Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Finding answers in Johnstown

Like most writers of fiction, I prefer to see a town before I write about it. There is nothing like walking the streets, smelling the air, and speaking to the locals to get a feel of a particular community.

For that reason, I traveled to Wallace, Idaho; Galveston, Texas; Princeton, New Jersey; Evansville, Indiana; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, before writing novels that brought their features to the forefront.

Last weekend, I continued that tradition by visiting Johnstown, Pennsylvania. As was the case with the other towns, I'm glad I did.

When you step into this mountain community of 20,000, you step into history. For much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Johnstown was synonymous with the steel, coal, and railroad industries. It was a symbol of America’s strength and spirit. It was also a reminder of one of our greatest tragedies, a disaster of nature and man that captured my attention long before I considered writing my current book.

Much like Wallace before the Great Fire of 1910 and Galveston before the hurricane of 1900, Johnstown in 1889 was an accident waiting to happen. Located 14 miles downstream of a reservoir held in place by a poorly maintained dam, it lived in fear of a breach. One hundred twenty-eight years ago today, those fears were realized.

Unlike the other towns, Johnstown had little warning of impending doom. By the time a forty-foot wall of water and debris reached the city, the fate of more than 2200 people was already sealed.

I went to Johnstown not because I needed facts and figures but rather because I needed understanding. I found it in visits to two museums, conversations with area residents, a walking tour of the town, and even the rainy weather, which provided an authentic backdrop.

I am currently about halfway through the first draft of River Rising, my eleventh novel and the first in my third time-travel series. I hope to finish the draft by early July and publish the book by November.

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