Authors

What would YOU like to read?

541842344As you know, my latest novel, ALOHA SPIRIT, is finished and being queried to agents. Time to begin researching novel #6! For both UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and ALOHA SPIRIT, I used women in my family as inspiration. There are several other interesting stories in my family tree, and I want to see which one interests readers the most. Indicate your preference in the comments below. Add a comment if you wish!

  1. Emily Miree was born at Fort Snelling, Minnesota in 1836. Her mother was the sister of James Lockwood, the first governor of Wisconsin. Her stepfather, James Churchman, was a circuit attorney in Illinois, and Emily’s mother traveled with him. They went to California in 1851. Emily was living with the James Lockwood family in 1850. Why didn’t she go west with her mother? James Churchman was a prominent attorney and knew Abraham Lincoln. He went to Valparaiso, Chile, as Lincoln’s ambassador in 1861, taking Samantha with him. Emily had married in 1858. Her husband sold water to the gold miners. They had five children in four different mining towns. Life must have been difficult for Emily–Indian troubles at the fort, stepfather issues as he took her mother traveling, and living hard in mining camps with a young family.
  2. Emeline Beach was the daughter of Moses Yale Beach, an inventor and publisher of the New York Sun, which at that time was a pioneer penny newspaper. Her mother was Nancy Day, sister of Benjamin Day, the founder of the New York Sun. Benjamin was the family member who sold the family’s heirloom Brewster chest, handed down from William Brewster of the Mayflower. Emeline was a lifelong friend of Mark Twain and might have married him, but her father made it clear he did not want a ‘Western rough-neck’ for a son-in-law.  She married the great painter, Abbot Thayer, and lived in an art colony where Mark Twain spent his summers for years. I would love to research these artistic people more deeply and write a story about Emeline and Mark Twain.
  3. Margaret Cusack was 16 in 1888 when she came to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, from Ireland. Her large family was strongly tied to the MacMillan family, with many marriages and census information showing members of both families sharing living quarters. After the Gold Rush, the timber industry in Northern California created a new rush. Scottish and Irish immigrants poured into the state from Canada, including the MacMillan and Cusack families. Margaret married Michael MacMillan in Scotia, California and they had nine children. For this story I would explore the complex family dynamics of a large multi-generational family making its way in a new state and a new industry.

So what do you think, readers? Emily, Emeline, or Margaret? Who intrigues you the most?

About Writing

Inspired by Family

IMG_0551Throughout my life, I have listened avidly to stories of my family. It was no different when I married my husband and heard stories of his family. I turned my own stories into a novel, UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and I’m currently working on ALOHA SPIRIT a story of my husband’s grandmother. The picture at left is his grandmother, mother, and aunts in Honolulu just before World War II. When writing these stories, I can’t be completely accurate since I don’t know all the details of the person’s life. It can’t be a biography. Dialogue has to be invented, as well as what I call the filling in between known events. For this reason, I’ve stopped saying these novels are about my family and begun saying they are inspired by family.

Family stories may be the inspiration, but they cannot carry a novel on their own. Even so, the first source of deeper information is the family. I took the older members of my family aside and urged them to tell me the details–where they went to school, what their mother made for dinner, which was their favorite relative, and who fought with who. My sons were working on a genealogy merit badge in Boy Scouts when they interviewed their great-grandfather. He was born in Honolulu in 1918 and was a civilian ship fitter at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed in 1941. His first-person view of the event was incredible, but his personal reactions were priceless. He told how he wanted to hide during the attack, but his boss made him go out with a crew to remove scaffolding from a ship. He hid behind turrets on the ship as the Japanese planes flew over. I wish I’d had my novelist’s eye that day and asked him about how he got to work, how long a day he worked, what he’d had for breakfast, and what the family said when he got home. Those are the details that make a novel.

Grandpa’s experience is a tiny part of my novel ALOHA SPIRIT. I had to research a lot about territorial Hawaii–the years between the fall of the monarchy and statehood. I didn’t care so much about the politics of the sugar plantation owners. I wanted to know about daily life. When did they get televisions, cars, radios? When were the hotels built on Waikiki? I read historical fiction set in Hawaii to get a feel for the era, and nonfiction for accuracy. There are many details I couldn’t find or that I had to change to fit my story. I can do that, since it’s a novel and not a biography.

The hardest part is showing the finished work to living members of the family. I think they understand that I intend it to be a tribute to our ancestors, but I’m sure they have a different view of the characters and events than I do. When I exaggerate a negative trait, I’m trying for greater conflict to improve the novel’s pacing, not to ruin a person’s reputation. So when you read my novels, keep in mind that they are novels. A lot of it is made up! Enjoy them as fiction. If you absolutely must know if something really happened, send me an email. My hope is that readers will be as inspired by the characters in my novels as I was by the women who inspired them.

Excerpts

Excerpt From Under the Almond Trees

From Chapter 8, Ellen 1871final cover

Yellow has always been a color that is sunny, bright, and optimistic. No coincidence then that the suffrage movement has adopted it. This afternoon the hall we rent at the new Unity Church glows yellow. Early spring roses and daffodils, from the gardens of the ladies assembled here, fill tables covered in yellow cloth. The Women’s Suffrage Association gathers in style, as they have for the past year.

Issues raise their heads and roar, each one clouding the main cause of the vote. I support temperance and abolition, but I long to vote. In Santa Cruz, my Women’s Suffrage Association works with the churches and the other ladies’ clubs to bring progress to each of our causes. There is a lot of work to do, but at least suffrage now has a face in our fair town.

“Good evening, Mrs. VanValkenburgh.” The speaker is younger than I am, but a married woman. “So glad to be a part of this fine effort.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hihn, thank you again for coming,” I tell her with a polite smile.

“She says that every month,” L’Amie, standing beside me, whispers.

“Yes, dear sister, but her husband is a member of the County Assembly and has real power to help us.” For two years L’Amie has been back at my side where she belongs.

A few men, mostly husbands of the members, sit in a row of chairs along the back wall. I wish I could measure the depth of their devotion to the cause so as to determine if and when they are willing to act. I fear most are merely waiting for their wives.

Continuing to scan the room, I spot Marion pouring tea at the refreshment table. My oldest daughter has excellent posture, poise, and erudition, and her character is above reproach. Not bad for fifteen years old. When Mama passed three years ago, she left us money that keeps us housed and fed and pays for the simple but stylish dresses we wear. It is not enough, however, to fill the space she left in my heart or to attract a suitor for Marion. My political views are even more of a detriment, and now she has allied herself with the suffragists, possibly sealing her fate as a radical spinster. Her entire life has been molded by strong women with strong ideas, though, and I am proud of the young woman she is becoming.

The president’s gavel brings the meeting to order, and I see Mrs. Hihn hurry to sit with Mrs. Kirby and Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Manor. They are the elite of Santa Cruz society, leaders of every civic group that supports the arts and the downtrodden. Their presence is a benediction, but I need warriors. They’ve not yet proven themselves as such.

“Hundreds of those freed negroes have arrived in Santa Cruz County,” our president, Mrs. Howay, declares with just the right mix of pride and horror.

Having yielded my year-long presidency to the pretty woman with more vision than action, I stifle a groan. Abolition of slavery is a victory, even if it means former slaves will be our neighbors. The women here don’t all agree. Heads nod, but are accompanied by nervous titters. I am tired of nervous titters. I am tired of head nods, too. We must do something to make our struggle visible to the community.

“Actually, the group was not that large.” Marion’s interruption draws attention, and a roomful of skirts rustle as everyone turns toward her. “They joined a negro group already in Watsonville. That is not the issue.”

“She’s magnificent, Ellen,” L’Amie whispers.

I agree. Marion is afire with youthful passion, idealism at its best, clad in one of her first grown-up floor-length skirts.

“What, pray tell, is the issue?” Mrs. Howay’s tone is frostier than it should be. I frown in her direction. All other eyes are on my daughter, who reminds me of L’Amie at the same age.

“The Fifteenth Amendment has been ratified. Those negroes will be voting on our new trustee.” Silence follows her words, and I know Marion has captured them. Everyone’s face reflects outraged horror at the idea of negro men being able to vote but not fine upstanding female citizens. The trustee election will put a new member on the board that runs our county and our town.

“Whatever will we do?” A theatrical gasp punctuates Mrs. Howay’s words. It’s a blatant attempt to retake control of the meeting. It doesn’t work.

Marion is young. She has made her observation, but has no idea what to do now. She looks to me, panic starting to show on her face. Last year, when I started this organization, I was proud to serve as its first president. The ladies are eager to attend the meetings, but they dither about like a flock of chickens with a dog in the pen—lots of noise and motion, but no progress. They read the newspapers from New York and San Francisco. They held a grand party when Wyoming women won the vote in 1867, and they elected Mrs. Howay for our second president. Clearly they are lost. They need a leader. I step forward.

“The Fourteenth Amendment clearly states that all persons born in the United States are citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the government from denying citizens the right to vote.” At my words Marion smiles with relief, and the others are listening. “I think we should take advantage of that and register to vote in the next election.”

A cacophony of clucking erupts.

“But those amendments were meant for the negroes!”

“Can we do that?”

“The Sentinel would support us.”

“The Surf would ridicule us!”

“My husband would not approve.”

That last comment deadens the room. More than one of the ladies present agrees, or suspects it’s true. I’m not sure how many will risk disapproval that will rock their homes, but I must continue. “We can sit here and sip tea, whining about what we want, or we can go get it. Some of our opponents say that women wouldn’t vote if they had the right. We can refute that. The election is in April. That gives us a month.”

Mrs. Howay proves she has worth. “An excellent idea, Mrs. VanValkenburgh. Shall we vote on the idea?”

A motion is quickly made and seconded. It passes. We’ll be showing up to vote at the trustee election. Somber faces look at me.

“All of us?” I ask.

“I don’t think that will happen,” a reluctant voice near Marion says.

“Maybe we can elect a representative,” suggests Mrs. Howay.

Everyone’s already looking at me. They continue to do so as my name is suggested, a motion made and seconded, and the vote taken. Not long ago, L’Amie would have been included, but she is to be married later this week. She will be on her wedding trip during my attempt to register for the vote.

“Mrs. Ellen VanValkenburgh will be our representative. She will present herself to the registrar’s office for the next election.” I can’t decide if Mrs. Howay is proud of me or relieved they didn’t ask this of her.

A wail from the back corner announces that my younger children are bored with the proceedings and beginning to bicker. At nine, Henry’s main source of amusement seems to be eliciting a shriek from his twelve-year-old sister, usually with a pinch. Ellie obliges, her blue eyes outraged. Marion hurries over to chastise her brother and soothe her sister, but the mood is broken and the meeting adjourns.

 

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Excerpt from Under the Almond Trees

From Chapter 5: San Francisco 1861final cover

After tossing and turning to the accompaniment of nature’s crescendo one January night, I am awakened by a kiss on my forehead, his luxurious mustache tickling by skin. Still dreaming, I murmur, “Jacob.”

A sharp exclamation replaces the soft warmth of the kiss.

I force my eyes open and my brain to awareness. Henry paces the room, fully dressed. He checks his pocket watch without looking at me. “Ellen, I must go to the mill.”

I wipe sleep remnants from my eyes and nod. He is desperate to assess the damage form the storm that has kept him home since before the New Year. Stiff and tired from a night disrupted by storms, I listen. The wind still howls outside our snug home, but the rain doesn’t slam against the windows.

Henry stops before me, places his watch back in its pocket and puts his hands on his hips. The clock in the parlor strikes, but my husband’s stern face captures my attention so I can’t count the tolling bells.

“How many children must we have before you stop calling his name in your sleep?”

“I’m sorry.” Normally I would rise and walk him to the door, but I am so tired. When I close my eyes for a moment, the room tilts. “I think I’ll sleep a little longer,” I tell him without opening my eyes.

“Pleasant dreams,” he snarls.

I hear the creak of the third stair, then the front door clicking shut. Now that I’m awake, guilt prevents me from falling back to sleep. Henry is a good man. He deserves my heart, but I gave it away long ago. I rise from bed and don a gown. I move slowly although I do not think I am ill.

Later I retire to the parlor, where I remove my knitting from a basket kept by the fire. I can knit and think about how to cheer Henry tonight. Maybe the cook can make his favorite vanilla almond cake for tonight’s dessert. My guilt stabs me. It’ll mean more if I make it. My knitting falls to my lap.

Our daughters play on the floor, quarreling quietly, moods matched to the weather. Moisture is in the air; the window panes are sweating. Another storm moves closer. Fresh rain pelts the windows as a sharp rap at the door draws me from my thoughts.
I rise and answer. On the stoop a mill worker has removed his hat and is shaking droplets to the boards below. Something about his expression… Dread descends on me and I feel the blood leave my face. Visions of a telegram ten years old haunt me. Jacob killed in mining accident. My deepest condolences.

“Mrs. VanValkenburgh?” the mill worker says, twisting the sodden bowler in his hands. He has trouble keeping his eyes to mine. Swallowing, he barrels on, “The mill sent me ma’am. There’s been an accident—I’m so sorry.”

“What are you saying!” I shout at him. If I have the courage to hear it, he should have the courage to say it.

“I’m so sorry. We was cuttin’ a tree ma’am. It fell wrong … A branch hit Mr. VanValkenburgh … He’s dead, ma’am…”

I am unable to respond, and he slinks away into the storm. For several minutes, I listen as the rain patters on the porch roof. Then I shut the door and lean my head against the painted wood.

Jacob and I were married a year—two months of bliss and ten months of waiting. Then the telegram. With Henry I had eight years and two daughters. In the eyes of some, the second marriage was more successful. To me, it makes no difference. I am once again widowed.