Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Finding a place in Princeton

When you write historical fiction, you are immediately confronted with at least two challenges. The first is to describe a time. The second is to capture a place.

Writing about a time long before your own requires research. Writing about a place a thousand miles from home requires a visit. At least it does in my book. Literally.

Though research can accomplish a lot, it is no substitute for an on-site inspection. I rediscovered that basic truth this week when I visited Princeton, New Jersey, the setting for Mercer Street, the second novel of the American Journey series.

I’m no stranger to college towns, particularly in the West. I’ve spent quality time in places like Eugene, Iowa City, Corvallis, Lafayette, Pullman, and Missoula. But nothing quite beats visiting a community with an Ivy League college.

For one thing, everything is old. Very old. Princeton, founded in 1683, is no exception. Whether on campus or off, it is not difficult to find a building that is at least two hundred years old. One, Nassau Hall, built in 1756, once housed the entire United States government.

Other buildings are younger but, for me, far more relevant. I went to Princeton to see what it might have looked like in 1938 and 1939, the setting of the book. And though much has obviously changed in eight decades, much has stayed the same.

I know this from comparing what I saw in books and online with what I saw in person. Georgian and Greek Revival houses still dominate plush residential neighborhoods. Albert Einstein’s last home, on Mercer Street, looks much as it did in the 1930s.

As I did on earlier visits to Wallace, Idaho, and Galveston, Texas, the primary settings for The Fire and September Sky, I took notes, snapped photos, visited the local library, and tried to get a sense of place.

I think I succeeded -- or at least succeeded enough to proceed with the book. In Mercer Street, three women, representing three generations of the same family, travel from 2016 to 1938, where they find love, intrigue, and danger on the eve of World War II.

The novel is now in the draft stage and making its way through the first of many revisions. I still plan to publish by Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Giving animals their due

I admit I’m not very good at keeping track of these things. Had I not seen an obscure Internet reference yesterday, I would have never known that I had missed National Frog Month (April) and International Hug Your Cat Day (June 4) but could still participate in National Deaf Dog Awareness Week (September 20-26). My hard-of-hearing dog, Mocha (photo), has already circled the dates.

Groups create these observances because they love animals. So do many authors, including some who have turned stories about animals into celebrated works. These range from classics like Charlotte’s Web, The Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty to contemporary novels like The Art of Racing in the Rain.

As an author of six novels, I haven't done much with four-legged friends. Max, a 2-year-old Abyssinian cat, follows Joel Smith out of a door in The Mine. In The Show, Grace Vandenberg gives a belly rub to a golden retriever named Killer. Kevin Johnson and Sadie Hawkins ride Spirit, a gentle Appaloosa, in Chapter 44 of The Fire.

Most other animals in my books are unnamed or unappreciated. When Justin Townsend spots a West Texas pronghorn from the window of a passenger train in September Sky, he admires it for a moment and then moves on to other things.

I plan to do better in the future. In the second book of the American Journey series, due this fall, a pork-chop-loving German shepherd named Fritz will play the part of a temperamental gatekeeper.

I recently finished the rough draft of that novel and sent it to my editor for a first read. That freed me up to do other things this month, such as properly recognize some toothy and misunderstood creatures. Shark Awareness Day is July 14.