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Truth in Fiction

Posted on October 15, 2015 By In Historical Background , Writing With no comments

Someone asked me recently, “How much is fiction and how much is truth?” Great question which I’ll attempt to answer by revealing some of my research.

It is also important to define the genre, Historical Fiction:  Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past

That definition is a very broad stroke and leaves considerable room for sub-genres like romance, mystery, etc.  Personally, I am drawn to Historical Fiction because I’m old.  Just kidding. I like the genre because it creates mood, feeling, and color.

When writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, I had a very specific geographic region and time period in mind that related to historical characters. The places referenced are very real and for the most part still exist. Most of the dates are accurate although there are some that are speculative and based on my best guestimate. For example: Charlie’s 1918 WWI draft registration is spot on because I found the original registration document. He registered at the Shenandoah County Courthouse in Woodstock, VA.

WWI Draft Registration p.1

WWI Draft Registration p.1

charlie draft p2

WWI Draft Registration p.2

Many of the Wissler family events are linked to accurate dates based on stories uncovered in Woodstock, Virginia’s Shenandoah Herald.  From November 11, 1891, I found the following article concerning the purchase of Strathmore.

Frank Wissler Purchases Strathmore

Frank Wissler Purchases Strathmore

Check out all the valuable info revealed in an account of John Wissler, Jr’s wedding from June 24, 1910.

John Wissler, Jr. Wedding

John Wissler, Jr. Wedding

In one scene in the story, when Charlie’s father, Bill, is belittling him, he references his deceased child, John. That idea was based on a Herald article from June 23, 1905.

Death of Bill Polk's son

Death of Bill Polk’s son

Although I had done considerable ancestry research on my family, I was unaware of my Great, Great, Grandmother Teeny Shown.  Well, actually I had uncovered her name, but did not know that she was called Teeny or that she was somewhat famous.  Until discovering the following article, from February 13, 1909, I only knew that her name was Christina.

Teeny Shown

Teeny Shown

Golden historical nuggets are found by asking lots of questions.  That “who, what, where, when, why, and how” that was drummed into me by a high school English teacher, keeps me busy. Example: What about travel in the Shenandoah Valley of 1910? How would it differ from travel just 10 years later? Surely automobiles began to enter the picture but when and how many and what kind? Horses, horse drawn wagons, horse drawn buggies, mule and buggy, oh yeah, and miles and miles of walking.  Back then, walking was not for exercise, it was a necessary form of transportation.  But wait. The IN mode of transportation was by train.  Check out the following train schedule from 1910 and notice how it linked the towns of the Valley.

Valley Train Schedule

Valley Train Schedule

For me, Historical Fiction is a work in progress. There’s the initial research and then continual research until I hit those coveted words, “The End.”

So, in answer to the original interrogative, “How much is truth and how much is fiction?” Truth is the anchor and used as accurately as possible and fiction is where creative imagination breathes life, emotion, and interest into the story. 50/50? Uh, maybe. Whatever a good story requires.

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A Magical Place Called Orkney

Posted on October 13, 2015 By In Historical Background With no comments

If you travel to Mt. Jackson, VA, which provides much of the setting for IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, then hang a left (if traveling north) onto Highway 263, you will ultimately arrive in the community of Orkney Springs.  Just keep driving until the road runs out.  Takes just 20 minutes and, I promise, you’re in for quite a surprise.

As you drive along 263, you’ll see a lot of farmland, and cows, and hay.  You get the picture. But then, right there in the middle of what you have decided is nowhere…there stands this impressive grand hotel.  Then you wonder, “How the heck did that get there?”

Orkney Springs Hotel

Orkney Springs Hotel

The Grand Hotel at Orkney is said to be Virginia’s largest wooden structure.  Couldn’t prove it by me but there is definitely a lot of wood. Been around since 1873 and was, once upon a time, a very popular resort, where society’s elite gathered to take advantage of the alleged healing powers of the springs.

I first discovered it in 1964, thanks to my high school band director, who thought it an excellent place for me to advance my musical education.  It was the second year for the Shenandoah Music Festival.

Back then, some of the world’s finest classically trained musicians came to Orkney for a workshop and whatever else happens when musicians get together.

Again in 1965, I returned for lessons from a trombonist with the National Symphony out of DC.  An exciting time, for sure.

I recall sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel while watching one of the musicians compose a symphonic piece.  Later, at the annual concert, his stunning work debuted.

Across the road from the Grand Hotel stands a gazebo by a pond, where a French Horn quartet gathered to play in the afternoon.  No audience…they were just there for themselves, but that magnificent sound filled the countryside.

The symphony rehearsed in the upstairs ballroom.  I stood on the wraparound porch, peered through the open windows, and observed professionals at work.  It was an eye opening experience for a kid from a small town, enough to inspire me to pursue a musical career.

In the winter of 1966 I was accepted into the Navy Band.  4 years later, I left the band to pursue a career in radio.

Orkney at night

Orkney at night

Upon coming home I met a beautiful girl named Janet and we started dating.  On a chilly and gray day in the Fall of 1970, I took her to Orkney, and once again there was music, but of a different kind.  No musicians. Just the sound of a gentle breeze rustling through colorful autumn leaves and the hearts of two people beating as one.  In that awesomely romantic setting, Janet and I realized that we were falling in love.  That was 45 years ago, we’re still together, and the music is still playing.

In 1979, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia purchased the old resort to be used as a retreat.  I’m happy to see that the music festival is still alive and well, an annual event, that has featured some pretty impressive talent over the years.

Folks used to believe that there were healing powers in the springs of Orkney.  Can’t tell you for sure if that is true or not.  But it will always have a special place in my heart.

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Name That Tune

Posted on October 1, 2015 By In Historical Background With no comments

As soon as I give you just a few minor details you will be able to “name that tune.”  It has been around for years, originated in the 1800s, and somehow became a popular tune for ocean going sailors.  A country group from Muscle Shoals took it’s name (If Bubba Can Dance).  For you old timers, Jimmy Stewart starred in a movie by the same name.  Of greater significance, there is a famous river that runs through the Valley of Hope with that same name.  Got it yet?  Of course, you do.

When I was growing up, Shenandoah was all around me.  I lived in the Shenandoah Valley, in Shenandoah County, and the Shenandoah River ran through my home town.  One of the first songs we played in the high school band was Oh, Shenandoah.  What have I done?  That tune will be rambling in my head all day.

As a kid, I fished in that famous river.  My grandmother packed my lunch and off I would go with a friend and we would spend the day catching everything from shoes to strange looking river creatures.

Once, while visiting a friend who lived on a farm by the Shenandoah, we found an old boat and took it for a short run down the river.  Not that we intended for it to be a short trip, it’s just that the boat had a hole in it.  She went down not far from shore.

When I was researching IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE the Shenandoah River was unavoidable.  All the towns in the story are near the river: Edinburg, Woodstock, Mt. Jackson.  The river was essential to the survival and livelihood of the farmers who settled there.

Meems Bottom Bridge

Meems Bottom Bridge

Land close to a river is particularly fertile and is called ‘bottom land.’  Thus the name of the famous landmark near Mt. Jackson, Meems Bottom Covered Bridge.  ‘Meems’ for the man who owned the land and who first built the bridge.  ‘Bottom’ for the type of land by the river.

In an earlier post I mentioned that we have a tendency to take our surroundings for granted.  It took moving away for me to appreciate the beauty and history of the Valley.  I never knew that the Shenandoah was such a winding river or that it was a tributary of the Potomac River or that it runs for 100 miles into West Virginia.

Here’s a nice version of the song and some appropriate scenery to go with it.

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And now, it’s movie time.  Grab your popcorn and enjoy, the 1965 flick, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart.

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Lessons Learned from Your First Job

Posted on September 27, 2015 By In Encouragement With no comments

Do you remember your first job?  Do you recall what you learned from that gig?

My first employment opportunity, other than mowing my neighbors grass, came when I was sixteen at the Virginia Restaurant in Strasburg, Virginia.  Not certain that there was a job title assigned to my position but I’ll just call it “Gross Removal Specialist,” or GRS.

Virginia Restaurant

Virginia Restaurant

As Gross Removal Specialist it was my responsibility to empty and clean the grill grease buckets and carry out the garbage and trash.  That was in the days when people still smoked in restaurants and their empty plates became ash trays.  Nothing like an extinguished cigarette in a pile of ketchup and French fries.  It took me several weeks on the job before I could perform my tasks without gagging.

More troubling was the reaction I received from many of the customers.  The Virginia Restaurant was the primary hangout for teenagers in my hometown and among them, some of my friends, who thought it was a riot seeing me in my apron cleaning up their garbage.

I also discovered that other employees like to criticize your work.  “The other boy that used to do this didn’t do it that way.”  “You missed a spot.”  “Are you always that slow?”

It wasn’t exactly full-time employment but it was steady work  requiring at least a two hour effort, seven days a week for a dollar a day.  Yep, seven big bucks a week.  Now that was in 1965 when you could still buy a Coke for a dime or a long Coke for a nickel.   “What’s a long Coke?” you ask.  It was mixed at the soda fountain.  Less syrup, more carbonated water.

Did I like the job?  Nope.  Hated it.  But I did like the proud moment every week when my boss, Buggy, handed me my $7.  Yes, his name was Buggy and the cook’s name was Pearlie.  They were brothers.

What did I learn?  Jobs are not always pleasant or enjoyable. Sometimes they are demeaning and your co-workers can be critical and unkind.  And there will be times when the best thing about your job is…getting a paycheck.

Jump ahead 40 years.  There is no such thing as the perfect job where everything is just the way you like it.  That’s true no matter the level you attain on the success ladder.

The key to surviving in an unpleasant work environment or, for that matter, any unpleasant situation in life…is an attitude of gratitude.  Put another way, be thankful for what you’ve got and go with what God gives you.  Make the best of every moment while striving for something better IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.

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Where Do You Call Home

Posted on September 26, 2015 By In Historical Background With no comments

What’s that old saying, “Home is where the heart is?”  I attempted a little research on how many homes the average person lives in…in a lifetime.  Couldn’t find anything concrete.  Some suggested every five to seven years.  Others offered three to five in a lifetime.  So, I’ll go with…it’s just different for all of us.

For the record, I’ve lived in twenty-four homes in my lifetime.  That’s a different place just about every three years.  Most of those moves have been the result of job or career changes.  Oh, did I mention that I hate moving?

How many homes have you lived in over the years?  And…if more than one, which one of those is “where your heart is?”

The Polk House in Strasburg

The Polk House in Strasburg

In my book, IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, Charlie and Mable made their first home together at Strathmore near Mt. Jackson, Virginia.  That was in 1919.  But, as I have said before, “life happens.”  Ultimately, Charlie Polk left the farming that he loved and, in the 1940s, he and Mable bought a home in Strasburg, Virginia.  It was the only home they ever owned.  Paid $500 for it on installments of $11 per month.  That’s where they lived until they both died in the 1980s.

It was there, at that rickety old house, where I would often spend the night when I was just a pup.  And then “life happened,” again.  Daddy died, mom suffered a stroke, and in the eighth grade, that house on Capon Street became my home.  Lived there until joining the Navy out of high school.

I love the place where I live now, in Calera, Alabama.  But, all things considered, my grandparent’s house in Strasburg, Virginia will always be the place I call home.  So, I suppose there is something to “home is where the heart is.”

How about you?  Where do you call home?

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The Love You May Be Missing

Posted on September 25, 2015 By In Encouragement With no comments

There is an old saying about “older and wiser.”  If that’s the case then I must be busting at the seams with wisdom.

Actually, time is a great teacher.  There’s a wealth of knowledge to be learned from experience.

When I was writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, I thought more about my grandfather, Charlie Polk, well, more than ever.  He always took a backseat in my affections mainly because I didn’t think he really loved me all that much.

My grandmother was always demonstrating her love for me.  She cooked my favorite meals, bought me whatever I needed, and was very vocal in her affection.  Never had a doubt that she loved me.

Granddaddy was quiet, seldom ever said a word to me, and even when he did it was in the form of a little tune he would hum when he didn’t like my behavior.  He drove an old station wagon in which he hauled hay and feed and…smelly animals.  When the weather was bad he took me to school in the “Embarassmobile.”

The only time I can ever recall him saying anything about me that translated into “he loves me” was when I was 10-years-old.  It was the day of my daddy’s funeral.  On that rainy day in Reliance, Virginia, while standing in the cemetery with my grandparents, I heard him say to my grandmother, “Mable, we’ve got another boy to raise.”

Another clue was on the day I kicked a football through an upstairs window.  He didn’t kill me.  I’m willing to accept that as an act of love.

Here, however, is what I was missing.  In fact, I would be willing to bet that many of us are guilty of the same thing.  He used to take me to places in which I had zero interest.  Took me to the livestock sale in Woodstock, to the field where he kept his cattle, to the hog pen where he slopped the hogs, and one day he took me to a place called Strathmore (the setting for IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE).

Charlie Polk & Janet

Charlie Polk & Janet

What did all that mean?  He was sharing what he loved to demonstrate his love.

When I married Janet he beamed.  Happiest I’ve ever seen him.  The first thing he did was take her to see his cattle and when he found out that she loved horses, he bought one.

Chances are there is somebody in your life who has expressed their love for you in a way that is difficult for you to grasp.  Maybe it’s time to rethink that relationship.  You might just find the love you have been missing.

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Towns of the Valley

Posted on September 24, 2015 By In Historical Background With no comments

IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE mentions many towns in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia but there are three that are key to the story, Mt. Jackson, Edinburg, and Woodstock.  Thankfully, these communities, nestled midst the mountains surrounding the Valley, have preserved much of their rich history.  Many of the historic buildings remain as a reminder of a storied past.

Mt. Jackson

Mt. Jackson Historic District

Mt. Jackson Historic District

This would have been the town most accessible to the Wisslers and the Showns.  Strathmore is only 2 miles from town and St. Mary’s Pine Church (the Showns lived next door) is 3 miles away.

In the early 1900’s, the time in which the novel is set, Mt. Jackson was more wealthy than its neighboring communities.  The major road, the Valley Pike (now Route 11) ran through the town and there was also an active rail line which made it attractive to area farmers, like the Wisslers of Strathmore, for getting their produce and livestock to market.

As revealed in the book, John and Ada Wissler left Strathmore (Frank Wissler and his family remained) and purchased a home on Main Street in Mt. Jackson.  The church they attended, St. Andrews, traces its beginning to 1876 and the St. Andrews chapel was donated by Ada Wissler.


Edinburg Mill

Edinburg Mill

Important to the farmers in the Valley in the early twentieth century was the Edinburg Mill.  The mill started operation in 1813, was rebuilt in 1848, and then nearly destroyed by fire during General Sheridan’s scorched earth campaign during the Civil War.  The mill was restored and remained in operation until 1978.  The story goes that it was actually some local women who saved the mill from being totally destroyed.  Their argument for saving the facility was sufficient to cause the Union soldiers to turn away.


Shenandoah County Courthouse, Woodstock, VA

Shenandoah County Courthouse

Woodstock has a rich history dating back to 1761.  The town’s charter was sponsored by a fellow you may recall from your history books, George Washington.  Its also the County Seat and where Charlie Polk and Frank Wissler III registered for the WWI draft.  Oh, and did I mention that the courthouse, built in 1795, was designed by Thomas Jefferson?  Of less significance, it’s the same courthouse where my granddaddy, Charlie Polk, took me for my first driver’s test, which I failed.  Surely that event is commemorated with a plaque or a memorial of some kind.

An observation – those old places that we see every day are usually just a part of the scenery.  But if we’ll just take time to take a closer look there is a wealth of lessons to be learned IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.

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