James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Notes on DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW

Now that DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW has gone out into the big-six world of publishing (in the form of pitches to specific editors), I thought it might be useful to discuss the inspirations and intentions behind this piece. While a long way from publication, here’s some backstory and character sketches to whet the appetite of potential future readers. If this story sounds intriguing, think positive thoughts that it will find its way to the right editor’s desk, and one day to a bookshelf and e-reader near you.

ORIGINS

My wife and I have always been animal lovers, and before that, I grew up with a mother who was the same, households extremely empathetic to the plight of animals. When I began fishing around for ideas for my fourth novel, it was perhaps destiny that I ended up with a story idea that involved helping domestic creatures in distress.

When I set out to write this piece, I had other ideas and projects in mind, none of which felt ready, but worse, all seemed terribly literary, as my first two novels had been, and difficult, long-road approaches to an eventual sale. The third, which would receive the honor of a small-press publication in 2007 as King’s Highway, had been an attempt to scale back my narrative ambitions and write what would be a relatively straightforward coming of age story, informed by my childhood summers spent in Myrtle Beach, SC, which connected both with my publisher and eventual readers. What I wanted to do next was write a book specifically designed to be shopped not to independent presses, but to the majors, and in the tradition of mainstream thrillers I’d enjoyed in my youth, principally by Stephen King.

I didn’t really think I could pull off a big King-style horror book, but once I got the idea that I could have an animal activist go up against redneck backwoods dogfighters, I suspected that the horror inherent to that situation would be sufficiently chilling enough without conjuring monsters from an imagination that I consider to this moment to be a little creaky, and not terribly adventurous.

When I began writing, however, I found myself pulled in the direction of wanting some sort of supernatural element, and it would come in the form of ghost-dogs who haunted the woods, and who would call out to my heroine, the shattered Randi Margrave, which of course everyone would chalk up to her ongoing psychosis over the death of her son Denny. I didn’t yet know how the ghost-dog part of it would play out, but I knew that at a certain point the reality of the situation would overtake any paranormal angle, and that Randi would do battle with completely human monsters rather than from the spirit world. While this element went away many drafts ago, a fragment remains in the form of a nightmare that Randi suffers early on in the narrative.

METHODOLOGY 

As I do each time I set out to write a novel, I composed a partial synopsis that took me through the middle point of the book, when the stakes would have to be raised—in other words, what I use such a document for is to set up plot mechanics, characters, and setting, but allowing the overall arc of the narrative to flow as it would . . . within limits. The ending was also in place, allowing for artistic inspiration to shape and mould the outcome of the story.

And what an ending it was, remaining essentially unchanged from that first synopsis. A dog fight is often a build-up to a brutal explosion of violence, and I knew that I wanted the structure of the novel to mimic this: a suspenseful build to a terrifically exciting and dangerous climax.

Aside from sketching out some semblance of a plot, we also of course need compelling and relatable characters, with a protagonist who evinces sympathy, and also features an arc that takes her, and the reader, on a journey of catharsis and redemption.

THE CHARACTERS

Randi Margrave (35, POV) is a woman in crisis—not only did her husband’s infidelity nearly destroy their marriage, but the next year their 10 year-old son Denny, on the way to visit his grandparents to allow his mom and dad to take a healing vacation of their own, is killed in a commuter jet crash. Randi, a local TV news producer, is ruined, crushed, and depressed beyond measure. Worse, she must drift around her lovely home near the campus where her husband Cullen teaches, her days spent surrounded by memories of her sweet boy lurking and looming from every nook and cranny. They say you shouldn’t try to run from your troubles, but what Randi wants most, and needs, is to move out of that house.

Cullen Margrave (45), Randi’s erudite film-school professor of a husband, a cineaste and teacher of film theory rather than the technical aspects. Long on the track of publishing and teaching and going for tenure, Cullen made a mistake with a grad student, made amends, but all of it, even before Denny’s death, had made Randi paranoid beyond measure—was Rachel the only one? How many more? Hadn’t she and Cullen gotten together in the exact same fashion? And worse, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant with Denny, would he have still wanted her?

Esau Macon (50), third-generation (fourth? fifth?) Edgewater County landowner and dog breeder—only the toughest, and sometimes smartest, come out of the Macon dog compound tucked on a camouflaged, forested plot near the Sugeree (Soo-ga-ree) River. Macon, hardly the sort of neighbor Randi expected to find on her supposedly secluded piece of land atop the ridge, with its view of the hills of Edgewater County, and the river beyond. Esau, who Randi will find seems to leave most of the dog duties to his brother, takes great umbrage at Randi’s nosy behavior, ultimately violent offense at her intrusion into his life.

Julius Macon (42), Esau’s younger brother, is a classic Southern gothic man-child—in his innocence, he so loves the dogs he is charging with turning into lethal killers. Not of people, of course, though Julius hints that the Macon family might once have trained dogs for those purposes, too, and in a place like rural South Carolina, Randi can only imagine what all that must have entailed. In any case, once Randi breaks through to the simpleminded Julius that she is interested in the dogs as a ‘customer,’ he begins to tell her the details and secrets of the dog fighting business, all of which she begins to document in secret—she’s going to shut these dogfighters down. As for Julius, she begins to feel empathy for him. Says she’ll get him off the ridge, get him help. But only after she deals with Esau.

Ebby Nixon (72), the Margraves’ new neighbor on the other side of the ridge, at the bottom of curving Davis Macon Road where it meets the river road that leads to the long highway back to the freeway. Ebby provides not only an offer to keep the yard up the way he’d done for the last folks who lived at the top of the hill, that as a retiree from the Sugeree River Nuclear Station, he likes to keep busy. What Ebby will do for Randi, however, is more than yard work—he’ll give her a tour of the shadiest and most dangerous parts of Edgewater County, and let her know that, as dangerous as Esau Macon might seen, there are others in the poor, rural county likely more so, and all connected. He shows her where they run the drugs, out of a honkytonk called The Dixiana, and the girls, in an old motel on Route 1 that used to service New York to Miami travelers “before General Eisenhower build the interstates,” he says. Lastly, and most importantly, he shows Randi where they fight the dogs, and gamble, and have themselves a time. As bad as it sounds, he explains, with folks this mean and dangerous, it’s better to live and let live. And while she can’t know it at the time, Randi’s refusal to take Ebby’s advice will put all of them in mortal peril.

SIGNIFICANT MINOR CHARACTERS

Cynthia-Anne Goforth, (29), Randi’s friend and colleague from her days producing news at WKNO in downtown Columbia. She’s mortified that Randi wants to move all the way out to Edgewater County, but when Randi begins to suspect her own best friend as accomplice to her husband’s infidelity, Cyn-Anne’s advice now falls on deaf ears. A one-time mentor-pupil relationship—Randi’s guidance has landed Cyn-Anne, not even 30, in the anchor chair already, and talking about a move up to network—in the end Cyn-Anne reminds Randi that, whatever Cullen may have done, he has stuck by his wife, and done as she asked by moving out into the country.

Estelle ‘Mama’ Macon (80), Randi, as a mother—a one-time mother, that is—becomes consumed with knowing what kind of mother would rear a child like Esau. Her encounter with Mama Macon proves crucial to Randi’s quest to free the dogs of Parsons Hollow, though what comes of it finally raises the stakes to that of mortal jeopardy.

Sheriff Wardell Truluck (63), a lawman to whom Randi finds she can’t turn, an authority figure who makes it clear that he’ll be more on Esau Macon’s side than Randi’s, and that there’s nothing wrong with ‘raising dogs’ out in the woods. Once she meets the county sheriff, Randi knows she’ll have to investigate on her own.

Aylene Montreat Quattlebaum (70), Randi’s hectoring, disapproving mother, who simply hates that Randi has given up her career and retreated into a numbed womb of inactivity and grief, furthermore doesn’t think that Randi’s notions of ‘writing’ will amount to anything, and most of all doesn’t think that having moved into the middle of nowhere a solution to anything. Randi, no more close to her mother than she’d been her father; after Cullen’s betrayal and the death of Denny, Randi, an island unto herself.

Denny Margrave (10, flashback only), is the Margraves dear, sweet, deceased little boy, taken from them in a tragic air crash. He haunts and hovers around Randi, though begins to give her a measure of peace only after she hears the call of the dogs, and moves to try to free them from their savage bonds.

Durant Montreat (flashback only), Randi’s brilliant but remote academic of a father, one she could never please, and from whom she was glad to leave at 16, for once a child of divorce who was pleased by her parents splitting up. Leaving Berkeley and the Bay Area behind for the American South, first in Athens, Georgia, with her mother and her new husband, another academic type, had been her only regret. Randi, coming to Southeastern University for journalism school, meeting the brilliant and dashing film professor Cullen Margrave, and only later, much later, realizing that she’d gone and married not her husband, but another version of her father.

In the next DOGS-related post, I’ll detail the setting, my all-purpose ‘Edgewater County’ from which this blog derives its cutesy name, including describing what elements refer to other works either planned or already written, including MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS and LET THE GLORY PASS AWAY, as well as how Fellow Traveler’s seemingly alternate-universe is also firmly set in the same go-to locale I am exploiting across multiple novels and voices. Of all my completed or planned novels, only the currently-underway MIRIAM MULLINS has no Edgewater County component. 

 

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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