A Lesson from Vicki Lane: Proof of the Passion Is in the Doing

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

Brenda deLaet, Jane Howard, and Mary Alice Ramsey, “The Tomato Biscuit 3,” were students together in a past Vicki Lane Great Smokies Writing Program class.

In 1975, Vicki Lane and her husband left their suburban Florida, and their private school careers, for a farm in Madison County, North Carolina. Self-described “naïve readers of of Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog,” they were soon down to their own earth with a vengeance: “Growing tobacco, milking cows, raising a big garden and two boys…” according to Vicki, and there were the pigs, chickens and beef cattle, which meant learning to butcher as well as tend. When the sons left for college, with only two to feed, the farm was pared down, but those earlier days—the “hard, fulfilling work,” and the mountain people who were part of it—remained in her head and heart, and sparked ideas for a new kind of work.

The first result, in 2000, was co-authoring (with Karol Kavaya) Community Quilting. “Seeing my name on a published book reminded me that I’d been an English major,” she says, “and that I’d once thought I could be a writer.” She signed on for a class at a local community college and emerged with the seeds of a novel about a fifty-ish widow who is a sort of Appalachian Miss Marple, though surrounded by characters far from an English village: serpent handlers, star children, fundamentalists, militia men—and followers of the back to the land movement, as Vicki and her family had been. If tension is fiction’s first priority, Vicki was right out of the gate with the prime ingredients. However, as she recalls, “At the final class meeting, the teacher told me I didn’t have the passion needed to write a novel. I took it as a challenge, and the Elizabeth Goodweather Mysteries were born.” That pronouncement would devastate most fledgling writers, but Vicki faced it head-on, with—yes—passion, and wrote not just one novel, but six.

From the very first book in the series, Vicki got high critical marks. From Sheila Kay Adams, author of My Old True Love: “In Signs in the Blood, Vicki Lane captured my ear on the first page. Her dialect is right on the money. Her characters live and breathe and hold their secrets close – heart wrenching secrets that pulled me in and kept me reading. Her imagery is so real you can touch it, smell it, feel it. Now, add to all this a beautifully told tale with a great unexpected twist and you’ve got one of the best mystery books I’ve read in a long time. I’ll be looking for more from Ms. Lane.” From the Los Angeles Times: “Like Sharyn McCrumb, Lane demonstrates how deeply she feels part of her Appalachian home, how tied she is to the land, and to the pulsating beats that can’t be found elsewhere.”

There would be more writerly passion to come, forging a different path. Vicki reports: “After six published mysteries about the doughty widow, I began to be restless and to think of stepping away from the mystery genre. I was tired of the semi-obligatory yearly murder for Elizabeth to solve, but I wasn’t tired of the locale—the county in which I live is an endless source of material. And there was one thing in particular that seemed to be calling me: the Shelton Laurel Massacre, when, during the Civil War, thirteen men and boys accused of supporting the Union were executed by a Confederate firing squad.” That calling paid off in 2020, with publication of And the Crows Took Their Eyes. (Please visit Vicki’s excellent website [vickilanemysteries.com] for more commentary on all of her novels, including this most recent one, for a quick lesson on synopsis-writing.)

As with the mysteries, Vicki’s plunge into historical fiction caught the attention of masters of that genre. From Tony Earley, author of Jim the Boy: “In And the Crows Took their Eyes Vicki Lane has done nothing less than commit an act of mountain sorcery. Through her the voices of the dead rise up out of the hollows of Madison County, North Carolina telling a story as tragic and urgent as it was 150 years ago.” And from Charles Frazier, National Book Award-winner for Cold Mountain: “Lane’s richly detailed vision of the past expertly underpins a dark story of complex divided loyalties in an isolated, war-torn mountain community.”

Anyone who knows Vicki also knows of her generosity. She shares her passion for writing, as well as the skills and insights she has learned along the way with students at area writing venues such as the Wildacres Summer Writing Workshop, the John C. Campbell Folk School, and the Great Smokies Writing Program of UNC Asheville, from which she retires this fall as its longest-standing faculty member. Tommy Hays, former Executive Director of the program, recalls: “A good fifteen years ago before I’d ever met her, I heard Vicki on WCQS being interviewed about one of her Elizabeth Goodweather mystery novels set in Madison County…. I contacted her, asked if we could meet, and after no more than half an hour I asked if she’d be interested in teaching for the program. The rest is history. …Vicki became a mainstay in the program, a beloved and sought-after teacher. She had a reputation for not mincing words, for helping writers face what needed to be faced and to recognize and explore the greater possibilities in their work…I was always hearing from students how much they’d learned with her. I still do.” To read Tommy’s tribute in full, please click here.

The appreciation for Vicki glows from the image at the top of this page, and from the tributes these and other former students sent for this publication, which you can find at the link above. Merry Elrick sums up Vicki’s teaching magic for the rest of us: “The right word, the right comma, the right stuff. Details matter and so does Vicki, who catches everything with precision and a generous heart, the perfect combo for an editor/teacher. What a joy to learn from her.”

Elizabeth Lutyens teaches the Prose Master Class in the Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about her, go to www.elizabethlutyenseditor.com