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  • Writer's pictureCherie Claire

Eclectic Eureka Springs inspired my first Viola mystery

When I started writing the Viola Valentine mystery series, it was like visiting a foreign country where people spoke the same language but their culture remained — to borrow a pun — a mystery. I had written short story mysteries before but never a full-length novel. My previous published books were historical and contemporary romances.

I won a scholarship to the Writers Retreat Workshops and spent eight days working with professionals to help me along the way. But it remained a struggle finding my feet.

Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs
My desk at Dairy Hollow.

Through the advice of another writer I discovered the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, an adorable farmhouse split into suites with a main dining room, kitchen and meeting area. For a modest amount a day, I was allowed use of the Peach Blossom Suite with its window-filled writing room surrounded by foliage, access to the main building and a nightly meal with fellow writers.

Just being alone for seven days with my keyboard was heaven enough, but sneaking out to explore one of America’s most eclectic cities topped the charts. I filled up my desk with Arkansas treasures: crystals from Mt. Ida, Arkansas, a Van Briggle pottery piece from a local shop and items from a thrift store. What fun! I even made a special gris gris bag for inspiration (you can learn more about this from a book I wrote with co-author Jude Bradley, titled Magic's in the Bag).

So Eureka Springs would be where I set my first mystery! The first book in the Viola Valentine series, "A Ghost of a Chance," features an amateur sleuth from New Orleans who survives a hurricane only to see ghosts who have died by water. She works as a travel writer and her first press trip takes her to Eureka Springs, staying at the Crescent Hotel, which has numerous ghosts! Naturally, she has ghost mysteries to solve.

Viola visits the haunted Crescent Hotel in "A Ghost of a Chance."

Eureka Springs is named so because of an abundance of natural springs following through the Ozark Mountain town. Native Americans sought the waters for health purposes and European Americans followed. The story goes that Dr. Alvah Jackson found the spring waters cured his eye ailment. He and friend Judge J.B. Saunders promoted the waters to others as a health tonic and the town grew up around the springs. Eureka Springs gets its name from the ancient Greek expression used to describe a discovery.

The springs brought the masses and the town grew rapidly alongside the mountain slope, which is why today a giant traffic loop goes up one incline and down the other with trails, little bridges and wooded paths snaking every which way. Eureka remains small enough to navigate but maps are always welcome, especially the “Six Scenic Walking Tours in Historic Eureka Springs” published by the city’s preservation society or the walking downtown map by Downtown Eureka Springs. Both not only keep you on the track but take you off, spotlighting the many springs, ghost signs, caves, hidden paths and ancient structures.

For instance, one walking tour takes visitors past the last home of Carry Nation, who was known for smashing bottles of alcohol in support of Prohibition, poet Glen Ward Dresbach’s “Bon Repos” retreat and a cave (see photo below) purported to be haunted (it's in the book!!).

Since the town is Victorian in origin, the architecture leans in that direction. There’s also a lovely stone Carnegie Library that’s a joy to visit inside and out. Both the Basin Park Hotel and the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa were constructed out of Ozark stone before the turn of the 20th century and both contain numerous souls refusing to leave; visitors can enjoy ghost tours any night of the week at either accommodation. The TV "Ghost Hunters" witnessed a full-body apparition at the Crescent, what they labeled "the Holy Grail" of sightings.

But there are modern touches as well — a Humpty Dumpty overlooks a downtown street, bikers ride in constantly and hang out in downtown bars and coffee shops selling lattes and hip farm-to-table restaurants hug the slowly moving Leatherwood Creek.

Humpty Dumpty, Eureka Springs
Humpty Dumpty

The springs still are a highlight of the town, with benches, gardens and grottos maintained by citizens. The Grotto Spring near Dairy Hollow, for instance, continuously glows from candles placed at its center to accent the water bubbling up from the earth. Even on the hottest day, the cave offers a natural air conditioning and a respite from the harrowed world.

There's also the summer’s “Great Passion Play” and award-winning Thorncrown Chapel (also in the book) and the surrounding mountainous terrain that lures bikers and hikers.

Grotto Spring, Eureka Springs
The Grotto Springs

On any given week visitors can find live music, artist happenings and special festivals such as the May Festival of the Arts, the Eureka Springs Blues Weekend at the end of May, spring Diversity Weekend and the June Native American Festival and Pow-wow.

Inside the Grotto Springs

As for the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow it was founded by writers Ned Shank and Crescent Dragonwagon, who at one time entertained celebrities when the business was their restaurant. Today, the sleepy farmhouse welcomes writers, but writers also give back to the community with monthly “poetlucks” and special events.

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