Blue Spring Heritage Center

Three of the characters in the third novel, “The Aqueous Solution,” have some significant moments together at Blue Spring Heritage Center just west of Eureka Springs. The spring itself also figures prominently in a moment shared by two characters in the first novel, “The Water Cure.” The long-time attraction is a place of great beauty and rich heritage. The museum building features quite a lot of memorabilia from The North Arkansas Line railroad as well.

The Blue Spring
Trail of Tears plaque
Railroad memorabilia
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Eureka Springs

My little hometown in the Ozarks is charming and picturesque, brimming with activities and events, an eclectic populace and an array of shops, attractions and dining establishments that reflect our diversity of personalities, gifts and interests.

Arts of all kinds are celebrated here: visual, musical, performance, culinary. There are bike trails, galleries, quaint shops, unique attractions, all kinds of lodging, plus a wide variety of cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, wine rooms and bars.

If it sounds like I’m writing advertising copy, I used to — as part of the creative team that served the town through the ad agency CJRW (then Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods). And I’m crazy about the place. I knew I wanted to retire here by the end of my first visit, I think.

We used to refer to Eureka Springs in ad copy as a “Victorian village,” in addition to its classic moniker, “Little Switzerland of the Ozarks.” It’s inspirational in many ways beyond topography and architecture, though, and most folks who visit look forward to returning.

And its history is as colorful as the gingerbread homes that characterize its winding, hilly streets.

Eureka Springs was just the natural choice as the setting for my novel cycle for so many of these reasons and more, which you will doubtless discern as you read!

The 1886 Crescent Hotel, a castle of luxurious lodging atop East Mountain, with its own resident ghosts
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Mud Street Postcard

One of the framed items pictured on the cover of the third novel, The Aqueous Solution, is a postcard from Mud Street Café, where I wrote nearly all of the Cycle.

There’s only a small reference to the Café in the books, where three characters enjoy a meal as they tour Eureka Springs like resident tourists, celebrating their reunion.

Mud Street Café doesn’t actually offer a postcard for sale, so I mocked one up from a quick iPhone photo I took early one Monday morning before the crowds showed up, plus their website header.

I thought about just borrowing one of the menu cards and including it, but I already had a vertical visual in the shot, the brochure for Blue Spring Heritage Center.

The cordial atmosphere of the café; the hospitality of manager (now owner) and employees, the delicious food and coffee were great fuel and inspiration for writing — I highly recommend it!

Yeah, as I was creating the postcard, I noticed the person with long blond(e) hair and spectacles in the far left of the photograph. That’s not me. I have no idea who it might have been!

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How The Cycle Began, Part 2

I think my first visit to Eureka Springs was a long day-trip in 1984, driving up from Little Rock where I lived. I rode the trains. I toured the town. I was charmed by it.
When I was dating Angi, we made a weekend trip up and stayed at a charming bed-and-breakfast called Cedarberry Cottage (now the home of my newly-engaged friends Michael Johnson-Gallina and Marilyn Sloas). I proposed to her on the luncheon train Saturday afternoon (the dinner train was booked up!).

On our family trips up from Little Rock, the germ of the idea of the “Balm of Life” waters from the springs lending extended years to someone’s lifetime began to take shape.

In the Skylark stories I wrote as a teen in the 1970s, the main character was an orphan whose parents were lost when their spaceship was destroyed — but not before getting their baby into a shuttlepod with an AI control system named FRAN which became the baby’s parent and found a family to raise him.

The story taking shape in my head involved a space vessel hurtling backward in time, and its jettisoned water supply becoming the Waters of the Stars in Eureka Springs.

My concept languished for years as career and family and love and loss took priority, but when I semi-retired here, it began to take root. I dived into the souvenir book histories of the tiny city, bought more, delved deeper into railroad history, even took a position for 2-1/2 years as a conductor on the tourist railway.
Finally retiring in 2019, I began writing in earnest, beyond just plot and character notes. I toted my little iPad Mini and its Kensington keyboard down the steps of Mud Street Cafe (and sometimes during winter hours Mud Street Annex) every Monday morning, and the story began to take shape.

And quickly ground to a halt.

That’s another story.

Junior high and high school sketches for the “Skylark” stories
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Railroad History

History of the railroad known generally as “The North Arkansas Line” figures prominently in the three volumes of The ‘People of the Water’ Cycle.

These are some of the works I referred to while writing those sections.A railway with a colorful history, the M&NA suffered the longest strike in railroad history, went through a half-dozen name/ownership changes, and somehow lasted in an area of the state that couldn’t financially support it from 1881 to 1961 — 80 years.

Amazingly enough, the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway tourist line from Eureka to Junction has been in operation for more than half that many years — from 1981 through today; this will be the Dortch Brothers’ 41st year!

Oak Leaves Magazine reprint; An Industrial War reprint; Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad: History Through the Miles; The Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad Strike; The Harrison Riot; Shortline Railroads of Arkansas
Railroads of Northwest Arkansas; an issue of Railroad Magazine; The North Arkansas Line; The Wreck of the Thomas C. McRae; Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway; Locomotives and Motor Cars, Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad
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How The Cycle Began, Part 1

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read and didn’t want to write.

Before I could type, in junior high school, I was writing a series of short stories longhand in blue ink on noteboook paper. They were about a science club of kids my age, mostly launching model rockets to do some kind of research or solve some problem one way or another. That’s because I’d been addicted to the hobby since I was in seventh grade.

The stories were awful, of course, because they were written by a junior high school kid with virtually no knowledge of how the world works. But at the root of them were the germs of stories worth telling.

I kept writing them and reshaping them after I taught myself to type on my mom’s ancient Underwood typewriter at about age 15. In college, I thought I could develop the stories into a children’s Saturday morning television program. It couldn’t have been much worse that some things that were already on the air! (I’m thinking Ark II, Space Academy, etc.)

The students of the Skylark club grew as I did, and sometimes their names and some other specifics changed as well. If you’ve read the first book, The Water Cure, you already know that I’ve alluded to these stories — and the reference continues in the other two books.

In fact, an experiment with a water pressure-powered model rocket recounted in The Crystalline Clarity could be a hook into a fourth book, if I ever go there!

Skylark became the name of the Apollo capsule that begins the adventure of The People of the Water Cycle, and of course, an incident with the astronauts’ mission patches leads to it becoming the name of a model rocketry club of younger characters.

Handwritten pages of Skylark stories
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I mocked up this cover of a graphic novel to include among the items in the bookcase for the cover of the third novel, The Aqueous Solution. Hopefully it conveys a little of the almost-immortal title character’s gentle and pensive nature, as action heroes go.

“SilverLock,” first issue
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Foolish Consistency

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, “Self-Reliance.” It’s actually longer than that, and worth reading the whole rhyme, if not the entire essay. But I digress, because I don’t really want to talk about something in my book series that looks like a mistake to the careful observer.

Because the careful observer might ask, “Why are they referred to as the ‘People of the Waters’ in the text of the novels, but the title of the series is the ‘People of the Water’ Cycle?”

Well, because I thought “cycle” was a nice pun when paired with “water” (playing off the environmental process known as the “water cycle“), and even if I had chosen “series” or “trilogy” instead, it looked and sounded weird when paired with the plural noun “waters” rather than the singular “water.”

“Oh,” the careful observer might respond. The extra-careful observer might then ask, “Why is it ‘The People of the Water Cycle’ on the cover of the book but The ‘People of the Water’ Cycle in the descriptions on Leaving out ‘The?’ in the single quotes?”

Well, kids, that’s what’s commonly known in the writing-and-book-publishing business as a mistake, and I don’t want to talk about it.

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Untold Stories of Book 1

Beginning writers are encouraged to keep their first novel manuscripts in the 50,000 – 60,000 word range. And believe me, it’s easy to go off on an interesting tangent and usually not as easy to get back to the story at hand.

I tend to think of these temptations to stray as “untold stories,” and there were quite a few of them I mused over that never made it to my series’ first book, The Water Cure.

My main character is a medical doctor, a fact established early on in the book, and one of the stories that I didn’t pursue was having her work as a nurse part time for a woman that some have described as “Arkansas’ first woman medical doctor,” though I’ve seen no documentation for that claim.

Dr. Pearl Tatman is a kind of local legend here in Eureka Springs, and has a unique and interesting life-story. My original thought was to have my character keeping her own records of Dr. Pearl’s “water cures,” getting caught, and having my character reconcile with her by introducing her to the orphaned girl that Dr. Pearl adopted as her own daughter. “Cozy Corners,” the home where they and husband/adoptive father Dr. Albert Tatman actually lived, is operated as a tourist lodging home near mine.

I ended up only alluding to my character’s desire to work for Dr. Pearl, because my word count was already climbing, and this episode didn’t really advance the story or my main character.

In another unused scenario, I would have had this character square off with the charlatan Norman Baker, who claimed cures for cancer and other ailments at the hospital and sanitarium he established in the closed-down Crescent Hotel. She would have investigated his claims and debated whether to help the state of Arkansas debunk him, only to have the question rendered moot by the U.S. government nailing him for mail fraud. Which is what actually happened in 1940.

Another unfollowed trail was with the character who has experimental aircraft experience, not simply tempted to make his way into Nazi Germany before World War II as I wrote it, but actually doing so. Insinuating himself into the Third Reich’s x-planes program, he would have waited to get close to Hitler at a demonstration of the aircraft in order to assassinate him — before thinking better of it. (I had even thought of him helping design and create an underpowered gravity-resistance vehicle for that demonstration; playing off an old conspiracy theory that Hitler was developing flying saucers.)

In the end, I think it was the better decision for this character to simply propose such an operation, while having another character talk him out of actually doing it.

There were several other dead-end trails that established my characters’ participation in actual events in the history of Eureka Springs and beyond, but they seemed to slow the flow of the narrative rather than contributing to the overarching story.

They would definitely have taken the work far past 60,000 words!

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The first book in my novel Cycle is, of course, dedicated to my late wife, Peggie Angela (Laird) Brenton. Gone now these eight-and-a-half years, she still inspires me with her noble and generous character, her great intelligence and passion for learning and her love for everyone, whether she had met them yet or not. So, The Water Cure, themed about the extension of life by many years, begins …

In memory of my beloved Angi,
with whom I look forward to being reunited,
no matter how many years or decades it takes.

The Crystalline Clarity, my second book in the series, is about a young person trying to find himself after losing not just one but both parents. Both of my amazing kids had to rebuild their lives after the loss of their mom, in their own time and in their own ways, and I am so very proud of them. Plus my grandson is his own four-year-old fountain of joy and blessing to me. So the sequel begins ….

For my kids, Matt and Laura; and my grandson, Kayson.

Rounding out the trilogy — at least for now! — is The Aqueous Solution, and it begins with a book report for a class in school written by one of my characters in his youth. I read voraciously in my youth, and yearned to write, and eventually did. At first, short stories in longhand; then as I taught myself to type on my mom’s ancient Underwood, much longer pieces. I even foisted a novella-length typewritten manuscript on one of my junior high teachers who dutifully read it and nodded, “It’s all right.” From her, that was high praise. But at every step — no matter how awful my efforts were in retrospect — there were teachers, instructors, professors and dear friends who encouraged me to keep at it and keep getting better. I hope I did. Book 3 begins ….

For all the teachers, instructors and professors
who encouraged me to write and keep writing, including:
Don Jones, Dawn Wade, Betty Ulrey, Neil Cope.

For all the friends who believed I could,
far too numerous to name.

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