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?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Learning the 1800s: Sunday Mail Delivery

As I write THIS ARDENT FLAME, set in northern Vermont in 1852, I spend a lot of time in research -- but not just exploring this pre-Civil War decade of ferment. In order to understand the thinking and discussions of the time, I often backtrack to the War of Independence and the strong-minded individuals who voiced their dreams for this new nation, built from a set of very different colonies and then growing by annexation of territory (and almost always while ignoring the history and rights of Indigenous peoples).

This week I'm reading Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine, by Maureen O'Rourke Murphy. One reason to read the book is as background for how the characters in THIS ARDENT FLAME deal with the Irish immigrants arriving in Vermont at the time. Another is that Asenath Nicholson, an activist of the first half of the 1800s, was born and raised in Chelsea, Vermont, not far from the Northeast Kingdom. (I've spent many hours there as the mom of an actor in a Jay Craven/Howard Frank Mosher film. Where the Rivers Flow North.)

Every detail in the book takes me digging for more details elsewhere, and this morning I "dug into" Sunday mail delivery. I was surprised to learn that it was routine in our nation's first century: It was considered essential for commerce! Moreover, the 1820s/1830s movement to end Sunday mail delivery came out of a small group with religious passions and especially religious bias -- against those Irish and other Catholic immigrants, who often used their "day of rest" to feast, gather, and rejoice, rather than to endure the silent solemnity of a Puritan-style Sabbath.

The post office with its mandatory Sunday opening (required by law to be open at least one hour each Sunday) became a social location. Not only did men gather there to pick up their letters and commercial orders, but they also often sat down to socialize, drink, and play cards. This horrified those who took their Sunday worship more seriously. Interestingly, these horrified individuals were often the same ones pursuing the Abolition of slavery, out of the same Christian beliefs!

Thus, Arthur Tappan, an ardent abolitionist of both New York City and New Haven, CT, would raise as much anger by his "Sunday mail laws" campaign as by his campaign to end slavery, and his brother Lewis, campaigning the same way, had his house broken into in 1834 by an angry mob.

Only 7% of the nation claimed strong religious ties at the time, and most opposed shutting down the post office on Sundays. The invention of the telegraph in the 1840s would ease the commercial necessity of Sunday mails. But the legislation to close the post office on Sundays would not be passed until 1912, and part of the opposition to it lay in favoring one religion over another, counter to the definitive statement of the Constitution that insisted the new nation not pick and choose. (Arguments included the belief that Sunday closing of the postal service would then lead to Saturday closing on behalf of the Jewish Sabbath, to be fair!)

What eventually tipped the nation to passing the closure laws was a combination of two pressures: postal workers wanting a day off like everyone else, and trading the closure for the new service of Parcel Post: being able to handle packages routinely.

That's a lot to think about, in the context of this week's political talk about Amazon, postal rates, and Sunday deliveries that have now resumed!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Crossing Paths with Franklin Benjamin Gage of East St Johnsbury

Although it's barely a whistlestop* now, with just a post office and a church and a "free library" on the post office porch -- plus the significant Peter and Polly Park, which I'll write about at another time -- East St Johnsbury was once a hub of manufacture and business. The significant Fairbanks family that nurtured both jobs and culture for the area erected its first mill on the Moose River in East St Johnsbury. Actually in the early days this was "St Johnsbury East" or just "East Village." And it prospered.

That prosperity and the related emphasis on education were in the background of a youth named Franklin Benjamin Gage, born in the village in 1824. He became a significant inventor in photo processes, and created both portraits and landscape images. I'm enamored of his stereo views of the region, which have become hard to find.

Shown here is a child portrait -- could it be your great-great-great-grandparent? -- probably made in Gage's studio in St. Johnsbury proper. On the reverse, he calls it an "ebonytype": a fancy name for a way of presenting the work that may have emphasized the sharp contrast of black and white in the original portrait. It's hard to tell now ... "ebonytype" doesn't have a definition that I've found, and is only mentioned in a wonderful article on Gage, from which I draw this quote:
By 1856 Gage advertised that his was the largest photographic establishment in the state of Vermont; at first offering daguerreotypes and then adding all the modern processes and styles as they became available – ambrotypes, mezzotypes, ebonytypes, cartes-de-visite, cabinet portraits, and so on, as well as displaying and selling his stereo views. 
The highly researched piece on Gage is authored by Bill Johnson and Susie Cohen -- I don't know who they were/are, and they stopped posting their writing about vintage photos five years ago. But I keep returning to the article, and now it has added meaning because the prime of F. B. Gage's life overlaps the period that's coming to life in my in-progress book, THIS ARDENT FLAME (second in the Winds of Freedom series from Five Star/Cengage). So I am thinking about what Gage may have seen in this image, and why he chose it to promote his work.

If this IS your four-greats grandparent, please do let me know. I'd love to attach a name to the face.

*Whistlestop: a railroad term. Also pertinent to the article I spent yesterday researching and drafting. You'll see it soon.

[Thanks, Dave Kanell, for the images!]

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ruffed Grouse, or Partridge (Pa'tridge)?

One of the challenges of writing a novel set in 1852 is the details that aren't recorded, but that I still want to get "historically accurate" for the story. Today's puzzlement is how to talk about the wild bird known to American colonists, based on their British experience, as partridge -- but corrected in name to ruffed grouse. John J. Audubon painted the birds (see above). And Karen A. Bordeau of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department also wrote this in 2015:

Regulation of grouse hunting received no attention for a long period. The first act protecting birds was passed in 1842, affording a breeding and rearing season free from molestation. They could be legally taken between September 1 and April 1, and permission of the landowner was required for hunting.
The regulation was repealed after four years, and grouse remained unprotected until 1862. The second law protecting grouse, passed in 1862, established a shorter season September 1-February 28 and four years later hunting was further curtailed by closing the season on January 31. Snaring had been a popular method of capture, and in 1885, was forbidden. By 1929, grouse were so rare all over the state that the Legislature completely closed the season in Coos County on the Canadian border, and in Cheshire County bordering Massachusetts.

And the New International Encyclopedia of 1917 says this:

So, what do my characters call these birds? That's in chapter 4 of THIS ARDENT FLAME (Book 2 of Winds of Freedom).

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Review of THE LONG SHADOW in Vermont History, Summer/Fall 2018, Social Studies Focus

One of the best tests of a historical Vermont novel with teen protagonists takes place when a social studies teacher -- a professional in the field -- sits down to read it. So I am hugely grateful and honored that Christine Smith, a teacher-librarian at Spaulding High School in Barre, Vermont, and president of the Vermont Alliance of the Social Studies (VASS), chose to read and review THE LONG SHADOW for the summer/fall 2018 issue of Vermont History, the journal of the Vermont Historical Society. I'm posting the review here -- seeing this in print is one of the great benefits of being a member of the Vermont Historical Society. Other articles in this issue focus on Burlington's ethnic communities, a Vermont steamboat pioneer, and Revolution-era hero Seth Warner. All worth reading!

My Brain Is Back in 1852 (Writing THIS ARDENT FLAME)

Dishes are stacked a little higher than usual. There's dust under the bed. But the chapters are unfolding, each page a marvel as I "discover" where the new book is going. My feet and my brain are in 1852 (fear not, my heart's still with my honey in 2018, and I can still cook).

Just so you can see what it's like -- at one moment I'm tapping out dialogue and moving the characters to the next scene. And then, quick, it's time to dash back into the research, like these marvelous pages from the 1854 edition of Walton's Register -- a business directory for Vermont that reveals much, much more than who owns what.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Which of These Did You Read as a Teen?

What makes a book into a good one for "young adults" or "middle graders"? When do adults start reading those same titles? This and more, on Saturday as I take part in "Writing for the Younger Set," a panel at the annual conference of Sisters in Crime New England. Here's what I have in mind ...

Writing for the Younger Set – Notes from Beth Kanell

In the 1800s, “Books for Young Persons” included The Swiss Family Robinson, Waverly (Walter Scott), Oliver Twist (Dickens), The Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas), Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped (Stevenson), and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. According to a Wikipedia author, these were books that “appealed to young readers, though not necessarily written for them.”

In the 1960s, the market for “adolescents” blossomed – and in 1973 Deathwatch by Robb White won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery. I’ve heard it said often that the true impetus of the “young adult” genre came from librarians, who saw a need for good books that wouldn’t push young readers into areas that were too mature for them.

But in the 1980s, that taboo was broken by books that dealt with rape, suicide, parental death, and murder – perhaps more at the YA (young adult) level than for middle grades (MG). With this trend came the teen romance novel, wrapped in adventure and with a more frank sexuality, even if the characters “resisted.” Contrast this with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, long a favorite among teens but containing no sexuality at all!

The Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy broke the barriers down further, making it clear that the important cultural questions, when addressed in fiction, could command a mixed audience of middle graders, young adults/teens, and adults. A book positioned deliberately for such a mix is now called a crossover – especially prominent today are “YA crossover” books, intended for adults as much as for teens.

Some aspects of writing “YA crossover” that intrigue me within the history-hinged mystery area are:

* The protagonist is a teen and thus by definition not very experienced – which leads to an “unreliable narrator” in a good way.

* The emotional value of the book comes with the teen’s confrontation with the world in some form, leading to “coming of age” – maybe not all at once.

* Issues that adults think are obvious or settled become open to new experience for teens: racial injustice, gender walls, technological windows, even illness and death.

I also spend a lot of thought and energy on issues around “who speaks for whom” and the amounts of violence and explicit physical awareness (which includes sexuality) when I write.

Most deeply, I believe the writer for young adults owes the audience three things: integrity, a chance to reach different conclusions than the writer’s, and a sense of hope for the future of each individual.

Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont, with a mountain at her back and a river at her feet. She writes poems, hikes the back roads and mountains, and digs into Vermont history to frame her “history-hinged” mystery novels: The Long Shadow, The Darkness Under the Water, The Secret Room, and Cold Midnight. Her poems scatter among regional publications and online. She shares her research and writing process at

(for November 10, 2018)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

If Everyone in America (and Specifically, Vermont) CAN Vote Now, Why Don't They?

Alice Stokes Paul (1885-1977), in 1917 -- and a view of today's meeting in Vermont.

In the year 2020, we'll mark 100 years since American women gained the right to vote. For some of us, exercising our vote came as a normal mark of adulthood -- and in Vermont, when we sign up to vote also pledge to do it responsibly, using the Freeman's Oath, which in 2002 became the Voter's Oath and gained inclusive language:
§ 42. Voter's qualifications and oaths
Every person of the full age of eighteen years who is a citizen of the United States, having resided in this State for the period established by the General Assembly and who is of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and will take the following oath or affirmation, shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state:
You solemnly swear (or affirm) that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.
Is voting any different for women than for men? Percentages of voting women suggest there are real effects of gender ... hard to sort out. Even more than gender today, though, access to voting can be blocked or slowed by disability (I have a sibling whose lack of mobility makes it REALLY hard to get registered), low income (who'll watch the kids? what about loss of pay for that hour off to sign up, when every hour of income matters?), and details like skin color, accented English (even if the person is very educated), and obvious personal choices and beliefs can all interfere.

Today's Montpelier meeting of about 18 women (some in person, some phoning in) to collaborate on preparation for marking 2020 included conversation about most of those factors. It also admitted past detours, with resolve for better present and future actions. The interactions, energy, and respect in the conversation promised an effective mission, strong goals, and exciting events and processes ahead. I learned a lot about how active the League of Women Voters is in Vermont, too, with strong effects that can create change.

Consider this set of mission plus goals from 25 years earlier, in Vermont, to mark 75 years of women voting -- where I was surprised to see the economic focus:

I also learned about a Vermont organization called Change the Story -- came home wearing a pin provided via the Vermont Commission on Women, and checked out the website (, discovering the group focuses on the economic status of women in Vermont. Makes sense to me ...

I can hardly wait to see what comes next!