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, July 29, 2012

Turning Students into History Detectives: Episode 1

Ever wondered how to light up your elementary classroom students for reading and learning about the past -- that is, about History? Maybe you've got a great textbook or series you want to introduce ... but the kids are sitting back and letting you do all the work. Here's a short podcast with a simple exercise that turns on the investigative side of most students. Let me know how you adapt it for the kids you care about.

Finding the Personal in History

photo courtesy of anna
Whether in a classroom or a community group, with youngsters or adults, when I talk about American history and the stories I write, I'm talking PERSONAL. A fascination with the timeline of history begins as we see our own lives pinned to the numbers. So that's where I like to start.

1. Draw a number line of from the year 1900 up to this year. Mark your birth year and "today."

2. For adults, this next part is easy -- for youngsters, it may require a homework item "interviewing" parents at home or by e-mail or phone (be aware that 50% of American youngsters eventually live with both a birth parent AND an adult who is not their birth parent -- which means some other parent is "off site"). Mark the birth year and, if applicable, the marriage year and (if it's already happened) the death year for each of your parents, step-parents, and grandparents.

3. Make a list of the "big wars" from 1900 until today, with their years. If you need to do some research (or help a classroom do some research) on the actual years, that's great. You're becoming accurate! Be sure to include at least World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and your view of the most recent wars that America has participated in. Mark the years of the conflicts onto your timeline.

4. Pause and reflect: For each of the important family members on your timeline, connect the person with the "big history" of the nation's conflicts. Ask yourself: How was my father (grandfather) affected by the start of that conflict? What did my mother (grandmother) know about it? How did she or he cope with family changes taking place during that time? What happened to family finances there? What marriages or births were scheduled around those larger events? What "stories" of my personal history could I discover by asking family members or examining documents? What "stories" would I prefer to imagine and use as creative writing prompts? 

5. Not writing a story or history yet? Add another layer to your timeline: Brainstorm the big inventions and social changes that took place during that time. Here are some examples: electricity arriving at homes in your town, invention of plastic, women's right to vote, Prohibition, the invention of "Social Security," x-ray machines, milking machines, home telephones, antibiotics, polio vaccines, artificial knees, co-ed colleges, the Civil Rights movement, assassinations of key political leaders, long-distance trucking, home refrigerators, personal computers, electric cars, space travel, movie theaters, cell phones. Now consider how each of those changes affected the people you've marked on your timeline.

You've now created a project that interweaves math, history, sociology, critical thinking, and, most of all, your own personal history. Do what professional historians do at this point: Photograph your timeline and place that photo in an archive of some kind.

Then make a plan: What do you want to know more about? What do you want to tell or write about from your discoveries? Your curiosity and your capacity to reflect and question will be your biggest assets in this project. And guess what -- we all have those two assets, and the more we use them, the stronger they become.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Welcome, Guest Author Carole Shmurak: When Teens Solve a Murder (in 1865!) -- How the Matty Trescott Series Started

Under the name Carroll Thomas, Carole Shmurak co-authors (with Tom Ratliff) the "young adult" mystery series featuring dauntless Matty Trescott. But it wasn't clear at the beginning that this would even be a mystery series. Here's what happened. And thank you, Carole, for bringing us into the "story of the story." -- Beth


Ring Out Wild Bells was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Young Adult Mystery of 2001, but it didn't start out as a mystery. My co-author Tom Ratliff and I had created a book we called Matty's War, about a sixteen year old girl who disguises herself as a boy and goes to fight for the Union army in the Civil War. It was based on a 1994 article in Smithsonian magazine about the 400 women who actually did this — a little-known part of American history.

After four years of writing and revising the manuscript and several years of receiving rejection letters from publishers, we were offered a contract by a small press — IF we would turn Matty's adventures into a three book series. We were able to write a prequel to Matty's War fairly quickly because we had already alluded to many events in Matty's life before the war, and now we just had to elaborate upon them; this became the book Blue Creek Farm, which describes Matty's life in Kansas just prior to, and at the start of, the War between the States.

But the sequel presented us with a challenge: with the Civil War over, we wondered how to bring excitement and drama to the story. Then the idea of a murder mystery came to us. As the Civil War ends, Matty's war experiences lead her to want to become a doctor. While she is working in a Boston hospital, a dying woman utters some strange last words to her, and Matty and her cousin Neely set off on a quest to find out the meaning of those words. In a world without modern forensics, our young protagonists take on and solve a most baffling murder case.

In 1865, there were two medical schools for women, one in Boston and one in Philadelphia. Since we lived in Connecticut, the Boston school was the easier one to research; the archives from New England Female Medical College reside in the library of Boston University. And the more we learned about Boston in the mid-1860s, the more we became intrigued by the many famous people who were living there or who were likely to be visiting friends there: the scientists Asa Gray, Lydia Shattuck, and Louis Agassiz, novelist Lydia Maria Child, abolitionists Abigail Kelley Foster and Maria Chapman, and women’s suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. So when Neely comes to spend time with Matty, the two young women get to attend a party at which many of the famous Bostonians and their friends are present. Matty gets to hear Stanton's views on women's education and Neely, a science student, eagerly listens to Gray and Agassiz arguing about Darwin and his theory of evolution.

Early on in the book, we have the two cousins discussing one of the important issues of the day: with the passage of the 15th Amendments giving black men the vote, many of the women who had been staunch abolitionists took on a new cause — getting the vote for women. Other feminist causes, like gaining the right to own property and getting the opportunity to attend college, became central to the plot of our book — and to the solution of the mystery.

About the title: Ring Out Wild Bells is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1850, which contains the line, “Ring out the old, ring in the new.” Our book begins with the ringing of church bells throughout the city of Hartford, Connecticut, announcing the end of the war, and it ends with the ringing of wedding bells, as one of our major characters is married. And much of the book deals with the changing of old ideas and customs to new ones: the end of slavery, the growing acceptance of the theory of evolution, the beginning of the fight to allow women to vote, and the emergence of higher education for women.

 — Carole Shmurak, mystery author, who co-authors the Matty Trescott series under the pen name of Carroll Thomas.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When Teens Solve a Murder Case - in 1865


Stop in tomorrow to meet guest author Carole Shmurak, mystery author, who co-authors the Matty Trescott series under the pen name of Carroll Thomas. Her novel RING OUT WILD BELLS has a fascinating story behind it, as well as the narrative in it -- find out about the book's genesis, as well as the author's research and decisions.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Genealogy: A Mystery Tour in Progress

Yesterday's Independence Day celebration in our home included guests for supper whose political persuasions are often the opposite of ours. It makes some parts of the conversation challenging. Yet we treasure the work of respecting each other's views, supporting each other in our choices, and occasionally, usually with some humor, protesting each other's convictions. This is, for me, what being an American is often about: not just knowing our differences, but "having them to dinner."

It's hard work when it reaches inside and presses those inner buttons of who we are and why we choose to be that way. Right now, my quest for more family history fits weill with most of my close family members -- but rubs one or two of them wrong. I'm hoping those individuals will continue to tolerate my investigating, but I've learned enough from our politically different friends to realize that within family, too, there come moments when the assignment is simply: Stop talking about it. Relax. Enjoy the strawberry shortcake and the thunderstorms together.

Today, as I rotate back into work mode after three days of family, I took a few minutes to also catch up on the genealogy-related e-mails in my stack. There were a couple of them from Ancestry.com, where the slow labor of indexing all of the 1940 Census data, state by state, has now reached ten: CO, DE, DC, ME, NV, NY, OH, PA, TN, VT, VA. For me, that also meant 18 more documents that the Ancestry search engines thought might apply to my family tree -- and it turned out 17 of the 18 did indeed connect. Fun! I was also glad to find that New Hampshire is among the next set of records to be indexed, as that's where I'm looking for some farm connections from my mother's family, geared to that 1940 Census.
  
Because the novels I'm writing connect most of all with how difference is expressed and experienced in New England (usually from the point of view of a teen, most often a young woman), these history mysteries in my own family give me extra energy to keep exploring ... and keep writing.