Dangerous Deeds

One of the most common questions asked of writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

As a professor and research geek, I love this question. Maybe I’m genetically wired this way; my dad was brilliant with crossword puzzles and my mother excelled in finding creative solutions to vexing problems. That’s as good a reason as any to explain why I’m prone to wonder who and how and why and what if. I might see a headline, visit someplace new, overhear a conversation, sift through photographs, encounter someone unusual, or dream a tall tale—any or all of these  become grist for the proverbial mill. For me, the answer to  “Where do you get your ideas?” changes from one writing project to the next. The idea of breed bans as a plot for Dangerous Deeds (book #2 in my series) started with news headlines.

The Plot Challenge

Breed specific legislation (BSL) has been a controversial issue in many communities, including mine. A nearby town’s efforts to ban pit bulls caused an argument that went on for months. When unleashed dogs attacked cyclists and joggers on roads and trails, elected officials were challenged to reconsider the county ordinance. They struggled to find reasonable common ground, balancing owner’s rights with public safety. Not an easy task! These and similar events prompted me to wonder how the folks in my fictional world would react to a proposed ban.

Search the Internet and you will likely find hundreds of articles and stories and websites focused on this issue. Tempers run hot on both sides of this controversy, and the thought of researching a topic steeped in such graphic violence left me downright queasy. Still, the idea lingered. I spent months searching for credible information about BSL from advocates and opponents alike, trying to figure out how to tackle the issue in a way that wouldn’t offend readers or my own sensibilities. The AKC’s issue analysis of BSL published in 2015 gave me the hook I was looking for. Read on for a glimpse of how the AKC position and citizens’ comments at public hearings inspired the primary plot line of the book.

Excerpts

There’s a scene early in the book where the sheriff warns my protagonist, Maggie Porter, about a sleazy local attorney:

“Simon Tate claims to have a client whose dog was attacked at the county park.  No witnesses, mind you, and no injury to the dog according to the vet. Still, the suit claims negligence on the part of the county, and he’s demanding we outlaw what he calls vicious breeds. He convinced the Quorum Court to hold a public hearing. My gut tells me he’s after a whole lot more than just a county ordinance, but darned if I can figure out his motive here. Gotta say, that worries me some. Seems like whenever Simon Tate profits, somebody loses.”

Fast forward to the public hearing, where Maggie does her best to explain her opposition to breed ban.  She’s blindsided, though, when Simon Tate uses the event to attack her reputation with a barrage of lies and innuendo. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the scene:

“These breeds have a known history of attacking others. Killing machines, that’s what they are, and you let them in your kennel, side by side with beloved family pets.” Turning to face the crowd, he had to shout to be heard. “Until we get the Dangerous Dog Ordinance signed into law, I challenge everyone to take a stand, show your support for our community. Vote with your wallet—boycott any place that puts profit over safety! Don’t take your business to any animal clinic, pet shop, groomer, or kennel that won’t stand up for our pets, our children, our community!”

Simon pointed to Maggie. “We’re going to shut you down.”

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Maggie soon discovers the boycott is just the start of trouble. When a body is found on her property, suspicion turns to Waterside Kennels where everyone has motive and nobody has an alibi. Can Maggie unravel the web of deceit in time to save herself and everything she loves?

Dangerous Deeds is scheduled for publication this year. Stay tuned!

PR, Canine Style

In the years since author Jim Warnock rescued a starving dog found on the Ozark Highlands Trail, Hiker-dog has become quite a celebrity at Jim’s book signings. (Longtime followers of this blog might remember I shared Jim’s story of how Hiker-dog came into his life in 2014 with an update here.) And as every author knows, it’s important to have publicity materials readily available for interested readers and fans. That’s why Jim created a resume for Hiker-dog, which I’m sharing here with permission. (Thanks, Jim!)

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Note: here’s a pdf for printing or to open links. Hiker-dog resume 072217 

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If you’re a fan of hiking trails, be sure to check out Jim’s book Five-Star Trails: The Ozarks: 43 Spectacular Hikes in Arkansas and Missouri  available in print and digital formats.

As I’m working on Dangerous Deeds, the second book in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, I’ve been researching hiking trails across the Ozarks.  The famous Ozark Highlands Trail is almost completely on public lands, with private landowners granting OHT easement for the rest. Jim is one of the volunteers maintaining the trail, and he’s generously shared his expertise and experience, making my research much easier. (Thanks again, Jim!)

New to the trails? Wherever your journey takes you, follow Hiker-dog’s advice: “The less you carry, the better you move.”  

One last recommendation: if you’ve never hiked with a dog, reading Jim’s 12-point summary of what makes Hiker-dog a good trail partner will make you appreciate this experience.

Happy travels!

There Came Along A Kitty

Like Deadly Ties, the first in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, there are multiple scenes in book #2 (Dangerous Deeds) that were inspired by real events. One of those is the scene in which Maggie Porter’s dog Sweet Pea rescues an injured stray kitten she finds beneath the dock. Although Maggie’s initial assessment is “not much more than bones and fur” the kitten turns out to have a tiger-sized attitude and, after a brief stay at the vet, claims the kennel—and Sweet Pea—as his own.

The roots of that story go back to the mid-1990s when my own beloved spaniel Alix found a raggedy bundle of fur in our yard and dropped it at my feet with a “Fix this!” look. Beneath the raggedy coat was a near-starved Calico we promptly named Katie. We nursed her back to health under the watchful eyes of the dog Alix and Amy, our Silver Tabby (another rescue). The three of them immediately became collaborators, conspirators, and loyal-to-the-end friends.

About six months before we lost Katie—the last of the three—in 2012, Buddy the Wonder Cat came to us as a feral kitten weighing just 2½ pounds. One of the reasons he’s called the Wonder Cat is because it’s a wonder he’s still alive. On one terrifyingly memorable occasion he injured his foot, fracturing or dislocating most of the bones and mangling one of his claws. In the fear and pain that followed, Buddy’s feral instincts came roaring back and nobody escaped unscathed before the vet managed to get him sufficiently sedated to examine. If the vet clinic keeps a “Look out for…” list, there’s probably a picture of Buddy with the warning “don raptor gloves before handling.”

Thanks to the fabulous skill of our veterinarian and the clinic crew, our only reminder of that experience is one razor-like claw which to this day does not retract. I channeled a good bit of Buddy the Wonder Cat into the fictional feline you’ll meet in Dangerous Deeds. (That probably explains why he tends to sprawl on the desk when I’m writing.) In celebration of life ongoing, here’s a slideshow of the best of Buddy the Wonder Cat through the years.

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Spring in the Ozarks

Welcome to spring in the Ozarks! I woke up this morning to 28 degrees and a wind chill of 23. Brrrr!

That didn’t stop Sasha from rushing outside for her usual morning romp, of course. It’s a good thing her coat is starting to thicken since she didn’t wait for me to find her winter wrap I’d put away after last week’s warm temps! Here she is, celebrating the first official day of spring under a section of the forsythia we’ve nurtured for 20 years. I’d like to think we’ll have Sasha with us for almost as long.

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It didn’t take her long to realize that it really was cold and neither Buddy the Cat nor I were venturing outside. The sound of her squeaky toy lured her back inside for another round of Chase, which is fast becoming our pets’ morning ritual. After the cat declared victory we consoled Sasha with hide-and-seek and the promise of an afternoon walk. And now we’re back in the office as I work (again) on Chapter 23 and Sasha supervises. Or maybe she’s just dreaming of warmer days ahead…

Happy Spring, everyone!

In Time for the Holidays

christmas-935461_640Thinking about holiday gifts or looking to add to your own collection? I have suggestions! Over the next few weeks I’ll post info and links to books and authors—some  previously featured here, some new—with books priced to make even the most budget-conscious person happy. To make as many people happy as possible, I’ll include a range of mystery sub-genres, from cozy to traditional to thriller and action-adventure. Most will have dogs or cats in the stories, while others were selected because they’re well-crafted fiction. Great prices, too, starting at just 99¢ (US) and £0.99 (UK).  Since I’ve been reading a lot of authors living and writing in the Ozarks region, I’m going to kick off this promo with a local (to me) author.

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Jack R. Cotner writes poetry, short stories, and novels in addition to painting and sculpting. You can see his work and learn more on his website. He writes compelling fiction that pushes the boundaries of traditionally recognized genres, and the Kindle editions of his short story collection and novel are on sale this holiday season for just 99¢ (US) and £0.99 (UK).  I’ve previously featured Jack on this site (find that here), so this time I’m sharing what others have to say.

Jack website image

Mystery of the Death Hearth

I enjoyed this book very much. It has a very interesting story line. I would recommend to all my friends. Great reading.

~ Andrea Utecht (Amazon review)

 

…As a lover of historical fiction, I found this novel to be excellent. It is very well written with an interesting setting and an intriguing murder mystery. It is evident that the author has extensively researched the period and region in which the story takes place. His descriptions of the traditions, religious practices and way of life of the characters involved draw us in beautifully as the mystery unfolds. Cotner’s writing style suits the period well and lovely, descriptive phrases abound. Each chapter is preceded by a fascinating poem, as well as the date in both the Roman and Celtic calendars, adding a further dimension to the text.

The story takes place in the 5th Century AD in the Celtic lands of the northern and western regions of mainland Europe…All in all, the book presents an intriguing and well-crafted mystery with well rounded characters. It should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good mystery with an historical setting.

~Patricia Bunting (Amazon review)

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Storytellin: True & Fictional short Stories of Arkansas

I loved these stories: fictional tales cleverly linked to genuine family stories. They are engaging, sometimes witty, sometimes insightful, occasionally disturbing, and they offer a foreigner like me a small insight into the mountainous regions of Arkansas: their people, their culture and their history. Fascinating to read and very enjoyable.

~Kathy Shuker (Goodreads review)

Indeed, Jack Cotner has delivered Storytellin’ at its finest by juxtaposing accounts from generations of Cotners next to fictional tales triggered by those family events. A fine collection of memoir and short stories in a single volume. As one reader pointed out, two books in one. Loved it.

~Nancy Hartney (Goodreads review)

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I love the ability to buy ebooks now, include a personal message, and specify the delivery date so it’s delivered when I want. When you purchase a digital book as a gift, you can choose to have the gift sent directly to the recipient or sent to your own email account so you can either forward the message or deliver a printed copy of the gift instructions personally. By the way, there’s no Kindle required; books can be read on Kindle or one of Amazon’s free reading apps.

Check back during December to see info about other great authors and their books!

Ghostly Tales, Legends, and Lore

To celebrate the spirit (pun intended) of Halloween, here’s a collection of literature and lore related to the Ozarks and to the land many of our ancestors called home. Leave a comment to be entered in this month’s giveaway; the winner will be posted on Sunday, November 1st.

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Crescent Hotel

A local site said to be home of “the unusual and unexplainable” is the legendary Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In an excerpt of The Haunting of America by Troy Taylor, we’re introduced to lingering spirits:

Staff members receive frequent reports from overnight guests of strange goings-on in their rooms and in the hallways. Room 424 has had several visitations but the most famous haunted spot is the previously mentioned Room 218. Several guests and employees have encountered strange sounds and sensations in that room. Doors have slammed shut and some people claim to have been shaken awake at night. One man, a salesman, was asleep in Room 218 one night when his shoulder was violently shaken back and forth. He awakened just long enough to hear footsteps hurry across the floor. He saw no one in the room.

Who this particular ghost may be is unknown, although some believe it is the spirit of the man who was killed during the hotel’s construction. His body was said to have fallen just about where the room is currently located. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any particular macabre history about this room. A story of the hotel has it that the wife of one of the hotel’s past owners stayed in the room. At one point in the middle of the night, she ran screaming from the room, claiming that she had seen blood spattered all over the walls. Several staff members ran up to take a look but found no blood and nothing else out of the ordinary….

Another ghost of the hotel is that of a distinguished-looking man with a mustache and beard and who dresses in old-fashioned, formal clothing. He seems to favor the lobby of the hotel and a bar that is decorated in the style of the Victorian era. People who claim they have talked to the man say that he never responds, he only sits quietly and then vanishes. In an interview, a staff member recounted one odd experience with the silent ghost: “During the summer, we had two auditors work for us because we’re so busy. One of these men left the front desk to get a drink of water in the bar, after it was closed. He told me that he saw some guy sitting on a barstool, staring straight ahead. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t move. Our guy left to get his partner, who was still at the front desk. They came back and spoke to the man. They thought he was drunk”.

When the man again did not respond, the two auditors decided to leave him alone and go back to work. As they looked back over their shoulders on the way out of the bar though, they saw that the barstool was now empty. The man was nowhere in the room.

“One of them started searching for the man,” the staff member added. “He looked around the lobby, which is about 25 to 30 yards across, everywhere in that area. The auditor who was looking around went over to the steps (a staircase ascends from the lobby). The fellow from the bar was on the second-floor landing, looking down at him. He went up but as he got to the second floor, he felt something push him back down again. That’s when he got the manager and told him what had happened.”

Read a longer excerpt here.

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Whether it’s lingering spirits or just the magical feeling you’ll find in the hills and hollers, the Ozarks seem to inspire generations of creative souls. That’s certainly true of Jack R. Cotner–author, artist, poet, and painter–who calls this place home. Here’s one of his poems, reprinted in full with his permission, that seems a perfect fit for the time when some believe the dead may walk among the living:

Goodbye My Love, Goodbye 

© Jack R. Cotner

Retreating inward from the pain,

I smell the sweetness of her hair

As we move along the path. I strain

Uphill, dragging muddied weight to where

Headstones squat like sacred peaks between

Mowed grass where walked mourning crones.

Stoic statues weathered, weeping, still serene,

Guarding lengthy rows of buried bones.

We halt. Crows pass, loud caws abating.

A portal beyond the pale awaits, silent.

The gaping hole lies open, waiting, waiting

For my dearest here quiet, broken, spent.

Farewell, sweet beauty, unfaithful miss.

I weep. Red lipstick on blue, icy lips

Beckons. Entranced, I take one final kiss

Before tossing splendor into the dark abyss.

Goodbye my love, goodbye.

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In addition to poetry, Jack also writes a Celtic mystery series set in the 5th century. Many who settled in the Ozarks came here from the land of the Celts, and their descendants have kept some of the old ways alive though storytelling and more. Wander far enough in the hills and hollers and you just may come across folks paying homage to the ways of old and safeguarding traditions from one generation to the next. Having my own share of Celtic blood I appreciate the old legends and lore.  One such story is the story of Samhain, the original Halloween. This comes from the gifted writer Ali Isaac, “guardian of Irish mythology.” Here’s the tale:

People are watching a huge bonfire, a tradition with easter in Nort-West Europe.

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.

The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to lower winter pastures where they would be safer from starving predators; the weakest and least likely to survive the winter would be slaughtered for their meat, and so began the task of meat preservation. Firewood or turf would be collected and stacked up to keep the home hearths burning, homes shored up against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for the bounty of Summer they had been given, rejoicing at the completion of all their hard work and preparation, and a time to welcome in the new year.

The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.

As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the golden fiery orb of the sun slipped beyond the horizon and darkness took hold, huge communal bonfires were lit. Torches would be dipped into the sacred fire and carefully carried home to rekindle the hearth fires, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.

It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.

Read the rest at Ali’s website. If Irish mythology appeals to you, be sure to check out Ali’s wonderful books here.

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Whatever your beliefs, wishing you a magical weekend!

samhain_by_cosmosue

Of Legend, Of Life

spooky-fire

As promised, here’s another post about Ozark magic, folklore, and superstition. This one was written by  Joshua Heston and first appeared on June 11, 2014 on the State of the Ozarks website.

As I did while researching my series, Joshua drew upon the work of folklorist Vance Randolph, who traveled throughout the Ozarks in the 1920s and 1930s talking to the hillfolk whose families have called these hills and hollers home for generations.

I’ll note that Randolph, as the scholar and researcher he was, recorded those conversations faithfully, to include explicit descriptions and graphic narratives some might find amusing but others might consider the tales impolite. (If you’re easily offended, look elsewhere.)  If what you seek is a better understanding of the region and its customs, Randolph is an excellent source. As noted  on the back cover of the 1947 edition of Randolph’s Ozark Superstitions:

The Ozark region of Missouri and Arkansas has long been an enclave of resistance to innovation and “newfangled” ideas. Many of the old-time superstitions and customers have been nurtured and kept alive through the area’s relative isolation and the strong attachment of the hillfolk to these old attitudes….Through casual conversations rather than by direct questioning, he has been able gradually to compile a singularly authentic record of Ozark superstition. His book contains a vast amount of folklorist material, including legends, beliefs, ritual verses and sayings, and odd practices of the hillpeople, plus a wealth of general cultural data.

To understand the Ozarks, one must understand the hillfolk and their roots–their fears, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. My thanks to Joshua for allowing me to repost this in its entirety.

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Ozark Magic & Hoodo

Our rational, scientific world filled with textbook knowledge and an overabundance of electronic equipment has little room for the unknown or inexplicable.

“Faith” is carefully relegated to quiet, predictable corners of our lives where it won’t interfere with the larger, homogenized world around us. And old beliefs — let’s just call it superstitious folklore and be done with it — are left in the increasingly dim past or the pages of a dusty library book.

North America is an amalgamation of peoples — and an amalgamation of beliefs. It is common knowledge many Europeans — Protestant sects and Catholics alike — fled to the New World to avoid religious persecution.

But how many escaped Europe only to be persecuted for their beliefs here — beliefs animistic and pagan? We’ll likely never know the real numbers for people hiding in the shadows rarely keep accurate roll calls.

“A moment after he said he could see a great serpent moving about the room, and became considerably excited. I saw nothing with any definite shape, but thought that black clouds were forming about me. I felt I must fall into a trance if I did not struggle against it, and that the influence which was causing this trance was out of harmony with itself, in other words, evil.” — page 34, The Celtic Twilight, W.B. Yeats

Across the world, oppressed peoples have oft-retreated to the wild places for safety: the Caucasus Mountains, the Black Forest, the mountains of Haiti, of Appalachia, the bayous of Louisiana, and the rough hill country of the Ozarks all became — at one time or another — refuge for those civilization attempted to destroy.

And it is there the lines between dark and light, magic and faith, heaven and hell, can become thin indeed.

The Ozark Mountains were a meeting place of diverse and underground cultures: Native American tribes (the Delaware, Osage, Cherokee), African-American slaves, wild, tempestuous Pentecostals, and dark, Europeans sects rarely found in the history books.

An amalgamation of ideas — some secret and hidden away, some loudly expressed — came together in these hills ultimately populated by a sequestered people not in the habit of sharing their ways with outsiders.

Vance Randolph would write, sometime in the 1940s, “Some of them [Ozarkers] will even deny that they ever heard of witches or witchmasters. The truth is, however, that a great many Ozarkers do believe these things. I meet people everyday who are firm believers in witchcraft, and I have been personally acquainted with more than a score of so-called witches myself.”

To modern sensibilities, this is the stuff of legend, of mythology and pointless folklore.

To those who believe, however, it is life and power.

The tangle of cultural influences hang like a mass of river vines over dark water. Truly, how different is the interpretation of Mark 16 — “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them” — and the rituals of Vodou’s Damballah, a snake loa celebrated in New Orleans for life and wisdom?

“Of course, we had our snake-handlers too. Those who took up serpents, they were called. They were good people, and I noticed others seemed afraid to say anything against them, because they showed such love, and wore such sweet countenances. You’ve got to walk a straight walk, walk a good walk, walk with real faith if you’re going to pick up one of those rattlesnakes fresh out of the mountains.”— page 26, Up On Melody Mountain, by Betty Jean Robinson

Into this land came dispossessed Christian sects, European witchcraft cults, faith healers, Indian medicine men, hoodoo practitioners (the “country cousin” of vodou). Join with that the Ozarks’ dark places of the earth — deep and mysterious holes in the mountains and dim, shadowy coves — and you have a hidden culture no less real than the supernatural religions of West Africa or Southeast Asia.

These old mountains are littered with place names reflective of a darker past: Devil’s Den (Notch), the Devil’s Backbone (Ozark County, Missouri), the Devil’s Kitchen (Cassville), the Devil’s Racetrack (Welcome Home), Devil’s Well (Aker’s Ferry), Devil’s Rock Pile (Douglas County, Missouri), Devil’s Half-Acre (Mena), Devil’s Promenade (Joplin).

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” reads Exodus 22:18 and more than a few back country churchgoers took that word literally, giving strength to what Vance Randolph would record as “witch masters, white witches, witch doctors, faith doctors, goomer doctors and conjure folks,” —

“I once knew a man who spent half-an-hour or so every evening playing with a wooden spite doll, which was dressed to resemble a local woman who could ‘do things.’ Time after time he would thrust the little image into the fireplace, until the feet touched the glowing embers, and then snatch it out again. The expression on his face was most unpleasant. I am quite indifferent to the ordinary superstitions of the hillfolk. I visit graveyards at night, shoot cats on occasion, burn sassafras wood without a tremor. And yet, something akin to horror gripped me, as I watched the witch master’s sadistic foolery. I should not care to have that man burning a poppet wrapped in my undershirt.“ — page 289, Ozark Magic & FolkloreVance Randolph.

It is a history of persecuted peoples — the lost and wandering — despised and misunderstood by the civilizations around them, all hidden away from a larger world. It is a story of quests for power and security, love and revenge.

Ultimately, this is a story of choices between light and dark, heaven and hell, all in those strange in-between places where the lines are inexplicably blurred.

Perhaps it is not just old timey folklore after all.

–Joshua Heston (June 11, 2014)

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To read more by Joshua Heston and to learn more about the Ozarks, visit StateoftheOzarks.net, a site “dedicated to the celebration and preservation of Ozark culture.”