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.