Members of the Beyond the Forest writing group held a book signing event last Saturday at Carter Caves State Resort Park.

Group leader Jerri Schlenker said the group of Carter County writers, all of whom have multiple titles under their belt, were organized out of a desire to support one another and their work.

Most of their work is literary fiction, she said – McConnell specializes in children's literature – but Schlenker's signature piece on Carter County, Sally, does have a historical component. It's based on the life of a former slave that her family knew when she was growing up. She knew it was an important story, but she wasn't sure how to approach it at first.

“I found out her obituary was run, and I was just hoping the newspaper (would do a story about it) and it just ended up in the book,” she said.

When it didn't get the attention she felt Sally deserved, she decided to talk to people who knew her and, on and off over the course of several years, she put the work together.

While the story is a dramatization, in the back of the book she explains where the historical information comes from.

“I have actually pictures and stuff of her,” she said. “I met her when I was 8. She grew up in this area, in Carter County, and she was kind of a legend, and my family knew her and I heard them talk about her. I heard about her when I was probably seven, and met her when I was 8.”

She “begged and begged” to meet her, she explained, until her father and uncle took her over there.

“I got to meet her and the impression of that day, I remembered it, and though I never thought I would write, when I was facing retirement and asking my husband 'Well, what should I do now?'... and he said, 'Why don't you write?'”

She wondered what she should write about, and thought about Sally, but then she wrote and published several other books first. Sally, though, was always in the back of her mind.

The afterword explains what she found out while researching and coming back to the story over the years, and gives insight into the writing process. For example while Sally's last name was Barnes, she found that many folks, who only knew her as “Sally, the former slave” and other less flattering names, weren't really sure what it was.

“It was Barnes, but nobody actually knew her last name, that it was actually Barnes. They thought it was Bonzo, because she stayed with the Bonzo family. They thought it was Irwin, because she was originally with the Irwin family of Olive Hill... She was on, originally, the Irwin Plantation,” which ended up being land that Schlenker's family owned. “So she was on our land at one time.”

Knowing that, Schlenker said she would look around and think, “this is where she mowed the fields.”

That helped inform her take on what she knew was an important story for the area.

The group meets on the last Wednesday of each month, at 11 a.m. in the Olive Hill Branch of the Carter County Public Library. Their next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, September 25.

You can come to the meeting to talk to the members about publishing, the writing process, and to learn more about each of their works.

Contact the writer at jwells@journal-times.com.

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