Guest Author Brenda Marie Smith Presents Living off the Grid: My Life as Research

red quill pen on a piece of old parchment paper, with an ink well with words Welcome Guest in script

Hello! Today I’m excited to welcome Brenda Marie Smith to my blog. It’s her first time visiting, and boy does she have a story to share. I “met” Brenda last year when I read her highly-unique post-apocalyptic novel If Darkness Takes Us. To see what makes this book so different from most stories of this type, see my 5 Star Amazon Review. And then check out where some of the inspiration behind the book came from by reading Brenda’s amazing personal experiences below!

____________________________________________________________________________

LIVING OFF THE GRID:
MY LIFE AS RESEARCH

By Brenda Marie Smith

In my novel, If Darkness Takes Us, a solar pulse destroys the U.S. grid and also takes down the cars, phones, and running water. The characters must survive without modern conveniences and learn to farm their urban subdivision.

Readers regularly comment on how much research I must have done to make the details of a powerless world authentic. But the fact is that my life was my research.

In the 1970s when I lived off the grid for several years, I didn’t realize I was also building a treasure trove of experiences that would later fuel my fiction. I was an idealist, part of the Back to the Land movement. We were “getting in touch with Nature” and “finding ourselves,” which often involved living in the backwoods, ingesting psychedelics, growing veggies, and the actual hugging of trees.

The Arkansas Ozark Mountains
The first time I got married I was eighteen. Back then you could survive on odd jobs and cheap rent, but after hitchhiking across the country twice, we weren’t satisfied. When we saw the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” about St. Francis of Assisi shunning worldly goods, we packed up our 1953 Chevy panel truck and headed out to live in the Ozark Mountains of Western Arkansas.

Oh my gosh, it was beautiful there—low mountains that seemed spectacular to us after being flatlanders all our lives—crisp air, uncut National Forests of oak and gum and pine. We drove around several counties where we’d heard that hippies lived, and finally found them in Newton County—one of the poorest counties in the nation.

An old man named Beecher Kilgore had moved to town due to poor health—he lived in a trailer that he called a “Prince Albert can.” He let us live in his mountain cabin for free, as long as we brought him huckleberries from the woods and potatoes from his garden.

Beecher’s place was a tiny tar-paper shack with a tin roof, but he’d built it himself from hand-hewn oak planks. He and his wife raised their kids there—one bedroom, one living area with a woodstove for heat. The biggest room was the kitchen—it had a kerosene refrigerator that we never used and a kerosene cookstove that we fired up when we got tired of cooking atop the wood heater or the hibachi grill. Everything we did, we had to learn from scratch.

Old outhouse in the woods at autumn, trees bare, leaves covering ground
Image from Pixabay

There was an outhouse up the hill in the back—scared me to death to go there at night as there were panthers, but I got used to it. Out the kitchen door, a rock path led to a PVC pipe, where fresh spring water ran continuously to form a small pool and a smaller stream. We stored perishable food like milk and cheese in the pool, though not for more than a day at a time.

The spring water was so clean and clear that we drank it by the gallons—always cool even in hot weather. The spring was up a hill on the side of a house. Chipmunks and other small critters hung out around the spring, and I read Carlos Castaneda up there, trying to commune with the animals.

At the time we thought we didn’t have neighbors for two miles around us, but I now suspect that some people were closer if we’d known how to get to them through the woods and hollers.

We had a few acres of cleared land with two garden spaces that had once been pig pens. Otherwise, we were surrounded by miles of healthy forest. Across the chert road, we could hike a short way to a magnificent creek bed—a deep cut into the mountainside that had a lovely waterfall at the top end and a beaver dam at the bottom.

Our firewood came from fallen tree limbs that we dragged home to chop by hand. Never once did we cut down a living tree. I planted a veggie garden to mixed success, and studied local herbs and plants. I learned to make tea from wild mint or sumac, which was abundant and tasted like hibiscus. Huckleberries were everywhere the first year, but nowhere to be found the second and third. Persimmons grew wild, but we ate them too soon and never ate more.

Because we had no electricity, we used kerosene lamps and lanterns, learning to trim the wicks so they didn’t turn the lamp chimneys black. For bathing, we had a big tin washtub, and we heated water on the woodstove. It took a cooperative effort to keep the bathwater warm and to rinse one another’s hair.

Scary things happened: I rounded the corner of the house one day to find a bobcat staring at me; the brakes went out on our truck as we came down the mountain highway, taking a tight curve in the wrong lane; my visiting brother got lost in the woods for hours in the dark; the truck’s engine block froze and cracked, stranding us at home with almost no food. We had to hike four miles up the mountain in the snow, not knowing if the store would even be open. Luckily it was, and people fed us a meal and hot tea to boot.

Wondrous and beautiful things: The quiet, which unnerved me at first until the peacefulness settled in; dogwood flowers in spring that looked like white butterflies on the bare trees; hiking to the mountaintop to get above the clouds; the spectacular fall foliage; caves with sparkling white stalactites and stalagmites; witchers who found water with a willow stick; old men who played banjo and guitar and invited the hippies to sing along; huckleberry pie at the café where everyone knew us and the waitresses called us “honey.”

And on summer nights, tree frogs would serenade us from a pond in the woods under the magical moonlight.

The people of Newton County had been dirt-poor for generations. They hunted and fished for part of their food (which we never did—we were learning to be vegetarian). They survived by helping each other, and they helped us so much it was humbling. Beecher Kilgore loaned us his house; a mechanic named Smitty gave us a running car and wouldn’t let us pay him; folks gave us fresh honey and garden vegetables galore. I learned to make quilts that I pieced together by hand and gave them as gifts in return.

Putting Life into Fiction
Beecher’s cabin and the mountain creek show up in my first novel, Something Radiates. So does the time I spent in Louisiana and a mountain cave I hitchhiked to near Boulder. For the evil antagonist, I merged the worst aspects of my two exes and ramped them into overdrive.

Book cover for If Darkness Takes Us by Brenda Marie Smith shows high tension utility tower shrouded in darkness

For If Darkness Takes Us and its sequel, If the Light Escapes (coming out August 2021), I drew on my experience as mother and grandmother in a big step-family, plus my skills from life off-grid in the Ozarks. I also used what I learned in off-grid communal living, which I will tell you more about in a future blog post this coming summer.

The lesson to go with the standard advice to “write what you know” is that you can mix pieces of your life with your imagination to create something completely new.
All my thanks to Mae Clair for her kindness and encouragement, and for hosting this story on her blog.
____________________________________________________________________________

Author, Brenda Marie SmithBIO:
Winner of the Southern Fried Karma 2018 Novel Contest for IF DARKNESS TAKES US, Brenda Marie Smith studied fiction in the UCLA Writers Program. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, she was part of the back-to-the-land movement, living off the grid in the Ozark Mountains, and then joining The Farm—an off-grid, vegan hippie community in Tennessee where her sons were delivered by midwives.

Brenda has lived in Austin, Texas since 1980, where she managed nonprofits for thirty years. She and her husband own and reside in a grid-connected, solar-powered home. They have five grown sons, two grandkids with a third on the way, and a self-assured kitty cat. Her first novel Something Radiates is a paranormal romantic thriller; If Darkness Takes Us and its sequel, If the Light Escapes, are post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Connect with Brenda at the following haunts:
Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon | Goodreads | YouTube

____________________________________________________________________________

BOOK BLURB:
IF DARKNESS TAKES US

Winner of the 2018 Southern Fried Karma Novel Contest

In suburban Austin, Texas, Bea Crenshaw secretly prepares for apocalypse, but when a solar pulse destroys modern life, she’s left alone with four grandkids whose parents don’t return home. She must teach these kids to survive without power, cars, phones, running water, or doctors in a world fraught with increasing danger.

If Darkness Takes Us is realistic post-apocalyptic fiction with a focus on a family in peril, led by a no-nonsense grandmother who is at once funny, controlling, and heroic in her struggle to hold her family together with civility and heart.

____________________________________________________________________________

So are you as blown away as I am? What an incredible life Brenda has led! Now I understand how she was able to make the scenarios in If Darkness Takes Us so realistic.

Brenda will be back again with another amazing post when If the Light Escapes releases in August. In the meantime, this (moi) pampered, where’s-the-pool-bar-and-hotel-lounge girl is in awe. My husband frequently tells me I would have never made it as a settler or living in the Old West. Apparently, I wouldn’t make it in Brenda’s world either, LOL!

Drop her a few thoughts below. And, if you haven’t read If Darkness Takes Us, I highly recommend a quick jaunt to Amazon to one-click!

110 thoughts on “Guest Author Brenda Marie Smith Presents Living off the Grid: My Life as Research

  1. My goodness, I’m fascinated by Brenda’s life and her writing, and I just picked up a copy of If Darkness Takes Us. I live with all the conveniences now, but for a time (when much younger), I lived in a cabin by a lake, cooked on a wood-burning stove, had running water only in a tiny kitchen, and lived off of fish and a garden. Reading her story took me back to those days. Thank you, Brenda, and heartfelt congratulations! 💗

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I read Brenda’s book before learning about her background, but it sure explained how her MC knew so much. What fascinating experiences you’ve had, Brenda – although I could have done without the bobcat and outhouse!

    Liked by 2 people

      • It’s amazing the things you can do when you’re young, lol. I was 19 when I moved to Arkansas and turned 21 there as well. Hitchhiking in those days was very common. Not as dangerous as it would be now, though there were some hairy experiences then, too. I’ll have to put those in a novel one of these days, lol.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, Staci, where did you live in NW Arkansas? I worked in Harrison for a short while, visited Eureka Springs a lot, and lived for several months in Fayetteville to make money to go back to Newton County. Best wishes to you as well.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hitchhiking today is too dangerous. I’d never try it. And I’d never want my kids to. Your stories are fascinating.

        We lived on the border of Farmington and Fayetteville. But I’ve been to Harrison for my kids’ sporting events and to Eureka Springs with friends. Looks like we walked the same streets!

        Liked by 2 people

    • The novel is excellent, Tessa, and very unique for the genre given the age of the MC and the setting (a single neighborhood). I think you would enjoy it. After reading Brenda’s post today I understand why the survival aspects felt so authentic.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I made it about an old lady because I am one, and I, like the MC Bea, worry about environmental collapse. And now here I am in Snowmageddon.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Growing up, we had a well and my parents raised chickens, rabbits, and pigeons and canned and froze tons of vegetables from a huge garden. My dad’s dream was to move to the country and be self-sufficient. He died too soon, but I think he’d have done it once he retired. Me? I was ready to buy a house with a dishwasher and every amenity. I found Brenda’s blog post fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Judi, it sounds like you had an amazing childhood. I’m so sorry your dad passed before he could fulfill his dream. It does sound like he would have embraced it. My father always wanted to move to Alaska, but I think that was a pipe dream. I certainly wouldn’t have fared well with 6 months of darkness, LOL.

      And I’m with you on the amenities! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds like a lovely and wholesome childhood. Nowadays, I love my creature comforts, too, but I’m glad I know how to live without them. Thanks for your kind words.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for visiting, John. I was enthralled by her past.

      I am worried about her down in Austin. When I heard from her on Tuesday, she had been without power for 36 hours and it had just come back on. She wasn’t sure it was going to last, but still wanted to move ahead with today’s post. I’m guessing she hasn’t popped in yet, because she’s struggling with power issues. Something, you’ve been well acquainted with lately!

      Liked by 3 people

      • We’ve had power for one day now after having only four hours of it for 72 hours. No power on the coldest nights in 32 years, with temps of 6 and 7 degrees. Then, right when the power came back, the water stopped. A huge percentage of the city is without water and those that have it are being told to boil it.

        We have to ration our electric use to keep from losing power again, so I can only be online for a short while each day. It’s turning in to a humanitarian disaster down here. We are all right because we have bottled water and we filled two bathtubs. Plus we have water in the water heater and we melted some snow. It’s rough, but I am much more worried about those who don’t have resources or help. And food is becoming a huge problem for a lot of people, too. Grocery stores are running out and closing down.

        My training living off the grid certainly has helped me, but I am ready for this to be over. It’s supposed to start thawing tomorrow, but it could be quite a while before we get water.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Brenda, I had a feeling you were dealing with power issues in Austin. It sounds awful…especially not having power when the night temp dropped that low.

        6-7 degrees for your part of the country is just SO WRONG. I’m glad you finally have power back, and you have water. It sounds, however, that perhaps the National Guards or Red Cross is needed to bring in supplies….water for those who don’t have it, and food to replace the grocery stores. It’s so ironic to have you writing a post about living off the grid, and then being stuck in a mess like snowmaggedon. I hope it all melts quickly and life can soon get back to normal for you!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What an amazing life you lived back then, Brenda. Your scary stories scared me too, to have a bobcat staying at you, your brother lost in the woods, the truck engine broke… I could imagine the beauty of your experience as well, climbing up the mountain above the clouds. Thank you for sharing the inspiration behind your book. Thank you for hosting, Mae. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • I loved this post, Miriam. I’m sorry Brenda isn’t here to reply herself, but she’s in Texas and I fear she has no power right now. I know she put her heart and soul into writing if Darkness Takes Us, and after reading this post, I understand where much of the background came from!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I know, Mae. My heart goes out to the people in Texas getting in long line buying propane and cooking on the firepits and the whole family cramps in the car trying to stay warm. We need a break from this crazy weather!

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Miriam. Looking back on it, I’m kind of amazed myself, lol. I visited that cabin in the woods about 20 years later and I couldn’t get over how tiny it was.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Part of it was that I was fleeing life in Oklahoma. I have family and a lot of people I love there, but it was a stifling place when I was growing up and I just had to get away.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Balroop. Part of the idea was that we wanted to learn to live by taking a smaller share of the Earth’s resources. I couldn’t sustain it for a lifetime, but I’m glad I gave it a good try. I do know a lot of others who are still doing it. I appreciate your kind words.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow. While I wouldn’t want to live that far off the grid, I do think there’s a lot to be said for a simple lifestyle. (Says the person who was beside herself after not having electricity and internet for two days.)

    Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for hosting today, Mae.

    Liked by 3 people

    • LOL! I’m so sorry you went through that Joan. I have a feeling Brenda, who lives in Texas, is going through that herself right now. I wouldn’t want to live that far off the grid either, but it makes for inspiring reading. I loved this post from Brenda, and am so glad you enjoyed it too!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. What an amazing experience that must have been. I did escape into the forest, but had the luxury of electricity and running water, most of the time. I do have If Darkness Takes Us on my TBR list. Definitely moving it up to the top.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I could happily listen to Brenda’s stories for hours. I imagine her grandkids feel the same way. In a way, it’s kind of a storybook life, isn’t it? No bills, no tv shouting this crisis or the other- just you and nature 🙂 And a panther! That’s cool!
    Hope Brenda and everyone facing the winter storms are safe and relatively warm {{hugs}}

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, those nasty winter storms! When I heard from Brenda on Tuesday she had just gotten power back after 36 hours without it. I have a feeling she is down again, but as resilient as she is (given her incredible backstory), I know she’ll work through it. She has quite the amazing backstory!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Someday I’ll tell you about my time as concert promoter or my soy food business, or managing student co-op housing for 15 years. Too much to tell, and so little time, lol.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jacquie. The hardest thing about writing this post was all the things I had to leave out. The no bills and TV were great. We did need some money though for food, etc. and work was very hard to come by. We had to drive a long way for it, and our vehicles were forever breaking down. But it was great for quite a while.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you everyone for your interest and your words of encouragement. It means a great deal to me, esp. right now while we are surviving this snow disaster. I appreciate all of you so very much.

    And Mae, I can’t say enough good about you. Isn’t she wonderful, everyone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aww, you’re so sweet, Brenda. You take care of yourself down there. Snuggle in, stay warm and carry on with that resilient spirit of yours. I can imagine you handling everything just like Be a 🙂

      It’s been my pleasure to host you, and you are welcome back anytime. I’m looking forward to your next living off the grid post with the release of If The Light Escapes Us!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. How wonderful to meet Brenda! I can relate to some of her experience as I also turned to the hippie way of life in the early seventies, living in a commune, following a guru. I can see how her experience gave her first-hand knowledge for writing her story. I picked up the book and look forward to reading it! Thank you for sharing, Mae!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Brenda isn’t just a fascinating human and great writer, she’s an exceptional humanitarian that was instrumental in creating social justice organizations and managing student housing coops in Austin, Tx for many years. I feel so fortunate that Brenda decided to move to Texas and bless us with her many talents and wisdom. My life is better because of her. I hope that she eventually gets ALL the praise and accolades that she so deserves! Thanks for sharing her story Mae Clair!

    Liked by 3 people

  11. What a wonderful post. I loved learning about Brenda and her experiences. I thought I had lived primitively but her adventure in the Ozarks was the real thing. It sounds wonderful (wonderful to this outdoors gal). And what great material for her book. “Write what you know” works. Thanks for sharing this fascinating author and her book, Mae.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Mark, this was a fascinating post and I’m impressed to think of Brenda and her companions living such a simplified (and maybe hard) life. I’m sure the benefits outweighed the drawbacks, and it sounds great to be “disconnected” for a while now. Thanks for sharing this!!

    Liked by 3 people

      • It was amazing, and I’m so glad that I did it. I’m glad you liked the post. There was so much I had to leave out. I hope I captured the overall feeling of it.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Maurabeth. At the time, it seemed a combination of hard and wonderful. Later I would find more hardship with us, which I will write about in a blog post this summer. Mostly, the Ozarks were magical and an experience I am so glad that I had. Thanks for your interest and kind words.

      Liked by 2 people

I love comments, so please scribble a thought or two!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.