She began her existence as a red-haired, freckle-faced teenager who lived in a West Virginia hollow and bore the unlikely name of Lana Turner.
Lana was a secondary character in a novel called Outside Agitators, which occupied me on and off for ten years. I had the grandly ambitious notion that I could capture in a novel all the drama, excitement, and danger of the anti-poverty movement in Appalachia during the mid- to late 1960s. Idealistic young people swoop in to challenge the status quo in one of America's most poverty-stricken regions – that sort of message-heavy thing. Lana represented hope for the future: a bright young girl who dared to dream beyond the prison of her circumstances.
The story sprawled every which way, the pages multiplied alarmingly, and the more I wrote, the farther I seemed to be from The End. My characters preached, ranted, cried, despaired, and generally got kicked around by the fictional power structure in my fictional county. Critiquers, faced with the daunting task of helping me shape this mess into something coherent, agreed on only one point: Lana was the best character in the book. Some were brutally honest: Lana, not my protagonist, was the only character who came alive and made readers care.
The book eventually defeated me. I would never complete it. I put it aside, sad that I hadn’t rescued Lana from that wretched hollow and an awful future. I couldn’t forget her. In time, I wrote a mystery about an investigative reporter (original, huh?) who believed her brother’s accidental death was really murder (and you thought the reporter sleuth was original!). Her investigation took her to West Virginia, where she met… a red-haired, freckle-faced teenager named Lana Turner, who lived in a hollow and yearned to break free. Lana was almost free, I thought. If some editor would publish this book, she could go on to a better life. Alas, it didn’t happen that way, for Lana or for me.
Still, I couldn’t let Lana die. More time passed, and I wrote Disturbing the Dead, a mystery set not in West Virginia but in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Lana appeared again, living not in a dreary hollow but in a dreary-enough little house in the poorest section of fictional Mason County. She had morphed into a Melungeon. The Melungeons are a mixed-race people of mysterious origin, commonly believed to be descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors who intermarried with Native Americans and, in some cases, escaped slaves. Throughout their 400-year history in Appalachia, Melungeons have suffered legal discrimination and social prejudice. The hero of Disturbing the Dead, Tom Bridger, is Melungeon, and so is the woman whose death he investigates. Lana became the dead woman’s niece.
Changing Lana’s race meant the red hair and freckles had to go. She acquired gorgeous black hair, olive skin, and the bright blue eyes for which many beautiful Melungeon women have been noted. She became a knockout, but remained the same sweet, naïve girl who dreamed of a better life. Unfortunately, she lost her first name along the way. Someone I trust advised me not to name a character after a celebrity, for a variety of reasons. The advice made sense to me, and I changed Lana’s name to Holly Turner. She is an integral part of the book, not the main character but a pivotal actor in the drama, without whom the story couldn’t be told.
Poisoned Pen Press will publish Disturbing the Dead in March, and Lana/Holly will, at last, find her audience and the bright future she deserves.
I love her. I hope you will too.