Although I’m not native to these rugged old hills and deep hollows, I came to live in the Ozark Mountains. Like some of my own ancestors, the early settlers came from Appalachia and before that, they traveled across the water from Ireland, Scotland, and England. My family tree is a diverse one and it combines many different ethnic, national, and cultural ingredients into an American family. On both sides of my family, I have ancestors who arrived in time to fight in the Revolutionary War and those who came as immigrants with their worldly possessions tucked into a knapsack. I grew up eating knaidels and sauerkraut but I slept beneath a hand-stitched quilt and learned traditional folk songs so old they came across the sea with earlier generations.

Although I’m not native to these rugged old hills and deep hollows, I came to live in the Ozark Mountains. Like some of my own ancestors, the early settlers came from Appalachia and before that, they traveled across the water from Ireland, Scotland, and England. My family tree is a diverse one and it combines many different ethnic, national, and cultural ingredients into an American family. On both sides of my family, I have ancestors who arrived in time to fight in the Revolutionary War and those who came as immigrants with their worldly possessions tucked into a knapsack. I grew up eating knaidels and sauerkraut but I slept beneath a hand-stitched quilt and learned traditional folk songs so old they came across the sea with earlier generations.

Today, most quilts are made for beauty and not necessity but in the earliest days, a patchwork quilts were for necessity. Although most families owned a loom and wove, quilts evolved from patching worn blankets into an art form. Early settlers, especially in the Appalachians and Ozarks where survival wasn’t always easy, wasted nothing. When clothing wore out, the material became rags and then used to piece together quilts. Drab blankets might be warm but quilts were colorful and pretty. I can easily imagine women hungering for a splash of brightness and something lovely to dress up bare cabins.

Writing a novel is much like putting together a patchwork quilt. A good quilt has layers, the top which is the pieces stitched together into a pattern, the middle which consists of filler to provide both softness and warmth, and the backing which completes the quilt. Stitching holds it all together. My stories, long or short, are something I work to put together. My great-grandmother’s mother, a Missouri farm wife, had a loom and wove her own cloth. Long ago, I wrote a poem about working my words the way Amanda worked her loom. I still like that analogy but I think the concept of a patchwork quilt is closer to the reality.

A quilter begins with scraps and some kind of plan. When I start a new story, I begin with scraps of ideas. Sometimes it’s a hero or heroine, a person who springs to life in my mind as a character. I can imagine how they look, even hear their voice. I trim them into something manageable and then connect them to a setting, to other characters, and put them into a situation. I surround them with other bits and pieces to create something which stands alone.

Like anyone who sews by hand knows, there are times I have to pick it apart and put it back together. Some stitching – or plotting – is tight and holds but sometimes it’s weak or doesn’t work so it has to be taken apart and redone. I’ve never pieced an entire quilt myself but I have worked on putting together the last quilt top my great-grandmother, also a quilter, left behind. She had pieced the blocks when she died and I put them together. I also worked on a baby quilt top and I often sew by hand, something my grandmother taught me as a young child. I’m well aware of the hours of work, the painstaking effort, and the creativity required to make a quilt. The same elements are necessary for fiction, too.

I hope this demonstrates how I take scraps from my experience and put them together into something whole and complete. Each story builds one piece at a time and into each work I bring something of myself, my experiences, my dreams, and emotions. The next time you admire the handiwork of a patchwork quilt, I hope you see each piece of cloth, each block as something with a backstory.



Lee Ann Murphy is a staff writer and writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.