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Local Newspapers are essential for nonfiction writers

My research of Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s almost entirely depends on local newspapers.  I am investigating the impact of the discovery of an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in central Virginia on the man who discovered it, on local farmers who lost their land to the project, and on the nuclear power industry in the United States. 

Nothing beyond the most meager facts about the power plant in rural Louisa County, Virginia can be found on Wikipedia.  Nothing can be found on Twitter or Facebook or any of the plethora of social media sites that have materialized faster than lawsuits in our endlessly litigious world.  

That’s why I am extremely grateful to Louisa County’s own local newspaper, The Central Virginian, for not only articles about the origins of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant but also their vivid photos that capture the enormous scale and impact of the project.

Archives of The Central Virginian aren’t online, at least not for the years I was investigating, 1968 to 1975.  I called the Louisa County Public Library and learned that the library had The Central Virginian newspapers neatly organized by year, bound in thick books, and stored in their easily accessible stacks. They aren’t on microfilm like The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville local newspaper.  I actually had to open the large bound books and inspect page after page of The Central Virginian to find what I needed.  I’d take a photo of the article or image and email it to myself.   Once home, I transcribed the article or copied the image for use in my research.  

As my research grew, I developed a fondness to certain reporters who took the time to interview the property owners affected by the construction of the nuclear power plant.  I felt like I shared a common interest with these reporters, especially one particular reporter who worked for the larger regional newspaper, The Richmond Times-DispatchJean Purcell worked the Louisa County beat for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and dug deep into the lives of the people who lived there.  Farmers and teachers and politicians, she interviewed them all.  She reported on the announcement of the nuclear power plant construction, on the people that lost their farms to the project, and the controversies surrounding the discovery of the earthquake fault under the power plant site.  Then, all of a sudden, her articles stopped.  I was heartbroken.  I had lost a wise and dependable friend.  I searched for her name on the web and discovered she’d retired and became involved with other activities. Ms. Purcell has since passed but I was able to find one of her children on Facebook and send them a message to tell them how much I greatly admired their mother’s reporting.

The demise of local and regional newspapers is a huge loss for current society and future historians.  Too many of us get our news from TV pundits, Twitter provocateurs, or Facebook friends.  Where will future historians go to discover the small current events that ripple out and change history?

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By Guide and By Feel

Every story seems to unfold according to its own logic, its own rules, and its own design. While working on my latest fiction project, I’ve realized that it hardly matters if I’ve put a novel together before—the process is different this time. The story is teaching me how to tell it as I go.

My first novel popped up from a dream like a beribboned gift—equipped with a title, characters, a primary plot, a beginning and an ending. Knowing where the story was going helped guide me through the process—all I had to do was keep writing the scenes that I knew needed to exist. They accumulated, not always in order, but all of them over time, and bit by bit. For the order and organization of these scenes, I didn’t have a guide. I had to go by feel. I’ve said before it was like watching an intricate ship emerge from the water—parts that seemed separate at first were revealed to be connected, a part of the greater whole.

For this latest fiction project, I had no plot in mind when I started. Instead, the two main characters showed up first, arriving with distinct voices and (mostly) formed personalities. Beyond the roughest idea, I didn’t know what these characters would do or where the story would take them, but I knew their voices and I knew how they wanted to talk to each other. When I needed to write a new chapter, their voices beckoned, guiding me in. Many chapters later, they guide me still. All I have to do is put those two into a scene together and the dialog almost seems to write itself. I have pages and pages of them conversing—and they never fail to delight me, to make me think, or to make me laugh. Sounds a little too easy…it isn’t. My characters may show me the way in, but the rest—world-building, plot construction—is up to me.

If I had the characters and a ready plot, too, like I did before, maybe this would be like walking through one of those meditative, unicursal labyrinths: one way through and just follow your feet to the end. Without both elements, I find myself in the multicursal labyrinth—the maze. From an aerial view the maze makes sense, the solution is easy to spot, but from inside the maze it’s a different story, and it’s best to prepare for a challenge. While feeling my way through this latest novel, I’ve had some missteps, even reached a dead end and had to double back, start again.

Maybe, at times, a puzzle is best. Good stories need struggle. They need turmoil and huffing and puffing. They need risk and failure. Second chances and second tries. Maybe the storyteller also needs some of these things to keep writing, to stay intrigued. I have plenty of those easy dialog scenes piled up and ready to go, but my favorite parts of my new novel might be the puzzle-box chapters, the ones that kept me up past my bedtime and asserted their conundra into my dreams. Both ways, by guide and by feel, are gifts of the process. The unicursal labyrinth entices, and the maze (after some work) rewards.

Writing takes courage. It’s an adventure, a quest of sorts, with helpers and obstacles. Writers may look like they’re doing very little while sitting in a café, or camped at their desk, hardly moving for blocks of time. But really, they’re creating something out of nothing, inventing worlds from scratch. Fans used to throw posies or silk hankies at their champions as they faced down danger. Maybe instead, we can just check on each other now and then—see if anyone needs a Chai or something. Hydration is easy to forget when you’re in the maze.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhotos by the author. 

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Back in the Black Forest: Revisiting the Grimms


Sixty Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm, 1979 (translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas, illustrated by Arthur Rackham)

I’ve returned to my old stomping grounds: the classic fairy tales. Rereading has always been a happy pastime for me. I was one of those kids—ready to start over with Once upon a time as soon as I’d heard The End. It’s comforting to revisit a story, to be delighted again by characters and ideas, even when you know what’s going to happen at the end.

Under the guidance of some master storytellers and interpreters of the form (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, Angela Carter, and others), I’ve learned that rereading can uncover new things, too. Especially if I’m willing to pull back traditional interpretations to search with fresh eyes, or if I’m ready to examine gaps and silences instead of just leaping straight over them. This time through the Brothers Grimm, I’m looking around the corners in the stories, mining fissures to find what may be hiding there. I’m also trying to peer back into the eyes of the storytellers to see if they have anything else they might like to say. Here’s an example…

Remember The Frog Prince? (A princess drops her golden ball in a well, a frog offers to retrieve it—for a price. She agrees, but as soon as her favorite toy is recovered, she runs off, leaving the frog in the lurch.) Conventional analyses of this story tend to focus on the importance of integrity and keeping your promises. In the story, when the king hears the details, he makes his daughter fulfill her obligations. So, Froggy gets to eat from her plate and she even has to carry him up to her room. There’s nothing wrong with learning to keep your word, but I can’t stop thinking about what happens next…

Detail from Rackham illustration: “So she seized him with two fingers, and carried him upstairs.”

When the frog tries to crawl into her pretty, silken bed, the princess slams him against the wall. Now, for the record, I do not condone violence against animals—it’s just the princess’s anger here that fascinates me. There’s a line she can’t cross, even to please the king. She made this bargain in haste without really considering the consequences, and when payment comes due, it’s too much. So, she gets mad.

Here’s the funny thing—the pothole in the story that I’ve always been encouraged to skate past—her anger IS the necessary catalyst required for transformation.

After Froggy hits the wall, he pops back into his original, charming prince form—no kissing required! It seems like the original storyteller here understood that keeping your word is important, but protecting your boundaries when you’ve entered into a bad bargain might be even more rewarding. That little facet of this story really holds up—in fact, it seems made for readers today.

There are a host of reasons why teachers and mentors and gurus have used stories to pass their wisdom down. Stories are easier to remember, for one thing. But they can also be elastic—they can grow and bend and twist with us. Narratologists have noted that fairy tales were likely never meant (just) for the children gathered around the fire, but told for the benefit and entertainment of everyone listening.

For me, all of this means that I never have to outgrow these tales—but I know if I return, I might discover that my allegiances have changed. I’m sure I’ll always want to see Hansel and Grethel escape the cannibalistic witch, but I’m less excited to see a damsel in distress get rescued and married off to her champion before she’s had a chance to grow up properly, to rescue herself, or to see the world. It’s likely that the endings might change for me too; I expect them to feel a bit more ambiguous. The sense of justice in happily ever after or they all got what they deserved depends entirely on who we’re cheering for.

Increasingly, I’m much more intrigued by the wish-granters and the catalysts now—those enigmatic figures lurking at the edge of the forest or in the bends of the path, offering help and advice and resources to the worthy and the curious. I confess I’m also sympathizing more and more with the solitary crone—minding her business, growing herbs in the forest— who’ll defend her territory if she has to, even though she might much rather just be left in peace. I must be entering a new phase.

I know of readers who reject the notion of going over old ground, but some books seem to be worthy of a return trip. I’m often tempted to seek out a good story again and again so I can see it from all sides, examine its facets, and imagine myself in each one of its thousand little worlds. And, as a writer, it’s one of my goals to make stories that are worthy of a second look—to create books with capacious themes, and ideas that bloom, and characters that hold new gifts in their hands every time a reader comes around.

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Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author. Illustrations in photos by Arthur Rackham.