The 2019 Highlands Writers Fair, held at the Washington County Library in Abingdon, Virginia, on April 13, featured 21 of the finest Appalachian authors from around the greater Southwest Virginia area and beyond.

Their work represented many genres, including nonfiction, fiction and children’s literature, and the festival also offered free writing workshops and a book sale. This one-day writers fair — the first of its kind at the library — was conceived and executed by a dedicated volunteer of the Virginia Highlands Festival and the Washington County Public Library, Greg Lilly, in conjunction with Becky Caldwell, executive director of the Highlands Festival, and Ben Jennings, also a volunteer with the Friends of the Library group.

According to Lilly, the idea was “to showcase regional writers at a local fair where the reading public would be introduced to authors right here from this area.”

A fair would also give readers an opportunity to learn from the best.

“Another major goal of this fair is to talk to aspiring writers on the craft of writing and publishing,” Lilly said.

The fair featured a “Writers’ Craft” workshop with author Linda Hoagland and a publishers’ panel hosted by Greg Lilly with authors Victoria Fletcher and Kathy Shearer. Another informative presentation by artist Charles Vess focused on book illustration.

The library saw between 130 and 150 people attend the fair, according to Lilly. Lilly added that “library patrons and festival attendees experienced the friendliness and openness of the writers who took time to answer questions about their books and about their writing path. Library patrons stayed and talked with writers and attended a workshop. Festival attendees discovered more about the library’s services and educational opportunities. A lot of cross-pollination occurred this spring!”

When asked if the fair would be a yearly event, Lilly was enthusiastic. “Yes. The Writers’ Day during the Virginia Highlands Festival has always been a great success. We wanted to create an event in the spring that would focus on regional writers, and this was our pilot program for that. I feel it was a great first-year success.”

The fair also spotlighted an award presentation for the youth who participated in a writing workshop last year at Book Evolution 2018 during the Virginia Highlands Festival. Youth authors Rebecca Bolick, age 12, Andrew Williams, age 8, and Moira McKenzie, age 11, took part in the workshop in 2018 and were presented with awards Saturday for their individual books. Their books were published by the Virginia Highlands Festival and are available at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon.

Other seasoned authors were on hand showcasing their works throughout the library as part of the book fair. Abingdon native and murder mystery writer Gayle Leeson was there with her most recent book, “Designs on Murder,” which takes place in Abingdon. Leeson was quick to point out that “every old building in Abingdon has a ghost, which was my inspiration.”

“I love puzzle solving — my books are a kinder, gentler murder mystery. It’s all about the who-done-it,” she said. “Designs on Murder” even includes some little-known fun facts about Johnson City, Tennessee, and its connections to gangster Al Capone.

Prolific author Linda Hoagland, who writes across many genres such as poetry, fiction and nonfiction, had a new murder mystery of her own called “Dangerous Shadow.” Hoagland confessed that, “I write about people I know. I dress them up a bit differently, and all my characters are Southern!” 

Hoagland is an eclectic writer who hails from Charlottesville, Virginia, and she is deeply entrenched in the culture of Appalachia, even though she spent her youth in Ohio.

Another Appalachian author, Sharon Griffin, better known by her pen name of Kate McKeever, writes romance novels. She has written three books about Appalachia, and she warmly expressed her love for the area and culture.

“My heart is in the South — Southern Appalachia, Harlan County, Kentucky. The history, the rich culture — people don’t recognize the culture of Appalachia, their resilience. Harlan is home, and that’s what I always wanted to write about.”

McKeever also has a warm and wonderful book titled, “Christmas at the Old Time Diner,” set in a fictional diner in a small Tennessee town, which demonstrates her broad knowledge and love of Appalachia.

Also participating was historian Kathy Shearer, who collects oral history and pictorial history of the Southwest Virginia area, with a special focus on Russell County. Her latest is a wild, true tale of the moonshine runners of both yesteryear and today, called “Tales from the Moonshine Trade.”

To learn more, please visit the Washington County Public Library for additional information about all the authors from the event and to obtain their books.

Lilly stressed that “with the feedback from the writers and from the attendees, we are encouraged and would like to make this an annual spring event, and the Washington County Public Library staff and the Friends of the Library made perfect collaborators with the VHF for the event.

“We have a depth of talented writers in the area that work hard to record their stories and bring to light the truth and emotions of our region. ... I’m excited to see this event grow and develop.”

The next writers’ event will be a Writers’ Day at the Virginia Highlands Community College on July 26, where regional authors who write about Appalachia talk with other writers and aspiring writers about their creative process and how to get published. More information on this can be found at vahighlandsfestival.org.

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Michele Giarrusso is a freelance writer.

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