My upcoming novel The Hum and the Shiver posits a secret, isolated race of people living in the middle of modern-day Appalachia. They have a distinctive physical look, very different from those around them. They hide in plain sight, using the standard Southern tactics of politeness and misdirection to deflect queries about themselves. I call them the Tufa. They’re entirely, totally fictional.
But they’re inspired by a real story, a real mystery and a real group of people: the Melungeons.
There’s lots of information online about the Melungeons, so I won’t bore you with recapping it in detail; the Wikipedia entry lists many related articles that can answer most questions. Instead I’ll share what drew me to them. First it was the simple idea that there could be a group of ethnically distinct people living in modern-day East Tennessee. I’m from Tennessee, and I’d never really heard of them until I was grown and had moved away. A lot of that is due to the racial attitudes of the region: overwhelming settled by the Scotch-Irish, and therefore Caucasian, they viewed the dark-haired, swarthy Melungeons as something other than white, which meant they could not vote or own property, even though they were technically “free.”
Also, the legends say that when the first of those Scotch-Irish settlers arrived in Appalachia, the Melungeons were already there. This has been challenged by scholars, but for me the power of the idea was secondary to its literal truth. What if it was true? And if it was, then it goes back to the crucial question about Melungeon ancestry: where did they come from? Heck, for that matter, where did the word “Melungeon” come from? There are various speculations, but no proof.
When I got ready to write my story, I knew immediately I wouldn’t try to tell the actual Melungeon story. These are, after all, real people who deserve respect. So I took the elements of their legends that spoke to me and invented my own group of people, the Tufa. Like the Melungeons, they live in the mountains of East Tennessee, and were already there when the first European settlers arrived five hundred years earlier. They have a particular physical appearance, and keep to themselves. But because I invented them, I could also invent their origin, something the real Melungeons are still trying to discover.
And what is that origin? Well, to find out, you’ll have to read The Hum and the Shiver. You can preview chapter one by visiting here.