In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Update to Eleanor Perry Conwell's Provincetown Story

Research always makes up the background of the Vermont fiction that I write. A few years ago, I pulled out "consumption" statistics for this area in the early 1900s -- that was the final stage of tuberculosis (TB), in general. Last week, I found the death record for 4-great grandmother Eleanor Perry Conwell, whose "portrait" (by William Matthew Prior) goes to auction at Sotheby's this week. What a shock to see the cause listed as consumption. I hope the sale of her portrait will help her story of courage and New England initiative to live on.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Weather Inside and Out (A Robert Frost Moment)

As I've listened to guests from around the world coming to explore "America," and especially New England, I've found Robert Frost's poems are among the ones they have most often memorized. People who live around here, in Vermont, also mention two of this California transplant's most significant poems: the one about good fences making good neighbors, and choosing which of two roads to follow (choosing the one less traveled by). In this season of frequent snowfalls and deep plunging temperatures, Frost fans also gravitate to the poem about the man who stops his horse while on errands, and wraps up by saying "I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."

I have three favorite Frost poems, and one matters a lot to me today: "Tree at My Window." You might be aware that it's a violation of copyright to post an entire poem by someone else (actually most people don't know this! I found out when I erred by posting one, blush). So I'll just give the final verse of this Frost poem here, which begins with the poet's persona talking with the tree just outside his window:
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather. 
Out on the mountainside today, the snow keeps taking different shades of white, oyster, light gray, even a very pale blue, as the clouds thin and thicken again in front of the well-hidden sun. A few snowflakes fall occasionally; steadier snow is expected this evening, when I'll be doing some errands of my own, so I'm paying attention to the forecast. It's a classic January day, but it's also a bit March-ish, that sense that the snow's been here a long time and isn't in any hurry to leave.

Interior weather: I've just let go of a manuscript that's lived in my heart (and on scraps of paper, in notebooks, and on the computer screen) for three years. It's both wonder-filled and terrifying to send it out into the world, where the staff of a publisher will look at it in very different ways from mine.

At these moments, I usually change the writing room, to find fresh vision and focus for the next effort. I have three books being built now: one just at the starting point, with the title "A Necessary Holiness"; another, poems of prayer and praise, perhaps half assembled; and the third, the set of stories I completed as 2017 raced to an end, where a good two days of rigorous revision should wrap up the project. But you know how life is ... setting aside those two important days will take planning.

So the room, especially the desk and walls, become part of the preparation. The photos here show what I've changed -- and where I'm going, I think.

All of this is especially necessary because I'm also stepping into the final 100 days before publication of my new adventure novel The Long Shadow and I'll be talking about that book often ... but the deep digging of the work-in-progress must continue. Wish me luck. No, on second thought, please wish me a well-crafted balance. And good weather.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Strange and Exquisite World

Red eft, courtesy of Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
It's good to have "city" company hanging around -- someone who is as astounded by the greenery and the explosions of blossoms as I was when I began garden-tending in Vermont. These many years later, I am still daily astounded, but in different ways: I see things with fresh eyes on the best days, honoring that joy that seems to link our eyes, breath, mind, and soul together. But I also look harder, with questions.

In the past week or two I've indulged in evening walks. They are by definition very different from morning ones: The light is fading instead of brightening, the breeze quiets to a whisper, stars begin to show up in the darker segments of the sky. This week there's the arc of a waxing (growing) moon, too; when it's full, we'll start the countdown of another month left before we have to watch for early frosts. But not yet.

Still, the evenings can be chilly here on the mountain ridge. I saw a skunk hump across the road two nights ago, fur fluffed up for warmth. It crossed where I saw the porcupine last week. With this year's questions and hypotheses, I make a guess that the marshy area that lies on both sides of this stretch of road is more than a deer path (I've seen their tracks, no need to guess that part), is also -- maybe because its vegetation is low and soft -- a path for other mammals.

The chill of the evening caused one "crossing creature" to be stranded on the cold road a few evenings ago. Its bright red skin and delicate limbs fascinated me. Definitely a red eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern spotted newt. Without enough air or land warmth, and without the ability to make its own, the creature stood still, about a quarter of the way across the road. Car alert! Hazardous crossing!

Well, of course talking to it wasn't any use. I tenderly lifted it onto my palm -- the warmth turned the eft into a lively squirming tangle of legs and tail almost immediately, and I had to hurry across the road to release it before my fingers -- so much larger than its limbs! -- would damage it. It immediately hurried into the greenery, vanishing at once. Then I finished my walk, happy to have seen something that so rarely crossed paths with me.

This week I also read the novel BORNE by Jeff VanderMeer. It's a dystopian novel, set on a world or part of a world where an inventive "Company" has destroyed natural life and seeded the terrain with "biotechs" that can be very threatening and smart. The protagonist, Rachel, sets a new pattern in motion when she gives maternal attention to a bit of tech-made flesh that she takes home -- something that was clinging to the fur of a monster, and which becomes her pet, or her child ... she has "borne" it, and names it "Borne."

The powerful thread that ties the characters and their perils together in BORNE is a question: What is a person? If you love some creature, and it loves you in return, does it have personhood?

(I hasten to say the book does not appear to be indicating anything about the age of personhood for a human fetus or baby.)

Rachel, her friend Wick, and Borne become the testers of their world, determining whether compassionate survival is possible. I like the book; I'd recommend it to anyone curious and questioning and willing to suspend disbelief in what the future of Earth could be. Age 10 and up, I think. It will mean more to adults -- and to those who've read other dystopian novels -- but the tenderness and kindness embodied in VanderMeer's world, page after page, fit the book for skilled younger readers as well. I'm glad it was on that list of "7 Books to Read After ..." (see my earlier post).

Yes, this is how I feed the source of All Good Writing. By reading, exploring, and asking questions. Hope you have a few minutes to explore the rest of this writer's blog.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The "Wonder Woman" in My Heart

It's been a busy few months -- I resumed writing short stories, thanks to a crazy Saturday spent reading the stories I wrote in the 1980s that I'd forgotten all about. Still pushing daily for the "handles" of entry into the poems for a collection of "Pleas and Praise/Prays." And, of course, editing (my income-earning task). Hiking the ridgelines. And tending the gardens.

But above all, this season took me back into my newest novel, which Five Star/Cengage will release in April 2018: THE LONG SHADOW. Working with an insightful editor, I didn't just tidy up loose ends (fresh eyes help so much!). I looked into my heart to discover why I wrote this book, in which three teenage girls in 1850 confront Vermont's confusing mixture of attitudes toward abolition ... try to take care of each other ... and suffer the consequences.

As I wrapped up the responses to the editor, the film Wonder Woman arrived at the local theater. By that point, I needed to catch up on editing again, though, and with a sense of loss, I missed the chance to see the movie. (Hope I'll catch it in a few months when it's on a streaming service.) The reviews made it clear to me I'd missed a really good one -- one that asks questions about what it is to be both a woman and a hero. The questions I tackle in every book, story, and even poem that I write.

So when I saw a related list online, "7 Books to Read After Watching Wonder Woman," I figured I'd at least start tucking those books into my evening reading hours. My fabulous local librarian, Jen, tackled getting the books with enthusiasm and power, and I've just finished reading the one I chose for "first": AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad (publisher's author website here; public radio interview, not so great but still interesting, here).

What a novel! Dystopian in the sense that The Hunger Games series is ... featuring a strong and relentless woman ... set in the American South, which I always realize is like another country, for this Yankee woman to visit ... and testing what people will do to each other in the name of politics and manipulation, as well as love.

Most important to me at the moment is also the detail that the woman of interest in AMERICAN WAR, Sarat Chestnut, is dark-skinned, tall, and with frizzy hair, and loved wholeheartedly by her not-identical twin sister, who is shorter, light-skinned, and has the smooth hair that I always envied in my own sister. (It's the little things, it's always the little things. My sister will read this -- her courage astounds and touches me. Meanwhile many Other Big Things sneak up on us, in fiction and in life.)

What will our nation be like after climate change forces the seas to rise above the coastal cities? How will religion-based terrorism ever resolve? Will our nation of 50+ interdependent states remain United? And what do we exchange, for the satisfaction of following through on our own longing to become Wonder Woman within the bounds of our very diverse lives?

AMERICAN WAR spoke insistently to me. I expect some of the echoes to penetrate what I write next: the sequel to THE LONG SHADOW (already underway), the prayer/praise collection, the long work on aging, the very personal novel I'm working on for an editor who trusts my ability to get there in the end. There are things worth crying about. And many, many people worth supporting, as we all struggle to make a good life, one that's honest and deep and caring.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Vermonters in Washington, DC, November 7, 1973

Maybe you are old enough to remember those days? The Vietnam War was a hot topic -- it was supposed to end in early 1973, when the Paris Peace Accord was signed, but the fighting continued. It would finally be over in April 1975, when Saigon would fall to North Vietnamese troops.  But who knew that then?

Everyone had a strong opinion, from living with the war and its effects for so many years. Technically it began around 1955, but the United States had advisors in place as early as 1950. Those who lived through it recall the escalation in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the 1968 Tet Offensive when the war reached a terrible peak of action.

Strong opinions? Vermonters had plenty. George Aiken, formerly Vermont governor and then Vermont's Republican Senator from 1940 onward, served as "Dean of the Senate" and tried to bring others together toward right action. Wikipedia's article on Aiken says this:
Aiken took an ambivalent position on the Vietnam war (1965–75), changing along with the Vermont mood. Neither a hawk nor a dove, he was sometimes called an "owl." He reluctantly supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, and was more enthusiastic in support of Nixon's program of letting South Vietnam do the fighting using American money. Aiken is widely quoted as saying that the U.S. should declare victory and bring the troops home. His actual statement was:
"The United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam," and that such a declaration "would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam."
He added: "It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked."
Lunenburg resident Mike Fournier watched the U.S. government's struggles with the war in the 1970s. He wasn't yet a journalist, but with others from Vermont, he journeyed to the nation's capital to see Senator Aiken in action and received his own Senate Pass for November 7, 1973. The photos he took are shown here for the first time; the energy that the white-haired Vermont Senator brought to his task is unmistakeable.

We think of Senator Aiken especially in March, because on March 24, 1949, when he was 57 years old, he made a speech in Lyndonville, Vermont, in which he used the term "Northeast Kingdom" to describe our part of the state. It wasn't the first time the name had been used -- Lyndonville resident Arthur W. Simpson and Newport publisher Wallace Gilpin used it in the 1940s -- but even back in 1949, when George Aiken said it, people listened.

And so the Northeast Kingdom accepted its name.

Many thanks to Mike Fournier for sharing these 1973 photos with us.

If you are in the mood to celebrate Northeast Kingdom Day this year, you can leave a comment here, of course -- but if you are close enough to northeastern Vermont, please join us on Friday March 24 at 9 a.m. at the Grindstone Café in Lyndonville, where we'll share what makes the region special, swap some memories or reflections on George Aiken, and lift our mugs of coffee or tea to this place: The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Portrait That Lied: How a Novel Begins

When I was a child, a dark and scary oil portrait hung over my mother's armchair in the living room. This was the 1950s; she sat there with her latest library books to devour, chain smoking cigarettes and appreciating her instant coffee, sometimes fortified. We kids all knew the painting was some ancestor of hers, but we weren't much interested. Besides, my youngest brothers swore the woman's eyes followed them when they ran through the living room. (More likely Mom's eyes-on-the-back-of-her-head, as she said, kept tabs on what they were up to.)

When a fine-arts restorer cleaned the portrait a few years ago, details emerged that shocked me.

I knew, by then, that the person in the portrait was named Eleanor, and she was Mom's great-great-great-grandmother. But taking the painting out of its battered frame revealed the painter's signature, and his note of when it was done, along with the phrase, "from a profile." The date turned out to be two years after Eleanor died ... and "a profile," I'm sure, meant one of those black paper silhouettes I tried making as a kid. And the year, of course, was before photographs were common.

When I learned more about the painter, I found out that he commonly painted "postmortem" portraits. He had assistants create a background, and he used his own sense of the person (and that person's community standing) to create a face to set into the center.

Whoa! All the little details came together at last and I realized that (despite one of my cousins always insisting that great-great-great-etc. Eleanor looked like her) the image in the portrait is entirely made up -- it's fiction! Or, as a more critical historian might say: It lied.

Now, I'm already working on a couple of other novels. That's just how it goes. It takes so long to do research, and see the heart of the upcoming book, that there is always something getting into first draft, something else being revised toward publication, and something just starting in the dark ... and some day it will be time to craft a story (probably a novel, but maybe nonfiction after all) about Eleanor. In spite of her portrait being "fiction," I want the American history in the eventual book to be both accurate and insightful.

Cut to the Presidential campaign of 2016, and First Lady Michelle Obama pointing out that she's been living for almost eight years in the White House -- an elegant structure built, in large part, by the labor of enslaved Black Americans. Look also at the past few years of news that have raised the cry that Black Lives Matter, something worth thinking about often as we confront the tilted statistics of who's serving prison time for what crimes. (Vermont's not exempt from those statistics, although I hope we try very hard to earn justice.)

Why think about those things now? Well, Eleanor was born less than 20 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. She made her living, eventually, from the shipping trade, which for America often included shipping humans. So I have to ask: What part did America's dreadful enslavement of millions of its forced immigrants (and others) play, in Eleanor's life and success -- and in the lives of her own ancestors?

And that's part of why it takes so long to do the really good research. Uncomfortable questions like this one push me to read and learn at a level I would have considered "too much homework" in high school and even college. I'm now reading Wendy Warren's shocking, horrifying book New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. She makes it clear that in the 1600s in New England, enslavement of people -- both African and Native American -- was expected and profitable. I'm checking all the names she mentions, against those in the family tree. So far, no direct matches.
from New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

But I'm sure there's darkness back there. And for this writer, that's where we start: in the darkness, facing it honestly, and hoping that courage and wisdom and love will help build a route toward the light.

* * *
Five Star/Cengage is publishing my next book, The Long Shadow, ion April 18, 2018. It can't be a coincidence that the novel, set in 1850 in a nearby Vermont town, begins with an argument over enslavement as a moral disaster and a political divider. Slavery's long, dark shadow ...

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Vermont Halloween-Season Connection

Pumpkins are sprouting on doorsteps, silhouettes of witches dance in the breeze, and kids are intently trying on and reconsidering costumes -- it's almost Halloween.

For those attached to Vermont's history, it's also almost November 3: 89 years since the great flood that devastated so many of Vermont's roads, bridges, and homes in 1927. The flood damage lived well beyond the normal lifetime of such disasters, as it took root in the fertile imagination of a writer named Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft.  Lovecraft first visited the Green Mountains in 1928 at the invitation of his friend Vrest Orton, a prominent publisher and businessman (and founder of the Vermont Country Store).

To H.P. Lovecraft, Vermont was a wild place -- lovely, yes, but also with the potential for the dark, the frightening, the weird. He carried the scary side of his mixed impressions into his writing, creating a story called "The Whisperer in Darkness." We would now call the tale "speculative fiction" but for many years it was simply seen as horror: the genesis, in fact, of today's best horror writing.

Lovecraft's long career included many more brilliant stories, and he also served on the board of a "little literary magazine" of the period called Driftwind, where the publisher and editor in chief was Walter P. Coates of North Montpelier, Vermont. Issues of Driftwind that include Lovecraft's own writing, mostly poems, are treasured highly.

A collector of Lovecraft writings and related documents is allowing me to display today's images of the front and back of a postcard sent by Lovecraft to Coates, an amazing item that portrays the working relationship of the two men. Many thanks for the permission to show these.

[Transcription: Still on the move! Visited a week in North Wilbraham, + am now bound for the Mohawk Trail. I mean to see something of the country before I die! YrobtServt (Your obedient Servant) HPL] [Postmark date appears to be Oct 7 1928; the Mohawk Trail is a major road across northwestern Massachusetts.]

And if you have a Lovecraft reflection of your own, please share it in a comment on this piece.