When Dock Street Press in Seattle sadly said it could no longer continue, my wife, Tammy, and I decided we would dare something new. Our anniversary, November 16, 2020, will be the new publication date for Sandy and Wayne: A Novella from Southern Hollow Press.

This is the novella’s third time in print. New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Groff named Sandy and Wayne the winner of the inaugural Knickerbocker Prize, and it was edited by Heather Jacobs and published in a letter-press edition by Big Fiction. In 2016, Dock Street Press in Seattle published Sandy and Wayne: A Novella as a stand-alone book.

It was Tammy’s favorite book of all that I had been lucky enough to publish. So we were heartsick when Dock Street Press declared it couldn’t go on. Dock Street did help us get the InDesign files. We sought out and won Dean Curtis’s favor for a detail of his beautiful work on The Wild Horses of Shannon County for the cover. See his photographs at https://www.curtisphotographyllc.com/portfolio/C0000HqiN2SM6fgg/G0000z1nxeJV0Ptk

And we hired Todd Lape of Lape Designs to re-envision the whole package.

We (Southern Hollow Press) couldn’t be happier. The book will soon also be an ebook for the first time. On our anniversary, November 16, 2020, it will be available again in paperback from independent stores wherever you shop, though you’ll have to ask for it.

See https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781087918624 and support those indy stores in these tough times.

Here’s some praise Sandy and Wayne: A Novella has garnered since its first publication.

Sandy and Wayne is tremendous, a taut, tense, magisterial work that has all the concision and sharpness of a great short story, all of the texture and detail of an engrossing novel. The novella is, in my opinion, the hardest fictional form to get right; Steve Yates has proven his mastery of this most gorgeous form.”—Lauren Groff, New York Times-bestselling author of Florida and Fates and Furies

“It’s hard to imagine a less likely setting for a love story than on a dusty Arkansas road construction crew. But this author makes it work. Sandy and Wayne are as tough and hard-nosed as they come, so their romance is touching without ever being sentimental. Yates makes great use of his insider’s knowledge of this setting. In a way, the landscape itself is the star of this story—sometimes lush, sometimes severe and threatening.”—Lisa Zeidner, author of five novels, most recently Love Bomb

“A love story with soul, without sap, Sandy and Wayne is bursting with big-hearted wisdom and an admirable empathy for its characters and setting. Call it a novella; call it a short novel; call it a long short story—it doesn’t really matter. Just be sure to call it what it is: a stunning achievement by a writer at the peak of his powers.”—Andrew Roe, author of The Miracle Girl

“Having proven himself a master of the novel and the short story, Steve Yates has set his sights on the novella. And lucky for us, his readers, that he has. Sandy and Wayne is a burst of adrenaline. At one point, as Sandy and Wayne attempt to save a man’s life, Sandy finds herself gripping Wayne’s shoulder, waiting to see if the man will open his eyes. Sandy and Wayne will grip you just that way. And won’t let go. And your eyes will be opened.”—David James Poissant, author of Lake Life and The Heaven of Animals

“What a rare thing: a book that’s as compelling and complex a story about work as it is about love (and it’s a pretty great love story).”—Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days

Sandy and Wayne is a gripping, white-hot novella about unlikely heroes, marginal but crucial characters who build the roads to where we want to go. They are like ‘them people’ in the Bible who are never named, and these two just happen to fall in love despite themselves. Steve Yates takes on unusual, fresh material here—the rough lonely jobs of highway workers who gather in dark pool halls at the end of dusty days to drink and imagine a better life. There is the muscular language of hard highway work, the everyday violence of living in the Ozarks, and the landscape filled with cigarette smoke, Peterbilts, Caterpillar earthmovers, and decaying motor lodges.”—Margaret McMullan, Clarion Ledger / Hattiesburg American Mississippi Books Page

At the end of Sandy and Wayne, in the acknowledgments, I say “And unending, boundless thanks to my wife, Tammy Gebhart Yates, for believing always in me, even when I did not.” Her relentless love and pressure made this anniversary gift happen. Love you, Adventure Girl!

bert without crop

This is my Uncle Bert Yates next to his 1952 Hudson Wasp, a car he rebuilt and drove for years. Bertram worked for Beechcraft and then Boeing in Wichita, Kansas. He was the fascinating and mysterious uncle who could never tell us cousins a word about what his work entailed. It was classified, top secret. Long after retirement, at my grandmother Mary Yates’s funeral, he admitted his surprise that I felt so curious. He said, as if it were nothing special, that the last thing he worked on before turning in his keys and waving goodbye was an intricate camera for bombers, the first that could focus and see at night. He left it at that. When he asked me for a signed copy of “The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel,” I asked him to get this photograph made, one of him beside one of the many Hudsons he rebuilt. He had a business card he gave me once long ago that read: THE HUDSONITE FAMILY, as if restoring these lost automobiles solidified one into a sparkling, exotic mineral, Hudsonite. I love how the light in the photograph glows in his hair as if more and more lumens of inspiration and fire have suddenly alighted there.

Uncle James in The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel blends the love and company of all my uncles, I’m sure, maybe even some of the uncle I have been, or not been, to my nieces. The novel is dedicated to all my nieces. Here is one of Uncle James’s big scenes with his niece, Hettienne, from Chapter 5:

The coffee propelled James as did a worry like none he had ever experienced, an urgency beyond any foaling or calving. Half-an-hour after Charlotte checked on Hettienne and reported her asleep, the rest of the cranky clan returned home smelling of gunpowder, sweat, and hardwood smoke. They threw their fits and got in their last jibes. Finally all went to bed. But he sat up in the parlor with the kerosene lamp going and a good view of the stairs. To take his mind off Hettienne’s spells, he reread the stilted old novel about the shepherd of the hills and his daughter, a cozy comfort fiction filled with hillbilly characters unlike anyone he knew in the Ozarks. Just as he was coming to the big scene when the heroine fainted, James fell soundly asleep.

He jolted awake. All the comforting sounds of the house, the brassy clicking of the E. Ingraham wall clock in Simon’s southwest bedroom, the swish of curtains in the summer night’s breeze seemed a conspiracy to mask trouble. He crept up the stairs, peered through Hettienne’s open bedroom door. Her bed was empty, the sheets twisted in a wad.

Out the back window of the kitchen was a light up in the loft over the stables flickering where none belonged. James lifted as carefully as he could from the gun cabinet the .20-gauge Remington Model 11. He found a flashlight, bulky and heavy. Then he hustled to the back door. He never walked the grounds of Emerald Park at night in any season without the Remington, for vermin were ample in the dark, and the opossum could be vicious.

He eased down the back steps, the flashlight in his fist, the shotgun at his shoulder. At the stable doors he heard no crackle of flame, smelled no sharp smoke of hay alight. Up in the vast loft the horse-mad Headley’s had constructed above their stone stable to rest nights and keep watch on mares foaling, the orange light flickered. The horses were astir, snorting, bobbing their heads.

At the base of the loft stairs, he listened, and dimmed the flashlight by pressing its face against his thigh. He smelled an unmistakable blast of turpentine oil and camphor mixed with an aroma he could not place. A sound then, like a quilt snapped out twice on a porch. The whole air above him stirred. Horses started, circled in their stalls. One kicked out, the crack of its hoof against the wood like a tree limb popping in an ice storm. When he took the first stair, a grunt sounded from up there, then a bark like no animal he had ever heard.

Before his head topped the stairway, the medicinal smell diminished, while the other aroma redoubled, thick in the furnace of air above him, heavy like a fruit, melon sweet, then putrid, rotting. Something long dead. A sound like a broom scuttling across the timbers.

At the top of the stairs, he spied the source of the light, a crusty miner’s lamp, some relic of the Headleys and their cave ride. In the pool of this light, a white, gleaming young faerie girl, opaline-white smeared on her elbows, her upper arms, and down her long legs. It was Hettienne wearing a white, roomy weskit that belonged to Margaret. The camphor and turpentine smell came from her sparkling skin and the open crock beside her of Roy Boy’s White Horse Liniment. A steamer trunk blocked his view of half the loft. And back there in the darkness was where he imagined the animal had hidden itself.

Her eyes did not turn to him or his flashlight. Instead they swallowed the air whole with no life at all behind them.

“Hettienne,” he whispered.

She did not stir. There came a riffle behind the trunk and a smell like the metallic stink of feathers, and then the musk of urea and rotting flesh. The aroma clasped the whole loft. Behind the steamer trunk, the head of a buzzard jutted up. Gray, creased flesh, and no waddle, but one gray-rimmed, black eyeball cocked at him now. Its head was not like the red head and neck of local turkey vultures. Instead the gray head bore scales and a defined bib of gray, scaly armor on its neck. Dull gray scales stretched up to the crown of its head.

“Hettienne,” he called, louder this time.

The girl did not move. But the buzzard, in a ceremony of threat, raised the stiff arms of its wings, extending their tips like massive fingers. On their undersides, glaring feathers of pure white glowed at each wingtip. Its narrow legs, now exposed, were a shocking white. It bobbed its head, making a barking sound, High-unnh, High-unnh.

Setting the shotgun and flashlight down, James moved swiftly. With its wings unfurled, the vulture, just bigger than a tom turkey, could not navigate much. It tottered and hissed to fend off his approach. Then it arched its neck and vomited a splash of amber, half-digested matter at him.

He grabbed for its nape just at the bill, hooking his thumb behind its bare head, knotty, prickly, and hard as an oak gall. Wrapping his fingers under its beak and neck, he jerked the bird upward. Then, with all he could muster, with both hands clasped on the thing, he lifted it up off its feet and whirled it around his head until the neck popped.

Last year, September 2016, at the Ozarks Studies Symposium, this is what I said about “The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel.” We leave for West Plains Thursday, and Friday, September 22, 2017, at 1:30 p.m. we’ll see if I lived up to this challenge. The whole slate of presenters is at http://ozarksymposium.wp.missouristate.edu/Presenters.htm

Fiction and History

Why write The Legend of the Albino Farm from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

WEST PLAINS, Missouri — At the 2016 Ozarks Studies Symposium, Steve Yates, author of the forthcoming novel, The Legend of the Albino Farm, answers a surprise question from Matthew J. Hernando (“Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks“). The answer tells why Yates wrote such a novel, which will be available from Unbridled Books in April 2017.

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21105667_1640802182597848_4866065216999220108_nWHAT: Matthew Guinn and Steve Yates preview the 2018 Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration and introduce the theme, Southern Gothic

WHERE: Natchez Brewing Company, 207 High Street, Natchez, Mississippi

WHEN: Friday, October 13, from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.

BOOK SALES: Turning Pages Books & More, Natchez, http://turningpagesbooks.com/

Some starter culture: Being of the Ozarks, I am not sure you’ll permit my speaking of a “Southern” Gothic. The Ozarks is that Balkan (we daren’t say Transylvanian) borderland between our lush South and the windswept, flat line of our empire’s Great Plains. So situate me where you will, please, as charitably among you or as the hillbilly troll blocking the mountain pass.

The Ozarks Gothic, probably very like the Southern Gothic, requires a paradise lost, preferably a mansion in or bound for ruin, a memory or ghost of a memory of glory that haunts all its decaying rooms, a seductive back lighting of forlorn despair, the uncanny perception by one or more characters of inevitability, and of course it requires throughout the dark embroidery of death.

We Americans, Southerners, and Ozarkers have dramatically advanced the Gothic, from undead creations, amulets and castles, and fevered monks to tangible monsters and complex, even culpable characters, people such as you and me. Trace if you will in your own reading memory the arc from Edgar Allan Poe’s breathless and sexless “The Fall of the House of Usher” through a psychological vortex such as Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” to the mastery, brevity, and the real horror of Truman Capote’s “A Tree of Night.” Gothic? Hold my zombie; we’ve got this.

20170903_060313In writing The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel, I intended to implode the most seductive and preposterous of my Ozarks hometown’s spook tales and replace it with a fiction gleaned from a fated, wealthy Irish Catholic family’s wills, deeds, and death certificates. You see, what actually happened at the Albino Farm was the real horror. I am right-handed, practical, an Ozarks realist. But I always write my fiction while a black cat sleeps in my left hand.

You can catch more of the mood of my novel from “The Legend of the Albino Farm” book trailer. See you in Natchez along with my friend and a novelist I much admire, Matthew Guinn.

from the Clarion-Ledger / Hattiesburg American Mississippi Books Page

Sunday, May 14, 2017

By Matthew Guinn


“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy famously said, but “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” For the feuding Sheehys and Ormonds of Steve Yates’ The Legend of the Albino Farm, the fractured clan is so unhappy as to be one-of-a-kind, sui generis.

Yates’ characters embody personalities as flinty as the Ozarks soil they once farmed. And as their once-grand farm disintegrates, Yates gives us a fresh take on the plantation-gone-to-dust trope.

The urban legend of the novel’s title is one that sprang up about a misperceived late-night incident between two of the Sheehy clan and a group of drunken revelers partying at the edge of the Sheehy farm. This is not the space to reveal the truth of the encounter, but suffice it to say that given the dark night, the amount of cheap beer consumed, and the appearance of the Sheehys, the trespassers leave the property terrified that they have been accosted by two pale and ghostly apparitions intent on harming them.

Back in Springfield relating their misadventure, the partiers embellish the tale and the rumor mill buffs it even further. In time, the Sheehy place becomes known as The Albino Farm—the forbidding abode of every type of boogeyman the community can project onto it.  Rumors swirl about breeding—even incestuous breeding—among the “albinos” by a kind of mad Doctor Moreau. In each retelling, the tales grow wilder, imbued with the accretion of urban folklore down the years.

Meanwhile relations in the Sheehy-Ormond family are rapidly deteriorating. As the Sheehy patriarchs die off, inheritances are disputed and the reading of last wills and testaments unearths old grudges quietly nursed for years. Neither the Sheehys nor the Ormonds are the type ever to forget a slight, and as the land is parceled out, the once-idyllic wonderland that the Irish families called a Aes Sidhe (“fairy land”) is whittled down to a rotting old manse and a patchwork of mismanaged acreage.

One of the putative “albinos,” Hettienne Sheehy, emerges as the center of the family disputes. Turns out that the ill-fated night that birthed the farm’s new moniker was the catalyst for a rift started, maintained, and indeed nurtured over decades. Hettienne, intent to abscond her inheritance, grows increasingly obstinate as she reaches adulthood.

It is in Hettienne’s adulthood and marriage that the novel achieves its strongest pitch. Yates is a realist, and his depiction of adult relationships is assured, wise, and true. Hettienne and Wes’ marriage is a prolonged partnership in which the episodes of bliss are not, alas, the norm. Rather, Hettienne’s contentious relation to her inheritance comprises “the only prominent obstacle to a happy, rounded existence” for the pair. So much so that at one point, Wes tells her, “If we were not Catholic and were not married under God, I would leave you now.” In such scenes the damaged Hettienne comes fully to life, and the reader hangs on the tension of whether or not she will ever let the past be fully behind her—whether the summers of her youth in Missouri will ever be laid to rest.

If the border state setting of Missouri might call into question The Legend of the Albino Farm’s southernness, the style and quality of Yates’ writing do not. In its attention to the details of domestic and family life, Albino Farm echoes the work of Katherine Ann Porter and Eudora Welty; the obduracy of the grown and estranged Hettienne calls to mind Ron Rash’s Serena.

The quality of Yates’ prose merits such comparisons. In Yates’ telling, a vulture does not merely fly overhead, it is seen to “spiral thoughtfully” over the Sheehy place. A dirty truck parked out front of the farmhouse is streaked with “sienna fans of dried mud.” In the wreckage of the once-grand house, a tall window is patched with “a sheet of Visqueen stretched and nailed across it, and in the night wind, this black, shining membrane bulged and collapsed in fitful, crackling cycles.”

With The Legend of the Albino Farm, Yates adds to a growing ouvre of historical fiction including his works Morkans Quarry and The Teeth of the Souls. He also adds another powerful novel to the growing body of Ozarks—and Mississippi—literature.

* * *

Matthew Guinn is the author of The Resurrectionist and The Scribe. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Belhaven University.


This made no sense to Hettienne. Strange? Saturn? How could anyone ever think that Emerald Park was scary, lonely, and strange? Here was where you ran and yelled like Indians, and no one on Earth could stop you. Here was where nine nobles strove to defend castle walls and never once were defeated. Here was where lightning bugs answered flashing stars across gold bays of meadow hemmed in purple forest and sheltered by navy sky.

from The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel published by Unbridled Books

On the campus of Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, in a recital hall where the novel’s main character, Hettienne Sheehy, attended concerts and chorals, 18010796_10211570021757432_8848822537898277000_nwe launched The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel at the Unbound Book Festival. If you have not put this festival on your literary map, please do so now. Its second year was spectacular. Here’s a recording of the interview among Unbridled Books editor, Greg Michalson, and two of his authors, Peter Geye (Safe from the Sea; Lighthouse Road) and me: https://vimeo.com/214373398. The night before, staying at Michalson Farm, we toured past the Stephens College stables, where, in the novel, Hettienne taught equestrian. And at Michalson Farm, I must add, we comforted a very pregnant mare out of Holy Bull.

“Happenings @ the Library

from LibeWire, Staff Newsletter of the Springfield-Greene County Library

It was standing room only at the Library Station on Sunday, April 23, for Steve Yates’ talk about his new book “The Legend of the Albino Farm.” Fifty-five people attended and enjoyed Steve’s reading and the Q&A that followed. Collection Services Manager Lisa Sampley sold out the 30 copies of the book she brought. “Thanks to her for keeping us classy at the book signing,” said Branch Manager Kim Flores. “It was especially gratifying to see so many people inside the library on the first nice weather day we’ve had for a while.” Steve followed up with a full house of 36 in the Library Center room B on Monday, April 24. Photograph at the Library Station by Kim Flores.20170423_140714

Steve responded on Monday with this note of thanks: “I am just dizzy with wonder at the two events we just achieved. Thank you all so much for your help! Lisa, who stayed and stayed while patrons chatted, had only four copies left last night. Wow! Here’s a video of the reading at The Library Center, https://vimeo.com/214676117 and the Question and Answer is at https://vimeo.com/214677380 ”

18119238_927327530703761_8737146363786523239_nIn addition to the two library lectures, successful signings happened at BookMarx and at Barnes & Noble-Springfield, where Reneé has been a supporter of every book I have published. Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, also had a happy turnout and a nearly full room. It was great to see old friends and meet new readers! The photograph above is by Allis Hammond of the University of Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation.

Signed books are available in limited supply at

325 E Walnut St
Springfield, MO 65806
Reserve your copy at (417) 501-1062

Barnes & Noble-Springfield
3055 South Glenstone
Springfield, MO 65804
Reserve your copy at(417) 885-0026

Nightbird Books
304 W. Dickson Street
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Reserve your copy at (479) 443-2080

Media Coverage

Tailgate Guys Countryside BBQ Radio Show

The Springfield News-Leader

USA Today Entertainment Network

KSMU Ozarks Public Broadcasting

Ozarks Alive

Midwestern Gothic

Missouri Review Podcast

KRFU Columbia Morning with David Lile

KSFG Author of the Week with Nick Reed

I spoke to W. D. Blackmon’s Creative Writing class at Missouri State University and, after a vigorous Q & A, I signed books for the students, who had already read the novel. This is the class in which I learned to write fiction, and I was there in service to the professor who taught me how to write.

I concluded time in Springfield as the featured speaker of the Drury University English Symposium, sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta, honoring Drury’s graduating seniors. This was a moving ceremony—Drury’s English Department has clearly created an intensely supportive community among its students—and I was quite honored to be part of it. See the reading at https://vimeo.com/215009850

The Legend of the Albino Farm Book Trailer from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

Why write The Legend of the Albino Farm from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

WEST PLAINS, Missouri — At the 2016 Ozarks Studies Symposium, Steve Yates, author of the forthcoming novel, The Legend of the Albino Farm, answers a surprise question from Matthew J. Hernando (“Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks“). The answer tells why Yates wrote such a novel, which will be available from Unbridled Books in April 2017.

Steve Yates reads from “Sandy and Wayne: A Novella” at the Ozarks Studies Symposium from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.


I have heard that the best book you can buy to help you create historical fiction rich in detail is a facsimile of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Of course, I rushed right out and got one, from 1897. I’ve pawed through it a couple of times, charmed. But I’m just not sharp enough to see a soul or a plot there.

Legend of the Albino Farm

forthcoming April 2017, Unbridled Books

To get at the whole universe of a character, I need to know not only what she longed to wear or kept in her desk or lugged in her purse but also what her job demanded and what was happening around her. And I like to set the bar pretty high when it comes to the level of a character’s intelligence. After all, I’m asking for eight hours or more of a reader’s attention. Who wants to ride eight hours seated in coach with a dullard? Smart characters notice a lot of stuff, and think about or may desire a lot of stuff. The human mind has had roughly the same processing and storage capacity since, oh, the time of Gilgamesh. And ever since Lucy first reared her children, the heart has shown about the same mix of muscle and soul. I can’t sit still with a stunted, rustic protagonist with narrow or only magical horizons. I tend to want to learn and live a lot when I read. Where to get all that stuff? Here are some notes on sources you may not have considered inspiring.


A will or a trust is a remarkable window into the real life of what people valued. And many times a will or trust will show you the cold ways that families can operate. Like deeds and tax records, wills and trusts are filed in any courthouse or county archives. Scanning the wills of a large, wealthy Irish Catholic family, I found not once, but twice one daughter treated very differently from her many siblings, receiving not a devised share of the real estate, crops, and money, but a stingingly small lump sum payment. The second time this

Will 001

from Appraisal of the Helen Sheedy Estate, 1 March 1979

happened, the check was a little more generous and would have easily bought her a reasonable, new car. Yet in the will some mysterious and delicious conflict unfolds. Several prompting letters appear from the family’s attorney. The check has been received, certified mail, but never cashed. The estate cannot be resolved. Please advise; please act. At last the daughter returns the check by mail to the family attorney, whole, and without comment. Plot, estrangement, heartbreak—something alive awaits here. HINT: Like a deposition or a trial transcript, you do not need to quote a will or a probate letter whole cloth. Find the drama; the rest is dross.


Popular narrative histories from the era you want to write about, histories published by major publishing houses in New York and meant for broad reading audiences may have good bibliographies to consult. But otherwise they may not help much to discover what it was like to live in an era before you were born. No stuff, no details. They can be like a plane ride over a village when you need a hike and a yurt. I lean toward hyper-local histories usually from university presses and small and independent houses. I also don’t shy away from histories from quirky regional publishers. They are immersive, committed, sometimes exhaustive, and they often rely more on anecdote (narrative and scene!) than an academically vetted volume or certainly a commercial, flyover history might. The aggressive scanning project that Google has undertaken, for example, has brought access to previously lost accounts of the past. Wondering about Bulgaria just before World War I and hoping to write about a British soldier later in the Great War, I found an extraordinary travelogue by British bon vivant, John L. C. Booth, Troubles in the Balkans. This book will likely never see anything but facsimile, on demand print again. But the detail—stained and distorted through a free-wheeling, crushing British imperialist vision—it was just what I needed to glean not only the smell, taste, and packing lists from the time, but real, unalloyed British attitude. Very smart characters from the past may have profoundly different ideas about the world and how it works, ideas that seem quite harsh to our own “sophisticated, humane, and informed” worldviews. HINT: Get over your own self. Let your character’s full soul loose on the page, even the “horrible” parts.


Sometime in your writing life, you may wonder how a road was carved above the Columbia River in Oregon or how a churn drill worked in a quarry. There is no greater source I know of than Halbert Powers Gillette’s Handbook of Rock Excavation: Methods and Costs. And, lucky you, you will not have to pay a major research library $185.00 or face denial of your MFA degree in order to own your copy! Abe books and others will gladly find you a vendor. In 1556, the major sales rival to the Gutenberg Bible was Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica, essentially a book on how to mine gold. From the very beginning, publishing has been the carrier wave for human “how to” knowledge. I feel absolutely adrift reading or writing about characters who do not have jobs, who do not have a tangible means of support. There is, I promise you, a nonfiction account of how to do just about every job, every task humankind has ever undertaken. HINT: Find the manual written at about the same time your fiction is set so that you can then get costs, knowledge, technology, attitude, and equipage just right.


In the past, there were only two occasions in which an individual’s life events were likely to make the newspaper—marriage and death. The notice of engagement and later marriage and especially the obituary contain a abridged version of a life history. Sometimes these can solve parts of a mystery. Let’s recall the estranged daughter above, the one receiving and later refusing checks, the one excluded from the family’s larger

Sheehy Family 001

trust and its divisions. Her obituary was shorter than her brothers’ and sisters’, but it mentioned a husband. And I noted that the deaths of her brothers and sisters occasioned some substantive reporting aside from the obituary, especially as the wills passed through probate and became public record. These were very wealthy people I was researching, and in the 1970s, you did not have to be a movie or music star to make the paper in a small town when you died. Mere wealth sufficed. Our possibly estranged sister, alas, did not merit anything but a standard death notice. Finding her husband’s obituary, I discovered his occupation, a sheet metal worker. He was memorialized and buried Catholic, as she was and as were all her wealthy siblings. But, a sheet metal worker . . . that’s a different social class than the rich gentlemen farmers. This could have been a wedding of which the progenitor of all this wealthy clan disapproved, and that disapproval spanned the generations in that $4,000.00 check. Delicious. And the perfect stuff for fiction—drama, conflict, sorrow, backbone, and redemption.


Get used to the whir of microfiche, those twirling reels, and that ghostly blue-gray blizzard of light and, when all that has stilled, the dark smudges of history carved in the old newspapers. If you have blocked and outlined your novel well enough to know that you have a scene coming up set in 1946 and another in 1958, give the microfiche a whirl and see what was on people’s minds around that date. See as well what the weather was. Really. There are still people alive who recall, even in the American Deep South a time before air conditioning. Any family relying on the land watches weather faithfully. Weather matters, and it can add color and atmosphere to the reality you are creating. Examples: I knew my novel “The Legend of the Albino Farm” started in 1946—that’s when the nonsensical, cruel local legend first began circulating. So I scanned the local newspapers of the day. Big headlines appeared about the nuclear bomb the United States detonated against a fleet of surplus Navy warships to observe the grim destruction. And there was something of a flying saucer craze underway. One magazine predicted there would soon be “Flying Saucers for Everybody.” The closing of the Office of Price Administration, interestingly, garnered three top-of-the-page banner headlines above in-depth reporting. I learned a lot about what even wealthy gentleman farmers might have on their minds in 1946. HINT: Your story matters more than any atmosphere. I did exactly what you should never do. I wrote two great big opening chapters choking with details and gagging with awkward insertions of all this stuff I had learned. By the time my editor and I got it right sized, here (underlined for emphasis) was all that remained from my newly gained knowledge of the closing of the Office of Price Administration: “Without Hettienne there at Emerald Park for June and July, and with grain prices roaming high and free, the Sheehys did not invite the Ormond children for the usual extended stay.” Weather may rule the farm, but not the heart of the story.

*  *  * 

A portion of this originally appeared in The Zafris-Kothari Novel Workshop at http://www.novelworkshop.org/new-blog/ywwpsz5dx3eezc4hm6yle7398zn8c9

Steve Yates is the winner of the Juniper Prize for Some Kinds of Love: Stories and the inaugural Knickerbocker Prize (chosen by Lauren Groff) for Sandy and Wayne: A Novella. He is the author of two novels Morkan’s Quarry and its sequel The Teeth of the Souls, about a limestone quarrying family. In April 2017, Unbridled books will publish his novel, The Legend of the Albino Farm. In the daylight he is associate director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson.


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