A few years ago my husband and I renovated our house. What started as a general dissatisfaction with the main floor plan became a months-long project that transformed our home on the outside and inside. Knowing what we didn’t like was easy. Knowing how to fix it took time and lots of good advice.
The writers at BACCA Literary want to renovate the BACCA Literary blog. We have a general dissatisfaction but don’t know how to fix it. That’s where you come in. Please spend a few minutes with these questions and give us your honest answers. Multiple choices are welcome as well as adding your own answers. Space is given below the survey to expand on your answers or add comments.
Please expand your answers below. BACCA Literary welcomes your feedback. What blogs do you currently follow? What are you looking for in a blog post? What do you love to read? We’ want to hear any advice or ideas you have to improve the BACCA Literary website and blog posts.
Thank you very much!
Carolyn O’Neal is an author, an environmentalist and a beekeeper. Her young adult novel KINGSLEY was published in 2015. KINGSLEY is available on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
More than once I’ve shared my writing philosophy with friends who have hit a hard bump in the road. Whether an illness, a job loss, or relationship troubles, for a writer, there’s no such thing as a bad experience. All experiences are material, the good ones and the bad ones. Especially the bad ones. The first few months of 2020 have tested this saying almost to the breaking point. This has been a year for the history books. Before I heard a word about coronavirus or quarantine or government shutdowns, I had health issues and bee hive failures.
“Two bears in one cave will not end well.” – Mongolian
Three of my four hives failed in January and February. One hive died. The second hive absconded (the bees flew away and never returned). The third hive abandoned their home for some reason and joined up with the stronger fourth hive. Losing three hives was very disheartening. I had anticipated a heavy honey season so this seemed like a personal failure. I left the empty hives where they were for the time being. It was cold, there weren’t any pests flying around to bother them, and I had bigger issues to deal with.
“Kings and Bears often worry their Keepers.” – Scot
In early March I spent a night at the hospital to repair a brain aneurysm. I was a nervous going in but the surgery was quick and I was up and walking the halls of the ICU by that evening. I took it slow and easy, more afraid of tripping over the thick socks they gave me than anything else. I walked past a couple of rooms with signs on the door saying masks were required to enter because of “respiratory particles.”
No more than a week after getting home, my apiary had an unwelcome visitor. A bear had found my three abandoned hives and decided to check them out.
Bears enter our vernacular in many ways.
Freedom to bear arms
Grin and bear it
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
I cleaned up my apiary, removing all the damaged hives. I strapped down my strong hive and surrounded it with cinder blocks and tin cans dangling from string to scare away the marauding bear. My beehive had at least 50,000 bees in it. You’d think that many bees would keep any creature at bay, even a bear. You can see for yourself, my efforts were a waste of time.
What should I do? My last hive was destroyed. Should I quit beekeeping? Should I shrug off all the time and money I had put into it? Should I say this just isn’t for me and abandon my few remaining bees to their fate? So many signs told me to quit. I was healing from surgery. I was dealing with the growing threat of this coronavirus. The government shut down businesses all over my city. My beekeeping classes were cancelled. The state beekeeping convention was cancelled. My local beekeeping club meetings were cancelled.
Writers know what it feels like to get knocked down. No matter how much time you’ve spent on a story. No matter how much money you’ve spent on writing classes and seminars. Agents don’t want to represent you, publishers don’t print your story, readers write a scathing review of your work for the world to see. Writers face relentless rejection. Signs everywhere tell them to quit. Life gets in the way of writing routines, inserting personal tragedies and national pandemics into everyday life.
“The bear is in the forest, but the pelt is sold.” – Unknown
I decided try again. I saved as many of my bees as I could and placed them and what I could salvage from their hive in a shed. I locked the shed at night to protect them from the bear. It was a temporary solution, at best. Moreover, there was a good chance the queen was dead and the bees would abandon the hive. By this time, it was late March and needed to be vigilant about the coronavirus. Washing hands. Social distancing. Wearing a face mask. My husband worked at the local hospital so I had daily updates when he came home. I talked via email and phone to beekeeping mentors and asked for advice. Before I set up a new apiary, they said, I needed to make sure it was safe from bears. That meant an electric fence with a solar panel charger. Of course, I couldn’t shop around for fence and solar panel charger materials. Everything had to be researched and purchased online.
The equipment finally arrived and my husband put up the electric fence all by himself. Talk about social distancing. With his help, we moved the beehive from the shed to their new home. I repaired and repainted the hives damaged by the bear. I purchase two new packages of bees. My new apiary was all set just in time for the April blossoms. It was a tremendous about of work and might not yield any honey but all I can do is keep trying. Unlike writing, in beekeeping there IS such a thing as a bad experience. But I learned a lot and hope I’m a better beekeeper for this experience. And maybe a better writer too.
My compost bin is just a dirty plastic box without a bottom. I set it up under a tree near the road a good ways away from my beehive so it wouldn’t attract bears or other critters to my bees. I keep a bucket in my garage for scraps and carry them to the bin about once a week, more often in the summer during watermelon season. More often if I’m composting something tasty that my dog likes to sneak into the garage to nibble on like sweet potato peels. I compost egg shells, orange peels, and coffee grounds. I compost kale stems, pistachio shells, and leaves from my driveway. How could this hodgepodge ever amount to anything worthwhile? All I have to do is leave it be and let Mother Nature do her thing. She turns all those scraps turns into rich dirt. Rich dirt to feed my trees and create flowerbeds. Rich dirt to attract worms. My yard is more productive because of those scraps.
Here’s the deal. I’ve been researching a nonfiction project for a couple of years and let me tell you, a couple of years of research piles up. I have scraps of newspaper articles, recordings of interviews, court records, books, pamphlets. My poor little office has stacks of notebooks and ideas. The problem is I don’t know how to tell this story. The blind man and the elephant scenario. The project is so big I don’t know where to start.
FLOAT devotes a couple of pages on a topic called Compost. (pages 187-188) Not composting food scraps. Composting writing scraps.
Sometimes the most clear-eyed, thoughtful, and beneficial decision we can make about a piece of writing is to put it away…. Put it in a drawer… Archive it on a hard drive…
And walk away.
Walk away! What do I do then? Do I keep writing? Or not? I flip through FLOAT and find a chapter entitled Date Yourself on page 57.
For this date with yourself, your only goal is to do something that interests or inspires you.… By getting out, you give yourself the chance to re-set your own approach. You take a complete break from your project and simply get out into the world with curiosity and a sense of adventure.… you don’t need an agenda…. be with yourself, open-minded, curious, free.
This was exactly what I needed. Permission to do something other than write and research. Permission to do something fun. For me, that’s beekeeping. I have four hives and love to be out with them. I love to learn about bees and talk to other beekeepers.
So I decide to I attend the annual Virginia State Beekeepers Association meeting. Most of the lectures are about how to maintain healthy hives. The parallels between healthy beehives and healthy human societies are legendary. The individual is moving ahead with her life in concert with thousands of other individuals moving ahead with their lives. And in the center of all this movement is the queen.
And then it happened. As I listened to the lectures about the importance of a strong queen, stories began to swirl. I went home that evening and wrote the first chapter about a fictional human family that behaves like a beehive. The family has workers, drones, babies, and a queen named Sabbath.
I’m not sure where this story is going but I’m having fun writing. And now and then, an idea pops into my head about how to shape all that research into a readable, creative nonfiction. I note of that idea and put it aside. I’ll come back to it. But for now, I’m having fun with my bees and my ideas.
Fiction creates new worlds and fills these worlds with heroes, villains, comics, romantics. Fills them with humans or monsters or aliens from another dimension. Fiction can be as wild and unbelievable as the author’s imagination.
Every paragraph is a roller coaster.
Everything is fair game.
Everything is up in the air.
Enjoy the ride and let your imagination soar!
Nonfiction has rules.
Creative Nonfiction takes place in a location the author can and should visit, whether it’s the graveyard down the road or a ship in the middle of the ocean. Not to say writing nonfiction can’t be fun, but the author doesn’t have the same freedom to make up worlds or characters. The people and places must be real.
Nonfiction isn’t a roller coaster.
It’s a maze and research is the author’s only map.
Newspaper articles, interviews, books, and (occasionally) Google.
This is how I contrast my experiences writing fiction versus writing nonfiction. First drafts of fiction dance off my keyboard. Ideas pop into my head. My writing group asks “why did he do that?” about a character and in fiction, I can create the motivation. In nonfiction if I can’t find his motivation in my research, I can’t answer that question. I can’t make up an actual person’s motivations for his or her actions.
I have been researching a complex, creative nonfiction project for years.
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this creative nonfiction centers on the man who discovered an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia and ended up with a bullet in his head.
It’s an exciting story with a thousand twists and turns, just like an intricate maze.
Am I near the end of the maze or still in the center? Only careful research will help me find my way.
Which is more satisfying as a writer? Fiction or nonfiction?
That’s like asking what is more satisfying to eat, dinner or dessert.
For nearly a year I have found it very hard to put pen to paper, as the saying goes. I don’t know if you could call it writer’s block as much as writer’s avoidance. I have been trying to find my way back to my old habits, trying to set aside time to write each day, but each day I find a new excuse not to write. I wake up too late to write in the morning, I get out of work too late to write at night, I have to meet a friend for Happy Hour, I have to clean, there is a new show that I want to watch, a new book that I want to read, and the list goes on ad nauseum.
The reality of the matter is that ten months ago I lost my writing partner, the person I bounced ideas off, the person I called when I finished a poem, the person who called me when they finished a poem, the person who recommended new books, the person who I called Dad. As Father’s Day came and went I have found myself writing more, or at least attempting to write. I have been forcing myself to sit and stare at the blinking cursor until something ends up on the page. Usually what ends up on the page could be likened to the scribblings of a kindergartner wielding a giant crayon, but with each attempt I get that much closer to getting back into a groove. I haven’t been happy with much that I have written recently but I have found the process to be very therapeutic. It has been like rekindling a relationship with an old friend I didn’t know I needed in my life so badly.
One of the things I’ve done to help me dive back into writing has been to do some freelance work for a travel blog. I’ve just begun writing for a blog all about Bogota, Colombia. Bogota holds a lot of wonderful memories for me and with these memories, words have begun to spill out on the page. As I revisited some of the familiar sights and smells of the city I thought maybe it would help me to revisit some of the poems my father and I wrote for our book. As I thumbed through the pages I realized I could still bounce things off him. I could see his writing style, see the things that I loved in his work, and the things that he loved in mine. I could still hear him reading his poems and making comments after I read mine. I still talk to him, and while I’ll never know if he hears me I hope I’m not just a crazy person talking to the air. I’d like to think that we join the particles that make up this earth when we pass on. Many times, I could swear he hears me, that my dad really is a part of everything, and that thought helped me to write a poem.
You Will Be
You will be the star
on a starless night
showing me the way
with your guiding light.
The single drop of rain
that splashes on the ground
in the dirt beneath my feet
evaporating without a sound.
The snow that falls overhead
just hanging from the pines.
Branches about to break
like I’ve nearly done so many times.
The air that I breathe
that fills up my chest
fills me with memories
until there’s nothing left.
Sometimes I wonder
where you are today
then the breeze hits my ears
and I hear you say,
“I went back from where I came
So, quiet all your fears.
Go lie in the sun
and let me dry your tears.”
The words still don’t come as easily as they used to, but the rust is flaking off each time I write. I’m sure that writer’s block will strike again. I’ll find new excuses, and new ways to avoid writing altogether but next time I’ll know how to find my way back. For me, it was starting the habit of sitting at the computer, and I found that if I had the time to sit and watch the cursor blink, I certainly had the time to try to churn out coherent sentences. I also found a topic, a point in time, that was filled with wonderful memories and I let it permeate my senses until it came out in words. If you are currently facing the dreaded “block” chip away at it until you tunnel to the other side. Harness the beautiful memories in your life that help the light filter through, and before you know what’s happening the words will find the page, and you will realize that nothing is insurmountable.
The BACCA writers mourn one of our own. Andrea died at Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, VA on 7 June.
Andrea Fisher Rowland spent her childhood years in New Zealand, and thereafter was a Virginia resident for most of her life. She graduated in English from James Madison University, where hers was the first student-written play – entitled “Fancies” – ever presented on the main stage of campus and for which she won the Norman Lear Award for Comedy Playwriting. She earned an MA from the University of Virginia with a concentration in Creative Writing, studying with John Casey and Greg Orr.
She went on to earn a PhD from the University as well, working with Karen Chase and Edgar Shannon. Her dissertation, The Supernatural Muse: Representations of the Creative Impulse in the Fiction of Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens, examines the supernatural figures (ghosts, genii, etc.) appearing in those authors’ works.
She worked as an Assistant Dean and Director of Studies at the University of Virginia, taught composition and literature at Wake Forest University, and taught introduction to theater at James Madison University. She has directed readings and productions of Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights at Wake Forest and at the University of Virginia. Most recently she taught English at Renaissance School in Charlottesville.
Throughout the years, while raising her son Liam, she wrote poetry, plays, and fiction, notably her novel High Tide. In 2017, an excerpt from High Tide was a finalist in the Virginia Festival of the Book Fiction Contest, and her poem, “These Same Fields,” won the Writer House / Jefferson Madison Regional Library Poetry Competition. In 2018, her poem, “Waikato,” was published in Artemis Journal.
A poetry collection, Family Album, was recently published and her novel, High Tide, is forthcoming in 2019, both from Chenille Books.
Andrea and I were co-workers – even co-teachers, occasionally – as well as neighbors, and members of two writing groups together, and friends. We both liked gin & tonics, and we both had jukeboxes on in our heads all the time. We would sing and whistle out loud and give each other earworms. We had one fight that was dumb, and lots of raucous laughter. I liked goats and she liked poetry and we both liked New Zealand. I was organized and she was spontaneous.
I am grateful she is no longer in pain, but I don’t understand yet what it means that she is gone, and I already miss her terribly.
— Bethany Farris
I first met Andrea through her writing. I had moved to Buffalo and she joined BACCA (our writing group) in Charlottesville after I left. Writers know, sharing a draft is like sharing one’s secret self. To send a draft to a virtual stranger takes courage and trust. For my part, I was sharing professional non-fiction writing. It felt low stakes for me. But Andrea was sharing from her novel, High Tide. I was at once intrigued and soothed. I learned from her work that she loved nature, especially things to do with water. As a Pisces and a native Michigander, water connected me to the things she cared about. I also learned that she deeply empathized with our fellow humans, even the most flawed. To quote Anne of Green Gables, I realized Andrea was a kindred spirit before we ever met.
I’m grateful that in June 2017, I could attend a writing retreat, and spend 2 days getting to know Andrea the person as well as the writer. I wish it had been more. She was obviously full of love and rich perspective. She generously and thoughtfully helped me improve my own book, written for teachers. I’m grateful for the chance to know Andrea, and to reflect on knowing her. I look forward to reading her book, and learning more about a very special human being.
— Claire Elizabeth Cameron
Our writing group was looking to add a new member when Bethany introduced us to Andrea. That was a few years ago yet seems like yesterday. I appreciate Andrea’s love for nature and passion for the environment. Her words were always poetic. Her heart was always full. I mourn with her friends and family. She made a difference in the world.
— Carolyn O’Neal
Andrea had already made an impression on me before our writer group considered her as a new member. I met her the previous year at a party. I only knew a little bit about her – from her voice, her presence, and her spontaneous creativity that evening. But I knew I wanted to get to know her, and her words. I was delighted when she joined BACCA.
Meeting monthly, sharing our words and our voices, I grew to admire Andrea and her inventive, perceptive mind. When we became friends, I learned to admire more — like her love of family, her deep knowledge of English literature, her devastating low-key sense of humor, her dedication to her students, and her musicality. Knowing Andrea enriched my life. May her memory be a blessing to all of us who shared our lives with her.
— A M Carley
Time worked its tricky magic on us. Taking something, giving something. Sleight of hand. When I joined BACCA as the sixth member, shortly after Andrea became the fifth, I walked to the table with velvet ropes erected around myself—hopeful that I would find and give help, insight, understanding—but cautious, too. I have found myself in prickly, stingy, even dangerous writing workshops before. In BACCA, I found a safe and generous community.
Andrea was a large part of the comfort I found. She and I were “new” together. We shared a love of poetry, Shakespeare, and music. For all of our shared loves, I knew I had a host to learn from Andrea too. She knew countries I’ve not yet seen. She spoke eloquently in public. She kept a luxurious pace that reminded me to slow down. Most of the time, she seemed composed. Zen-like. Steady. Even if she was remembering something important that she’d forgotten. I also admire the dreamy, lush language of her novel, High Tide, and the lovely way that poetry haunts her prose, evokes. Her characters, two of them in particular, feel real to me. I think about them, and worry about them still.
Time is tricky. Something happens when we meet, month after month, and share this much of ourselves. Somewhere—between seven months and ten—velvet ropes disappeared, caution dissolved, and (without even much fanfare) I realized we were friends. Just when things fall into place, sometimes, time moves again. And now we have to figure out how to do this without her.
— Noelle Beverly
Thanks to Gareth Phillips, Noelle Beverly, and Andrea’s family for the photos.
I began my first hive a few years ago and am happy to report that it is still going strong. Since then, I have acquired more. I’ve read countless articles about all the threats facing honeybees today. From parasites to pesticides, from bears to beetles. According to one statistic, sixty-five percent of the honeybee hives in the state of Virginia died last winter. So my chances for honeybee success are pretty grim. I can’t let the statistics discourage me. I can’t let my passion for my honeybees end because of the naysayers. I enjoy working with honeybees regardless of the outcome. I enjoy beekeeping. Whether my bees thrive or perish. Whether I harvest gallons of honey or none at all. There is joy in the process. These industrious pollinators make our world a better place.
I self-published my first novel a few years ago and am happy to report that I have sales and positive reviews. Since then, I have self published more. I’ve read countless articles about the obstacles facing authors, especially self-published authors. Endless marketing, low sales, no validation for the years of work. So my chances for making a living as an author are pretty grim. I can’t let mere facts discourage me. I can’t let my passion for writing end, even if no one outside friends and family read my books. I enjoy writing. I find it simultaneously relaxing and stimulating. There is joy in the process. Books make our world a better place.
I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat. I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner. It was almost ninety degrees outside. I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.
Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips. Hollywood lips. Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:
December 3, 1974
I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…
I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular. Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.
I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence. Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night. The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face. I rubbed my arms. It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition. Just a tad warmer, please. I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror. I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.
IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH
RAY WILLIAM COOK
The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.
A deep quiet had settled over The Porches. The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder. I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows. I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light. The room glowed. I looked up. I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was. I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer. I returned to bed and turned off the lights.
It was too dark. It was too quiet. I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison. Someone was watching me. I sat up. I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire. That’s all it was. I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.
Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.
Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing. At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.
Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author. She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.
Almost time! Come to downtown Charlottesville for the 2018 Blue Ridge Writers Book and Arts Fair!
Show your support for local talent! Help spread the word everywhere you go by wearing the Blue Ridge Writers Book and Arts Fair t-shirt. Premium quality, multiple colors, men’s and women’s sizes. Only $19.99. Available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G4JXSB6
All I wanted was to research manmade earthquakes. I was pulling together ideas for a new novel about villains triggering an earthquake under a nuclear power plant. I had visions of them rubbing their hands together as they watched chaos unfold. But how could I research such a thing? Where would I go to find something as unlikely, as farfetched, and as absolutely insane as a nuclear power plant built on top of an earthquake fault? Well, lucky for me, there’s one in nearby Louisa County, Virginia.
The North Anna Nuclear Power Plant was announced in The Daily Progress in 1968 and a couple of years later, after clearing and excavation had begun, a geology professor named John W. Funkhouser discovered the earthquake fault. That was in February, 1970. I found many interesting articles about the building of the nuclear power plant and the discovery of the fault but one that really stuck out was a small piece about what happened to Funkhouser three years after he discovered the fault. He was murdered on December 3, 1974 via a single gunshot to the head.
Professor Funkhouser taught geology at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield, Virginia. He was scheduled to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in early 1975, but his murder quashed that appearance. Twenty-four year old unemployed electrician Ray W. Cook, Jr. was convicted of his murder. The more I read, the more questions arose. What brought Funkhouser to the power plant’s construction site back in 1970? How did he uncover the fault? What happened after he told the Virginia Electric and Power Company?
I tried to return to researching for my novel. I found reports of certain human activities triggering earthquakes. Activities such as damming a river to create a massive lake on a previously quiet earthquake fault. This is what geologists call reservoir-induced earthquakes. The construction of Hoover Dam, for instance, created Lake Mead in a part of the country with no previous record of seismicity. Even before the lake was completely full, people reported feeling the ground shake. Another suspect is fracking. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “wastewater produced by the hydraulic fracturing process can cause induced earthquakes when it is injected into deep wastewater wells.” I contacted geologists and a couple of engineers to ask about the plausibility of my villain’s dastardly scheme. Yes, they speculated, a lake on a fault line plus fracking might trigger an earthquake, so I was rather pleased with myself as I moved forward with writing the first few chapters.
But this man, this Professor John W. Funkhouser, the man who discovered the fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant and was murdered, kept surfacing in my mind.
Who was he? What was his background? I searched the internet and found articles about Funkhouser and about his murder, including a copy of his death certificate. I faced the fact that I had to set aside my fictional story. I had to investigate the real one. I printed out the death certificate. Funkhouser was murdered in his home at the Chester Town House Apartments in Chesterfield, Virginia. I searched online for Chester Town House Apartments but found nothing. Since the murder was back in 1974, the apartment complex could have changed its name or may have been torn down. That led me to contact the Chesterfield Planning Department and the Chesterfield Historical Society. Indeed, the name of the apartment complex had changed. I typed the new name into Google Maps. There it was. I typed in John Tyler Community College. The apartments were about eight miles from the campus. Professor Funkhouser was slowly becoming a real person. This was where he lived. This was where he taught. This was where he died. Each new discovery made me want to learn more.
I’d never asked for court records before. I’ve been on a jury but that was my only brush with the world of judges, prosecuting attorneys, and witnesses. I had to do a bit of research even to know where to start. I wanted detail about the trial of Ray W. Cook, Jr. Maybe trial transcripts would give me insight into why he shot Professor Funkhouser. I went to the Chesterfield County website and found what I needed. I contacted the Clerk of Court, The Honorable Wendy S. Hughes, via email and quickly received a polite reply from Karla Viar, Criminal Division Supervisor/Pre-Court, Chesterfield Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. She told me that they’d pulled the files from the murder trial and had them available for me. I emailed Karla. I’d be there the next afternoon.
The drive from my home in Charlottesville to the Chesterfield Circuit Court took a bit over an hour. I parked, grabbed my purse and notebook, and headed to the door. I didn’t know what to expect. Would they hand me a small file with one flimsy document? Would they have a thick file with stacks of evidence? My plan was to take photos of each page with my cell phone. That seemed the easiest. I stepped into the courthouse and was greeted by baggage scanners and armed guards. “No cell phones. No cameras of any sort allowed in the court house.” I returned to the car and dropped off my purse. I returned with only my keys, my notebook, and a pen. That’s all. This time, I made it through security.
Ms. Viar was good to her word. The file was waiting for me. I opened it and began writing. I wrote down every word. “Form No. 716 (REV) Virginia: In the Chesterfield General District Court January 29th, 1975, Commonwealth of Virginia V. Ray William Cook, Jr. Order This day came the Attorney for the Commonwealth, and ….” after writing a few full pages my hand began it cramp. The clerk assigned to sit with me while I had the file must have felt pity on me. “Um, you know we can make copies for you,” she said. “Fifty cents a page.”
“Do you take credit cards?”
I ran back to my car for my wallet. It took an hour or so for her to make and compile all the copies. She copied over fifty pages, most letter length but a few legal papers. There was also a brown envelope taped closed in the file. “What’s that?” I asked.
“What do I have to do to get a look inside?”
“You need approval from the judge.”
I wrote down that name. The information I had in my hands was already pretty incendiary. The copies I held contained details of the crime, a handwritten confession, and a photo; I could only imagine what the sealed documents might hold. Looks like I had some more legal research ahead of me. How to request a judge to unseal court documents? I’d work on that when I got home.
I still had a couple hours of daylight left so I drove over to the John Tyler Community College campus, where Professor Funkhouser had taught. It was winter break. I asked a guard where the geology building was and he sent me in the right direction. I had researched enough about John W. Funkhouser to know he was a brilliant man. Magna Cum Laude at Washington and Lee and a scholarship to Stanford University for his PhD where he was an Atomic Energy Fellow. After graduation, he was hired by Carter Oil (part of Esso/Standard Oil) and was sent on expedition to South America where he revolutionized the field of paleopalynology. In the mid 1960’s, he left big oil for small academia. Peeking through the windows into the dark and empty classrooms I couldn’t help but be struck by the loss.
I still had one more stop before heading back to Charlottesville. I wanted to see the old Chester Townhouse Apartments. I wanted to see where Professor Funkhouser had lived and where he had died. At the very least, I wanted to drive the route he’d taken when he left work at John Tyler Community College and headed home on that final day in 1974.
The apartment complex was laid out like a tree with a road down the middle and cul-de-sacs branching out on either side. I drove down the first cul-de-sac. Some of the two-story townhouses were larger than others, perhaps an extra bedroom. I wanted to take a photo so I’d remember. I didn’t want people or cars in the photo so I found a quiet townhouse and snapped my cell phone camera. I drove to the next cul-de-sac and saw a sign for the apartment complex’s office.
The young woman who greeted me wasn’t even born when Professor Funkhouser died. The office was a converted townhome, a showroom for potential renters to see before they sign. I asked when the complex was built and she guessed in the 70’s or 80’s. I asked if I could look around. She encouraged it. I wandered through the kitchen as if it were Professor Funkhouser’s, touching the surfaces as if he had touched them. He was shot in his kitchen. I’d seen the photo in the court records. He was killed at 4:30 in the afternoon, dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, his pocket protector neatly in his breast pocket, still filled with pencils and pens. I returned to my car and drove to the next cul-de-sac and to the next one after that. Up and down the streets, not knowing what I was looking for. Clues to which townhouse was his, I guess. Something that looked different from the rest, something that would say a genius once lived here.
I was ready to set my GPS for home when it dawned on me that somewhere buried in the court records had to be his apartment number. Yes, the name of the apartment complex had changed and maybe the numbering had too, but I had to give it a try. I found his address in the Virginia Uniform Traffic Summons, a report filled out by the detective who arrested Mr. Cook. The number was there. Five digits. I started reading the townhouse addresses. They fit the same five digit pattern. I retraced my steps, winding back through the apartment complex, carefully reading the addresses until I returned to where I had begun at the very first cul-de-sac. I looked at each number. Not that one. Not that one. Then I found it. There it was. The address was on the front door. I rechecked the summons. Yes, it was the same number. Wait a minute. I checked my cell phone. There was something familiar with that particular townhouse. I opened up the photo gallery. I enlarged the photo I’d taken when I first arrived. Could this be Dr. Funkhouser’s townhouse? There must have been forty or fifty townhomes in the complex, how did I happen to take a photo of his? What were the odds? I reread the number on the front door and immediately felt a connection. All the time I had spent searching for Dr. Funkhouser and he had found me.
Carolyn O’Neal is continuing her research on the life and death of Professor John W. Funkhouser. She wrote Judge Hauler of Chesterfield County and did indeed receive permission to open the sealed files. From those files, she was able to track down a witness and interview him face-to-face. She has also interviewed (via phone) Dr. Funkhouser’s daughter and one of his John Tyler Community College students. Carolyn would like to connect with anyone who had worked at the North Anna Power Plant when it was under construction or lived nearby. She would also like to find anyone involved with the North Anna Environmental Coalition. And of course, she would like to talk to anyone who knew Dr. John W. Funkhouser. Contact Carolyn at email@example.com