Joanna McKethan and A Twice-Layered Life—Home and Abroad

IMG_9871.JPGcopyWhat amazes me in life and art are the layers. In watercolor, one transparent layer enhances another and builds up the color without making it the same as when you mix it. Once you’ve lived abroad, for instance, and returned, it is impossible to see everything in your own culture without comparing it through the eyes of the other culture. You’re seeing it through a glazed layer of other traditions, beliefs, and shared thoughts. Even the words and phrases used to express the same thing take on nuances that refresh your native tongue.

Joanna Mc   My last book, A Deadly Provenance, out since May 31st on Kindle at, was set in Germany in Cold War days with the heroine a North Carolinian, and the plot is built by layers of culture, tradition, language, religions, and experiences that complicate relationships.

My work-in-progress, Stone of Her Destiny, is also a novel set abroad, this time in Scotland, and in this contemporary gothic, the setting switches to North Carolina and back for the ending to Scotland. Kenna, the heroine, is a native North Carolinian of Scottish descent who when her life fell apart decided to trace her roots back to Scotland, where of course she met an intriguing love interest.

What prompted my writing this particular novel was my interest in my own genealogy, and a true story from Scotland which began fascinating me. My husband’s cousin asked me to come to Fayetteville and join the DARs with her. At this spot in life, the notion piqued interest, so I started tracing my connections back seven generations to the original Scottish settlers who came on shore at Old Bluff Presbyterian Church, just down the road, because I live on property that my family has owned for that long—seven generations, one past the original land grant.

That notion wore out due to the difficulty of proving the begets that involved having to find egress into an overgrown family cemetery on someone else’s private property, so I took the easy way out, and only established the intervening lines from my grandmother and another Scottish strain back to me through a third Scottish line.

I took some of the fascinating lore that emerged from Scottish history of the area, and posited something fantastic as the plot line, one having to do with the research Kenna was doing for a magazine in Charlotte in 1996 concerning the return of the Stone of Destiny from England back to Scotland, after a 700-year gap, when Edward II had taken it as a spoil of war.

There were amazing prophecies to do with the Stone, and interesting events that occurred in the family line on the other side of the Atlantic. The more I looked into it, which included my husband and I taking a trip to Scotland to trace the route my forebears had made from Campbelltown, the more ‘likely’ fictionally the crazy plot I chose became. That in itself was more exciting than I can say.

In the process, my Scottish passion was fed,; the story kept screaming at me to come out. I am seven-eighths finished with my discovery novel, which I do longhand with a specific gel pen with flowing ink and a middle-sized point I get from a variety store, 12 pens for 2 bucks, a price you can’t beat.

I write on college ruled (narrow lined) yellow legal pads, short or long, as fast as I can. This means I take part in the wonderful BiaW forum lead by our local RWA chapter, Heart of Carolinas Romance Writer. I’m in the last day of another sprint right now and have turned out close to 4000 words this week, with all the other things I have to do at my shop, art studio-teaching studio, like paying bills and raking in the money (ha-ha).

Writing fast surprises answers out of my psyche so I don’t have to hang onto them so long asking tedious questions of myself and others, which I’m so good at. If I reach a block, I pose a question, write the question, and let the writing sit. If it’s a place or a person and I don’t know the name, I fill the slot with X or Y for when I return later.

Returning to handwritten first discovery is very important. My mentor and workshop leader in poetry claims handwriting the original text is the only way to do it. I won’t argue with anyone who won the six-figure award all poets covet. Writing with your hand is closer to your gut, your passions, your inner psyche than cold type. I have to say I see the difference in my writing: the contrast in the internal layering is significant.

Dubbed by an employer in Germany as ‘the typical rewrite person,’ I concede that I could rewrite a novel infinitely. For that reason, I am determined to follow Stephen King’s example given in his incredible bestseller, On Writing, of writing one draft, and then the final one. Not being Stephen King, I’m doing a handwritten discovery draft, a print first draft, multiple edits to beta readers as recommended in HCRW, friends, and the skilled in editing. After the second rewrite, I send it to a professional editor for line editing.

I am so fortunate to have as a student a professional art photographer who sells me custom art photography that no one else will see again on another book cover like happens to so many of my writer friends. Once I get that I send it to a free lance cover artist who melds the whole together.

Here is an excerpt from my work in progress, Stone of Her Destiny:

Back in my room, I slipped on a long-sleeved pullover, yellow-gold, for the armband to circle more than the thickness of my skin. My stretch pants allowed quick movement, as did the canvas shoes. I slipped a short-sleeve shirt over the whole thing and belted it.

I met the gathering crowd on the 2nd story balcony—a wide outdoor room built of stone. I found myself wishing I’d brought my camera that I had wisely left upstairs in my bedroom. From here, the view was spectacular.

No one was chatty, so I kept my own counsel. I had butterflies in my stomach anticipating the falcon sitting on my arm, and maybe from anticipating seeing Lane. I hadn’t bumped into him since he had kissed me.

Birds of prey.

How long I would have to wait for either was not an issue. Suddenly a group of people hustled around, bringing a post with an arm, two cages, and various paraphernalia.

Lane was busy setting up and hadn’t noticed me. He had a sack with food in it. A couple of snack bites he gave the bird he called, ‘Bonnie Blue.’

He caught me observing him and hailed me over.

I acted like I didn’t understand him, putting my hand behind my ear. He turned to one of his young boy helpers and said a few words to him. The next thing I knew the helper was escorting me back to the stone wall, the precipice out over craggy rocks leading ultimately to the Sea, and to Lane.

“Hi,” I said, nonchalant as if nothing had happened. My uncle had counseled me well, telling me never to do a ‘damn thing,’ their egos would do it all for them.

“You done this before?” he asked me.

“No, I’ve never done any falconing before. I’ve come so you can teach me.”

“Aye, that I can, but you must not go all nervous on me,” he said. He brought out a third gauntlet for my left hand, and pulled it out in front of me while keeping me stationary with his arm on my shoulder.

When I was ready, he handed me a piece of raw chicken and said, “Meet Bonnie Blue. Give him a morsel and he’ll act like he loves you forever.”

“That easy, huh? You’re a good salesman,” I said, looking at the tall bird and talking to him. “Hungry, Bonnie Blue? Promise not to bite me?”

Lane took my left hand and stretched it out as far from my face as its length. “You want to be careful you extend your arm out away from your body, so the bird won’t fly into your face,” he said. He backed off, and Bonnie Blue, sent out to the tree line, swooped toward me in a speed blur, taking his prize.

“There now, you see? He’s all yours. They’ll never be pets, never all lovey-dovey; they are once and forever, birds of prey. But they will be faithful. Just remember that.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said.

“Now Maid Mary takes a little longer. You can fuss over her awhile. I’ll go draw the participants closer so they can hear better. The higher up you go, the more the wind whips. After a certain point if it gets too windy, I won’t let them out, or I’ll have to spend all day searching for them to bring them back.” He looked at me again before he left, harnessing the wind to read my files. Darn him.

So I stayed up front as he called the others to him, and he allowed one or the other to touch the falcon in between moments of lecture, which included detailing the types of birds of prey and the reactions one could expect.

My interest in falconing was high, but my mind wandered.

Lane was a fascinating teacher and I chastised myself for allowing myself to be sucked in by his overwhelming masculinity and those quite able hands that worked the birds. No future in this, I told myself—I would never leave my beloved South and he would never leave his beloved Scotland. Nor was I about to consider a Highland fling. You’ll need to check your emotions at the door, missy, I told myself. The first thing I had to do was stop admiring him.

By the time he began calling for eager bird of prey launchers, I had whipped myself into shape.

Lane motioned me forward. “I think the young lady here will go first. She has never done this before today. Come on up, Kenna,” he said. I followed, choking back a rising ball of fear. “Here I am, the morning sacrifice,” I said to the crowd, and everyone laughed.

Lane found an appropriate-sized band and wound it around my forearm and fixed it in place. Hold your arm just so,” he said, taking my arm and positioning it out away from my face, explaining it as he did so.

I kept testing the position to memorize it, as Lane opened the cage and sat Bonnie Blue on his pedestal. Lane wore hand guards as well.

“For extra safety,” he said, approaching me with a catcher’s mitt, a small face guard.

That bird knows exactly where my eyes are, I thought. You’re not fooling him.

“Here’s your piece of meat,” Lane looked at me and I watched a slow grin consume his face. “Wait until I send him flying,” he said.

Mean, I thought, taking the meat from him and touching his hand doing it, so much for resolutions. Bonnie was sitting on a branch way off.

I put the meat in the crook of my thumb and index finger, holding it out away from me. No time for talking, the speed blur appeared with a deft move lifting the meat, with two head shakes, all his. He stayed, retracting his talons. His weight was considerable.

Gorgeous bird. “Bonnie Blue, you are a jewel, with your blue feather, and several blue tips.”

Lane pulled a larger piece of meat out and said, “Are you ready?” as he faced both me and the bird, and we each made a slight noise as he lifted his arm and slowly threw the bit of meat as far and high as he could.

“Go,” he commanded.

The audience hushed and watched, as the heavy bird lifted off my arm and flew, ascended upwards, circling and b-lining, catching the piece of meat before it hit ground. Frightening.

He tore at the meat as we watched.

Lane told me, “Now hold your hand up level with your chest again.”

He was full of orders today. I complied.

Within seconds Bonnie Blue had returned to his perch on my arm.

“May I pat him?” I asked.

“Under his left wing. He likes that.”

I did, and cooed at this meat-eating machine and told him just how lovely he was.

The whole crowd clapped and Lane took a bow at his demonstration before putting his hand out for Bonnie Blue to return. He pointed to me and they clapped again.

Was I correct in sensing a bonding? Oh yes. Don’t doubt your instincts not for a minute, especially when you are dealing with birds of prey.


Joanna McKethan she has three published e-books of mainstream gothic romance, the latest, A Deadly Provenance available on since the 1st of June. She is currently working on her fourth book, Stone of Her Destiny, set in Scotland and NC. 

Fiction, journalistic feature stories, and poetry are published regionally and nationally. As  Assistant Editor for University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service she published many feature stories. She developed a newsletter for Universal Verlag in Germany, published features based on interviews of visitors to Iron Curtain Countries, often bringing out samizdat.

Her writings and paintings win prizes regionally and nationally. She teaches master painting in her studio, 13 to adults. She is represented by Arts of the Albermarle and Floor2Ceiling Designs LLP in Elizabeth City, is a Xanadu Art Gallery, Scottsdale, Arizona, e-artist, signature member of NC Watercolor Society (served on Board) and Southern Watercolor Society.

Grandmother of two, mother of two, wife, she lives with her husband on property inherited one past the original land grant, and they are descended from mutual Scottish ancestors.


Joanna McKethan and A Twice-Layered Life—Home and Abroad — 9 Comments

  1. Always excited when a fellow Heart of Carolina member comes to the Café for a visit. 😉

    Love that your heroines are North Carolinians. Mine thus far have been Clevelanders–because that’s where I’m from. The family research must be fascinating. Wonderful that you’ve incorporated it into the story.

  2. We LOVED our visit to Scotland. Funny, how in the most out-of-the-way town at a restaurant, a kilted minstrel would wander up all alone, start playing bagpipes. The castles were awesome; the countryside to die for (and we almost did, several times, getting used to reverse logic of wrong-side, ahem, driving.

  3. I write on the computer these days, but I’m plotting out a new story, run into a plot problem, or I’m trying to figure out what makes a character tick, I go back to paper and ink. Somehow the acting of writing brings out the ideas. Best of luck with your WIP.

  4. Jana, I say whatever works, and your system sounds good. If I do less handwritten than now, I will remember the spots you turn to handwriting. Thanks for the well-wishes; I’m loving the process. It’s when I get to the marketing, I break down. Fortunately for me, I have a website manager who loves that end of things.

  5. I just HATE that your mentor told you there was only one way to write your discovery draft. The great thing is that it works for you, but it would completely stifle others. One writes the way one feels most comfortable to write, and a great teacher won’t shackle students into ways that work against their muses. I notice many RWA workshops begin with the instructor saying, “This is the way I do it. It works for me. You need to discover what works for you.”

    King’s way of writing would make me nuts! Though it’s true enough that I’m on the three billionth edit of my current wip, this is a special situation—the book was written years ago, before I’d really learned to write (I would never call myself a master at the art), and it’s been a real struggle trying to whip it into shape. (Hiring professional editors has helped enormously.) Perhaps I’ll be able to do things King’s way after my 50th book or so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *