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?

Monday, December 26, 2011

History Mysteries for Delray Beach, Florida

courtesy of Jeremy.Wilburn
I'm warming up to a revision of one manuscript and three other novels I plan to write -- two of them with first chapters already written.

Meanwhile, though, I recently offered to find "history mystery" possibilities for a classroom teacher in Delray Beach, Florida (if you're a teacher and would like to know more about history mysteries, please do check our teacher Facebook site -- ask to join and I'll "click" you into it: And here's some of what I came up with:
History mysteries for Delray Beach -- Wow,  I am so excited about this town's history! There could be at least a dozen fascinating plots woven from what I've seen already. (1) For instance, until 1845, the area's residents were Africans, Seminole Native Americans, and Black Seminoles -- can you imagine a journey into history by looking for evidence of each group? What were the similarities, differences, conflicts? If there are no records of that time, what does that mean in terms of how we value our history? (2) There are military maps of the peninsula of Florida dating from the 1850s and the Seminole Wars. There's a haulover (a portage location for boats), "Orange Grover Haulover." I would love to learn more about the Seminole Wars and set a mystery at this haulover. Who could leave messages there? What would they say? (3) A haven for the shipwrecked called the Orange Grove House of Refuge #3 was built in 1876 by the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The first refuge-keeper (like a lighthouse keeper, for you Yankees reading along) was Hannibal D. Pierce. If a story were called "Meeting Hannibal," what would happen to the young person narrating the story? There must have been pirates and navy heroes and clever craftsmen among the people living at the refuge! (4) When Henry Flagler was building railroads to connect all of Florida (1885), he bought a lot of land in the Delray Beach area. Many workers on the railroad were African Americans. Imagine their experience of the Civil War and the hopes and dreams they brought to the area when they came to work on the railroad. I am now picturing eighth-grade-age kids who make choices based on their parents' tales of war and railroad -- what arrives hidden among the railroad cars? Who slips in and out of town, bringing messages? The story is growing! (5) The Intercoastal Waterway dates to 1890 in Delray Beach -- can you trace how it's been used for recreation? For commerce? For smuggling? (6) The first school in town (the town was Linton then) in 1894 was established by African-Americans and was a "pioneer school" probably built with palm fronds. I "hear" a mystery that involves someone who wants to be in the school but can't, and who has a pet, and isn't afraid of snakes or palm bugs ... (7) Why did Adolf Hofman come to town in 1895 and what kind of farming did he set up in Delray Beach? I bet his family had a hard time during World War II -- can you explain why? There could be a mystery of messages, heroism, and danger. (8) Who was Mary Cohen and how did she become a midwife? In 1896, I would have wanted to know her! Does her last name mean she had some connections to Jewish heritage? What resources did she have? Picture a mystery about two babies born on the same day, and how she copes with it, and how the families get tangled and maybe give back something in terms of helping save "Auntie" Cohen from danger! (9) I want to know more about the Yamamoto agriculture colony, with all Japanese men at first (brought by Henry Flagler), then wives, children, a school ... what happened to the people from this 1904 group, when World War II arrived? I am picturing a mystery that involves a friendship among three kids of various ancestry, trying to figure out how to make things better for the ones who are Japanese. 
See why I think this could be the perfect place for history mysteries?? In case you need more info, there's a brand new book of photos of Delray Beach history, too, and here's an article about a time capsule -- don't you get the urge to make a time capsule with your class?

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Underground Railroad in Vermont: The Real One

Many thanks to the Barnet Junior Historical Society, with mentor Sherry Tolle, who invited me to join the group of grade 2 to grade 6 students at the Barnet (VT) School library today. From the girls up front to the boys at the back table, everyone had opinions and information to offer about what the Underground Railroad was, and whether there could be hiding places in local houses that had a connection with the movement to make sure fugitives from slavery were able to reach freedom, safely.

Mr. David Warden, a leader in the Barnet Historical Society, was also on hand and gave some details about older houses in town, especially the Goodwillie House, where a double wall in the cellar has sometimes been assumed to be a hiding place from the Underground Railroad movement.

We talked about what the UGRR really was (no train tracks; not underneath the ground), why it was so important, and why the hiding places in Vermont -- especially in this area, the Northeast Kingdom -- probably weren't for hiding people. Probably the most important part of the reasons was the absence of slave hunters in Vermont. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight, says this:
Probably the most important factor in making Vermont a safe haven for runaways was simply its geography. The sheer physical distance from the slave South to Vermont was just too great to make capture economically feasible. Historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schewininger have shown that the cost to the slave catcher could exceed the value of the fugitive if the search extended too far or too long. (p. 256)
That led to a discussion of how "stories" about slave hunters started in Vermont anyway, and why people want to believe in an Underground Railroad version that's closer to being a "story" than to being "history." One of the students compared this to the long-held "official" view that the earth was flat, even though sailors all knew it was round, because of what they saw every day at sea. Good comparison!

For teachers, librarians, and historical groups looking for a good handout for elementary-grade students, check this offering from the National Park Service, free for downloading and printing: -- and click on "Junior Ranger Booklet."

Thanks again, Mrs. Tolle, for mentoring such a lively club and inviting me to meet with your students!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Secret Rooms and Chimneys

photo courtesy of timmurtagh
The discussion that Jane Lindholm hosted on Vermont Public Radio last month, with historian and professor Ray Zirblis and me, covered a lot of aspects of Vermont's Underground Railroad and some of the passions and confusions around whether and where people may have hidden during the years before the Civil War, in Vermont. (Short summary: Mostly, they didn't need to -- because Vermont stood for personal liberty.) One point made a couple of times is that Vermont contractors often know about hiding places in old houses, because they find them during reconstruction and repairs. Here's a great comment from contractor and designer Sam Clark, of Sam Clark Design:

I have one bit of information on secret rooms around chimneys.

A lot of old farmhouses had those huge central chimneys, which could easily be 8x8 feet.  But they became obsolete with the invention of modern wood stoves in the 19th c, or even gas or oil heat.  So, two ideas: the framers had a certain way of framing houses, which allowed for these big chimneys, which they didn't vary when technology changed.
Also, sometimes these old chimneys were torn down, and rebuilt as simple brick flues, without changing the walls around them much.  We're working on a house in Maine where you can see the remnants of the big chimney, but there is a secret room around the "modern" 16x24 chimney.
Thanks, Sam, for this information!

Focusing on "Real History," with Good Stories

At Bear Pond Books, Montpelier
One of the author/librarian discussion lists that I read daily has recently focused on well-tested historical fiction: that is, the kind where the history involved is "true." I wish the word had been "honest" instead, because history -- unlike the impression many of us get in elementary school -- doesn't ever come in just one "right" version. It comes with many points of view, many experiences.

Just as an example, consider the building of the great railroads that crossed the United States in the 1800s, including the Canadian Pacific Railway. I've been doing some research the CPR lately, because a student in a nearby town just pulled together nearly a hundred letters exchanged by her family members in the 1870s, and two of the letter authors worked on the railroad -- one on its construction, the other (it appears) as a low-level manager for a bit. And in one of those "coincidences" that happen a lot to writers, my husband and I enjoyed dinner last night with another couple, who brought up a place I'd never before heard of: Revelstoke, British Columbia. Our friend is going there to ski, and mentioned that the Canada government is promoting the little city as a destination for tourists and athletes. It's halfway between Vancouver (which is on the west coast of Canada) and Calgary, Alberta (another major Canadian city). And within half an hour of starting to explore the city's history, I realized it's had a constant relationship with the CPR. Now that it's a "destination" for play as well as work, the connection with the railroad is more important again!

But what is the "history" of the CPR -- and of Revelstoke? Is it the experience of railroad workers, many of them immigrants laboring for less money than appropriate, dying of overwork and disease and homesickness? Is it the exhilaration of explorers and entrepreneurs, of investors -- back then, and now -- eager to see commerce develop from their efforts? Is it the flushed happiness of a skier, exploring a massive mountain cloaked with shimmering snow? And where are the echoes of people who knew the landscapes crossed by the railroad, long before metals were worked in North America?

Good historical fiction gives us room to choose a few of those strands and pair them with stories of the hearts and minds of characters. And although we call those characters fictional -- the least "real" of all the strands being woven into the tapestry of a novel -- they too have meaning. I know they reflect me, as well as the people I've come to know and appreciate. When the effort of writing results in truly good stories, they also become a real experience for the reader.

It's been rewarding to travel around northern Vermont and New Hampshire with The Secret Room. I try to spend at least as much time listening as talking, at author events. And I've heard stories of other lives that involve secret rooms, whether their history is known or not. We all have so many questions about our past, and about our homes. Sharing the stories and questions of our lives helps make us rich with spirit, and I believe it gives us better grounding from which to climb.

Friday, October 28, 2011

You Could Win a Free Copy of THE SECRET ROOM ... Or Reserve One to Purchase at a Vermont Author Event!

Visit this Minnesota mom's wonderful blog Hanging Off the Wire and try for a free copy of The Secret Room today. Do spend some time reading HayleyK's posts ... she's got a lot of good insight.

And then, to make sure you're going to have enough copies (one for you, one for your mom, one for your best friend at the holidays), please do mark your calendar for one of these upcoming events featuring the book:

* Sunday Nov. 6 at 1 pm at The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, VT, where kids and young adults come first (but there are great books for their "drivers" too!).

* Monday Nov. 7 at 7 pm at the church in West Barnet, VT, for the meeting of the West Barnet Women's Fellowship.

* Friday Nov. 25 (yes, the day after Thanksgiving, "Black Friday") at 11 am at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, with an armful of other wonderful Vermont authors.

See you soon!

What's Ahead: The Writing Project List

F.D. Reeve and I completed the first draft of "Opal of the Mountains" last week; I'm working on the second draft now. That's the promised "novel in iambic pentameter" -- or, more to the point, it's a novel all in dialogue. It opens in a vegetable garden, and climbs steadily upward, including up some cliffs. More on this, later.

I've got two photos that I want to share, for their roles in possible novels coming up. The first, nicely labeled from its original newspaper use, is an old "tavern" in Hardwick, Vermont. These town or village meetingplaces were some of the largest houses around, and there are still many on what look like back roads today but were once the centers of life in "hamlets" (small villages) formed from working families living close together. The inn that features in The Secret Room is related to this tavern as a structure, but with more emphasis on overnight rooms for travelers. From the size of the pictured tavern here, I'd guess there were rooms for rent in the Hazen Road Warner Tavern, too.

Because inns and taverns were places for local people to keep up with each other's lives, and also to meet travelers -- either distant relatives, or intriguing strangers -- this tavern is going to appear in one of my stories soon.  There are two classic premises to begin an adventure: "A stranger comes to town," and "Someone leaves on a journey." A tavern or inn is the perfect place for both.

The second photo was sent by Harman Clark and shows the Vail Mansion, which stood on what
is now the Lyndon State College campus. Many who stayed there recall it as haunted. No doubt, it will appear in a story of "haunting" that's bubbling up for me to tell.

My list here at the desk also includes revisions next month on my 1850 novel, The Long Shadow; crafting a first draft of a middle-grades book I've called in my mind "the captive fortuneteller"; and a collection of poems. If only I didn't have to make supper and do laundry and finish digging the carrots from the garden, too!

Looking Into Claire Benedict's Heart: Deepening the Story

Cold Midnight tells the story of Claire Benedict and Ben Riley, teens in 1921 -- their night-time escapades in the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and the moments when they see evidence that may tie to a murder of a local businessman, as well as to the "firebug" who's tormenting the local fire department with false alarms and worse.

I finished the first draft in December of 2010, sent it out to my trusty agent and an insightful editor in January, and received their comments and suggestions in early summer. Since then, I've wrestled with how to change the arc of the book to incorporate these wise notions of what it needs in revision.

Revision? Yes, in my experience, revision is the stage when a "promising" story becomes a really good one. And it requires investigating the heart of the main character of the book, asking questions within the "author heart" about why the person is and does the things in the novel. As the answers become clear, so does the path toward the deeper, better story.

And this week, I've reworked Claire's relationship with her dad -- because underneath all the plot twists and discoveries, that's where the pain of the book resides, and where the real satisfaction can happen, if Claire makes choices that come from both courage and love.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Like Peanut Butter and Jelly!

Photo courtesy of redjar.
I had a great time visiting Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, earlier this month; chatting with readers about The Secret Room was fun and interesting, and a highlight of the visit was reconnecting in person with Jeanette Sessions, the store's "young adult" enthusiast, who often posts on Northshire's book blog. Here's the intro Jeanette prepared for the event; she cut it short because she knew almost everyone who came to the event (yay, community bookselling!), and I wanted to share it all. I love the peanut butter and jelly comment! Thanks, Jeanette -- you're terrific.

Hello and welcome to the Northshire Bookstore.  My name is Jeanette. I meet Beth Kanell about three years ago when she came to the bookstore for a reading of her first novel, Darkness Under the Water: a thought-provoking and unique story covering some of Vermont’s unknown history, set in the 1920s. Kanell opens the eyes of her readers with magical text and a perspective as honest as she is. Here we see Molly, her Abenaki family, and the struggles they face.
Now, I have the pleasure of introducing you to her latest work, The Secret Room. We find ourselves in modern-day Vermont. Shawna and Thea are as different as peanut butter and jelly: but go together just as nicely!  Shawna is a local farm girl. Thea, a “flatlander” whose family has just purchased a home that used to be an inn. When the two are teamed up for a math homework project to measure Thea’s house…the numbers do not add up! The outside numbers say the inside numbers should be bigger!
This mystery leads to them finding a secret room in the house's basement. But the fun does not end here! The facts lead everyone to believe that this room could have been part of the Underground Railroad! The girls learn not only about the history of the inn and Vermont, but Shawna learns about her own personal history and what friendship really means.

Before I hand over the stage to our guest (who will not only speak about her novel, but has a few goodies for you as well), I want to thank you for coming and please do not forget to purchase a book and have Ms. Kanell sign it for you after the event.  Not only will you experience this alluring and captivating novel yourself, but you will help us bring more great authors to the bookstore.  Now please join me in welcoming a great author and my friend, Beth Kanell.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Get Writing -- and Keep It Going

I'm headed to a local high school today, to listen to readers of THE SECRET ROOM and to coach them -- teens and adults alike -- on how to get and keep a novel rolling. Here's the outline I'm working from:

The Writer’s Workshop: How The Secret Room Was Written,
and How to Start Exploring Your Own Stories

Beth’s Braid Method:
  1. A section of history that is changing in a controversial way (justice!!).
  2. A situation in Vermont that won’t resolve easily.
  3. A character who starts “speaking” to me.

Other Braids:
  1. A wish.                        1. A stranger.                        1. A journey ahead.
  2. A problem.                        2. A discovery.            2. A values collision.
  3. A friendship.                        3. A life change.            3. A sacrifice worth making.

A Toolbox
(a) Situations, places, newspaper articles, letters, poems, special words.
(b) Sensory triggers: candles, leaves, flowers, feathers, music, bells, tea, chocolate.
(c) Memory board: children, babies, pets, trees, roads, houses, postcards.

A Place to Dream and Draw
Notebooks: Adding color, size, organization.
Wall boards: brown paper, “white boards,” doors.
Computers: Files of images, words, outlines, messages. Sort and label!!

Keeping on Track
Goals and timelines.
Friends and mentors.
Rewards versus incentives.
Feeding the Curiosity Cat.

Writer’s Block, Revision, and Other Flashlight Moments
Picture the reader: What change or conviction or amazement or horror do you picture in your reader? How can you evoke this, more effectively? Often this kind of revision calls for structure changes: pacing through paragraph and sentence length, word choices, point of view. Try rewriting one paragraph in a different voice – “I” instead of “she” or vice versa. Past instead of present, or vice versa. Short sentences or long one … experiment, make smoke.

Cut to the heart of things: Ask, “What is this story ABOUT? How can it be more intensely about that?”  This might call for “poetic revision” or for cutting away “the trimmings.” Circle the best parts, mark the compelling areas. Try using only the best parts.

Hansel and Gretel”: What matters in this story? Why is each part in place? What parts are missing?

Have fun!! Read aloud. Picture a Haiku. Look for “growth buds.” Form a tree. Draw a landscape. Add color to your page. Change the music in your room or your mind. Visualize a flame. Fear and faith. Make a distance between “you” and your character. Close the distance between you and your character. Be a rude child – point fingers, ask why.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Friendship Bracelet: A Poem

Photo by eef-ink (thank you!)
This is the season of the
friendship bracelet.
You've seen them: twisted threads
knotted by a girl at summer camp.
Or the plain red ones that mean
something meditative. Mine is
crafted from four strands: black, white,
purple, gold. And made by Caroline.
I like to watch her working, her dark eyes sparkling,
her fingers deft -- who taught her this?
A friend in the back seat on the long road
to skating camp? A girl sharing her snack
behind the horse barn? She measured
my wrist, insisted that I choose my own colors.
An hour later, she asked for my arm.
She tied a careful double knot. "If it wears out,"
she told me, "I can make you another."

(Beth Kanell, 2011)

[How to make a friendship bracelet: one link here.]

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Book and Its Cover

Here are some photos taken by Harman Clark at the wonderful book launch party that greeted The Secret Room on Sept. 9 at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. I especially like the one that shows local student Maggie, with the cover for which she was photographed in the spooky basement of the publisher's house in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, months ago. (On the back of the book, Maggie is joined by her friend Katherine.)

Making the party especially exciting were 35 middle school students from the St. Johnsbury School, invited and chaperoned by librarian Beth Mallon and her team of volunteers. Mrs. Mallon, you rock! Thanks, all of you students and readers whoo hiked to the Athenaeum to join the fun (and solve some codes!).

"Story" and "History"

2010 photo courtesy of origamidon (thank you!)
It's been grand in the past two weeks to see The Secret Room reaching readers, with its lively adventure story of two Vermont eight-graders, Shawna Lee and Thea Warwick, who stumble into the controversial and rapidly changing landscape of Northern New England's Underground Railroad in the midst of a math project for school. The hiding place that they discover, as well as the secrets of their village and the strengths of their friendship, are in your hands. Thanks for the wonderful welcome to the book!

I promised that today I'd mention how to find out whether the "hiding place" in your own home or neighborhood is linked to the Underground Railroad. Here are two directions to try:

1. If you are IN VERMONT, your best resource is Rokeby Museum, which you can visit while the gentle weather lasts. Director Jane Williamson and her knowledgeable staff will welcome you to the evidence that history provides there. If you can't go in person, check out this report from the director, an essay on Rokeby's website.

Also available at Rokeby are copies of "Friends of Freedom." This 99-page spiral-bound report was issued by the State of Vermont in 1996. It's a history detective's treasure, because the investigators involved tracked down the evidence for 174 people and places around the state that thought they had ties to this most exciting history adventure: the effort before the Civil War to make sure that black Americans leaving the slaveholding South could find freedom and safety, whether in other parts of the United States or in Canada. Check the lists in this report to find out whether your location, like Rokeby, is well supported as "really truly" part of the Underground Railroad effort. And brace for the possibility that, like the cave at Hildene (a Lincoln family home in Manchester, Vermont), connections may be more based in oral tradition and wishful thinking, without real evidence.

2. If you live OUTSIDE VERMONT, check this site provided by the Smithsonian Institution, providing good facts and exposing a lot of myths. For instance:

The reality of the Underground Railroad was much less romantic. Escaping enslaved individuals often had no help or guidance from anyone throughout the majority of their journey. While it is a common belief that white Northerners were going into the South and bringing slaves from the farms and plantations into the North, the truth is that most enslaved individuals left on their own. When the enslaved did have assistance, the aid they received varied from being given a place to rest in barns and sheds to being provided with a small amount of food and sent on to the next location. Those seeking freedom would have had to place a good amount of trust in the people who were assisting them, for at any moment their safety could be compromised, leading to recapture.
It is also a common misconception that all people working to assist escaping individuals were white Northerners. The fact is that the majority of the conductors on the Underground Railroad in the South were Black, often still enslaved themselves.
You can also check with the National Parks Service, which answers questions on specific sites and also invites you to share information you might have. Here's the website for help from this group.

More comments and questions? Leave a comment here on the blog. I'll get back to you, time permitting!

A Universe of Books at The Galaxy Bookshop

Hold on, let me catch my breath -- it's been a whirlwind of wonderful events with readers, librarians, teachers, students, bookshop staff  ... actually all of those are readers! ... all over the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and in gracious Littleton, New Hampshire. Tuesday evening's visit to The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, VT, capped the delights, with an Underground Railroad game created by owner Linda Ramsdell, and the presence of a little angel of a bookseller, baby Ivy, keeping her mom Sandy company.

Handouts included secret codes (solved right away by Adrienne, who should receive her historic postcard from the author -- me -- in tomorrow's mail) and a researcher's "code sheet" of 19th-century abbreviations for names and accounts, often found in record books. Four historians added extra details from the audience, too!

My one regret was not being able to slip away into the children's book room, where I always find good books to bring home. But I'll be back, to browse!

What a wonderful evening; thank you, Linda and Sandy and guests. One of the bookstore cats came out to say goodbye.

Jem the cat, at The Galaxy
Tomorrow: How you can check whether your favorite "hiding place" or 1850s activist in Vermont was involved in helping fugitives on the road north to freedom. What's the difference between "story" and "history"? Huge. Shawna and Thea in The Secret Room are after the truth. You can be, too.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

It's Finally Time -- THE SECRET ROOM Debuts This Week!!

Yes, that's why I've been a little quiet online lately, with a LOT to do to get ready. The brand new novel is coming out at the end of this week. It's THE SECRET ROOM, a Vermont adventure set in a fictionalized version of North Danville. Here's the scoop:
Shawna and Thea are working together on a math project for their eighth-grade class. But the numbers don't add up, and they make a startling discovery: a secret room in the basement of Thea's house, an old Vermont inn. The code on the walls makes the girls and everyone in town wonder why there was a secret room. Was it part of the Underground Railroad, or perhaps something less, well, heroic? Discovering the truth is harder than they would have thought, especially when the truth is not what some people want to hear.
The first review for the book came from New England novelist Howard Frank Mosher, whose books Disappearances, Where the Rivers Flow North, and A Stranger in the Kingdom are much-appreciated classics on our shelves. Mr. Mosher wrote:
American history, friendship, family ties, nature, community. These are some of the themes that Beth Kanell explores in this beautifully written and ever-so-timely novel. The Secret Room is at once a superb, young-adult suspense story, and one of the best, and most realistic, literary mystery novels I've ever read. At its heart are two wonderful young friends and not-so-amateur detectives, Thea and Shawna. What they learn about themselves, their community, and their state and country, past and present, will astonish and delight you. The Secret Room is a masterwork in which every sentence is lovingly crafted and written straight from the heart.
And as you can tell, this is an author who quickly recognizes work "straight from the heart" because that's what he does in his own novels. Thank you again, Howard!

If you're a Goodreads fan, you can find teacher Tim Averill's appraisal of the book online there; if you like Amazon, you'll see what MamaBear wrote.

Best of all, find an independent and order the book there. Or, in New England, come to one of the celebrations that begin this week:

New North Danville Adventure Story!

by Beth Kanell

Meet the author:
Fri. 9/9, Open Party, St. J. Athenaeum, 4 p.m.
Sat. 9/10, Cobleigh Library, Lyndonville, 11 a.m. (sponsored by Green Mountain Books)
Sat. 9/10, Boxcar & Caboose, St. J., 2 p.m.
Mon. 9/12, Danville Inn, Danville, 9:30 a.m., with coffee and donuts provided by Steve Cobb, who appears in the book!
Sat. 9/17, Davies Memorial Library, Waterford, 10 a.m.
Sat. 9/17, Littleton (N.H.) Library, 2 p.m.
Tues. 9/20, Galaxy Books, Hardwick, 7 p.m.

Books can also be ordered at
from the publisher, Voyage/Brigantine, St. Johnsbury, VT

Monday, August 22, 2011

Autumn in the Air! Research on the Desk ...

After a sweaty day yesterday, and a warm bright start to the morning today, the wind has shifted and it's now a sweater day. The robins nesting under my window finally persuaded their second brood to fly last week. I suspect the small-ish ones still pecking their way across the backyard are the newly grown flyers, feeding up before heading south next month.

Life's been wildly busy. Three more writers in my "circle" are celebrating plans for Voyage -- the Brigantine Media fiction imprint that's published The Secret Room -- to publish their books next year. It's exciting to see fiction taking off for press owners Neil and Janis.

Meanwhile, we're just 18 days from the launch party for The Secret Room (at St. Johnsbury Athenaeum on Friday Sept. 9, at 4 p.m. -- come if you can!), and lots of other events are lining up. The Amazon page for the book is "live" and I've started a discussion there; there's a review button, too, for those of you with advance copies. So far, the page has some small frustrations, including how long Amazon claims it would take for a copy of the book to ship. Neil will try to straighten that out, but meanwhile, if timing matters, please take advantage of the "Buy the Book" button in the right-hand top corner of this page, and Neil and Janis's team will get your copy right out to you, directly from the publishing house.

More busy-ness: F.D. (my collaborator on this summer's novel) and I are probably in the last stretch of the first draft of Opal of the Mountains. And I'm using some careful study of other authors' choices around character depiction, to polish Cold Midnight (that's the novel set in 1921).

Most important of all, I've found online the journal of an African American man who lived in Vermont in the 1700s, and whose experience of "freedom" here was mixed, to say the least. It's an important baseline for The Secret Room and other books that deal with the Underground Railroad in Vermont, because it sheds a vivid light on the declaration heard so often here, "Vermont was against slavery from the start. In fact, Vermont's state Constitution even banned slavery."

Well, yeah -- it did. But you know about fine print, right? Vermont's fine print was, "no adult slavery." Look at what that meant for Boyrereau Brinch when he settled down in Vermont with his wife and had children ... -- oh, my aching heart. There's a lot of injustice in the world, even in the places we think are most fair and free.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Three Moons of Summer

Photo taken in Finland by rosipaw -- thank you for letting this photo be reused!
Last month, for a poetry reading north of here, I wrote a poem in the voice of Thea, Shawna's best friend in The Secret Room. The poem "takes place" in the summer after the year described in the book; it will be part of how the sequel opens up. (Yes, that's the real writing life -- The Secret Room will finally be available for purchase on 9-10-11, and if the sequel's going to come out appropriately, it has to get written this fall!) I'm sharing the poem today because it fits into some discussion we're having on the Facebook teacher group for the book, but it's a bit too long to place in a Facebook post (smile!). Here it is:

The Three Moons of Summer

There are more than three, of course: one for tonight,
its faint sorrow hanging over the cornfield,
one for the next night, slim and pale,
as though throwing up dinner made her into
a waxed princess, faint but glowing. Thea knows
there are more than three moons in summer. 
Summer lasts almost forever.

Across the road, close enough to hear
if she yelled from her window, her best friend sleeps.
It’s so unfair. Shouldn’t your best friend know
when you’re crying? With wet eyes, the moon doubles.
Great. Now there are two moons in one night.
And the stars blur, and Thea’s chest aches,
her nose is dripping from crying.

What can you do when nobody comes
to hold you when you cry? Thea blows her nose.
Wipes her eyes. Counts, the way her friend says
some people count their blessings.

One moon for June, the strawberry moon,
when school ended. The moon tide pulled
the peepfrogs into song, pulled summer into place.
One moon for hope and swimming in the lake.

The second moon is July: round and golden,
heavy, thick, like something you eat for dessert
that lingers in your stomach all night. Thea sits straight
at the windowsill, pinches her arm, silver with moonlight,
pinches the places he didn’t kiss. Another tear
leaks down her cheek. Ignore it.

One more moon, the one for August. Corn on the cob,
and clothes for school. Everyone comes back
from their vacations. So will that boy.  Dry now,
Thea takes a long breath. Decision settles
light as moonshadow in her hands. She’ll tell.
She’ll tell her best friend what happened.

But only when the night is dark, when rain-clouds cover
the way-too-beautiful stars and moons of summer.

Beth Kanell

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fiction and History in the Classroom

An unusual view of Stamford, New York.
While I'm revising The Long Shadow and Cold Midnight, and writing a first draft of another book, I'm also counting down the days until THE SECRET ROOM is released, on 9-10-11 (I love that date! perfect for number lovers everywhere).

Because Shawna and Thea explore a mystery with roots in their town's history, the publisher (Janis and Neil at Voyage) and I have been corresponding with teachers about using this book in the classroom.

Here's a Middle Grades suggestion from Candice Gockel in Stamford, NY, a 5th/6th grade teacher: "I see this novel as a great jumping off point for a local history project. I think my students would be swept up in the excitement of possibly uncovering local mysteries, as well as providing great hands-on research and learning opportunities for my students."

I took a quick look and found a history of Stamford -- whose early settlers had ties to Stamford, Connecticut.  There are some intriguing gaps in the history I found: enlistment for the Civil War, but what was happening in town during the Underground Railroad years? Why was the first newspaper founded in 1851? I can imagine a mystery taking place that relied on who was publishing the paper and what his motives were! And another that takes into account the villages of the town, the differences between them, the way families settled. Plus, because the town is in the Catskills, there must be stories of the tourists and summer residents, including some from various ethnic groups that could be surprising. Wow!

If you're looking for possible "local mysteries" for your class to investigate, let me know where you are and I'll suggest some possible "mysteries in history" for your students.  Same offer for book groups -- tell me where you are, and I'll "investigate" and report!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beyond the Myths, Beyond the Assumptions

When I wrote The Secret Room (it will be released on Sept. 9, 2011 -- hurrah!) and its sister volume, The Long Shadow, I was following a trail marked out by scholar and museum director Jane Williamson at Rokeby. Ms. Williamson uses real letters and diaries to show that the Underground Railroad in Vermont was very different from the myths of heroes, victims, and rescues that commonly occur to people when you say the words "Underground Railroad." Vermont's history and its independence created a Green Mountains world where black people -- often called Africans -- formed communities early in America. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, another dedicated researcher, gives us a vivid picture of Africans as Vermont immigrants and settlers in the 1700s, in her book Mr. and Mrs. Prince.

Fergus Bordewich's book Bound for Canaan gives a broad-brush picture of American's Underground Railroad years, the lead-up to the Civil War. But it's the details that Williamson, Gerzina, and others bring forward that shows us the reality of, say, 1750 or 1850 in Vermont.

One reason this is so important is that "myths" continue to flourish. I often hear people around me describe Vermont as a "white-bread place," a place where people have "always" been white-skinned, of Protestant faith, and of English and Scottish heritage. But that's about as far from the truth as possible. Still, it gets woven into the eyes and ears with which people meet this landscape and its heritage.

For instance, the photos here show an "open house" at the 100-year-old barn labeled "Locust Grove Farm" that took place yesterday. We say that "the camera doesn't lie" and it is easy to assume the people at the farm are of that "New England" image from the myth. Actually, many of them are relatives of people who built the barn (one great-great-grandson and his wife and son were there), or settled the farm -- Charles Johnston Wark, born in 1866, with both his father and mother born in Ireland, and his wife Lizzie Ellen Owen  --  or those who worked it most recently, the Patenaude family, whose ancestors came from Quebec (Patenaude may be a later-day version of Patenotre). Neighbors include many of Native American descent, especially among those whose roots are French Canadian. And through this town passed people from Syria, Russia, and China -- and by this, I mean "passed through" in the 1800s. Some stayed, like Sam Wah, born in northern China, whose stone in a nearby cemetery marks his death at age 75, in 1921.

By all means, let's celebrate summer in New England. The real New England -- with all its diversity of heritage and thought. We can only be richer for seeking and valuing the truth.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An Endless Summer ...

One reason that I write novels called "young adult" -- novels in the voice and view of someone around thirteen to sixteen years old -- is the magic of that time for me. Summers were endless, a long stretch of time until the next schoolday. From the throngs of peepfrogs chanting in the damp hollows, to the flurry of nearly identical robins rising up from the lawn, to the nights sparkling with uncountable stars, summer wrapped me in amazement. And there were "people things" in summer that delighted me: savoring the movement from "new girl" to "here I am again" at a summer camp; taking the bus into a city with a girlfriend, to walk the bustling sidewalks, explore museums, discover startling green parks and waterfalls tucked between tall buildings; riding with my family (even when they didn't understand me!) to the distant lake with its swimming beach and old rowboat with the creaky oars.


Today, summer is three moons long. I try to pay attention to each of them. The golden luminous full moon last night, rising above the crest of the hill, stopped my breath for a moment.

In The Secret Room the story unfolds through Shawna's eyes. But in this start of a poem, it nestles in the words and thoughts of Shawna's best friend Thea, also in eighth grade:

There are more than three, of course: one for tonight,
its faint sorrow hanging over the cornfield,
one for the next night, slim and pale
as though throwing up dinner made her into
a waxed princess, faintly glowing. Thea knows
there are more than three moons.  Especially now.
Summer lasts almost forever.

Across the road, close enough to hear
if she yelled from her window, her best friend sleeps.
It’s so unfair. 

Want to hear more? I'll be reading the finished poem tomorrow in Brownington, Vermont, as part of the "Kingdom Perspectives" poetry gathering at the Congregational Church, sponsored by the Old Stone House Museum and the Orleans County Historical Society. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Classroom Use of THE SECRET ROOM

Sorry to have been so quiet lately; the garden of ideas has been so active that I've been weeding, trimming, even harvesting, but not talking much! Here's a sample of what I've been up to, as requested by VOYAGE, the imprint publishing The Secret Room this September:

As a kid who "hated" history and nonfiction, but who woke up to the excitements of "detection" in history thanks to a gifted Advanced Placement high school teacher, I've envisioned all of my YA novels as potential classroom tools to engage students in the flow of history and in critical thinking, through their hunger for narrative. Here are some of the threads for classroom learning woven into The Secret Room.


What is the history problem that Shawna and Thea investigate? Why does it interest them?

What are the tools they use to probe what really happened in their town during the Underground Railroad years? Are some tools better than others?

How can you find out what the Underground Railroad looked like and what it meant to the Civil War?

How can you find out what the Underground Railroad was like where you live now?

Many "history" moments focus on important people, like a President or a hero. The Underground Railroad was different: It depended on the courage and planning of many ordinary people. What evidence is there for this in The Secret Room? Do you think it could be harder to find out what "ordinary people" did a hundred and fifty years ago, than finding out what a President did? How could you find out more?


Not everybody thinks math is fun, but Shawna and Thea do! Why is it fun for them?

Here are some of the math ideas that Shawna and Thea explore: measuring rooms and recording their perimeters; finding out areas and adding them; looking for multiples of numbers like 2, 6, and 12; what prime numbers are; creating scale drawings; creating timelines; exploring how the ages and birth years in a family fit together; and squaring numbers. Can you find each of these in the book? What would they look like if they were imagined in your own life, or your best friend's life?


Shawna and Thea discover that people in different parts of the country react in different ways to "current events" in politics and to their history. Some of the issues that led to the Civil War included enslavement of people who were captured in other places, like African countries; expecting people who look different (skin color) to be and act differently; whether the states of America needed to handle things the same way; and how people's beliefs about human dignity and faith affect their decisions to take a stand and help others.


Families differ in terms of what they think is most important in life; how they show love to each other; how they get enough money to support each other; and what they think kids should do and be. List the differences between Shawna's family and Thea's family, and add columns for your family and your best friend's family.

How do Shawna and Thea find ways to feel OK about being different from each other? How do they choose to be more similar to each other?

Who is Shawna's real mother? Why? Who loves Shawna? How can you tell?


(I don't have time to write this part today, but ... you know where this is going!)


What decisions have Shawna and Thea made, before they met, about food? What habits do they have about food? How can you tell what their favorite foods are? Do Shawna and Thea talk about food? Do their ideas and actions change in terms of what and how they eat during the story?


(This will have to wait for another day for me to start the list, but there are a LOT that spring out of what Shawna and Thea do.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Research Never Ends -- Thank Goodness, Because It's Fascinating!

Here's the invitation that's taking me across the state on Sunday:
Opening Day – The War Before the War
Sunday, May 22, 2 pm

We begin our commemoration of the Civil War 150th anniversary with a talk by Museum Director Jane Williamson on the abolitionist movement. Americans argued bitterly about slavery for 30 years before the union broke and war began. She will share abolitionist treasures from the collection.
Find out more about Vermont's best documented Underground Railroad site at I'm looking forward to learning more about the time, the people, and the artifacts that Rokeby and its director present.

You might ask: Why go to learn more when the book's already written? (See for details.) Answer: Partly, I am always hungry to know more. Second, it's vital to keep adding historically verified details to the picture of a time period. Third, aren't you curious about the Robinson family members of Rokeby -- how they managed their roles during the Underground Railroad years, what they believed as a result of being part of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), who stayed with them when and why? For sure, I am!

Hope to see you there.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cover Design: Graphic Artist Jacob Grant

The Secret Room will release on September 10, with lots of events on and around that date. Publishers Janis Raye and Neil Raphel of VOYAGE (an imprint of Brigantine) are clearly enjoying planning the fun (even if it is hard work sometimes!). Janis is an amazing organizer, and Neil keeps the focus.

Adrienne Raphel is the editor for VOYAGE, and she's top-notch -- clear-eyed, demanding, and creative. She's now working with the next two books of fiction coming out this year under this new imprint: one by Vermont teacher and author Jenny Land, and the other by nationally known (but living in Vermont) poet and novelist F. D. Reeve.

And the other person in the publishing office is Jacob Grant, a graphic designer who's also co-author of a series of fantasy novels. Recently Jake raced to the rescue of a young local author bringing her first book rapidly to publication: Caleigh Cross. I'm putting the cover for her book here, along with the cover for mine. Clearly they're very different -- but what similarities can you find?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

History Detectives: Sorting the Evidence

The Rev. Joshua Young
Finding a bloody handkerchief next to a murder victim is very different from finding one in the rest room of a travel stop, where someone might have paused to deal with a bloody nose.

In the same way, evidence in the files of Underground Railroad history has to be checked against its surroundings, and against other nearby evidence. A perfect example comes from mentions of the Rev. Joshua Young, who became a minister at the Unitarian church in Burlington, Vermont, in 1852. Noted for his anti-slavery views, he is quoted as having said that "every sea-port was a station" for the Underground Railroad in New England -- a phrase that may reflect some of his experience before coming to Burlington, when he served on the coast, in Boston (ordained there in 1849; the New York Times mentioned this date in Young's 1904 obituary). In Vermont, he had a "troubled ministry, and the controversy over his views on slavery compelled him to resign," says the current history of Burlington's Unitarian Universalist church. But before he did so, he became famous in 1859 as the minister who presided over the funeral of African American rebel John Brown, after Brown was hanged for leading a raid at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. No wonder people connected him then, and connect him still, with abolitionist groups and the Underground Railroad! He also left behind letters that include his wife's involvement and that of several other Burlington activists.

How often, while in Burlington, Vermont, did this minister shelter fugitives? Recorded numbers of African Americans passing through the area are relatively small. The most quoted source for Vermont Underground Railroad statistics, the work of Joseph Poland and Wilbur Siebert, has been largely discredited. And Jane Williamson, director of Rokeby, Vermont's Underground Railroad museum and former home of the Robinson family, suggests that the politics of Burlington at the time -- heavily dominated by South-favoring "Democrats" (the political parties were different then!) -- would have made the town a less likely area for active assistance to fugitives.

One letter quoted by the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, written by a Rhode Island Quaker, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, includes her recollections as she looked back in the year 1891, and she mentioned the Rev. Young as being part of the "Vermont road" for fugitives.

How old was she when she wrote that letter?  Could she be thinking of one particular fugitive, rather than a pattern of fugitives? What evidence is there for others working with the minister, such as Salmon P. Wires or Prof. Geo. W. Benedict, also of Burlington?

A good challenge for history detectives: Find out everything possible about Mrs. Chace and about Burlington in the 1850s and weigh the evidence, as Shawna and Thea do for "North Upton" in the book The Secret Room. Do the same for your own town -- I'm especially interested in hearing about any place where Quakers were known to live in the 1800s. Let me know what you find out, would you please?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On the Road Again: Fun in Flood Season, and Schools Are on My Mind

One of my best adventures for March was a visit two weeks ago to Hawthorne, New Jersey, during flood season. My sister-in-law Cheryl warned me bluntly, "There are roads closed everywhere, but I have no idea which ones. You'll have to find your way."

Luckily, the roads I needed to arrive at Hawthorne's Well Read Bookstore (seen above) were relatively dry, and aside from two or three traffic jams, the routes functioned as planned. Good thing, because I was eager to meet the Science Fiction Society of Northern New Jersey -- a lively group of about twenty people on March 12, gathered for a panel on "Diversity in Fiction." Flood season also turned out to be flu season, and I was the lone author for the three-woman panel. But that turned out to be lots of fun, as I rattled off some of the Vermont stories (some scandalous!) behind The Darkness Under the Water and merged into a great discussion with people like Todd, Aurelia, Remilter, Beverly, and Gene, about what the risks are in crafting fiction that extends into the secrets and guarded truths of history.

That may sound a bit too focused on the past for a group dedicated to visions of the future -- but we all recognized that the futures we're crafting depend on how we understand what's already happened. I loved every minute of it, and even aired a page and a half of a novel of "speculative fiction" (placed about 15 years forward from now) that I've started writing, Bear-Shadow. Thanks, SFSNNJ and Well Read hosts, for a grand time.

I came home after the rapid road trip and collapsed into two weeks of bronchitis, so it's good to be breathing-without-coughing at last; this week included a couple of visits to St. Johnsbury (Vermont) Academy to talk about revision and to learn from translators Alexander O. Smith and Elye Alexander, who brought The Devotion of Suspect X  by Keigo Higashino into English (as they have for many a video game and RPG).

Coming in April:  Catching up with readers at the Lisbon (NH) Regional School. And lining up summer conversations about The Darkness Under the Water and autumn ones (Sept./Oct. in Vermont; Nov. in NJ) for The Secret Room. There's a Skype author visit in the future for Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, VT, too.

More about that, later!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Details, Details ... It's all in the details!

I'm excited that my 2010 writing project, a murder mystery called Cold Midnight, is being read by a few people who might choose to escort it into print. The writing process may be long ... but the publishing process is often even longer!

Cold Midnight takes place in 1921, a year of exciting developments like fast cars and short skirts. In Vermont, change often arrives a bit later, but there's no question that downtown St. Johnsbury hosted the local equivalent of the speakeasy, as well as flappers, barnstormers, and ... whatever else of national culture could arrive on the train.

Working out the "back story" to the novel involved me in a lot of details I hadn't considered before. For instance, I know what a 1921 kitchen looked like -- some are still more or less intact here! -- but had no clue about bathrooms. Not every novel involves a  bathroom, but at one point in Cold Midnight, the second most important character in the book, Ben Riley, needs to clean up, in order to keep his mother from worrying about why he's been out at night. He lives in the grandest house in town, but he's the son of the cook/housekeeper. Would he use the fancy facilities that the owners enjoyed? I thought probably not ... but although "outhouses" (outdoor bathrooms) still existed around here then, I also though the mansion owner would provide something a bit better for the "help." Here are the two images of bathrooms that I worked with, one fancy, one plain.

Oh, you might ask, who's the most important character in the book? That would be Claire -- Claire Benedict. She's got her reasons for being out at night, too. Heaven help her, if her mother ever knew.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hmm: Not June, but September, Instead ...

One of the reasons I don't want to be my own publisher is that there are so many complications that require dedicated attention -- and I'd rather put that attention into my writing! Neil Raphel and Janis Reye, the publishing team in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, bringing The Secret Room into pages, took a hard look at the schedule right after announcing the book publication date for June, and said: "Nope, it will have to be September." So that's the new date, and I appreciate their hard work very much! Anyone wanting to review the book before then, though, will have an opportunity to do so through "Voyage" (the imprint); details later on that.

Meanwhile ... here we go! Have I mentioned that September is my favorite month?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"When I Find My Real Parents, Then I'm Going to ..."

I've heard that lots of people imagine at some point that they've been adopted, or kidnapped, or some other reason that could end up meaning that their "real parents" aren't the ones who are raising them, scolding them, feeding them, loving them. A classic twist is that the vanished parents are rich, or royal, and all that good stuff will arrive as soon as the mystery is solved.

In The Secret Room (that's my 2011 book coming out from Voyage in June), there's no reason to suspect such a situation in Shawna Lee's life. Sure, her dad died when she was little, but her mother married a nice guy and Shawna likes him.  Until the moment her new neighbor, Thea Warwick, works on a math problem with her, Shawna hasn't expected mysteries in her life at all.

Neither did two people that I've known very closely as adults, who accidentally found out that the families they'd been living in weren't who and what they seemed. Truth can be stranger than fiction -- or it can be the inspiration for a novel.

Don't ask me how the Underground Railroad got tied up in all this. I only know that the puzzle pieces in front of me included a "hiding place" in an old house in the town where I used to live.

And that's how a story begins.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Long Line of Research

Last week I read In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Grippingly told and heavily supported by research, the book explores the final trip of a Nantucket whaling ship -- struck in the Pacific Ocean by a belligerent whale, so that the crew had to try to survive literally months on the ocean in small, leaking boats, starving. I could hardly put it down.

And that's a tiny fragment of the research that will go into a novel that I probably won't start writing until 2013 or so! The main character will be a young woman unexpectedly widowed in Provincetown, while pregnant with her second child; her husband was a sailor on a whaleboat. She was my five-greats grandmother, and I have her portrait. I imagine her life, and it becomes part of a story.

Much closer to home, and sooner to be written, is a novel that involves a string of downtown fires in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. I've drafted a chapter in order to have a starting place -- and I know that the person looking at the fires is named Addie. She's scrambling to keep up with what the local newspaper expects from her. "Anyone" can take photos of fires today, but digging into the stories behind them takes courage and persistence. Addie's a good candidate for that! Too bad that one result of her digging is the appearance of ... well, it looks like a ghost to her. The book title is THE FIRE CURSE and I'm hoping to get it rolling in February.

At the same time, I'm outlining two others: BEAR-SHADOW (I am learning a lot about weather, and just got a great book on crystals to help with this one), and OPHELIA OF THE NORTH (don't ask, I can't talk about this one much yet; the characters are talking in my other ear and it confuses the conversation!).

So that's how the research strands continue: I'm still filing materials that fill in the gaps behind The Darkness Under the Water (published by Candlewick in 2008) and polishing the text of The Secret Room, which should be available in late summer this year. But meanwhile, everything else has to stay rolling, with information, images, and more. By the way, the photo here is of a recent downtown fire in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, about five miles from here -- Dave and I were able to see the light of the fire in the sky that night.