Sunday, September 25, 2011

Writing Whom You Know by Mark de Castrique

A native of North Carolina, Mark writes mysteries primarily set in the Appalachian mountains, and has earned high praise from a variety of critics. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “As important and as impressive as the author’s narrative skills are the subtle ways he captures the geography— both physical and human—of a unique part of the American South.”  In a starred review, Library Journal added, “De Castrique’s unassuming but commanding prose style is comparable to James Lee Burke and Margaret Maron.” 

Mark de Castrique is an award-winning film and video producer whose work has been broadcast on PBS, HBO, and network-affiliate stations. Mark de Castrique is the author of the Sam Blackman mystery series, the Buryin’ Barry series, and two mysteries for young adults. The Sandburg Connection (Poisoned Pen Press) is Mark de Castrique’s tenth book.  He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Visit Mark de Castrique online at:

From Publisher's Weekly -
"The Sandburg Connection: A Sam Blackman Mystery

Mark de Castrique. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (298p) ISBN 978-1-59058-941-0; $14.95
trade paper ISBN 978-1-59058-943-4
At the outset of de Castrique's stellar third mystery featuring
Asheville, N.C., PI Sam Blackman (after 2010's The Fitzgerald Ruse), Sam and his partner, Nakayla Robertson, are following professor Janice Wainwright to determine if she's really suffering the pain that has led to her $5 million lawsuit against a surgeon, his clinic, and a hospital. The pair trail her to Glassy Mountain, from whose peak she takes a fatal fall. Before expiring, Wainwright mumbles something about "Sandburg's verses." Convinced Wainwright's death was no accident, Sam vows to find her killer. A missing folk song, a buried treasure from Civil War days, and a pregnant goat all play a part in this marvelous blend of history and mystery seasoned with information about Carl Sandburg's life and times on his Asheville farm and the National Park Service's current operations there. This strong regional mystery should resonate with a much wider audience."

by Mark de Castrique

Writing class 101 encourages you to "write what you know."  But over the years, I've migrated from "write what you know" to "write what you might have known" to "write whom you know."

The first venture from the safety of writing what you know began with my Barry Clayton series.  Barry runs a funeral home in a fictitious mountain town in western North Carolina.  I've never directed a funeral.  I've attended more than I care to, but, as Yogi Berra said, "if I don't go to their funerals, they won't come to mine."

My father was a funeral director in a small, mountain town, and, as that profession tends to stay in families, odds were good I'd one day own a closet filled with dark suits.  What I actually remember from the days living above the business comes down to one event.  I was three and confined to our quarters with my mother during a visitation.  Somehow I made my escape and wandered downstairs to see why we had so much company.

About ten minutes later, my mother was summoned to physically remove me.  I'd crawled up behind the casket and was singing "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You" to the deceased.

We moved out of the funeral home shortly thereafter and within a few years my father changed jobs.  Otherwise, this blog would be about the benefits of opening a pre-burial account.

But the small town funeral director as a character intrigued me, and so I vicariously lived my alternate life through Buryin' Barry.  The mountain setting provided the backdrop I knew for the character I might have been.  Plus, I could make him younger, smarter, and better looking - the real advantage of writing fiction.

As the series developed, I talked to friends and family about stories and incidents that could be integrated into plots and subplots.  One long-time family friend shared his memory of traveling with his father, a white funeral director, as they helped a black funeral director transport a body from Asheville to north Georgia through the Jim Crow South.  The year was 1919 and my friend, nearly ninety, was only ten.  His vivid memory of that journey and its challenges sparked a story idea that I knew went beyond the world of Barry Clayton.

So, I took as many facts from my friend's experience and shaped them into the mystery Blackman's Coffin.  I opted for real settings and incorporated not only the famous such as the Vanderbilts and Thomas Wolfe, but also people I knew who shared information that my detective, Sam Blackman, would need to uncover.  I thought why make up characters when I've got perfectly good and interesting people right in front of me?  The process was fun for me and for those who saw themselves in print.

With the release of the third Blackman book next month, I've taken this technique to a new level.  The Sandburg Connection is closely tied to Carl Sandburg's farm, Connemara, in Flat Rock, North Carolina.  I didn't know Sandburg, but I walked to school by the farm.  We thought he was "that goat guy" because the pasture was usually teeming with his wife's champion herd.

Sandburg moved from Michigan in 1945 and between then and his death in 1967, he wrote nearly a third of his literary canon.  I knew two people with Sandburg ties.

Louise Bailey, a Flat Rock native, had been his personal secretary.  She shared stories and reflections on her relationship with him as an employer and neighbor.  These are incidents I can't make up.  Like the time Sandburg stayed for dinner and enjoyed Louise's beans and salt pork so much, he finished them all and then picked up the serving bowl and drank the liquid.  I wanted these stories to come from Louise, a marvelous storyteller and preserver of our mountain lore.  I couldn't invent a better character.

Donald Lee Moore, the man who had gone on the coffin journey, was also a musician and composer.  At one time, Donald Lee had published more sacred music than anyone else in North Carolina.  He sat in his funeral home's storage room, surrounded by caskets, and pulled together harmonies of the Eternal while constantly reminded of our existence in the Temporal.  Donald Lee told me of taking his two brothers, their instruments, and ample lubrication from a friendly mountaineer's still to Connemara and swapping songs and the jug with Sandburg.  He let me listen to the tapes they made for personal enjoyment - tapes as they meandered from one song to another with Sandburg's distinctive baritone voice woven throughout.

Separating these stories from the storytellers would have taken some of the life out of them for me and thereby taken some of the life out of them for the reader.  I've come to realize that people are stories - and, at times, rather than create "composite" characters, my fictional tales are better served by letting interesting people be themselves.  If all the world's a stage, as Shakespeare wrote, then the fun for me is setting that stage and letting others play their roles upon it.  Not the famous of today or yesterday, but those who have been a part of my life, a part of my story.

Writing whom you know provides me with companions as I explore the "what if" questions of fiction and, more importantly, gives me the chance to share with others the people I appreciate and admire.



Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Mark - Welcome!

I was lucky enough to catch a sneak peek at The Sandburg Connection and loved loved loved it!

Thanks very much for being here.

LJ Roberts said...

A great book trailer and fascinating article, Mark. I have been reading your books since my early days as a reviewer for Poisoned Pen Press and do hope we'll see more of Barry Clayton.

Sam Blackman has become a favorite of mine as well and have the UP of "The Sandburg Connection" for review. I can't wait to read it.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Mark de Castrique is new to me but he is someone whose books I definitely want to read.

Pat Browning

Phyllis said...

I love Carl Sandburg's poetry and Lincoln biographies and learning more about his life. In fact, I visited the Sandburg birthplace and memorial in Galesburg, Illinois this past Memorial Day weekend. I can't wait to read The Sandburg Connection. Mark, I am so glad Kay invited you to her blog as I am not familiar with your work, but will remedy that ASAP.

Beverly Valcovic said...

Have read all of the Burying Barry and Sam Blackman books--love them! When is the Sandburg Connection coming out for the kindle?

Mark de Castrique said...

Thanks for giving me the space to meander while musing!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Two fans and two who soon will be - Yay!!!!

Pat and Phyllis - let me know what you think, please!!

Mark - Thank YOU! a pleasure.

Bobbie said...

Mark, what a good post! I have not read your books, but certainly am going to try them; in fact just ordered the first in each series and I imagine will be more in future! Kaye, thank you for having Mark as your guest here, look forward to reading his books.