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!

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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.
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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

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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.

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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!

Guest Author Thursday: Emily Fortney with The Dark Ruler #newrelease #fantasy #youngadult

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

Hello, and please welcome Emily Fortney back to my blog. Emily and I originally met in a local writing group, and I’m delighted to help her with the launch of her newest release The Dark Ruler. Isn’t the cover gorgeous? She also has a special offer for you at the end of the post.

Here’s Emily to give you some background on The Dark Ruler and her Camilla Crim series!

cover of The Dark Ruler shows young girl on horseback, sword strapped over shoulder, castle in background

It is great to be back on Mae’s blog and talking to all of you! When I was here last summer, I was sharing about my young adult fantasy book, The Sacrifice of One. I was re-launching that book at that time. Yes, you read that right, it was a RE-launch. After years of sitting on this book and just focusing on my writing, I decided to rebrand it and widen the distribution. All during the re-launch, I was also working on a brand new book in that series called The Dark Ruler. Well, I’m back again to announce that The Dark Ruler officially released this week! 

This is book #3 in my Camilla Crim series. It’s actually been almost three years since I released a new book, so this is a big deal for me and I’m really excited to tell you about it. 

Let me introduce you to my leading lady, Camilla. How shall I describe Camilla? She’s stubborn and talks without thinking, but she’s also fiery and passionate. In The Dark Ruler she’s on a mission to kill the Supreme Ruler, Quinten Warwick, and free the people of Elmyra from slavery. Unsurprisingly, a slew of mysteries lie between the walls of the capital city where the Supreme Ruler resides.

Things are little more complicated than that straight forward goal. Because Camilla has a mother with suspect intentions. After abandoning Camilla when she was just a toddler, Portia weasels her way back into Camilla’s world and has taken to meddling with her life. Although a very powerful witch, Portia is intent on drawing little ol’ Camilla to her side. The problem is, Camilla doesn’t know why her mother is suddenly interested in her, and frankly, she doesn’t care. She wants nothing to do with her mother.

For those of you who’ve never read any of the books in this series, let’s back up. Before Camilla had problems with her mom and found herself taking on the role of a Supreme Ruler assassin, she worked at the national farm, being treated as little more than a slave. Camilla even bears the brand of Quinten Warwick on her arm. She’s a peasant, a nothing. 

Everything changes when she finds out that her brother is being hunted down for a murder she knows he didn’t commit, or at least she’s pretty sure… All of that plays out in The Sacrifice of One. (Stick around until the end of this post for a special offer on this book!)

Book cover for The Sacrifice of One by Emily Fortney, a young adult fantasy novel, showacs attractive young woman with long hair

First, I’d like to draw the veil and take you behind the scenes of The Dark Ruler and the process I took to write this book. Like all of you, last year was different for me. Here in America, COVID struck in early March. Literally the week that everything shut down was the same week that I left my 9-5 job of nearly 10 years to write part time. Leaving my job was pre-planned and had nothing to do with COVID. It was a weird time of transition for me. 

The point is, I wrote The Dark Ruler during the pandemic. The lack of social gatherings really cut down on my commitments and I was able to spend a lot of time at my laptop clacking away. For me, this book is a positive part of 2020. It helped me survive it in a way and I’m not sure I could have written it as quickly as I did without quarantine. 

As an author I often get asked what inspired me to write my books. That question is hard to answer. A million things have inspired me. In the case of The Dark Ruler, I had been thinking over this plot for years. The skeleton of this installment was in my head even while I was writing the earlier Camilla books. But I will let you in on one major inspiration. It’s a little bit of a spoiler, so let’s keep it hush hush

In 2019 I married my best friend. The development of our relationship and our actual wedding event inspired certain parts of The Dark Ruler. There is of course a romance element to the Camilla books and much of that storyline in this book, is inspired by my own experiences of falling in love. I’ll stop before I get too gushy on you!

The Dark Ruler is available NOW! Make sure you go grab your copy. New to the series? You can read book #1, The Sacrifice of One, for FREE by CLICKING HERE and signing up on my email newsletter. If you love The Sacrifice of One, there are 3 more books in the series you can binge on!

One more thing. As a special gift to Mae’s readers, if you sign up for my email newsletter, not only will you get a FREE eBook copy of The Sacrifice of One, but I will send a bookish sticker pack to the first 50 people that sign up. 😊 Just shoot me an email at emily@emilyfortney.com and let me know that you signed up and came from Mae’s blog. Put your address in the email, and I’ll mail you a sticker pack! Sign up HERE

It’s been a blast to chat with you all today. Thanks again to Mae for letting me post and tell you about my new release. You can read the full blurb of The Dark Ruler below and connect with me on all the social medias.

Happy reading!

~Emily


BLURB:
A wicked man sits on the throne in Elmyra’s capital city, and Camilla is determined to end his reign by any means necessary. Blinded by her determination, Camilla will abandon her life in Bear Gap and join forces with Reed, a man she doesn’t know as well as she thought. Their plan? To kill The Supreme Ruler of Elmyra.

The plot to assassinate Quinten Warwick will lead them through treacherous terrain and down the infamous Thief Road to the capital city of LilyAye. Once there, they must join with the LilyAye rebels and find a way to put an end to the country’s dark ruler.


Photo of author, Emily FortneyAuthor Bio:
Emily has come a long way from building forts in the woods behind her childhood home. She’s the author of the The Sacrifice of One, the first book in a thrilling, young adult fantasy series. Born and raised in central Pennsylvania, Emily currently resides with her husband and shelter cat, and is vigilant about keeping her house well stocked with dark chocolate.

Connect with Emily at the following haunts:
Website | Email Newsletter | Facebook | Pinterest | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | Wattpad

PURCHASE THE DARK RULER:
AMAZON
APPLE BOOKS | BARNES & NOBLE | KOBO

Thanks for joining Emily and me today for the launch of her book. I hope you enjoyed her post as much as I did. Camilla certainly sounds like an interesting heroine. Don’t forget to take Emily up on her offer for The Sacrifice of One, then hop over to Amazon grab the latest in this series. Please help Emily spread the word by using the sharing buttons below. Drop her a line and say hello! 🙂