In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Thursday, June 24, 2021

How Magical!: THIS ARDENT FLAME and Harriet Beecher Stowe

This Ardent Flame is now in print, and the magic continues. 

This is the second in my Winds of Freedom series of historical mysteries, seeing the approach to the Civil War through the eyes of Vermont teenaged girls. In 1852, to be 14 was to be on the verge of womanhood—and to contemplate big questions, like Abolition, Temperance, and votes for women. Also, if you are Alice Sanborn, to confront the wickedness of a man who beats a horse and probably does the same to humans.

Writing This Ardent Flame became magical for me as Alice and her bosom buddy Caroline, deaf from childhood and newly home to Vermont after years of boarding at the School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT, were riding the train north from Boston. Their mission at that moment was to help provide a merry family distraction around two Black men traveling with Alice’s brothers. The men were freemen, but still at risk even in New England, due to the horrors of the Fugitive Slave Law.

As the girls were “conversing” in their adapted language of American Sign Language, lip reading, and already being well attuned to each other’s thoughts, a woman paused to observe and then to ask them about the exchange of Sign. Fascinated, she assured them she’d be following up on this, then leapt off the train for her connection to Maine.

I suddenly knew who it was, before the girls were aware, of course: Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a woman who would later meet President Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said to her, “So this is the little woman who started this big war.”

Students and teachers at the American School for the Deaf

Abashed at my own hubris in walking such an important person into the scene, I emailed one of my consultants: the historian at the American School for the Deaf. “Do you mind,” I asked with shaking typing fingers, “if Harriet Beecher Stowe walks through a scene? Could that be historic?”

The quick reply was basically: “Go for it!” Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine, it turned out, had been close friends of Alice Cogswell, who ran the school! And in Alice’s scrap book was (gulp) an unpublished poem by the famed Hartford author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin! Here is the actual response from the school historian:

Alice Cogswell kept a scrap book, which we [were] fortunate to inherit from one of her relatives back in 1936.  The scrap book is a collection of poems, letters, and drawings from friends and family members.  She certainly did have a connection with the Beecher family because her scrap book includes a poem from Harriet Beecher Stowe and one from Catherine E. Beecher.  I have no documentation of the circumstances, but it stands to reason.  Both families were prominent in the same Hartford circles, and both women were activists in their own right.  Especially Catherine’s crusade for the education of women.  I imagine Alice’s education at ASD would have been of particular interest to Catherine.

And that, my friends, is the magic of writing historical mysteries—that every now and then, an unexpected guest walks into the scene, and turns out to uncover a real-life revelation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Returning to Philip Pullman's THE BOOK OF DUST, Thinking about "Young Adult"

My newest Vermont historical adventure reaches the marketplace on June 23: THIS ARDENT FLAME. Set in a real village not far from where I research and write, in 1852, it probes the very real controversies around ending enslavement in America, from a Vermont point of view.

But for me—and I think for many other authors—a novel takes on legs and spirit of its own, and within a few pages of the start, I knew the teens in this book had complicated lives in which they felt the pain of being "other than" what's expected. They knew romance and dreams. They threw themselves into battles for justice, without full consideration of what it could cost them.

And that, for me, is the point of writing "YA." Teen protagonists aren't just unseasoned; they are passionate. When they recognize the next right thing to do, they can be more likely than careful, thoughtful adults to offer themselves and their abilities. Of course they get hurt this way. But they also grow in leaps that are exhilarating to experience, even as the writer rediscovering them. 

THIS ARDENT FLAME recaps what it meant to be deaf in Vermont before the Civil War. It exposes the pain of families already beginning to split on moral grounds. I hope that in the best of ways, it foreshadows the coming darkness of the war that tore America apart, so fiercely that the wounds have still not healed, 160 years since they began to bleed.

My kind of writing depends on constantly learning. A lot of that is from the scholarship and research of others, especially social historians. But I'm also always working at becoming a better wordsmith, scene setter, tension exposer, painter of love and loyalty. Part of my "training" comes from reading powerful stories told by others. I grew up on Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkein, Frances Hodson Burdett, Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, and yes, second-tier novelists who brought us important visions, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who strolled right into THIS ARDENT FLAME and surprised me deeply.

In my non-writing life, I'm doing some hard things right now, involving selling the home where my husband and I lived and loved, and where I tended him in his final illness. I'm learning to talk with (and learn from!) contractors in preparing a new home for myself. I'm packing LOTS of books.

So I'm re-reading YA novels this month. That took me, this week, to Philip Pullman's newest series, "The Book of Dust," which has two published books so far, with the third and final yet to come. As I worked through the first one again, La Belle Sauvage (named for the canoe owned by Malcolm, one of the protagonists), I looked at how Pullman summoned power through his words, and deepened the ideas and passions behind them. 

Around halfway through the book, Malcolm's school gets taken over by a religious crusade that deliberately turns children into spies on the morals of their families and friends. Malcolm observes the effect: "Few pupils were openly naughty anymore—there were few fights in the playground, for instance—but everyone seemed guiltier."

The phrasing made me think of Orwell's Animal Farm. Political manipulation and power depend on making one group feel potent, and another feel guilty and "less than." It's a shocking book, and one that is now embedded as firmly in our culture and thinking as Orwell's other noted dystopian, 1984. 

Is Animal Farm meant for teens to read? I certainly read it first when I was a teen, for school. Recently my 12-year-old grandson read it for school, too. I tried to let him know, without being pushy about it, that I felt the book was dark, even scary. I bet he felt the same way. I hope his classroom reinforced taking a stand against the machinations exposed in the story—and supported the kids who found it painful to read. Lots of people experience the use of power against them, even before they grow up.

I'm torn about whether Pullman's books are "good for young readers." Even today, I find they hurt me, darken my views, open me to more despair. 

If you have an opinion on all this—I'd like to hear yours. Let's talk.

[Hope you'll make time to browse more of my tales here of historical research, writing, and life! Tap the link to reach the rest of the material:]

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Unpacking a Vintage Postcard: The Little Revelations of Research

My husband Dave was the main collector of vintage postcards here. With a dozen want lists, ranging among his passions of Vermont history, AT&T founder and Lyndonville experimental farmer and philanthropist Theodore Newton Vail, the village of Gilman, and Jewish themes, he spent hours roaming the online listings, and something intriguing arrived in the mail most mornings.

It's taken me time to absorb his tasks in with mine, since his death two years ago. But I am now hunting postcards when I have time. I picked up this one for its charming "Bird's Eye View of West Derby, Vt." (which is now part of Newport, Vermont), thinking we might not have the image itself among his Newport and Derby postcards.

And then, of course, the back of the card drew me in.

It's hard to read, scrawled in pencil and overlaid with a Newport (Vt.) postmark. Even the postmark year is difficult to parse, though we can see it comes from the years when a postcard traveled for the cost of a penny stamp. Even the stamp is a challenge for my aging eyes! But with the aid of a lighted magnifier, I read "Balboa 1513" and marveled that this U.S. stamp commemorated the Spanish explorer's claiming of the Pacific Ocean on behalf of his nation.

The message, once you turn it upright, reads as follows:

July 17 - '15

Dear friend You card rec'd this a.m. Was so glad to know you'd not forgotten me. I'm getting stronger every day and hope you are also. It was so nice of Leola to see me off. I was about sick for three days after coming home. Very sincerely, Mrs. Kimball

I puzzled over the address for a while, and came up with Mrs. B. W. McCosco, 54 Concord Ave., St. Johnsbury Vt.  However, I thought I probably had the name wrong, since I'd never heard that name before. So I started pulling up town listings from the early 1900s. It didn't take long to realize that McCosco was indeed a local surname, and here's what I found:

Mrs. Maude C. McCosco was a teacher who boarded at 159 Railroad Street in St. J. She was the second wife of Basil Winfred McCosco (born in West Danville in 1872, died in St. J in 1920). Her marriage took place in 1912, and her name before the marriage was Winifred Maude Blair Clifford (she lived from 1879 to 1967).

Note that her postcard was addressed using her husband's initials, B. W.; also note that she was listed in the town as a "boarder" just a few years after her marriage. I wonder now ... had Basil left her alone for some reason? What caused him to die at the relatively young age of 48? Which years did Maude teach school, and where?

Which just goes to show: The more you pull out the clues from a postcard, the more mysteries you open up in response.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Vermont History Comes Alive -- on the Pages, and in Short Videos

Photo by Darcie McCann

A huge joy in my writing life is researching and writing articles for the North Star Monthly that focus on remarkable people of this region of Vermont, whose lives and adventures have become part of our history.

Many people ask me, "How did you get the idea to look into that one?"

So I've started a series of short videos on "where this story came from." If you're curious, you can check them out at my YouTube page, or go directly to one of these:

The Fur Farms of Vermont

Pioneering Aeronauts of the NEK (Northeast Kingdom of Vermont)

I'll add another each month. Hope you enjoy these!

Cover Release! THIS ARDENT FLAME, Publication in June 2021

 I love this cover design from Five Star/Cengage -- it certainly tells you that the protagonists in THIS ARDENT FLAME are women! In this case, they are teens, taking on their share of putting the abolition of slavery front and center for Americans, especially Vermonters, in 1852. You already met Alice Sanborn in The Long Shadow (Book 1 of Winds of Freedom). Join her as she meets Caroline, whose return to North Upton startles Alice into recognizing how limited her own world has been.

Now, of course, I'm writing book 3 of Winds of Freedom, set in 1854, and featuring Almyra Alexander. You'll want to watch for her arrival, too, in THIS ARDENT FLAME.

Looking forward to sharing the new novel with you soon!

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Lemonade from Pandemic Lemons: Here Come the Ebooks!

Although hardcover publishing for my next book is delayed until June 2021, Speaking Volumes has created an ebook of The Long Shadow, my 1850 Vermont adventure novel. A new cover accompanies the publication, and I love it! 

It's wonderful to be able to share more of my work via ebook versons now. And there will be other novels soon to come.

Monday, November 16, 2020

"Aging in Place": Eliza Ann Ide Henry, Wife of a Timber Baron

Because I live on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River, I focus more on the history of the Green Mountain State. But when we're talking about the decades of timber harvesting, both sides of the river have complex and fascinating stories to tell.

For the Vermont side, the books by Waterford native Robert E. Pike, Tall Trees, Tough Men and Spiked Boots, narrate the winter lives spent in the northern forests, followed by the perilous spring adventures of bringing the logs down the swollen rivers. River log transport ended on the Connecticut as Waterford watched construction of the Comerford Dam in 1930. It can still be witnessed on occasion in Maine, but the risks outweigh the benefits and need most of the time.

 On the New Hampshire side, J. E. (James Everell) Henry undertook construction of railroads that penetrated deep into the forested landscape. Not only did his timing mesh with the willingness to spread out the rail network, but it also coincided with the use of shorter logs that could fit onto rail cars.

Littleton, NH, author Mike Dickerman compiles material on Henry, along with a vast knowledge of the high peaks of northern New Hampshire. In August 2014, he visited the Waterford Historical Society to talk about Henry and his own book on this ambitious and accomplished leader.

Today, as Dickerman prepares a new book on history of the high peaks, he shared a photo of the Waterford woman who would marry J. E. Henry: Eliza Ann Ide (daughter of Joseph and Almira), who was 20 years old when this photo was taken. Her marriage would follow two years later.

Eliza Ann Ide, 1912, before marrying J.E. Henry.

Since the photo was taken in 1852, it's a perfect mesh with the historical fiction series I'm writing, Winds of Freedom. I can absorb from this image of Eliza's face a reminder of both the lack of experience and the determination to enfold life that so many of our New England young women combined at age 20 in the nineteenth century. It reminds me, too, of my own early adult years, the mistakes and successes, the surprises, the constant learning, from kitchen to garden to babies to how a marriage works and how to sustain love over the long term. (That takes a lot of learning!)

Mike Dickerman also shared this photo of Eliza (Ide) Henry taken 60 years later, in 1912 -- I think she looks younger than her 80 years in the photo, and clearly she's still industrious and creative.

Eliza Ann Henry, 1912, after her husband's death.


It seems to me that in this pandemic year, as we shelter in place while waiting for medical science to develop the vaccines we so desperately need, we mustn't overlook that we are also "aging in place." Such a close relationship with place is a traditional resource and value of this northern area, where family roots may go back a century and more, and even newcomers begin to bond with the terrain, the light, the plants and animals, as they struggle through their early seasons here. It's been a joke to "city folks" that we in rural areas talk about the weather so much ... but it defines each day's opportunities and necessities. So we have to pay attention.

Living beyond the years of a beloved spouse or child also change our relationship with time, in my observation. Instead of the calendar being significant for upcoming milestones, it has more to say about counting from major events: I am in my second year after my husband Dave's death. Through the long powerful rope of love and "missingness," I am tethered to what has been an anchor for me. 

 In the 1912 photo, Eliza had been a widow for only days or months. I wonder how she saw her past, and how she looked ahead. She would live nearly 20 years longer, dying at age 99 in Pasadena, California, so at some point she clearly decided to stir up excitement in her golden years, and travel across the nation (by rail, I trust!). 

That's a good reminder for today: We are sheltering in place, and aging in place -- but the years ahead will include freedom from the pandemic, and amazing adventures, if we choose. 

[Hope you'll make time to browse more of my tales here of historical research, writing, and life! Tap the link to reach the rest of the material:]