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?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Home. Really.

It's a magical day. Neil Raphel and Janis Raye of Brigantine Media agreed today to publish my YA adventure, THE HUNGRY PLACE. The contract is signed.

But way more important than the contract is this: We three sat at Neil and Janis's table and for the first time in the life of this book, I heard someone other than me and my thoughts say, "Shawna is so cool, and here's what I want to know about Thea."

After living for two years with Shawna and Thea and their families and neighbors in my life, only my life,  it's like opening a door into a room where you've never been, and finding that the person on the other side of the door knows -- knows really, really well -- your sister or your brother or your best friend. You're home, in a new place, and the smile in front of you touches your heart.

Photo here: Old North Church in winter, not far from where Shawna and Thea "live" in North Danville, Vermont. With luck and hard work, you'll all get to "meet" these feisty teens in 2011. Watch for news, as Neil and Janis and editor Adrienne and I move "the girls" toward publication. Hurrah!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To Every Thing There Is a Season ...

After completing COLD MIDNIGHT last month, I'm taking a break for poetry, walks in the woods, and of course family and friends during the holidays.  In January, I'll start writing THE FIRE CURSE -- and meanwhile I've pinned lots of related material onto my work walls.

Temperatures are plunging, now that we have snow on the ground. Here's a related poem from my collection Mud Season at the Castle.

Ten-Below-Zero Morning

Even inside the windows, the frost
glares back at me in the early morning --
this is the try-your-souls cold weather
striking the house with stiffness that groans
like a car engine far too depressed
to spark into life.

God's gift to the morning must be coffee.
Clutching a steaming mug, blowing
my breath on the frosted window, I clear
a space -- a hole to look through
and eye the thermometer's short red line
squatting at ten below zero.
My knees ache in sympathy.
Oh coffee, warm me and wake me slowly
spread heat in my belly, let courage
rise to my eyes.

Bitter arctic weather with wind:
long johns and turtleneck, sweater and corduroys
thick fuzzy socks and fleece-lined boots.
I wrap myself in simple comforts
gaze at the bright blue sunstruck sky
and try to hold breath and heat and life
inside my woolly garments.

These days when the sun is low and lukewarm
these days when the wind steals the fire's delight
are days when I call you to hear your voice
for heat in my heart and a sort of leap
like coffee waking the courage
into my eyes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Streetcars in Boston, 1921

I've finished writing Cold Midnight and the manuscript, which half a dozen generous readers absorbed chapter by chapter over the past year, is now in the hands of my agent -- the first person to read the book from start to finish all at once.

One of my chapter-at-a-time readers e-mailed me earlier today, asking about a moment when Claire Benedict, one of the two teens featured in the novel, is barefoot in winter in 1921. The consequences for Claire's feet are extreme, but ... well, the end of the book gives some idea of how her recovery may be going. If you've ever walked in snow in bare feet, you have an idea of what's at stake! I have a bit of experience in this -- my sons and I had to walk one-third of a mile in our socks in a snow-covered landscape in the middle of the night once, at twenty-three degrees below zero. Later that week, the skin on our feet peeled from the frostbite.

Shown here is a photo that I was glad to find online, as it gave me some confirmation of what the streetcars in Boston in 1921 could have been like. This photo is from another city, but the year is right, and it's a clearer shot than the ones I found that were from "Beantown." Every detail matters ...

And just in case you wonder what it feels like to have finished the book: Actually, it feels very quiet inside. Neither Claire nor Ben is pushing me to tell what happens next in their story. For the moment, at least, I can hear only my own voice in my thoughts.

You know, it's a little bit too quiet. I might have to start the next book later this week.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Prohibition: A Vermont Tradition

Locations listed on this handbill surround my writing territory today.
"Prohibition," short for "prohibition of alcohol," is often thought of as the time period when the U.S. federal government, through a Constitutional amendment, banned booze. Here's the actual text of the 18th Amendment:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. 
Both crime and social ills flowerd in spite of, or even because of, this well-meant piece of social legislation. The hopes of decades of Americans, especially women who experienced the ills of drunkenness at home, were crushed by the side-effects of this law. It stayed in place from 1920 to 1933, when it was repealed, and this 13-year segment is the time period we call Prohibition.

But there were many places in the United States that got serious about banning "intoxicating liquors" both before and after that time. A collection at the Bailey-Howe Library at the University of Vermont highlights Vermont's experience with such legislation: From 1850 to 1902, the state created its own Green Mountain "prohibition" years. (See details here; the exhibit took place in 2009, but the materials are still available.)

This is a great challenge for both an investigator of history and a novelist. After all, if the federal banning of alcohol use encouraged organized crime and also the Jazz Age, what did the state version encourage?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn Adventure from Texas Librarian Analine Johnson

Remember the video trailer for The Darkness Under the Water, crafted by Texas librarian Analine Johnson? (It's in the righthand column here on the blog.) Analine wrote today with a Big Announcement! I'll let her tell you in her own words:

Hi Beth, I Have great news to share with you. I don't know if you follow the School Library Journal but they are holding their very first 'Book Trailee Awards'. I'm so excited to share with you that my trailer for The Darkness Under the Water has been nominated for the category: adult created for secondary. I need your vote! So please spread the word. Voting started today and will end on October 22nd. Winners will be  announced that evening at School Library Journal Leadership Summit on the Future of Reading in Chicago, IL.

Analine Johnson
Rodolfo Centeno Elementary
Laredo, Texas

I hope you'll vote for the trailer, and spread the word. Who knows? We are one of only 24 trailers selected for the finals!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

American Library Association "Banned Books Week" and Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK

Eleven years after publication, Laurie Halse Anderson's YA novel SPEAK is under attack again -- but this time, defenders of the book and the right to read freely are speaking up more clearly than ever, thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook.

To read the ALA explanation of "Banned Books Week," Sept. 25-Oct. 2, click here.

For School Library Journal's interview with author Anderson, click here.

And here's the synopsis from the back of SPEAK, where the protagonist has been raped -- a far cry from what its critics are labeling "pornography":

Melinda Sordino busted and end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t know hate her from a distance. It’s no use explaining to her parents; they’ve never known what her life is really like. The safest place for Melinda to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she admitted it and let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have no choice. Melinda would have to speak the truth.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Perspective: Now Is Not Then

The photograph here of an "elderly Chinese man with queue" (as it is described on a California website that doesn't identify the photographer or source) got me thinking in a different way about the (very real) basement laundry space owned by Sam Wah in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, from 1886 to 1921. Mr. Wah's murder, officially unsolved, is one of the centers for the background history of my book in progress, Cold Midnight. Knowing his shop was in a basement -- and knowing the damp fierce chill of most downtown basement spaces here in Vermont today -- originally gave me the sense that his shop location reflected both bias against strangers, and cheap rent available for unwanted shop space.

But at the start of last summer, I toured Boston's Chinatown, courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of New England, and saw the many businesses that utilized cellar spaces. In fact, there seemed to be a loose arrangement of industrial-type businesses (like a print shop) in the basements, grocery stores and restaurants in first-floor rooms (slightly higher up than sidewalk level), and meeting spaces and residences above those.

Reflecting on this photo reminds me: Don't assume that a basement space meant the same thing to a Chinese immigrant in 1886 that it means to a downtown merchant today.

That's a crucial attitude to keep fresh during historical research and while writing: Now is not the same as then. And that's why the original material -- in this case especially, the writings in the local paper about Mr. Wah and his business, as well as the narratives that today's Chinatown residents share -- are so important.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Always Learning: Language and Power

I now have copies of almost all the news articles that related to the death of Sam Wa at age 75 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The 1921 murder of this aging downtown businessman was not officially solved, in spite of a detective being hired. And it's the center catastrophe of the (fictional) mystery I'm writing, Cold Midnight.

Research never stops, not during the writing process, and not even afterward. One strand I've been exploring is the meaning and use of the word "Chinaman" in 1921. From 2010, it's easy to ignore the term, assuming it had the same kind of descriptive value as "Irishman" or "Englishman." But in fact, it was a slur, an offensive word. Used for all Asians at the time, it made clear the American ignorance of people who lived at or came from "the other side of the world." Every dictionary notes that the term was (and is) "offensive." And the Urban Dictionary gives a modern description of this, as the offense of the term endures:
A term used to define a person of chinese descent. Depending on the situation of where the word is used, it can be offensive to a man of Chinese Origin espeacially if hes not Chinese but of Asian descent. Doesnt seem racist but it is The term China Man was coined by the racist ignorant white man.
Hes a China Man!
HEy China Man pick that up for me!
Hey CHina Man go back to China!
Hey China Man I didnt know you grew up in the U.S.
So when we read the articles and editorials in the local paper, the Caledonian-Record, about how the community should respond to the murder of Sam Wa, we need "1921 ears" to understand the sermons that the local ministers offered, when they said on the Sunday after the murder that Sam Wa's death should NOT be treated as a case of "he was only a Chinaman."

They weren't saying Sam Wa was just a poor Chinese immigrant; they were weighing a label that held the power of the oldtime label "nigger," a way to distinguish a person who never be allowed to rise to full humanity in the eyes of the culture of that moment.

For another angle on the image of Chinese in America in the 1920s and 1930s, take a look at the Jill Lepore write-up of Yunte Huang's new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with History, which just appeared in The New Yorker online.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Research Via Postcards

I was excited to purchase a hand-drawn tinted postcard last week that showed the YMCA Building in St. Johnsbury (Vermont) -- a building I've never seen, because it was destroyed by fire. When I first started paying attention to downtown fires, I thought the downtowns full of brick structures were safe. After all, you can't light a brick very well, can you?

But it turns out that brick buildings burn most often from the inside. After all, they are lined with wooden structures, which in turn are lined with wood and plaster walls. Many of the "stone" structures have the same susceptibility to fire. In the mystery I'm now writing, Cold Midnight, there's a cathedral-like church in town called Notre Dame des Victoires; in the 1900s, that was where the French-Canadian Catholics attended Mass ("Irish" and other "English-speaking" Catholics went to St. Aloysius). Notre Dame des Victoires was set on fire by an altarboy who placed a burning candle inside the wooden wall structure.

The color photo postcard here is taken at the top of Eastern Avenue, and I think the ornate architecture of the YMCA building shows over to the right; the building in the center of the card is the one where a lot of the action in Cold Midnight takes place -- on the roof!

This first black-and-white postcard is the Avenue House, which became the New Avenue House when rebuilt after a fire -- it was the closest hotel to the railroad depot. And now it's called Depot Square Apartments instead.

Last but not least, I was pleased to find today a postcard image of the Woman's Club home on Cherry Street. The St. Johnsbury Woman's Club was the group that invited "Mrs. General Custer" -- that is, Elizabeth (Libbie) Clift Bacon Custer -- to speak in town. A separate research project on the town's habit of inviting exciting speakers (1871-1901 in this case) can be found at with many more photos from various sources.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Family Stories, Family Stones

I've just reached the first crisis point in the YA history/mystery that I'm writing, Cold Midnight; it's about ten pages earlier than I figure it would happen (I was aiming for page 100, but the characters pushed the plot to erupt at page 87). Well, that's how it goes. Considering that subsequent revisions are likely to add a page here and there, the final version is still likely to see that crisis come around page 100! Feeling the braiding of the families involved in the tale, with the suspense that the teens are handling, seems like a good framework for this crime-and-adventure novel.

With cooler, less humid weather and a great breeze, I wrapped up the writing session around 4:30 this afternoon and took off on a bike ride to a tiny family cemetery on a local farm. Last week the farming family told me I was welcome to visit "The Hill Cemetery." It's named for the family whose lives are marked on the stones in the neatly mowed enclosure. There are some other names as well -- including a Bugbee, a name still common around here. I expected some Civil War veterans -- but not this Revolutionary War soldier, Moses Wright, whose place is marked with honors in both old and new styles. Can't see myself writing a novel set in Vermont's 1770s (especially this far north), but it never hurts to let the images sink in and whisper for a while.

Tomorrow I've got two Big Chapters scheduled. A good night's sleep and a protein-packed breakfast are in the plans. But no encore bike ride just yet -- the chain snapped today. Repairs!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for a Guest Speaker for This Fall?

I've just inked in evenings with two local Vermont historical societies in October and I am excited, knowing that these will lead to great discussions of the history behind The Darkness Under the Water. I still have plenty of dates open for community groups and schools. And since I can see the end of the second draft of Cold Midnight coming by the end of this summer, I'm going to be charged up and eager to hit the road -- not only to talk about the books, but also to learn some of your local history, too.

Teens in your life? Ask me about special programs for schools and youth groups, as well as book and reading clubs.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Long Road of Research

The photo here is part of the remains of the Ely Copper Mine in central Vermont. I took the back roads home today from the Vermont History Expo, in order to find the site and catch a couple of photos. This adds to information that I already have from a scientific researcher for the site. Look hard and you may spot the remains of a laid dry-stone wall at the rear -- I think perhaps from a rail bed. I stayed on the road to snap the photos, as walking on the land is banned.

And it all is part of the long, slow accumulation of detail for a book that I'll probably start in 2012 -- working title "Crowd Control" but that's just for the file folder. I already know it involves a haunting, and the long consequences of injustice. Will it be for young adults, or older readers? I won't know until the characters start speaking to me.

But for the moment, I'd rather they only whisper. COLD MIDNIGHT and THE FIRE CURSE are occupying about all of the writing brain that I've got!

Just for the fun of it, here's a photo from the History Expo, where I met with readers and history buffs at noon. The Expo takes place every second year and is well worth attending! In the photo are members of the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks (Civil War re-enactors).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Summer in Vermont!

It's cool and rainy today (sweater weather for the evening!), but here's a photo taken on the deck yesterday morning, settling in to re-read Blood of the Wicked, a definitely dark crime novel from Brazilian author Leighton Gage. I also dipped into a Denise Mina (Glasgow) crime novel last night -- but fear not, this evening (if and when I finish writing and editing!), I'm planning to enjoy reviewing a new and very gentle Vermont novel by Laura Stevenson. Take a peek tomorrow morning if you like, at my mysteries (and sometimes poetry) review blog,

Friday, June 25, 2010

More Stories That Matter: Local News

Here's a photo of the construction team headed to work on the rooftop skylight of the St. Johnsbury (Vermont) Athenaeum today (cell phone photo, so a bit fuzzy!). Problem: Skylight work means the Athenaeum's noted art gallery is closed for the season. Opportunity: Another part of the building, Athenaeum Hall, has a glorious history including visits from President Benjamin Harrison, Henry Stanley ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), receptions for other speakers like "Mrs. General Custer," Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Horace Greeley -- this was a hotbed of discourse in the late 1800s! So a handful of us collaborated this spring in researching these "stories" and an exhibit will open in a week or so, lingering through summer and early fall, giving visitors to the Athenaeum a new set of adventures.

To see the work of creating this exhibit, check out our "workspace" at

I am so excited as I tell people about "Libbie" Custer and her powerful effect in redirecting history around her husband's disastrous battle; about how Stanley pandered to Victorian taste in his narratives (that are now strongly in doubt in several portions); about President Harrison's light-bulb moment that resulted in flags in public schools; about Lincoln's argument with Horace Greeley. If people can be seen as plants, our roots are in these stories, and our blossoms and fruit are shaped by them, whether for good or ill.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Chinatown, Boston: Today and 1921

How can I walk back through time to discover Boston's Chinatown in 1921?

One way is through the Chinese Historical Society of New England, which graciously allowed me to join a group tour earlier this month in order to hear about the district and how it has changed, along with the memories of CHSNE members and details from their studying and collecting. Thank you, Caroline, Nancy, and more.

Most important details learned in terms of 1921: no New Year's parade or festivities outside the home at that time, and VERY few women, due to the harsh conditions set by the (US) Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which by 1921 had widened into the Asian Exclusion Act.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

History Sleuthing

When I'm working on an action novel or mystery set in another time period -- like THE LONG SHADOW, set in 1850 during the Underground Railroad in Vermont -- I'm in full detective mode. I carry a small pocket notebook, file cards, pens, camera, and sometimes even a magnifying glass. And I hit the road for almost as many hours as I'm at the desk.

Most critical in triggering THE LONG SHADOW was a visit to Rokeby, the best documented Underground Railroad station in Vermont. If you'd like to visit, the site is open in summer, or drop in at the website: At Rokeby are photos, letters, furnishings ... all the reality of life lived fully, more than a hundred and fifty years ago. And Director Jane Williamson's research on what "really happened" in Vermont at that time -- I can say absolutely that this was key to the adventures and view of events that unfold in the novel.

Also important, as any story takes shape, are the details of clothing, food, roadways, forests, wildlife. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife team helped me pin down the presence of wolves in 1850; a friend at the Smithsonian Institution provided resources for the "how" of 19th-century dishwashing, which I needed to know about in order to get enough detail into some family scenes. And I used early photos and drawings of the village of North Danville, Vermont, found mostly in a graduate thesis by Gerald LaMothe.

It takes more than a village to research a book properly!

This week I'm excited about visiting Chinatown in Boston, for a tense scene in the novel now unfolding at my computer: COLD MIDNIGHT. I need to know what Chinatown looked like, felt like, smelled like, in 1921. I'll fill you in on some of the discoveries next week.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Summer Afternoon

Photo: Our strawberry bed, last week of May. In the middle, an apple tree -- produced by grafting, during a Ken Parr workshop at the Fairbanks Museum.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mixed Motives: American Eugenics and Women's Campaigns

Discussions with Vermont librarians about the Vermont Eugenics Project -- the bitter historical reality underlying The Darkness Under the Water -- often come, with sorrow, to Vermont author Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Author of Understood Betsy and many other well-loved children's books, Fisher also wrote abundantly for adults. She campaigned for sensible future plans for her adopted home state (like many another "flatlander" turned Vermont taxpayer). In the early 1900s she saw the potential for tourism as a major revenue source for Vermont and urged a program of preparation, including tidying the landscape. Her thinking led her to approve of a Vermont peopled by camera-ready Yankee farmers, making do, polishing kitchens, and speaking in similar dialects. And her influence in the political and social world of her day contributed to the mood in which Vermont legislators finally passed a law that allowed invasive surgery of women who "shouldn't have more children." The point was, to clean up the people -- that's what eugenics means.

With hindsight, we can see what a terrible law this was. And we can see the errors in thinking that led to it. But at the time, many "good people" were clueless about the evil that it authorized.

Today's Boston Globe includes a review of the book America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May. Reviewer Kate Tuttle points to the book's discussion of Margaret Sanger. Sanger campaigned for teaching "sex education" and for making birth control available to women. She saw it as a way to free women from repeated unplanned pregnancies, with all the serious health effects and limits of life choices that came with those. But like Fisher, Sanger also saw birth control as something to be imposed on the poor, the uneducated, and in a wider vision, on people she saw as undesirable. Although she didn't have a direct role in what happened in Vermont, she worked hard to make sure eugenics laws were discussed and passed in many states. Thirty-one states eventually had some version of eugenics laws.

As I think about these women who worked so hard for social change -- and who also helped make possible laws that are now seen clearly as unjust, creating terror and pain -- I think also about the power of women and their capacity to keep trying. Clearly, we all need to listen to each other, and keep widening our own vision and understanding. Let's resolve to do our best to test our ideas not just among our friends, but out in the wide world of difference. The Internet makes this possible in ways that couldn't have been imagined a hundred years ago.

Photo: Margaret Sanger.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Poem from "Mud Season at the Castle" (by me when I was E. L. Dugger)


Across the heat of June hayfields
the clouds rolled up all black and silver
flashing forth ancient tongues
and came the rain:
Gray slaps and sluices sweeping down hillsides
stealing vistas
pounding the earth into puddle holes
and whipping the rutted road.
It was the longest day of summer,
yet the green ridges shivered purple
and the birds hid.
Late afternoon the wind arose
tore off the sky's low sagging veil
and spread blue innocence
from hill to gleaming hill.
To the mountaintop I scrambled
drawing the charged and trembling air
into my secret places.
And the places where my wings might grow
rustled feathery soft inside me.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Historical Research in Progress

Ever wondered what it's like to search out the pieces of the puzzle for a specific historical question? Bob Joly, Shara McCaffery, and I are working on a question about lectures given at a community gathering spot in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in the late 1800s: at "Athenaeum Hall." To see how the digging begins as wide and scattered data, then gradually narrows with confirmation, toward a presentation, take a peek at the workspace blog for "Our Distinguished Guests":

Another Reason for Reading Historical Fiction

"Never again" -- we share the history and literature of the Holocaust with teens as well as adults, knowing that the health and heart of our world depend on learning the lessons of our past. Teens today often work their own way through Holocaust fiction as well as memoirs, seeking insight.

Many New Englanders have now forgotten that in the United States in the early 1900s, the scientific enthusiasms of genetics had branched into eugenics.  Social and political movements embraced the possibilities of "improving" Americans through encouraging the "fit" to have babies, and the "unfit" to submit to sterilization. The Darkness Under the Water (Candlewick, Nov. 2008) opens the door to this period through well-researched historical fiction, as 16-year-old Molly Ballou finds her family threatened in 1930 because of her Abenaki (Native American) heritage. Vermont was among 31 states to pass eugenics laws at this time, but may have been the only one in which Native Americans became a deliberate target.

My father's experiences as a Jewish child in Germany and England and his choice to keep his heritage away from his children affected me strongly as I wrote this book. This fall, I'll be speaking about The Darkness Under the Water and other writings of mine, on Saturday October 9 in Marshfield, Mass. I'm very interested in visiting Greater Boston area schools and libraries during the week before and after this date. Would a discussion of this book and its significance fit into your fall schedule? If so, please do contact me about reserving a date for an author visit. I am also available at other dates for online visits through Skype An Author, and am pleased to correspond with book groups and teachers, as well as with students who have school approval to exchange e-mails or letters.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Wow, what a learning curve, to create a video and post it on YouTube! I've also entered this in the ForeWord Book Trailer contest; hope you'll take a look, and leave a "like" vote if it pleases you (you can only vote AFTER watching it). Thanks! -- look for Darkness Under the Water.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Author Get-Togethers via Skype

Like most authors, I spend hours and hours at my desk -- or doing research -- or taking a walk to get the writing muscles loosened up and thinking about getting back to the desk. So when it's time for an author event, it's great to be able to talk with others who care about books and the way that they change our lives.

Sometimes I can be there in person, in a classroom, library, discussion group. But sometimes I've got to stay close to the desk and can't drive or fly to another location. Thank goodness for SKYPE AN AUTHOR. It's a way to connect that I hope you'll consider if you don't live nearby. Take a look at the site:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Abenaki Recognition in Vermont: Progress

Here's a link to the VCNAA site provided by Mark Mitchell, where you can follow the progress of S.222, the Vermont bill that would give a better form of recognition to the Abenaki of this state:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Historical Fiction: Digging for "Truth"

Often "truth" is not displayed by a photo, no matter how accurate the image may be. The photos shown here -- not so great, because I took it with my cell phone, having forgotten to bring along my camera -- show a bit of the center of the village of Coventry. A casual visitor would assume that the soldiers' monument on the village green lists the Yankees who enlisted to fight for their country or their cause, and indeed, it does. But the faces aren't what are usually shown as Vermont faces in 1850. Four of the names here are brothers in the Mero family. They were native Vermonters, and they all enlisted when the Civil War broke out in 1861. And they were Black.

There were more than 700 "free blacks" in Vermont in 1850. What patterns of life did they witness as spring arrived in that year? What heritage did they treasure? How were they embraced as neighbors in a village where everyone helps each other (because the weather is so much more powerful than any person can handle)?

For me, historical fiction can be a result of excavating the past to discover as much as possible of these accurate truths, then using a threaded needle to carefully darn the gaps. If you've never yet darned a sock -- the process of weaving yarn or thread back and forth across a heel or toe to replace worn-out fabric -- you might not realize this final detail: You have to be careful not to pull too tightly on the threads as you weave them, or you'll tug the edges of the hole too close together and end up with a miserable lump in the sock that keeps you from wearing it after all.

And that's exactly why the writing of historical fiction has to be so careful in how it pictures the truth.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Digging Into Irish History

St. Patrick's Day is coming in a few days. I've been reading a lot about Ireland, Irish history, and the Irish in America. Since the mystery I'm writing just now (working title COLD MIDNIGHT) is set in 1921 in a nearby Vermont town, friction among Irish and French Catholics plays a role in the plot.

Good background for Vermont Irish has been the relatively new book by Vincent E. Feeney, FINNEGANS, SLATERS, AND STONEPEGGERS: A HISTORY OF THE IRISH IN VERMONT (2009). Feeney begins with the Irish in Vermont in the 1750s, and meticulously tracks community creation, church establishment, church arson, and more.

With this research has come new insight into "the Potato Famine." Soho Crime author James R. Benn talked about his own learning curve on this one while he was writing his newest Billy Boyle (World War I) novel, EVIL FOR EVIL. The nastiest discovery was that the Irish really did have some potatoes and other food during that time -- but the English, basically acting as an occupation force, took the food.

This comes up also in Erin Hart's mysteries -- I've read the first (HAUNTED GROUND) and third (FALSE MERMAID, which just came out). When I'm writing, I wrestle with the history of conflict to develop a better understanding of people's choices, before my characters begin to make their own decisions.

For a little lighter research: I'm always making lists of what people routinely ate and how they cooked it in different time periods. So here's a handy web site for St. Patrick's Day: . Let me know if you're making something special for that day, or just wearing a bit of green to acknowledge the date's significance to so many.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Darkness Under the Water: Video, Events

I've got some exciting historical research to share this weekend, so take a peek then or on Monday. It's been a great week so far for research, but not so good for sustained writing!

Meanwhile, I'm thrilled that library media specialist Analine Johnson has just published her video trailer for THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER (historical suspense, set in Vermont in 1930). The trailer is an amazing work of art, from a dedicated reader who knows how to convey emotion with power and beauty. Thank you so much, Analine.

To go with the trailer, and the energy of spring, I'm putting together a spring book tour. It starts on Sunday March 21 at 1 p.m. at the Baldwin Memorial Library in Wells River, VT. I'd like to set up two kinds of events: (1) In person (if you're in Vermont or New Hampshire, contact me by March 31 with a proposed school or library event for this spring, and I only need to get travel funding from you -- no other fee for events that take place before June 10). (2) Video book talks for groups of at least two people anywhere who have read the book: I'll be there for 20 minutes to answer questions and get your take on the book. Here's what I ask readers most often: Do you think the book has the right ending? Why, or why not?

[PS: The trailer link changed on March 14, to Ms. Johnson's book blog -- hurrah! Well worth exploring. She also has her work posted on and]

Friday, February 26, 2010

Looking for Landscapes of Earlier Times

Around the first of January, I finished a third full revision of the book that occupied me for both research and storytelling over the past two years. Set in 1850 in a very small Vermont village, it's now titled THE LONG SHADOW. I hope it will eventually find a good home with a publisher who will enjoy taking it out into the world.

Writing THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER meant research for every page -- double-checking language, topography, economics, reading old newspaper reports and advertisements, and sometimes writing or phoning or e-mailing people who had shared their stories of the 1930s with me during the past thirty years, to refresh my notes and memories. Eighty years in the past is not all "past" for many Vermont residents. In my small town, we are facing the need to repair and replace many bridges in this decade. They're all wearing out more or less at the same time, because they were mostly replaced at the same time: 1928. The Flood of '27 tore them apart. It stripped riversides, smashed buildings, tore apart landscapes. I'm adding a postcard here to illustrate.

Another gem for this 1930 novel was a set of images recently posted online, from a book that only existed in a few copies: a family history of Upper Waterford, the very real village that would eventually vanish under the water. Here's the link; be sure to look at the final photo of the last building standing before the waters rose to form the massive lakes behind the power dam. It was the church, which was burned in place, rather than being taken down to "re-use" the lumber. (Its bell still hangs and rings today in the Lady Chapel in East Barnet.)

Working back to 1850 for THE LONG SHADOW required at least five times as many "pauses" per page to double-check research as I wrote. My best resource for the shape of the village, since I based this on what is now North Danville, was an impressive master's thesis by Gerard W. Lamothe, called "One Village, Two Centuries, Several Families," issued in two volumes -- one that gives the words and connections of the village residents, and the other simply images. There are postcards, photos, even sketches. What a resource!

But they don't necessarily reflect exactly what the village looked like in 1850, when photography wasn't yet commonplace or easy. For that, I used early Vermont maps and atlases, as well as descriptions in letters, books, and again newspapers.

But there is nothing quite so definite as walking the land itself. Of course, we all bring our imaginings to even this physical reality, so it's been good for me to walk with people whose minds and hearts are full of the old days. And when they can't be walking with me, I've used three books in particular for information and perspective:

* Hubka, Thomas C., Big House, Litte House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England. This helps me to envision how structures and living arrangements changed over time.
* Wessels, Tom, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Wessels gently pulls apart assumptions to reveal what a stone wall really stood for and how the land around it was used and valued.
* Cronon, William, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Cronon demonstrates how the European views limited what early colonists thought they saw and knew -- and how the land had been valued and interwoven in the lives of Native peoples in ways the invading settlers failed to observe or respect.

A picture is worth a thousand words and more ... and is evidence of a sort. But how I look at an image and what I believe from that image depend on how much I understand beforehand of the people who captured the picture.

So the bottom line is: To understand a landscape of another time, even when there are many pictures of it, requires a continued listening ear toward people and their experiences. We tell each other our stories.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vermont Legislature Considers Eugenics Apology

Kudos to Vermont legislator Anne Donohue (R-Northfield), author of a resolution that would finally offer an official statement of regret for the actions of the Vermont Eugenics Program in the 1930s.

I was especially glad to read what this article reports on the testimony of Judy Dow, who is urging that the legislative apology be extended to more of the people wounded by this project, under which thousands of Vermonters were targeted as "defective." Although other states created similar projects and passed laws similar to the "voluntary sterilization" law that Vermont passed in 1931, the Green Mountain State saw a particular focus on its Abenaki people as targets of the project and law. Effects of that focus endure, and continue the injustice; recognition through legislative apology is one step toward justice.