Saturday, December 30, 2023

Geography as a springboard for fiction

In the last installment on the Cumberland Saga Jonathan commented:

It's good that they are thinking and planning ahead on a large scale. Are they planning anything to harden the compound or control access? A few  strategically placed large rocks or fallen trees can do wonders...

To answer that, I want to give some insight into how I plot out a story.

First of all, I had to imagine the optimum place for a political embarrassment  to hide. There are really two places. One is as a homeless person in a large city. The other is in B.F.I. rural areas. I prefer to write about rural areas.

Given the ubiquitous nature of facial recognition software and voice recognition software, it would have to be someplace where "technology" is viewed suspiciously. That rules out the "ugly girlfriend" option because she will post 600 photos of her new guy on three different social media platforms.

The easiest community to communicate to readers, the one most readers will intuitively grasp are religious denominations of the Brethren/Mennonite/Amish/Hutterites/Doukhobor cluster.

If they were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, then they are culturally very attuned to how terrain can be used to limit exposure to the outside world. They would also be attuned to how terrain makes real-estate defensible.

So, I went looking for places that might appeal to recent "fringe" denominations who might have recently immigrated from Eastern Europe.

I struck gold on the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau.

The Cumberland Plateau generally slopes from west-to-east with most of the water running to the east, toward the Tennessee river. The soil is thin and not particularly fertile. The underlying rock is shale which water does not percolate into and shale is soft and erodes easily. Those factors combine to create some magnificent erosion features. Deep, steep valleys running from west-to-east. And between the valleys are flat-topped plateaus that are dissected by feeder creeks into the major ravines.

Terrain dictates tactics

"Terrain dictates tactics" which means that the terrain will tell me the story of "what has to happen next" if I listen. It means that if I pay attention then the terrain writes-the-story for me. Since I am basically lazy, I pay attention.

It was a simple matter to pop up topographical maps and simply pick a plateau that appealed to me.

It is approximately 2 miles from the bottom of the ravine on the south to the bottom of the ravine on the north.

If you can read topographical maps, then you can see that the diamond in the middle of this image is extremely defensible from the north, east and south. The west side is least defensible but the approach is choked off by two ravines. The ravine that is to the northwest bounds CHC property and another one a little farther west comes from the south but is on the opposite side of the road from CHC. That plateau, ladies and gentlemen, is Copperhead Cove.

Part of what made this irresistible to me as the springboard for the story is that one of the ravines along the north is named Rattlesnake Hollow. How perfect.

The name "Cove" is a horrible liberty I took with regards to how terrain features are named in that part of the world. Most "coves" are "hollows" or ravines that end as a bayou on the river. Obviously Copperhead Cove is a plateau or up-lands. Still, Copperhead Cove captures that warm, welcoming feeling I was trying to capture and it has consonance. Artistic license is alive and well on the ERJ blog.

So, to answer Jonathan's question: Sig and Roger are exquisitely keyed into defensive measures.

Our fictional Copperhead Cove has only one drive into it. The two that are there in the firmware version of CHC that are "X"ed out do not exist in the fictional CHC.

The drive that is there is circled where it goes up a slope (75 feet vertical in 450 feet horizontal) and it is wooded. It is my belief that 20% slopes (100 feet in 500 horizontal) are borderline impassible for most passenger cars on unimproved surfaces. It would not take a lot of "help" to make a 17% slope impassible for everything except special-purpose vehicles. If the road-bed is exposed shale, something as simple as spraying it with used motor oil or soap would stop most traffic.

For the most defensively minded, routing the drive to the right so it was parallel to Leggit Branch and overlooked by its west bank  (defilade with elevation, known distance, multiple firing positions available for the defenders: Technical term; Fish in a barrel) before a hairpin turn to the left and climbing a 20% grade would make it difficult impossible to overwhelm prepared defenses without exiting vehicles. Think Claymore mines, here.

Roads in that part of Tennessee don't have shoulders. It would be unthinkable for city people to park along the road and hike in. The closest off-road parking is at a cemetery 1.2 miles west of CHC. Infiltrators would have to park and then either walk along the road (with no shoulder) or hike cross-country (copperheads, rattlesnakes....lions and tigers and bears, Oh MY!) if they opted to walk in.

And while the story-line might not ever veer in that direction, the terrain is such that it could happen.


  1. Thanks, ERJ! As ever, I like the way you think - and the ways you make me think.
    Boat Guy

  2. I found the place on a map--
    about 40 "air "miles from where I live
    time for a road trip to see it in real life

  3. Thanks for the view behind the scenes, ERJ. I did mine 100% the opposite way: I took a location I knew and then started to fill in the world around it. To be fair, as it has grown I have had to "up my game" about the location as well, looking at maps/pictures of places I have driven by heretofore thoughtlessly, ignoring such details.

  4. Thanks for the insight.
    I figured their area was pretty defensible, didn't know it was chosen for that.
    I've worked in vehicle safety on slopes - very few vehicles are rated for slopes of 20%.
    Mines with steep roads have perennial problems with ordinary pickup trucks failing parking brake on slope tests, leading to citations from MSHA.

  5. Thanks! Good background info.
    Around these parts, hundreds of years ago, many towns were built up in the hilltops, mostly for defense, I guess. It didn’t always work out, back then. Water and getting supplies in winter were big problems, due to terrain, but they didn’t have technology or engines back either.
    Southern NH

  6. You probably already know this, but others may not. The Cumberland Plateau is one of the areas that Joel Skousen targets for folks in his book "Strategic Relocation", who are relocating to escape the tragedy our cites and metro areas are becoming. Beautiful country, but it's becoming a relocation target for rich folks.

    I can also suggest West Virginia, but stay away from the "big cities" and stick to the small towns and their environs. It helps if you have family, even shirt-tail kin, in the area. My family has a history in a couple of small towns and I'm keeping an eye on real estate. Mrs. Freeholder would have kittens, but old people in a place such as our area are also known as targets. I have money remaining in my family trust, and the trust is looking to invest. As my Dad always said, they aren't making more land.


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