Lilacs in the Woods? Clues to a Vanished Homestead

This lilac bush turned a family hike through the woods into a find-the-clues game of discovery. Lilacs are not native to Montana. If you find one growing in the wild you can be sure it was put there, on purpose. Perhaps by a long-ago homesteader who planted it outside a home that’s since vanished? What stories lie behind it? Not far away we found a few paving stones. And then the remainders of a foundation wall. And then apple trees. … Read More

Meals: A Big Part of the CCC Day

Food. Fuel, pleasure, and sometimes one more key helpful in unlocking a character’s life. Writing Hitch, I’d have missed something important if I hadn’t considered it. This is a story set during the hungry years of the Great Depression, and for young men signing up for hitches in the Civilian Conservation Corps, food–the three regular meals a day that were a staple of CCC life—was a big deal. In a folder at the National Archives regional facility … Read More

Heirlooms Can be Key in Unlocking Characters

The key into a character can be as simple as a sewing basket that goes unnoticed until something causes me to remember why I’ve kept it.  It belonged to my mother.  Her mother made it. Memories flood in—hours in fabric departments. Mom laying out a pattern.  Cutting, matching notches, pinning, fitting. Machine stitching. Marking the hem—Stand still!  Finishing and pressing.  Here!  Try it on! What do you think? Mom poured all of her talent—and love—into the things she made for … Read More

For Photo Surprises, Check the Picture This Blog

Returning to resources — the Library of Congress Picture This Blog brings wonderful surprises, as well as researching inspiration.  A recent post by LOC librarian Kristi Finefield explains how details in this photo led her to discover what a 1908 student was doing—using stereo images to study geography—and to find the textbook that guided her. The time-traveling image plopped down into the middle of my very different life, and in the way that unexpected pictures often do, this one got me thinking about how … Read More

No Hoarding! Writing with All You’ve Got

I should hang a copy of this poster above my desk. One thing I’ve learned—but still have to tell myself at the start of every book—is not to hold back against the day I’ll be writing something else. It’s especially hard to do when I’m finding my way into a project like HITCH, gathering information and deciding what I might use.  The temptation to set aside material so that I won’t ever face a blank page with … Read More

Using Photos to Jump-Start Writing

I begin writing by looking. Every book comes with its own set of possibilities and problems.  The right format must be found. Fiction must be reconciled with sometimes pesky fact. Elusive characters must be brought to life, and there is no one single best way to do that. More often than not, though, for me it’s a visual process. Working on historical novels like HITCH means I have to move from a 21st century mindset into the … Read More

Writing HITCH, a Look Behind the Scenes

In preparing for a recent visit to a University of Montana young adult literature class I dug into boxed-up files to find material that might add value their reading of Hitch.  That’s my historical novel about the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a boy who became a man through hard work. I’d squirreled away photographs, research notes, copies of old newspaper articles, and quotes from memoirs. Printouts of my first efforts to find … Read More

Smokejumpers Celebrate 75 Years

Seventy-five years ago this month Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson parachuted onto an Idaho wildfire, put it out, and then hiked 28 miles to the nearest ranger station. It was the U.S. Forest Service’s first “live” jump. Today more than 270 smokejumpers respond to fires in remote areas, relying on tools, food and water that are dropped to them by parachute.  Without their hard work—in the field and at their home bases, training, maintaining equipment, getting ready for the next jump—far … Read More

Remembering the Fires of 1910 – The Big Burn

During a bad fire season in the mountain West, smoke, especially the smell of it, is a constant presence. Sometimes you forget, but all you have to do is step outside, trade house air for what lies beyond your door, and awareness comes rushing back. The wildfires of 1910 were terrible. Millions of acres burned. Towns were destroyed. Close to a hundred people were killed, most of them firefighters caught on the mountainsides and in the creek bottoms of Idaho. … Read More