Category Archives: Bottle Tree

A Writer’s Goal

After a long day at the Dallas International Book Fair we returned home and I put in the movie Battleship for some mind numbing entertainment. I don't know if you've seen Battleship but it was panned to a certain extent. I've found that many movies which the critics hate, I love. I don't love Battleship, but I do enjoy it and as I was watching it I realized that the writers managed to achieve at least one goal in the movie, they evoked an emotion from me.

One thing that I always react to in movies is when a person exhibits quiet or selfless heroism. I don't mean the one where Arnold Schwarenegger walks out into a bunch of enemies firing a mini-gun. To get a reaction from me it has to be authentic. Battleship achieved this in a very, very subtle way, when one of the characters has lost his modern destroyer and is wanting to take the old battleship the Missouri to fight the bad guys. Another character mentions they don't have enough people to man the ship, and the next shot shows a number of elderly ex-crewmen from the Missouri who now work on what is a museum.

The idea that these elderly men were wiling to take this 70 year old battleship into a fight with aliens who had destroyed the most modern naval vessels in a matter of minutes choked me up.

When I write, it is that type of emotion that I hope to evoke in my reader at least once. Unfortunately, it's not easy to do and there are some books that don't lend themselves to that type of reaction. Junebug and the Body, for instance, will make you laugh but that type of emotional scene just didn't fit the book I was writing.

I think I managed to achieve it in one part of No' Chance and I've been told that I managed it twice in  The Bottle Tree. To be honest, there is one scene in  The Bottle Tree that chokes me up every tiime I read it. I still don't know why it does it and definitely didn't write it specifically hoping for that reaction but, without bragging, I think I achieved it through sheer dumb luck.

If you have or are getting  The Bottle Tree, watch for any sections that create a sensation like I've described. For me it's in Chapter 10 and at the end of Chapter 19 and beginning of Chapter 20. Let me know where it is for you.

Hard at Work on “Louisiana”

As some of you know, I have several projects in the works. I am writing on the second book in the Junebug Series, Junebug and the Monkey,  as well as the second one in the Noah Chance series, Second Chance. Both of these are progressing, although some slight changes in direction have delayed them a little as I go back and do some rewriting of sections so that I can be sure and maintain continuity.

I am also feverishly at work on Louisiana, a book on my native state's history which I hope to have finished and in print in time for the Natchitoches – NSU Folk Festival in July 2013. I have completed much of the research and am now 34 pages into it but,  whew!, it is exhausting to write and actually have to fact check as you go.

If anyone has any questions about any of my books please drop me an email.

One question I have gotten is about The Bottle Tree but, no, I am not planning any follow ups to it. The Bottle Tree was a novel that turned out a little short but when I tried to add pages the new parts just didn't flow. There aren't likely to be an sequels because that book had a message and I think, from the feedback, it got the message across so I don't want to dilute that by doing a sequel.

Thanks to Everyone at the Natchitoches – NSU Folk Festival

 

What a great time at the Natchitoches NSU Folk Festival! There were tons of people that came by to visit, many of them who were familiar with the turpentine camp that I wrote about in The Bottle Tree and one gentleman had even been there and we talked about what it looked like! It turns out that my great Aunt who had first told me about the camp had taught him in school when he was a kid.

Many, many thanks to everybody that came by and special thanks to those of you who bought the books! We almost sold out of The Bottle Tree and quite a few people bought Junebug and the Body and No' Chance as well.

I hope you enjoy the read and please let me know when you finish them.

We were invited back for next year so I'll have to get to work and finish a couple more books to have there!


Turpentine Blues

As those of you who have purchased my novel,  The Bottle Tree , know the setting for it is a turpentine (pronounced turp-m-time by the black workers) camp in the early part of the 20th century.

Working and living in a turpentine camps was a hard way to live and a harder way to make a living. The work was hot and brutal and the workers stayed in debt to the "company store" never making enough to pay the bill and live on for long enough to find other work.

While I was getting ready for my table at the Natchitoches-NSU Louisiana Folklife Festival this weekend I came across a couple of blues songs about life in the "turpmtime" forest.

This song by legendary bluesman Tampa Red  will be playing while the PowerPoint presentation runs showing pictures from that life.

Enjoy!

Recipes From the Bottle Tree – Biscuits and Brown Gravy

While everyone knows about Cajun or Creole cuisine not many people know that Central and North Louisiana also has great food. That area was settled by people from across the country and so elements of Southern, Northern, Soul, and Cajun foods are common.

The Bottle Tree  is set in the Kisatchie Forest of Central Louisiana, in Natchitoches Parish not far from the small town of Bellwood which just happens to be the area where many of my ancestors are from and where many of my relatives still live. Some of my most vivid memories are of the "dinners on the ground" at various churches, meals at my Grandmother's, Great Grandmother's, and Great Aunt's houses, or in other kitchens across the area.

I am going to occasionally post a recipe here and there for those of you who aren't familiar with this type of cooking. I may update them slightly, since many of them contained ingredients like lard, which hardly anyone uses any more and for which I will substitute the more common vegetable shortening.

Some, like this first one, will be pretty common and well known but may include a twist or two to add just a touch of authenticity.

BISCUITS

This recipe makes about six normal size biscuits

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or whole milk if buttermilk is not available)

Directions

Rub shortening into the bottom and the sides of a small cast iron skillet and place into a 350 degree over until the shortening melts. Leave the oven at 350 degrees and pour off any excess.shortening from the skillet, carefully swirling it around the sides to form a thin layer before discarding the remainder.

In a large bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a fork or your fingers, cut butter into mixture until it begins to look like cornmeal. 

Make a well in the top of the flour mixture and slowly add milk into the middle. Knead dough with your fingers and add milk when necessary. 

Traditionally, in Central Louisiana (where “The Bottle Tree” is set) the biscuits are then formed with the hands and placed into the skillet for baking, however the dough can also be rolled out to the desired thickness on a lightly floured surface and then cut with biscuit cutter.

Place biscuits in pan and brush the tops with butter or some of the melted shortening. For real authenticity you can lightly brush them with the oil cooked off of bacon. Note: If the skillet is hot when you add the dough it makes for a better crust around the outside.

Bake for 12-18 minutes or until golden brown.

These can be eaten as is, with butter, jelly, or preserves, split horizontally and stuffed with bacon or ham, or served open faced with gravy.  One difference is that in Central Louisiana the gravy is less often a cream based white gravy and more often a brown gravy.

Brown Gravy (exactly as my mother sent it to me)

Use bacon drippings or Crisco oil to make a medium brown roux out of flour.  When the roux gets a medium to medium dark brown add water and stir constantly until the roux is mixed in well, add salt and pepper to taste then  turn the burner down and simmer for a little while until the flour taste is gone from the gravy.  The amounts you use depend on how much you are wanting to make.  You should use almost equal amounts of flour and oil for the gravy.  I will usually use a tad bit less flour than oil.   To turn it into a milk gravy, you simply substitute milk for the water. 

This is the recipe that I use and I got from Ma Alford when she made this.  It is the same recipe that I use to make my hamburger steak gravy out of except I saute the onions in the oil and remove them before I add the flour to make the roux.  This way you get the sauteed onion flavor into the gravy as well.

Note: This recipe is done the old fashioned way and doesn't really use measurements. I also found that a modern variation is to use beef broth on place of all or a portion of the water in the gravy, but it makes it really rich.


My Book – The Bottle Tree

 

A couple of people have asked me about the book The Bottle Tree and how I came to write it. Since it is about to be available in print (fingers crossed) I thought this might be a good time to address it.

A long time ago in a land far, far away (Louisiana) I was out with my uncle looking for a cave back in the Kisatchie National Forest. The cave was rumored to have once been the hideout of the outlaw John Murrell during his days when that stretch of Louisiana was claimed by both (and neither) the Spanish and the Americans. It was known as "No Man's Land" or the "Neutral Strip". Since neither side policed it and the major east-west trail, the El Camino Real, ran through it outlaws were having a field day.

The cave was supposed to have horse troughs carved out of the rock and legends of hidden gold are rampant. During my days off I'd take my metal detector and a shovel and we'd wander the hills. If you know me then you know, obviously, I never found the hidden gold but one day while crossing a creek I used the shovel to steady myself and banged it down on what I thought was a rock. A piece of it chipped away and the rich scent of pine wafted forth.

A few minutes later I began finding rusted and, with the exception of a piece off of a wagon, unidentifiable iron parts in the area. We had no idea what the mass in the creek was and mentioned it later to my great aunt. She told us we had found the site of an old turpentine camp that she had lived at when she was a little girl.

There are excellent articles describing the turpentine camps in Texas, Louisiana and Florida here and here.

That is when my imagination kicked in and the result was "The Bottle Tree".

The name itself has been in the back of my mind as a great title for a book for 20 years or so and one day the story just fell into place.

The Bottle Tree is about a simple life and friendship. It also addresses head on the issues of race.

Leesie, the character in the book, was very loosely based on my great-aunt, Thelma Leach, who was a teacher in the Kisatchie area for all of her life. The "colored boy", Johnny Robinson, was named after a childhood friend of mine who attended Provencal School. Provencal is a very, very small town in Natchitoches Parish and when I was a kid had about 300 students, total, in grades from Kindergarten through 12th grade. The kids were bussed in from a huge area spread across Kisatchie Forest.

What is a bottle tree? If you've driven through the south then you've probably seen one. It's a tree or pole with bottles stuck all over it. There are a lot of legends surrounding them, but one in particular is prominent in this story.

The book is a little shorter than I would have liked because I really, really liked writing it. I wanted to stretch it out more but, believe it or not, the book didn't want me to and evaded my doing that at every turn.

I hope you'll get a copy and read it. The story has both funny and sad parts and even though I wrote it and have read it a number of times, I still love it.

You can buy the book at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.