Circumstance and Plot

I can’t remember how my fascination with trains began. My brothers and I used to watch for smoke from the steam engine that pulled train cars along tracks that made their way just beyond the hills to the southeast of our farm. On a clear day, you could hear the train chugging its way between Custer City and Clinton, Oklahoma. And, if you climbed to the tallest hill on the farm, there was an outside chance that you might see the train—sometimes we did. 

I was a member of the Speech and Debate Club at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington. In the spring, we took the train from Portland, Oregon to Weber College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah for the Phi Rho Pi National Junior College Speech and Debate Tournament. We were routed through Green River, Wyoming and down to Ogden. I found myself staring out the window, awestruck by the stark beauty of the country we passed. I’d traveled it by car, but seeing it from a train window was an altogether different experience.

In the photo, my granddaughter and I are at the Railway Museum, Sacramento, standing by the Santa Fe Chief.

This interest in trains was bound to find its way into my writing. Given my fascination with trains, it’s no wonder that the idea of Uncle Frank and his brother on a train trip kept surfacing.  “What would unsupervised kids get up to on a train?”The route they would have taken, either on the California Limited or on The Santa Fe Chief would have been through rugged mountains and wide expanses of wilderness. I’d traveled the route by car many times over. I’d also made many trips between the farm in Oklahoma where I was reared and Washington State, where my parents taught school when I was a teen.

On our many car trips, I invariably wondered what would happen if the car broke down or by some stroke of bad luck we were stranded in a remote area. It was new food for thought: what would happen if a couple of boys got off the train and were stranded in the desert between Kansas City and L.A./Sacramento? Coincidently, about the same time, I read an article about luxury train cars. (You can find out more about private railroad cars at the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners website.) Who knew you could rent or buy your own train car? I clipped the article and put it in the little black marble notebook where I kept ideas. (Yes, for those of you who have read it, it is probably why Robert has a black marble notebook in The Last Crystal.) So what might happen if Uncle Frank and little Clyde stumbled into a private railroad car. Who would they find there?  

Life intervenes. I’d been busy enough as a mother and elementary school teacher. But the idea had to go on hold when I was admitted to a doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) in the late 1980s. After the doctoral program came the Assistant Professorship and the drive for tenure. I was teaching, indulging my bent for historical research, and writing—not about train rides and quests for something for some unknown reason.

Years later, after retiring from TC, I picked up the idea again. The black marble notebook in which I’d kept careful notes and clippings before graduate school days, had disappeared. But the idea hadn’t. My granddaughter was approaching eight-years-old and we shared stories together. I knew she’d be a willing accomplice. But it had to be ready for her. I wondered about who might be in that private car and what would be a motive powerful enough to drive a quest.

As chance often dictates, an unrelated set of circumstances gave me the motive I’d been looking for. I accepted an assignment to serve as a Senior Curriculum Specialist for the USAID Teacher Education Project in Pakistan, a collaborative venture between The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, and USAID, with Michigan State University (MSU) as a partner. I began working with MSU. Later, TC became a partner. I stayed on, making trips to Pakistan, usually for three or four weeks every other month or so.  

Here I am meeting with two long-term friends in Pakistan. We’re at one of the many workshops we had with Pakistani University faculty colleagues. An article in the TC News tells of how Hareem (left), who was my student at TC, and I met again in Islamabad. Rana Hussain, gifted curriculum specialist and another Senior Curriculum Specialist, is at the right. Rana is from Karachi and retired from the Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University, Karachi.

Early on, a colleague introduced me to a lovely jewelry and curio shop in the Super Market Shopping Center in Islamabad, Sector F6. The Punjab Museum carries artifacts and exquisite jewelry made by local artisans. Over the three years I worked on the project, I bought several gifts at The Punjab Museum. I loved chatting with the young man who ran the store on those rare occasions when the shop happened to be empty. One day he invited me to see something he had just acquired. “What do you think about this?” It was a beautiful egg-shaped stone that had been polished smooth. Inside a bubble of water was trapped in the middle—you could see through the translucent part of the stone. We speculated about the unusual formation and how old the water was—maybe as old as time.  

Water as old as time—when the earth was new. Such water would surely have magical healing powers. The lure of the Fountain of Youth, the quest for eternal life—such is the stuff of quest stories. What might such water do? And what might one give to possess it?  All the disconnected pieces began to come together: a train ride, a private car, a quest.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the setting and characters developed.  

Can’t I Just Write?

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This past weekend my daughter, granddaughter and I made what has become an annual fall visit to Weber Cider Mill Farm to buy pumpkins and to enjoy some of the activities. Amelia and I did the maze together. Looking at it now, the picture feels like a metaphor for life as a writer!  I wish I could just write–I love the exploration of ideas, the research, following the characters imaginatively, sharing with Amelia and talking through points where I get stuck.  What I don’t love so much is all the other stuff that has to do with getting some traction for the books.  It is really uncharted territory for me. And it has kept me so busy that I feel like I am–to borrow an expression from my mother–honking at my own tail lights!

One thing I’ve been doing is getting Book Stop  pages ready for the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual  event that displays work of members. I have pages for The Black Alabaster Box and for The Red Abalone Shell. If you have time to visit, please sign the guest book. Small things can mean a lot.

Most of my time has been spent planning for the upcoming event celebrating The Black Alabaster Box and raising funds for the Page Turners, an after school program for kids in Clinton South (Hell’s Kitchen):

save the date

If you are in the New York area I’d love to see you there. It will be good fun for a good cause.

When I met with Kathy Conry and Laura Bergquist in New York a couple of weekends ago, I began to get really excited about the program. On the one hand, we learned that Alan H. Green has returned to his role in The School of Rock–The Musical, So he can’t be with us–bummer! But Kathy is a pro. Undaunted, she  already had a back-up plan knowing that people in theater have to make work their top priority.

In one productive meeting we agreed on a plan for the evening, excerpts from The Black Alabaster Box to use for the Readers Theatre and possible music.  I spent the next day working on the script and left it in their good hands. Laura is working on the music and Kathy has already put together a cast to read the script I provided. My job, having provided the script is to stay out of the way! (Now that is a job I can take to.) They are on a roll. Last I heard somebody is working on a campfire setting and they are planning to have little cups of chili and possibly mini-corn muffins.

Back to the maze. Amelia is so tall this year that I could see her had bobbing up above the bales of hay as she worked her way through. I think there is a metaphor in that, too. There was so much joy in it seeing how much she has grown–the joy is what I connect to when everything seems too much. Joy in the work, the sharing, and the joy that comes when a kid says, “So when are you going to have Book 3 ready?”

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Alabaster Box is Ready!

Cover photoGood news! The Black Alabaster Box is now available in paperback, hard cover, and e-book. You can find it at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I-Book, through Apple.

Here is the cover. The photograph and design is by Liesl Bolin. You can find out more about it on my web page. Like me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter @fgschoonmaker