Today Wednesday Writers welcomes Donn Taylor, author of Lightning on a Quiet Night. Donn will be giving away a print copy of Lightning on a Quiet Night to one lucky visitor who leaves a comment on his post between today (Wednesday November 19 2014) and Tuesday November 25, 2014, 12 p.m. EST.
Donn, please tell the readers about the book that is being showcased today.
Lightning on a Quiet Night is a historical novel set in Northeast Mississippi in 1948. “A town too proud of its own virtues has to deal with its first murder.”
The town of Beneficent, population 479, has never had a murder and expresses its complacent pride in the motto “A town as good as its name.” But on January 9, 1948, a high school cheerleader is found murdered.
In this novel the town’s attempts to maintain its self-image and deny local guilt are woven into two narrative threads. One is a contentious romance between the local farmer Jack
Davis and Lisa Kemper, newly arrived from Indiana. He holds an idyllic vision of the town. She is repelled by everything in it, yet struggles to understand it on its own terms. The town’s good and bad characteristics, its combination of astute perceptions and surprising blind spots, are revealed chiefly through their eyes. In a second thread, the sheriff’s attempts to find the murderer reveal further insights into the town. Subplots extend the novel’s emotional range with both comedy and pathos. The two narrative threads and the subplots eventually merge in shocking revelations which contradict the town’s self-image. Will these lead the people to repentance and reconciliation or to dissension and bitterness?
Ooh. I love a good murder mystery. How did you come up with the concept for this book?
Truthfully, it evolved over decades. In my last year of undergraduate study I planned to write a western in the manner of Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Canyon Passage, etc.), with a murder as the precipitating incident. But I got recalled for the Korean War and stayed busy with things military for a couple of decades. Then came graduate school and two decades of college teaching. After retirement and publishing The Lazarus File, I needed a subject for the Christian market. I revived the same precipitating incident but used a setting of Northeast Mississippi. I wanted to write about the everyday citizens of that region who’d been ignored by the naturalistic novelists who looked for extremes. Once I decided the town was too proud, everything led deeper into attitudes of different characters until the novel finally gave a broad presentation of the entire community. However, I have pressed none of the usual hot buttons for a novel of the Southeast, and I have avoided the intellectual poison of political correctness.
Do you have a release date for this book? What are you working on now?
Lightning on a Quiet Night released on November 4, 2014. I’m currently working on a sequel to my mystery, Rhapsody in Red, following the further adventures and misadventures of Prof. Preston Barclay with his musical hallucinations and those of Prof. Mara Thorn with her abhorrence of being touched.
Musical hallucinations? Sounds interesting. Tell the readers how you got started writing.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to create something. I began writing music at age 14. But at age 18 I got interested in poetry—the Romantics, of course—and began writing poetry and some very bad short stories. Since then, writing is just something I have to do, though there have been long periods when professional and family requirements pushed it far into the background. I always wanted to write a novel and finally realized that ambition with The Lazarus File, a story of spies and airplanes in the Caribbean. It is still available and doing rather well as an e-book.
Character names are important in writing. How do you choose your characters’ names? For major characters I assign names that either have an inherent meaning or suggest characterization. In The Lazarus File, the hero’s surname is Daniel, meaning “God is my judge.” The revolutionary villain’s surname is Tizón, meaning “firebrand.” In Deadly Additive, the blunt, 250-pound soldier of fortune is named Jeb Sledge. In Rhapsody, the heroine has renamed herself Mara Thorn (Mara = bitter). In Lightning, the hero appears very ordinary, so has the ordinary name Jack Davis. Minor characters are given names appropriate to their roles in the story, i.e., Lydia Tenfife and Dee Laila in Rhapsody.
Do you do anything special to create your settings, like visiting the area, googling satellite maps, looking at books or pictures?
For my two novels set in Colombia I spent a lot of time in libraries looking at photographs and studying recent Colombian history. For Lightning, Mildred and I visited Mississippi libraries and archives. In the past few years I’ve gone more to the Internet for details like airport diagrams and terrain in specific areas.
What’s the first book you ever remember reading as a child?
Wow! Can I remember that far back? From grammar school I think I remember something about the bears of Blue River. In those same years, my father read my brother and me much of the Mark Twain canon. (I still remember riverboat oaths from Life on the Mississippi.) But the earliest books I remember reading on my own were the Sherlock Holmes novels.
What’s the book you are reading now?
I’ve just finished revisiting Ernest Haycox’s The Earthbreakers, one of the great Western novels. Right now I’m launched into Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics and his Intellectuals and Society. He is a wonderful scholar whose writing is filled with wisdom.
Do you have a favorite book? (Or books since it’s always hard to whittle it down to one.) Yes, it has to be plural. Most of the classics, especially Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, much of Shakespeare, poetry by Spenser, Donne, George Herbert, Dryden, Tennyson, Robinson, and Frost. In commercial fiction, my favorite has to be Gavin Lyall’s The Wrong Side of the Sky, the story of a disgraced pilot who finds a way back to the right side.
Do you have a day job? If so, what is it?
I do not now have a day job. I’m retired from the U.S. Army and from college teaching. For the past two years I was a mostly a caregiver, and I’m just now getting back into writing.
Thank you for your service, Donn. I always appreciate the men and women who give time to our country.
Do you know the meaning of your name? If so, does it fit you?
Ha! The name Taylor means I’m an old sew-and-sew. The name Donn is more interesting. I don’t know why my parents chose the name Don, which then was said to mean “chief.” They said they added the second n so I wouldn’t be called Donald. (Ducking the issue?) I claim I was programmed for a girl but failed to cooperate. According to the Internet, in Irish mythology Donn means “brown.” It was the Irish name of the god of the underworld. Does the name fit me? I hope not, though some of my former troops and students . . .
Old sew-and–sew! Funny!
Thanks for being with us today, Donn, and now here’s an excerpt from Lightning on a Quiet Night:
(Lisa Kemper has just completed a horseback tour of the winter wonderland Jack Davis’s farm has become after a heavy snow. She and Jack have entered his house.)
Lisa moved to the kitchen window and, in contemplative mood, surveyed the snow-covered valley. Its crystalline beauty spoke to her in poignant language more profound than speech. She felt…yes…almost as if she and the landscape were blending into each other. Tears of something beyond pleasure rose in her eyes.
It was like—what had Rose said?—like singing in harmony. In this case, harmony with everything around her: with the landscape, with this comfortably lived-in house, even with Jack. But Rose had been talking about her relationship with God. Was it sacrilege to feel that way about anything else?
Jack’s footsteps sounded behind her, but she held her gaze on the valley, unwilling to let go of the moment.
“I’ve always liked that view,” he said. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
For certainty, as always. But she said, “I…I was trying to find the place where you’ll build the dam for your lake.” With her slight falsehood, the harmony wavered.
“It’s hard to see from this window.” Jack touched her arm, moving her to the left, then pointed over her other shoulder. “There. Down where the two ridgelines bend toward each other and almost touch.”
“I see it now.”
The sense of living in harmony came back with a rush, stronger than before. Jack’s pointing hand returned to rest on her shoulder. He stood quite close, his other hand still lightly touching her arm. Idly, she noticed that he smelled like soap, a clean smell so different from Alex’s aggressive after-shave. And this time—yes, she was sure of it—Jack’s lips were brushing the back of her hair.
She turned to face him, her inquiring gaze meeting his. They stood for a moment in silence. Then his lips descended toward hers.
She gave herself to the kiss, fully confident now as her awareness of exquisite harmony continued undiminished.
Born and raised in Mississippi, Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. He has authored two suspense novels, a mystery, and a book of poetry. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. Now retired from teaching, he lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and articles on contemporary subjects. His Web site is www.donntaylor.com.