Loudoun Authors Explore Local Legends

Loudoun has plenty of literary talent—and lots of great stories, told and untold. Now three local authors are exploring some of the region’s most fascinating history and personalities through historical fiction and narrative nonfiction. 

Sharon Virts’ “Masque of Honor” Brings a Historic Duel to Life

Entrepreneur, noted preservationist, philanthropist. Now Sharon Virts can add best-selling novelist to the list.

When Virts and her husband Scott Miller took on the renovation of historic Selma mansion in 2016, she didn’t know the fascinating story of the property’s original owner would inspire her first work of fiction. 

Virts’s “Masque of Honor,” published earlier this month, tells the story of a real-life 19th century feud between two sons of illustrious Loudoun families. The novel is based on the legendary Mason-McCarty duel, when a dispute over local politics led to an 1819 duel between General Armisted Mason (Selma’s original owner) and his young cousin Jack McCarty. 

Virts says she’s always wanted to write but thought nonfiction would be her forte. But she became fascinated with the Mason’s story as she and Miller renovated Selma and delved into the house’s history and knew she wanted to share it with the world.

“The more I dug into it, the more I found out and the more interesting it became. … I was intrigued by it,” Virts said.

But it took a nudge from a famous screenwriter to really set the process in motion. Virts, who serves on the board of directors for the annual Middleburg Film Festival was having drinks with Anthony McCarten during the 2017 festival, which featured McCarten’s film “The Darkest Hour.” When Virts told McCarten the story of the duel and the larger-than-life characters involved, he convinced her to bring the story to life. 

“He said, ‘Sharon you’ve got to write it. You’ve always wanted to write. Write it!’” Virts said.

Virts, who launched a booming government contracting company in the 1990s, was determined to teach herself to write fiction to do justice to the story. She started writing in early 2018, working with a writing coach to hone her character and plot development skills. Virts delved into old newspapers from the time period and stacks of correspondence to research the personalities and passions involved in the political dispute that became personal for the two cousins.

Mason and McCarty found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict when Mason ran against another notable Loudouner, Charles Fenton Mercer, for the House of Representatives in 1816. The young McCarty sided with Mercer and the conservative Federalist Party, while Mason represented the more liberal Democratic Republican Party.  When Mercer won the election, allegations of voter fraud began to fly, and Mason claimed that his young cousin and other Federalist voters didn’t meet the minimum voting age of 21. The conflict simmered for years before coming to a dramatic head at a Maryland dueling field, Virts said.

Virts said she initially thought Mason would be her hero but found herself drawn to McCarty’s story.

“I thought that Armisted Mason would be the protagonist of the story because that’s the way it’s always been told when you look at the old accounts. He was this big war hero and Jack was the scoundrel, the rogue that challenged him to a duel. … But when you start unwinding it and peeling it back, you realize that … at the end of the day, Mason was the aggressor. He could not let it go.”

In her first foray into historical fiction, Virts said she was initially hesitant to change or make up historical details. But one of her writing mentors encouraged her to let go of some of the facts and focus on creating engaging fiction.

“It’s got to be a story. It’s got to be fun. It’s got to be something people want to read,” Virts said. “You have to decide what to leave out and what to change to make good fiction.” 

Virts said creating the characters of McCarty’s mother Sarah Mason McCarty and his love interest and eventual wife Lucinda Lee, were her biggest and most fun creative challenges.

“The hardest people to unwind are the women. They have such little left behind. … It’s really hard to get a sense of their personalities,” Virts said. “You had to look at the men in their lives to try to figure out what it was like.”

“Masque of Honor” is getting rave reviews and this week was on Amazon’s top 10 list for new releases in historical fiction. Meanwhile, Virts already has completed her second novel, “Veil of Doubt,” slated for release in early 2022. The book is based on the fascinating real-life Leesburg trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband, aunt and four children in 1872. Virts is working on a third book, which takes up the story of the McCarty family down the road, focused on Jack’s brother William McCarty, a Virginia state senator who served as acting territorial governor of Florida in the 1820s.

For Virts, Loudoun-centered historical fiction is a new passion that’s not going away.

“I love writing about Loudoun. There’s so much history here. It’s wonderful,” she said.

“Masque of Honor” is available on Kindle and in hardcover at amazon.com. For more information, go to sharonvirts.com.

Post-Emancipation Through a Child’s Eyes from Bronwen Souders

For Waterford-based historian Bronwen Curtis Souders, historical fiction is a way to bring the post-emancipation lives of Northwest Loudoun’s African American community to young readers. Souders’s young adult novel “The Thinkin’ Rug,” published last year by the Waterford Foundation, tells the story of Leven Thomson, an 11-year-old African American boy growing up in 1880s Waterford.

“The Thinkin’ Rug” centers on Leven’s efforts to find an uncle who was given away in a secret adoption to escape enslavement before the Civil War. But Souders’ mission is also to give readers a sense of life in the Quaker village, known for its thriving African American community after the war. The novel follows a year in Leven’s life through monthly events, including an Emancipation Day celebration in Purcellville.

Souders was inspired by her longtime volunteer work as a docent at the Waterford Foundation’s Second Street School living history program. The program invites Loudoun elementary schoolers to experience a day in the life of the village’s one-room schoolhouse for African American students in 1880. Volunteers have researched the biographies of dozens of real-life children as part of that program. But Souders decided creating a fictional composite character of Leven, combining a fictional plot with real historical details, was the best way to tell her tale to young audiences. 

“I felt that it was a story to tell. I didn’t want to bother actual descendants with made up details. It gave me much more freedom in the plot,” Souders said.

“The Thinkin’ Rug” is available at the Waterford Foundation website. All proceeds from sales go to the foundation and the Friends of Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee. To order, go to waterfordfoundation.org.

Vicky Moon’s Tale of a Barrier-Breaking Horse Trainer

Middleburg author and publisher Vicky Moon has a passion for all things equestrian. She’s the author of 10 books—most of them about horses and racing. Moon is best known for her 2001 “The Middleburg Mystique,” a juicy look at the scandals and personalities in heart of hunt country. 

Moon’s latest nonfiction work explores the fascinating life of pioneering African American horse trainer Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop. Published in December, “Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop Had A Way With Horses” tells the tale of a dynamic woman who broke barriers in a field dominated by white men over seven decades.

Moon connected with Bishop while working on another book project in the early 2000s and was captivated by her story and spirit. Moon got to know Bishop through a series of in-person interviews in the months before Bishop’s death in 2004 at age 84 and felt an instant connection with her subject.

“It was as if I had known her all my life,” Moon said. “We got along perfectly because I speak horse. I know a normal writer could not go in there and do what I did. You’ve got to speak the same language.”

Before becoming the first Black woman licensed to train racehorses in the United States, Bishop grew up in West Virginia as one of 17 children. According to Moon, Bishop’s parents made an informal arrangement for her to live with well-off neighbors who did not have children, giving her access to luxuries her siblings didn’t have—including a life-changing pony ride. 

“She got to sit on the pony, smell the pony, touch the pony and fall in love,” Moon said.

After two of Bishop’s sisters married horse trainers at the Charles Town race track, she got her first job at 14 as a hot walker and groom, working her way up training top horses for wealthy clients, and fighting both racism and sexism along the way.

“She definitely ran with it and nobody could get in her way,” Moon said. “She never gave up.”

Bishop also went through personal turmoil, including two divorces, single parenthood and financial challenges, which led her to take a job at the former Doubleday printing house in Berryville in the 1970s. In a twist of fate, that printing house, now Berryville Graphics owned by the international publishing group Bertelsmann, printed Moon’s book. 

Seeing “Sylvia” through to publication was a labor of love for Moon over the past 15 years. She published several other books during that time, but telling Bishop’s story was a personal passion project. Moon’s research included compiling her interviews with Bishop and poring over copies of The Daily Racing Form at the Library of Congress to take a close look at some of Bishop’s most famous horses. She also interviewed numerous family members, including Bishop’s sisters, former husband and grandson, the rising star Charles Town-based trainer Mike Jones Jr.

“To finish it drove me forward,” Moon said. “I always felt it was meant to be.”

“Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop Had A Way With Horses” is available in paperback and on Kindle at amazon.com. For more information, go to vickymoon.com.

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