Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Writing the Past: The Family Story Behind One Good Mama Bone, a guest post by Bren McClain

Author Bren McClain is here today with the moving family story that inspired her debut novel, as well as details on the research she conducted to make her novel's world feel authentic to the place, period, and characters.


Writing the Past:
The Family Story Behind One Good Mama Bone
Bren McClain

Understand this first – my daddy was a crusty, old-fashioned, Southern Baptist farmer in Anderson, South Carolina. He drew his life, all 89 years, from the land. Dirt ran in his blood. Be his little girl and find something funny while eating supper, start to giggle, and he’ll stop you cold and yell down in your bones, “You’re supposed to eat when you come to the eating table.”

Yet, ask him about this one day in March of 1941 when he was a fourteen-year-old boy, a photograph of him and his 4-H steer splashed above the fold and across the front page of his hometown newspaper, The Anderson Independent, and hear what he tells you. “Get your mind on something else,” his voice no longer yelling, but soft like it could break. Read the story below the photograph and find out the event is called The Fat Cattle Show & Sale and that my daddy’s steer, weighing in at 1100 pounds, was named Grand Champion. For that, he received 30 cents a pound, which totaled $330. He was a celebrity, of sorts, treated to free lunches all over town. Look back at him now, and see his eyes misted over.

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I had to find out why.

I wrote a novel, placed in it an innocent six-year-old boy, who enters the Fat Cattle Show & Sale for the big money it would bring him and his mama, if he won. The boy’s father has died, and the farm they live on is in danger of being foreclosed. They’re so poor, he’s lucky if he gets a pear to last him the whole day. I also placed in it another little boy, this one not so innocent, because his daddy forces him to enter, all for the glory of it.

But first, I had a ton of research to do. I chose to set the story in the early 1950s vs. the 1940s, because it better suited the story I was trying to tell. I wanted to give my antagonist, Luther Dobbins, enough time to establish a dynasty with his elder son’s long streak of winning, only for his son to age out and toss the family baton to his younger son. Let’s just say that the folks in the South Carolina Room at the local library got to know me. I put countless hours in front of a microfilm machine, where I fed in reels of The Anderson Independent and rolls and rolls of dimes for copying. Thursday papers were always terrific with their extensive grocery store advertisements that showed the prices of food and the name brands. One day, I ran across an advertisement for a product called “Retonga,” a tonic that I learned women, especially, drank back them, many for its high alcohol content (about one-third). I knew instantly that one of my characters, Mildred, the wife of the antagonist, would make a habit of consuming this liquid.

But the “find” that I loved to pieces was a notice of a weekly event in Anderson called “Shoe of the Week,” sponsored by Welborn Shoes, where women would visit the store, drop their name and telephone number into a box beside a featured shoe and then wait on Friday mornings for a call from WAIM Radio announcer, Marshall Gaillard, who would draw one name from the box. The lucky winner would get that shoe in her size. I gave this wonderful happening to my protagonist, Sarah Creamer, because I wanted something good for her and because shoes already were important in the story.

It was not only the time period that I needed to research, but also cows and the Fat Cattle event itself. Fortunate for me, every Monday, the paper carried a column by the county agent, H. D. Marett, called “Your County Agent Says.” I learned about the kind of grass to plant in pastures, when to put the steers on full feed, the best kind of grain mix, etc.

What did I do with all of this research? I organized it into 32 categories - for example, picking out a steer, feeding out a steer, cow biology and also by my character’s names. It was still too much to manage, so I cut out the salient information from each piece of paper, taped the info to 5 X 7 notecards and then organized them with tabs inside a box.

But the most important source of my research was my daddy. He finally came around to my writing this novel. In fact, I’d call him up on the phone and say, “I’ve got another question for you.” His answer? “Shoot.” That meant go ahead. I have a tab called Daddy’s Info. The brands of chewing tobacco, when the road in front of his house was paved, how to fit a burlap bag onto the down chute of a hammermill, how to crank a tractor with a flywheel, how to build a fence using cedar trees, how to kill a hog, the kinds of pistols.

And this one: What to do if a steer gets the bloat.

He had a steer with that condition once, when he was a boy, the animal bloating from eating too much grain. “You can try giving him a Pepsi Cola or two to see if it helps, but if it don’t, you’ll have to stab his stomach with an ice pick.” He talked of the triangular area between the animal’s hip bone and last rib, high up on its left side. “Rub your flat hand over it in little circles and get it all loosened up and then stab it right quick. And if you’ll put your ear right out from the hole, you’ll hear a little whistle when the gas starts to come out.” I followed daddy’s directions entirely when I wrote that scene.

Go back now and look at that first photograph and see the man wearing a hat standing behind the steer. Read the caption beneath and learn this is Bailey Trammel, manager of Ideal Super Market, “where the premium meat will be sold.” Therein lies the answer I had come seeking. Daddy had sold out his best friend, his steer. And I would come to know by reading about other boys, that he had spent a long year with his steer, feeding him, taming him, loving him. “Get your mind on something else,” he had told me.

But I couldn’t. I wrote a novel.


Bren McClain's One Good Mama Bone is published by Story River Books of the University of South Carolina Press today.  Read more about the novel at the author's website.


  1. Sarah, thank you so much for including my piece in your awesome blog. What an honor!I appreciate this so much! Bren

    1. Hi Bren, thanks for contributing this moving essay for my site - I was happy to publish it. Best wishes for continued success with One Good Mama Bone!

  2. I too have been that boy, only my best friend was a sheep. It was a huge, but very hard, lesson in life. One that has no regrets, and a LOT of regrets.