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?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

More About the Chinese in Vermont, 1921

At Saturday's library event for COLD MIDNIGHT, I told the real (documented) story of Sam Wah, a man born in North China in 1846 who opened a laundry in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in 1886 and lived here until his untimely death in 1921. Mr. Wah's murder was headline news for the town at the time, and ministers preached that the criminal must be captured -- there must be justice, for Mr. Wah was not "only a Chink" -- he was a Christian and part of the community.

Although that language may seem a bit forced to us now, there's no doubt that the town put its money down to seek justice. The town hired a famous detective, Jason Wood, from Boston, and the business community collected funds to purchase both a plot at the cemetery and a large, plain stone that says, "Sam Wah, Died December 27, 1921."

One of the attentive listeners on Saturday posed the question, "Did that mean there was very little racism in the town at that time?" Although I give full credit to what was done after Mr. Wah's death, and it's also well documented that the laundry owner socialized with the businessmen at the noon dinner in the local restaurant, as well as evening poker games -- I think it would be accurate to say there was an accepted form of racism in town that really hadn't particularly been thought through. Chinese were assumed to be a certain way, just as "Injuns" and black people were. Friendships across the lines of race were unusual, just as they also were often strained across the lines of religion and ethnic origin. (Irish Catholics and French Catholics had separate churches in the town until 1966.)

Moreover, the postcard shown here, with its colorful image as if one were traveling abroad, is of Chinatown in New York in the 1960s, and my husband Dave, who contributed it, transcribed the material typed on the back:
Chinatown-New York City

[Dated on back Sept 13, 1968]

Looking East on Pell Street-Chinatown
New York City. A touch of the Orient is its
most interesting feature. Here one will find
a great variety of curio shops, restaurants,
exotic foods, theatres, etc.
The terms "curio shops" and "exotic foods" still (40+ years after Sam Wah's death!) carry that sense of the mystical "Orient." At a guess, from the postcards we've put together, as well as documents, people in 1921 -- even in "fair-minded Vermont" -- probably saw Asians as "exotic," "inscrutable," and even malicious. Hence the emphasis on "Christian like us" for Sam Wah.

Interested in reading more about perceptions of Chinese in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Here are some informative websites, provided by Professor John Jung:
I have another postcard to share, one from a couple of years after Sam Wah's murder; we're confirming some details in the historical research, and I look forward to sharing it with you soon.

Friday, November 30, 2012

"Snow Day": Perfect for Writing!

Last night's steady "flurries" gave us about four inches of snow by morning, and long before I got out in it, the deer had tracked all around the front and back yards, "pruning" the apple trees again. Darn! Well, I'll put up more fencing on Monday, after the weekend rain clears the ground.

Meanwhile, it was a perfect Snow Day. After routine morning chores (getting the papers for my husband, for example) and a happy-booted walk up on the ridge, I reached the desk, happy to escape to the three writing projects underway. Three!! Well, part of this past few weeks of silence has been spent in research and thinking, and I knew where each one was meant to go.

And now it's suppertime, but I've had a perfect writing session. PUNCH, the sequel to The Secret Room, is well underway, with chapter 1 expanded and ramped up to the tension that I wanted in it: (If you live in northern New England, you'll recognize the friction that "four wheelers" evoke in the community, as Shawna and Thea face the first day of school -- under circumstances that distress them both.)

Second, the new book CHARLIE'S PLACE is off to a great start -- again, chapter 1, but this chapter reflects a 3-hour planning session with co-author Sue Tester, as well as 10 days of wrestling for the perfect words and images. I can't share that one yet, but I'm very, very excited about it.

Third is the new chapter -- chapter 28! -- of ALL THAT GLITTERS, a chapter that's confusing and stressful and part of the turning point of the book, as it's going to explode in two kinds of risky behavior within the next two chapters. Teen sleuth Felicity "Lucky" Franklin is in deeper than she knows ... thank goodness Michelle and Sandy are there with her. And a few other friends, too. Click here to start reading.

What's left for the day? Book reviews, of course! Watch the Kingdom Books review site this evening. I've got a lot to talk about -- and hope you'll join some of the conversations that these trigger.

PS -- EVENT COMING UP for COLD MIDNIGHT: Sat. Dec. 8, 10 a.m., at the Davies Memorial Library in Waterford, Vermont, I'll be talking about the Northeast Kingdom in 1921 and sharing photos and research that lie behind the unsolved "real" murder in the novel. Hope you can join us. If you can't, you can still order a signed copy at (or pick up the book or e-books at local Vermont shops or online).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

From COLD MIDNIGHT, to American Anti-Chinese Expressions in the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

Thomas Nast cartoon of "John Confucius"
St. Johnsbury, Vermont, had an unsolved murder in 1921 -- of a Chinese laundry owner named Sam Wah. Because the murder is at the center of my new YA mystery, COLD MIDNIGHT, I talk a lot at author events about the "historically real" murder and the way the local newspaper handled it at that time, as well as in later retrospectives.

One aspect raised a good question from a careful listener at Boxcar & Caboose, the town's welcoming bookshop.

"If Sam Wah was only hosting an 'endless' poker game for the local businessmen, why did the newspaper say he had a 'gambling den' instead?"

The sad answer is the anti-Chinese racism that thrived in America at that time.

Think back to the great era of building railroads across the nation -- most of them were done by the time of the Civil War. After the war was over, many Chinese men who had been kidnapped from their homeland to labor on the rails were suddenly out of work, and willing to take very low wages for other jobs. In the sluggish economic period that followed the war, this became an issue that we today recognize still: "Those Chinese are taking our jobs. Get rid of them! They're criminals and not like us, and besides, they are dirty!"

Those phrases come up in almost any form of racism or anti-group expression. In the late 1800s they led to federal legislation barring further Chinese entry into the country (except for "professionals" -- which included laundrymen!), forbidding Chinese women to arrive ("they would multiply like rabbits"), and saying Chinese could not become naturalized American citizens. The 1882 law actually broadened over the years, being used against all "Asians," until World War I sharply increased the need for males to go to war. Even without the law's force, though, the racism survived.

At that time, the term "Chinaman" was derogatory -- much like "Nigger." Cartoons created a persona of the ignorant, lazy, dirty, immoral Chinese, calling this figure "John Chinaman." Here's a short related piece particularly for educators (including relationships to state standards) that accompanies this image of "John Chinaman":

  I thank my husband Dave for continued research on this, including the images that follow here:
"John Chinaman" postcard
Dated on rear May 27, 1910, in Indiana.

Chinese women finally arriving in the US after World War I -- part of a needed workforce.

Chinese laundry prices, circa 1940

 A special note for those who appreciate exploring through music: American song lyrics also showed the feelings against Chinese at the time. See in particular "John Chinaman, My Jo," from Conner's Irish Songbook, 1868. And here is a link to the lyrics for "John Chinaman" and "The Heathen Chinee," from 1855 and 1870, respectively.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

One Book Arrives, One Book Being Written -- Mysteries!

Although today is the Big Release Day for COLD MIDNIGHT, I'm also working on three (gulp) other books. Here's one of them: Late in the evenings, I write chapters of All That Glitters, the first of eight teen sleuth books featuring Felicity "Lucky" Franklin, in Montpelier, Vermont.

You can watch the book being written -- read the chapters as their first drafts are posted! -- at WattPad. Click here to peek!

On November 5, this writing project gets featured on the blog of author and editor Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz. Watch for a link to Penny's blog that morning!

82 Years Ago, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont ...

In the holiday season of 1921, local men who survived the terrible trench warfare of the Great War -- later known as World War I -- were home. But they hadn't been here long: Although the war ended in 1919, many soldiers remained in Europe for another year and a half, either taking part in "the peace" by choice or by orders, or detained in medical treatment. That means they came "home" in 1920 and 1921.

Claire Benedict's father in COLD MIDNIGHT is one of these men, and as the autumn turns to winter in 1921, Claire is increasingly upset that her father, home for a few months, hasn't yet gone to work. Shell-shocked and coughing, her dad is not able to come through for Claire and her mom, the way Claire had imagined things would work out.

At the same time, a very different holiday season is unfolding for a man Claire doesn't even realize lives in her blue-collar Vermont town: a Chinese man who owns a laundry not far from the railroad station.

COLD MIDNIGHT -- which releases today, at stores in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont (and Montpelier's Bear Pond Books), and also at -- is a mystery and adventure novel that draws firmly on the real town of 1921 and a real murder that took place. I don't want to spoil the story by telling you too much now, but when you've read it, you'll find notes in the back of the book to make connections to what took place here.

Meanwhile, to get you in the mood, here is a real postcard, sent in 1921 as a holiday greeting, postmarked St. Johnsbury. It's a small world, so if you happen to know something about the sender, or the addressee, please do let me know!

UPDATE, November 7, 2015:  Earlier this week, I enjoyed a phone conversation with Tanya Conly, who lives in a part of East St. Johnsbury that was once known affectionately as "Conlyville," for all the family members living there. She reported with pleasure that John Conly -- who, with his wife (Mr. and Mrs.), signed this postcard -- was her the brother of her grandfather Herbert William Conly. It's a very small world, because Tanya Conly lives about half a mile from Dave and me! I'm glad she spotted this post and let us know that the card does indeed connect "here at home."

PS -- There are many more postcards and photos of the town here:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Values and Writing: What's Your Stand?

Around 2003, when I began writing THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, I was well aware that outrage was one of the emotions driving me. I love Vermont so much that it's sometimes an ache inside me -- and reading (and copyediting) the nonfiction book Breeding Better Vermonters shocked me: People were verbally tormented, physically operated on (with the same motives as Hitler's), and made to suffer for generations, right here in my home state. Somebody needed to tell the story. And my way of "getting into" a story has often been through fiction. So, I decided to write a book from the point of view of a Vermont teen in 1930, coming to realize both the risk and the value of her Abenaki heritage.

With THE SECRET ROOM, I wrestled with some other areas where I thought things could be made more fair: in the way the history of the Underground Railroad is reported in northern New England, and in the important area of girls and math, an area dear to me because I've always been "good" in math and science, and in fact took a college degree in chemistry (there were two of us "girls" among the eight chemistry majors in our senior year at Michigan State University in 1969).

Now it's almost time for COLD MIDNIGHT to be published (the eBook is already available; the printed book comes out November 3). And again, I've pinned to a part of history (underneath the murder-mystery plot) that involves two issues that matter to me: the injustice of America's first federal legislation that discriminated against an ethnic group -- the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 -- and the class structure that can make things rough for kids from working-class families.

My own family, when I was growing up, lived in a house about three-fourths down the slope of the mountain that defined social status in Montclair, New Jersey. My dad moved into management during those years, but for a manufacturing firm where he still dealt with blueprints and machines. Neither of my parents knew much about four-year colleges, and I was the first in the family to complete a bachelor's degree. Saturdays were for yard work and housecleaning, not for "cultural enrichment," although sometimes Saturday afternoons could include a visit with our family friends the Buffingtons, where the dad was a teacher and the mom, like mine, mostly stayed at home until the kids were in high school.

In the past few years, I've come to understand something else about my family that probably helped create the way that I approach writing a novel: My grandfather Ernest, born a Jew in Germany in 1898, told me when I was about 12 years old that the most important value in the world is "Tolerance." He spoke from his observation of World War II, the concentration camps, survival of families, and much more. And on my mom's side of the family, the Quaker stance of my mother's mother's family was my mom's great source of pride, because she knew it involved taking a stand for justice when injustice flourished. Here are scans from a letter that my grandfather sent home to his two small sons, as he traveled in Egypt in the 1930s, probably on business:

What are your values? How do they affect what you write, what you read, who you share books with? Share a few sentences here; I'm interested.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

COLD MIDNIGHT: Early Bird Access to the eBook

Amazon and my fabulous publisher, Raphel Publishing, just made it possible for readers in a rush to download the eBook of COLD MIDNIGHT, a month before the printed book will release (Nov. 3). Got your Kindle, iPad, or other reading device warmed up and ready? Let me know what you think of the book! Here's the link for COLD MIDNIGHT in e-form. Have fun!

PS -- for a look at some wonderful old St Johnsbury, Vermont, postcards, and other images that relate to the mystery, check the Pinterest site.

Setting a New Novel: Getting to Know Montpelier, Vermont (Better)

"The Sleuth of Montpelier, Vermont"

A Writer's Research Adventure

In a little “study” under the stairs, my father labored with ruler and Number 4 pencil on a single sheet of blued paper on which he could make scaled drawings. Nearby, curled in an armchair, the 10-year-old “me” read her Nancy Drew books, and understood that the secret panels and hidden rooms within the mysteries began their lives with someone else’s version of Dad’s blue pages.

There were trap doors, like the one in the floor of the wardrobe in “The Secret of the Wooden Lady,” which also included two cleverly crafted panels that Nancy discovered with her careful fingers; in “The Sign of the Twisted Candles,” the girl sleuth examines a camouflaged back stairway, then with her boyfriend Ned begins a hunt for the dead homeowner’s treasures: “Every panel in the ceilings, walls, and floorboards was carefully examined. … Ned cried out, ‘Nancy! Come here! I think I’ve found something!” She ran to his side in the rear hall. ‘Look! The grasss cloth on this wall is a little different from the rest and a twisted candle has been worked into the design.’” There’s a safe hidden behind the significant design element.

Now that I’m writing a “Vermont Nancy Drew” series set in Montpelier, I’ve tuned in to the wide range of design trends that resulted in the many-aged downtown architecture of Vermont’s capital. If I want my sleuth, Felicity “Lucky” Franklin, to discover a hidden room or secret panel, what structure will she explore? In this case, it has to be (for plot reasons) both the State House and the Blanchard Opera Block, now home to the bookstore that belongs to Lucky’s mom (the real store owner is collaborating) and once host to grand performances in the early 1900s, including the arrival of young elephants with the touring circus!

A behind-the-scenes exploration of the State House with ardent conservation curator David Schütz convinced me that the structure’s major idiosyncrasies lie in its dome, which sits atop the legislative “box” but is a unit unto itself. “My” sleuth will find clues there, among the oddly positioned timbers and scrawled graffiti. In the Blanchard Opera House, though, she’ll discover an actual hiding place.

Could Montpelier architect and sometime mayor George Guernsey, who designed the Blanchard Opera House, actually have ensured a concealed area in the building? Norwich University student Megan Morse and Putney preservation pro Lyssa Papazian tracked Guernsey’s work and life (1839-1900) in detail. The era fits that of Lambert Packard, St. Johnsbury’s major architect (1832-1906), and at least one of Packard’s buildings has a hidden panel next to a fireplace. Guernsey himself favored intricacy and Italianate detail. Although none of his documented structures in Montpelier show false walls, hidden doors, or secret panels, the grace of fiction allows me to insert one with a relative amount of believability.

But that’s not quite enough for the kind of fiction I’m writing, which always hinges on some aspect of Vermont history, as well as a puzzle rooted in the life stages of teenagers. So I have two more components of Guernsey’s real life to weave in: his local nickname of “King George,” and his death of tuberculosis.

In the process of crafting these mysteries (the first of is “All That Glitters”), I hope to also bring attention to George Guernsey himself and to his structures, which probably number in the hundreds, whether churches, houses, commercial blocks, or public buildings like libraries and schools. A little extra knowledge may yet make the difference in a decision to maintain a George Guernsey building at a valued town or city location – whether there is a secret panel in it, or not.

[Photos of details of a George Guernsey building, the Edward Dewey house, courtesy of Don Shall.] 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Picture Tells a Story With Heart

I love this image, which began with a photo I took a week ago inside the farm shop at the Langmaid farm in North Danville. You can see the rows of jellies and jams (I'll re-show, below, my other photo from that day, which shows the baked goods -- the donuts were flying out of there at 3 for a dollar).

And here are some parts of the story that come with the photo:

* North Danville, Vermont, is the location that inspired -- and really is the home of -- my 2011 mystery adventure THE SECRET ROOM. This little farm store is roughly where the imagined village store is, in the novel. And each time I'm in North Danville, I'm haunted by Shawna and Thea (from the novel) moving back and forth to each other's homes and discovering the secrets there.

* The jelly-jar labels include "Curtis Vance Memorial Orchard" as their first line. Curtis Vance lived in North Danville; he was a cousin of teacher and librarian Mary Prior, who insisted that I place a book in this place! The community that gathered around Curtis Vance during his long illness (familial ALS) was wide, deep, and loving. I enjoy seeing his name on the jars, even though I can't ever see him in person again.

* Autumn is my favorite season (is it yours, too?) -- my birthday is at the start of September, and I always have that "first day of school" excitement in my chest too. Most of all, I love the crispness, the scent of the air, the colors of the leaves, and the activities of harvest. "Putting food up" as jams, jellies, pickles, applesauce -- what could be a better statement of faith in the future?

* Last but not least, I just took a class (yes, you can take classes from home, when you're a writer who loves to be at her desk) on Pinterest (ultimate in "new" -- contrast with the eons-old skills of preserving foods!) and figured out how to add this blogsite as an insert on my photo. It's still a bit basic; I'll be better next week. But I'm happy to be learning, and joyful to open the window and smell Autumn, and -- full circle -- thinking quietly again about Curtis Vance and Mary Prior. Life passes, and we are fortunate to preserve some of the "good food" to sample again later.

Friday, September 14, 2012

History Behind the Story: From Vicki Delany, Author of MORE THAN SORROW (2012)

By Guest Author Vicki Delany

History, they say, is written by the winner.
It’s also written differently depending on what side you happen to be on.
My newest book, More than Sorrow, is set in Prince Edward County, Ontario, where I live.  I moved here four years ago and one of the first things I noticed was the sign as you approach the main town, Picton (pop 4,000) proclaiming “A Proud Loyalist Town”.  Highway 33, which runs through the County along the north shore of Lake Ontario to Kingston, is named The Loyalist Highway, and signs depict a couple in period dress.  What, thought I, is all this about?  Then I began seeing flags – Union Jacks? Not quite. One of the stripes was missing.
In Canada we have a reputation of ignoring our history.  I can’t really be counted among those, as I’ve always had a keen interest in history.  I majored in Modern History at University. (Although my major was Modern European History.)  I knew something, vaguely, about the Loyalists who settled Ontario, but obviously not enough.
So I set about learning.
As Americans you might have been brought up to think that all but a few scoundrels and traitors were keen on independence.  Not so fast. Apparently something like 30% of the residents of the colony thought it a bad idea. Only a few years prior to 1776 almost no one in the colony, including those who became the leading “patriots”, was arguing for independence, but for a slightly fairer tax system.  It can be argued, and often has, that the revolution could easily have been prevented if the British had merely bent a little rather than remaining stubbornly intransigent.  See  The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.  (Highly recommended - one of the books that has had the most influence on my political thought.)
Many Loyalists simply thought there was no reason to go to war over a tax dispute.  Many agreed with aims of eventually achieving some degree of independence, but thought that Treason was not a good way to begin a county.  Many were appalled at the actions of the mob – outright ‘confiscation of property’ aka theft, beating and killing supposed opponents – and thought no good could come of it. (In the famous quote attributed to Mather Byles, Boston Clergyman, “which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”) Many simply didn’t want to take sides, and found themselves being forced to when their homes were torched and their property taken. 
 When all the smoke had cleared, there were in excess of 60,000 people who chose to leave the new United States.  (
They were refugees in every sense of the word.   The British army and government remained loyal to those who’d been loyal to them, and provided transportation away from the States for anyone who wanted to leave.  Many went back to England or Scotland, many to parts of North America that were not yet American, such as Florida, and many to the West Indies. When I was in Turks and Caicos in the winter, we visited the remains of a loyalist plantation.  Slaves who had supported the British side were given their freedom and a spot on a ship out. Many of them settled in Nova Scotia, where their descendants live today, and some went back to Africa.  (If you are interested in the Black Loyalist story, try the superb Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.  That’s the book’s Canadian name; it has something different in the U.S. [Someone Knows My Name -- BK]  The Book of Negroes was the list the British kept in New York of blacks wanting to flee.)
Flora McDonald
People you might think had no love for the British remained loyal.  I was surprised to learn what firm Loyalists many Scots were.  One would assume that having fought so hard against the English in 1745 they would be on the anti-British side. Nope.   A lot of Scots who’d come to America after the Battle of Culloden were Loyalists.  One of Scotland’s greatest heroines, Flora McDonald, savior of Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden, moved to America, and became a staunch Loyalist.   After the American Revolution she returned via Canada to Skye, where she remained until she died.  According to a source I read, the Jacobites did not consider themselves to be ‘rebels’ in any way. They supported what they considered to be the true King of Scotland. Thus were not inclined to support rebellion in America.
A great many of these refugees came to Canada, over a thousand to what is now Prince Edward County.
What I hadn’t fully realized is that Ontario was almost totally unsettled at that time.  Canada consisted of French Quebec and some settlements in Nova Scotia.  A small township had been established in the Niagara area. And that was it.  So when the new settlers came to this area there was nothing but wilderness.  No roads, no towns. Nothing but dark, impenetrable forest. 
Molly Brant led Mohawk Loyalists
Not even Native Canadians.  There’s a big Mohawk Reserve near the County called Tyendenaga.  It was settled by Loyalists also. The Indians fought on the side of the British in the Revolution (as they did in the War of 1812) and when their side lost, they lost their land and became refugees.
Many of these refugees were not farmers: they might be townspeople, shopkeepers, newspapermen, tradesmen, maybe soldiers. As is the case with refugees down through time, most of them lost everything except the clothes they stood in when they fled their homes.   The British government gave them transportation, and some supplies with which to begin.   Imagine facing the true North American Wilderness, with a handful of seeds, a hand-made axe, maybe an ox to share with your neighbours, and no farming experience.  The first order of business would have been to chop down a patch of ancient forest, to clear land and get wood to start building. They lived in tents or rough shacks the first years.  In Ontario – in winter!
When I decided I wanted to write another stand-alone suspense novel,   I knew I wanted it to be a modern gothic, a book with strands of the past and hidden secrets affecting people today.  I am interested in how war affects lives, particularly the non-combatants, and quickly came up with the idea of a war correspondent injured in Afghanistan and a young female Afghan refugee.  Refugee? Where had I heard that before?
Thus, in telling the story of Maggie Macgregor, a Loyalist refugee, I hoped to draw parallels between the refugee experience of Canada’s original settlers with those arriving today.   And hopefully I have also had something to say about universal truths, particularly of women caught up in a fight that is not their own.

Vicki Delany's newest book, MORE THAN SORROW, is a "modern Gothic" novel reviewed at the Kingdom Books review blog; for more of this author's insight into the genre, see her other article here. Thanks, Vicki, for sharing your history and story with us! 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Calendar Alert: Coming Soon (Sept. 14), A Guest Appearance from Canadian Author Vicki Delany

Vicki Delany
Vicki Delany's new book MORE THAN SORROW pushed me to grapple with the situation in America and Canada in 1776, when rebellion overtook the American Colonies and "Loyalists" either fought against the prevailing mood, retreated to England, or escaped as refugees to Canada. I was surprised at how strongly I felt about those Loyalists! It took a couple of chapters of Delany's very good "modern Gothic" mystery, set in Ontario, Canada, to push me into giving them a fair shake.

So I'm very excited that Vicki plans to post here on "Stories That Matter" -- tentatively scheduled for Sept. 14. I can already promise this: She'll get us thinking, and we'll be intrigued.

Chinatowns: From Exclusion to Pride

Behind the story of COLD MIDNIGHT, my new Vermont mystery that will release on Nov. 3, are a lot of scattered people and facts, ranging from finding out that high school and college students really do challenge themselves to climb up the outsides of buildings (without getting hurt or caught -- believe me, I would not do this!); learning about an unsolved murder in the neighboring town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont; and having in mind the lack of treatment for "shell shock" for veterans of World War I.

But as the story grew, so did my attention to a terrible piece of U.S. federal legislation from 1882 (and not really disbanded until World War I), the Chinese Exclusion Act. It is in large part because of this act, which prevented Chinese from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, that Chinatowns became part of American life.

Somewhere in the 20th century, though, Chinatowns became a source of great pride: They are the homes to many Americans who treasure their Chinese heritage and savor the sound of Chinese languages, the scent and flavor of long-familiar recipes, the "at home" feeling of being among people who understand more of your background and who don't make casual assumptions based on the shape of your face or color of your skin.

Chinatowns are also "destinations" now, where tour guides or guidebooks direct eager visitors. And they are places where festivals are celebrated, inviting local news teams and photographers to delight in the activities they can capture on film.

There's much more to be said about Chinatowns, and wonderful books that say some of it -- including the mysteries written by Henry Chang, who sets his books in the New York City Chinatown where he grew up (three available through Soho Crime; the fourth is on its way). I emailed to Henry a copy of the postcard shown here, a festive tourist scene if ever there was one, and here's what he told me:
the postcard is accurate for Mott St. looking toward Pell, circa 1950's maybe. The names of the restaurants and shops are places I remember, growing up. Tai Yat Low restaurant was on the corner of Mott and Pell sts. The bldgs on the left are accurate as some I recognize and the rooflines are pretty much the same today... [He then added] Correction,- Tai Yat Low was on Mott as depicted, and further toward the left, a red sign that looks like a music note, was Lee's Restaurant, on the corner of Mott and Pell sts. Btw I've used the corner bldg on Mott and Pell as a location in Book Four ( the first draft of which I've just finished...)
Also, here's a photo that I snapped in Boston's Chinatown, which I toured in 2010 through the Chinese Historical Society of New England (thank you again!).

Which Chinatowns have you visited (or lived in)? What did you experience there? When are you going to take part in one again?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Research, Research, Suspense!

With enough research, the suspense starts jumping up and down and I can hardly wait to get writing the next chapter! I suppose that's the opposite of "writer's block." I love it!

The amazing Cheryl Minden designed a cover for ALL THAT GLITTERS, the first volume of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" series I'm working on. Finalizing it with Cheryl, along with the lovely change in weather -- not humid any longer -- and some gifts of time from my family have all come together into the energy to round up the research for the new chapter. And it's online. Yay!

Today's photo shows some of the in-person research at Vermont's State House, with the curator of state buildings, David Schütz, in the Senate Chamber that teen sleuth Lucky Franklin enters in chapter 26. And for an extra visual bonus today, here's the cover! Thank you so much, Cheryl!!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A New England Town Re-Shaped by Fire

Yesterday my husband Dave and I browsed a postcard "show" -- really a marketplace, with a dozen or so dealers, and hundreds of thousands of postcards, many of them images of buildings, railroads, and people long gone. It was a historian's treasure trove, and we won't be going out to dinner again for quite a while, because we gathered so many of the 3.5 by 5.5 inch cards to bring home with us. I don't think either one of us purchased a modern "color photo" postcard; we chose the early black-and-white ones, mostly camera shots but some hand drawn or etched, and a few hand-tinted with washes of pastel color.

Probably the most compelling in Dave's batch were a pair that showed the disaster of a winter fire that wiped out half the downtown structures of Lyndonville, Vermont, in 1924. Dave will be doing his own posts about that (at the moment, he "does" Lyndonville and I "do" four other neighboring towns). But I want to share the link to a remarkable video we found that narrates the blaze and its results, as well as showing a number of the postcards that were printed at the time to show the disaster. The video is by Lindsay Marcotte, who was a student at today's Lyndon Institute when she made it. Here it is:

It's remarkable that Lyndonville looks untouched today (and there have been other fires since then, too).

In Cold Midnight, the novel I'll bring out in November of this year, Claire Benedict climbs the roofs of St. Johnsbury at night; in the first chapter, she sees a fire being "set." Most downtown structure fires in northern New England have been accidental, but St. Johnsbury and Lyndonville (neighboring large towns) have both seen terrible cases of arson. Two imposing buildings that were lost within the last couple of generations were North Hall of St. Johnsbury Academy, and the Y.M.C.A. building on Eastern Avenue. I've put the postcards showing these onto the Cold Midnight Pinterest board, and I'm placing them here, too, for easy access. North Hall (top image, with South Hall more distant) was lost in 1956, and the Y.M.C.A. building in 1984.

A peek into the possible fiction future: I've started another novel called The Fire Curse that works with all those fires. It's not the next one in my queue to complete, but ... I'll get there, one of these days.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cold Midnight: A Cover, and a Release Date!

Thanks to the fantastic team at Raphel Publishing, COLD MIDNIGHT is headed toward a November 3, 2012, release -- and designer Jacob Grant provided this great draft cover today, which will probably get polished a bit more as the book comes together.

Editor Adrienne Raphel and I are working on making this the best book yet. In fact, tomorrow I'll be "unreachable" as I buckle down to revisions based on our discussions. I love working with Adrienne -- she and I have similar beliefs about what a good story does for the reader.

And here's a summary of COLD MIDNIGHT, now on the Sisters in Crime (New England) website:
For high school freshman Claire Benedict, the pressures of home and school are huge -- her father is home from the Great War now that it's 1921, but he's too depressed to work, her mother is furious at still supporting the family, Claire's friends have stepped aside, and teachers pick on her for her family background. So climbing the downtown roofs at night gives her a world of her own, free and wide-ranging. To her surprise, there's another night climber: Ben Riley, looking for a miracle. When the two of them witness both an arsonist and a late-night poker game that ends in murder, their sleuthing turns risky. Skills alone won't get them through the dangers that lie ahead.
For a look at some of the photos (and fires!) behind the story, check out the connected Pinterest board here:

I'm looking forward to your comments!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

One Mind, Many Paths

Wild things, from the IAB.
My favorite "pithy quote" for acknowledging and enjoying spiritual diversity is "One mountain, many paths" -- it tags both my belief about the way different minds and souls need to approach Meaning in different ways, and my attachment to the mountain landscape here in Vermont.

After a delighted browse through the website and blog of the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington, Vermont, this morning, my version for the day is, "One mind, many paths."

For perhaps three decades or more, educators and others who ponder how we share our stories and our humanity have recognized the validity of "multiple intelligences": Some of us shine in our approach to words, others through numbers, others through music or visual arts or culinary arts. And that's the reason that so many curriculum guides to youth literature include visual arts and sometimes recipes in the guides.

However, a teaching enterprise like the Integrated Arts Academy is a reminder that we can't expect to stick on "arts" exercises as if they were stamps to fill a page, and then expect "the kids" to connect. Instead, on the best of our days and in the best of classrooms, the multiple receptors of every student come first in planning how to introduce and develop a topic.

In writing The Secret Room, my choice was to focus in each chapter on all five of my senses, but most especially to pay attention to scent, fragrance, what things smell like. Marcel Proust, of course, reminded us that the scent of a single cookie can bring back an era and a set of attachments. For me, the scent of horse manure, the dairy barn, and the cedar fragrance of a well-sawdusted chicken house all evoke different times and meanings from my life. And I deliberately bring them into my stories, to let readers build from those reminders also. (I'll talk about "sound" in terms of my newest book, due out this fall, Cold Midnight.)

In an integrated arts curriculum, there must be five "senses" in another way. Suppose one of them is rooted in paying attention to where we are: the sense of place. In the same way that a festival flag for "MOUNTAIN" is just the start of exploring what a mountain is -- and what a Vermont mountain is, and what it feels like, acts like, means in our story -- we can approach a moment of history or a set of characters and call forth their attachment to the exact place they inhabit.

What are the senses you use as you savor the place where you are today? List three important qualities of the where/when of your day. How could each one nourish your own hunger for learning and for creating?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Turning Students into History Detectives: Episode 1

Ever wondered how to light up your elementary classroom students for reading and learning about the past -- that is, about History? Maybe you've got a great textbook or series you want to introduce ... but the kids are sitting back and letting you do all the work. Here's a short podcast with a simple exercise that turns on the investigative side of most students. Let me know how you adapt it for the kids you care about.

Finding the Personal in History

photo courtesy of anna
Whether in a classroom or a community group, with youngsters or adults, when I talk about American history and the stories I write, I'm talking PERSONAL. A fascination with the timeline of history begins as we see our own lives pinned to the numbers. So that's where I like to start.

1. Draw a number line of from the year 1900 up to this year. Mark your birth year and "today."

2. For adults, this next part is easy -- for youngsters, it may require a homework item "interviewing" parents at home or by e-mail or phone (be aware that 50% of American youngsters eventually live with both a birth parent AND an adult who is not their birth parent -- which means some other parent is "off site"). Mark the birth year and, if applicable, the marriage year and (if it's already happened) the death year for each of your parents, step-parents, and grandparents.

3. Make a list of the "big wars" from 1900 until today, with their years. If you need to do some research (or help a classroom do some research) on the actual years, that's great. You're becoming accurate! Be sure to include at least World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and your view of the most recent wars that America has participated in. Mark the years of the conflicts onto your timeline.

4. Pause and reflect: For each of the important family members on your timeline, connect the person with the "big history" of the nation's conflicts. Ask yourself: How was my father (grandfather) affected by the start of that conflict? What did my mother (grandmother) know about it? How did she or he cope with family changes taking place during that time? What happened to family finances there? What marriages or births were scheduled around those larger events? What "stories" of my personal history could I discover by asking family members or examining documents? What "stories" would I prefer to imagine and use as creative writing prompts? 

5. Not writing a story or history yet? Add another layer to your timeline: Brainstorm the big inventions and social changes that took place during that time. Here are some examples: electricity arriving at homes in your town, invention of plastic, women's right to vote, Prohibition, the invention of "Social Security," x-ray machines, milking machines, home telephones, antibiotics, polio vaccines, artificial knees, co-ed colleges, the Civil Rights movement, assassinations of key political leaders, long-distance trucking, home refrigerators, personal computers, electric cars, space travel, movie theaters, cell phones. Now consider how each of those changes affected the people you've marked on your timeline.

You've now created a project that interweaves math, history, sociology, critical thinking, and, most of all, your own personal history. Do what professional historians do at this point: Photograph your timeline and place that photo in an archive of some kind.

Then make a plan: What do you want to know more about? What do you want to tell or write about from your discoveries? Your curiosity and your capacity to reflect and question will be your biggest assets in this project. And guess what -- we all have those two assets, and the more we use them, the stronger they become.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Welcome, Guest Author Carole Shmurak: When Teens Solve a Murder (in 1865!) -- How the Matty Trescott Series Started

Under the name Carroll Thomas, Carole Shmurak co-authors (with Tom Ratliff) the "young adult" mystery series featuring dauntless Matty Trescott. But it wasn't clear at the beginning that this would even be a mystery series. Here's what happened. And thank you, Carole, for bringing us into the "story of the story." -- Beth

Ring Out Wild Bells was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Young Adult Mystery of 2001, but it didn't start out as a mystery. My co-author Tom Ratliff and I had created a book we called Matty's War, about a sixteen year old girl who disguises herself as a boy and goes to fight for the Union army in the Civil War. It was based on a 1994 article in Smithsonian magazine about the 400 women who actually did this — a little-known part of American history.

After four years of writing and revising the manuscript and several years of receiving rejection letters from publishers, we were offered a contract by a small press — IF we would turn Matty's adventures into a three book series. We were able to write a prequel to Matty's War fairly quickly because we had already alluded to many events in Matty's life before the war, and now we just had to elaborate upon them; this became the book Blue Creek Farm, which describes Matty's life in Kansas just prior to, and at the start of, the War between the States.

But the sequel presented us with a challenge: with the Civil War over, we wondered how to bring excitement and drama to the story. Then the idea of a murder mystery came to us. As the Civil War ends, Matty's war experiences lead her to want to become a doctor. While she is working in a Boston hospital, a dying woman utters some strange last words to her, and Matty and her cousin Neely set off on a quest to find out the meaning of those words. In a world without modern forensics, our young protagonists take on and solve a most baffling murder case.

In 1865, there were two medical schools for women, one in Boston and one in Philadelphia. Since we lived in Connecticut, the Boston school was the easier one to research; the archives from New England Female Medical College reside in the library of Boston University. And the more we learned about Boston in the mid-1860s, the more we became intrigued by the many famous people who were living there or who were likely to be visiting friends there: the scientists Asa Gray, Lydia Shattuck, and Louis Agassiz, novelist Lydia Maria Child, abolitionists Abigail Kelley Foster and Maria Chapman, and women’s suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. So when Neely comes to spend time with Matty, the two young women get to attend a party at which many of the famous Bostonians and their friends are present. Matty gets to hear Stanton's views on women's education and Neely, a science student, eagerly listens to Gray and Agassiz arguing about Darwin and his theory of evolution.

Early on in the book, we have the two cousins discussing one of the important issues of the day: with the passage of the 15th Amendments giving black men the vote, many of the women who had been staunch abolitionists took on a new cause — getting the vote for women. Other feminist causes, like gaining the right to own property and getting the opportunity to attend college, became central to the plot of our book — and to the solution of the mystery.

About the title: Ring Out Wild Bells is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1850, which contains the line, “Ring out the old, ring in the new.” Our book begins with the ringing of church bells throughout the city of Hartford, Connecticut, announcing the end of the war, and it ends with the ringing of wedding bells, as one of our major characters is married. And much of the book deals with the changing of old ideas and customs to new ones: the end of slavery, the growing acceptance of the theory of evolution, the beginning of the fight to allow women to vote, and the emergence of higher education for women.

 — Carole Shmurak, mystery author, who co-authors the Matty Trescott series under the pen name of Carroll Thomas.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When Teens Solve a Murder Case - in 1865

Stop in tomorrow to meet guest author Carole Shmurak, mystery author, who co-authors the Matty Trescott series under the pen name of Carroll Thomas. Her novel RING OUT WILD BELLS has a fascinating story behind it, as well as the narrative in it -- find out about the book's genesis, as well as the author's research and decisions.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Genealogy: A Mystery Tour in Progress

Yesterday's Independence Day celebration in our home included guests for supper whose political persuasions are often the opposite of ours. It makes some parts of the conversation challenging. Yet we treasure the work of respecting each other's views, supporting each other in our choices, and occasionally, usually with some humor, protesting each other's convictions. This is, for me, what being an American is often about: not just knowing our differences, but "having them to dinner."

It's hard work when it reaches inside and presses those inner buttons of who we are and why we choose to be that way. Right now, my quest for more family history fits weill with most of my close family members -- but rubs one or two of them wrong. I'm hoping those individuals will continue to tolerate my investigating, but I've learned enough from our politically different friends to realize that within family, too, there come moments when the assignment is simply: Stop talking about it. Relax. Enjoy the strawberry shortcake and the thunderstorms together.

Today, as I rotate back into work mode after three days of family, I took a few minutes to also catch up on the genealogy-related e-mails in my stack. There were a couple of them from, where the slow labor of indexing all of the 1940 Census data, state by state, has now reached ten: CO, DE, DC, ME, NV, NY, OH, PA, TN, VT, VA. For me, that also meant 18 more documents that the Ancestry search engines thought might apply to my family tree -- and it turned out 17 of the 18 did indeed connect. Fun! I was also glad to find that New Hampshire is among the next set of records to be indexed, as that's where I'm looking for some farm connections from my mother's family, geared to that 1940 Census.
Because the novels I'm writing connect most of all with how difference is expressed and experienced in New England (usually from the point of view of a teen, most often a young woman), these history mysteries in my own family give me extra energy to keep exploring ... and keep writing. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Time, Strawberries, and a Red Squirrel

I see it's been a few weeks since I've added a post here. Some seasons are like that: I visited my sons and in another state my sister, got the vegetable garden planted, hauled a hundred wheelbarrows of shredded bark to dress the flower gardens and the new hedge line, and more. But I'm back in gear.

Last weekend I stood in a nicely shaded oxen shed at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds with eight or nine other authors of Vermont fiction, chatting with people who came to enjoy the Vermont History Expo. On Saturday morning I hurriedly picked some strawberries from the garden to leave on the table for my husband, who gets up a bit later, if time allows. Sunday morning, though, I didn't have time. But Sunday evening when I got home, before I even unloaded the car, I went to water the hanging basket of petunias next to the strawberry bed. Oddly, right in the middle of the "meditation bench" there, I saw a red strawberry. Could I have dropped it there on Saturday? It didn't seem likely. I was so tired that I just shrugged and left it there, figuring I'd catch up with the strawberries on Monday morning (today).

When I got up today, I went to the top of our office stairs, as I always do, to sit out in the fresh air and be silent for a few moments, remembering what Life is for. The stairs lead down to the meditation bench and the berry bed. As I opened my eyes after my pause, a flash of movement on the bench caught my eye! I stayed perfectly still, and realized a bushy-tailed red squirrel was there. A moment later, the squirrel ran away from the bench, toward the other side of the yard -- with the strawberry neatly held in his or her mouth.

What should I believe? That the squirrel has been carefully pilfering from the garden, and accidentally left a berry behind one night, and came back to retrieve it? I am amazed!

Of course, we are already sharing the garden with the robins nesting under the steps, and the catbirds and wrens, and I know the crows come peck holes in the ripest berries. To add a squirrel family as well seems a bit of a strain on the breakfast harvest for my husband.

So, with regret, I fastened the nylon "bird net" over the berry bed just now.

But I don't want the squirrels to have hurt feelings. So every single "rejected" berry from today's picking -- the ones the crows tasted or the ants nibbled -- is now lined up just outside the netted garden, on the grass. Red squirrel, come back. We are in this together, your family and mine.

Oh yes, this is a true story. I must add that assurance, because when I talked with readers at the Vermont History Expo yesterday, we walked carefully along the borders of What Really Happened and how to craft fiction that reflects actual events, not the ones we wish had happened.

"To have peace, we must have justice. To have justice, we must have truth." These are the stories that matter.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slavery: Talking About It With Younger Students

Why didn't I think about it ahead of time? I guess it never occurred to me that I'd be trying to explain what American Slavery had been to people who had no clue -- I've talked about THE SECRET ROOM (my 2011 Vermont adventure novel, history-hinged) with middle schoolers and high schoolers and lots of adults. But the day I found myself conversing with an audience that included children in third grade, I realized that I couldn't explain the Underground Railroad to them -- the focal point of Shawna and Thea's investigations in The Secret Room -- without saying something about what slavery was.

And it occurred to me that some of these kids didn't know.

What would their parents say about the words and images I chose to present?

Not until that moment had I realized how hidden our American history can be. Moreover, I realized that explanations of American Slavery could wound the children gazing at me. One, the entire phenomenon could be a frightening nightmare to them. And it ought to be, although I didn't want these children waking with night terrors. The idea that humans could "own" other humans and treat them as if they were farm animals is horrifying, terrifying, shameful.

I worried, too, that because the group of children in front of me included a wide range of skin colors, any bullies in the group could use my narrative of slavery to justify mistreating other children. Or, the very imaginative ones could experience within themselves a shadow of what slavery did.

In some ways, I wish I'd recorded the words I chose that day, so I could reexamine them and improve them for the next child who asks me about it. As a novelist, I'm in almost the same situation that Harriet Beecher Stowe experienced when she realized she was going to write Uncle Tom's Cabin: No matter how many histories and memories I read (and I strongly recommend Julius Lester's To Be a Slave as a starting point for teachers and other readers, as it provides the actual words of people who experienced slavery), I'm still an outsider, looking on with shock, shame, and determination to remind people of what's happening.

What's happening -- not "what happened." Because my conviction is that American Slavery continues to mark us all, and to make us responsible for our actions today.

So I'm especially glad today to share the news that a parent of a seven-year-old who heard how clearly her child failed to grasp the tragedy of the Middle Passage and American Slavery has created a "game" to teach some of the the emotional underpinning in a way that children and adults can grasp. The parent is game designer Brenda Brathwaite, and I hope you'll click here to listen to her TED talk about why this was a MUST DO game for her, and how she and her daughter explored its impact together.

Then share the news. Please.

PS - If YOU have experience talking with students about American Slavery and want to share some wisdom -- or are a parent with ideas about this -- I'd love your comments.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Another Direction for Research

When I was writing The Darkness Under the Water, I knew I was writing as a relative newcomer to Vermont: I'd only lived here about 25 years when I began writing it, 30 years when it reached publication. Although my mother's family has long, complicated roots in New England, I'd always thought it was just a very weird coincidence that the house I first rented in Irasburg, Vermont, was built and lived in by a distant relative. I wrote from the point of view of someone who's adopted a place as home: wholeheartedly in love, but with distance that could never be mended. It was a good "place" of heart to write from, and it helped me to identify deeply with Molly Ballou, the novel's protagonist: Her heritage is about to slip from her grasp, and she doesn't know how she feels about that -- but events are moving her to the point of making a choice. Actually that's also a mirror of what happened to my dad, who arrived in America as an educated but deeply displaced German/Jewish/English immigrant a few years after the end of World War II. I identify with both of my parents, odd though that may sound.

As I researched and wrote The Secret Room, set in the fictional village of North Upton, I modeled the location on the real village of North Upton. Since I knew almost none of the residents, I could safely use my imagination to create the story and characters ... but my research also relied on books about the families who really did live there for generations, and whose members still "belong" in North Danville, whether they still live there, or not.

Gradually, I began to realize that the family names of the real village overlapped oddly with my mother's background. Moved by the coincidences, and also by some of the controversy over my first novel (who was I?), I began a genealogical journey. Just after I completed the manuscript of The Secret Room, I realized -- with earthquake-level shock -- that one of my ten-great grandfathers was a nine-great grandfather of Mary Langmaid Prior, a much-missed deceased friend whose affection and appreciation for her North Danville roots had pushed me toward my choice of the village to inspire the novel. Suddenly my life was part of my fiction. Omigosh!

Since then, I've discovered that my fairly isolated parents actually had cousins all over America, but may not have known it, or may have deliberately steered away from family. Both my mother and father have now passed on, so I'll never know for sure. But I'm now dedicated to knowing more, and I continue the family history research. This evening one of my brothers phoned -- about to exchange e-mails with a cousin of our dad, who lives within an easy drive of his home. For the first time.

So I'm a fan of all research tools that give us options to learn more, especially of our American history, which is so complex and many-layered. This week,, one of the big databases for this kind of information, announced a new DNA project that will let participants find out concretely more of their biological connections to the world's people. I'm looking forward to taking the test some day. What else will I discover? I already know some of the Native American branches of my family tree, new knowledge that has me awestruck. I hope to reach my own African roots someday -- deep in the heart of our world. Knowledge can make our hearts ache. And rejoice.

Seven Homes, Seven Stories - in One Building

In the earliest research for ALL THAT GLITTERS (in progress on Wattpad - click here), I focused on two buildings in Montpelier, Vermont: the gem-like glittering State House on State Street, and the mysterious structure called The Blanchard Block, where Bear Pond Books nestles in one lower Main Street corner. I've fallen in love with the labyrinth of corridors, offices, and purposes within this historic downtown commercial building that also served the town as its Opera House. It really is true that elephants climbed the stairs to the second-floor performance hall, although today there are no signs of their presence (not even a whiff of pachyderm pee).

As you look at the photo that I snapped earlier this week, see the ground-floor doorway with the pale yellow trim? That's the one that teen detective Felicity "Lucky" Franklin enters with her girlfriends, as she races to see whether her mother might be in the family's apartment. In my mind's eye, that apartment is on the second floor, at the rear, in the 1890 addition, where one of my most informative research guides downtown once resided (more on that, later). You need to know that it's possible to reach the roof of the structure. Keep that in mind, as Lucky finds, once again, a bit of birdseed, in spite of the snowy surroundings. What a quandary!

About the title of this post: Lucky's home isn't the only one in this large, elegant structure. Each of the others here has a "story" too. But I also like to count on another number line: over time. Since 1833-1834, when the building was born, I figure there have been at least seven important stories unfurling here. Lucky Franklin's is the eighth.