This is part three of a series on letter-writing in fiction.

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Secret letters can create many routes in a novel, and they offer the ultimate versatility to your story. These secret letters that suddenly appear in a book, they allow some of the deepest twists possible in storytelling. The story becomes the owl with its head turned all the way around, and you might even be able to stand the plot on its head at the same time.

I’ve noticed that the novels with secret letters don’t set out to be epistolary. Those secret letters are not referenced in the beginning of the book. The narrator never alludes to letters or secrets in that way. Then, the secret letters surprise everyone by showing up like a poof of dusty magic.

You can make it subtle, while retaining the lucidity of the scene and the significance of that moment in the storyline. In Multiple Exposure, Ellen Masters is legally adopted by her grandmother and grows up with a distant relationship to her mother. When her mother comes for a rare visit to see Ellen graduate from high school, Ellen’s mother finds all of the letters with money still stuffed inside that she and Ellen’s stepfather mailed to Ellen over the years. Prior to this scene, the narrator, Ellen, has never let the reader know that her mother and stepfather mailed letters and money to her. It should come as a bit of a shocking revelation on the part of the narrator to the reader for many reasons. The scene shifts again quickly, and this serves as a striking memory flash. Those letters are never mentioned again in the book, and there’s no reason to do so, as they served their purpose in the story.

You can make secret letters have a generational impact by revealing an even bigger secret decades later. In my second novel, Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel, I used the idea of secret letters again, and they lead to the revelation of a secret that changes the family structure (for this blog, I won’t spoil the story and reveal that here). These letters are about the history of the Ballard family and are never seen by the narrator, Robin Ballard. She hears the story of the secret love letters from her Great Aunt Cora, whose heart is broken as a young woman by not receiving anymore letters from her secret lover. She tells her great niece about it decades later: “I don’t think my heart stopped hoping I’d open the mailbox and find my name written by his hand until I finally married someone else and moved away from there. It was like the mailbox could never be the same again.” For Cora, the letters are painful, but for her great niece, Robin, they are a revelation.

To read more about Multiple Exposure, my
first novel about narrator Ellen Masters who is trying to raise her daughter, hold down a career and home, all while facing the fears that surface due to her husband’s deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and a shocking murder that takes place close to her home, visit thorncraftpublishing.com

You’ll also find more information about my second novel, Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel, which follows the generational stories of a middle Tennessee family and the various talents of the Ballard family, from shaman, to moonshiner, to singer, and more.

Parts One and two in this series are about the confessional letter and passing notes in high school, respectively.

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When Daydreams Build Foundations

Amazon Cover-01 Most of my ideas don’t materialize. Probably 85-95% of them are only daydreams and nothing more. I daydream constantly. This can be overwhelming for people who don’t know me well…I’ll start building immediately. That’s the way it goes with my writing, too. So, many stories never make it far until they are deleted or made into paper balls for the wastebasket.

My latest novel, just released, Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel, began as a short story in Barry Kitterman’s graduate fiction writing course. I was writing from my daydreaming head all of this surrealist drivel, trying to emulate writers I thought were considered cool by people who knew these things. Barry invited a guest author, and she asked, “How many of you are from Tennessee?” A few of us raised our hands. For the next assignment, she asked us to write about our place in the world–to consider what we have experienced, and then to write the fiction story for the next class session. I started “Family Medicine Wheel” with the main character, the country midwife Zona Ballard, who was mysterious, witchy, and creative. That was in 2003. Barry encouraged me to revise the story and put it through the workshop with the class. Instead of listening, as a student will who thinks they have a better plan, I chose a different story to put through the workshop, and experienced something like a battle with my peers over this new story. Later, my wounds healed. An experienced professor who works from awareness and kindness won’t let you down. Barry breathed life back into that story and submitted it to the Languages and Literature Department for consideration in the Dogwood Award. The story won Best Graduate Fiction in 2004.

I graduated, started a family, taught college classes in English, and then a friend recommended that I submit the story to a journal, The Round Table, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. To my complete surprise, not only did they publish it, but they also chose it as the winner of the Robert Penn Warren Award in Fiction. That was 2009.

In the meantime, I had other daydreams, and they were becoming another book. A book that I considered my first, as pieces of it were written in another creative writing course taught by Barry Kitterman. So, the book, Multiple Exposure, became Thorncraft’s publishing debut in 2012. I forgot about “Family Medicine Wheel.”

My daydreams for Thorncraft began to grow, and I wanted to help other women authors get their work out to the world. I learned about publishing from my experience as an Editor for Her Circle Ezine, an online magazine that focused on women’s arts and activism around the world with a heavy emphasis on literature and visual arts.

Thorncraft grew with Beverly Fisher’s novella Grace Among the Leavings (2013) and Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo’s novel, The Mosquito Hours (2014). A good daydream doesn’t remain in that realm–it leaves a paper trail.

My friends and family who read “Family Medicine Wheel” long ago, or knew about it, continued to ask if I would ever build anything substantial out of that daydream. Last year, I returned to that world and made a novel out of it by merging it with Poke Sallet Queen, a NaNoWriMo novel draft I wrote in 2011. From its beginnings on paper, that dream has taken 10 years to materialize. Finally, we are here, and I invite you all to celebrate with us at the book launch.

BOOK LAUNCH: FREE & open the public. PARNASSUS BOOKS, Nashville. May 9th, 2 p.m. Click here for Parnassus website: http://www.parnassusbooks.net/event/author-event-shana-thornton-author-poke-sallet-queen-family-medicine-wheel

Book will be available for purchase from Parnassus Books at the book launch. The author will read and sign copies. The author will also donate a minimum of 10% of her royalties from the book launch to Clarksville-based food bank and shelter, Manna Cafe Ministries. Also based in Clarksville, Thorncraft Publishing strives to consider our impact on the world and make it a better place.

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Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel advanced praise:

“Reading Shana Thornton’s highly original novel will make you want to get your own family stories to the page. You’ll meet larger-than-life characters like Hoot and Zona, Aunt Cora and Jane, Miss Emy, and Nenny, the matriarch, who rolls her own cigarettes and knows all the secrets of the family medicine wheel. You may even find yourself signing up for a writing class like the one that sets the narrator, young Robin Ballard, to interviewing her aunts and grandmother, tracking down her homeless father, and digging out the family secrets, lost journals, and recipes that make Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel a most surprising and satisfying fictional family history. (At least, I think it’s fiction!)” –Mary Helen Stefaniak, author of The Turk and My Mother, and The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia

When Robin Ballard takes a writing course in college, she goes searching for answers about her homeless father and wanders into the secret lives of her relatives as they gradually reveal their personal histories. Set in Nashville and the surrounding rural towns, Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel offers a look into the superstitions and changes of a middle Tennessee family from the 1920s to the 21st century. Based on novel events, homework assignments, old magic recipes, drunken revelries, senile remembrances, midnight songs, some tall tales, some folk tales, and the lost journals, Robin Ballard tells a “true” Tennessee family history.

“When I’m given a book to review, I like to open it up at random and see if what’s on the happenstance page resonates at all. This time I found the heroine Robin Ballard singing Mother Maybelle Carter’s ‘Wildwood Flower’ at a beauty contest she does not expect to win. She is someone I recognize, who trips over a cord as she’s leaving the stage, whose family’s knowledge ‘comes from the dirt’ not from ‘parchment scrolls and crests that open doors.’ This character is humble and honest, and the book refreshingly natural and just different enough. I like it….” -Rheta Grimsley Johnson, author of Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming

“Vibrant in detail! Meet and fall in love with the characters of Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel and along the way, learn the secrets of great story-telling.” — Bud Willis, author of Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir

“Shana Thornton has a fresh, unique voice and talent. Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel is a lyrical tale of love in the lush Tennessee hills, of generations gone by, of people appreciated for simple things as much as the passing on of their history. There is mystery, sorrow, laughter and knowledge in these unforgettable characters. Shana writes a magical story that stays with you long after the final page. As with one of the characters, ‘She knows real magic.'” -Virginia Brown, author of Dark River Road and the Dixie Diva mystery series

Visit Thorncraft Publishing to read more advanced praise and to browse all of our titles and events.