BSP: Forgive the Interruption

BSP is an anacronym used by Sisters in Crime  to stand for Blatant Self Promotion. So forgive the interruption. I promised the next post on character development in The Last Crystal Trilogy. But I want to share this review from Kirkus Reviews. Follow the link to find it or read on:

A young girl’s pioneering trek to the American West is interrupted by danger, tragedy, and a magical quest in the first book in Schoonmaker’s Last Crystal trilogy for middle schoolers.

In mid-19th-century Missouri, the white Willis family is about to follow the Santa Fe Trail to the new state of California. Miserable over leaving home, preteen Grace Willis is distracted by the sudden arrival of Old Shep, a dog from her early childhood. Absent for 10 years, Old Shep looks remarkably fit for a canine of more than 100 dog years. It’s a mystery—or is it magic? Old Shep’s role in Grace’s life is woven into a surprise-filled, absorbing narrative, the first novel in a series that begins with this vivid depiction of life for a pioneer family heading west.

The author is a former professor and elementary school teacher, but this is no textbook adventure. Nor is it Little House on the Prairie redux. The fact that wagon train scout Jim Payne, a free black man, teaches Grace tracking and track-covering skills hints that the girl will need them, and she does. Grace is kidnapped and suffers a horrific loss. Her ordeal with the brutal kidnapper and his family is genuinely unsettling; her grueling escape is downright chilling. Fleeing pursuit, aided by Old Shep, Grace is rescued by mysterious Mr. Nichols. And here the narrative slides smoothly and enjoyably into a full-fledged fantasy involving Mr. Nichols’ identity and an object hidden within an alabaster cavern. Locked away, the object has the power to heal humankind’s woes, but it is guarded by a lethal spell. If Grace can find the strength, she must retrieve and guard the object until the spell can be lifted. The eventful passage of time that follows—featuring, in part, two vicious outlaws from Grace’s past, the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Mr. Nichols and Old Shep, and a new home for the bespelled object—will have readers eager for the next book in this series.

A well-crafted mix of fact and fantasy filled with surprises and grounded in history and real-world dilemmas.

THE LAST CRYSTAL: Behind the Scenes

The Last Crystal Trilogy is complete at last. In the next few posts, I will be reflecting on the process of writing the Trilogy, beginning with The Last Crystal because I wrote it first. I had no idea I was going to write a trilogy. 

It started with an idea that swam around in my head for years before I was ready to do anything about it. Then, a series of unrelated events came together almost forty years later. The first version of The Last Crystal was the result. While this might sound discouraging to anyone wanting to be a writer, bear in mind that I wasn’t sitting around making daisy chains. I was busy being a schoolteacher, mother, graduate student and, finally a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose advancement depended on research and writing. So perhaps the saga of my writing the Trilogy is as much about letting an idea ripen as it is about how the book was actually written.

But before I continue, this bit of good news: The Last Crystal (Book 3, The Last Crystal Trilogy) has been nominated for an Agatha. Named for Agatha Christie, the Agatha is awarded by Malice Domestic, an annual fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery.

Back to the main point. In the early seventies, my family made a cross-country trip from Baltimore to Sacramento. My daughter was four-years-old then. I was an elementary school teacher who incorporated children’s literature in teaching both language arts and social studies. I was always on the altert for good books for kids and ideas for teaching that connected them. I picked up interesting rocks, gathered samples of trees, and collected pinecones—actually, anything interesting to take back to my classroom.

On this trip, we stayed with my husband’s uncle and aunt in Sacramento. It was there, around the kitchen table, that I heard about Uncle Frank’s summer adventures as a boy. Uncle Frank’s dad worked for the railroad. He was based in the family’s home state of Missouri. But, grandparents had long-since migrated to far-away California. When school was out for the summer, Frank and his little brother, Clyde, were put on the train to California—by themselves. They had a grand trip of it, sleeping in their coach seats, exploring the train, eating their packed meals. 

“O-oh!”I thought. “Here is a situation ripe for mischief. Something mysterious could happen to two unsupervised little boys on a train.”

In my next post I’ll talk about how the idea began to develop and the chance circumstances that helped me build the story line.

“You Can’t Do That!” More about Death of Characters

The Beautiful Hills, Chapter 27 of The Black Alabaster Box is a chapter my granddaughter insisted on.

She’d been my junior editor all along, listening to various iterations and offering suggestions. Sometimes I followed her suggestions faithfully. Other times I had to follow my own light. This was especially true when it came to death of characters in the book.

I was reading from Chapter 26, “We must fly, Song of the Wind!” said Mr. Nichols. “Everything depends on speed! Don’t look back, lad, and don’t let Gracie look.” As they sped along the dirt road from the house, the sound of a terrible explosion came from behind. It shook the very ground around them. . .” 

“You can’t do that, Grammy! You just can’t do that.”

“But people did die. Sometimes life was really hard for them,” I reasoned. “I didn’t want them to die, but it happened.”

She was insistent. “Okay,” I said. “Tell you what. I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t make any promises.” The result was “The Beautiful Hills.”

In writing it, I drew on my experience leading a doctoral seminar on spirituality and children’s literature at Teachers College, Columbia University. Children from all faith and non-faith perspectives seem to find conceptions of an after-life surrounded by light, love, and family to be emotionally satisfying. When I read my draft of the chapter to her, my granddaughter was satisfied. Interestingly enough, many children tell me it is a favorite chapter.

Edible Plants and the Character Mr. Payne

Esther Kang Suh

Esther Suh’s guest blog reminds us that there are edible flowers that we can enjoy, provided that we learn about them and make knowledgeable choices.  She points out that as Mr. Payne mentors protagonist, Grace Willis, in The Black Alabaster Box he teaches her to identify edible wild plants. 

I like Mr. Payne a lot. When he first came into the story to help Grace along the way, there was something about him that I knew I wasn’t capturing. I kept asking myself, “Who is he?”  Grace, thinks he is a kind man, “never too busy to say hello, even to a young girl,” (p.18).  I knew he had been an army scout. Initially, I thought he was Wagon Captain. But one of the things I have learned–from my daughter’s background in theater–is that if you are going to deal with a character, you need to know/create their backstory. It may never enter into the script/story, but if it isn’t there, characterization will be shallow.

I kept searching for Jim Payne’s backstory. Then it came to me. He couldn’t have been Wagon Captain. “Before the wagon train set out from Kansas City, the men elected a Wagon Captain. Daddy thought Jim Payne would be good. But some of the men didn’t feel right voting for a Free Negro.” (p.18) Grace doesn’t understand. She asks her father why the men didn’t feel right about Mr. Payne when she likes and trusts him. “Daddy said some things were hard to understand, even for grown-ups, and he hoped it would be different in California” (p.18).  

Black Seminole Army Scouts, image in the public domain

Was Jim Payne’s backstory plausible? I knew it was pretty unlikely for a group of people from different parts of the Eastern U.S. going to California in 1856 to elect a black man their Wagon Captain. But might he have been an army scout?

There were black scouts who served the army with distinction. For example, a little later than Mr. Payne, in the 1870s, four Black Seminoles were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Black Seminoles were descendents/children of slaves who escaped to Florida and married Seminole Indians. The U.S. proposed to relocate the Seminoles to Indian Territory in the mid-1800s. Passage of the Fugative Slave Law of 1850 made life dangerous for escaped slaves and their children, even in Indian Territory. If an enslaved mother escaped to a free state, she and any children she bore were considered slaves. They could be captured and returned to their “owners.” Many Black Seminoles moved on to Mexico to escape the possibility of being returned to slavery.  Read more about them at these two websites:  https://www.nps.gov/amis/learn/historyculture/seminole.htm https://www.blackpast.org/tree/U.S./Indian+Wars

            There were also the famous Buffalo Soldiers following the Civil War. An all black cavalry and infantry units, they made a name for themselves in the American West. Their role is surrounded by myth and legend. If you’re into unpacking myth and legend, you’ll find this article by military historian Frank N. Schubert a fascinating read: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/myth-buffalo-soldiers/. Another resource is https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/buffalo-soldiers#section_1

            I was satisfied that Jim Payne was settled in his place in the story. Without his help, Grace Willis would never have survived in her break for freedom after she was kidnapped. I hope you’ll read the book. It isn’t just for kids! And I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Follow me on Instagram: @fgschoonmaker


Spice Up Your Diet With Edible Flowers: Guest Blog by Esther Suh

Reading The Black Alabaster Box by Frances Schoonmaker sparked a greater interest in me to learn more specific information about wildflowers. Her book makes specific references to wildflowers, like white anemone, purple phlox, and yellow primroses, blooming untamed along the Santa Fe Trail. Some wildflowers served to supplement the diet of travelers moving west in covered wagons. She ties it in beautifully by using Mr. Payne’s character, a retired Army scout, to teach the main character Grace Willis how to find, identify, and eat edible flowers. He tells her, “Mother nature can take good care of you, if you know what to look for” (p. 47). 


Personally, wildflowers top my list of favorite things next to chocolate and coffee. My first experience appreciating wildflowers started in middle school when I found a single bloom stretching out of a tiny crack in the walkway. Out of nowhere did it appear and flourish in that unlikely circumstance.

I’ve also come to admire wildflowers, in particular edible flowers, for the kinds of healthy and flavorful dishes you can make with them. Growing up in a traditional Korean home, eating edible flowers was the norm; I thought everyone ate like this too. Our diet mainly consisted of rice served with side dishes comprised of different kinds of roots, vegetables, and leaves: pickled mustard leaves, marinated Perilla leaves, marinated Bellflower roots, steamed squash leaves, blanched Fernbrakes (although there’s debate about its toxicity levels), and Chrysanthemums, etc. Others like ginseng, which boasts a plethora of health benefits, are rare and expensive. 

My parent’s harvest of Bellflower root in summer of 2018
The roots are marinated with garlic, chili pepper, scallions, and fish sauce.

Above is Fernbrake that is soaked in water, blanched, and/or sauteed to eat with rice.

My mother taught me that certain edible flowers, roots, stems, and leaves can also be useful to heal various ailments: stomach pains, skin irritations, bladder issues, muscular pain, coughs, or any other complaints. It is prepared several ways depending on its purpose: dried, steamed, boiled, or mashed into paste. She tried teaching me when I was a teenager, but as a cranky teenager, I usually rolled my eyes and wished that we didn’t have to cook up a remedy (no pun intended); couldn’t we just go to the medicine aisle at the store and pick something up instead? It seemed very old fashioned and embarrassing. However, as I matured over the years, I began to cultivate an appreciation for what I gleaned from watching and listening to her.

I’m familiar with the edible flowers I grew up eating, but it’s hard to fathom that some common flowers growing outside can be safely consumed for taste and/or nutritional benefits. Everyday flowers like roses, dandelions, and lavender can be eaten or used to enhance flavors. 

These are times I wish I could consult an expert about edible flowers: instead of guessing, this person could advise on how to locate, identify, learn its background and characteristics, and safely taste. I’m dreaming; those kinds of experiences and meeting an expert like that are far and few in between. 

I scoured the internet for answers and information. The search results, as expected, were substantial. Pictures usually accompanied the vast amount of information about these flowers, but to the unaccustomed eye, some are difficult to distinguish from similar looking ones. This makes me a little paranoid thinking that maybe I’ll eat something I’m not supposed to. But I realize that learning more about it and comparing what I see with pictures on websites and books nurtures confidence.   

The next step in my adventure is to venture out, learn more, and see what kinds of foods I can prepare using edible flowers. Once again, I’m amazed at nature’s bounty: it provides so much beauty to see and experience, as well as opening up new ways to cook and eat with flowers.      

You can find Esther’s blog at https://singlikewildflowers.com

Check out these informative websites about edible flowers: 

  • www.whatscookingAmerica.com
  • known as “America’s most trusted culinary resources since 1997” 
  • The website lists 36 kinds of edible flowers broken down into three categories: fruit flowers (4); herb flowers (24); vegetable flowers (11).
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/edible-flowers
  • 11 Edible Flowers With Potential Health Benefits
  • I found this website to be straightforward and easy to read for beginners. It provides a picture, a brief description about it, and a short summary of how to eat it. 

One last thing: Be sure to check that the flower is free of pesticides and you know the specific flower is indeed edible. Esther Suh

When you’re having fun…

The expression is, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It is one I’ve heard all my life. But where did it come from? That isn’t at all clear.

Its all a part of the The Game of Life–played at our house over the holidays.

For example, I found this at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/time-flies: Time passes quickly, as in It’s midnight already? Time flies when you’re having fun, or I guess it’s ten years since I last saw you—how time flies.  This idiom was first recorded about 1800 but Shakespeare used a similar phrase, “the swiftest hours, as they flew,” as did AlexanderPope, “swift fly the years.”

Others sources trace the expression to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) and fugit irreparabile tempus. “Time irretrievably is flying. Another version is, ‘We cannot stop time in its tracks.’ The shorter Tempus fugit is taken from the longer Fugit irreparabile tempus itself a slightly shortened form of a line from Virgil’s Georgics.” See https://wordinfo.info/unit/4031/page:1

All that is to say that time has been flying past and lots of things happening. Most of them good, some of them challenging, not so great, and others sad. But time keeps moving forward. It was October when I last blogged.

In addition to completing the manuscript for Book 3 of The Last Crystal Trilogy I’ve been promoting The Black Alabaster Box. I’ve asked Esther Suh blogger, Mother, photographer, parent of a “heart child” and educator to write a guest blog about edible plants.

If you’ve read The Black Alabaster box, you know that edible wild plants play an important role in Grace’s survival. Esther’s photographs and knowledge of flowers are one of many features that have made hers a popular blog. Edible wild plants become important in Book 3 as well. I look forward to hearing from Esther soon–you’ll see why she is uniquely prepared to be a guest. .

Can’t I Just Write?

43984342_562347954220606_4813847931260875391_n

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?”