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?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vermont Begins to Honor Indigenous Peoples' Day, 2019

It is with great relief and some pride that I note that Vermont no longer has to depend on governors' declarations for each year's Indigenous Peoples' Day; beginning tomorrow, Monday October 14, the Green Mountain State honors its original residents and the continued presence of Abenaki/Wabenaki peoples with an official holiday.

That this happens during a time when almost all the traditional history guideposts are in flux is no surprise. We now know and understand more about the slaveholding positions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founders of the nation. (I find some of the powerful art of Titus Kaphar remarkable in his vision of this.) We can finally look back and acknowledge that the verdant lands of the New World were fully occupied by people who had respected, insightful cultures. We can admit that this nation began in genocide and land grabbing ... while at the same time seeing, as Benjamin Franklin did, that the deep culture of America's native peoples had much to offer in framing what we now treasure as our nation's ethical frameworks.

But we have more to learn.

I was fascinated to discover today, through a New York Times piece, that "Columbus Day" was created as part of the struggle for Italian Americans to take their place as respected citizens. If you have a few minutes, I hope you'll read the article, which is accompanied by stunning photographs. Those familiar with the history of Jews in America will recall a parallel trend, when the need for soldiers for World War II assisted in the delayed acceptance of Jews into the American mainstream. The same demand for "cannon fodder" during World War I began the dissolution of laws that had blocked Asian Americans from full citizenship, something I pondered often during the research and writing for my novel Cold Midnight.

May we all stand for this continued process of reassessing our past, facing our mistakes, and making a fairer, more just future for all.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Investigating a Postcard of the Concord Coach

My husband Dave, who died in April, did enormous amounts of research for details I needed as I wrote my historical adventure novels set in North Upton (loosely based on North Danville), Vermont.

On September 1, 2019, I started writing the next book, tentatively titled O FIERCE AND KINDRED HEART. It will follow The Long Shadow (2018) and This Ardent Flame (accepted by the publisher, Five Star/Cengage; I am hoping for autumn 2020 publication). So this will be "Winds of Freedom" Book 3! And again it begins in North Upton, this time in 1854.

So of course, I went to Dave's stacks of postcards, and found right away this image of a Concord Coach: the kind of horse-drawn vehicle used to transport passengers and mail around New England and beyond. The card came from Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, mailed in 1961.

Notice the addressee? It's Flora Austin of Franklin, Vermont, and the sender is clearly her daughter or daughter-in-law, Susie. She starts by mentioning "Albert" and that she doesn't know when he'll be down, then says that Albert Jr. will soon be home for good.

It's easier to read this way, right?

Research, which Dave and I would have collaborated on after he'd identified the postcard publisher and probable photographer and photo year, becomes a chase for family details. And here's what I found:

Flora Bell (née Garrett) Austin was born about 30 September 1881 in Franklin, Vermont. She married Willard Charles Austin (born about 1861), and they show up in the 1940 Census. He was her second husband; her fist was Peter Chagnon (1863-1913), whom she married in 1897.

Flora's marriage to Willard bore a son Albert Willard Austin (1917-2000). His son, Flora's grandson (and either Susie's nephew or son), was Reginald Albert Austin -- presumably Albert Jr.

What fascinated me among the details is, this card's presence in the Northeast Kingdom was no accident: Willard Austin died in Lyndon on 29 April 1972, and although the recorded birthplace for Albert Willard Austin is Franklin, he died in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Those details make me wonder whether that the Austin family connected to this postcard may also connect to Lyndon's noted Dr. Venila Lovina Shores, whose paternal grandmother was an Austen (spelled with -en, not -in); could that be? It's the kind of coincidence that often arises when working with Northeast Kingdom history!

Meanwhile, I am content to know that the Concord Coaches once drove just a few miles from where I sit writing today -- and to find that "DK" was ahead of me, leaving more for me to investigate in his collection.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Discussion Questions for THE LONG SHADOW

Even as teenager Alice Sanborn begins to question the boundaries of life in her Vermont village of North Upton, her boldest actions come from taking seriously the "rules of life" she's grown up with: education, friendship, moral imperatives like correcting evil, and of course working together to make life reasonably comfortable through four seasons. Vermont winter is a force to reckon with! Consider Alice's experience as she rides up Sheffield Heights in a March blizzard:

As the sleigh tilted sideways, I found my wits and scrambled out of my side of it, struggling to pull downward and keep it from completely capsizing. Sarah and Jerushah clung to the back of it, crying out.
            So much noise and commotion—perhaps it helped to keep the invisible animal in front of us from coming closer. Its growl rose in volume, however, and the horse reared onto its hind legs. Solomon still clung to the bridle. I grabbed Sarah and pulled her free from the sleigh, and Jerushah scrambled out, just before it capsized fully into the snowbank at the left side of the road. The horse managed to come down in a half turn, dragging the capsized sleigh back the way we’d come. Solomon yelled and swore. One of his legs, caught in the leather straps of the reins and harness, jerked him so hard that he let go of the horse’s head at last and fell, yelping with pain as his shoulders struck the roadway.
            But I had eyes only for what stood revealed in front of us, a dead lamb dangling from its jaws, and the crescendo of its growl rising into a high-pitched threat: wild-eyed face suddenly visible in a gap in the snowfall, legs tensed to leap, body easily three feet long and muscular, and the long tail slashing back and forth behind it. A catamount. The fierce and powerful beast of the mountains stared at the three of us as we clung to each other, unable to think beyond the screams that erupted from all of us at once.
Here are some issues to consider after reading the book:
  1. Would you want Alice for a friend yourself? Why or why not?
  2. How different are the roles of teen boys and girls in the 1850s? In what ways does Alice fit the expectations -- and how does she push back against them?
  3. The "Underground Railroad" is an exciting part of American history -- but it doesn't fit well into Alice's experience in Vermont. Name three things that show why Vermont in the 1850s had an "aboveground railroad" for dark-skinned people traveling north.
  4. Readers often groan at the amount of work Alice does, just to get through an ordinary day. Which tasks surprised you? How has daily life changed so that you are not doing those tasks?
  5. Alice, like her neighbors in the village, sees slave-holding as a sin against man and God. A decade after THE LONG SHADOW, a "war between brothers" will split America around this issue. Problems that remain in today's America would be, for Alice, part of the "wages of sin." Do you agree? Give examples of some of these problems.
Curious about a detail or can't decide about an issue? This Vermont author makes book-group visits, in person, via email, and via Skype or FaceTime. Get in touch!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Vermont Digging: Waterford's "Business Community" in the 1800s

The trouble with research -- and also the delight -- is that it takes on its own compulsions. The further I get on exploring a piece of Vermont history, the more I want to know.

Yesterday I followed threads on Waterford's merchants and manufacturers. To the publishers of "Walton's Register," a business directory combined with weather almanac and political "who's who," these were the prime categories of the people who kept Vermont growing. Manufacturers created goods. Merchants sold them.

The earliest "Walton's" that I have is from 1840, and cost me a pretty penny, as the expression goes. Sometime after after 1870, for a while, and then after 1931, these little guidebooks took on a new name, the Vermont Year Book. I'm sure it felt more modern at the time!

I was looking for details on these businesses in my town, a Connecticut River settlement at the southern edge of the Northeast Kingdom. Along with looking for trends and growth areas, I especially wanted to find out something about Edward R. Goss, whose name is on the general store pictured above.

The hunt took me through a volume of family history, dozens of Ancestry documents, and volume after volume of Walton's. A Vermont Village:
To my enormous relief, I finally found Edward in the 1910 Walton's -- then realized I could have saved a lot of searching if I'd gone first to the (not always fully reliable) town's volume of history written by Dr. C. E. Harris:

I finally lurched toward sleep, rather later than I'd planned. Proving once again the adage, "You find something in the last place you look for it."

Today I added one more top note to this stack: the origin of the Goss surname, which turns out to center in the West Country of England in the 15th century. Now to the next stage: adding this to my other research on local businesses in the 1800s, and figuring out how to present it all as an engaging story for people who don't suffer from "find out more" compulsion!

If you live in northern Vermont, I hope you may be able to join me on Wed. July 24 at the Davies Memorial Library in Lower Waterford, to look at all this, together, for the Waterford Historical Society meeting. And if you don't live nearby -- relax, you'll get the best of the results packaged into the series of historical novels I'm writing, Winds of Freedom. I've just started Book 3: O Fierce and Kindred Heart. What do you want to be the title gets shortened to Kindred Hearts along the way?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Hunting for Images of Vermont's History

It's postcard season. Actually, for my husband Dave, it was always historic postcard season, since he bought many of them online. But this is also the time of year we always made road trips to small, promising shops. So today I packed his love in the car with me, and went to explore an antique shop that mentioned postcards:

With a time limit (for me, a good way to shop) enforced by an alarm on my phone, I dipped into the Vermont postcard and found three that I think will inform my next novel. From least to most amazing, here we go ... First, here's an interior shot of a granite shed, one of those workshops where stonecutters turned Vermont's foundation rock into monuments of all sorts. No guarantee which shed it's from, but I like the busy-ness and the fact that there are SO MANY men working here. No wasted space! (Wouldn't want to be in there on a hot humid summer day.) Note that they are also all wearing their hats and caps. Food for thought.

Second, this shows "cream" being received at the Lamoille Valley Co-operative Creamery. I was surprised at the notion that the cream might be separated before transporting the milk cans from the farm! If you know more about when farmers would have separated their cream before filling the milk cans, please do let me know. Note the horse-drawn wagon and the ribbed umbrella being used by the lady in the seat. Also the workers' hats. The back of the card says in pencil "Where we sold cream the first ten years of farming in Walden."

Now the grand finale -- especially significant because it has a penciled identification on the back, not quite the same "hand" as the other postcard but still a hopeful sign that this card too might have come from Walden. It says "Dell Babcock," and I was thrilled to locate the death certificate for Della Babcock of Walden (1859-1939), so I'm pretty confident this is a match. Note that her father was a Bailey, and her mother came from England! The conveyance she's driving -- can you name it? -- will appear most surely in book 3 of my Winds of Freedom historic novels series.

And that's how research becomes an amazing adventure, on a warm July day in Vermont.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Friendship, Books, and the Delights of Writers' Community

As any "pro" book reviewer will tell you, you're "not supposed to" be friends with the person whose book you're reviewing. On the other hand, as most mystery authors today will confirm, it's a small world out there for authors who choose to support each other ... so, sooner or later, you're going to be acquainted. My own revised guideline is: Speak the truth, for the reader, and it will be OK.

The connections among authors mean more than just talking about each other's books. They reassure deeply as we all reach the same challenges in the Writing Life: how to be a loving family member while reserving time to put pen (or computer) to paper; how to best credit those who contribute to the work; how to promote work without sounding like a puffed-up peacock; how to surf the changing marketplace without selling one's soul. These friendships matter intensely.

This spring I reviewed the new and fascinating Pennsylvania Dutch historical mystery by Charles Fergus with much pleasure -- he lives about 10 miles from here and I'm slowly getting acquainted, more so with the books than the person (he's as private as most of us writers are, and his use of a trauma of his own life in the new mystery is a courageous risk to take, and one that paid off in making the book really good). Here's the cover, along with the review:

But Charles (Chuck to friends) has the honor of launching TWO books this year, in totally separate genres. To keep things honorable, I purchased a copy of his other 2019 book, MAKING A HOME FOR WILDLIFE, and have it in one of my reading "corners" of this place, so I can enjoy it and absorb the information. But, life being what it is, I haven't made time to review it. So it was a delight to see this review this morning by Gary Moore, who writes knowledgeably on outdoor topics for our regional paper The Caledonian-Record. It solves my quandary of how to handle reviewing this nifty title, while also letting me tip my hat to both Charles Fergus and Gary Moore. Nicely done, friends!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Luck and Faith in the Writing Room

Old-time authors used to say the bare necessities for writing were paper and pencil (or pen). That's where I started, some 40 years ago, when I wanted to move from writing poems for myself, into writing stories and novels for others.

It wasn't enough.

And in 1984, when my home caught fire on a harsh subzero December night, one of the unexpected benefits of losing all our possessions was the ashing of a couple of really bad novel manuscripts, as well as old poems written more to please myself than to reach out to others.

Today, I'd say there are three things that keep me writing:
  1. Seeking fresh experiences. Some are small and almost routine, like climbing the ridge here and asking questions about the plants and animals and weather along the way. Some are life-shifting, like a course in how character development meshes with plot, or an afternoon spent listening to poets read their work aloud and talk about how their writing connects with what they want to give or receive.
  2. Making lists. I know that sounds odd, but there are many moments—a muggy afternoon, a frustrated morning, a tired evening—when I don't actually itch to sit down and write. Having a list of what I expect from myself helps a lot. And if I can't summon up the energy and enthusiasm for item #1, I may find it's still a good moment for item #4.
  3. A place that's intended for writing.
For me, a writing room includes scraps of knowledge that resonate for me ("Can you be grateful for everything? No, not for everything. But in every moment. It is a chosen response." -- Brother Steindl-Rast), objects that have meaning (a quilt; a special seashell), and work by others that I want to live up to. I keep relatively few books in the room with me, just the ones that seem to mean the most for this time. The rest sit in the next room, the "research room." And beyond.

My house is on the market now, because many of the outlines of my daily life are shifting. I'll carry the objects and confidence of this room with me, wherever I go. And with those, I'll tote a sort of faith that's come partly from experience, partly from determination to listen for and work with a Higher Power that gives meaning to my actions. For me, that's a combination that's effective and joyous.

What about luck?

Six full-length books came to life in this room, and five of them have publishers. (I haven't given up on the sixth and I'm still revising it.) If luck is a matter of considering the odds, this place has been lucky for me. I suspect it will give the same kind of track record to the next person who jumps into creative labor here.

But I'd rather say that "luck" is a shorthand for the results of something else: Long-term love. From the quilt on the wall to the seashells to the paintings and to the quotations treasured, and even the computer here, most of what surrounds me is evidence of love ... from my husband, sons, brothers and sisters-in-law and sister, friends, and colleagues. (And that Higher Power.)

I know there's a New Family who'll discover this house and its blessings sometime soon, and I'll move on to a smaller place and my own next chapter. Maybe they'll move here because they already love the place, its many rooms, wide vistas, ample gardens, eager apple trees.

Maybe they'll fill it with their own love. And get lucky.

[Here's the link for the house.]