If you keep yourself open to creative ideas, you’ll soon discover that inspiration can come from any direction.
For example, my first novel, The Road Unsalted, was inspired by an incident that I heard about when I was a newspaper reporter.
Thieves of Fire, on the other hand, grew out of question that I’d left unanswered in Road—why did Carding’s best-known artist, Joseph Stillman Croft, abruptly abandon his home in 1929, leaving it to two women he was known to detest?
And why does his will mandate that the large painting in his home’s foyer, entitled Thieves of Fire, hang in that prominent place until his true heir is found?
And who is Croft’s true heir? I wrote Thieves of Fire to answer these questions.
This is how the book begins. By the way, Senator Danielson Wolfe was Edie Wolfe’s father.
You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted,Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Light in Water, Dancing, will go on sale on June 15, 2018.
You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.
“Old sins cast long shadows.”
—Senator Danielson Wolfe (R–Vermont) in a speech against the actions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 1953
If you will allow me, dear readers, I will tell you a story about a man who loved fame. Not fame in general, you understand, but his own fame.
His name was Joseph and he was a painter. Over time, he became an artist of great renown, and his work was beloved by millions. Consequently, he made a great deal of money, which is probably the part of being famous that he liked the best.
But he also loved the greasiness of fame, the way it opened doors for him without any effort on his part. This greasiness allowed him to ooze over people until they deferred to him, let him have his way, let him do exactly as he pleased wherever he pleased and, unfortunately, to whomever he pleased.
Joseph was born a shallow man, and he liked it that way. To his mind, shallowness gave him the right to ignore the needs of others, especially if those needs interfered with his work. And as you will see, Joseph Stillman Croft’s life was all about his work because that is what brought him fame.
Like most artists of his time—the late 19th century, the years dubbed “the Gilded Age” by Mark Twain—Joseph gravitated to New York City from wherever he was before that. He told everyone that he moved “to practice my art” but he really moved to make money from the rich and corrupt people who had also gravitated to the city.
With a small inheritance from his hardworking, self-sacrificing preacher father, Joseph set himself up as a portrait painter, someone who could make the captains of industry appear noble and their wives beautiful, even though it was quite rare for either of those things to be true. The problem was, lots of other young men who had talent equal to Joseph’s had moved to the city to do exactly the same thing, and there weren’t enough wealthy, corrupt people to go around.
One summer, Joseph decided to get away from the suffocation of New York to enjoy the cooler climes of northern New England. Since the train lines followed the path of the Connecticut River, that is the path that Joseph followed too. He’d heard about an artist’s colony—the so-called Cornish Colony—in one of the valleys where Vermont and New Hampshire cuddled up to one another. The famous sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, and the celebrated illustrator, Maxfield Parrish, both lived there.
Since Joseph had no interest in sculpture—too big, too difficult and too much work—he spent little time visiting with St. Gaudens. But Maxfield Parrish’s success was one that Joseph felt he could emulate for his own profit. So he squeezed as much information as he could from the renowned book and magazine illustrator then headed deeper into Vermont on a rail route that paralleled a body of water called the Corvus River. That line ended in a small town named Carding, a knot of population centered around the railway station, an inn, a mill that processed raw wool into useable yarn, a tiny newspaper, a campground of small cabins where folks of a religious persuasion spent their summers, and a store run by a family named Cooper.
As Joseph hiked the hills around Carding, he realized he’d discovered a landscape and way of life that he could sell. He sketched like a madman, capturing the swoop of a mountain named Merino on the far side of a local lake as well as weathered barns, the intense wrinkled expressions of the town’s older inhabitants, meandering sheep and cows, moonrise and sunrise over the river, and light streaming through trees.
At the same time, he calculated how far the weight of his fame would carry him in Carding, and came to the conclusion that he could get pretty much anything he wanted without a struggle. The locals tolerated him as something of a harmless eccentric, and were inclined to grant his requests. Only Kitty Wolfe, who ran a newspaper called the Carding Chronicle with her husband, seemed curious to know more about a painter named Joseph Stillman Croft. But news from New York City was thin on the ground in Vermont back then, and her curiosity remained unsatisfied…for the time being.