Join me for this three part article and take a journey through the recent past. Read Part 1 here.
Tales of Coles County
Fascinated by the county’s history, I browsed through archives of the Daily Eastern News and the nearly 700-pages of William Henry Perrin’s The History of Coles County, Illinois (1879). It was the summer of 2003, and I was back home in Prospect Heights working at the River Trails Park District.
Picking up garbage at six o’clock in the morning gives a person a lot of time to think, and as I sweat, mowed lawns, and pruned my way through the hottest months of the year, I got an idea for a book of historical fiction stories based on past events in Coles County. I recall picking empty bottles of Corona and cigarette butts out of the playground of Willow Trails Park, while imagining the stories I would tell in Tales of Coles County, Illinois to pass the time.
I had just come off a terrible experience with print-on-demand publishing. Impatient as always, I sent my first two novellas and a collection of short stories to a company called Xlibris, and I did not have money for their editing services or any of the dozens of other extras that traditional publishers offer as part of their regular business. Consequently, my books went unsold to all but a few loyal friends, and as 2004 rolled around, I decided that I would go into the publishing business for myself. I learned how to make chapbooks by dissecting The Vehicle—the EIU English Department’s publication for student poetry, fiction, and photography.
Chapbooks, traditionally, are four to forty-eight pages in length and consist of a regular 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper folded over and bound together by stitching or staples. They were very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries when printing was expensive and time consuming. Today, pamphlets and chapbooks can be printed for pennies on the dollar. At 5 or 10 cents a page (at an average print shop), you can make dozens of pamphlets for very little cost.
I sold my first chapbook, The Distance of Sorrow, for five dollars. The Distance of Sorrow was a sixteen page story that I expanded into a “special edition” and hawked to my dad’s friends and coworkers. In that form, and with all the “special features” included, the booklet ran exactly 42 pages. Its special features included author commentary, deleted scenes, and alternate endings. The response was positive.
Next, I set to work writing the stories I had imagined the previous summer, and when classes resumed in the fall of 2004, I printed a few dozen copies of Tales of Coles County, Illinois. I sold some of these, but mostly I gave them away or left them in coffee shops and laundromats, at Aaron’s Barbershop, or at parks. My friend Anna’s mother found a copy at Morton Park while eating lunch, so I knew my marketing tactic had been successful.
Rather than write fiction as a young and unknown author and attempt to sell it to a general audience, I surmised that my writing would generate more interest if I wrote on local topics. By leaving out copies of Tales of Coles County, I hoped to create a sense of mystery surrounding the work. This ended with mixed results.
Meanwhile, I created an informal organization at EIU that met every weekend in September and October to explore local haunts and to share an interest in the subject. The group, which I referred to as (with tongue-in-cheek) the “ghost club,” lasted from 2004 until 2009, a year after I left Eastern. A different set of people joined every year, which always kept it interesting. I have many fond memories of field trips out to fog-shrouded Airtight Bridge at night or of scavenger hunts in Laffler-Ennis Cemetery.
Whether it was the time I accidentally drove into a cornfield, or the time we passed an old man in a nightgown walking his dog along the side of the road in the dark, we never failed to have an interesting experience. We talked about our own encounters, toured local sites, played games, and watched horror movies. One year we even told ghost stories around a campfire. The Daily Eastern News printed three articles on the group.
In October 2005, Laura Griffith wrote a review of Tales of Coles County, Illinois for the Daily Eastern News, giving it three out of five stars. “The story follows a group of Eastern students, Tami, Max, AJ and Nancy, as they are stranded in the rain when their car breaks down while looking for a campsite just south of Charleston,” she wrote.
“They come upon a small cabin in the woods and are invited inside by an old man and woman, who give them dry clothes, shelter and a warm dinner. During the meal, the couple shares stories with the students, stories about the history of Coles County and things they remember from their childhood that went on in the area, in chronological order… The concept of the book is a great one. It makes the history of Coles County a more interesting read, and tricks people into reading history without feeling like they’re going through a history book.”
Another project I began in 2004 was a website that served as a repository for the stories I had collected about Coles County, which was aptly named Legends and Lore of Coles County. In 2006, I began writing and publishing a monthly electronic newsletter by the same name. I posted the first issue, on Airtight Bridge, in March, and it ceased publication nine months later in November of that same year. My original intent was to create a photo comic in which I would act as a “guide” to strange or interesting places in Coles County, but that required more creativity than I was apparently possessed.
The newsletter quickly evolved away from that idea, and by its second issue, it consisted of one or two pages of information accompanied by five or six pictures in a downloadable .PDF. Years later, I was delighted to discover that Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk cited the Legends and Lore of Coles County in a chapter on St. Omer Cemetery in their book The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (2007)…
Check the exciting conclusion of “The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County” in Part 3.