Tennessee Mountain Stories

Why I write – and What’s next


Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to answer the Who What When and Where of Plans for Emma.  The final question – and always my favorite on any subject – is WHY.  It’s a question any author ought to be able to answer before writing a single word and one I’m happy to answer for you.

I write because I have stories to tell.  I have the stories of generations of family bouncing around my head – stories that have been told and retold for so many years that the facts blur into the legend that’s grown around them.  I love these people and I love their stories.  I believe there is value for the next generation of my family, other families from the mountain, and people everywhere to know about these people, who they are and what they’ve endured.

With that said, the bigger reason I write, and I hope the primary reason I undertake anything in my life is to glorify God.  After all, that’s the reason for life – our purpose for existing.  I write about a people with a deep faith in God, so in many ways it’s easy to weave faith into every chapter. 

I hope that a Christian can read my stories and come away encouraged and uplifted.  We have so many burdens in this modern world where Christ is assaulted on every front that we need some kind of escape – if only for a few minutes – into a world where the battle belongs to someone else.  There are happy endings in my books if you look deeply.  If your own faith will allow you to see that even in hardship there is joy and that leaving a legacy of faith is a greater success than any earthly convenience or pleasure.

Of course, not everyone who reads believes and I pray that my books might fall into the hands of someone who does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I pray that at the end of the story the gospel is clear and that the characters would draw you to Christ.

It is my intention that each story would end with an epilogue showing how the life of the characters affected the future.   It’s not a luxury we enjoy as we make decisions great and small in our everyday life so I hope it will be an encouragement to see the long term effect of the characters’ lives.  The end papers will always include a witnessing statement and resources where a reader can find answers to questions about God.

I’m so excited to have Emma in your hands and I can’t wait to hear what you think about this book.  As always I’m asking that everyone who reads the book will leave reviews – Amazon is a great place to start with those although there are certainly other platforms for book reviews.  I have so many stories I want to tell you and I’m turning right in on the next one.  At this point I believe I’ll finish a trilogy that I have about ½ complete.  It will follow a mother and her two daughters as they move from rebellion to obedience and service.  They will face great pain as well as great joy.  I’ll keep you updated as I progress on these three books.

Plans for Emma: The Place


One of the greatest compliments my writing can receive is for someone to tell me that the feel like they’ve visited the mountain in my stories.  A friend who is a stranger to the mountain said she felt like she was from that place after reading Replacing Ann.  Another reader who lived here until the 1940’s could well recall the places the characters visited. 

This is such high praise because you will remember that one of my motivations for writing is to share this precious place with others.

So I’ve shared really four different communities with you in Plans for Emma

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Emma and her family live in Roslin.  Today Roslin has faded into obscurity as the school system first combined Roslin with Banner Springs to have a single elementary school that was called Banner Roslin.  Now even the school is closed, further consolidated into South Fentress Elementary.  Roslin had its own post office until 1961 – and character Preston Langford has to visit that landmark regularly. 

The Flat Woods were a large tract of timber in the Roslin and Banner Springs community.  At the turn of the twentieth century, little communities often sprang up around these logging operations.   Many times there was a railroad spur built to carry the products out and this transportation was utilized by all the surrounding area.  We’ve talked here before about how Isoline, Tennessee with its depot and post office made a critical contribution to the neighborhood.  The logging camps were largely self-sufficient and you get a little glimpse of such a place in the book as Preston Langford lives and works there.

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No railroad spur arrived in The Flat Woods so Preston was often tasked with the dangerous task of hauling hewn cross ties out to the railhead in Sunbright.  We’re all so civilized these days that it’s hard to imagine the wild-west nature of some of these little towns.  I attempt to describe how the neighboring communities perceived the bustling rail-towns and how one wholesome country boy reacts to it.

Finally, we’ll visit Martha Washington the community so close to my own heart.  Without a railroad, country store or post office it’s not a town.  The roads were muddy wagon tracks and there was no booming timber or mining operation.  Yet Preston and Emma find there a warm people and a welcoming community that’s easy to call home.

I’m always fascinated with the movement of roads through history so even if you are familiar with these communities today you may not recognize the paths.  Still, I hope you will be fascinated as the characters move from one community to the next.

Plans for Emma: The Period


We’ve been exploring the ‘who, what, when where and how’ of Plans for Emma over the past few weeks.  Now we’ve arrived at the when and it’s one of my favorite parts.

It may well be the greatest part of being an author to choose just when your characters live.   I’ve seen stories from the Bible set in modern times – Francine Rivers wrote Hosea set in the old west and I couldn’t put it down.  There’s a new book out that juxtaposes a sovereign Jewish nation with 1930 and 1940’s Europe – just how would Hitler have faced that people with a standing army? 

While this may change in future stories, I can scarcely imagine writing outside the period of 1850 – 1920.  Maybe that’s because most of the best stories from the mountain are set then.  Maybe it’s because there was no real settlement on our plateau until around 1830.

Plans for Emma opens about 1905 which was a dynamic era for our area.

Sunbright, TN Train Depot

Sunbright, TN Train Depot

The Tennessee Central Railroad arrived in Monterey in around 1890 and began an era of prosperity as produce from local farms was given a sales outlet and men were provided new work opportunities.  Mines were also expanded as the coal could now be sold beyond the plateau and of course the timber that the mountain had in abundance was both necessary for track-beds and transported further down the line.

Sunbright had enjoyed rail transport since 1879 and this was the more logical railhead for the cross ties that character Preston Langford hewed in The Flat Woods. 


It may be hard for us to imagine today when we can hop in our automobile and zip between any of these little towns.  But in 1900 the railroad was the only reasonable means of travel for long distances and certainly the only way to move heavy loads like logs.  Roads in that day were muddy paths.  In fact, it’s hard to map where roads actually lay because as one route became impassable with mud and deep ruts the people would simply cut a new road.  If you can find an undisturbed path of woods today you can still see the scars of these old roads.  Of course with smaller trees – and a smaller forest canopy – as well as the absence of free range stock the woods quickly become obstructed.  However, at the turn of the century a wagon could easily drive among the old-growth timber where briars and brambles could not penetrate and take root. 

We’ve talked here before about the movement of post offices and they were certainly a critical part of any community.   Mail delivery could come to a boom-town for a year, or a community might enjoy their own post office for decades.  Of course no one ran to check the mail every single day – unless maybe you lived right in town.  Instead, correspondence would be collected whenever you could make it to town or when other necessities drew you to the store.  Of course without email or telephone getting a letter was a coveted event.  It was the closest thing to visiting with a loved one who you often would be unable to visit for years at a time.

The whole world was changing at the turn of the twentieth century and there was turmoil everywhere.  Queen Victoria died and ended the Victoria era.  US President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 ushering in the first Roosevelt presidency.  We were just starting to play baseball on a major scale and the first world series was held in 1903.  Just like today there were hurricanes and earthquakes.  Galveston, Texas’ 1900 hurricane killed 8,000 people.  In 1908 Henry Ford began production of his Model T car.  And of course all through the first decade of the century a political cauldron bubbled in Europe that would overflow in 1914 when Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Franz was murdered andsparks World War I.

While many American men would be drafted to serve in the war and every state and community was touched by it, life in the rural communities of Appalachia continued as they had for generations.  And that’s the picture we see of this time period in Plans for Emma


Plans for Emma is available from Amazon.com or locally at Halls Family Pharmacy.  If you’ve read it, please be sure to leave a review on Amazon.

Plans for Emma: The People


As I promised last week, I want to share with you some of the people and the places you’ll read about in Plans for Emma. 

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I’ve mentioned many times in The Stories that the people of the mountain inspire me.  They are a strong, God-fearing people that haves thrived through adversity most of us would run from.  I admire my people and I long to share them with a world that has only mocked and disdained them.

Plans for Emma springs from the story my Great Grandfather told of how he met his wife.  It’s a 2 minute story – and how I wish I had a video clip of him telling it!  He remembered the prettiest girl he’d ever seen walking along with a herd of sheep.  He decided right then and there that he’d marry her.

My stories are about my people.  The people of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and the stories that survive about them inspire me- after all, these memories are the reason I started writing Tennessee Mountain Stories and they are the root of each of my novels.   Plans for Emma is no different.

Norris Siblings.jpg

In this book you’ll meet Emma England.  She’s so typical of so many of us.  Her family has several children but no living sons over the age of 3. So she works.  She works in the house beside her mother.  She works with the livestock beside her father.  She carries water and wood, harnesses and drives a horse, weeds and picks a garden, she bakes a better cake than her mother and creates quilts that will warm her family as well as decorate her home.  And she trusts an all-powerful God who loves her individually so much that he has a particular plan for her life. 

Plans for Emma Chapter 1


I wanted to give you a little taste of the new book.  Now I confess that I meant to post this months ago – because of course I optimistically believed it would be on shelves around the world long before this.  However, I don’t find it on the blog, and it’s probably changed a little since then.  So here you go, chapter 1…


Sunlight dripped through the overarching trees painting a golden mosaic on the hard packed dirt road.  Stopping in the middle of the path, Emma England admired the beauty around her.  Her imagination whizzed from thoughts of angels shining in heavenly light to fairies sliding freely down the sun’s rays.  The ideas made her giggle and she opened her arms and spun around as she danced with the characters in her mind’s eye.

Realizing what a sight she must be, her hand flew to her mouth in a vain attempt to suppress the giggles.  The effort brought tears to her eyes and she gave into the moment and skipped past her dog and flock. 

Biting her lower lip she silently warned herself, Papa would threaten to skin me if he saw this foolishness

Tom England had lectured many times that his sixteen year old daughter was now a woman, old enough to marry and raise her own daughters.  He felt it was time to leave behind her foolish girlhood.

Emma let out a long sigh as she paused to allow the tiny herd of sheep to catch up.  Her faithful dog brought up the rear.  Really, he could do this job alone, but Papa always wanted someone to walk to the creek with the sheep and it was most often Emma.  She didn’t mind, it was a quiet time to think and to imagine.

The sounds of home surrounded her and she lifted her face, allowing the sunlight to peek under the wide brim of her straw hat.  The sun was making quick work of warming the air and there was a coolness near the bubbling water which tempted her to let the hat hang from its long cotton straps and dangle against her back.  Only her mother’s repeated warnings stayed her hands at the knot.

In that moment, Emma felt there was no one else in the world and she basked in the woodsy quiet.  Surrounded by singing birds and barking squirrels she could block out the noise of her five siblings, and all the sounds of the farm. 

Suddenly her solitude was broken by a loud screeching.  She jerked her head to face the noise.  Someone was coming.  The air was filled with the tell-tale rattle of wheels, the squeak of harness and that awful screeching as the brake was applied to slow the wagon as it started the long descent toward the creek bed. 

Without a second thought, Emma stepped into the road to move her sheep out of the way with Ruff was already alerting her to an unexpected visitor.  As the noise drew closer, she looked over her shoulder to acknowledge the neighbor.

A big load of logs towered behind a tall, slender young man that Emma did not recognize.  Yet something about this man captivated her.  She never would have imagined she would be so rude, but she stared as he closed the last ten yards. 

He stared too, turning his head as the wagon’s momentum carried him alongside her.

The team slowed and her breath caught in her throat as she wondered, Is he stopping?

A flash of yellow caught Millard Stepp’s eye and for a second he wondered if there might be a flowering meadow at the bottom of the hill.  Half standing to push his right foot onto the stiff friction brake, he allowed his eyes to focus on the moving color that was coming into focus.  Soon there was a girl’s head adorned with a homemade straw hat and behind her wandered a dozen ragged sheep. 

As she turned, he saw the profile of a beautiful young girl. 

He feared he would embarrass her but he found himself unable to turn away. 

As he reached the bottom of the hill, he failed to ease the pressure from the wagon’s brake and the team responded to the increasing weight of the load and slowed their pace.  The wheels had slowed near to stopping when he realized his error and jerked his foot from the peddle.  With his head still turned to face her, Millard gave a gentle slap of the reins and the four big mules moved a bit quicker.

With the distraction gone, its noise drifting away, Ruff moved his herd on to water where they quieted their bleating and drank.  Emma had not moved.

What just happened?  Who was that?  What’s wrong with me standing here like a big ole’ stone? Emma’s questions rolled through her head with little hope of answers. 

Above all she questioned why she had been so transfixed by the tall stranger.  She had seen his face no more than a few seconds yet it seemed indelibly printed on her memory.  Dark eyes set in deep sockets were clear beneath a tattered hat that had been pushed to the back of his head with a shock of dark hair spilling forward.  Sharp, chiseled features in his lean face seemed to draw her.  He seemed young, she thought no more than twenty.  Yet that face might have endured eons of life’s joys and struggles.  He had not smiled and she found herself longing to see a smile on that face.

“More silliness from a silly girl.  He’s a teamster from The Flat Woods and he’ll probably climb on that train with his logs and never think about this mountain again.” 

Emma looked at her sheep and patted Ruff’s head, “Let’s take ‘em home boy.”  With a last look down the shady road she started up the hill toward home. 

With each step, Emma’s thoughts moved faster and faster, quickening her steps until she was in the middle of the sheep instead of following them as a proper shepherdess ought to.  “Come on, you’re awful slow today.”

With the gate latched tight, Emma stepped onto the rickety porch kicking her boots to ensure she carried no mud from the creek onto the spotless kitchen floor.  She hung her hat beside the door without even noticing if anyone was in the kitchen. 

“Emma, you came up that hill like you’d sprouted wings but now you look a millions miles away.  What have you got on your mind child?”

“Oh Mama, I didn’t even see you there.  I guess I was somewhere else.  There was a man on the road down there…”

Rhoda England set the plate on the dry sink so hard Emma gave a little jerk.  “Who was it?  And what’d he say to you to drive you into such deep thought?”

“I don’t know who it was; I’d never seen him before.”
“A stranger on the Roslin road?  That don’t happen much”

“Well, he had a big load of logs on his wagon…”

“Oh, a logger.”  Rhoda gave a quick shake of her head as she picked up her dish towel and plate. 

“I guess he must have been from the Flat Woods.”

Rhoda turned again trying to see into her daughter’s eyes, “What’d he say to you?  Do we need your Papa to take the sheep down?”

Emma’s eyes popped open wide, she didn’t want Papa thinking he needed to straighten the fellow out for some offense caused to his daughter.  “No, no.  It was nothing like that; in fact, he didn’t say a word to me.  He turned and looked as he drove by.  Only, I couldn’t stop looking at him either.”

Now Rhoda chuckled slightly, “Well it’s not such an awful thing to look twice at a handsome man.  I’ve sure seen a few boys at church taking a second look at my Em.”

“Mama!  What a thing to say.”  Emma felt her heart speed up as she cast her eyes around for something to occupy her hands.  Yanking the still damp rag from its hook she began wiping the table with such fury it shook.  After a long moment she took a deep breath and looked up at her mother.

“I didn’t particularly notice whether he was handsome or not.  It was just like I was drawn to him somehow.  Oh Mama it’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Rhoda worked in silence for a few minutes as Emma watched and waited for the wise guidance her mother always supplied. 

Finally, Rhoda placed the last dish in its place, hung the towel on its peg and turned to Emma.  “I cannot explain it.  If it was a neighbor you knew, I’d think God was giving you a special burden to pray for him.  But these folks at the logging camp come and go and we never know any of them.  Chances are that you’ll never see him again.  I’d put it all out of my mind if I’s you.”

Emma nodded, trusting her mother completely.   She turned back to the table and finished the cleaning it did not require as Rhoda slipped into the front room where she always found a few minutes mid-morning to read the family bible and pray.

Millard hunched his back and rested his forearms on his knees.  He smiled, remembering his father in the same position.  He often thought about the man he’d known only five years.  Despite Harrison Stepp’s pre-mature death, his widow had kept him alive in memories so that his twelve children would know the man she had loved.

“Easy there Big Red.  Keep your head up Lady.” He spoke to the mules with ease. In fact, he often felt more comfortable talking to these four-legged animals than to his two-legged companions because the fellas in The Flat Woods logging camp tended to be rougher than he liked and he kept hearing his mother’s voice warning him not to allow coarse talk to dominate him.

There was a child in Millard that longed to sit at his mother’s knee with her hand upon his head.  Yet, he’d been on his own most of his life and long ago learned an independence that belied his scant eighteen years.  Still, his mother’s voice often rang in his ears with the advice and warnings she’d given him.

The trip to Sunbright was familiar to him, but more importantly, it was familiar to his team.  They needed little guidance through the long day’s drive and he let his mind wander as the mules plodded east.  In his mind’s eye, he kept seeing the girl by the creek.  Kept remembering that he’d first thought he was looking at a field of wild flowers.  That made him smile again.

I wonder if I will always remember her like that.  This time the smile became a snicker.  Lil’ Bess, the bay nearest his right hand, flicked an ear at his voice. 

“It’s okay, girl.  I’m just thinking out loud I guess.”

Millard had been at the lumber camp for two months now and had driven the load half a dozen times yet this was the first time he’d seen the sheep.  Now he wondered why. The farms along the way were familiar and he’d begun to learn the neighborhood and its families.  But this girl was a stranger and he wondered whether she had always lived in Roslin.  In fact, he couldn’t stop wondering for the two days it took to bring supplies back from town and as he watched for Bridge Creek miles before it would have been possible to see it he realized how much he hoped to catch another glimpse of her.  There was no sign of the herd of sheep or the girl who kept them and Millard’s heart sank.


You can pickup a copy of Plans for Emma at Halls Family Pharmacy in both Jamestown and Clarkrange.  You can also order a copy from Amazon.com.