Western North Carolina Woman

Signs in the Blood:
a rollicking good read—but not quite cozy

by barbara hooley

Signs in the BloodThere are three things you best ought prepare yourself for in Vicki Lane’s Signs in the Blood, a mystery set in Western North Carolina: plenty of colorful dialect, plenty of colorful mountain folk, and an ending that is not quite cozy.

Signs in the Blood, published in 2005 by Bantam Dell, is the first in a series starring sleuth Elizabeth Goodweather, a goat cheese and grapefruit-eating liberal who reads the New Yorker, makes herb wreaths, lives in the high hills of Marshall County, and is fascinated by her old-ways neighbors.

In Signs in the Blood, we are introduced to an array of colorful folks, some old-timers following the old mountain ways, some new neighbors bringing in their own brand of mountain dogma. When neighbor Cletus disappears while hunting ginseng and is found mysteriously drowned, Elizabeth comes to the aid of her neighbor Miss Birdie who wants answers about her son’s death. That’s Miss Birdie Gentry, an eighty-year-old mountain woman who with her middle-aged son, Cletus, (some might call him “simple”) still scratches out a living off the land. Then there’s snake-handling-preacherman Harice Tyler who has bedroom eyes, a sensual smile, and willingness to help Elizabeth “get hit with the Holiness gun” and tongues-speaking Aunt Belvy Guthrie, prophetess in the Holiness Church of Jesus Love Anointed with Signs Following. Blue-eyed John the Baptizer is a traveling evangelist and outsider artist who preaches and paints from a revival tent behind the BP gas station and drives a prepare-to-meet-thy-God Bible-text covered old Ford. Among the new agers and newcomers is Elizabeth’s strong-willed, dreadlocked artist daughter Laurel who spends part time painting and part time tending bar at a trendy Asheville nightspot. There’s Polaris, the white silk-clad guru and charismatic leader of the Starshine Community whose riveting turquoise eyes, flowing white hair and enthralling voice welcomes budding star children (mostly pretty young pregnant women), on “the first step of the long journey to (their) primogenesis.” And we have Adam’s Sons in the Wilderness, a right-wing militia group, who practice military maneuvers with weekend warrior wannabes, drive humvees, and complain about the “mud races” being allowed in restaurants where white men wanna eat.

As Elizabeth tramps around the hills and hollers, besieged by these characters and trying to solve the mystery of Cletus’ drowning, we also learn about Little Sylvie and other backwoods mountain folk in a subplot that holds a second mystery and murder from a long past era.

After reading this rollicking mystery, I still had a few questions I wanted answered. So on a recent spring-like afternoon I met Vicki Lane to ask her a few questions about Signs in the Blood and her writing process. Sitting in her dining room overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, the setting for her Elizabeth Goodweather mysteries, Ms. Lane told me she’d come to writing mysteries fairly recently after determining to defy the challenge of a writing instructor. It was a six-week course that taught the basic nuts and bolts of writing, including character and setting, making the very first sentence count, and the necessity of enlisting a good agent. At the end of the course she asked her teacher, “‘What is my greatest strength and what is my greatest weakness?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have the passion it takes to write.’ That was all. He didn’t say I had any strengths.” So she met with a writers group, churned out about a chapter a week, and finished her first mystery a year and a half later.

That wasn’t, however, the mystery she first got published. Instead what happened was that she sent a ton of query letters to agents, “ten to fifteen at a time, in batches.” She wanted a woman agent in or near New York City who handles mysteries. Getting back that self addressed stamped letter she says was painful, “I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it unless they were prepared to suffer.” Eventually she found an agent interested in representing her. But when her agent started showing her book to various editors, they all agreed that it was set in the wrong place. That book, not yet published, was set on the coast of North Carolina, rather than in Elizabeth’s Appalachian mountain home. She was told that the first in the series must be set in the place that readers will come back to over and over again “so that readers fall in love with the place as well as the character.” So she took another year and wrote a second mystery, this one Signs in the Blood. Still there were more obstacles before the book finally made its way to bookstores. She got a phone call one day from her agent who said she’d found an editor interested in publishing the book. In a phone conversation, the editor told her she really liked the book, but thought it needed a subplot, “Can you do a subplot?” “’Oh yes!’ I could taste it, I wanted it so badly.” said Ms. Lane. So she wrote the Little Sylvie subplot based on a story she had been told that supposedly happened here in the region. That was another three months of writing.

Asked about her work process, Ms. Lane, said, “I am not one of those really disciplined people who gets up and writes three hours every day. I just try to do it when I can.” “How do you begin?” I wanted to know. “My editor wants what she calls the arch of the book,” she explained. “Basically it’s just about two pages of what’s going to happen. This is before I start writing the book and (my editor) approves it. Sometimes I center the arch. I’ve usually written the first couple of chapters and the closing violent scenes with some of the important scenes so my editor will see where I am going. Then I just start back at the beginning and start going chapter by chapter.”
As I said, Signs in the Blood is plumb chock[I think has to be one or the other] full of Appalachian dialect, so I asked her how that had come about. “Well, I’ve spent time with enough old timers and I know how they talk,” replied Ms. Lane. “When I start writing Little Sylvie, I just hear her voice. I know how she would say it. Every once in awhile I’ll hit something and ask myself, ‘Now is that something I really heard or is that something I read in Patrick O’Brian?’ A while ago I came up with ‘drunk as Davy’s sow’ and I thought, ‘Now have I heard that or not?’ So I called Sheila Adams who grew up in Sodom Laurel and she told me all the things she had heard like ‘drunk as an owl.’ But as I said, I have a lot of local friends and I just listen when they talk.”

I asked Ms. Lane why she chose mysteries as a genre and if she ever felt she was limited in what she could say in a mystery. “Write what you know and also what you read,” is what she was advised in that one and only writing class. She says she left class feeling she didn’t know anything. “I had lived on a farm for twenty-five years and I didn’t even know how people acted in offices and out in the world.” Actually, she first contemplated writing romances. But as she had never read them, she went to a library sale and picked up some off the five for a dollar table. At home, she started reading them, but quickly decided they were so awful she couldn’t bring herself to write one. She says she reads a lot of different kinds of things, but does indeed read many mysteries. “So I went to mysteries.” “I think you can say anything you want to in a mystery,” claims Ms. Lane. “I talked a lot about religion in Signs in the Blood and I think I made points that some people might disagree with.” In my book coming out in June, the main character talks a lot about what is art. My third book talks about all the new people moving in. How even the new people are getting horrified by the newest new people.”

“So you never feel at all constrained by the genre?” I queried. “Absolutely not! Well, it depends,” she went on. “If you are writing a ‘cozy,’ which is a mystery with no excessive violence—Agatha Christie is considered a cozy—there isn’t excessive violence or sex or gore or bad language. Some are very cozy and very funny. Some people think my book is a cozy because it has food and quilts in it. But as you know, there is some violence and some bad language, not much sex.” Recently Ms. Lane was interviewed for a ‘cozy’ web page and was described by the librarian putting together the page as “not quite cozy.” I would have to agree.

This brought me to my questions about the ending of Signs in the Blood. I wanted to know why Ms. Lane chose to cajole the reader with funny characters, light hearted fare and hilarious dialect and then suddenly bring the boom down at the end. “I wanted shock value. I didn’t want a cozy ending,” Ms. Lane insisted. “I wanted to make the reader feel bad for awhile, to have the emotions moved. It would have been too easy to have everything come out ok in the end. People get fooled and all of a sudden something horrible happens.”

What I found most intriguing about Signs in the Blood was not the language or the crazy characters or even trying to figure out who done it, though all of that was entertaining and kept me reading past midnight, but that it seems to be exploring evil in ways that people are blind-sided by. So I asked Ms. Lane about that. She replied, “Well, in my mind I was exploring the danger that comes with blind faith. Trusting in your militia leader or your religion that tells you to do something that is actually going to be harmful to people. And that to me is evil, when one believes blindly.” But Ms. Lane also added later, “Religion is a tricky thing and I think it can be really dangerous. But you don’t know. I can say faith is dangerous and all of a sudden someone’s life is saved. I wanted to say that too. I wanted to say that Elizabeth in all her certainty that faith is a bad thing is suddenly blind-sided by the fact that faith saved Miss Birdie’s life.”

Asked what she most wants her readers to take away, Ms. Lane replied, “A sense of how really wonderful this place is, the mountains, the people, the flora and fauna. To me the book is a vehicle for writing down the stories I’ve heard. I just have fun with it.”

“Sometimes these characters get going and take over. But I am delighted when people say this sounds like a wonderful place, though I really don’t want them to move here. It’s a double-edged sword. Also, I think I am recording a time. We moved here when people were still milking cows and plowing with mules and I am trying to record a way of life that is not going to be here in ten or fifteen years. And the speech patterns are going too. So I’m trying to put that down. Really before I even got the idea of writing, I would write down funny things I heard people say, musical things. When we first moved here during the Watergate trials, we asked a neighbor what he thought of Nixon and he said, ‘I wouldn’t trust that man in my meat house with a muzzle.’ I thought it was total poetry.”

Such dialect will make you smile, the characters will have you splitting your sides, but the ending, be warned by the preacher man and prepare for the devil, ‘cuz it ain’t quite cozy.

Barbara Hooley is a fiber artist, teacher and freelance writer. She lives in Asheville, NC.
[ blhooley@yahoo.com ]

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