Tag Archives: Quiet Deception

Revisiting the Melungeons, Spur to a Story

When I was growing up in Tennessee, I was fascinated by legends about the Melungeons. The legends told of a mysterious people, with European practices, already in the Appalachians when the earliest white settlers arrived.

Speculation abounded, even as the group was shunned, a dark people, looked down on by many of the newcomers. Were they descendants of whites married to native Americans? Descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors off the coast of North Carolina? Descendants of free blacks married to native Americans? Descendants of the Lost Colony of Virginia, which vanished from history at the end of the 16th century? Or even descendants of European Jews escaping persecution?

Imagine my surprise when I picked up a copy of The Economist (August 27, 2016) to find an article on the Melungeons. The author had traveled to “Snake Hollow . . . between the ridge and Powell Mountain and hard on Tennessee’s northeastern border.” Stories from that neck of the woods don’t often make it into the pages of an international magazine. The article concludes with a quote from the president of the Melungeon Heritage Association: “The Melungeons . . . are part of the fabric of Appalachia. The fabric of America.”

A few years ago, I put the Melungeons into a story of mine, Quiet Deception, a hybird mystery/romance set on the mythical college campus of Adair in one of my favorite places, the Appalachians of east Tennessee. I called them the Painter Mountain people. One of the Painter Mountain people attends Adair, the first in her family to enter college. Her sympathetic understanding of the distraught main character gives this character an incentive to find answers to two mysteries, including a possible origin for some Painter Mountain people. . . .

Why We Enjoy Stories Set in Small Communities

The village is an ideal setting for character development, especially a mystery. Even some of the detectives in the hard boiled genre chase their suspects in locales far from New York or London. The Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill is set in the cathedral town of Lafferton, England, an idyllic seeming town. Yet crimes happen there, and the small town setting emphasizes them.

Character-driven mysteries (my favorites) typically involve a small number of characters. Time is required to develop each character, including, of course, suspects. Thus, small communities are ideal, since the inhabitants are more likely to be known to each other (supposedly). Characters can easily be introduced through other characters.

Quiet DeceptionOne of my novels (Quiet Deception) is set in a small college town and is my only straight mystery. The others contain a twist of mystery, but I’m more interested in how the characters evolve and the moral dilemmas they face.

Several of my novels are set in diplomatic communities. Having experienced these, I know how ideal this setting is for character development. A few Americans are assigned to work together and live in a foreign country for the common purpose of representing the United States through various tasks. Normally, they will include ambitious, work driven types as well as those highly motivated to serve their country. Sprinkle in a few significant others in close proximity and add a complex character with an enigmatic past. Then mix in problems from the foreign surroundings, such as hostility toward Americans. You have a ready-made setting for conflict.


Father, Dad, Mother, Mom


Our names for our parents or parent figures, the first adults we meet on coming into this world, tell a great deal about us: culture, age, status, and of course relationship with the parents.

I called my father “Daddy.” I never remember using “Dad.” I think this reflects my Southern heritage. I called my mother “Mom” most of the time, though occasionally my brother and I in talking of her would use the more affectionate Southern term “Mama.”

The parental terms used by the characters in my stories mirror these characteristics. In A Sense of Mission, Ethan, raised by elite New England parents, calls his father “Dad,” never “Daddy.” His mother he calls “Mother.” His aunt, brought up in an even more traditional atmosphere, called her parents “Mother” and “Father.”

Ethan’s son Brendan, reflecting their more intimate status, calls Ethan “Daddy” until he reaches a certain age, then calls him “Dad.”

Byron, the abused son in Quiet Deception, calls his father “Pop,” reflecting both ridicule and his social status.

Our names for the ones with whom we begin our lives mirror the affection (or lack of) that we first learn from them.

Time as Character


In my novel Quiet Deception, one of the “characters” is the time in which it is set. The period is the era between 1944 and 1977.

World War IIAt the beginning of this era, the United States led her allies to defeat the Axis powers, Germany and Japan. Wars dramatically change the social fabric, and World War II, so immense and terrible, was bound to spawn changes that reverberate today.

Most other countries were either exhausted by the conflict or undeveloped. The United States entered the world stage as the premier nation, following other civilizations that previously knew a period of glory.

We Americans reached a material level unparalleled in history. We became the strongest economically and militarily. Dishwashers and the pill, microwaves and woman’s liberation, suburbs and open marriage changed our society. Christians didn’t realize it at the time, but their influence hit a high point before entering a time of great challenge.

Quiet DeceptionIt is this period which becomes one of the characters of Quiet Deception.

The main protagonists, a college professor and one of his students, stake out new territory. Along with their friends and colleagues, they cross the margin from the older world to the one we know today.

Within the framework of an unsolved mystery, the characters reach decisions about the paths they will take from the many that the times offer. What will they retain from the older world? Though they interact with each other, they interact also with those times of change.

To Community


A journalist friend of mine coined the verb phrase “to community.” He said we needed a verb form for the act of coming together in kinship-minded groups.

The protagonists in my stories often “community.” Their stories are sewn within the larger fabric of history, but the characters meld into community as they resolve issues in their lives. I don’t plan it that way, but for some reason, my characters can’t operate without this fellowship. It may be one of expatriate Americans in a foreign locale, or an impromptu group formed on a train, or a new family by marriage. The stories involve all kinds of plots, but the community forms in the midst of the action.

In Singing in Babylon, Kate and Philip find community in a home church in Saudi Arabia, then with Philip’s family. In Quiet Deception, a mystery set on a college campus, four students form friendships while some of their professors share shortcomings with their colleagues. In Searching for Home, Christian families bond in embassy communities in the Middle East as terrorism threatens. In Distant Thunder, it’s a group of strugglers who meet on a train, between Washington and Seattle, each at a decision point in their lives.

Communities are formed sometimes by age or interest and sometimes by circumstances that turn acquaintances into friends, then into members of a community. As my characters live out their stories, they teach me that Christianity is very much a community religion.

Thoughts On Themes As My Latest Book Is Published

The main protagonists in my stories suffer the death of loved ones, marriage breakups, career stress, romantic relationships, and challenges to childhood dreams. Deeper conflicts underlie these issues. Usually the characters are Americans of the Christian persuasion. But their conventional Christianity often is jarred by sojourns in countries influenced by other religions.

After the characters experience their faith as a minority religion, they can no longer accept it simply because it was a part of their upbringing. When they understand the unique message of Christianity, they return home stronger in this faith than when they left.

However, they remain, in a sense, in exile. Their conventional religion has become more subversive, standing in contrast to the materialism and self-centeredness they perceive “at  home.”

In both Singing in Babylon and Searching for Home, the protagonists live for a time in countries where another faith is predominant. In Quiet Deception, the background is the relentless change in the United States during the decades following World War II. This change is noted by one of the characters, a Vietnam veteran.

Distant Thunder, just released, happens in contemporary America, much of it in that iconic American experience of a journey west. But three of the characters have foreign experiences which contrast with those of the fourth, who’s never been out of the United States. One character recounts her experiences in the North African country of Algeria, once the domain of early church leaders like Augustine, but bereft of all but a few Christians today. “Nothing’s left but ruins,” another character agrees, referring to the ruins of ancient churches. Not persecution someone points out, “more like the Christian community just faded away.”

Perhaps by living “subversively,” not in violent subversion, but in the subversive life of love, they will be part of a renewal and prevent a similar fading away of their own faith communities.