Before I became a teacher and writer, I directed a backpacking camp in northern Maine. My first “published work” was the Windy Mountain News, a newspaper I wrote for my teenage campers to illuminate life on the farm during the less-benign seasons. It was a wild place, even in summer, without plumbing or electricity, where coyotes howled at night and bears grazed the clover fields near my cabin.
I’d grown up in Massachusetts, and eventually returned there to teach. A few decades later, I was drawn back to Maine, not far from the mountains I used to hike, and now spend summers in a log cabin on a lake near Moosehead. From the porch where I write, I can see a stretch of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, a span of the Appalachian Mountain Trail that runs from Monson to the summit of Mount Katahdin. It’s a perfect place to write historical fiction: while my projects are set in the Thousand Islands, it’s not difficult to imagine a much simpler world.
There was nothing simple, however, about the time periods about which I’ve chosen to write. Grindstone begins during the final months of the Civil War, when the Thousand Islands were flooded with immigrants from Ireland, escaping their own barren country in the aftermath of the Famine. With historical fiction, a significant challenge is writing about hard things without trivializing them. Characters must become real to the writer; they cannot merely represent different geopolitical elements, but must become the men and women who fought in the wars, who laid the foundation for all that came later. How does a writer forge a connection with the past? Music, of course, is a natural conduit. Listen to “Paddy’s Lamentation,” a traditional Irish song about an immigrant recruited to fight for the Union Army. We can hear, in a young singer’s voice, the heart of the matter, connecting us to an emotional truth of something that happened long ago.
It also takes a certain level of confidence to write historical fiction; one misstep can destroy the illusion of reality upon which novels rely. I am grateful that my husband, David, a historian, encouraged and guided me through treacherous waters! He also urged me to contact the iconic Thousand Islands photographer, Ian Coristine, for Grindstone’s cover. Ian and I soon began working together on his memoir, One in a Thousand, which grew into an astonishing collaborative experience with Juno-nominated Great Lake Swimmers and McClellan Group, who transformed our manuscript, Ian’s photos and videos, and GLS’s music into an award-winning iPad app ebook. Grindstone has now led to a sequel; how gratifying that readers connected with my characters to the extent that they want to know what happened to them!
Member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance