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?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vermont = White Bread State? Evidence Says, I Doubt It!

There was a card game we played as kids where you held out a card, hidden, and asserted it was a particular item -- say, a nine of diamonds. Another player could say "I doubt it!" I don't remember all the rules, but I know there were rewards for good bluffs, and rewards for seeing through them. Sometimes local history research feels like the same game.

At every chance I get, I search through old postcards in stores and antiquarian shows, looking for evidence of the "old days" in my part of Vermont. A few months ago I picked up a fairly common picture postcard of Comerford Dam (a Connecticut River dam that changed the history of my small town, Waterford, although it's actually anchored in Barnet VT and Monroe NH). On the back was the message shown here, written in laboriously penned Italian.

Teacher Meg Clayton majored in Italian in college, and she translated the card for me, confirming my guess that the writer had some issues with his written Italian -- maybe a working man, not often putting things on paper. I wanted very much to be able to show that the card traveled from a workman in the Northeast Kingdom around 1939, to another Italian speaker in the blue-collar granite town of Barre, Vermont. And some of the pieces are indeed here.

However, here's Meg's actual translation:
Dear Friend,
I want you to know that I am well.  I send well wishes to you with your operation.
Salutations from your friend,
Domenico Zittoli
I went to see this dam.
When I added research into Italian family names in Vermont in 1939, I was able, with much excitement, to find the Zecchinelli family at 15 Central Street in Barre, in both the 1930 and 1940 Census documents. And I discovered that the postcard writer's surname was probably Zottoli, a family well spread through New England at the time.

But I can't find any Zottoli in records of life in northern Vermont in 1939. So, in spite of what I wanted from this card, I have to conclude that Domenico Zottoli may have just been headed home after a visit to Mr. Zecchinelli, and passing through where the dam had recently been built.

Still, I'm not discouraged. This sign below, displayed by the Concord (VT) Historical Society, shows clearly that Italians lived and owned businesses in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont in the early to mid 1900s.

And that's more evidence for what I'm painting into all of my writing: Vermont might look pretty darned white (especially in winter -- smile). But Vermonters have always been diverse. They answer the call to adventure, in many languages and styles. One hypothesis, not proved; the main theory, emphatically confirmed.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Change Happens: History of The Farmer's Daughter, St. Johnsbury, Vermont




Last year it looked like our region of Vermont had lost, forever, a tourist icon we'd enjoyed for decades: the Route 2 gift shop called The Farmer's Daughter. Jim Young's family had closed the business and although there was a steady trickle of customers for the ongoing stock sale (stuffed moose toys; postcards a bit faded but still capturing memories; Chinese-made coffee mugs that said "Vermont"), the building had an air of sorrow and darkness.

But Anna and Bruce Cushman stepped in to buy the business, and it's been a busy and happy year in the barn -- where the couple and their family offered ice cream and fresh-picked berries, plus live animals (goats, ducks, chickens) to photograph and pet (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Farmers-Daughter/370443859742497).  Now it's December and they are still resolutely open each weekend until Christmas, despite the bitter cold of the barn in this season. They feature Vermont products, including fudge they make themselves, as well as the work of local crafters.


Anna showed me a page from an old atlas, where the property was featured from way back in the 1800s, and not long after, I found the same page "at auction" online and purchased it. Here's the atlas page:



And here's an old photo of the farm in use, brought to Anna by a customer:




And a map that includes the property:

 

The property owner was J. G. Hovey, and here is an ad from an 1894 church cookbook bearing his name:


Now -- the Big Question -- why is all this important?

1. It's research: It tells us the reality of both the property that's now the Farmer's Daughter, and the changes that time and commerce bring.

2. It's human: J. G. Hovey as farmer is one thought, as bank director is another. And are there recipes in this cookbook from the women in his life? Women's history before the 21st century is much less documented than men's; this gives us a route into those other documents. Recipes, clothing, family ... the 1800s are rich with artifacts of these.

3. For me, it opens up story possibilities. I'm as interested in Anna's life as current (and shivering!) store owner (take heart, Anna, the days begin to get longer next week, and spring will warm the building again), as I am in the Hoveys, whose history is significant for both St. Johnsbury (did you ever buy clothing at the Hovey Shops?) and Waterford (see the Hovey Place farm: http://waterford-vt-barn-census.blogspot.com/2013/09/hovey-barn-date-unknown-farm-dates-to.html). Will they be background characters in my next novel ... or maybe I'll borrow one of them for a "model" on which to base a protagonist.

Some of the best stories are the real ones. And sometimes it takes a novel to reveal the history underneath.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Diversion: Birch Trees and Birch Bark

I have several posts lined up for you (some Chinese-related postcard images; some announcements), but before I get down to serious work on those, I wanted to share this enchanting birchbark "greeting card" sent to a Lyndonville, Vermont, resident in the 1960s. It is part of a collection that arrived at the Lyndon Historical Society this year, shown at the end of the group's meeting on Tuesday Oct. 15.


I'm quite sure it's intended to be a scene at Lake Willoughby -- compare it to this actual postcard image dating probably to the 1930s:


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Explosive Material: The Young Adult Mystery

Did you ever read Tom Sawyer in the original version -- not condensed or modernized? How about Huckleberry Finn? These are now mentioned often as prototype "young adult" novels, along with To Kill a Mockingbird. And the reason they are classified in this way is simple: The characters in them are not yet grown up, and they experience a marked change in their lives: one often described as a loss of innocence.

I think it's important to notice that these labels and even this "loss of innocence" are relatively recent concepts. When I was a kid, the Mark Twain books were seen as accessible (if you were willing to work hard at reading them), but not sorted into "adult" and "young adult." Life on the Mississippi and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court could be fit reading for anyone who could stick with the pages -- although clearly, you'd get more from Twain's bouts of satire if you were a more experienced reader.

Today's "young adult" (YA) category is generally recognized as especially the creation of librarians (as well as teachers) who wanted to offer worthwhile material for teens without pushing them into emotions they weren't yet ready to experience -- like the self-doubt that can result from reading sexually explicit material at too young an age, or the callous disregard for loss of life that marks some thrillers. YA material also has often involved recognizing the challenges most teens face: how to stay true to yourself in the face of peer pressure, how to avoid the cost of substance abuse, how to separate from parents without losing "home."

One of the books most recognized as an enduring YA novel is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. It shaped some of my ideas about what it is to be a young woman, a scientist, and a brave person. I still keep a copy on my shelf. In her 1983 Newbery Award acceptance speech for this book, the author said:
Because of the very nature of the world as it is today our children receive in school a heavy load of scientific and analytic subjects, so it is in their reading for fun, for pleasure, that they must be guided into creativity.
She added, quoting from another author, that we help our children avoid a limited universe "by providing them with 'explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.'"

Even newer than the YA novel is the special genre of the YA mystery.  A good one has to include the elements that make a mystery for "grownups" worth reading: a plot that makes sense, twists that are both surprising and believable, characters who risk something and who make choices that matter. And a good dash of suspense and tension! Plus for the YA area, the mystery also has to be what L'Engle called "explosive material." I can stand behind that statement firmly. "Explosive" in this way doesn't need to mean objectionable or even shocking -- but it must mean that the reader experiences a possibility of change and growth.

With those challenging aspects in mind, I'm glad to welcome two new YA mysteries to the shelf. One, by Michelle Gagnon, is sci-fi crossover, in which a half dozen teens from various nations find themselves abruptly waking up in an emptied world where dinosaur-size monsters are hunting them. Published by Soho Crime, Gagnon's STRANGELETS compels the teens to share their pasts and wrestle with each other, to discover what has pushed them into this frightening situation -- and whether there is a chance to have their familiar world back again, ever. Criminal activity has indeed taken place. And courage is required. I like Gagnon's earlier thrillers very much, both the adult ones and the YA medical thrillers (Don't Turn Around and Don't Look Now). To me, STRANGELETS pushes the boundaries of the medical thriller, with plenty of intriguing science and tons of suspense. Seventeen-year-olds Sophie and Declan became part of my world while the book lasted. I do think this one is closer to sci-fi than to the traditional medical thriller, but ... it didn't bother me after the first few pages. Above all, Michelle Gagnon is a powerful storyteller and if she wants to call this one a thriller, well, I'll bend a bit.

The second is a firmly traditional mystery, in a less conventional setting: Jacquelyn Mitchard's WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT. If the title evokes a hint of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon), I think that's no accident -- because in Mitchard's book as well as Haddon's, the people we care about are separated from the rest of "us" by conditions of difference that arrived with their genes. In Mitchard's book, Allie Kim and her best friends Rob and Juliet suffer from xeroderma pigmentosum, a "severe allergy to sunlight." (The scientist part of me insists on clarifying: The condition actually means that the body cannot repair damage caused by ultraviolet light. But hey, if we can call alcoholism an allergy to alcohol, I guess the allergy motif works here, too.) The result of this shared disorder is that the three teens mostly emerge at night. Add their fascination with the discipline and daring of parkour -- an extreme sport -- and Allie, Rob, and Juliet take to climbing tall buildings in the dark. Inevitably, they see something criminal. But they're up against a very crafty psychopath with the skills and knowledge to make the teens appear to be the guilty ones. Not only that: It looks like Juliet is being compelled to submit to abuse, with her friends as hostages.

Mitchard demonstrates that the ages of YA protagonists can actually increase the tension and risks of a thriller; the decisions that Allie Kim faces are indeed explosive, stirring up fresh importance of life. I'm glad there's clearly going to be a sequel!

So, let me wrap up this long-ish post by saying: If you have a favorite YA mystery or novel ... is there something about it that's explosive in this way? Share, if you feel so moved.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Imagination and Knowledge: Pillars of Good Fiction


The old adage "write what you know" is very different when applied to historically hinged fiction. There are writing days when every paragraph demands that I stop to double-check details, make sure that an easy assumption actually fits the facts. For Cold Midnight this meant compiling the small details of 1921 life in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and some careful mapping of 1921's Chinatown layout in Boston as well.

The toughest research I've done so far was probably the five years or so leading up to The Darkness Under the Water -- in part because the emotional effects of the Vermont Eugenics Program are far from over, and people who told me about their parents' and grandparents' experience of that time often didn't want to be explicit. For example, it took a long time before someone finally whispered to me the name of a local doctor who might have performed operations in the 1920s on women whom he believed should not bear more children ... long before that whisper, I'd suspected such a presence, but it was important to confirm it.

The two photos shown here were taken just a few feet apart. One is the simple (but lush!) scenic view from the rest area on Interstate 91, just north of the Barnet, Vermont, exit. It suggests a forested landscape without many people. The presence of the county seat is well hidden -- along with the dark side of some lives in the region, as well as the thriving movement of technology and information in the towns below.

The second photo carries some details of the history of what's out there: Comerford Dam, so impressive in 1930 that for its first day of operation, the U.S. President triggered the "on" switch; there's even a description of the size of the lake formed behind the dam on the Connecticut River. But the sign doesn't mention one of the most significant aspects of this dam: It was the first on this body of water to NOT have a sluice gate for logs to pass through -- marking the end of the great river logging era in Vermont.

What we know about a landscape shapes what we believe about it. Knowledge nourishes a well-trained writer's imagination!

I Love a Good Mystery/Thriller/Suspense Novel ... and Review Them

Just realized some wonderful readers are looking here for the latest in mystery reviews -- but they are at the OTHER blog (blush ... yeah, I've got a few): kingdombks.blogspot.com

Sorry for the extra jump needed!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memorial Day Weekend, Concord, Vermont



Honoring the Four Chaplains.
A few weeks ago, Dave and I took a drive to Gilman, Vermont, a village of many names -- it's a village within the town of Lunenburg and was earlier named Fitzdale, but adopted the surname of the industrialist and philanthropist who changed its history: Isaac "Ike" Gilman. The lone Jew in town, Ike Gilman created employment, funded the church, provided in many ways for enrichment of village life. It's a bigger story than that, but I'm leaving it to Dave to collect the research and do the telling.

Just before reaching Gilman, we paused in another village, East Concord -- part of Concord, Vermont. Concord has an amazingly rich history, including the first teacher training school in the state (a "normal" school as the label was then), and a home where poet Robert Frost lived for a year or two. Home to many an agricultural enterprise, it also hosted Abenaki (Native American) presence, in part due to its location along the Connecticut River and its lakes and streams.

House where Robert Frost lived, Concord Corners.
East Concord has a serene white church building; a park; and a state history marker honoring the Rev. George Lansing Fox, one of the famous "Four Chaplains" whose sacrifice made such an impression during World War II. You can read the story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Chaplains

On this Memorial Day weekend, we motored over to the Concord Historical Society to see a special exhibit on Fox and the other three chaplains, including many magazine and newspaper articles, a video, and a state proclamation honoring Fox. It seemed a perfect time for the town to reflect on its homegrown hero, a man who never fired a weapon in the war but whose action saved lives.

We lingered among the other exhibits, appreciating the town's farm and logging heritage as well as its schools, doctors, and more. What I hadn't realized was the role of stone in Concord, until I saw this lovely old business sign up on the wall for Keach & Calacci -- Granite, Marble, Bronze. In Vermont history, the Italian stonecutters are usually found around Barre, where the Rock of Ages granite quarry continues to provide material for these artists. I knew they had also reached the Northeast Kingdom town of Ryegate, where there were (and still are!) also granite sheds. But I was surprised to find the Calacci family all the way over in Concord, and noted the business in records from 1928, 1930, and 1935 (listed here).

Last but not least, here are two posters that are tacked high over one of the doorways at the Concord Historical Society -- the one on the left is the shows at Tegu's Palace, one of the two St. Johnsbury theaters that I wove into my 1930/Waterford "history-mystery," The Darkness Under the Water. What a gem! And the one on the right, I am guessing, belongs with a street sign that I noticed outside East Concord during our road trip: Dance Hall Road. (It runs into Oregon Road -- more on that, another time.)

In case it needs saying, what these signs and stories say to me, more clearly than ever, is that hundreds of stories wait to be told, weaving the daily events and places of the past century into the adventures of the people, "real" and fictional, who live and lived in Vermont. I can hardly wait to discover more.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Farmer's Daughter, and Other Adventures with My Mom

Grand opening this weekend!! What a great new life for a terrific place.
My mother wanted to get lost, every time she drove the car out onto a back road. The five of us kids would play games with license plates we saw, or letters on signs, or anything else we could see through the windows -- we all got desperately carsick if we tried to read in the car, or else we would have opened our books. At least for the three older siblings, books were the magical escape into our own private adventures (my two youngest brothers did some things differently).

But on Mom's adventures, the idea was to discover unusual places (like the store on Route 23 in northern New Jersey that sold only buttons -- gallon JARS of buttons for sale!), special waterfalls (hidden ones are best), and places that connected with George Washington, General Lafayette, and "Mad" Anthony Wayne, all easy enough to find in north Jersey, crammed with Revolutionary War battlegrounds. And, incidentally, one "should" get lost.

Unfortunately, Mom's "direction bump," as she called it, kept her from ever getting truly lost. I think that was the biggest regret that she ever expressed around the group of us! Of course, it was also a source of pride and cheerful enjoyment.

When I first drove a car myself through St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and saw the Maple Grove syrup plant and the gift shop called the Farmer's Daughter -- sometime in 1978 -- I had a moment of déja vu. Surely I had been here before? And entered those doors?

I had indeed. Perhaps in 1956 or 1957! I recall the scent of small pillows of balsam needles, and tiny pillars of pine incense one could burn at a campsite to (hopefully) keep away bugs. I remember being barely tall enough to see what was on the shelves.

For a while last year, it looked as though the lifetime of the Farmer's Daughter had ended, and I mourned. Even with that crazy sign out front (the one that makes my Inner Feminist cringe -- I'm not showing it here), I love the place. My mom wouldn't have wanted to see it pass away.

But this spring, oh glorious news, the Cushman family has leased the building and the gift shop business, provided a fresh version of the "fresh" sign outside, added ice cream and homemade fudge (really, they are making it themselves!), and brought back the happy site with fresh paint, baskets of flowers, even a young goat in a neat little barn outside. I am SO happy!

I can feel my mother peeking over my shoulder. She says, "See, we came here when you were little. I love you, honey. Let's get ice cream cones and buy one of those postcards and maybe that jigsaw puzzle in case it rains later. And then we'll get back into the car and get lost. When we've had enough, we'll go back to the campsite and write a poem about this place."

Love you, Mom. Happy Mother's Day of the heart.

(Joan Lancy Palmer Minden, 1927-1981; a New Englander forever, even as she raised us on a mountain in New Jersey.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Great Gatsby Goes to the Screen: That 1922 Glamour and Risk

Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby opens on May 10, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio (as Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (as Daisy Buchanan), and Tobey Maguire (as Nick Carraway). For many moviegoers, there'll be some justified wondering about whether the film's version of the Roaring Twenties is exaggerated -- was there really such a gap between rich and poor, wealthy and hard-scrabble?

The short answer is: Yes. Although today's wealth gap is wider in terms of dollars, the 1920s showed Americans what that famous American Dream could look like in terms of costly clothing, money enough to eat and drink what and where you wanted, glamour and glitz. Fitzgerald's book is now a researcher's treasure trove, containing not only telling details about life, but also emotional levels that can be explored and used for measuring some points of view as we construct historical fiction dating back to the 1920s.

I kept Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and many newspaper articles on hand while crafting COLD MIDNIGHT. If I could have slept with them under my pillow, I would have! (But the print makes me sneeze.) It especially mattered in terms of the relationship Ben has in the novel with Colonel Bateman, as well as Claire's restricted grasp of her own town -- which had its "high life" way outside her own working-class experience.

I plan to see the film sometime in the next week or so, to enjoy Luhrmann's take on "what it was all like." I can hardly wait!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Recovery from the Christmas Fire: More Photos (St. Johnsbury, Vermont)

Fires continue to ravage the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, to the point where we need our own version of the Three Little Pigs story ... because the buildings have wood frames, even when the outsides are brick or stone, and we continue to be vulnerable. Saturday night a home in Concord, Vermont, was lost; Sunday, oddly, one of the commuter buses burned.

Today Philip C. Marshall (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/18438727?tag=US_VT_St_Johnsbury) generously gave permission for use of his St. Johnsbury photos, and here is one of the 1879 building -- Bruno Ravel's building, where his parents long operated the Landry Drug Store -- before the Christmas 2012 fire struck.
photo by Philip C. Marshall

And here are some pix that the construction crew allowed me to snap last week: reconstructing the brick frame for the shop windows; the room where the drugstore used to be (see the tin ceiling?); and the back exterior.




Progress indeed ...

Readers of COLD MIDNIGHT: Claire and Ben did not climb this structure (although the author has, from the inside); the Saturday night activities on Railroad Street in 1921 made it far too risky. But it will reappear in the 2014 book I'll be writing, The Fire Curse.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

African Americans in 19th-Century Vermont: Fresh Resources

Rokeby's new and exciting exhibit opens May 19, 2013.
Rokeby, Vermont's principal verified "Underground Railroad" historic site, will open its new exhibits on May 19, inaugurating the freshly constructed building that the site's team will use for group visits, teaching, and especially making history accessible to young students (say, fourth grade). I'm a fan -- and here's a news interview with director Jane Williamson as the space gets its finishing touches: http://www.wcax.com/story/21390215/a-new-exhibit-at-rokeby-museum

Williamson has quipped that the Vermont version of the decades just before the Civil War should be called the "above-ground" railroad years instead, and her exhibit title is "Free & Safe" -- a good description for Black Americans who arrived in the Green Mountains in the 1830s through 1850s. Elise Guyette's book "Discovering Black Vermont: African-American Farmers in Hinesburgh, Vermont 1790 - 1890" won a 2010 Award of Excellence from the Vermont Historical Society and offers an extensive exploration.

I just realized that there's a phenomenal hour-long presentation by Guyette available on the Net, thanks to Marlboro College: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GCGu0AsDgk -- a great way to catch up on her work and catch some of the flavor of this lively presenter.

If you're teaching or gathering in Vermont and want to check whether a site near you with an Underground Railroad reputation is historically significant, I recommend the State of Vermont report "Friends of Freedom: The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report." This 1996 document peels open the evidence for (and against) 174 of the 19th-century individuals and sites that have been mentioned in this context. I still have a few copies available at $15 each (postage included); let me know if you'd like one.

This year Vermont provides a heritage trail to explore the lives and impact of Black Vermonters of the 19th century, too -- as noted in this Burlington Free Press article (I contributed information on the Coventry location). With this comes fresh attention to Alexander Twilight, probably the first mixed-race Vermonter to graduate (in a remarkably short time) from Middlebury College in 1822. There's a good VPR interview on Twilight and his "race" in Vermont's Census records: http://www.vpr.net/episode/55438/groundbreaking-history-alexander-twilight

These are great resources for classroom use and for a break from books and paper, as spring makes the classroom -- or home office! -- seem a bit confined.

PS -- If you're new to this blog: One reason my writing-room reference shelves keep filling with more materials about Vermont's Black residents is my 2011 novel, THE SECRET ROOM. Signed copies are at several Vermont bookstores or you can order them at www.BethKanell.com; video support on this history-mystery set in North Danville, Vermont, can be found here: http://www.thesecretroombook.com/the-author.html

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Research Bookmark: Matching the Photo and the News Report

I've had this photo (blurry though it is) on the Pinterest site for COLD MIDNIGHT for a while now -- it's the result of the 1909 fire in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, which retired firefighter Dave Brown told me was the disaster that moved the town to purchase up-to-date firefighting gear; the ladders then in use were simply not long enough and fatalities resulted. Now, thanks to Researcher Extraordinaire Dave Kanell (yes, I'm married to him), here's a news report of the fire. Thanks also to Stu Beitler, who posted the piece online in 2007.

***
NINE PERSONS DIE AT FIRE

St. Johnsbury, Vt., Suffers Great Loss of Life.

Four-Story Block Burned so Rapidly That Firemen Were Helpless to Save Imprisoned Victims.

St. Johnsbury, Vt. -- Nine lives were lost in the fire which destroyed the principal business building of this town. Two other persons were fatally burned, and two were taken to a hospital suffering from severe but not dangerous burns. The property loss is estimated at $50,000, partly covered by insurance. Of the nine persons killed, two fell from the upper stories of the building in an attempt to reach safety by means of ropes, while seven were burned to death, their bodies not being recovered until several hours later.
The list of dead follows:
S. D. CUSHMAN and MRS. S. D. CUSHMAN and their child;
L. E. DARLING, forty years old, a laborer;
MISS MAY SLEEPER;
CHARLES TANNER, a painter;
MRS. CHARLES TANNER.

MRS. JEANNETTE DAVIS and LOUIS POPE, thirteen years old, son of MR. And MRS. WILLIAM POPE, were those fatally burned. The others injured are WILLIAM POPE and ROY SMITH, who will recover.

The block, a four-story brick building, was a combination of stores, offices, tenements and assembly halls. It was owned by the Citizens' Savings Bank. The fire is believed to have originated in a restaurant in the basement.

Though the alarm was given on the instant and the firemen came in with all speed, the inside of the four-story building was a furnace before help arrived, an elevator well having furnished a flue through which the flames swept to all of the floors.

When it was seen that the ladders would not reach, ropes, which were evidently in the building for such an emergency, were brought into use. Women apparently feared the attempt at descent and RANLETT attempted to come down, hand over hand, to reach he top of the ladder. He lost his balance and fell to the sidewalk. His skull was fractured and he died instantly. DARLING, the other man, lost his grip and fell in attempting to grasp the swinging rope from a windowsill. He lived only a few minutes.

The Cranbury Press New Jersey 1909-11-05

Critical Thinking: Images and History, and Historical Fiction


When I visit groups to discuss COLD MIDNIGHT, I often point out the photo of the Chinese man that nearly led me astray when I was working out the plot of the book and its careful pinnings to the history of Chinese arrivals in northern New England in the 1880s. Here's another pair of items, located by my husband Dave, that could be deceptive. They seem to show a touring vehicle, with people on board to look around the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. You can see the date 1907 on the card -- the year when the noted postcard company Tichnor Bros. applied for a copyright on the clever pair of images.

However, although St. Johnsbury did indeed have plenty of tourism in 1907, these images doesn't show the "real thing." (The top one, though, has some real photo images attached to it with an accordion fold.) The cards are among many that were created where town names could be set into the card, and orders placed for "anywhere." Often the cards like this are amusing, and some are romantic, but ... they are stock images, made by the card company without ever visiting the town named on them! That also leads to another entertaining side of the cards as we collect them today: On quite a few that we've seen, the town name has been misspelled!

But it's all in fun, and it was a classic of a hundred years ago.

Just don't count on these for "pictures that show the real thing." They show effect of the tourist trade, instead!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book Club Bounty: The Best Reason to Get Together!


Last Friday evening, eight women from my extended neighborhood (the closest lives a few houses away; at least one had an hour-long drive) gathered for their monthly book discussion, and I was honored by an invitation -- they had (all but one) just read my newest novel, COLD MIDNIGHT, so I brought a display of photos and old postcards that were part of the research for the 1921 setting, and told the tale of the historically read murder of Sam Wah, a Chinese laundry owner who was 75 years old in 1921, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. (I keep an even larger collection of related images at the book's Pinterest site, here: http://pinterest.com/bethkanell/cold-midnight-climbing-on-roofs-at-night-solving-c.)

Like another book gathering that I attended a few weeks earlier, this one glowed with the seasoned experience of the women at the table, who brought their complex lives and wisdom to share. It also included a marvelous supper, and I took a moment to photograph my plate, so I could savor the meal in memory! The slice of meat pie at the center of the plate was a special treat for me -- it's the French Canadian "tourtiere," a dish I always enjoy. The crust was flaky, the meat and seasonings savory. And, as you can see, there were many other delights to go with it! But tourtiere was especially significant because of its origin; both COLD MIDNIGHT and my 2008 novel The Darkness Under the Water dip into French Canadian culture and traditions as they've arrived in this northeastern part of Vermont.

Do you meet with a book club? If your club selects Cold Midnight or The Secret Room, I can provide books at a 20% discount; for The Darkness Under the Water, which I have to order differently, I can give 10% off. Just let me know. (Books, prices, etc. here: www.BethKanell.com.) Talking about a book with others who've enjoyed it -- "priceless."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Salute to A WRINKLE IN TIME -- and a New Voice in This Year's Fiction

It's hard to believe it, but 50 years have passed since the publication of Madeleine L'Engle's book A WRINKLE IN TIME. "Young adult" fiction before the genre really existed, and providing a powerful journey of spiritual seeking as well as a new definition of courage, this novel is one I've returned to at least every five years or so, to see "how the author did it" -- and why it means to much to me.

Now I'm honored to present a guest post from Ellen Larson, whose November 2013 book, IN RETROSPECT, connected right away for me to the L'Engle classic. Make sure to connect at the end of this post, too -- there's a role for you in what's ahead for Ellen Larson.


A L’Ove L’Etter to Madeleine L’Engle

The Happy Medium. Tesseract. Sport. Magic words to kids like me who read A Wrinkle in Time when it was published in 1962. Such a mysterious, heartrending, and above all inspiring book. My first science fiction read, though I didn’t make that connection at the time. Books were just books to kid me. But I was aware that this book by Madeleine L’Engle was grounded in science, and thus it seemed more real to me than other books I’d read that had a fantasy element, like The Princess and Curdie, or were simply mainstream books like The Lord of the Flies. That bears repeating: More real. Science fiction; more real. What a paradoxical reaction! I was hooked.

In the years that followed, I read Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov with increasing fervor and preferences. I was never too fond of Heinlein’s big metaphysical hit, Stranger in a Strange Land (didn’t like the sexual politics—though again, I was too young to give my uneasiness a name), but I absolutely loved his lesser known The Door Into Summer, a whimsical love story that hooked me on time travel for life because of its elegant pair of time travel devices. First Heinlein uses have simple cryonics, which allows the hero to go forward in time without aging (hey, it counts!). And second, upon finding himself thirty years in the future, when such things just might be possible, Heinlein introduces a mad genius scientist who has invented a time-travel machine.

What I found compelling about the book—what I find compelling about the best time-travel stories—was that I could literally feel my mind bending as I tried to follow reality as it twisted and seemingly changed. I like that a lot.

As both a writer and a reader I am a fan in intricate plotting, a preference that led me to mystery reading and writing as well, but there is no plotting more complex than a well-told time-travel tale. I crave that moment in the story when reality shifts and appears to rewrite itself, exposing the power of the writer as the plot at last unfolds and the perceived complexity is revealed to be elegant simplicity. And that is only one model of time-travel structure.

In addition to plots like that in The Door Into Summer, in which events remain constant and only perception changes, there are equally mind-boggling tales of parallel universes, altered timelines and epic crossroads in history. This structure generally involves the inevitable happening even though history has indeed been changed by the time-traveling characters. The delight comes from watching the efforts of protagonist or antagonist to cause or prevent the inevitable, in ways we never expect. The iconic Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, written by the great science-fiction author Harlan Ellison, is a prime example of this structure. Though she has earned Kirk’s love and our respect, Edith Keeler must die; Kirk must choose between saving her and upending history, or letting her die. All that needs to be answered is the question of how—and how the moral question will be answered.
The Prioress from IN RETROSPECT

When I came to write my own time-travel story, In Retrospect, I started by choosing the structure that would best suit the idea (the conflict) that was bubbling in my head. The Infinite-Number-of-Parallel-Universes approach works great to explore characters. The Door-Into-Summer approach lends itself to deliciously evil plotting. The Edith-Keeler approach leads to great moral conflict for the characters. I excluded parallel universes first, because while tremendous fun in its way (my first run in with parallel universes came with the iconic Dark Shadows in the 1960s, btw) it doesn’t include the mind-bending aspect I crave.

With apologies for skipping Kurt Vonnegut, this left me with a choice that can best be summed up by the question: In my futuristic world, can history be changed via time travel (Edith-Keeler) or not (Door-Into-Summer)?

I made my choice—but I’m not gong to elaborate here, because in fact the answer to the question is germane to the plot itself. It is also the topic under discussion when my protagonist, Retrospector Merit Rafi, first meets Eric Torre, a wave-aspect physicist with whom her life will be forever entwined:
The boy with the wavy yellow hair gave an argumentative snort. “But you haven’t addressed the question! Why can’t you change history?”
“Because you just can’t. Trust me. I’ve been there.” Having settled that issue, Merit raised a paper cup to her lips. Damn, the Rasakans made good wine. She breathed in the sweet summer air and let her gaze roam across the rolling meadows of Bergama. It never ceased to amaze her. Though half the Earth had been destroyed eight hundred years ago by the insanity of their forebears; though the coasts had been redrawn and the climate changed, this land called by the ancients Anatolia, then Asia Minor, then Turkey, had survived, flourished, and—eventually—regained its plenitude. It was a fine day to be sitting on the grass beneath an almond tree drenched in blossoms, a fine day for shooting the metaphysical breeze with new colleagues over a bottle or two between seminars. A damned fine day to be alive.
But the boy didn’t seem to have noticed that the debate was over. “That’s pretense, not proof,” he insisted.
Merit’s attention snapped back into place. “I beg your pardon?” She peered more closely at his freckled face. It looked mighty stubborn, in a cheerful sort of way. “If somebody asks you why she can’t walk on water, don’t you simply roll your eyes and say, ‘Trust me, you just can’t?’ ”
“No.” He shook his finger back and forth—shook it at her, Merit Rafi, graduate of the Oku Science Conservatory, officer of the Civil Protection Force with a full nineteen months’ experience, Select. “I tell her that water molecules are not cohesive enough to support the mass of a human body, nor is the surface tension high enough to resist the static shear—but that if she were a waterbug she could do it.”
It’s been a long journey from the day I first cracked open A Wrinkle In Time—the day that set me on the road to writing a time-travel book of my own. I think a thank-you is long overdue. So thank you, Madeleine L’Engle, and Happy Fiftieth Anniversary!

Beth adds: Ellen Larson is currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the making of the book trailer for IN RETROSPECT. Take a look at this exciting project -- the art is amazing, thanks to concept artist Mike Sissons (that's his painting of the Prioress, earlier), the video is close to completion, and there's a role for supporters right now ... and to salute this author and her work, which in my office will go on the same shelf where  A Wrinkle in Time now stands.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sugaring at the Cemetery?

I'm headed into writing the last few chapters of ALL THAT GLITTERS, so as I drove to Waitsfield, Vermont, yesterday, I detoured into the downtown of Montpelier to photograph a couple of locations that are featured in the book. Then I paused outside town at Green Mount Cemetery for some quick photos. When I looked at the big maples that edge the cemetery, I paused and stared. Look closely: Can you see the galvanized-metal sugaring buckets fastened to both sides of the maple tree here?? They were on the entire row of trees along the Route 2 edge of the burying ground.

Talk about not wasting any potential for making maple syrup!




Sunday, March 17, 2013

Rebirth after the Christmas Fire, St. Johnsbury, Vermont

Slowly but surely, St. Johnsbury's "1867 Block" (owned by Bruno Ravel) is rising from the ashes of the structure fire last Christmas; you can see the burned building HERE.

And the news story on the fire, from Dec. 24, 2012, is HERE.

I'm watching closely, because (a) I'm so glad to see the structure rise again, (b) I have a lot of respect for Mr. Ravel, who has long been a downtown landlord who cares about his buildings (this one wasn't insured -- but he's having it rebuilt anyway, out of his own pocket and with some help, and (c) it's part of the "back story" for the novel I'll be writing in 2014, THE FIRE CURSE.

Where Plot Ideas Come From: Tracks in the Snow

Turkey track, solo ... or so you might think

Two clusters of turkey tracks crossing the stream: Look closely.

Mourning dove, "pigeon toed."
It's cold here this weekend -- bursts of snow keep arriving, and it was nine degrees when I went outside. Although the chickadees call (their two-note mating call) in early morning, the woods go nearly silent later in the day, as we all hold our warmth close, self-protection in what can still be wild winter on the ridge. Tonight's forecast threatens subzero temperatures, not unusual for mid March, although it won't last. The trees are signaling buds and more.

Silent though the woods can be, the larger birds are on the move. With the snowcover down to a fragile couple of inches, seeds are everywhere for them with just a quick scratch. How different they are from one breed to another, though. See the solo turkey track in the first photo? It could fool you if you don't follow further -- the second photo, taken not far from the first, reveals that a family of at least half a dozen turkeys passed along here, crossing the stream around the same point.

The third photo means a lot to me as I work slowly to bind all the plot threads together in my "Nancy Drew-style" mystery, ALL THAT GLITTERS. I'm in the last few chapters and it has to go "right" in order to build to the climax I want. There are homing pigeons involved in the plot -- and the tracks in photo 3 are of mourning doves, the wilder sort of pigeon here on the high ridge. I hear their plaintive calls all morning. See how the footprints angle back to each other, always crossing, as the round-bodied bird appears to waddle along? That's where we get the expression "pigeon-toed" -- to walk with one's toes pointed inward, so the right and left feet appear to leave crisscross trails.

The cold air, the photo, the reflection on pigeons, and then, breakfast with strangers at Polly's Pancakes in Sugar Hill, NH, where you often share a table as the staff packs everyone in -- that's what it took to move me to the next component of ALL THAT GLITTERS. Suddenly, I know what's coming next.

PS - You can read the chapters as they are written, at WattPad: http://www.wattpad.com/3668250-all-that-glitters-chapter-1-all-that-glitters-by.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Listening to Local (Vermont) History

On Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on WIKE-AM radio in Newport, Vermont (1340 AM), Scott Wheeler provides an intriguing conversation each week that delves into this region's culture -- that is, into Northeast Kingdom life, past and present. Today Scott and I savored a conversation about old photo postcard images of Newport and Derby and how they can instigate new work in historical fiction. At least, for Scott and me, they always set the imagination rolling, along with a hunger for more research and more details. Here is the actual radio show: http://www.northlandjournal.com/audio/bethKanell.mp3

One of the images we talked about is this one from the 1880s of the Memphremagog House, a tourist hotel that could shelter about 400 people! Built in 1838, it was a response to the unusual pattern of New England tourism in the 1800s: People would pack their trunks full of necessities and literally leave the city for six months, to enjoy "country air" and escape the fumes of urban life. You can see how close the train tracks ran to the hotel -- passengers could step down from their rail car and stroll up the path to the front door. Scott pointed out that this was one of several hotels at the time; today's regeneration of Newport's downtown has a lot to live up to!

When I'm writing historical fiction, I'm usually working from more than just a place like this hotel, though, and the historical tidbit that I shared with Scott today (it's hard to find one he doesn't know, but I did!) was about Governor George Prouty, a Newport resident. In 1909, the governor's chauffeur took a "joy ride" in the governor's car, crashing into a parade on the west side of the state (part of the 300-year celebration of explorer Samuel de Champlain) and killing a child in the process. The governor made the national news (the New York Times) when he came forward to stand for the $5,000 bail called for, for the chauffeur's manslaughter charge.



Scott and I also talked about these three Derby Line postcards -- partly for the amount of detail each one captures. In addition, I mentioned that I hope local residents will collect these images before the Internet sells them all to collectors in other places. These are evidence of what life was like, and we need them, in order to hold onto the treasures of our past. They're not just for historical fiction research; they are also for our sense of place, pride, and integrity. Plus, they take up a lot less room than collecting books! (That's a warmly meant family jest, considering how many bookshelves we've filled over the years.)

Other topics: a mention of a Troy resident, Amasa Tracy (1829-1908), the 2004 Phish concert in Coventry that many recall (Scott covered it; he publishes The Northland Journal), and some details of my most recent book, Cold Midnight. Hope you'll tune in for the radio show and catch all of the conversation! Thank you, Scott, for a marvelous half hour.

PS: The two Kelly's postcards are in the Middlebury College collection, which can be searched by town name online: http://middarchive.middlebury.edu/cdm/search/collection/vtpostcards

Monday, March 4, 2013

Research for Another Novel: "The Fire Curse"

Historical fiction requires years of research for most of us who write it, and the closer we get to the time of writing, the more "picky" we get about details we need -- the length of a skirt, the exact movie being shown, a song being shared.

I'm still in the "wide open" stage of preparing for a book I've tentatively titled The Fire Curse. Recently the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, closed for two weeks to allow a team to install a "fire suppression system" -- the sensors, electronics, pipes, and pumps that can fight a structure fire before it takes lives. The museum's staff kindly welcomed me to look behind the scenes, and a couple of installation crew members paused for a few minutes to answer some questions that I had. I won't give you details now --- but I wanted to share these photos, because they show something you'll never see again: the moveable scaffold that the installing team created, to slide along the balcony railings upstairs, giving the crew access to the vaulted ceiling of the museum, where sensors and spray nozzles needed to be carefully place. Can you spot the antlers, polar bear, and other museum artifacts here and there?


Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Underground Railroad in Vermont: Call It the "Aboveground Railroad" Instead!

Jane Williamson, director of Rokeby, Vermont's premier authenticated Underground Railroad site, often points out how literal the thinking is of third graders, who arrive at her historic center, eager to see the "trains that run under the ground." She has many other things to show and teach them, but sometimes they are still baffled that they haven't yet found the train.

With adults, both director Williamson and I find widespread attachment to the romance of the Underground Railroad myth in Vermont. As she says, it would be better to call the movement of African-American fugitives here in the 1800s "the Aboveground Railroad." Most Vermonters believed slaveholding was immoral, and that all humans should own their own lives. Dark-skinned fugitives arriving in the state weren't just assisted in their travels -- at places like Rokeby, they also could polish their skills for independent living and move toward owning their own land and businesses, from earned wages that they saved. Moreover, Vermont was so far from the slaveholding states of the American South that the vision of the fugitive cowering in a hidden room while the slavehunter passed by was a fiction; African Americans worked on farms, established homes, and nurtured their families here.

Many otherwise well-informed adults still leap to the conclusion that a "hidden room" in Vermont had a connection to the heroic labors of the Underground Railroad. Usually there are other reasons for such rooms: for hiding alcoholic beverages, or money, or, much later, Chinese migrants barred from entering America from 1882 to the First World War. Sadly, some rooms may have been the final resource of family members who weren't "fit to be out in public." Increasingly, rooms found near chimneys or in much-rearranged homes are remnants of homeowner layout changes -- say, changing from a wide old fireplace to a narrower chimney for a furnace.


At the Goodwillie House in Barnet, Vermont, a site that plays a role in my book The Secret Room when Shawna and Thea visit to test some of their ideas about the Underground Railroad, there is a double-walled section of the cellar that long had a rumored description as an underground railroad hiding place. I'd rather see it as a place the Rev. David Goodwillie -- who served Barnet as pastor, postmaster, and more -- might have put a few things he didn't want all his relatives to see. Or perhaps his wife stored the best potatoes and carrots there, to still have a few by the time the winter dining reached Easter Sunday!

Here's a newly acquired portrait of the Rev. Goodwillie, as well as a photo of the brickwork inside the house. There's a lot to explore here, and a lot to discover. Historical research backs up the best of the stories of the Goodwillie House, and one of my favorite bits is knowing that the family here had the first sheet-iron stove in town, and even added pipes to bring water inside the house, quite an innovation at the time.

The Barnet Historical Society opens the Goodwillie House several times each year, and often the town's eighth graders welcome visitors. Inquire for details or make an appointment: http://www.barnetvt.org/historical.php

Friday, February 8, 2013

History Mysteries: Beverly, Mass.

Me, happily preparing for another session at The Waring School
Recently I visited The Waring School in Beverly, Mass., where students filled me in on Waring's two basic commandments ("Don't be mean. Don't be stupid.") and what it's like to take part in this intense and people-focused 15-student college preparatory school. I learned a lot -- and enjoyed sharing writing skills, revision systems, and the three books I've brought forth so far that are historical fiction, hinged where our view of "what happened then" is being changed by our culture and our ability to study the past. These books are also mysteries, with young adult protagonists fighting for truth (The Darkness Under the Water; The Secret Room; Cold Midnight).

Here are some possibilities for launching "history mysteries" set in the rich history of Beverly, Mass.; if you teach a group where your local version of this could be of use, or are a student who'd like a set of these for your classroom, e-mail me (BethKanellAuthor at gmail dot com) and I'll be glad to work up a set for your town!

BEVERLY, MASS., HISTORY MYSTERIES STARTING POINTS

1.  1626, Richard Conant and his "company of fishermen" arrive from Cape Ann, in Naumkeag territory: (a) Who were these fishermen? What secrets did they leave behind them in Cape Ann -- could one have "needed" to leave the larger town, due to a feud or other family disaster, and drawn the group along with him to disguise his real motives? (b) The Naumkeag river Native American village was "ancient" and was a "trading center" in the past. Suppose one of the traders had been immoral in some significant way -- and the new settlement reveals what he did. Who will "police" the settlement? Can justice be served? (c) (for those who like paranormal thrillers) Just how "ancient" was that Native American village? Do the voices and passions of its leaders linger? How might they appear, even today, if not yet appeased in terms of who is using their land?

2. "The John Balch House (circa 1679, but for many years was purported to have been built in 1636), located at 448 Cabot Street, Beverly, Massachusetts,  is one of the oldest wood-frame houses in the United States." The age of the house was established in 2006 through "dendrochronological testing" (that's related to trees and wood, right?). Find out the details of the testing. Who could have had a motive for wanting the house to stand as 1636? Who could have set the testing equipment (maliciously) out of kilter, or broken it the first time it was used? Maybe the testing team includes a descendant of John Balch ... and the timing of the house will determine whether this person might inherit rights to some extremely valuable land, or to a painting, or to water rights. Also, who was John Balch -- could there be a mystery about why certain people in his family die young??

3. Beverly is the "Birthplace of America's Navy" because the first US military ship, the schooner Hannah, was outfitted at Glover's Wharf and first sailed from Beverly Harbor, Sept. 5, 1775. Marblehead disputes the claim of birthplace. (a) Set a mystery on board the Hannah where an important Revolutionary War battle or declaration could depend on what or who the ship is carrying. (b) Try a modern-day feud between Beverly and Marblehead town leaders that seems to be about water treatment but in reality is about being able to claim the naval birthplace title -- for the sake of, say, being able to host a prestigious sailing regatta. Crime involves both the research into the schooner, and a drug run during the regatta.

4. Why did Beverly become the site of America's first cotton mill in 1787? Set a mystery among the child laborers there, and it can include a cache of gold dubloons from piracy (common in the early years of the nation). Add a romance component -- were women allowed to work in the mill? How could you find out?

5. Beverly's separation from Salem took place during a religious disagreement. Track down the parties who disagreed, and their descendants. Can you tie this to the Salem Witch Trials (which took place on terrain that's now part of Danvers)? (for those who want to write paranormal thrillers) Could there be something geological or geographical about Beverly that draws religious controversy? What if a witch trial arose there today, based perhaps on resistance to vaccinations (which many people now believe could affect the incidence of autism spectrum disorder)?

6. The buildings that were once the United Shoe Machinery Corporation (1902-1987) developed in the late 1990s into a campus of high-tech companies and medical offices. Suppose the x-ray and other imaging technology accidentally revealed a double wall in one of the buildings, and evidence suggested a 20th century Mafia connection, long since vanished -- who would want to silence the discovery? Who might profit from it?

7. How did President Taft decide to rent a summer White House in Beverly? (1909, 1910, 1911, 1912). What made the experience so important -- as revealed by Beverly Hills, California, being named for Beverly, Mass., in 1907, because Taft had vacationed there? What secrets do Presidents leave behind? Could the start of World War I have been avoided, if Taft had made a different choice during his vacations in Beverly? Look into whether there were German residents at the time, and whether any diplomatic visits from England or France took place in Beverly then.

8. Beverly's current groundwater pollution issues stem from (presumably) the old Nike missile site on L. P. Henderson Road, and the Casco Chemical company. Suppose a whistle-blower had brought attention to the issues earlier; what atmosphere of threat could have followed? Would the town leaders have wanted the issue covered up at a particular time -- say, when the Vietnam war protests were happening? Who might your lead characters be: perhaps a draft protester? A reclusive chemist? A fishing captain who suspects why the catch has changed?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

From the Ashes of a Christmas Fire

On December 23, 2012, a massive six-alarm fire erupted in a downtown building in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The fire in the "1879 Building" destroyed a much-appreciated florist shop, the homes of at least seven people, and what was once the storefront of Landry Drugs, most recently operated by the French parents of Bruno Ravel, owner of the structure. With his parents' deaths relatively recent, and many of the furnishings of their lives also destroyed by the fire, Bruno's losses were enormous. And the first news stories of the fire declared the building a total loss: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20121224/NEWS07/312240021/St-Johnsbury-fire-ruled-accidental

Today, though, with Bruno's savings and much assistance from state and local agencies, rebuilding of the structure is underway. Palmieri Roofing erected scaffolding, and at least four of the roofing company's workers were on site as I snapped this photo.


My novels often include structure fires in them (I've been there, done that -- my home burned in 1984). What intrigues me the most is the courage shown as people choose to rebuild lives, homes, and structures from the ashes. A high-five salute, then, to St. Johnsbury and to Bruno Ravel and the people pitching in -- on this gray late-January day, you point to what matters.

UPDATE: See March 17, 2013, post, as the structure is rebuilt. Yes!!