The Spirit of a Place

But the spirit of place in a novel is not just an inert backdrop or a straightforward illustrator of emotions; it is part of the humanity at the centre of the endeavour. – Philip Henscher 


Some writers claim that their writing is just a matter of channeling. They become the conduit by which some power beyond them manifests itself, like a gypsy with a ouija board, I reckon. Some of these writers claim to have written entire books in a matter of weeks. Puking it out Linda Blair style. Cleaning it up later. I suppose they are the lucky ones, heh? Those for whom writing books is nothing more than a six-week obsession. (And yes, we are just a hair’s breath away from that totally annoying National Novel Writing Month).

The rest of us, we have to fight the demons on a daily basis.


If writing a novel in 30 days is your gig, I mean no disrespect. I may be in a bit of awe, truth be told.  Imagine a surgeon telling you that the surgery to remove a golf-ball sized mass from your brain is only going to take 30 minutes. That’s how I imagine writing a novel in 30 days to be. All gap-mouthed incredulity.

I only knew a couple of things when I sat down to write the stories of Zebulon Hurd. I knew that ultimately his would be a love story of the greatest sort – a story of forgiveness between a brokenhearted son and his troubled father.

I also knew that I would be setting the stories in East Tennessee.

I never imagined them anywhere else but in the foothills of the Smokies.

I’d attended a seminar years before by a high flautin’ and highly paid author who had warned us potential New York Times wannabes that if we truly hoped to succeed at this writing gig we had to be sure not to write about “some poor dirt farmer.” Yes. He actually used those words. “People paying $25 for a book don’t want to read about poor people,” he said. “They want to read about rich people going to exotic places.”

I suppose he was right but everything within the fibers of my being resisted his advice. I simply could not write about rich people going to exotic places. Maybe it’s because I am far more familiar with poor dirt farmers who once served their country.

Rock City is about the last place anyone in search of the exotic goes.

Sometimes I wonder if Flannery O’Connor would have survived in today’s publishing world.

But there are those moments, fleeting as they may be, when a person happens upon a field of buzzards and that can feel every bit as exotic as watching a gaggle of tourists pointing and gawking at the blinking lights of the Eiffel Tower.

I turn my car around in the middle of  a holler just to capture such moments.

That’s how relentless I can be when trying to capture the character known as Place.

When I first began writing the tale of Maizee and Zebulon Hurd and their son Rain, I had no idea that they would consume the decade of my life known as the 50s. How does any writer know how long such a telling will take?

Thirty days, you mock me.

I’ve met people who spent 10 years on just one book. I shall not feel guilty over taking my time to tell Zebulon’s story rightly. 

Before leaving Tennessee, I drove past the old homestead. The one where Aunt Cil died. Her barn is still standing. Dave even has a horse that hangs out in the pasture. This was the very place I had in mind when I give Doc and Leela-Ma a home. This place is as much of a character to me as Zebulon, as Maizee, as Rain, the deaf boy, who regains some of his hearing.

Long ago, I had thought that I might come back to Tennessee, buy my Aunt’s old place, sit on the front porch and write the stories that come down from these mountains.

On the very day an angry silent fellow strolled a Virginia campus, armed to the gills and killing everything in sight, I told my buddy Gordon that’s what I planned to do. I read to him from the early draft of Maizee and Zeb’s story as we made our trek back across Tennessee, thinking about all those broken families.

We didn’t know then about the tumor growing inside Gordon’s head.

Or that he would be gone before the first of Zeb and Maizee’s stories saw print. Nobody was more eager to see these stories in print than Gordon was. Well, except for me, maybe.

Mama lived long enough to know Maizee’s story would be in print, but not long enough to actually hold the book in her hands.

“Make me care about these people,” she had urged me.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you when I walked through that church cemetery, taking my leave today, it sure felt like I’d come not only to visit my Aunt Cil, but all the other people who I envisioned having lived at Christian Bend.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel (Mercer University Press).

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


Robnert Hollis

about 6 years ago

Thank you for "Taking me home" and introducing me to some amazing folks; folks are related via lifestyle, not blood. In my opinion, you Appalachian Trilogy is your best yet. Why not make it a quartet? With the closing words of "Christian Bend", I got the sense that might been the making. A more detailed Bio of Rain?


Don Coker

about 6 years ago

Karen, I know exactly where you are coming from. Regardless of where my remains shall be placed, my spirit will forever reside on a 140 acre farm between Graceville and Bonifay, Florida, my paternal Grandparent's place. The farm has been in the family since the early 1940s and it is my escape. A great post, my friend.


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