I always have. Ever since I was a kid. The taller the story the better. Appalachian folks tell a lot of stories, as do most Southerners. Both my grandfathers were story tellers. Alonzo "Booty" Cooper was a railroad man most of his life, building bridges and laying track through the Appalachians from the Great Depression all the way into the 60s. West Virginia has a lot of railroads. All that coal doesn't just walk out those mountains. Edwin Tally Stinnett was a miner, spending his later years deep beneath the ground. Before that, he was a revenuer in Virginia during Prohibition. I heard stories about mining camps, railroad camps, building bridges, tearing down stills and all the tough men that worked the camps. Met a lot of those men, too. Rough, hard men who could clear a bar in seconds.
My characters come from the images of those long
dead miners, spikers, and bar-room brawlers. They're molded and manipulated into the modern,
tropical version of the heroes of my childhood. A laughing, fun,
carefree bunch, who would be more than content to be left alone by the
outside world, particularly the government. But, if you step on one of their toes, you'll hear a collective, "Ouch!"
These folks have
been in my head since I was big enough to walk. My parents are in there,
along with many of their friends, like Shorty and Dreama, who lived across the ridge from Mamaw Cooper. Just a
half mile, but it took two hours to walk it. The old moonshiner's road
along Coal River was faster, but it went through town. These people have
been in my head for over half a century. I catch bits and pieces of
long ago conversations and stories from my grandpas, my dad and his
friends and play them over and over in my head, changing the pitch and
setting until they're right. These little Earlisms, Merrillisms, and
Bootyisms come out in my books. Dad was a Master Carpenter and had hundreds of hand tools in dozens of tool boxes, some he hardly ever used. "Better to have it and not need it boy,
than need it and not have it." So my characters have things they rarely
use. Hey, what's a 45' fishing boat without a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the cockpit?
if all those stories from my childhood weren't enough (we're talking
'50s and '60s here), every generation of my dad's family has had
wanderers and I was my generation's wanderer, meeting people and gathering stories along the way. We go back to before the
Revolution in central Virginia, but I have distant cousins in Oregon,
Texas, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and New
Jersey, just to name a few. There's only one Stinnett first cousin left in West Virginia, an adopted son of my dad's brother. Stinnetts wander around. There's a whole lot of us in
Virginia. The wandering Stinnetts came out of there, but a lot stayed, the rooted Stinnetts.
The wanderers leave home early. Papaw Stinnett took his family to West Virginia in the
'30s to work in the mines. Only a hundred miles, but the story told is
that it took nearly a week to get across those mountains back then. Papaw up and decided one day he wanted to be a
miner. Actually, that was just an excuse. He spent two years in prison. Remember I said he
was a revenuer during Prohibition? He shot a moonshiner in
the butt while busting up a still. Great story.
My dad moved us
from West Virginia to Florida in the 60's, looking for work as a
carpenter. He just up and left for a week, then came back and gathered
up his wife and four kids and departed from the snowy mountains in early February and never looked back. That move took two days, but today, it'd only take one. He'd made up his mind while sitting on a beach in shorts and a
teeshirt watching the moon rise over the ocean a few weeks after Christmas. Another great story.
I grew into my teen years,
surfing, sailing, swimming, fishing, and diving the Florida coast from Melbourne to Key West. There was always another shore
break down the beach, or another reef to fish and dive on, so I kept wandering. At 16, I reached
the Florida Keys and met a lot of the characters I later put in my books and I gathered more stories. Like the time I was walking Duval Street with some friends and a girl rode by and wrecked her bike. She was bleeding and some guy helped her up, said he was a doctor and leaned her backwards across the hood of a car, while "checking" her for other injuries under her clothes. Yeah, another great story.
I got to see a little of the world as a Marine and
after that I saw a lot of the Caribbean Basin. I was my generation's designated wanderer. My youngest brother lived in the same town we moved to in Florida all
his life and my sister's still there. One brother moved to Tennessee, but that was his one and only big move and he was just following family. The others moved back to Florida, tired of wandering, but his roots had taken hold in the rocks.
I lived in North Carolina, in Japan, the Florida Keys on a boat, Colorado, Minnesota, Cozumel, Mexico, Andros Island, in the Bahamas, Dominica, in the Lesser Antilles, back to Florida, and at the age of 43, I moved to South Carolina to start a new family. I was an over the road trucker for 12 years, wandering from Miami, to Portland, to San Diego, to Kennebunk, and everywhere in between. I've lived here in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains for almost 15 years now, longer than any four other places combined and my roots are getting long in the red clay. So we're up and moving this summer. I'm over two hundred miles from the ocean and it makes my
head hurt. Or maybe it's all the voices in there, clamoring for attention.
Yeah, I just like to tell stories and wander around. Thanks to Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Down Island Press, I can tell my stories far and wide, right from the comfort of my recliner. So maybe I don't have to wander anymore.