Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Chapter Three - Welcome to Matewan

January of 1919 was a time of new beginnings. We moved to Matewan (you pronounced it Mate-wahn), a firecracker of a small town that hugged the southern border of West Virginia.

I fretted the whole trip down, wondering what I’d find when I got there. Would I really be able to run a household by myself? Back at the old camp, the women had all pitched in. This would be the first time I’d truly be on my own.

We moved in under a cheerless gray sky, buffeted by a cold wind. As I struggled with a box, my new next door neighbor, Mrs. Whitt, came over, wrapped me in a hug and offered to watch Gracie while I unpacked.

I think I was going to be all right.

Our new home town was fueled by trains and coal, with most of Matewan proper wedged between the railroad tracks and the Tug Fork River. Red brick and wooden buildings, arranged in neat rows, ran parallel to the tracks. Matewan had everything it needed for a respectable downtown: Several restaurants, a hotel, a hardware store, a grocery, and a bank. We even had a jewelry store, run by the mayor of the town, Cabell Testerman.

Surrounding downtown were clumps of private homes, shops and the Stone Mountain Mining Camp, where we now lived. When it came to Stone Mountain, the whole concept of ‘mining camp’ was a bit misleading. It was more like mining camps. Stone Mountain might have been a small operation, but it was spread out across the entire area. There was a cluster of homes just steps from downtown, as well as to the north and ones to the west that clung stubbornly to the mountain side.

On the other side of the river lay the vast wilderness known as Kentucky, exactly the same as West Virginia, just as hilly and rugged, except in Kentucky I swear they talked a little funnier than we did. Many folks traveled across state lines at least once a day, making the arduous trip of about thirty yards over a rope bridge. Some went all the way to Kentucky to get their drinking water, others went just for a drink, while some folk went there for more virtuous reasons, to attend the Baptist tent revivals that sprung up like mushrooms wherever there was a spot of flat earth, a rare commodity in these parts.

Getting to Matewan by automobile was like eating spaghetti with a spoon: Difficult at best and not really worth the effort. You had to crisscross up and down over mountain ridges, one after the other, along dirt roads that carried wagons as well as cars. Why bother when you had the railroad that could deliver you in comfort straight to downtown?

Like a force of nature, the railroad cut through mountains that separated towns, it pushed aside thick forests and chugged over swift-moving rivers.

Our whole lives revolved around it, the rumble of the train ever present. It was how we got most of our goods, how we traveled, how many children even went to school. Most importantly, it’s how the coal we dug got to the outside world. Without the railroads, there would be no coal mining in West Virginia. Matewan didn’t even exist until the train tracks were laid.

Given life by the railroad tracks and the coal in the surrounding mountains, Matewan thrived. Always a little special, a little star-crossed, the town already had a reputation long before we had ever set foot there, as the site of the now legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
No, I wasn’t a McCoy. Not one of those famous McCoys, at least. I wasn’t going to lay claim to something I had no right to. The McCoys were living in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia long before my father had ever set foot in America.

My father was one of those Irish McCoys that populated the Emerald Isle. He might’ve looked exactly like any other resident of Matewan, but his accent and his religion always gave him away as an outsider.

He never talked about why he left. He hardly ever talked about his past at all. I knew that by the time he was sixteen, my father had found his way to America, to one of those port cities like Boston or Baltimore. I knew that he must’ve had a brother or two, because one time he mentioned how much Frankie reminded him of his brothers. If they were like Frankie, maybe that’s why he left. But how he ended up in West Virginia? That was a mystery. His life in Ireland? That was a mystery too.

Despite not being proper McCoys, that didn’t stop us from feeling a strange sense of family when we moved to Matewan, surrounded by people who by chance shared our last name. Nor did it stop people from assuming we were a part of that famous clan. I couldn’t exactly blame them for the misunderstanding.


  1. I think (thought) I was going to be all right.

    We even had a jewelry store, run by the mayor of the town, Cabell Testerman. (Is the mayor a player in the story? If not, we don't need his name.)

    Melissa, I really love this story. Sorry if I'm not any help. If I had more, I might be able to cut some of this. But as it stands, I'm enjoying it tremendously!

  2. Yes, the mayor plays a definite role in the story.

    Thank you thank you thank you for the feedback! I'm not going to complain that you like it. ;) It's really made my day, in fact.

  3. I love it. Cant wait to read more! My daughter Ryleigh would love this!

  4. I like your writing style, a nice blend of humor and seriousness. I think, long before I reached the third chapter, I longed to see more interaction between characters. You do such an excellent job in setting up the scene and TELLING us what the family is like, but there isn't a lot of SHOWING. However, I am a big dialogue and interaction fan, so this is only one opinion. I do see several spots where words or paragraphs could be taken out, sort of the less is more theory, but I was intrigued by the story. It's unique, particularly for YA fiction and I wanted to see where it was going.

    Sorry, that probably didn't help much, but I know I love feedback so hopefully it helps some.

  5. I will turn the feedback part over to my "master".

    I am no expert, only an unpublished author who has taken some courses and am in the process of finsihing two middle grade novels. Here are a few observations made from reading the first three chapters. Remember, no one person can be 100% correct so take this feedback for what it's worth:

    First off, I love the subject you have tackled. I truly got a good sense of what it would have been like living in the early 1900's. Great sensory detail in the first chapter; smell (always a tough one to get in) sight, sound--all worked well. The interactions of your main character in the first chapter showed the readers how tough of a life she had. However, I personally would like to see an opening line that grabs my attention. In chapter 2 I feel your second sentence did just that, My life is divided into two parts: before my mother died and after. It makes me sympathize with Molly right from the start and piques my interest to see how she copes.

    I agree with your assessment, too much exposition. Exposition is fine, but I prefer it in small doses with some action or character interaction sprinkled in.

    One glaring apect to this draft, and one that I constantly struggle with in my own writing, is too much use of the words "was" and were". I know this can be a real pain trying to restructure sentences to get rid of those extra words and I'm not saying to get rid of them all, but I found it very helpful if I focus on one paragraph where I have an over abundance of those words and write it down on a paper. I then tinker with it until I eliminate at least one "was" or "were" then if I feel a need to get rid of more I restart the process. Lots of times use of a stronger verb or changing "was running" to "ran" fixes the problem. There are cases where it takes me way too long to restructure a sentence and I often find, I never needed it in the first place.

    Overall, your characterization and subject kept me enticed to read further. Hope this helps.

    EJ Sivad (Scratchy Paw's "master")

  6. Very helpful! Thanks Cindy, thanks EJ! (gives Scratchy Paw a good scratch behind the ears)

    I'm a big believer in "showing not telling" and yet I'm still learning how to do it in my own writing. Not as easy as it first appears but I think I'm figuring it out.

    I'll take everyone's feedback, let it stew, then go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and start work on it once again.

  7. Ok, this is going to sound harsh. And I'm just another writer collecting rejection slips, like you, so keep that in mind.

    I've read all three chapters and I'm still waiting for your story to start.

    Everything in these three chapters is backstory. It's beautiful, atmospheric and intriguing, but it's backstory. The only dialogue in "real time" is the opening, when she is awakened from a dream by her name and goes to prepare breakfast for her dad. I understand what the scene shows -- she's taken over the role of her dead mother. But waking up and making breakfast is a boring scene. This isn't a boring story -- at least, with what I've seen of your character and your setting, it doesn't have to be.

    Your character's tragic life and sense of responsibility toward her family are important and good to show. Maybe at some point you can and should include a scene of her making breakfast for dad. But don't start with it.

    Where *should* you start the novel? Without knowing more of the plot, I can't say. But it's better to start with description rather than action.

    If your book is meant to be more on the literary side, you *could* start with setting, but much later in the story. This section, for instance, struck me as a potentially interesting start:

    "Getting to Matewan by automobile was like eating spaghetti with a spoon: Difficult at best and not really worth the effort. You had to crisscross up and down over mountain ridges, one after the other, along dirt roads that carried wagons as well as cars. Why bother when you had the railroad that could deliver you in comfort straight to downtown?"

    Or, as another reviewer wrote, the line in chapter two about her life being divided in two by her mother's death.

    Either way, however, you have at most three paragraphs of lyrical description/overview/teaser before you need to delve into the story.

    Think of your prose as the narrator's voice-over at the beginning of a movie. The camera might start out with a long-shot of West Virginia, showing rugged and hilly terrain, the train track, a mining town with the old fashioned cars and dress, while the voice of an unseen woman says something about her dead mother or the mining accident the year she was born. A few lines of that and then...

    ...boom. The camera zooms in on our main character *doing* something, talking to someone, engaged in some conflict, trying to achieve some goal.

    Don't let your narrator blather on any longer than you would be willing to sit through a voice over pure scenery in a movie. Stare at a picture of trees as you read it out loud to yourself and note when you start to want to look at something else.

    Don't throw away what you've written here. Weave it back in after you've introduced a scene chock full of action, conflict and dialogue.

    Standard disclaimer: Only take whatever bits of advice fit the story. If my advice is totally off the mark because I've misunderstood the story you want to tell, then of course disregard it.

  8. Opps. I said, "it's better to start with description rather than action" when I meant the exact opposite. Start with action.

  9. Tara Maya, didn't catch your comments until now, but thank you! I'll take harsh, your comments were extremely helpful!