“You can’t handle the truth,” Jack Nicholson growls as Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” But my narrator Charlie Mears tries to.

Can We Handle Truth?

From the first chapter of the novel Forsaken, its young narrator, newspaper reporter Charlie Mears, is preoccupied with truth. He wonders if the tale an old neighbor spun about the 1831 slave insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia, is true. He even wonders if his own story of Virginia Christian’s trial and execution is true. Sometimes […]



  Words did not come easily to my mother. Yet there we stand, embowered by her eloquence.While Mom was diffident in the way of country people, you can see from the picture she could make anything grow. In an academic career spanning one undergraduate and two graduate schools, I could bring home nearly any straggly, […]


The Sirens’ Song

A goal I set for the novel Forsaken was to have it be as accurate historically as I could make it. This became an obsession. I’d caution anyone interested in writing historical fiction against the sirens’ song of research. There’s so much information! As writers, we want to listen to what history has to say. […]

Mug shot of Floyd Allen taken at the state penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, where he would die in the electric chair. Library of Virginia.

A Crisis Somewhat Akin

Found guilty of first-degree murder in the courtroom shooting in Hillsville, Virginia, Floyd Allen was sentenced to death by electrocution in May 1912. Virginia Christian’s murder trial took place a month earlier. Her lead attorney, George Washington Fields, a former slave, was blind. Despite the disability, he was masterful at interrogating witnesses. J. Clay Smith, […]

Baldwin-Felts detectives arrest wounded Floyd Allen at hotel in Hillsville, March 15, 1912.

Courthouse Massacre

On March 14, 1912, four days before Virginia Christian murdered Ida Belote in Hampton, a stunning event took place far away in the mountains of Virginia. At the Hillsville Courthouse, after a verdict in a case against Floyd Allen was returned, gunshots rang out. The sitting judge, Commonwealth’s attorney, and high sheriff lay dead. A […]

Claudia Emerson, a Virginia poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Claudia Emerson (1957-2014)

Despite the fact that her work appeared in many magazines and journals, including the New Yorker and the Southern Review, and that she was a poet laureate of Virginia and a Pulitzer Prize winner, I’d never heard of Claudia Emerson till I read her obituary in the University of Virginia Magazine. True, I’d graduated from […]

"Uncle George" Weddle, storyteller, who gave me my first book as a gift.


When I was six, Mother returned with my sister and me to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to grow up among her people. “Uncle George” Weddle looks in this photo just as I remember him. Erect. Solitary, since his wife and daughter were dead. Stern. Wearing clean khaki trousers and a clean, khaki long-sleeved […]

Elizabeth City County Courthouse, 1913. (Courtesy of the Hampton History Museum, Hampton, Va. Cheyne Collection 2009.15.1998)

April 8

On this day in 1912 at 10 o’clock in the morning, the murder trial of sixteen-year-old Virginia Christian opened in the Elizabeth City County Courthouse, Hampton, Virginia. An African-American girl, “Virgie,” as she was called, was convicted of killing her white employer, Ida Belote, a fifty-one-year-old widow. Virgie died in the electric chair at the […]