Peculiar Savage Beauty – Bonus Scenes

Writers compose many sentences, scenes and chapters that their readers never see. It may be lovely prose. Yet, for one reason or another, it simply doesn’t fit in the final work. Each writer handles this differently. Some click delete, and never look back. Others hold on to those snippets in the hope that someday, somehow, they might find them a home. I fall in the latter category.

The following unedited scenes are from an early draft of my second novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty. They offer a glimpse into the lives of the characters during Christmas in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, of people finding small joys during even the most challenging of times.

The novel went through many rounds of edits. At some point, these pieces were cut. In the big picture and flow of action, they just didn’t quite move the story forward in the way all scenes must. I held on to them, because they still speak to me.

Now that the novel has been published, I’m giving these scenes a new home – for my readers who fell in love RJ, Woody, Ethel and the whole quirky town of Vanham, and for myself, who did the same.

Happy reading, and happy holidays!


Snowy forestDecember 24, 1935

Vanham, Kansas

Late Autumn brought a few more rain showers. Just enough to tease a little bit of life from the earth and a little bit of hope from the people of Vanham. Tiny green shoots of red winter wheat and buffle grass began to peek up in some of the pale fields and sand dunes. As the temperature continued to drop and the winter holidays approached, some folks even entertained the fantastical idea of a white Christmas.

At the Tugwell home, bowls of bright red cranberries and plump white popcorn sat on the kitchen table. Minnie narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to thread a needle. Alternating berries and popcorn, she poked the needle carefully through each, creating a festive garland. There would be no Christmas tree this year. No gifts. But there was no reason why she couldn’t brighten up the place with a bit of holiday color.

Ernie shuffled out of the bedroom, rubbing his lower back with the palms of his hands.

“Have a good nap, Pa?” Minnie asked without looking up from her work.

“Yap.”

He rolled his shoulders, working out the stiffness in his joints that always came with the cold weather. Then he walked over to the table and inspected Minnie’s project.

“Making garland, huh?”

She said yes, waited for the rebuke she knew was coming next.

“Ain’t that a bit much, times being what they are?”

“It’s Christmas.”

Ernie grunted, scratched at the stubble on his neck.

“Besides,” she added, “I can feed it to the chickens after. It’ll be a nice treat for ‘em. Won’t go to waste.”

Ernie watched as his wife of forty-odd years picked up another cranberry, gently pushed the needle through its shiny skin and slid the berry down the thread. He gave her shoulder a quick pat.

“We can hang it above the door,” he said.

Minnie smiled. “Yap.”

He watched her work a moment more. Then shuffled to the front door, took his coat and goggles off the hook.

“Gonna go check on the north field,” he said.

“Get the chickens in the coop on your way back,” she said without looking up.

“Yap.”

======

The dust drifted in from the south, an auburn fog, thick and unhurried. Red earth from Oklahoma seemed a fitting shade for Christmas Eve, and the storm had not deterred Ethel as she dressed for a late supper and Midnight Mass with friends. She’d used twice the usual pins to secure her hat and extra towels to wrap up her dessert dish. She would not let the wind and dust get the better of her. Not tonight.

“Ethel, dear, come in. Come in,” Marjorie embraced her friend and pulled her into the house. “I’m so glad the storm didn’t keep you away.”

“I’d have crawled here on my hands and knees if I had to,” Ethel said, hugging her friend a heartbeat longer than usual. She and Marjorie had been friends for more than thirty years.

“And tear your hose?” Marjorie said, punctuating her question with a snort.

Ethel handed over her dish – bread pudding with walnuts and cranberries, a Christmas Eve tradition. She removed her coat and hung it on a hook by the door.

Marjorie’s two granddaughters bolted into the room and threw their arms around Ethel’s legs.

“Mrs. Ethel’s here! Merry Christmas! Did you bring us treats?”

Ethel planted kisses on their heads, inhaled the bouquet of their freshly washed and curled hair. Her mind tumbled back to the days when the girls’ parents had greeted her the same way, some twenty years ago. She reached into her coat pocket and retrieved two peppermint sticks wrapped in wax paper. The girls shrieked and clapped. They hugged Ethel again and ran into the other room with their candy.

“Don’t spoil your supper now,” Marjorie’s husband, Walter, shouted after them. He gave Ethel a wink. She already knew he wasn’t at all worried about his granddaughters’ appetites.

The grandsons were less interested in Ethel, though she had brought candies for them as well. They were more interested in the presents under the tree, in shaking the boxes and wagering on the contents. Ethel watched them, as she did every Christmas, taking in their youthful glee and feeling a bit younger herself as a result. Walter stood beside her.

“Been a tough year for the kids,” he said. “For us, too, but Marjorie and me just couldn’t let Christmas morning come without anything under the tree for them.”

Marjorie had been knitting like a fiend the past few months to make cozy hats for each of her six grandchildren. She’d been saving all her extra pennies for Christmas dinner, so she’d unraveled one of her Afghans for the yarn. And Walter had been carving and painting toy cars and tiny zoo animals from wood scraps that would otherwise have gone in the potbelly stove to warm their aching bones.

“They’ll be over the moon tomorrow, Walt.”

Walter picked at some invisible lint on his shirt sleeve. “Shoot. They’re good kids. I’m just glad they’ll get to open a little something.”

Ethel snapped her fingers and turned to rummage inside the deep pockets of her coat.

“I almost forgot about this,” she said and pulled out a bottle of red wine. “Who says we grown-ups can’t open up a little something of our own.”

Walt’s eyes got big. Where on God’s green earth did you swipe that, they seemed to ask.

“I had Mrs. Wallace at the Five & Dime order a bottle from those Gallo brothers in California. She insisted I only pay wholesale, too, since it’s Christmas.”

“She’s got a big heart,” Walt said, admiring the bottle.

Ethel agreed and assured him she’d made the woman an extra large dish of bread pudding as thanks. He said Ethel’s bread pudding is worth a whole case of wine. Then he extended his elbow and escorted his old friend into the kitchen to fetch a corkscrew.

======

RJ woke to the familiar sound of Woody’s scratching at the windows. Stormy lay on the bed beside her, curled in a tight ball, pressed into the curve at the back of RJ’s knees. As a child, RJ had begged her Uncle Lou to let their English shepherd sleep in her bedroom, and he had looked at her as though she’d sprouted a second head. Uncle Lou wouldn’t even let the animal in the house, much less on the furniture. RJ smiled and snuggled beneath her quilt, not quite ready to break the Christmas morning magic and face the morning chill.

When she heard Woody get to work on the kitchen window, RJ threw back the quilt and put her feet on the dusty floor. Stormy jumped off the bed and trotted into the other room. RJ followed behind, throwing open the curtains one by one to reveal Woody’s dust paintings.

A table bearing a holiday feast, laden with stuffing, potatoes, gravy, pies, ham and turkey. A tree decorated with candy canes and gingerbread men, surrounded by boxes with big bows. A snowy forest scene with a lone noble buck looking to the horizon.

The sun was still low on the horizon and cast an orange glow through the window paintings, reminiscent of the warm blaze of a wood fire in the hearth.

RJ slipped on her boots and coat and stepped outside. The frigid air nearly knocked her over.

“Good heavens! Woody, aren’t you freezing out here?”

“Yes,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

RJ laughed. His straightforward responses never failed to delight her.

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” she said.

She watched him work for a moment, shifting her weight from foot to foot to get her blood moving and get some warmth to her body.

Woody finished his final painting, a baby in the manger complete with Joseph and Mary, the three wise men, a cadre of animals, and a single star shining brightly above. He took a step back. “Do you like them?”

“I love them,” RJ said. “I only wish I could figure out a way to preserve them somehow. It always makes me sad when the next wind comes and sweeps them away.”

“That’s OK,” Woody said. “Then I can just paint more.”

RJ smiled. She invited him in to warm his bones, but he said no.

“Ma’ll skin me alive if I’m late for Christmas breakfast,” he said. “She’s making pancakes with brown sugar apples!”

Woody rubbed his stomach and rolled his eyes toward heaven.

RJ laughed again.

“Sounds like you better run then,” she said. “Wish Alice and your folks a Merry Christmas for me.”

“I will,” Woody said. He patted her shoulder two times, real quick. “Merry Christmas, RJ.”

“Merry Christmas, Woody.” She smiled at him warmly, holding herself back from giving him the bear hug she knew would delight her and torture him.

Then Woody turned and bolted across the yard toward the fields for home and his ma’s Christmas pancakes.

###


Find Your Next Page in Frisco

No vacation is complete (for me, at least) without a visit to the local bookstore. A few weeks ago, during an escape to the cool, clear air of the Colorado mountains, I wandered past Next Page Books & Nosh on Main Street in Frisco. It was love at first sight.

Window signage beckons with “books, cards, beer, wine, tea, coffee, food, friends.” The door is propped wide open. What more invitation does a person need? How about a friendly dog to greet you at the door? Yes, a person needs that, and Next Page delivers.

The store has a wide selection of books, a bright and welcoming children’s section, a sparkling well-stocked café, merchandise from local artisans, and a friendly, helpful staff. All that is lovely. Yet, what impressed me most about Next Page is how completely it embraces its community. The establishment hosts events nearly every day in the shop’s inviting “living room,” from monthly book club get-togethers and weekly crafts/stories for the kids, to happy hours with live music and author signings with New York Times best-sellers like Eleanor Brown (who I missed meeting by one day – curses!). 

Meet the Next Page bookstore pups.

Next Page has set a high bar for indie and chain bookstores alike. Since I had already purchased a (ridiculous) number of books before my vacation, I bought a Next Page t-shirt and a stack of note cards featuring gorgeous images of Frisco by local photographer Carrie Michalowski. I hope to visit Next Page again in the future.  In the meantime, I will stay connected to them online and encourage all bookstore enthusiasts to do the same.

www.facebook.com/Thenextpagebookstoreandteabar

www.twitter.com/NextPageBooks


The Last Christmas Card

Sister RaymondMore than 25 years ago, I received a pack of Christmas cards from Sister Mary Raymond McGinty with images of her original paintings. Each year since then, I’ve mailed only a few of the cards to friends and family. It was important to me that they last as long as possible. I couldn’t quite explain why (not even to myself) until today, as I sat down to address the last few cards.

The Sister was in her 80s when I knew her. She was a volunteer in the communications department at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. I was 17 and thrilled to be working for the hospital in my first gig as a paid freelance writer.

Sister Raymond was tiny and spry. She hustled in and out of the elevator and up and down the halls at the hospital. She always seemed to have an urgent purpose. Yet, she never hesitated to stop and visit, to share her insights. She was a Sister of Mercy and had worked more than 40 years as a nurse before she began her stint as a communications volunteer. Sister Raymond had many gifts. She was a font of knowledge.

Through Sister Raymond’s example, I witnessed the benefit and value of many things – working hard, acting with purpose, taking care of others, sharing your gifts.

Sister Raymond - 1989

During a newsletter photo shoot, Sister Raymond and I look through one of the many hospital scrapbooks she assembled. (1989)

As I place stamps on the last of her Christmas cards (and set one card aside to keep for myself), I feel extremely blessed to have known Sister Raymond and learned from her during such a pivotal time in my life and career.

Following is the message Sister Raymond included in the cards. It is a wish I extend to all, today and in years to come.

May the peace, love and good will of Christmas give us faith to face the New Year with hope and joy.

 

http://w.sharethis.com/button/buttons.jsstLight.options({publisher:’36f966fe-67ee-4cd6-818a-10ef3dc05818′});

 

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Finding the Line Between Fact and Fiction in Historical Novels

Research book stackI’m so happy to be a guest author this week on Women’s Fiction Writers blog, talking about the line between fact and fiction in historical novels, how women’s fiction can be found in many genres, and more.

Created by author Amy Sue Nathan, WFW is the go-to blog for the craft and business of traditionally published women’s fiction. It features interviews and guest posts by published women’s fiction authors and tips on writing, editing, publishing and the writing life.  Please stop by and share your thoughts.

Author Jessica McCann Says Women’s Fiction Falls Within Many Genres, Including Historical Fiction


Celebrity Name-Dropping in Novels

RagtimeIs including famous historical figures in works of fiction nothing more than celebrity name-dropping? Or can it add dimension and perspective to a novel?

A few of the advance readers for my historical novel All Different Kinds of Free suggested I remove the scenes and references to Charles Dickens from my book. They said it felt like celebrity “name-dropping” (these were all folks in the publishing business in one form or another). Other advance readers loved the Dickens sections and encouraged me to leave them in (these folks were mostly  readers and fellow writers).

What to do? To help me decide, I did a quick review of the first historical novel I ever read (and loved), Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.

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