In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Setting a New Novel: Getting to Know Montpelier, Vermont (Better)

"The Sleuth of Montpelier, Vermont"

A Writer's Research Adventure

In a little “study” under the stairs, my father labored with ruler and Number 4 pencil on a single sheet of blued paper on which he could make scaled drawings. Nearby, curled in an armchair, the 10-year-old “me” read her Nancy Drew books, and understood that the secret panels and hidden rooms within the mysteries began their lives with someone else’s version of Dad’s blue pages.

There were trap doors, like the one in the floor of the wardrobe in “The Secret of the Wooden Lady,” which also included two cleverly crafted panels that Nancy discovered with her careful fingers; in “The Sign of the Twisted Candles,” the girl sleuth examines a camouflaged back stairway, then with her boyfriend Ned begins a hunt for the dead homeowner’s treasures: “Every panel in the ceilings, walls, and floorboards was carefully examined. … Ned cried out, ‘Nancy! Come here! I think I’ve found something!” She ran to his side in the rear hall. ‘Look! The grasss cloth on this wall is a little different from the rest and a twisted candle has been worked into the design.’” There’s a safe hidden behind the significant design element.

Now that I’m writing a “Vermont Nancy Drew” series set in Montpelier, I’ve tuned in to the wide range of design trends that resulted in the many-aged downtown architecture of Vermont’s capital. If I want my sleuth, Felicity “Lucky” Franklin, to discover a hidden room or secret panel, what structure will she explore? In this case, it has to be (for plot reasons) both the State House and the Blanchard Opera Block, now home to the bookstore that belongs to Lucky’s mom (the real store owner is collaborating) and once host to grand performances in the early 1900s, including the arrival of young elephants with the touring circus!

A behind-the-scenes exploration of the State House with ardent conservation curator David Schütz convinced me that the structure’s major idiosyncrasies lie in its dome, which sits atop the legislative “box” but is a unit unto itself. “My” sleuth will find clues there, among the oddly positioned timbers and scrawled graffiti. In the Blanchard Opera House, though, she’ll discover an actual hiding place.

Could Montpelier architect and sometime mayor George Guernsey, who designed the Blanchard Opera House, actually have ensured a concealed area in the building? Norwich University student Megan Morse and Putney preservation pro Lyssa Papazian tracked Guernsey’s work and life (1839-1900) in detail. The era fits that of Lambert Packard, St. Johnsbury’s major architect (1832-1906), and at least one of Packard’s buildings has a hidden panel next to a fireplace. Guernsey himself favored intricacy and Italianate detail. Although none of his documented structures in Montpelier show false walls, hidden doors, or secret panels, the grace of fiction allows me to insert one with a relative amount of believability.

But that’s not quite enough for the kind of fiction I’m writing, which always hinges on some aspect of Vermont history, as well as a puzzle rooted in the life stages of teenagers. So I have two more components of Guernsey’s real life to weave in: his local nickname of “King George,” and his death of tuberculosis.

In the process of crafting these mysteries (the first of is “All That Glitters”), I hope to also bring attention to George Guernsey himself and to his structures, which probably number in the hundreds, whether churches, houses, commercial blocks, or public buildings like libraries and schools. A little extra knowledge may yet make the difference in a decision to maintain a George Guernsey building at a valued town or city location – whether there is a secret panel in it, or not.

[Photos of details of a George Guernsey building, the Edward Dewey house, courtesy of Don Shall.] 

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