On Writing

Of Novels and November

November is fast approaching, which means that it’s time to gear up for National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. At Chesterton High School my students will write for at least 60 of the 90 minutes on each of the nine days that our Creative Writing class meets in November. As twenty juniors and seniors work on first drafts of their novels, the only sound in the room will be the clicking of computer keys and the occasional squeak of a chair.

After a 30-minute lesson on some aspect of fiction writing, often adapted from the materials available online for the Young Writers Program at the NaNoWriMo website (nanowrimo.org), my students and I will head to the computer lab to meet our word quota for the day.  If all goes well, I will model appropriate novel-writing behavior by revising several chapters of the sequel to Plank Road Summer during every Creative Writing class in November.

Because my students compose using Google document files and include me as a collaborator, I can view their works in progress and add comments (always in friendly green). Obviously, I can also tell whether they are actually working on their novels or just finding ways to distract themselves–a practice that is all too familiar to us published authors.  Hmmmmm.  It occurs to me that I have spent far too much time browsing the NaNoWriMo website and must really get back to work.

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Plain Old Summer

Last year, with our book fresh off the press, Hilda and I enjoyed our own Plank Road Summer. We traveled about from one book event to another, eager to share our story with others.  We felt like real authors, which seems a bit more glamorous than our everyday lives.

This summer, for me, has been exceptionally less glamorous. I had very good intentions, when the school year ended, about getting back to writing (We’re working on the sequel!). But on June 23rd, when I was home alone–no husband, no children–it started to rain.  And hail. And pour. Yard flooded.  Basement leaked.  Tornado sirens wailed.  Power failed.  Sump pump quit.  Basement flooded.  

Went outside to get a neighbor to help start the generator.  Fell and broke my right (writing) arm!  Neighbor arrived. Got generator going.

BUT couldn’t get to hospital because the streets were flooded.  My house was an island with water lapping against it on all sides. Called 911. A firefighter came to my rescue.  Waded a long block through knee deep water to the ambulance.  When I sat down on the gurney and lifted up my feet, my wellies flooded the inside of the ambulance….

Some of you can imagine the rest of my summer–a hot, itchy cast well past my elbow, sorting through sodden masses of possessions, drying out and reconstructing.  And family visiting from Japan and Baltimore in the midst of it. A month later came a second flood, and another family member took an ambulance ride through the flooded streets.

Life is what happens when you’re not writing. It’s the challenges, heartaches, celebrations that form who we are and make up our own story. It’s Plain Old Summer, which isn’t really plain at all.  It’s memories, adventures, emotions, family, neighbors.  It’s the kind of thing you could write a book about. Maybe I will.

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At the Well

Mather Inn Well

Emily Demuth and her daughter, Louisa, at the Mather Inn well excavation.


The archaeologist, Norm Meinholz, was digging at the site of Mather Inn again this month.  This time, I managed to get back to Wisconsin while the dig was still open. Meinholz had uncovered part of the old foundation and established the exact location of the Inn, when  it stood facing the Plank Road.   The Mather Inn itself still stands  a stone’s throw away–it was moved many years ago, and now faces what would have been the Section Line Road between the Mather and McEachron properties.   

Just a few paces west of the foundation, the archaeologist had found the well.  Stones formed a perfect semi-circle (only half had been uncovered).  It was easy to imagine Katie pulling a bucket  of water from the well, setting the bucket on the stone rim, and peering at her reflection–even though that scene was edited out of our book during an early revision.    

Many scenes never made it into the final version of Plank Road Summer, including one which our mother particularly liked.  This lost scene was the first introduction to the Mather Inn from Katie’s point of view:  

“Katie walked past the grand front door that led to the parlor and the ballroom upstairs–that was for guests.  She hurried round past the porch on the west side, which led to the dining room–that was for teamsters.  At the back of the house she rapped at the kitchen door–that was for neighbor children.  Mrs. Mather was very particular about the proper use of doors.”  

As I walked around the original site of the Inn and stood where the front door had once been, I slipped back in time–back to when traffic sounds were the creak of a harness or clopping of hooves, and when water came not from the faucet but from a bucket drawn daily from the well.  Had Hilda and I seen this circle of stones a couple of years ago, I’m sure we’d have kept the well scene in our book.  

Click here to read a newspaper article about the first dig.  

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Mather Inn, On Writing, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Notes from All Over

I thoroughly enjoyed the coffee and conversation last month when fiction editors Tara Gilboy and Thomas Ward interviewed me for the online version of the Straylight, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside literary magazine: http://straylightmag.com/?p=691

The interview covers a wide range of topics, including the process of researching and writing Plank Road Summer and tips for writers trying to land an agent or a publisher.  Fans of Plank Road Summer will appreciate learning about the characters and plot of the sequel, which is currently a work in progress.

In my conversation with Tara and Tom, I spoke at length about the struggles of shaping a writing life. After reading the Straylight article, a friend chose to feature my story in a post on his blog, Minding the Workplace.  You can read David Yamada’s article “Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife” here: http://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/embracing-creative-dreams-at-midlife/

And in case you just can’t get enough of the Demuth sisters, you can find another interview (and a book giveaway contest) at Read These Books and Use Them!, the blog of teacher/editor/historical fiction writer Margo Dill: http://www.margodill.com/blog/

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A Return to Yorkville

The students at Yorkville Elementary School in Racine County, Wisconsin, have a distinct advantage over students elsewhere when it comes to imagining the scenes of Plank Road Summer. Their school buses travel down the plank road past the old McEachron and Mather homesteads, climb up over the Rise, and pass the pioneer cemetery on Old Yorkville Road.

The Modine-Benstead Observatory now stands on the Rise.

When I visited the school recently, the students enjoyed trying to figure out which local landmarks now stand at the places mentioned in the book.  For example, the high point of land known as the Rise is now the site of the Modine-Benstead Observatory.   The Waites’ Corners schoolhouse once stood among the oaks just south of today’s popular Country Rose Bakery and Cafe.

This week I received a packet from Mrs. Mary Jo North, the Yorkville teacher who coordinated my visit.  In the envelope were thank-you notes from representatives of the student body.  Here is a portion of one:

You taught us about the writing process and all the research you had to do to write your novels.  A lot of us love to read, including myself, and some of us dream about writing our own novels.  You helped us see what we’re up against, but that it’s also possible for dreams to come true. . .

. . . You taught us to never give up and keep going when things get rough.  Even though you submitted your story for publishing and got refused over 20 times, you and your sister never gave up.  Whether we ever attempt to write a novel or not, it will help us in whatever else we do.

Thank you, Kristina, for those beautiful words.  Your teachers at Yorkville School should be proud indeed.

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Of Inns and Castles

Whenever Emily and I are in a housecleaning frenzy, we say that we are “Vin Mathering.”  Often I would like to summon Mrs. Mather to set all the rooms to rights and take over the kitchen and make my home ready for guests.  At such times I wish I had as much energy and passion for housekeeping as did Lavinia Mather of the Mather Inn.

This weekend I am Vin Mathering in preparation for a gathering to celebrate the launch of my historical novel Kingdom of the Birds.  This new book also features a good housekeeper.  Hermina lives in a mountaintop castle in the Thuringian Forest instead of a Wisconsin inn along a plank road, and she welcomes visiting knights and minstrels instead of farmers and teamsters.

My own home is no castle, and I have spent considerably more time creating characters who keep house than keeping house myself.  However, since neither Vin Mather nor Hermina is likely to show up to help, I must end this entry and go off in search of a broom.

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The Delights of Talking Shop

“One of your fans is here.”  That’s what an old college friend said to me at his fiftieth birthday party.  Don introduced me to eleven year-old Taylor, who had read Plank Road Summer.

I figured that asking “Did you like the book?” would risk a quick end to the conversation, so I said, “Who was your favorite character?”

“Oh, definitely the grandmother.”

“Gran Mather? What did you like so much about her?”

“She was really smart.  Gran always knew just what to do.”

“Gran is one of my favorites, too,” I told Taylor.  “I love when she  thwacked Mister Ives with her staff.”

Our conversation turned to the joys and frustrations of writing.  Taylor was working on a fantasy, and she described the setting of the story vividly. When I asked about the characters, Taylor said she hadn’t quite figured out what the main character’s “issues” are.

I confessed that in an early draft of Plank Road Summer, Katie and Florence were so completely lacking in issues that a friend who read the story said, “It’s very pretty.  Where’s the conflict?”

Taylor and I agreed that having trusted readers look over a draft is important.  A good editor can suggest changes that will help a writer bring out the real story.  I told Taylor that editor Philip Martin of Crickhollow Books had convinced us to cut two chapters from the published version of Plank Road Summer.

However, in the early stages of a writing project, an editor might get overly involved.  Taylor and I agreed that parents, for example, are generally very helpful, but sometimes they want to change too much.

Soon Taylor’s mother and father drifted over toward us, a little curious as to the subject of our conversation.

I smiled. “Oh, you know how writers are.  We were just talking shop.”

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A Place on the Shelf

When Emily and I appeared at the Racine Lutheran High School Ladies’ Guild Harvest Fair, our Plank Road Summer book display was set up in an impressively renovated lobby which looked nothing like the entrance we remembered from our high school days. The RLHS Harvest Fair itself, on the other hand, seemed exactly the same–a gymnasium full of tables heaped with linens, books, craft items, baked goods, and the ever-popular “trash and treasure” selection in the corner.

During a break from book-signing, I wandered down a corridor in search of familiar flooring and fixtures. At the top of a stairwell I peered into the darkened classroom which had belonged to Mr. Adel. White-haired Mr. Adel, my ninth grade English teacher, was also the school librarian, and the little library adjoining his classroom became my favorite haven.

Mr. Adel recommended books and discussed them with me afterward. I set myself the ambitious goal of reading the entire fiction collection, beginning with Alcott and Austen and working my way through Zola.

Sophomore year I began writing a novel, an undertaking that cut into my reading time considerably. Faithful Mr. Adel read every word of the chapters I hammered out on my mother’s old manual typewriter. I knew exactly where my novel would be located on the Lutheran High library shelves; I could already picture the label FIC DEM on the spine.

While that unfinished novel is now in a box in my attic with other abandoned projects, the fact that a teacher took me seriously as a writer is a significant factor in my success today. Having Plank Road Summer on a shelf in a school library is sweeter than any display at Barnes & Noble. I think Mr. Adel would understand.

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Racine County | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Return to Days Gone By

Among the many books that Emily and I read and reread during our childhood were the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We are looking forward to celebrating this favorite author’s Wisconsin heritage when we appear as part of “Days Gone By” at the Dousman Stagecoach Inn in Brookfield, Wisconsin, on Sunday, October 4.

In paging through my copy of Little House in the Big Woods, I realized how much Emily and I had been influenced by Wilder’s depictions of pioneer life. Wilder’s book has chapter titles like “Summertime” and “Harvest,” and the rhythm of the seasons shapes Plank Road Summer as well. Pa Ingall’s fiddle-playing is echoed by our Old Man Caswell, and the dancing at Grandpa’s house in the Big Woods is, of course, the same kind of dancing that the Yorkville settlers enjoyed at the Mather Inn and the Racine County Fair.

Visitors to the Days Gone By tribute to Laura Ingalls Wilder sponsored by the Elmbrook Historical Society will have the opportunity to play games that Laura or her parents would have played, churn and make butter, learn how to card and spin wool, listen to storytellers read from Wilder’s books, and enter a Laura Ingalls Wilder costume contest.  Other activities will include a scavenger hunt, demonstrations of sharpshooting and woodcarving, and tours of the Dousman Stagecoach Inn, which once served travelers along a plank road.

Emily and I will be on hand with our antique wool drum carder, ready to sign copies of  Plank Road Summer or just have a chat about the pleasures of reading and writing about Days Gone By.

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Graue Mill Changed our Story

When Hilda and I first began working on Plank Road Summer, we didn’t exactly know how to go about writing historical fiction. One weekend when Hilda was visiting me in Elmhurst, I suggested that we go to nearby Graue Mill to “soak up some atmosphere.” I had been to Graue Mill before and knew that it was built in 1852–the exact year our story was set–so I thought the place would be a good source of inspiration.

We watched the miller grind corn and examined all the household items and farm tools on the upper floors. As we were looking at the display in the basement, Hilda said to me, “You know, we should put the Underground Railroad in our book.” Graue Mill, of course, is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad in Illinois–a place where fugitive slaves were hidden on their way to freedom in Canada.

“We can’t just ‘put it in,'” I said. I’m the historical stickler. I told Hilda we would have to prove that fugitive slaves traveled through the Wisconsin neighborhood in which Plank Road Summer takes place before we could put that information in our story. But then Hilda reminded me of childhood stories of a neighbor’s house with a tunnel to the swamp in which slaves had supposedly hidden. And we remembered that a building in Rochester was supposed to have been used in helping slaves.

When we started to research the subject, we did indeed find the solid evidence we needed to prove that slaves could have made their way past the properties in our book. (Saying any more than that would be a spoiler) But yes, Hilda, we could (and did) put the Underground Railroad into our book. In fact, it became a large part of our story–and all because of a visit to Graue Mill.

On Sunday, Sept. 6, I’ll be at Graue Mill from 12:00-4:00. Come buy a book, make a wool butterfly, add a plank to my road. And soak up the atmosphere of Graue Mill and the Civil War encampment on the grounds. It’ll be a great day for inspiration!

Categories: Childhood Memories, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Rochester Wisconsin, Underground Railroad, Why this story | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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