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?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Outside the Writer's Room: Writing in the Kitchen on a Snowy Day in Vermont

I know writers are supposed to barricade themselves in private soundproof rooms, where they can keep the outside world away while they create new worlds on paper. So, why do I find myself writing in the kitchen so often? Maybe it's the closeness of the tea kettle. Maybe it's the light. Or maybe the expectations loosen up and it's just more fun ...

At any rate, I was sitting at the kitchen counter scribbling a first draft of a poem (shown at the bottom), which kept getting changed each time I looked at it (multiple drafts; and can we still call it "scribbling" on a computer? well, why not?), and out of the corner of my eye caught something in motion outside the kitchen window. In one coordinated leap, I grabbed the binoculars and made it to the window, and then ran to the next one, pulling out my cell phone and adjusting its bold little camera to "zoom." And here's the result: a fox that wove back and forth along the field, then came right down to the edge of the yard where the gardens begin, where a mouse must have been traveling under the snow. I watched the fox pounce, dig down, and snap up its snack and chew (with mouth open, eeyew).

It paused to look toward me -- movement at the window drew its attention, I'm sure -- before heading back toward the woods at the top of the field.

And THAT is why writing by a kitchen window is a Very Good Idea. Forget the desk, for today.



I was seven, my brother five, my cute little sister
just three years old. We played tag
with lots of other kids in the neighborhood.
The Slaines were Catholic, lived across the street,
and their girl my age – was it Nancy? –
had a “wedding dress” when she turned seven
and made her First Communion. How envious
I was of her cuteness, and her day of lacy
beauty. The little girl who lived on our other side,
Eileen, sat on the wooden edge of our sandbox
and edged her words with scorn:
“Nancy’s Catholic,” she emphasized in a new way,
a pout of her rosebud lips indicating
a form of disgust. Even then, I knew it must be
something she’d learned from her parents.
Then she announced, with pride,
“I’m Protestant!” – sure, we had heard that label in our house.
My brother grinned, bobbed his crewcut head, agreed.
I had curly hair (too curly said my mother),
which bounced even with my neutral nod.
Then my little sister, rising to the call,
stood up, saluted, and said, “I’m American!”

-- BK

Monday, December 15, 2014

Things Change: In Small Towns in Vermont, Often via Disaster

When my husband Dave and I began investigating the people and events indicated by an 1880 postcard mailed from one small town near us, to another, I opened up a resource that I'd purchased a few years ago, knowing it would be significant -- but at the time, I'd finished one project related to it, and didn't need the details. It was a doctoral dissertation by Northeast Kingdom historian Allan Yale, and gave details of operations at E. and T. Fairbanks, or, as it was locally called more often, the Mill -- or today, "Fairbanks Scale."

Thanks to Scott Wheeler, editor/publisher of Vermont's Northland Journal, I pulled together all the research around the postcard into a story of discovery, with some suprises in it. And that will be an article in the February issue of Scott's magazine.

I gave to Scott images of the front and back of the postcard. I really wanted to also send along images of a building that has an important role in the story, the company store that the Fairbanks factory operated. But I got frustrated, trying to find a good image. This shows the structure at that location, more or less "today," in brick with the name FAIRBANKS inset up high on the building. But I wasn't sure it fit with the 1880s, and didn't know how to find the right version of the building.
Left to right: St Johnsbury Athenaeum, St. J. Fire Dept., "Fairbanks" building, dental office. Circa 2005.

Well, you know how "collecting" can be -- my puzzle inspired Dave to keep searching in his own "ephemera" (the fancy name for items that have a very short lifetime, especially old paper). He found a lovely old stapled booklet of photos of the town, and called me to his work space in triumph: there it was, the Fairbanks company store, probably photographed around 1880 to 1900.

But what a difference from today's lineup of structures! In fact, it's clearly made of wood, not brick, and even the "St. Johnsbury House" next door is not the same building we see today.

Fairbanks company store, left; St. Johnsbury House, right. 1880-1890?

More or less today's St. Johnsbury House. Photo postcard about 1950.
What happened?

Sadly, we know the answer is likely to have been: Fire.

Next task -- find the record of the local disaster that wiped out those earlier structures, and put a date to the change. Even in the past 15 years, St. Johnsbury has seen more than its share of fires in the wooden or wood-framed downtown structures. Someday, the idea of towns that are forced to change via fire, or even via flood (more on that at another time), will seem quaint to us. But today it's still very real. We wish our extended neighborhood a safe winter, and hope this will be a year when fire does not escape its proper place.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Butternuts: A Kitchen Story

butternut tree

We have an enthusiastic Waterford History group that meets at the local library, the Davies Memorial Library, here in Vermont. Part of our tradition is to consider all of us to be "amateur historians," and we all make discoveries -- in the attic, in old books, behind stone walls suddenly glimpsed through November's bare woods. So each meeting begins with going around the circle, making sure anyone bursting with a new discovery (or, more likely for us, reservedly admitting they've made one) can speak up.

Somehow, last summer, we got onto talking about the old trees that are vanishing. Elms are one of them, of course; every New England town used to have some of these giants, but most were felled by a parasite known as Dutch elm disease, and few remain. Another one (I am sure it was Helen who mentioned it) is the butternut -- and people put their memories and ideas together to talk about where they might have seen a butternut tree in the past decade.

Then, of course, memories of cracking open (actually, smashing with a hammer) the tough nuts came from the oldest among us, who remembered what hard work it was! "I had a recipe for a chocolate butternut cake that was wonderful," Geneva mused. Her relatives asked, "Do you know where it it?" "No," Geneva said with a smile.

(see top recipe)
After the meeting, I went searching for butternuts online, and discovered Native Nuts, a small local firm about an hour away, up by the Canada border (website here). Brigitte at Native Nuts allowed me to reserve two pounds of butternuts from the fall harvest. Then one of Geneva's daughters asked for a two-pound addition. "They should be ready around November first," Brigitte advised.

Next came the recipe question. I didn't find a butternut cake in my own books, so I asked Lois, who has a lot of old recipes from her family. She sent me this one, from Hood's Practical Cook's Book for the Average Household, published around the end of the 1800s. "Add two squares of melted chocolate to turn it into a chocolate cake, she advised.

Today the nuts arrived! As soon as you touch one of the ridged, hard, tough exteriors, you understand why they are smashed with hammers, not politely cracked over a bowl. I'm looking forward to trying this, but ... not alone! I'll save my half of the nuts for the next meeting of our history group, which is in February, weather permitting. It clearly takes a village to prepare a cup of butternut nutmeats for this recipe!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"The silence woke her." New Book in Progress! And a Contest!!!

It's that time of year. Snow filters onto the back field. Birds visit the feeders. Deer leave tracks at night. And I start a new book.

Except. Gulp. This time I'm starting three of them. It can't be helped. They are all whispering to me and the time to get the words into place is NOW.

The one I want to talk about today doesn't have a title yet. As I've worked on the research over the past few years, I've just called it "the Lyndonville (Vermont) mystery." But a few weeks ago the main character suddenly waltzed into my life and I had to start ... her name is Almyra, and she's 16, in November of 1899, in East St. Johnsbury, Vermont. And yes, the action up ahead will take place in Lyndonville.

People often ask about a writer's "process." Mine has less to do with what time of day I write, and more to do with how I prepare. I do literally years of historical research. Part of the background of Almyra's story is this information sifted from the 1910 version of Walton's Vermont Register:
In Lyndon, millinery, Mrs. E. M. Swett; in Lyndon Center, none; in Lyndonville, tailor, J. C. Stevens; clothing and gents' furnishings, S. Stern; millinery, Mrs. E. Bigelow, Mrs. F. J. Willey, Mrs. H. Duston, Mrs. W. Barber.
But I also prepare in "five or six senses," and this time one of the necessary elements is a necklace of amber beads. Amber isn't a stone -- it's a fossilized resin. And amber comes particularly from the Baltic (those now-reappearing nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- which have sometimes been part of Russia), but there is also a noted deposit of amber in Kansas, the state where so many pro-Abolition Vermonters made their homes in the mid 1800s to try to sway the new territory toward becoming a "free state."

So, here I am, happily at work, with an amber necklace in place. I love the variety of colors in it. Even more, I am enjoying knowing the role that amber will play in Almyra's story.

Last bit of process: I've purchased paperback copies of two books (well, one is a 10-book series, repackaged in one volume) that I enjoyed reading years ago, and in their titles is the word "Amber." 

CONTEST!! To the first person who can correctly guess BOTH the book titles (for the series, you can either name the first book OR the series, but you have to also name the other book), and place them here as a comment, I will mail a signed copy of my most recent mystery, Cold Midnight. Looking forward to your replies.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

ALWAYS Read the Book Before the Movie ...

This is a rule I learned from my parents when I was a kid. Why do it this way? Because you get to have your own images of the characters, savor the plot without being pushed by the music (or, even worse, laugh track), and know much more in detail than the film will ever be able to tell you.

But that said, I've been laughing at myself as I realized that on top of all the book release dates I'm watching for, I'm also excited about three movies in the next few weeks based on books that I love.

November 21, first half of the third (last) book in the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins. (And now, the final performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman; what a heartbreak.)

December 5, the real-life adventure that Oprah's Book Club pulled into bestseller land ... and I could not put the book down, WILD by Cheryl Strayed.

December 17, the final in the three (!) films made from one Tolkien book, THE HOBBIT -- The Battle of the Five Armies -- and by the way, when are we going to see female characters take on quests as powerfully written as Frodo and Sam's?

What about you? Are you marking your calendar with any books-to-screen adventures this season?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

November: Month of Gray Poems and New Writing Projects

On this first day of November 2014, I'm celebrating -- most especially, the gift of photography that a smartphone makes so accessible. Here is the vista from the end of our road:

And here is a lovely detail from the little cemetery that I walk past, in order to get there. It's the edge of the stone for George Russell, at the Cushman Cemetery in Waterford, Vermont. I love the detailing, making even the edge of the stone cared for and lovely. I hope Mr. Russell's life felt that way too, at least from time to time.

Writers have fresh reason to look forward to November 1, as it's the start of Nanowrimo, a brilliant way to encourage us to start new work and perhaps even finish a first draft by the end of the month. Really! Check out the details at the official website. I haven't signed up on the site (I tried it once but it rubs my introvert nature in the wrong direction!), but I'm starting another adventure novel today, with much exhilaration. I'm happy the outside world is a bit less exciting in this month! (Yes, this means I'm working on two novels, one poetry collection, and one Christmas book this month. And then there's my day job ... and cooking for Dave.)

Finally, for all of us who know tidbits of this poem, the full version from London poet Thomas Hood, dated 1844:

NOVEMBER by Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon!
No dawn- no dusk - no proper time of day -
No sky- no earthly view -
No distance looking blue -

No road - no street! -
No "t'other side the way" -
No end to any Row -
No indications where the Crescents go -

No top to any steeple -
No recognitions of familiar people -
No courtesies for showing 'em -
No knowing 'em!

No mail - no post -
No news from any foreign coast -
No park - no ring - no afternoon gentility -
No company- no nobility -

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Galway Kinnell: It's the poem ... it's the story ... it's the poet

Word online is that our "neighbor" (about 30 miles distant) and gentle friend Galway Kinnell died yesterday -- and since The Poetry Foundation and Wikipedia have already closed his entry with that date, I suppose there is no real chance that the word is wrong.

What a loss ...

These photos (thank you, St J Academy -- were these taken by Denise? Jean?) are from the last time we helped create an event at St. Johnsbury (Vermont) Academy for Galway, in November 2007. He read just five poems -- but braided them together with generous stories about each one that kept the students (and the rest of us) captivated. I learned a lot that day about what it is to care about your audience: the people you write for, and the people you read your poems to.

There will be many longer pieces written in the days to come about this great poet who has left us with such treasures. I wish he could have stayed longer ... and with my husband Dave, we offer sympathy to his family and to his many friends and readers around the world.

If you don't yet know the poems of Galway Kinnell, here's a place to start.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Rhymes for Young Ghouls: When Fiction Turns Fierce

These are "stills" from the Canadian award-winning movie RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS, coming to our local "arts cinema," Catamount Arts, on October 31 (through Nov. 6). The Halloween timing will fit the photo you see above -- but this movie has a lot more to do with Vermont, and my book The Darkness Under the Water, than you might have guessed.

Discovering the horrors of Vermont's home-grown eugenics project, which targeted Vermonters of Abenaki (Native American) heritage in the 1930s, pushed me to write The Darkness Under the Water. What was difficult for me to confront -- the betrayal and medical crippling inflicted by our own mostly fair-minded state -- remains much more terrible and present for those whose families suffered in person from this. It was also the reason Vermont's tribal presence became silenced for decades. Census takers in 1980 recorded the state as "empty" of Native Americans; in 1990, when some measure of safety had been restored, so people could answer more honestly, the Census takers (naive!) asked, "Where did all these Native Americans come from all of a sudden?!"

Back to the movie: Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby confronts the parallel racism and oppression that were taking place in Canada, with a very up-to-date and eerily believable "revenge fantasy" film, as a pot-dealing "native" teen takes aim at the Indian Act and the local Indian agent who is threatening to place her in a residential school. If you like your history served up current, with a generous dash of dark humor and good performance, this could be your film. I know it's one I'm going to see (with thanks to Mr. Aldredge at Catamount for the effort of bringing it through the international network).

And if it makes you angry in the long run, about the treatment of Canada's "First Peoples" and our own -- I'll be glad.

Trailer here.

Globe and Mail review here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Visit to the Library -- by Five of Us! Are You Coming, Too?

Sometimes Vermont is a very, very small state. Vermont authors run into each other often -- at tea or coffee, or online, or at the library or the town clerk's office.

Peacham, Vermont, memoir writer Gary Schoolcraft found the same idea in this that I found at about the same time: Let's get together on purpose.

So, half a dozen of us (changing in number depending who's available when) are jointly providing author events, selling books at yard sales and county fairs, and even marketing online sometimes (Gary has his Green Mountain Books Sales site just warming up).

And this coming week, on Thursday, we'll be at the best library in the state -- well, it's my own town library, so it means a lot to me! -- the lovely Davies Memorial Library in the "White Village" of Lower Waterford, Vermont. (You can learn more about the White Village and other local treasures here: 

Here's the info -- hope you can join us!

Thursday, September 18th at 6:30 pm -- Local Author Round Table

History.  Mystery. Nature and the environment.  Fiction. Non-fiction. Poetry.  All set in our very own backyard!  Join us on Thursday, September 18th at 6:30 for a Local Author Round Table!

Authors Gary Schoolcraft, Tanya Sousa, Beth Kanell, Jerry Johnson and Alec Hastings will be on hand to discuss their writing- what, why and how they write followed by a discussion between author and reader alike.  Their books will be available at the event- read below for a brief bio of each of our guests.  All are welcome- see you there!

Gary Schoolcraft's book "When Kids Were Allowed to Be Kids" is a best-seller in our area. He describes his collection of remembered adventures as "a humorous look at life in the small Vermont town of Peacham during the late ’50′s and all of the ’60′s as seen through the eyes of a kid that was there." He shares snips from the book at his Facebook page, and has a website,

Tanya Sousa of Coventry is an award-winning author of environmental and agricultural children's books, novels, stories and essays. She specializes in topics focusing on human interaction with other living things/the environment - her most recent work is the ecological novel, "The Starling God", which has received five-star reviews to date from readers from all walks of life and around the country. Readers' comments and more may be found on the publisher's website page for the book:

Beth Kanell of Waterford writes Northeast Kingdom adventure novels, with a touch of both mystery and history. So far, they've been set in North Danville, St. Johnsbury, and Waterford, and this year she finished a Barnet book and a "teen sleuth" book set in Montpelier. She shares her research and writing life at, and visits schools and libraries to tell tales of the true (and often criminal!) history behind her novels.

Jerry Johnson of Craftsbury is a well-published poet whose wish came true when he wrote "Up the Creek Without a Saddle": His dream was fulfilled when Vermont’s legendary master musicians, Jon Gailmor and Pete Sutherland, took 16 of his book’s 99 poems and set them to music. A beautiful CD of their songs comes with the book for free. It is Jerry’s gift back to Vermont, those who love the Green Mountain State, and people anywhere who love the natural world. Jerry’s books and background can be found at his website,

Alec Hastings just retired from teaching in Bethel, Vermont. To encourage adventurous reading among his students, especially the boys, he wrote the novel "Otter St Onge and the Bootleggers," which he describes as "a rip-snorting tale of Vermont moonshine smugglers during the Flood of '27." His connections to the area include his father's grandparents, who farmed in McIndoe Falls.

Contact the library at 748-4609 or for more information.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

What the Young Squirrel Showed to Me

Walking uphill on our dirt road on Friday, I noticed a very large and long "pinecone" that had been run over -- still mostly attached together, but fringed and shattered along its edges. Ten minutes later, headed back down the hill, I found this very young squirrel digging into it, extracting the protein-rich seeds.

The little squirrel (a red one) stayed on task and let me get closer than most adult squirrels permit. But finally he/she grabbed the biggest chunk of the cone and bounded off into the scrub and woods next to the road.

The squirrel's attention to the cone pushed me to wonder more about it. I looked up the cone today -- and that's why I put the term "pinecone" into quotation marks, as these fibrous seed carriers come on spruces and even birches, not just pines. But it does seem from my Audubon Society Field Guide to be a cone from a white pine.

I was really surprised to see the "cones" on birch twigs in the book. All these years admiring birches, and I've never looked at them closely enough to see what carries their seeds! A few pages later are photos of acorns; why didn't I even stop to notice that different kinds of oaks present different shapes and colors of acorns? Guess I was always just pleased to be able to say "oak" and "acorn."

As I look at the neighboring town of Lyndonville with intent to frame a YA mystery there (probably in 1898), I'm finding the same surprise at what I've walked or driven past without questioning, noticing, or naming. Lyndonville suffered two devastating fires in the first part of the 1900s, wiping out one side of its main street, then the other. Yet there are structures that date to 1898 on most of the "town center" streets. And only recently, my husband Dave (who lived in that town for two decades and has a great collection of postcard images of it) and I realized how many portions of the massive railroad complex from, say, 1855 to 1950 linger in town, repurposed or quietly shuttered and overgrown.

Soon I'll choose names for the teen and the two older women who'll make up the main characters of this book-being-planned. While those details come together, I'll also look around the town for traces that remain of the people I'm envisioning. I've already seen evidence of their lives (the real ones, not my fictional versions) in Census documents and 1890s advertisements.  Crafting a good story from these "seeds" means paying attention to the names and existence of what's already there.

Thanks, Red Squirrel. You've got me asking questions and seeking answers. Way to go.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Falling in Love Again ... With a Covered Bridge

History may be global -- but I'm convinced the start of a love for history is almost always personal and local. In grades kindergarten through grade 4, I often look for investigation projects that connect with what kids already know: their homes, their neighborhoods.

Now and then, it's also nice to go back to that kind of moment. In the last couple of years, I've become very fond of the Sanborn covered bridge in Lyndonville. It helps, of course, to know that the original bridge owner was a very, very distant cousin of mine (my mom would have been thrilled). But also I find the construction and the bridge's long life satisfying. My next novel (the first draft will start at the end of September) is set in Lyndonville, a mystery of course, and I may have to include the bridge as a symbol of how much easier it is to get along with "things" than with people!

Floods and age have taken a toll, and the bridge is under repair. (You can help save it -- click here.) Here are a couple of recent photos of it -- as well as a postcard that includes it, found by my intrepid researcher husband Dave. Do you think he can bear to share my love with the bridge? (Smile.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Multimedia, Hyperlinks, and a Village Event in Peacham, Vermont

Peacham is considered one of Vermont's most photographed towns -- in part because at least one Vermont Life photographer lives there, and many more have visited. It's not just the hill-and-vale arrangement of church, town center, and farms that's drawn photographers here, but also the strands of local tradition and history. The Peacham Historical Society is constructing new climate-controlled storage space for its archives; the Peacham Library hosts a weekly coffee hour; and the town's small school is neighbor to a professional-level astronomy observatory.

Seven of us "local authors" joined the Peacham Library on July 4, to focus some interest on books. There was a sale of used books inside the library, and outside, under a tent, we seven offered copies of our creations, along with signatures of course. Since business was slow, we also had plenty of opportunity to share aspects of both research and the writing life with each other -- for instance, we listened to Jerry Johnson's poems set to music and performed (on CD) by Jon Gailmore, while archivist Lynn Bonfield described the Gold Rush-era diary that brought her from California to Peacham, children's authors Lynda Graham-Barber and Tanya Sousa compared notes on their paths, Alec Hastings confirmed that he's now writing a teen adventure based on the river logging of the early 1900s, and memoirist Gary Schoolcraft and I planned more author collaborations.

But equally of interest to me, especially as I reflect on overheard conversations that day, is how many media had roles in the day's offerings. Not only were we authors discussing printed books, e-books, and audio books, but we shared Internet research techniques and access. Young reporter Caleigh Cross (a novelist herself) captured images of the famous Peacham tractor parade for the local newspaper's advance website coverage. And visitors pointed to the village store buildings and talked about the films that have used them as backdrops, like Ethan Frome and The Spitfire Grill.

As for me, I was also thinking about Peacham history, "then" and now. I'm particularly pleased with the fresh interest locally in Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), who lived in Peacham as a child and became an ardent abolitionist and legislator based in Pennsylvania. The recent film Lincoln gave him a memorable face and role, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Just as important to me are the postcards Dave and I recently acquired, one showing an earlier view down "South Main Street" from where we authors stood, and the other of the house labeled here "Thad[deus] Stevens Farm."* These old postcards were the "social media" of their time, half Facebook-ish with their images, half Twitter-esque with the limited space for a message. As I collect these, along with memories of a congenial community event, I feel like a human version of a hyperlink, myself.

Our future is rooted in our past; how lovely to savor the present, and look in both of those directions.

*Note from archivist Lynn Bonfield: "The Stevens house on the hill (seen from the village) was the one he bought for his mother—he never lived there.  He was raised in a house on the Peacham–Barnet border, up the hill from the West Barnet church."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Buzzards at the Cemetery

We made a delivery to friends in North Monroe, New Hampshire, this morning, then headed home on the "scenic route" -- which immediately had me slowing the van and stopping in the middle of the road, to watch the unusual sight of a large turkey buzzard perched on top of some "road kill" (a crushed and furry heap of smashed animal) and refusing to move. I wanted to take a photo but Dave was concerned that we were a target for other cars arriving, so I let the car roll slowly forward, and with a clearly resentful shrug, the buzzard left its prey and allowed us to pass. I parked just beyond the spot as I realized what I was seeing where the buzzard had landed: THREE enormous turkey buzzards sitting together on the stones of the North Monroe cemetery, waiting for another chance to consume their meal.

As I eased the car door open, stepped out, and closed the door most of the way, more buzzards landed in the field on the other side of the road. I have never seen such a large group of turkey buzzards -- I usually see them as two to four in a group, wheeling in the sky. What was drawing them?

Next I realized that between the flock of birds of prey and the road, a small fox sat with its ears twitching. Fox kit (young one)? Or mama? I think probably the mama, since it watched the road intently. I raised the camera and caught a photo, but clearly was one threat too many, as the fox then stood up and trotted toward the road bank -- and vanished. Must be the fox den was under the edge of the road.

So, what was holding the flock of buzzards in place? It can't have been the small tattered mound on the road. It was barely enough for one buzzard to consume. I'm thinking cow ... the field is part of a dairy farm, and either a cow went down, or a calf didn't survive the birthing process and is tucked under the green growth where I can't see it, but the turkey buzzards can.

The birds perched on the cemetery stones became restless; you can see one here, toward the right, wings raised. I decided we should move on, and let them get back to bird business.

What an unusual morning!

And that is how writers get distracted. But fear not: Sue Tester and I finished our "semifinal" draft of Charlie's Place a week ago, and my editor at the publishing house is taking a look. Two more sets of revisions to complete, before I can let myself launch into writing The Fire Curse. Chug, chug, chug, puff. I think I can ...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Learning from Common Core Standards While Revising CHARLIE'S PLACE

This Vermont home is like the one I picture for Charlie's new friend John.
Yesterday and today have been revision days for one of my books in progress, Charlie's Place -- the third-grader story set at Ben Thresher's Mill in Barnet, Vermont, underway with co-author and teacher Sue Haven Tester. In addition to tightening the story and making the action as clear as possible, I've been following Sue's suggestion to wrestle with making the book's vocabulary more varied and rich. Along with this is the skill of embedding more challenging words in multiple ways in the text, so readers become familiar with their usage in varied context.

Today's adults looking back fondly at Grade 3 may be surprised at the actions that third graders are expected to take as they read new material in school. This is part of what I see as the improvements we're invited to make in teaching, and therefore also in the books we write for the kids to enjoy: The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a teacher-led and state-by-state adopted set of goals to work toward, one after another, so that our graduating high school seniors can tackle life at an adult level. So, here's what third graders need to be doing with the story they're reading (in addition to enjoying it!):
Cite evidence.
Develop logical arguments.
Today I took great pleasure in reshaping this paragraph to develop text with more depth, including several ideas that Sue contributed:

Charlie looked way up at that boy’s face and worried. The boy made clown-like faces. He pushed close to John and said more things. John covered his ears. John said No! Charlie got angry. The mean boy was scaring John. Charlie hit the massive boy. Stop! No!
But I also paid attention to this passage, weaving back into the text some special terms I'd introduced earlier:
There was water everywhere, with pieces of wood floating in it. It was too dark to see the turbine or the penstock, but the little bit of light flickered on the moving water. Was Old Ben shining a flashlight while he repaired the turbine? No, nobody could fix things in the cellar with this much water, not even Old Ben. The stairs kept shaking. Now Charlie felt scared. 
And it was also a good day to outline the nonfiction material for the end of the book, where (me being me) I suggested a timeline to organize the information and investigations that readers might add to their experience of the story. 

Have you guessed yet from the way the text paragraphs here are written? Charlie is deaf ... at age eight, in about 1956 in Vermont. Things were very different then. I'm enjoying painting in the details, along with things that haven't changed at all, like the chest-quivering sensation of thunder, the comfort of morning pancakes with Grandma, and the satisfaction that comes from being as brave as possible, in a scary situation. Know what I mean? 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Learning the Downy Woodpecker's Call(s): Why That Matters in Writing Today

I watch for when this spring's robins start tidying up last year's nest.
Walk for 20 minutes in the morning and your brain lights up with oxygen delivery in the areas that feed the writing process. The brain scans are quite clear about this effect!

But it's a bit more complicated to say why I am so excited that I learned the call of the downy woodpecker a few days ago. (You can hear it -- in fact, you can hear three different calls, the "pik," the "whinny," and the "drum" -- on the Cornell University ornithology site: When I first starting trying to notice birds more deliberately, I realized I had an odd assumption left from childhood: If I already recognized a bird by its plumage and knew its name, I believed the bird was "common." And if it was new to me, I assumed it was "rare" because I hadn't become acquainted with it before. Wow, was I wrong! The birds I already "knew" turned out to be the ones my mom could name, so she taught them to me when I was a child: robin, sparrow, chickadee, bluebird, cardinal. My mom always wanted to see a hummingbird, but never had, and she considered them exotic.

Turns out that hummingbirds are common! I can see a dozen or more in a summer, now that I pay attention to them. So are woodpeckers, and in the trees around my home there are downy woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers (the ones that remind me most of "Woody Woodpecker" from cartoons, because of the tall red crest of feathers on their heads). I think there are hairy woodpeckers, too, but I'm not yet good at differentiating them from the downy ones.

How do you learn to "see" a woodpecker? For me, it came from learning to hear one! Not just the rap of the beak on the tree -- that could be any of the three I've named, or even a "sapsucker" (more on those, another day). But the downy woodpecker has a distinctive call, and if I notice it and look up right away, it's so easy to see the black-and-white bird after all.

How different a lilac bud looks, compared to the eventual flowers!
Bringing the invisible, the unnoticed, the mysterious and marvelous, into a poem or novel makes a huge different to how vivid and memorable the writing becomes. It also helps me reach more fullness of characters, and to question, in the best of ways, why I'm choosing a particular path for a work. So each day, on my 20-minute walk, I question what I'm seeing and hearing, asking names, changes, explanations, and yes, seeking the invisible within the story at the same time. It matters to me.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

When My Grandson Was 4, and Other Common Core Standards Reflections on Writing

A real papermill, like the ones in the book my grandson read.
... Waiting for supper is short but your stomach rumbles like the mill does. (from Charlie's Place, in second draft)
When I know there's going to be some writing time fitted into my day, I'm elated. I race to get the newspapers for my husband's morning, sing as I swing through kitchen chores, and struggle to stay "on task" for the day's other labors, heading toward the magic hour I've promised myself.

It's "rich vocabulary" day. I'm planning to go through chapter 4 of the first draft of Charlie's Place, the book my teacher-co-author Sue Tester and I are writing for third graders. Sue, a teacher, has already "tested" the chapter with some students, and they're on board -- they've embraced Charlie, with his challenges and his eight-year-old courage. In other words, our plot and character are strong and we're confident in them. So the next step is to test every sentence, looking for how much we can evoke with the words we are choosing. Sue has penciled her suggestions for where we can push the wording to be more precise and to ask more of our future third-grade readers.

And that, to me, is where my own "take" on the Common Core Standards -- that they are daring us writers to lure kids into growth, so they'll be able to reach adult levels by grade 12 -- gives an exhilarating push to what fascinates me, the power of story to reach all of us. I want to make Charlie's Place into the best possible story, and that means endowing it with words that matter.

In fact, as it's now written, the first paragraph of this "chapter book" introduces a word that most third-graders won't yet know. Most adult readers won't know it, either. Penstock. It's an important piece of the out-of-sight machinery of a working river mill, and how Charlie interacts with the way the river water pounds through the penstock tells something important about this boy. And it gets us moving into the mill itself, with its intricate and sometimes dangerous machinery.
Volunteers reconstruct the penstock at Ben's Mill, Barnet, Vermont.
(The penstock is at the heart of this diagram -- looks like a giant wooden screw the way it's drawn.)

This brings me to my grandson Ian, who was only four years old, living in a major city, when he asked me on the phone one day, "Grandma, do you know about paper mills?"

The mill in Charlie's Place is for making items out of wood and metal, and I know it very well, but yes, I also do know about paper mills -- not quite as much, but I've been inside a couple of them. Ian and I had a great conversation about paper mills. At age four, thanks to his teacher and his mom and dad, Ian already knew a lot about how trees become pulp and pulp becomes paper, and what a mill looks like. And he knew there would be REAL paper mills up here in Vermont. His folks and I opted to not take him to a paper mill last summer, because they are incredibly noisy and scary, even for adults. But it's something we'll do later. Meanwhile, what I carry into today's revision is this: At age four, you can be fascinated by complexity and detail, and you can learn the words that go with it.

And then you are rewarded with conversations that are memorable, and images that stay with you. You savor the richness of your experience. And you can do this at age four!! and eight!!! and while you are working on revisions of the book that's meant for those kids, and for the teachers and parents who'll accompany them on their books journeys.

See what I mean about writing time? I am SO ready for this day.

PS -- Interested in how "rich vocabulary" gets introduced? Check out the kids' novel Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera (my enthusiastic review of it here): There are actual lists of "use-this-word-in-a-sentence" assignments that make up part of the plot. I especially loved the way the trailer-park life of the protagonist makes her wrestle with the word derelict.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Learning the Words: The Common Core Standards and Joyful Writing

It's easy to think of the Common Core State Standards as something "for teachers" and not for the rest of us. The newspaper coverage emphasizing the standards as related to testing, for instance -- and if you're a writer who has finished your official schooling, testing is something you're probably not going to embrace.

On the other hand, there's an aspect of the Common Core that is making my heart leap with excitement. Yes, really. Here it is: As I understand them, the new standards are saying: "By the time students leave high school, they'll be reading and processing information at an adult level."

To me, that makes good sense -- I want the kids coming out of high school and going straight to the workforce to be able to do so as adults, and even more so, I hope that those teens entering college can do it as adults. When I think about the differences among the college students I know, in terms of who is making the most of the opportunity and who is blowing it off, it boils down to exactly this.

When I pair this idea with "scaffolding" -- a term I learned from a reading teacher, at a workshop maybe 20 years ago -- the role of "young adult" fiction in the classroom becomes more complex and interesting. Not only are we giving readers a chance to experience, vicariously, the challenges, fears, and courage of life; we are also helping them rise up, one grade at a time, to being effective and joyful participants in the world of adults. We build a "scaffold" the way house painters or skyscraper builders do, so we can boost readers upward from where they already stand.

How do we do this? Here's my vocab lesson for the day, teaching myself the ways that teachers are now talking about the process, within the Common Core standards, in terms of the writer's own favorite building blocks: words.
Tier 1 words: These words are basic vocabulary or the more common words most children will know. They include high-frequency words and usually are not multiple meaning words.

Tier 2 words: Less familiar, yet useful vocabulary found in written text and shared between the teacher and student in conversation. The Common Core State Standards refers to these as “general academic words.” Sometimes they are referred to as “rich vocabulary.” These words are more precise or subtle forms of familiar words and include multiple meaning words. Instead of walk for example, saunter could be used. These words are found across a variety of domains.

Tier 3 words: CCSS refers to these words as “domain specific;” they are critical to understanding the concepts of the content taught in schools. Generally, they have low frequency use and are limited to specific knowledge domains. Examples would include words such as isotope, peninsula, refinery. They are best learned when teaching specific content lessons, and tend to be more common in informational text. (a nice version, well spelled out, from a commercial website,
We who are writing YA fiction -- whether it's mysteries or "literary" -- are invited by these standards to play with "Tier 2 words," the words that my teaching friends call "rich vocabulary." What a gift! What a delight! These are the words I've used in my poetry, always; now I'm being invited to use them deliberately and with skill, in everything else I'm writing for grades K to 12, and especially for middle grades and young adults.

See why my Writer's Heart is singing?

Learning to Write Better, Because My Co-Author Teaches Third Grade

East Barnet Schoolhouse, courtesy Janice Boyko
--> I'm working on the second draft of CHARLIE'S PLACE, a book for third and fourth graders -- and my co-author, Sue Tester, is behind many of the details in this revision. (I wrote the first draft, based on our plotting and character sessions together.)
Sue teaches grade 3 now and has taught others, and she taught me some Common Core Standards vocabulary to go with what we're now doing to the text: working on rich vocabulary that takes readers into the text. On my own, I then poked into Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning, Webb's Depth of Knowledge, technology in classroom learning ... 

I also took a course this January on the "arc of the story," and it helped me zoom through my plot twists and focus on character in fresh ways. But Sue and I are writing the kind of book where every word matters. Partly that's because it's for younger readers. Partly it's because I care about words as a poet does. And now it's also because Sue is showing me how to carry this into her classroom effectively.

Some of this is new names and frames for what good writers/storytellers do, and all of it is pushing me to dig deeper, think harder, write better. Here's a small example of the changes happening, as we take 8-year-old Charlie into school for his first time, around 1956:
First draft: Charlie looked around. Big windows made the schoolhouse very bright inside. Two windows had small screens at the bottom of them. Air from outside came to Charlie through the window screens.

Second draft: Charlie looked around. Big windows made the schoolhouse very bright inside. Two windows had small screens at the bottom of them. Charlie noticed the late summer breeze slipping into the room. Some of the outdoors came inside this way. 
Good.  It's exciting for me to see my own writing and revision process as part of what's happening in US classrooms where teachers are using the new Common Core standards. I like this chart from teaching coach Tracy Watanabe (, showing the deliberate changes that teachers are aiming for.

PS to Barnet, Vermont, and Ben's Mill readers and fans: The East Barnet schoolhouse photo is a good one, a bit earlier than the time when this story takes place.  I'm actually picturing for the story the West Barnet schoolhouse, which, when I moved to town in 1986, was the home of K&M Sales and I believe had been a Grange hall as well. If you have photos, I'd love to see them! 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Picturing World War I: Getting Ready for June 2014

Tank on Main St, St Johnsbury, 1970
June 29, 2014, will mark 100 years since the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a shooter in Sarajevo -- touching off what would become known as the Great War, the War to End All Wars, and (ironically) World War I, since the peace at the end of this war failed to hold. In many ways, it marks the start of "modern history." And, for me, it's also the war that Claire's father returns from in 1921 in my Vermont adventure novel Cold Midnight, handicapped by the psychological illness then called "shell shock" (and rarely treated). It's also a war in which one of my great-grandfathers, Ludwig Ollendorf, was a soldier in Europe.

Regina and Ludwig Ollendorf
[TEACHERS: How far do you need to go in your life history or your family history to find a connection to World War I? How can you help your students "picture" when this happened?]

So I'm thinking about Sarajevo more this year, trying to get a sense of where it was and what made it the trigger point for this enormous conflict. I found the city's own current website,; then I browsed the Wikipedia entry for a first look at context: -- wow, this city really exemplifies a quality I think of as especially American, the determination to be independent and control your own fate ... but it hasn't had a lot of time to do that!

Somewhat to my surprise, I rediscovered that a book on my shelf, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, involves Sarajevo -- I'll have to go back to it and think again about what this means to me.

But for today, I want to focus on learning and remembering exactly where Sarajevo is now: It's the capital of the linked nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that body of water showing in the map here is the Adriatic Sea -- which runs along the "right-hand side" of Italy on the world map. It looks like the city is surrounded by gorgeous terrain, full of rivers and mountains ... and right next to Montenegro, for which mystery fans of the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe books will have their own inner image! Another book I loved that's associated with this region is Lawrence Durrell's White Eagles Over Serbia.

This is how I build "memorable history" for myself: I investigate for a bit, and find the parts of my life and my reading that connect to what I'm learning. Is that the way you do it, for yourself? If you are a parent or teacher or librarian, how do you show others the ways to "get history inside you"?