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?

Monday, December 26, 2011

History Mysteries for Delray Beach, Florida

courtesy of Jeremy.Wilburn
I'm warming up to a revision of one manuscript and three other novels I plan to write -- two of them with first chapters already written.

Meanwhile, though, I recently offered to find "history mystery" possibilities for a classroom teacher in Delray Beach, Florida (if you're a teacher and would like to know more about history mysteries, please do check our teacher Facebook site -- ask to join and I'll "click" you into it: http://www.facebook.com/groups/198457003547529). And here's some of what I came up with:
History mysteries for Delray Beach -- Wow,  I am so excited about this town's history! There could be at least a dozen fascinating plots woven from what I've seen already. (1) For instance, until 1845, the area's residents were Africans, Seminole Native Americans, and Black Seminoles -- can you imagine a journey into history by looking for evidence of each group? What were the similarities, differences, conflicts? If there are no records of that time, what does that mean in terms of how we value our history? (2) There are military maps of the peninsula of Florida dating from the 1850s and the Seminole Wars. There's a haulover (a portage location for boats), "Orange Grover Haulover." I would love to learn more about the Seminole Wars and set a mystery at this haulover. Who could leave messages there? What would they say? (3) A haven for the shipwrecked called the Orange Grove House of Refuge #3 was built in 1876 by the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The first refuge-keeper (like a lighthouse keeper, for you Yankees reading along) was Hannibal D. Pierce. If a story were called "Meeting Hannibal," what would happen to the young person narrating the story? There must have been pirates and navy heroes and clever craftsmen among the people living at the refuge! (4) When Henry Flagler was building railroads to connect all of Florida (1885), he bought a lot of land in the Delray Beach area. Many workers on the railroad were African Americans. Imagine their experience of the Civil War and the hopes and dreams they brought to the area when they came to work on the railroad. I am now picturing eighth-grade-age kids who make choices based on their parents' tales of war and railroad -- what arrives hidden among the railroad cars? Who slips in and out of town, bringing messages? The story is growing! (5) The Intercoastal Waterway dates to 1890 in Delray Beach -- can you trace how it's been used for recreation? For commerce? For smuggling? (6) The first school in town (the town was Linton then) in 1894 was established by African-Americans and was a "pioneer school" probably built with palm fronds. I "hear" a mystery that involves someone who wants to be in the school but can't, and who has a pet, and isn't afraid of snakes or palm bugs ... (7) Why did Adolf Hofman come to town in 1895 and what kind of farming did he set up in Delray Beach? I bet his family had a hard time during World War II -- can you explain why? There could be a mystery of messages, heroism, and danger. (8) Who was Mary Cohen and how did she become a midwife? In 1896, I would have wanted to know her! Does her last name mean she had some connections to Jewish heritage? What resources did she have? Picture a mystery about two babies born on the same day, and how she copes with it, and how the families get tangled and maybe give back something in terms of helping save "Auntie" Cohen from danger! (9) I want to know more about the Yamamoto agriculture colony, with all Japanese men at first (brought by Henry Flagler), then wives, children, a school ... what happened to the people from this 1904 group, when World War II arrived? I am picturing a mystery that involves a friendship among three kids of various ancestry, trying to figure out how to make things better for the ones who are Japanese. 
See why I think this could be the perfect place for history mysteries?? In case you need more info, there's a brand new book of photos of Delray Beach history, too, and here's an article about a time capsule -- don't you get the urge to make a time capsule with your class? http://www.palmbeachpost.com/community-post/delray-beach-historical-society-archivist-finds-long-forgotten-1973156.html

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Underground Railroad in Vermont: The Real One

Many thanks to the Barnet Junior Historical Society, with mentor Sherry Tolle, who invited me to join the group of grade 2 to grade 6 students at the Barnet (VT) School library today. From the girls up front to the boys at the back table, everyone had opinions and information to offer about what the Underground Railroad was, and whether there could be hiding places in local houses that had a connection with the movement to make sure fugitives from slavery were able to reach freedom, safely.

Mr. David Warden, a leader in the Barnet Historical Society, was also on hand and gave some details about older houses in town, especially the Goodwillie House, where a double wall in the cellar has sometimes been assumed to be a hiding place from the Underground Railroad movement.

We talked about what the UGRR really was (no train tracks; not underneath the ground), why it was so important, and why the hiding places in Vermont -- especially in this area, the Northeast Kingdom -- probably weren't for hiding people. Probably the most important part of the reasons was the absence of slave hunters in Vermont. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight, says this:
Probably the most important factor in making Vermont a safe haven for runaways was simply its geography. The sheer physical distance from the slave South to Vermont was just too great to make capture economically feasible. Historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schewininger have shown that the cost to the slave catcher could exceed the value of the fugitive if the search extended too far or too long. (p. 256)
That led to a discussion of how "stories" about slave hunters started in Vermont anyway, and why people want to believe in an Underground Railroad version that's closer to being a "story" than to being "history." One of the students compared this to the long-held "official" view that the earth was flat, even though sailors all knew it was round, because of what they saw every day at sea. Good comparison!

For teachers, librarians, and historical groups looking for a good handout for elementary-grade students, check this offering from the National Park Service, free for downloading and printing: http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/education/index.htm -- and click on "Junior Ranger Booklet."

Thanks again, Mrs. Tolle, for mentoring such a lively club and inviting me to meet with your students!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Secret Rooms and Chimneys

photo courtesy of timmurtagh
The discussion that Jane Lindholm hosted on Vermont Public Radio last month, with historian and professor Ray Zirblis and me, covered a lot of aspects of Vermont's Underground Railroad and some of the passions and confusions around whether and where people may have hidden during the years before the Civil War, in Vermont. (Short summary: Mostly, they didn't need to -- because Vermont stood for personal liberty.) One point made a couple of times is that Vermont contractors often know about hiding places in old houses, because they find them during reconstruction and repairs. Here's a great comment from contractor and designer Sam Clark, of Sam Clark Design:

I have one bit of information on secret rooms around chimneys.

A lot of old farmhouses had those huge central chimneys, which could easily be 8x8 feet.  But they became obsolete with the invention of modern wood stoves in the 19th c, or even gas or oil heat.  So, two ideas: the framers had a certain way of framing houses, which allowed for these big chimneys, which they didn't vary when technology changed.
 
Also, sometimes these old chimneys were torn down, and rebuilt as simple brick flues, without changing the walls around them much.  We're working on a house in Maine where you can see the remnants of the big chimney, but there is a secret room around the "modern" 16x24 chimney.
 
Thanks, Sam, for this information!

Focusing on "Real History," with Good Stories

At Bear Pond Books, Montpelier
One of the author/librarian discussion lists that I read daily has recently focused on well-tested historical fiction: that is, the kind where the history involved is "true." I wish the word had been "honest" instead, because history -- unlike the impression many of us get in elementary school -- doesn't ever come in just one "right" version. It comes with many points of view, many experiences.

Just as an example, consider the building of the great railroads that crossed the United States in the 1800s, including the Canadian Pacific Railway. I've been doing some research the CPR lately, because a student in a nearby town just pulled together nearly a hundred letters exchanged by her family members in the 1870s, and two of the letter authors worked on the railroad -- one on its construction, the other (it appears) as a low-level manager for a bit. And in one of those "coincidences" that happen a lot to writers, my husband and I enjoyed dinner last night with another couple, who brought up a place I'd never before heard of: Revelstoke, British Columbia. Our friend is going there to ski, and mentioned that the Canada government is promoting the little city as a destination for tourists and athletes. It's halfway between Vancouver (which is on the west coast of Canada) and Calgary, Alberta (another major Canadian city). And within half an hour of starting to explore the city's history, I realized it's had a constant relationship with the CPR. Now that it's a "destination" for play as well as work, the connection with the railroad is more important again!

But what is the "history" of the CPR -- and of Revelstoke? Is it the experience of railroad workers, many of them immigrants laboring for less money than appropriate, dying of overwork and disease and homesickness? Is it the exhilaration of explorers and entrepreneurs, of investors -- back then, and now -- eager to see commerce develop from their efforts? Is it the flushed happiness of a skier, exploring a massive mountain cloaked with shimmering snow? And where are the echoes of people who knew the landscapes crossed by the railroad, long before metals were worked in North America?

Good historical fiction gives us room to choose a few of those strands and pair them with stories of the hearts and minds of characters. And although we call those characters fictional -- the least "real" of all the strands being woven into the tapestry of a novel -- they too have meaning. I know they reflect me, as well as the people I've come to know and appreciate. When the effort of writing results in truly good stories, they also become a real experience for the reader.

It's been rewarding to travel around northern Vermont and New Hampshire with The Secret Room. I try to spend at least as much time listening as talking, at author events. And I've heard stories of other lives that involve secret rooms, whether their history is known or not. We all have so many questions about our past, and about our homes. Sharing the stories and questions of our lives helps make us rich with spirit, and I believe it gives us better grounding from which to climb.