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?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slavery: Talking About It With Younger Students

Why didn't I think about it ahead of time? I guess it never occurred to me that I'd be trying to explain what American Slavery had been to people who had no clue -- I've talked about THE SECRET ROOM (my 2011 Vermont adventure novel, history-hinged) with middle schoolers and high schoolers and lots of adults. But the day I found myself conversing with an audience that included children in third grade, I realized that I couldn't explain the Underground Railroad to them -- the focal point of Shawna and Thea's investigations in The Secret Room -- without saying something about what slavery was.

And it occurred to me that some of these kids didn't know.

What would their parents say about the words and images I chose to present?

Not until that moment had I realized how hidden our American history can be. Moreover, I realized that explanations of American Slavery could wound the children gazing at me. One, the entire phenomenon could be a frightening nightmare to them. And it ought to be, although I didn't want these children waking with night terrors. The idea that humans could "own" other humans and treat them as if they were farm animals is horrifying, terrifying, shameful.

I worried, too, that because the group of children in front of me included a wide range of skin colors, any bullies in the group could use my narrative of slavery to justify mistreating other children. Or, the very imaginative ones could experience within themselves a shadow of what slavery did.

In some ways, I wish I'd recorded the words I chose that day, so I could reexamine them and improve them for the next child who asks me about it. As a novelist, I'm in almost the same situation that Harriet Beecher Stowe experienced when she realized she was going to write Uncle Tom's Cabin: No matter how many histories and memories I read (and I strongly recommend Julius Lester's To Be a Slave as a starting point for teachers and other readers, as it provides the actual words of people who experienced slavery), I'm still an outsider, looking on with shock, shame, and determination to remind people of what's happening.

What's happening -- not "what happened." Because my conviction is that American Slavery continues to mark us all, and to make us responsible for our actions today.

So I'm especially glad today to share the news that a parent of a seven-year-old who heard how clearly her child failed to grasp the tragedy of the Middle Passage and American Slavery has created a "game" to teach some of the the emotional underpinning in a way that children and adults can grasp. The parent is game designer Brenda Brathwaite, and I hope you'll click here to listen to her TED talk about why this was a MUST DO game for her, and how she and her daughter explored its impact together.

Then share the news. Please.

PS - If YOU have experience talking with students about American Slavery and want to share some wisdom -- or are a parent with ideas about this -- I'd love your comments.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Another Direction for Research

When I was writing The Darkness Under the Water, I knew I was writing as a relative newcomer to Vermont: I'd only lived here about 25 years when I began writing it, 30 years when it reached publication. Although my mother's family has long, complicated roots in New England, I'd always thought it was just a very weird coincidence that the house I first rented in Irasburg, Vermont, was built and lived in by a distant relative. I wrote from the point of view of someone who's adopted a place as home: wholeheartedly in love, but with distance that could never be mended. It was a good "place" of heart to write from, and it helped me to identify deeply with Molly Ballou, the novel's protagonist: Her heritage is about to slip from her grasp, and she doesn't know how she feels about that -- but events are moving her to the point of making a choice. Actually that's also a mirror of what happened to my dad, who arrived in America as an educated but deeply displaced German/Jewish/English immigrant a few years after the end of World War II. I identify with both of my parents, odd though that may sound.

As I researched and wrote The Secret Room, set in the fictional village of North Upton, I modeled the location on the real village of North Upton. Since I knew almost none of the residents, I could safely use my imagination to create the story and characters ... but my research also relied on books about the families who really did live there for generations, and whose members still "belong" in North Danville, whether they still live there, or not.

Gradually, I began to realize that the family names of the real village overlapped oddly with my mother's background. Moved by the coincidences, and also by some of the controversy over my first novel (who was I?), I began a genealogical journey. Just after I completed the manuscript of The Secret Room, I realized -- with earthquake-level shock -- that one of my ten-great grandfathers was a nine-great grandfather of Mary Langmaid Prior, a much-missed deceased friend whose affection and appreciation for her North Danville roots had pushed me toward my choice of the village to inspire the novel. Suddenly my life was part of my fiction. Omigosh!

Since then, I've discovered that my fairly isolated parents actually had cousins all over America, but may not have known it, or may have deliberately steered away from family. Both my mother and father have now passed on, so I'll never know for sure. But I'm now dedicated to knowing more, and I continue the family history research. This evening one of my brothers phoned -- about to exchange e-mails with a cousin of our dad, who lives within an easy drive of his home. For the first time.

So I'm a fan of all research tools that give us options to learn more, especially of our American history, which is so complex and many-layered. This week, Ancestry.com, one of the big databases for this kind of information, announced a new DNA project that will let participants find out concretely more of their biological connections to the world's people. I'm looking forward to taking the test some day. What else will I discover? I already know some of the Native American branches of my family tree, new knowledge that has me awestruck. I hope to reach my own African roots someday -- deep in the heart of our world. Knowledge can make our hearts ache. And rejoice.

Seven Homes, Seven Stories - in One Building

In the earliest research for ALL THAT GLITTERS (in progress on Wattpad - click here), I focused on two buildings in Montpelier, Vermont: the gem-like glittering State House on State Street, and the mysterious structure called The Blanchard Block, where Bear Pond Books nestles in one lower Main Street corner. I've fallen in love with the labyrinth of corridors, offices, and purposes within this historic downtown commercial building that also served the town as its Opera House. It really is true that elephants climbed the stairs to the second-floor performance hall, although today there are no signs of their presence (not even a whiff of pachyderm pee).

As you look at the photo that I snapped earlier this week, see the ground-floor doorway with the pale yellow trim? That's the one that teen detective Felicity "Lucky" Franklin enters with her girlfriends, as she races to see whether her mother might be in the family's apartment. In my mind's eye, that apartment is on the second floor, at the rear, in the 1890 addition, where one of my most informative research guides downtown once resided (more on that, later). You need to know that it's possible to reach the roof of the structure. Keep that in mind, as Lucky finds, once again, a bit of birdseed, in spite of the snowy surroundings. What a quandary!

About the title of this post: Lucky's home isn't the only one in this large, elegant structure. Each of the others here has a "story" too. But I also like to count on another number line: over time. Since 1833-1834, when the building was born, I figure there have been at least seven important stories unfurling here. Lucky Franklin's is the eighth.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Books Over Breakfast," Cameras and All!

Antennas at WCAX, South Burlington, VT.
The wonderful part of being interviewed on TV at five minutes to seven in the morning is -- there's no time to get nervous! You get up (or I did) at 4 a.m. (a bit challenging for a writer/editor who often is up later than midnight, scribbling or doing research). You drive for almost two hours from the Northeast Kingdom to South Burlington. You take a deep breath and walk into the studio -- and if you're me, you're then fascinated by everything going  on: the sets, the robotically moving cameras, Sharon in her headset working all the scenes together, the real people named Molly and Keagan and Gary who until that moment only existed on your home television screen.

And suddenly you're in the chair on one of the sets, happily saying to Keagan -- who has kindly said "Just look at me, not the cameras, they'll be moving around" -- some of the things about The Secret Room that will always excite and intrigue even the writer, who got to know the characters as they slipped out of their houses onto the autumn scene and opened up secrets in their village.

Three minutes flew past; Keagan generously saved time at the end to share news about the OTHER novel, which is to say, the one that's getting written in public, a chapter every three days or so, All That Glitters (see right-hand column). And then, poof, it was over, and my whole day was ahead of me. (Click HERE for the TV segment!)

So I stopped in Montpelier to take a few photos of some of the buildings that have important roles in the chase and investigation chapters now unfolding. Here they are: (1) the Blanchard Block, home to the very real Bear Pond Books and the fictional apartment of teen detective Felicity "Lucky" Franklin and her family; (2) a building once nicknamed Redstone, I think, that sits across from the State House; (3) a building made of actual "redstone," standing across from the Pavilion Building (once upon a time the Pavilion Hotel); and (4) the State House itself. Now all you need to do is imagine these in an early and fierce winter storm in the week before Thanksgiving. Lucky's feet are freezing, and when she slipped in the dark, her glove landed in ... birdseed. Birdseed? Well, it was under the snow ... a little ways under. More on that, in the next chapter. Click here to catch up on chapter 18.