In the writing room right now ...

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Unpacking a Vintage Postcard: The Little Revelations of Research

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

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

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

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

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

July 17 - '15

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 21, 2021

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

Photo by Darcie McCann

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

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

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

The Fur Farms of Vermont

Pioneering Aeronauts of the NEK (Northeast Kingdom of Vermont)

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

Cover Release! THIS ARDENT FLAME, Publication in June 2021

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

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

Looking forward to sharing the new novel with you soon!