Three years ago romance writer Suzanne McMinn moved from an affluent suburb in North Carolina to a very rural area of Roane County, West Virginia.
Like many book authors, McMinn used a regular Web diary – or “blog” – to promote her supermarket paperback novels. But as she settled into rural life, her blog became less about romance, and more about living on a farm – traditional cooking and baking, crafts, gardening and raising animals.
In the last year or so her daily farmhouse journal called “Chickens in the Road” has become the most widely read blog in West Virginia.
Forty-four-year-old Suzanne McMinn lives on a back country road in the tiny community once known as Stringtown, about seven miles outside Walton. Three years ago, following a divorce, she moved here with her three teenage children. And in a manner not unlike one of her romance novels, she met a local man with whom she now has a romantic relationship. She refers to him as simply “52” – his age when they met.
Their farmhouse is half-way up a mountainside and has a wide wraparound porch on the second floor. Down below, in the front yard, they have sheep, goats, ducks and chickens. Like their own home, the goat and chicken houses also have front porches.
When McMinn first arrived inRoane County, she lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse owned by some cousins, but says she soon started looking for land to buy.
“I came across some chickens that were literally in the road, and it was on a very rural back road – not this one, but another one in Roane County – and I said, ‘This is what I want – to live somewhere you could have chickens in the road’.”
McMinn found such a place and even by West Virginia rural standards, her 40-acre farm is difficult to reach. From one direction you have to drive on a rock-based road over a mountain then ford three creeks to get to her house. From the other direction the road is better, but right before you get to her property you have to ford a 40-foot wide river
“This is the ultimate in rural living”, McMinn says. “I mean we can be stuck here in many different ways – we can be flooded in, iced in, snowed in and ‘treed’ in.” (Recently three trees came down on the road and blocked it until neighbors removed them).
So far McMinn only has a small menagerie of animals – 11 chickens, a few ducks, some Cotswolds sheep, and three Nigerian dwarf goats called Clover, Nutmeg and Honey, but they all feature regularly on her blog which tens of thousands of people read daily – people from across West Virginia, the United States and the world.
“I’m currently getting over 200¸000 page views a month”, McMinn says. “It’s gone up enormously in the past year.”
McMinn serves her loyal readership by posting every day between 1 am and 2 am, so that people in any time zone can read the blog with their morning coffee.
The current animal celebrity, McMinn says, is a new Dorset lamb called Annabelle.
“Annabelle is about a month old, and she’s still drinking from a bottle. She didn’t quite take to her mother and her mother didn’t quite take to her. She takes about three bottles a day.”
McMinn posts regular stories about Annabelle’s antics and her relationship with the livestock guardian dog, a Great Pyrenees called Coco.
Though the farm still has few animals, McMinn is already making goats’ cheese, though she admits the goats are difficult to milk.
As a little girl, McMinn says she was inspired by Beatrix Potter’s stories of Peter Rabbit and a world where animals talk. Today Clover-the-Goat and Annabelle-the-Lamb talk too.
“I love to talk for the animals and tell their stories. They’re just adorable and I enjoy doing that a lot. I think of them as grown-up children’s stories. Many people will tell me that they bring their children to the computer when I have pictures and stories of the animals, but the adults seem to enjoy it just as much if not more than the children – I love that.”
McMinn also loves the immediate feedback she gets from her daily writings. It’s much more satisfying, she says, than the delayed feedback she gets from her books.
“The same way a Broadway show gives the actor that connection that they want with an audience – the blog gives me that connection with an audience where I just don’t have to wait – I get it immediately. And that feedback – if you’re a creative person – is so important in feeding your creativity.”
Suzanne McMinn’s creativity in her “Chickens-in-the-Road” blog made her a finalist for “Best Kept Secret” in the 2009 Bloggie Awards.
McMinn grew up in a DC suburb in Maryland, but has also lived in suburban areas of Alabama, California, Texas and North Carolina. After her first child was born, she started to write romance novels and has had 26 published so far, most of them for the romance publisher, Harlequin.
Today she lives across the river from where her great grandfather’s farm and where her own father grew up
“He was in the War – in World War II – and after the war he wanted to move away. He always said that he got out of West Virginia as soon as he could. But even though my father had wanted to move away so much, he always took us back here. I spent a lot of time in West Virginia as a child and it always seemed very idyllic and beautiful and just different from the suburbs.”
And so it was that McMinn came to West Virginia following her divorce. At first, she had no particular plans to stay in the state, but as she saw her teenage children settle happily in school and discovered the joys of country living, she decided to stay
Though thousands of people read her farmhouse goings on day by day –people in city offices and suburban households as well as other farmers – McMinn doesn’t pretend to be an expert farmer.
“My biggest talent in farming is in photographing animals and writing about them. But I try everything, and I’m trying to become a farmer. A lot of real farmers will come along and give me some really good information. I’ve been really blessed to meet a lot of really smart farmers – especially locally – who’ve helped me quite a bit.”
Suzanne McMinn admits she’s painting an ideal picture of Appalachian life, and life that many assume no longer exists.
“I think that West Virginia is one of the few unspoiled places you can find. I do feel as if the picture people get from my blog may be idyllic, but it’s also real”.
You might think that suburban born-and-bred Suzanne McMinn would miss some things about the conveniences of suburban life, but when asked she replied, “No. Nothing! You couldn’t pay me to go back to the suburbs. Absolutely not. Never. This is so much better.”
In addition to her daily blog, Suzanne McMinn writes a Country Living column every other Monday in the Charleston Daily Mail.