This week’s publications schedule here in Carding, Vermont is dedicated to telling the back stories behind each of the four novels about the small town that no one can find on a map of the Green Mountain State.
I’m a professional writer, after all, and writers earn their bread and ale by selling books. And with the holidays coming up…well…you get the picture.
Among writers, there’s a general opinion that writing a second book is far more difficult than writing the first. I can testify that that is true.
After I published The Road Unsalted, I felt like my wheels were spinning. I recognized the sensation as a plea from that part of my brain that needs to cogitate before it can act so I let myself wander in the wilderness for a while.
I knew it wouldn’t last long.
And it didn’t. Before long, Thieves of Fire was pounding on my door demanding to be written.
In a very general way, writers fall into two camps when it comes to their approach to books. There’s a big group dedicated to making detailed road maps of what lies ahead, figuring out the details of their tome chapter by chapter before they begin.
Then there’s another group who look at the journey ahead the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins looks at his journey when he sets off from his home in the Shire with Gandalf and the dwarves. Bilbo knew they were on some sort of adventure with some sort of a destination (if you can call tussling with a dragon a destination) but the details were just so much fog lying low on the Brandywine River.
I am definitely in the second category.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to plan out my novels before setting out. I have. But I find that the more I plan a book, the more bored I become. To me, all that planning takes the air and creativity out of the process. All of my dead novels—the fragments lying about in notebooks or on my hard drive—shriveled up when I tried to plan them.
Count me as someone who relishes figuring it out as you go along.
Sometimes, as with The Road Unsalted, I start with an incident that kidnaps my attention. I start playing with it—how did these people get themselves into this situation? Did they think about the ramifications of their actions or was it all a surprise?
Other times, I have a character or characters floating around in my head and I like them well enough to hang out with them for a while. So I start poking around to figure out how they live and how they feel and what they see and how their childhoods were spent and did they like their parents.
But sometimes, books and stories start with a question. That was the case with Thieves of Fire.
There’s a small detail in The Road Unsalted that set Thieves in motion. It’s the description of a painting, a big canvas, a rather gloomy scene of a crow sitting in a tree looking down on a young woman. The artwork, which is entitled “Thieves of Fire,” dominates the foyer of the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts.
Nobody in Carding likes it, and if Edie Wolfe (she’s the executive director of the school) had her way, the painting would be off the wall and out the door in a heartbeat.
But if she does that, the Academy would lose its campus. That’s because the main building and grounds are held in the thrall of a strange clause in the will of artist Joseph Stillman Croft. You see, the Academy is located in the home he built in the center of Carding at the end of the 19th century. And Croft’s will stipulates that Thieves of Fire must remain where he left it until his rightful heir is found.
So the wretched thing stays on the wall.
The idea for that painting and the will that keeps it in the Academy’s foyer was inspired by Isabelle Stewart Gardner and the museum in Boston that bears her name. Gardner and her husband were avid art collectors and their acquisitions are considered some of the finest pieces of their kind in the world.
After her husband’s death, Isabel built a museum for the Gardner collection in the Fenway area of Boston, opening it to much fanfare in 1903. When she died in 1924, Gardner’s will left a bequest for the maintenance of the museum and a stipulation that the collection remain permanently on display as she had left it.
But why would Joseph Stillman Croft, who was regarded as one of the leading illustrators in the late 19th century, make a similar stipulation in his will? (By the way, the character of Croft was inspired by illustrator Maxfield Parrish who lived and worked in the Upper Valley in the late 19th and early 20th century.)
I had to find out. So I started Thieves off by writing about Croft. Why would a man renowned in the cultural circles of New York City live in a small town in Vermont? Was he shy? Did he want to be a big fish in a small pond?
Or was there another, more sinister reason?
Now writing books without a net (or a plan) means you have to accept that digressions happen. And sometimes, these various and sundry digressions look and feel a lot like a ball of yarn that just lost a battle with a litter of kittens.
That happened to me with Thieves when I reached what turned out to be the halfway point in the novel. I had Joseph Stillman Croft over here and another character named Lydia Talbot and her daughters over there and a would-be heir dragging Edie Wolfe into court and my first draft was just one big mess.
In fact, I almost abandoned the book because I couldn’t find the key that would draw all the parts together.
Then one evening at a holiday party, I got into a conversation with my friend Peg who told me a story about a young woman we had both known as a teenager. This young woman married a man who had been her teacher and lover while she was still in high school. (Believe me, it was as messy as you imagine it was.)
The week before our conversation, Peg had coffee with the young woman. They had visited for just a while when the young woman abruptly excused herself, explaining that her husband and their children were waiting for her in the car.
Peg said her surprise was visible. As the young woman turned to go she explained her predicament: “He stole my life,” she said, “and I had nothing to say about it.”
When I woke up the next morning, I suddenly realized that Peg had given me the missing puzzle piece to Thieves of Fire.
When you steal someone’s life, you steal their fire.
As readers of the Carding Chronicles know, my stories and novels are records of the very human endeavors in the extraordinary lives of the people we pass by every day. They’re meant to entertain, to make folks chuckle with appreciation or reach for a tissue to soak up a stray bit of water gathering in the corner of an eye.
On top of that, you get to enjoy some of the beauty of the special place I call home.
The four novels of Carding, Vermont are available for order from your local book store or online at Amazon.com. They are great gifts for everyone who loves to read.
They are, in order of appearance:
I hope you’ll read my books and subscribe to this website so that you can enjoy stories about Carding, Vermont every Thursday.
And if I can ask one more favor, please review all the books you read online. Online recommendations help us all to figure out what to read next.