Folklore in Fiction

Yoachum Dollar Sprinkle CoinsI’m an “up close and personal” kind of researcher. So when I’m working on my regional series, that means I’m often out in the hills, meeting people and listening to the stories that have been handed down, one generation to the next, keeping the old legends alive. The story of the Yokum Dollar is one of those legends that I heard on multiple occasions, with each storyteller claiming some connection with the families involved. I stayed true to the heart of the tale when writing the legend into my own book, while fictionalizing elements as needed to suit the plot. Here’s the excerpt from Deadly Ties:


….Maggie wandered among the exhibits, watching craftsmen make brooms and baskets, tapping her foot to the dulcimer music, and listening to the storytellers who had drawn a sizable crowd in the shade of tall oaks. She stopped to listen to a woman dressed in a style Maggie imagined was common among frontier women long ago. Sturdy boots peeked out from beneath the hem of her skirt, and the simple cotton blouse she wore looked homespun. Her steel gray hair was tucked beneath a bonnet.

“This here story has been handed down through my family ever since 1826,” the woman told the audience. “That’s about the time the first Yokum—that’d be Jamie Lee Yokum—settled along the big river herabouts. My family farmed the land down-river from the Yokum place, which is how I come to know this tale.”

“This land belonged to the Chickasaw tribe, and they were good neighbors, always sharing what they had. They were good traders, too, and pretty near famous for their beautiful silver jewelry. They always had plenty of silver but nobody knew—’cept the Indians, of course—where it all came from. Some said it was from a silver mine, and some claimed it was Spanish silver, but nobody knew for sure.

“When the government decided they wanted the Indians’ land, the Yokums traded some of their wagons and supplies in exchange for information about the source of that silver. As the story goes, the Indians shared their secret with Jamie Lee. They told him where he might find some of that silver, and he told his brothers. Times being what they was, and money being about as hard to come by as an honest politician, the Yokums decided to use that silver and make their own coin. They minted their own dollars with that there silver. For years, people all over the Ozarks used the Yokum dollars as legal tender.”

The storyteller looked across the crowd. “Well, you can probably guess what happened next. The federal government didn’t take too kindly to somebody else making money. They didn’t like the competition, my granddaddy said.” There were chuckles and murmurs of agreement from some in the crowd.

“The federal agents confiscated all the Yokum dollars they could get their hands on. What they really wanted was the source of that silver, but Jamie Lee wouldn’t tell ‘em where to find it. After a while, the agents gave up and went back to Washington.”

The storyteller paused for a sip of lemonade. “It wasn’t long after that when Jamie Lee Yokum passed away. His two brothers died soon after, crossing the Rockies on their way out to California. Those men were the only ones who knew the Indians’ secret and they took that secret to their graves, but they did leave some clues in letters they’d written to their cousins. Over the years, a lot of people have searched high and low for that silver, but nobody’s ever found it. But who knows? Maybe you’ll be the one to learn the truth about the Indian Silver Legend.”

Deadly Ties © 2013


To this day, people continue to search for the famed silver, with many a treasure hunter convinced a mine or cave does indeed exist somewhere in the hills. Some believe the answer lies near or under Beaver Lake in Arkansas while others argue the location is Table Rock Lake in Missouri. And so the legend lives on…

Fact, Fiction, and Folklore

Books Image croppedI’m honored to have been invited once again to the Fayetteville (AR) Public Library for a book discussion and signing of Deadly Ties, the first in the Waterside Kennels mystery series. If you’re in the area, please join me from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, October 11th. This presentation will explore the art of blending fact, fiction, and folklore when writing a regional mystery series, with a focus on the Ozarks where I’ve set my books.

In honor of that event, I’ll be running posts through the month about the Ozark legends and folklore which inspired my series. You’ll also find stories and information about dogs—after all, this is! At the end of the month, I’ll share a teaser from Dangerous Deeds, the next in the Waterside Kennels mystery series.

Enter to Win iconEven better—through the end of October, I’m running a special giveaway here on my site. Leave a comment and you’re automatically entered into a drawing for a 3-for-1 Deadly Ties package prize: a Kindle edition of the book, the audiobook (narrated by the top-ranked voiceover artist Robin Rowan), and a signed paperback. Keep for yourself or give as gifts! You’re welcome to comment as often as you like from now through October 31st; every comment equals one entry for the drawing. On November 1st the winner will be selected at random and announced here, so stay tuned!


Being a total research geek, I loved digging through the archives for stories about the region, and was thrilled to have regional historians like Phillip Steele share their knowledge with me. In addition to helping me sort through stories, Mr. Steele kindly introduced me to others, including some whose families settled here a century ago. One of the stories I came across repeatedly involved the famous Yocum Dollar. I should note there seem to be almost as many variations in spelling of Yocum as there are versions of the tale!

I first came across the Yocum Dollar in a 1985 article published in the White River Valley Historical Quarterly whose author, Lynn Morrow, suggested that “for the past 150 years various folk legends about silver have circulated in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas.” Morrow notes:

Beliefs in secret mines and buried treasures form a substantial part of the folklore of the Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains….From the 1880’s to the Depression, regional newspapers reported numerous silver and gold “discoveries”; and the “Legend of the Indian Mine” in Arkansas’ Boone County tells of a mine which contained “such an abundance of silver that the Indians shod their horses with it.” Petroglyphs in Ozark caves have been reported to be codes for the location of gold and silver bullion, and as late as 1882 a family owned business—the Yocum Silver Mine Corporation—purchased a clam-shell crane with a six-ton bucket and a bulldozer to dig out the “famous Yocum mine.”


Another version of the Yocum Dollar story comes from the genealogical records of H. Ronald Gines and Wanda Lee (Brink) Gines. While I haven’t yet discovered their connection to the Yocums, their narrative, like Morrow’s, refers to a government agent’s description of an “outlaw character” named Solomon Yocum who devised a plan involving Indians, liquor, and silver:


Making peach brandy, while perhaps providing Solomon and the Yochums a bit of local, short lived infamy in connection with their Indian “clientele”, somewhat pales on a historical note compared with the most popular bit of Yoachum, and Ozark history. While some may take slight exception in referring to the Yocum silver dollar as history, and not strictly as mere “legend”, enough has been told, and written about it to qualify it as a true icon of Ozark history. Perhaps no other legend, (as we might as well refer to it), in American history has yielded a more profitable return than that of the Yocum dollar. An entire industry, theme park Silver Dollar City, and its off shoots have now “mined” the legend for what must surely be billions of dollars.

Many people have searched away countless hours, days, months, and even years looking for the source of the legend, the famed Lost Yoachum Silver Mine. Some people believe that it is a canard, or hoax, the typical tale told often by the evening fire, usually with the sure knowledge of someone who knows someone that once saw one of the dollars, or the molds that made them, or knew of someone that knew of someone that had a map. Enough interest has been raised at various times to attract persons schooled in geology, mining, and formations, and reports of a professional nature seem to suggest that there is very little likelihood of silver being found in an quantity and quality to justify believing that a mine actually existed.


Stories of the Yocum Dollar persist to this day, as evidenced by a 2006 post by Tom Maringer in the ‘US Coins Forum at Details included in the post and many of the comments match other accounts. One comment in particular sums up many of the tales I heard myself while visiting with families across the region:

Many people in that area believe wholeheartedly in the Yocum Dollar legend. In fact, I was taken to task by an elderly Yocum descendant for my analysis of the legend… and was told in no uncertain terms that her uncle actually had one, and as a child she’d seen it. But of course she couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like, and nobody in the family knows what happened to it after he died! Sound familiar?


Thanks to the success of Silver Dollar City, the legend of the Yocum Dollar is alive and well today. I’ve adapted the stories I’ve collected for use in the series and hope readers enjoy the tales as much as I did. Tune in next time for an excerpt from Deadly Ties which tells the tale of the Yocum Dollar as it’s known among the storytellers inhabiting my fictional Hogan County, Arkansas.

We have a winner!


Thanks to everyone who joined the conversation this week and entered the contest for a chance to win a terrific book. And a very special thank you to this week’s guest, the super-talented Laurien Berenson, who generously offered to sign and send a copy of her latest release, The Bark Before Christmas.  And the winner is….

Kathleen Bylsma!

Kathleen, send your mailing address to me (dogmysteries [at] gmail) and I’ll get you connected with Laurien right away.

Bark Before Christmas

Remember, folks, all 18 in the Melanie Travis series are available in print, Kindle and (except for this week’s release) audio editions. Find her books in brick-and mortar stores, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Apple, Target, Walmart, and many independent bookstores.

Amazon     Barnes & Noble     Books A Million

Kobo          Kensington Books     IndieBound

Happy reading, everyone!

The Craft of Writing a Mystery Series

fountain pen

This week, we’re celebrating the release of the 18th  in the Melanie Travis mystery series by the talented Laurien Berenson (four-time winner of the Dog Writers Association of America’s prestigious Maxwell Award). Check out the previous post to see what she has to say about her long-running series. Today, she’s back to talk about the writing process. I hope you’ll leave a comment for Laurien so we can enter you into the drawing for a signed hardbound copy of her new book,  The Bark Before Christmas. The drawing closes at 2 p.m. (Central) on Friday, October  2nd and we’ll announce the winner here Friday afternoon.

Laurien Berenson, Author

Laurien Berenson, Author

Writing a long-running series takes a special kind of writing talent, and Laurien has proven she has that talent and much more. The first Melanie Travis mystery, A Pedigree to Die For, came out in 1995. In the 20 years since that first in the series was published, Melanie’s life has changed considerably, and it’s been fun seeing the characters grow and change over time. Here’s Laurien, talking about the craft of writing a long-running series:


What’s most important for you in telling a story?

I know I should say the intricacies of the plot, but truthfully, it’s the characters. It is so important to me to populate my books with characters that readers want to spend time with and experience an adventure with. And in my Melanie Travis series, that means both the humans and the canines! There’s nothing that bugs me more than books that have animal characters and every one has the same personality. The Standard Poodles (and other dogs) in my books are every bit as individual as Melanie Travis and her extended family. Readers write and tell me that my characters feel like old friends and I think that’s the highest praise they can give.

Like most professions, the dog world has its own vocabulary, with much of it unfamiliar to people who don’t breed, show, or train dogs. How do you decide what (and how much) to include for readers unfamiliar with dog shows, breeds, or canine behavior?

If I’m using terms that most non-dog-show people are unfamiliar with I always try to provide a quick explanation. I believe I’ve explained how dog shows work and how a dog achieves its championship in just about every book so far. Also, I don’t shy away from using words (like “bitch” meaning a female dog) that dog people use all the time without thinking twice, but that occasionally offend readers’ sensibilities.

The publishing industry has changed significantly since your first book. How have those changes impacted you and your series?

Fortunately for me, many of the changes haven’t affected me much at all because I have been working with the same publisher and the same wonderful editor since the early 1990’s. Most notably what is different now is that my books are not only available in paperback and hardcover, they can also purchased in ebook and audio format–two things that were only pipedreams when I first began writing in the 1970s.

Readers are often curious about a writer’s process. Do you, for example, know the end before you start? Or does the solution come to you as you’re writing?

I usually have a pretty good idea of the ending but it’s never set in stone. I find that my characters often do and say unexpected things so if they want to take me some place more interesting than I had planned, I am always happy to follow their lead.

A very successful writer once told me that he never plots his books ahead of time because if he’s not surprised by how things turn out, how will the reader be surprised? I thought that was an interesting take on the writing process, and I’ve tried to keep my plotting more fluid ever since.

What do you find most/least enjoyable about writing?

Most enjoyable: you can do it at any time of day or night, there’s no commute, and you can always write with a dog on your lap.

Least enjoyable: the amount of time between when I finish writing a book and when I finally find out if readers like it or not. By the time a book is published, I’m already mostly finished with the next one, so emotionally I’ve moved on. I wish that readers and I could be excited about the same book at the same time.

Some visitors to this site are interested in writing mysteries. Suggestions for them?

Read. Read. Read! There’s no better way to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to writing a book.


Bark Before ChristmasThanks, Laurien!

Laurien’s books can be bought online and in brick-and mortar stores, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Apple, Target, Walmart, and many independent bookstores.

Amazon     Barnes & Noble     Books A Million

Kobo          Kensington Books     IndieBound

Okay, readers and fans: it’s your turn! Leave a comment here for a chance to win a signed copy of Laurien’s book. If you’ve read the series, let us know if you have a favorite. New to the series? Don’t be shy; ask questions about dogs, writing, mysteries, etc. The drawing closes at 2 p.m. (Central) on Friday, October  2nd  and we’ll draw the winner then.

Celebrating a New Release by a Fabulous Author!

Tuesday, September 29th is the official release day for bestselling author Laurien Berenson, who’s launching #18 in her terrific Melanie Travis mystery series. The Bark Before Christmas continues the  series with the characters we’ve loved for years. We’re celebrating with her this week, and inviting you to join in the fun. Read on for a chance to win a signed hardbound edition of one of her books. And rumor has it the winner will receive a copy of her latest–how cool is that?

Bark Before Christmas

Long-time readers of this blog and dog lovers alike are probably already familiar with this great writer. If she’s in the “new to you” category, let’s bring you into the fold with a brief intro, and then jump into a Q&A about the series, and what’s in store for her amateur sleuth Melanie and her Poodles.

Laurien Berenson, Author

Laurien Berenson, Author

Laurien is an award-winning, top-selling author in mystery and romantic fiction. She’s been nominated for the Agatha Award (recognizing the best in the cozy mystery genre) and the Mystery Readers International’s Macavity Award. She’s earned the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award and is a four-time winner of the prestigious Maxwell Award, presented by the Dog Writers Association of America. And in the totally unofficial but equally important (to me) category, Laurien’s books were a “first choice” and longstanding favorite of my mother, who loved the entire series and talked about Melanie and Aunt Peg as though they were neighbors.

Along a range of say, lighthearted cozy to dark mystery, how would you describe the overall atmosphere of your series?

My series is purposely very lighthearted and in fact I think it has become even more so as it’s progressed. I want to create a fictional world that readers can escape into: realistic but at the same time lots of fun. Above all, I want readers to enjoy my books and to look forward to  reading about Melanie’s adventures.

You’ve been writing about Melanie Travis and family for many years. How has she changed over time?

Pedigree to Die ForOMG, Melanie’s life has changed tremendously over the course of the series. The first book,  A Pedigree to Die For, came out in 1995 and there have been 17 more books since. In “fictional years” the series has covered an eight year span. When it started, Melanie was a struggling single mother with a four year old son, no love life, no pets, and a job as a special needs tutor at a local public school. Her ex-husband had disappeared and she had just lost a much needed summer job. Enter her long-estranged Aunt Peg with her passel of Poodles and a mystery she needed Melanie’s help with.

Now, in The Bark Before Christmas, Melanie is re-married and has another child and a houseful of Standard Poodles that she and her family breed and show. Her ex-husband has reappeared and is also remarried. Melanie’s brother is married to her best friend. The number of caring people who fill her ever-busy life has grown by leaps and bounds and her world has expanded in many wonderful ways.

Do you have a personal favorite in the series?

Actually I have 3 favorites (so far!): Watchdog (#5), Unleashed (#7), and Gone With The Woof (#16).

Other than Melanie, who’s your favorite human character? Favorite canine character?

Aunt Peg is my favorite character to plot for. Terry Denunzio is my favorite character to write, His scenes always make me laugh.

As for canine characters, I adore Faith and I always will. She is the only character in the series whose age I’ve cheated on (I’ve shaved off a year) because I cannot bear the thought of her growing old.

What’s next for Melanie?

The Bark Before Christmas takes Melanie back to school. She is working as a special needs tutor at prestigous Howard Academy and is tapped at the last minute to manage the school’s Christmas Bazaar. Everything seems to be going well until a valuable dog and Santa Claus both go missing from the Santa Claus and Pets Photo Booth.

Where can fans buy your books? 

My books can be bought at all readers’ favorite online and brick-and mortar stores, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Apple, Target, Walmart, and many independent bookstores.

Amazon     Barnes & Noble     Books A Million

Kobo          Kensington Books     IndieBound

Oh, and coming October 27, fans can get this one too:

Christmas Howl


Will the entire series be available in Kindle/ebook editions?

Yes, they are all currently available as ebooks. And all but the last one (The Bark Before Christmas) are available from Audible too.


Okay, readers and fans: it’s your turn! Leave a comment here for a chance to win a signed copy of Laurien’s book! If you’ve read the series, let us know if you have a favorite. You’re welcome to ask questions, too! We’ll draw the winner on Friday, October 2nd, so be sure to leave your comment before then.

Mega-Mystery Sale!

Mystery event magnifying glass

How’s this for fabulous and (nearly) free fun? Come join us on Saturday, September 12th 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Eastern (that’s 9-6 for us Ozarks folks). You’ll find 25+ mystery writers just waiting to visit with you! And for this one-day only event, every single one of us has a book for you at just 99 cents. (Yup, you read that right–just 99 cents.) Come ask questions, get the backstory about our books and our writing, and find “new to you” authors and mystery series. Even better, we have gifts and giveaways planned exclusively for you!

This is the perfect time to get some holiday shopping in, too. No crowds, no hassles–just great books at ridiculously low prices. And did you know you can buy now and schedule your gift to be delivered at a later date? I’ve got my eye on a half-dozen titles already and plan to order them now for a December delivery. Seriously, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

I’m co-hosting the event. Drop by between 2-3 p.m. Eastern (that’s 1-2 Central) to meet me and my co-hosts Kathi DaleyAmy Metz, and Amy Vansant. Co-hosts rotate every hour, so come by often for gifts, giveaways, and great prices!

This terrific event is the brainchild of the super-talented writer Duncan Whitehead, author of the best-selling and award-winning Gordonston Ladies Dog Walking Club trilogy.

For a full list of participating authors and when they’re in the hosts’ chair, just go to the Event Page. Oh, and be sure to click “Going” so you can get all the news and updates as the event progresses.

Be sure to drop by when I’m co-hosting. I promise you’ll love it!

Notes from a Graveyard Scholar

Ozark folklore is a recurring theme in my writing, and chasing down the old stories and tall tales has led me off the proverbial beaten path more than once. Sometimes, though, the stories fall right in my lap, as happened a few months ago when I attended the Books in Bloom Literary Festival and met Arkansas writer and independent researcher Abby Burnett.

Abby BurnettAbby has spent years researching death and burial customs, with much of that work presented in Gone to the Grave; Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850 – 1950, published by the University Press of Mississippi. Other publications include entries for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture as well as articles for county historical societies. She lives in a log cabin in the Boston Mountains when she’s not out photographing tombstones in rural cemeteries. Here’s Abby, talking about her research and the ways we remember the pets who shared our lives…

The worn image on the tombstone in Hot Springs’ Hollywood Cemetery, lit up by afternoon sunlight, is puzzling. Is it a lamb? No, a dog – definitely a dog. A quick check of Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, 2004) reveals the meaning: “The virtues of fidelity, loyalty, vigilance, and watchfulness have long been symbolized by man’s best friend.” Surely this was intended on the stone of B.B. Porter, who died at age 42 in 1882, but elsewhere across Arkansas, images of dogs found on modern granite markers don’t have the same meaning. “Nowadays when one sees a carved dog in a cemetery it is probably homage to a beloved pet,” Keister writes.

There is no lack of such homages in pet cemeteries, of course, where humans eulogize their beloved animals. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, here lies our little boy with ears of rust,” is the verse on the grave of Rusty Bucket Bumstead (1991 – 1994) in Rest Haven Cemetery, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Tributes to other dogs and cats include, “You left paw prints all over our hearts,” “Our ‘love sponge’” and “So loved, so loving, so missed.” In Friends of the Pet Cemetery, a considerably larger pet graveyard near Springfield, Missouri, are found these tributes: “He lived for love and food,” “Always a puppy” and, “Friend – Gentleman – Athlete.”

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries because I research and write about death and burial.  I transcribe epitaphs, photograph tombstones, and compile information on everything from the symbolism at the top of a stone to the name of the carver often found near the base. The most heartbreaking epitaphs, or poems, do not upset me but my outpouring of grief in pet cemeteries always catches me off guard.  After all, I live with four elderly dogs and two cats, volunteer at my county’s pet shelter, and serve on its board. Though I wouldn’t cross the street to admire a stranger’s baby, I just might dart across several lanes of traffic to pet a puppy.

This has led to a fascination with the way pets are portrayed on modern markers, ones for humans, that is. I’ve found artwork showing every dog breed imaginable, portraits or cartoons of pets, and dog and cat figurines placed on the markers. Most interesting of all are photoceramics, little disks imprinted with actual photographs then bonded to the front of a tombstone. Photoceramics were invented in France in 1854, and they’re rare in the Arkansas Ozarks’ oldest cemeteries. Perhaps they were too expensive, difficult to obtain, or easily broken. Some tombstones contain circular indentations, evidence of a vanished photoceramic. In modern times, however, these little photos are affordable, unbreakable and plentiful, so much so that some markers sport separate ones for each family member and the dog.

What to make of the photos people choose? One husband and wife’s marker contains a photo of each spouse holding up the same tiny Chihuahua. There’s the haunting photo of the young woman holding her cat against her shoulder, the girl’s face tinted a flesh color but the cat standing out in stark black and white. Though hunter and hound photos are plentiful, one man chose to use a shot of his three hounds treeing an unseen prey. One older photo shows a husband, wife, and dog where both the wife and the dog are leaning away from the beaming husband, as though afraid of him. (People who knew this family assure me that the man was not abusive but I don’t know why wife and dog look so wary.) Others are like hidden puzzles, where the pet is somewhere in the picture.

Occasionally a photoceramic will feature an unconventional pet. Brian Harness, buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Harrison, Arkansas is shown cradling a large fox. Given that Harness was a hunter and a professional taxidermist I thought he might be posing with an especially life-like example of his work. But no, an online obituary showed a different photo of the two, and mentioned that Mr. Harness was survived by his pet fox, Jasper. In this same cemetery a stone bench, at one side of the Johnson family plot, is decorated with a photo of a cow wearing a jaunty razorback-red beret with “Arkansas” knitted in. The most unusual creature is probably found in Hugo, Oklahoma, a town where various traveling circuses spent their winters. There a female snake-charmer is shown holding what appears to be a python with, “To each his own” carved above the frame.

Modern technology has made it possible to put anything – anything – on a tombstone: aerial photos, sonograms, NASCAR logos, the deceased Photo-shopped into a portrait with Jesus. Perhaps someday someone will study these images as seriously as I do study the meaning behind the Ozarks’ oldest symbols (anchors, clasping hands, broken columns). If so, those graveyard scholars will have to make sense of the large numbers of dogs and cats populating the tombstones of the people who loved them so much they considered them members of the family.

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Abby’s book was first published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2014 in hardcover, and is now available in paperback and Kindle editions as well. While she was researching the book, the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) featured her in AETN’s “Silent Storytellers” program. This documentary featured people and organizations “who are passionate about the preservation of cemeteries and memorials in Arkansas.” Here’s the clip:


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