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Research Notes

Why 1930s Appalachian Coal Towns?

Most of my short fiction is not historical, but for long projects, I am drawn to settings in Appalachian coal towns, often in the 1930s.

My parents and grandparents (and so many generations back that I couldn't track down anyone that arrived here on a boat) worked in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. While my longer stories and novels are not the stories of my grandparents or great-grandparents, they are certainly inspired by them. 

My parents moved from Appalachia to Cincinnati in the 1960s (along with so many others) to find work in factories. Whenever I visited my relatives in Tazewell, Virginia, and Phelps, Kentucky, I fell in love with the mountains. They felt like home to me although I'd never lived there. It wasn't until I attended a mandatory diversity training course at work (sometime around 2000) that I realized that I was connected to that region in ways I never knew. The facilitator for the meeting slapped a Hello My Name is sticker on the lapel of my ill-fitting suit with the words Urban Appalachian printed on it with a Sharpie. 

"I'm just regular," I argued. My face flushed while the facilitator explained to me what an Urban Appalachian was. It apparently is a term to describe a person whose parents or grandparents were raised in Appalachia and moved to a city. People around the table smiled at me and nodded, clearly amused at my ignorance of who I was. I brooded throughout the meeting at the thought they could all look at me and see my heritage. I was college educated. I had a good vocabulary and a really nice briefcase. How did they know?

I called my sister when I got home. She'd never heard of the term either. She said maybe they could smell it on me. Maybe it smells like biscuits. 

This idea of my connection to Appalachia simmered in the background of my mind for many years. When I began writing nearly a decade ago, I made a conscious decision to build a connection to this region in my fictional stories and characters. I would leave no doubt for my kids about their ancestry.