Banjo Fantasy

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but this last week I was reminded I hadn’t done it yet. Oops? I got distracted?

So what, you may be asking, is banjo fantasy? Are there musical instruments and sprightly tunes?

Not… always. There could be, sure. Or it could be a reference to ‘paddle faster, I hear banjos!’ which in turn comes from a movie I have not seen (nor do I wish to, thankyouverymuch). The term was coined by friend and fellow author Tom Knighton, as he was in the audience for my reading at LibertyCon. I was talking about the novel I had just released, and was about to read from, Possum Creek Massacre. Although it is completely unrelated to my Pixie series, it has the same problem – there’s no easy sub-category of fantasy to plop it into. It is contemporary fantasy, yes, set in the present day. It does fall into paranormal police procedurals, and I have it categorized as that, but Pixie doesn’t fall there. Both of them are set in rather rural areas, but Rural Fantasy evokes images of the Shire, and bucolic farmland where life is placid and the stories in my books are, well, not. So I’ve had discussions here, over on my blog, and on other social media about what to call my fantasies.

Tom, sitting in the audience, called out, ‘Banjo Fantasy!’ the whole audience laughed and I decided that was it. For Possum Creek in particular, given it’s Appalachian setting, the category is very fitting. Modern backwoods Kentucky is an interesting place to visit, and learn about. My First Reader was born there, in another time, and grew up largely in Ohio with visits back. But when he came to Ohio when he was a small boy, he was savagely bullied by teachers and students for his accent and origin. His story is by no means unique, Kentuckians in the modern era bear the stigma of hillbilly, and anyone with a hillbilly accent, he tells, me gets an automatic reduction of twenty IQ points by the person listening. He tells a joke: a college professor asks his class “What would you do if you found out the world was ending tomorrow?” One student raises his hand and drawls “I’d move back to Kentucky.” The professor, stumped, asks “Why would you do that?” The student shakes his head and opines “In Kentucky everything happens twenty years later’n the rest of the world.”

it’s a cliche, this banjo term, but it’s an evocative one. The books like David Drake’s Old Nathan, the modern Witchy Eye series by Dave Butler, parts of Monster Hunter International (specifically trailer park elves). The TV show like Justified, which I watched part of and found interesting as I had seen glimpses of that darkness in Kentucky and far parts of Ohio as well. Unless you live in it, it’s hard to describe the feeling of a town that has simply given up on life and is watching the cars pass through on what was main street with blind windowed eyes partly boarded up where the vandals had played and no-one cared to replace them. Those stores on Main Street were never going to open again. The First Reader and I were helping my Mom house-hunt in Southeastern Ohio and northern Kentucky, which lent themselves to the settings in Possum Creek Massacre. There’s a lot to read between the lines in houses that have sat empty for a generation, or that have been rented to low-class beings who took it on themselves to wreak havoc on the house when their landlord finally lost patience with them. The house I turned into a gruesome murder scene in my book was one we walked through with realtors and my Mom, after carefully picking our way up a steep washed-out driveway that was going to cost a mint to replace. There were barns, land, and the house was nice, once… I’m glad she didn’t buy that one. Something was very wrong, there. On the other hand, a farmhouse up on the hill with an amazing view and jewel-like setting both the First Reader and I fell in love with. That house sang to us when we pulled up. Had we not already known that one sill was full of termites, for sure, and maybe more, we might have made an offer for ourselves (sorry, Mom!). Well, that and there would have been no work in easy commuting distance. Over an hour’s drive to the nearest jobs with decent pay. Which is why if you google streetview Portsmouth, OH, you’ll get a sense of what I described at the top of the paragraph.

And it is what I was thinking of, along with countless Kentucky towns crumbling down by their creeks in the hollers, when I wrote this into Possum Creek Massacre.

Snippet of chapter Endeavour: 

I sat up a little and looked closely at the town. The main road doubled as Main Street, it looked to me. Aged wood facades on clapboard buildings, with one lone brick edifice on the corner of the town’s only intersection. The deputy turned onto this cross street, went up a block, and pulled into the lot next to a low, modern brick building that looked slightly out of place in this setting. A sign on the street proclaimed it the county sheriff’s office, but the lot full of cars would have told me that. There were several in the brown and gold the county favored, and a pair in the silver with a blue diagonal that designated the state police. I’d seen one or two of those during our drive on the interstate, but none since. 

I climbed out stiffly again. It had been, I checked my watch, nearly three hours since we’d left the airport. I did a little mental calculation to figure out the local time, although the lowered position of the sun and some welcome coolness told me it was evening time. I wondered if I’d be taken to a hotel, or put right to work. I was tired, but not ready to fall over. And I had not seen a hotel on our way into town. Not since the interstate, actually. 

I followed Deputy Mark into the station. It looked much like any other, with a small waiting room and locked doors as barriers to the inner sanctum where the work happened. He swiped an access badge and let me into the action. 

And action was the right word. The office was an open concept, with desks scattered through the big room. On one of the interior walls was a massive whiteboard that was mostly clean. Only a small clutter of photos held up with magnets and a scrawled list occupied one side. But the amount of people in the room belied that lack of documentation. I didn’t even try to count, because the sheriff had seen us enter and was forging his way through them like a bull through the herd. I wondered who they all were, since the deputy had told me how small his force was.

“Howdy.” He stuck out a meaty hand. “You must be Detective Lombard.” 

“Yessir,” I put my hand out and he clasped it surprisingly gently in his warm, dry hand. “You must be Sheriff Lilburne.” 

“That I am, and may I say, mighty glad to see you. Did y’have a good trip?”

“I did, and not too tired to work if that’s what you’re asking.” I smiled at him. 

His eyes looked about as tired as I felt, but at that they lit up a little. “Appreciate it muchly. D’you mind seeing the body first?” 

“That would be fine.” I looked around the roomful of people who were mostly ignoring us. “Where is your morgue?” 

“No, ma’am. Honest mistake, but the body’s still on scene.” 

My face must have betrayed my surprise. I would have sworn Deputy White had told me it was moved. A young man wearing a uniform blurted out, “We cain’t move it!” 

“Now, now, Hod. We cain move her. An’ then she comes back, an’ we move her, and move her again. And then we call you.” The sheriff turned to me as he said that last. 

He smiled, more of a grimace at me. I could see the trouble in his eyes, and understood that this was what had led to my being called in. 

“How many times did you try moving…” I asked. 

“Only the three times. We may be dumb, but we ain’t plumb dumb. We called in BCI, and they made a call, and they tole me you were comin’ an’ to hole on.” His accent was slipping badly, and I guessed at the depth of his disturbance that wasn’t showing on the genial surface. 


  1. . . . an then she comes back . . .

    That’s enough to get the hair up on the back of my neck!

    Love the term Banjo Fantasy! Going to have to move that one up the TBR pile!

    1. It’s really quite good, and there’s room for a sequel or three.

      Snow in Her Eyes introduces Detective Lombard, though the setting is more West Coast rural/small town.

      Both books highly recommended.

  2. Love the genre name, but I feel a slight fear that P. G. Wodehouse will pop out of the grave and demand that his early works be defined as Ukulele Comedy.

  3. That really is an evocative term. FWIW, I read the book, then saw the movie. I liked the book better (no surprise). Going to college in Georgia, and flying over the mountains… People do shoot at planes, especially if you get low near smoke. (Happened at the place I rented planes from. Stupid twit had been told not to do that, and did that, and came home with a bullet hole in the wing outboard of the fuel tank. He was really lucky.)

    So, would the Silver John stories fit into the category, or are they more along the lines of folk-fantasy?

    1. And if you’re curious about getting shot while flying low over smoke, just think moonshiners and revenooers… My dad got the warning not do do that when he lived in Nashville for a while.

    2. It doesn’t have to be moonshine; sometimes it’s pot farmers or a backwoods meth lab. In one local case, a person’s plane has been getting shot at because another objects to the runway placement. This is inter-mountain west in Oregon. Feuds don’t require hillbilly country.

  4. YAIIT Manley Wade Wellman. Be prepared to leave quickly when you hear The Baby’s tank sloshing.

  5. I’m intrigued about the dialect. I’ve recently published the paperback version of my first novel. The last third of the story takes place in a fictionalized backwoods, mountainous area (Appalachians/Ozarks, take your pick) of the sort Cedar describes, and I had my urban protagonists casually using terms like “hillbilly” to refer to the residents. Meaning no harm, but there it was. And I had my rural characters speaking in a certain amount of dialect: “Wal” instead of “Well,” “iffen” instead of “if,” that sort of thing.

    Well (!), this past August I took a road trip down to Texas and back. Southern Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, western Virginia, I passed through them all. I was wearing a badge that reads “Ask me about my book!” and people did ask, all over the Upper South. I gave them my book card and they expressed interest in checking it out.

    Then on the way home, in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Kentucky, my car stopped running (broken alternator belt). It was a Sunday afternoon, nothing was open except the auto parts store where I’d pulled in, but several of these “hillbillies” worked together to get my car repaired right there in the parking lot. Three hours later, I was back on the road to Pennsylvania.

    After that, I felt guilty about the dialect I’d used in the novel. I was afraid it might be offensive to Southern readers. So I exercised my prerogatives as an independent publisher and went in, edited a lot of it out, and uploaded the new versions.

    But I’m seeing this excerpt of yours, where the dialect is way heavier than I had, even before the changes. How do readers from the South feel about that kind of thing? Did I overreact? Can you do it because your First Reader is from Kentucky?

    1. I based the dialect on my in-laws. I’m literally writing how they sound to me. My husband scrubbed his accent, but he can put it back on at will, so I sometimes had him say lines so I could write the dialogue. The name Merlin appears in the book, because for months I thought a neighbor lady was named Merlin. I was wrong – her name is Marilyn. I’ve been enchanted with the accent since I came to know and love my new family members.

    2. I think you are combining two matters that can be considered separately.

      One is use of dialect, and the issues there are remaining comprehensible to your readers, and knowing the actual dialect well enough to use it effectively and clearly.

      The other is respect for the groups using the dialect. Respect or disrespect for your subjects will be conveyed whether you have them speak like midwestern farmers, Manhattan lawyers, or Tokyo salarymen. Any group of any real size is made out of people, and people are complex. A person with dislike of some group is authentic to reality, and characters are neither perfect nor wholly representative of the author.

      It’s possible to fruitlessly tear yourself up for fear of slighting someone somewhere.

      It’s technically possible to err going too far the other way, but that is not something I would worry about much. (I suspect I am more likely to do that sort of thing on purpose than by accident.)

      I’m not sure I count as Southern enough, but I would not reject a book I otherwise enjoyed because of dialect.

    3. If you are using dialect for a reason, not to play up the “stupid hick from [wherever]” stereotype, then most people won’t blink.

      One thing that works even better than dialect sounds, in some cases, is dialect grammar and figures of speech. Especially when the actual dialect would throw the reader off because of how odd it looks, catching regional speech rhythms and grammar often works just as well.

      1. Or for “historical flavor” —- most egregious example I’ve come across is the Book “13th Warrior”. Chrichton put it in a pseudo Arabic style that walled the book despite loving the movie.

    4. I loathe dialect. Unless it’s just a few thing (e.g. y’all, iffen), it slows me down. It’s like reading Shakespeare: It must be done out loud or it makes no sense. On the other hand, I much prefer Robert Frost in whatever-it-is, rather than translation (e.g. “aft go agly” is much more fun than “oft go awry”).

      Bob’s Spaceship Repair does a good job, I think, of being Banjo SciFi and using dialect without overdoing it. (It’s totally silly, written in first-person, and very dialog driven – you’ve been warned.)

      1. THAT. and the sequels, are a fun read. There is also a stab at high tech in a decadent society there also. There are some tech copied from others that the primary society has forgotten the emgineering to make or expand on.

  6. Another factor if you’re trying to invoke a setting would be to consider regional differences in vocabulary. For example, the well-known usage of soda in one region, pop in another, to refer to carbonated soft drinks. Then there are lesser-known variants of the same thing – coke in the deep South, and tonic in the Boston area. A useful resource for identifying these differences is The Dictionary of American Regional English.

  7. I’m having a similar problem with the book I am about to put out (really, I swear). It’s urban fantasy in everything except it’s setting, a small town in the Rocky Mountains. Don’t think that Banjo fantasy works for that setting.

    FYI, I was looking at the Amazon page for Possum Creek Massacre, and it’s a bit confusing. The Title says “Witchward Book 2,” but the series information says “Book 1 of 1 of Witchward.” In the copious free time that I’m sure you have, you might want to look into that.

    1. Hah. Yes, I will fix it. Peter Grant talked me into making it book two, as he had read the novella that comes before it. And I’m still fighting with the identifiers.

  8. I’m just glad you liked “banjo fantasy.”

    Like you said, it’s a cliche, but it gets the point across well.

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