ARC Review: “The Witch of Tin Mountain” by Paulette Kennedy

(thanks to Lake Union Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book)

Read if you like: dual POV across multiple timelines, generational stories, generational magic, generational curses, feminine wisdom, demons and divinity, grimoires, witchcraft, the Ozarks, atmospheric writing, thematic depth, folklore, myth, social and societal commentary, mother-daughter-granddaughter dynamics, and family-for-better-or-worse.

Content warnings: physical abuse, emotional abuse, parental neglect, misogyny, racism, rape, sexual assault (note: none of this is graphic, and it happens off-page, but the themes are continuous throughout the book, and they are part of the character’s backstories)

Goodreads Summary:

Blood and power bind three generations of women in the Ozark Mountains. So does an evil that’s followed them across the decades.

1931. Gracelynn Doherty lives peacefully on Tin Mountain, helping her adoptive granny work her cures. Despite whispers that the women are witches, the superstitious locals still seek them out, whether they suffer from arthritis or a broken heart. But when evangelist Josiah Bellflower comes to town touting miracle healing, full bellies, and prosperity, his revivals soon hold Tin Mountain in thrall—and Granny in abject fear.

Granny recognizes Josiah. Fifty years ago, in a dark and desperate moment, she made a terrible promise. Now Josiah, an enemy, has returned to collect his due.

As Granny sickens and the drought-ridden countryside falls under a curse, Gracelynn must choose: flee Tin Mountain and the only family she knows or confront the vengeful preacher whose unholy mission is to destroy her.

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

This was one of those books where I opened it, read the first page, and then promptly put it away.

I get this feeling with books sometimes. The feeling that they’re going to change something for me. In me. They’re going to matter to me. I am 100% the intended audience, in one way or another, and I can feel it from that first page alone. If I was a literary agent, I suppose this is the feeling I would look for when offering representation. And so I need to put the book away, after reading that first page, and prepare myself for the journey I know I will embark upon once I read beyond that first page.

I waited three or four weeks, preparing—and then I read the whole book in one sitting, in one evening. I even began to murmur it aloud halfway through, reciting several paragraphs over and over again.

There was basically nothing that I didn’t love about TWOTM, but I’ll try to be succinct.

First off, this is the second book from Kennedy that I’ve read, and the craft felt significantly developed to me. The storytelling was a lot more intricate, yet also a lot smoother at the same time, which is no small feat. I absolutely love seeing authors progress and advance like this.

Ultimately, what really brought this book home for me was the suspense. The book starts of slowly, as we settle into the different timelines and multiple protagonists, and then around the 15% mark you start to feel that you’re “getting something”, but you’re not fully sure what that “something” is. Not yet. But you’re willing to wait for it. Because you trust the author, and you trust these characters, and you’re starting to see parallels and patterns that point to a larger picture. This is a story with multiple timelines, meaning that most of the suspense arises from how these timelines interconnect, and when they do so. If you don’t like this type of ping-pongy suspense and initial head-scratching, then this is probably not a book for you. If you love it, like I do, then it definitely is.

Relatedly, Kennedy does foreshadowing really well. She will drop a cue in one timeline that fits with a cue in the other timeline, thus forcing you to connect the dots across the timelines and characters. Put differently: one character in one timeline will know something that the other character desperately needs to know in their timeline. A lot of tension will splay out across this skewed timeline relationship. If this is not your cup of tea, you might wanna steer clear of the book. However, if it is, you wanna gulp down that tea and pour a second cup straight away.

The book is set in the Ozarks. In contrast to her debut, this is the author’s home, and this familiarity adds to the reader immersion of the story. There is an intimacy to the culture presented on the page that tells you of the deep love that the author has of this place. Of home. And that’s relatable to any reader, I daresay. We all feel for home, and for family, both at the worst and the best of times.  This book shows that.

As usual, Kennedy treats historical fact with respect and care. Her research is thorough, as the author’s note will tell you. She writes queer characters that feel true to their circumstances and times, while she also grapples with the themes of feminism and misogyny stretched across several generations and time periods.

The Witch of Tin Mountain is a book that discusses how otherness has historically been treated as something to fear—and that this fear is hard to shake, even in more modern times. Like the very antagonist of the book, this fear simply takes a different shape. It evolves. And this, in turn, demands that we must always stay vigilant of this fear. Exactly as the protagonists of the book must also stay vigilant of it. I promise you that the thematic resonance and clarity and impact of this book will knock you off your feet by the time that you’re done reading it.

This book is like a bonfire—when it catches flame, it roars.

And if you stand too close, you get burnt.

Like the witches of the past.

And, perhaps, like the Witch of Tin Mountain herself.


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My Foray Into Short Fiction…

In January of this year, after several years of struggling in the query trenches with several novels, I decided that 2022 would be the year that I learned how to write short stories. I didn’t even want to master them; I just wanted to learn how to write them. Hopefully, the publishing industry would be back on its feet by the time that I did so, giving my novels a better chance in the trenches. That was my logic. Give myself a breather from the trenches by entering another, slightly different, trench (I’m sure that’s logical, somehow, if you squint really hard).

At that point—back in January, I mean—the last short story that I wrote was probably in high school. I’m 31 years old, for reference. And it was probably in Danish, not in English.

As of this date, six months after I first began, I’ve written 17 short stories.

So far, four of them have been accepted into literary magazines/anthologies, three of them have made it to penultimate rounds, and over half of the places I have submitted to have requested that I send them more stories in the future.

I didn’t expect this response—at all—after my absolute failure in the query trenches for so many years with so many books. More to the point, this response has been an absolute life-saver this year, reminding me with tangible evidence that my writing is worth publication, reinforcing my belief that I’ve chosen the right career path (even if the industry still needs to get on board with that).

So, how did I approach this short story stint that basically saved my ass this year?

First, I had to realize that it was never really a question of my craft.

Not on the storytelling side, and not on the writing side.

It was a question of my brain’s creative habits.

It was a question of how I’ve conditioned my brain and its creative process for years on end. Ten years, to be exact. For ten years, I’ve roughly written one novel a year. To write short fiction, I had to deconstruct the way my brain had worked with narratives for a decade. I had to stop thinking about beginnings, middles, and ends. I had to stop thinking about character developmental arcs. I had to stop thinking about subplots. About side-characters. Instead, I had to use entry points to my stories that felt unnatural. Unnatural, because they were foreign to me as entry points.

Here are the biggest revelations I’ve had while deconstructing my brain’s creative habits:

  • “Ditch your primary genre and try a new one”

I can’t write a good fantasy short story to save my life. The second that I try, I instantly begin to worldbuild, and to character develop, and to create side-characters, and it just doesn’t work for me. My brain is too used to write fantasy novels. Instead, I’ve taken to writing horror, sci-fi, and historical short fiction. In fact, these are the genres I’ve had acceptances in. My few attempts in fantasy have been rejected from left to right.

  • “Identify the theme/concept”

I focused solely on themed submission calls in the beginning, unable to easily think of themes and concepts on my own, and feeling roadblocked by my own ineptitude and frustration over this. Theme/concepts are things that I normally dig out from a first draft of a novel, after all, so you can see why I might’ve struggled with this here.

And, no, it’s not cheating. You’re not a poorer writer for relying on themed submissions (yes, I had to explicitly tell myself this, over and over again).

Theme is a bastard to pin down in general. You can somewhat get away with not doing it for novels, but you absolutely can’t get away with not doing it for short fiction. That’s been my experience, at least. And if you’re looking for a good book on how to develop theme in fiction, then I recommend K. M. Weiland’s “Writing Your Story’s Theme.”

  • “It’s an emotional SHIFT, not an emotional JOURNEY” (alternately: The Twist)

This was a big one for me. I’m an extremely character-driven writer, meaning I have my character arcs down pat before I even have my plot. Always. Without fail. Without even trying, honestly. The thing is, though, there isn’t really room for an emotional arc in a short story, with ups and downs, and some more ups and downs, and some more ups and downs, and—you get my drift.

There is, however, room for emotional shifts. In particular, there is room for one big emotional shift that is the center of the story.

In “Write Your Novel from the Middle”, James Scott Bell talks about Mirror Moments. These are moments when the characters stop to look at themselves in the mirror, considers what have happened so far, and then decides what to do now based on that. Bell talks about these mirror moments as the middle of books, but I’ve also found that it works well as a framework for my short fiction. If I place the emotional center of my short fiction on these mirror moments, then I stop myself from writing a character arc that relies on the plot of an entire novel. I focus on an emotional shift, and not an emotional journey.

I also sometimes think of this as The Twist.

Not A Twist, but The Twist.

  • “Aim to provoke one emotion from the reader, not ten.”

This runs in the same vein as what I mentioned above, but I’ve found it extremely helpful to decide on the emotional tone of my story before I start writing it. On the emotion that I want my reader to experience from my story, that is. This counts for your characters just as much as your readers, really. There’s just not time/room to go on emotional journeys, and so it’s better to focus on a concentrated emotional shift within that journey. Like a snapshot.

Neil Gaiman once said that the only advice that worked for him was to write a short story as if it was the ending of a novel. This reminds me a little bit of that, but without the conclusive element/nature that I find strangely restrictive myself.

  • “There’s no room to pants this, sorry.”

I’ve found that I spend longer on brainstorming a short story than I do on writing it—and I’ve found that my success rate of finishing the story is much higher if I do this. My best guess is that more brainstorming stops me from pantsing and going off on tangents that lead to overwriting (or, in this case, writing novellas/novels rather than short fiction). Paradoxically, you’d think the opposite would happen (i.e. that more brainstorming leads to more writing), but if I center my focus on the emotional shift that I mentioned above here, then somehow it doesn’t lead to more writing. Not for me, anyway.

And that’s it (for now, anyway)!

Lastly, I’m not a master of short fiction. Far from it. I’m a rookie who’s only starting to learn the ropes, and this is me accounting for how I have approached this learning so far. I’ve had moderate success, leading me to believe that my approach might be helpful to others.

To you, perhaps.

The Thing About Character Agency…

You don’t get very far into publishing before you start hearing about character agency.

You’ll often meet it as a roadblock in some form of way. A shut door. A rejection. An R&R.

Character agency is really just a fancy word for the relationship between action and reaction when it comes to your main character’s behavior as it influences the plot of your story. It’s about how reactive and how proactive your character is. About the balance between the two.

Often, you’ll see character agency equated with (pro)activity.

In my opinion, this is a slippery slope to go down.

The “active over passive” advice is like the “show, don’t tell” advice. Or the “prologues are bad” advice. It comes from a place of merit and value, yes, but the understanding of it remains too narrow and exclusionary in scope. We, as an industry, need to do better at understanding that passivity is a way of life for many people, for many reasons, and these people relate to passive protagonists. Passivity can sell.

Still, the “active over passive” advice does have some merit. The idea that a character is engaging because they have an external goal that drives them forward in their story (aka makes them active) is valid enough…

…but I still maintain that we tend to think of goals in a narrow way that excludes neurodiversity, cultural storytelling differences, stories of trauma/survivorship, and much more.

Character agency isn’t a way of praising the best stories, to be perfectly frank, but a way of praising the stories that sell in an instant-gratification, mass-consumer, hustle culture. And I’m gonna make some people angry by saying this, I think, but I’m gonna say it, anyway.

Now, yes, the market is important. We all need the market to exist and for that market to be somewhat predictable—but it’s also our job to challenge the market. It’s our job to make sure that the market doesn’t only own us, but that we also own the market in return. We can influence the market. We should influence the market, being its main suppliers.

I don’t think that character agency is inherently bad or good. Rather, I think it’s important for every writer to understand how character agency is viewed by the industry and the market. In that way, we can figure out our own preferences for character agency and make the right choices for our careers and optimize our chances for a successful and sustainable future.


Adding Activity to Passive Characters:


I personally think of characters as passively inclined and actively inclined.

For me, it’s about how the main character approaches the action they take. A more passively inclined main character would weigh the pros and cons differently than an actively inclined one. They might try to manipulate the action from afar rather than entering the direct crossfire. They might deflect attention away from what they’re doing, while an actively inclined main character might carry more of the attention themselves. A passively inclined character works in the shadows, and an actively inclined one works in the limelight—but they’re both working, mind you.

When I teach my students how to write active characters, I give them what I call the Soup Advice. Or the Balcony Advice, in case they don’t like soup (soup is awesome; I love soup).

Basically, if you have a dialogue scene, then have your character make soup while they talk. Have them cut vegetables. Have them find a pot and stub their toe. Or have them struggle to scratch an itch on their back that they can’t reach. Don’t just have them stand and do nothing except for talking. It’s the same with the balcony advice. If you have an opening scene where the main character stands on a balcony, then don’t start the scene there. Start the scene five seconds earlier, when the character actively steps out onto the balcony.

Basically, the trick is to give the character a smaller external goal for the scene. Eventually, if every scene has a goal like that, they will add up to an overall feeling of activity.

If your goal is to write more active characters, then this is a solid practice as a starting point.


An Advocacy for Passive Characters:


I believe that character agency is flawed in that it can be exclusionary to specific types of narratives. Often, it’s the marginalized ones. Such as stories of trauma, stories of survivorship, stories of disability, stories of neurodiversity, stories of abuse, and non-western storytelling traditions on the whole.

First off, we need to accept that surviving (trauma and otherwise) is a decision. It’s a choice. It’s an action.

If we keep using my passively/actively inclined framework, then these characters are passively inclined in that they are working on overcoming trauma that has affected their mobility to act and make choices on a base level. They can’t make any active choices yet, because they first have to regain that ability. That is their active choice: regaining the ability to make choices. And someone who tries to survive will likely work in the shadows, unlike their limelight counterparts.

Additionally, character agency is built around a neurotypical framework that delegitimizes neurodiversity in that choices must “make sense”. Well, yes, they must “make sense”, but what’s “sensible” to a neurotypical character isn’t necessarily “sensible” to a neurodiverse one.

Lastly, not all storytelling is traditionally conflict-driven and linear like the western three-act structure. There are so many other story traditions around the world. We have stories-within-stories, braided storytelling, kishoutenketsu storytelling, daisy-chain storytelling, robleto storytelling, and much more. In an increasingly global world, with English as a lingua franca, it only makes sense that cultural storytelling traditions will cross over into foreign languages and that we should make room for that to happen.

To wrap this up, I want to talk about horror as a genre.

More specifically, horror as an example of a genre that relies on passive characters.

To be even more precise: horror as an example of a genre where the audience has no problem with passivity.

Horror relies on passive characters to a certain extent. It relies on getting reactions from the reader, via the lens of the character, and so a lot of horror stories have passive characters. They have reactive characters struggling to survive through their circumstances. Take King’s MISERY, for example. The main character doesn’t leave his bed for most of the book. Or take Moreno-Garcia’s MEXICAN GOTHIC. Or any other haunted house story, for that matter. Khaw’s NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH, for instance. Or take Solomon’s SORROWLAND. The characters in these books are largely reactive—and it works just fine for the audience. The audience expects it, really, and they love it.

Passive/reactive characters can work just fine for all genres and stories, as long as the passivity is purposeful and representative of all lived realities, for all people, for all cultures.