Plank Road Summer book

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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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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Everybody Joined the Dance

I was asked to speak about Plank Road Summer at a couple adult and youth Sunday school classes. Since an author never turns down an invitation to talk about her book, and the church was close to my heart, I agreed.  Though we didn’t write our book as a moral tale, we don’t need to search very hard to see faith issues at work.

The 1850s Wisconsin community was facing a moral dilemma–what side would they take on the slavery issue?  When Hilda and I started writing our book, every character in the neighborhood was against slavery.  How could anyone have an opinion other than that?  But as we dug deeper into the issues and laws of the time, we realized that some people in that community would have believed that following the law of the land was the right thing to do.  The law stated that slaves were to be returned their masters in the South. 

This became a starting point for my Sunday morning conversations–what would you have done? Would you have helped the slaves? Would you follow the law? Would you risk a $1000 fine?  We came to understand that the people of the time would have faced an moral dilemma–when the right choice may not have seemed as obvious as it does to us today, 150 years later.

What issues do we have today that are dividing our communities?  Health care, illegal immigration, human rights, political divisions.  We face moral and ethical dilemmas every day, some close to home, and some at a national or international level.

My hope is that as we face the issues that divide us, we can remember one lesson from Plank Road Summer: In the end, everybody joined the dance. It didn’t matter who won the horse race or who was an abolitionist or who was part of the posse–everybody joined the dance.  As a country and as local communities, we need to take time to celebrate the unity we share, despite our differing opinions.  How would our world be better if we listened more, accused less, worked together, and invited everybody to the dance?

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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.

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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

A Homegrown Book Tour

There’s nothing like homegrown, whether you’re talking tomatoes or sweet corn or even book tours. This week Emily and I made a quick trip to Wisconsin for two book events, both of which featured delightful down-home folks and homemade desserts.

After meeting with our accountant/manager (also known as Mom) in Yorkville on Wednesday, we headed west for a book signing in Cooksville.  On the way, we left a copy of Plank Road Summer at the Milton House, Wisconsin’s best-known Underground Railroad station.  Years ago at the Milton House, Emily and I had discovered the names of steamships that served as “floating stations,”  smuggling fugitives from Wisconsin harbors to freedom on Canadian shores.

A bottle of wine with a souvenir Milton House label led us down the street to the Northleaf Winery, housed in an 1850 wheat warehouse.   The winery’s logo features a sheaf of wheat and the slogan “The winery with deep roots.”  We enjoyed sampling local wines, and owner Gail Nordlof bought a copy of Plank Road Summer.

When we arrived in Cooksville, innkeepers Bob and Martha Degner invited us to join them for dinner in the barn.  An ingeniously renovated 1914 barn is now the Degners’ home, and the original house on the property has become a bed-and-breakfast known as the Cooksville Farmhouse Inn.  Fellow writers, take note–this beautiful old farmhouse on ten acres of restored prairie would be an ideal place for a writers’ retreat at any time of year.

Later that evening at the Cooksville Community Center, which is an 1886 schoolhouse at one corner of the Cooksville commons, we spoke about Wisconsin history to community members who take great pride in the unique heritage  of “the town that time forgot.”

During our drive through central Wisconsin on Thursday we saw almost as many orange construction signs as red barns, but the countryside was so beautiful we generally enjoyed the scenic detours.  In Kimberly we met with our publicist (also known as sister Gretchen), who welcomed us to “the kind of bed-and-breakfast where you make your own bed and get your own breakfast.”   At Gretchen’s house we also got to read to toddlers and help put them to bed.

At the Kimberly Public Library our audience included many young mothers eager for a “grown-up” evening.   We hope they appreciated hearing about our own struggles as mothers trying to make time to write.  We know we appreciated the homemade black raspberry bars and chocolate chip cookies served at our book events.  Even better were the folks who welcomed us not as outsiders, but as members of a community in which people cherish literature, local history, and Midwestern values.  There’s nothing like homegrown.

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Joining the Dance: the Joys of Community Life

Yesterday the Hoosier Recruits provided old-time music for another Plank Road Summer book event, this one at the Blackbird Cafe in Valparaiso, Indiana.  My table was placed so that when I wasn’t signing books, I could turn my chair around and play the piano, thus spending the afternoon as both writer and musician.

“I’m going to be a writer and a musician”–That’s what I told a reporter back when I was a senior in high school.   Back then I imagined myself living in my Wisconsin hometown writing articles for the Westine Report and playing the organ at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

I planned to write novels, too, of course, but I never imagined anything like the rejoicing of the Yorkville community in the publication of Plank Road Summer.  I never imagined hundreds of people–everybody from my first-grade teacher to my high school principal, from elementary school classmates to old college friends–standing in line for a book signing at Yorkville School.  I never imagined my own contra dance band traveling all the way from Indiana to celebrate a book launch.

I first learned about contra dancing as a member of the Hoosier Recruits, the house band of the Valparaiso Oldtime Dance Society.  Soon afterward, Emily and I rewrote passages of our manuscript to reflect our new understanding of old-time dance traditions, such as the practice of choosing a new partner for each dance or the freedom of women to ask men to dance.

Like the dancers at the Racine County Fair in the closing chapter of Plank Road Summer, the dancers at the Yorkville book launch included “young and old, native and foreign-born, townspeople and country folk.”   Although my chair at the signing table was far from the stage where my band was playing, I rejoiced in my good fortune, not only as a writer and a musician but as a member of the warm and welcoming community of Yorkville, Wisconsin.

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