The Value of Reading a 200-year-old story in a 100-year-old book

(Bookmark gifted by a 3-year-old grandson who generously shared his truck stickers.)

November 4, 2023

When leaves dance across the walkway and autumn’s chill is in the air, I like to take out an old copy of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow to get in the mood for Halloween.

This small-format book exhibits the usual signs of wear. The fore edge is darkened by dust and age. The Copyright page is torn out, so I can’t date it exactly, but the publisher – The Platt & Peck Co. in New York – I’ve learned, operated from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. There’s a color plate of the main character, schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, in the beginning on the inside left with the same image replicated on the cover. There is nothing on the back.

The pages are intact, though slightly yellowed, displaying justified handset type, slightly askew occasionally as they pull into the binding. There’s charm in that. The paper stock is weighty and offers a tactile reward. There are lovely, wide margins, relaxing on the eyes, making for a quick, easy read, reminding me that consumable content is important. Interestingly, there is no writing on the spine so perhaps this book was never intended for a library shelf.

But I digress. I’m here to talk about the story – a tale so simple, it’s child-like, but as with many classics, can be enjoyed by adults who read between the lines.

This is not a monumental literary work but rather, a dutiful account of life in Colonial America, in New York state along the Hudson River, during the years preceding 1815-1819 when it was written. It was originally published in installments as part of “The Sketch Book.”

I’ve learned that Washington Irving spent time in Tarrytown, NY (where Sleepy Hollow is set; yes, there’s a real town by that name) in 1798, when he and his family escaped a Yellow Fever epidemic in New York City.

This experience supports the adage “write what you know,” because through his details, I can feel the forest, smell the earth, and see the expanse of water that is the river. (It doesn’t hurt that I grew up in the region and can attest to his accuracy.)

“The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frost into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air.”… “On all sides he beheld vast store of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the markets, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on, he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding.”

Some of the words and phrases are antiquated, but that’s all the more charming; the gist is clear. Irving paces his writing like a campfire tale, spoken in the slow voice of a dramatic storyteller. On occasion, he steps aside and refers to himself as the humble narrator. (I tried to emulate a similar style in Silver Line.) Irving’s role is not to interpret the plot but to relay it in the context of the times – in an era rife with New World mystery and superstition among the old Dutch families who inhabited the area.

Irving captures this uneasiness by telling of legends that lurk in the idyllic countryside. He notes the Hollow is near the place where British Spy, John Andre, was hanged and where a Hessian soldier, around Halloween of 1776, had been decapitated during the Battle of White Plains. (This, per a New York Historical Society account, October 25, 2013).

Like all good characters, Ichabod is flawed. He’s a man prone to indulgences despite his persona of a lanky, austere teacher (or ‘pedagogue’ as Irving calls him). Fact is, Crane covets the affluent lifestyle enjoyed by his love interest, the pretty and plump Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod’s weakness for food is revealed as he craves the pies, meats, and rich dumplings offered at the Van Tassel home – an estate he might well inherit if he were to wed the fair Katrina.

Of course, there’s an antagonist, the large, arrogant Dutchman, Brom Bones, who vies for the attention of the wealthy damsel. He torments Ichabod, and we immediately dislike the bully because that behavior is still relevant today.

Poor Ichabod. In a single night, he is jilted by his love interest and forced to ride through the darkest recesses of the forest, places where hauntings have occurred and might again, only to encounter a towering menace on a black steed – the headless horsemen of whom he has heard so much.

Here’s where Irving does something right, reminding us (writers) about the importance of foreboding, flash forwards, and making the reader feel smart. When Ichabod can’t be found after his night of terror, only his saddle and a smashed pumpkin remain. Irving never explains why the pumpkin is there but lets the reader connect the dots to the “head” that was carried.

I think I particularly enjoyed re-reading this little story (a few pages at a time, over morning coffee) because it did not try to be more than it was. Authenticity is a good goal for people who play with words.



Darn. There’s a word for that.


March 19, 2023

I recently learned there was a word for the kind of leaves that ‘hung around’ after the others fell. “Marcescence” is the phenomenon, and trees such as oak, beech, and hornbeam are known to participate. These trees, with marcescent leaves, don’t drop them until spring, when a bud forces the separation at the abscission zone.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this new-found knowledge. Before this, I used to call them “ghost leaves” or liken them to the wings of moths. Much more creative, I think.

  • From Absent:

“Oh, look! We’re almost there.” She pointed ahead to a group of nearly imperceptible rooftops. RT strained to see the outline of buildings. They were as soft as the surrounding fog, though edged in a slight glow. As the two of them approached what appeared to be a small city, he noticed the streets were paved with crushed shells like those on the driveways on Cape Cod. Along each side of the road were trees of equal height, bark white as birches, with leaves that resembled the dusty wings of moths.

“I can’t help but notice there is very little color here,” RT remarked. “Do you not find it difficult to distinguish things?” he asked.

“On the contrary. We prefer a neutral palette. That way we can augment with whatever colors we want,” Astral explained.”

Likewise, I love going outside after it rains, when the air is filled with ozone, and everything feels fresh.  I always thought of this as a comingling of earth and sky, a lung-filling indulgence. I’m not sure “petrichor” has the same impact. In a short story I’m working on, I describe this kind event through emotions, with ‘petrichor’ inserted only as an afterthought.

  • From Oliver and Odetta:

“Odetta let go of Oliver’s hands and reached hers into the air. She took a small, forked branch out of her apron pocket and swept the horizon. The clouds continued to billow, and soon there was a streak of lighting, followed by the growl of thunder. A second crack of lighting hit – a sizzle, it seemed – and then, a deafening boom.

The foursome stood there, dwarfed by the magnitude of a raging storm.

The first splats of water landed at their feet, exploding into puffs of dust. The next splats pelted the soil more aggressively. No one moved as the heavens opened. Sheets of water poured from the sky, drenching them, and obscuring their vision. Puddles formed on the parched ground. The smell of ozone and earth – petrichor – filled their nostrils and their lungs. They laughed until they cried, giddy with joy and hope. They forgot their differences and danced in the rain.”

Add to this list, the word “Brocken Spectre” because it is such a strange phenomenon. In this situation, an image is reflected from a bank of clouds. While I’m not currently using the phrase in what I’m writing, I’d much rather be enticed by an enormous shadow rising on the hillside, the sight of an airplane diffused by an aura, an elongated version of the observer, standing splay-legged on the horizon. Mystical. Magical. Elusive.

Ditto for “Pareilodia,” which prior to being assigned a scientific term, was to me, the wonder of seeing animals in the clouds… the dragon that morphs into a dancer, the turtle that turns into a bird. In this instance, I’m not sure terminology adds to the experience but rather, detracts from it.

Not to disparage science. I love science. But often, the words we invent allow us to imagine and interpret more freely. We opt for the less obvious, call on the senses, develop a unique perspective. Without the ‘correct term,’ we have greater license to be creative. Thus, the wonder of writing — and reading.



When imagination manifests in reality

March, 2022

When I was a child, I had a recurring dream – a nightmare, really – of hiding under a bed and hearing footsteps approach. I was terrified and would wake up shaken. I had no idea what sparked the dream, where it took place, or who belonged to the footsteps – until years later, when as a young teenager, I visited my paternal grandparents’ house. There I saw the exact same room — a basement laundry room with a cot in it. I can only assume that as an infant, I was set on the floor in a carrier, while my mother or grandmother did the laundry. My dream played out from the precise perspective an infant might have (looking upward) and no doubt, reflected the anxiety I must have felt when someone came into the room – only able to hear them but not see them. That moment of recognition, years later, was both eerie and enlightening. I never had the dream again after that.


Yesterday, I visited the wonderful Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA and had a similar, jarring experience. One of the exhibits focused on the witchcraft trials of 1692/93. Among the many fascinating items on display, was a wood, sealskin, and iron chest belonging to magistrate, Judge Jonathan Corwin.

Corwin’s son was supposedly ‘afflicted’ with witchcraft and Corwin’s mother-in-law was accused of being a witch. (She was not arrested, likely due to social connections.) History doesn’t reveal Judge Corwin’s thoughts about these trials because he said very little. His role was that of an ‘oyer and terminer’ – one who hears/listens and determines. As was typical of the time, he was a respected, educated, and affluent member of the community but had no formal legal training.

However, seeing this chest hit me like a bolt of lightning because I had written about a very similar one in Tory Roof. Although the letters on the Corwin chest are “JC,” (using the old-fashioned “I” for a “J”), at a glance, they resemble the “TC” I describe in my book. While I say “gold leaf” for the monogram, these initials are spelled out in nail heads, but in essence, this is the chest I saw in my mind.  I probably should have described it more fully as I now see beautiful detail, but here is the context in which it is introduced:

“As the trio approached the house in the mid-day light, it was easy to see that the east wing was almost as large as the main house. They entered quietly, respecting the silence of their surroundings, and walked down the east wing corridor. Sarah poked her head into one of the rooms, spotlessly swept and basking in the sun. Were it not for a spider web in the doorframe, the room was move-in ready.

There she saw an old trunk with a gold leaf ‘TC’ painted on the lid. ‘Thomas Covington,’ she thought, ‘or maybe his son Thomas II. Could even be his grandson, Terrence.’

After a leisurely tour, Sarah and her clients went their separate ways. That evening, she noticed a rosy glow on her left cheekbone, under her eye. ‘Strange,’ she thought, ‘Maybe a spider bit me.’ But, the sensation didn’t hurt. It felt more like a kiss.”

Look Inside Tory Roof.


I’m reminded that there are many theories about self-fulfilling prophecies and the law of attraction – encouraging us to envision positive things to help make them happen. But this experience was just the opposite. I wasn’t trying to pull from the universe to affect my life, but rather, I put my imagination out into the world, and the universe delivered the real thing. Not sure what this phenomenon is called, but it’s very intriguing.





Don’t Forget to Unlock Your Memory Bank

“Parhelion”    February 7, 2022


First, let me say, I love this word, although until yesterday, I never knew it.

Nor I have I thought about this kind of image, until I realized it was living in my memory bank all along.

You see, yesterday I saw a “sun dog” while out on a drive.

According to Google search: “A sun dog, also called mock sun or parhelion, is an atmospheric optical phenomenon appearing in the sky as luminous spots 22° on each side of the Sun and at the same elevation as the Sun. Usually, the edges closest to the Sun will appear reddish. … Sun dogs most commonly appear during the winter in the middle latitudes.”

In that seeing a sun dog does not happen every day, I took this sighting as a message from the universe to pay attention.

Turns out I have a strange story about sun dogs. I had never heard of them until I was a student in Boston. I didn’t learn of them in a classroom but on the street, thanks to a quirky character a writer might call “an old salt,” a weathered sailor. You see, several of us film students had gone into town very early one morning. I can’t remember if it was to grab some footage or to grab some coffee before heading up to Plum Island to shoot.

The city was still asleep, and the streets were deserted, except for an old guy who came over and wanted to talk. He pointed to the sky and to two small rainbows, asking if we knew what they were. We didn’t. I hadn’t even noticed them. He explained they were “sun dogs” because they dog the sun (follow it) when atmospheric conditions are just right.

Without another word, he wandered off, down the street, never to be seen again. This bizarre encounter left such an impression that I used the imagery in SilverLine, when Jared and Alexa meet a homeless man in Boston who knows a lot about the Gardner Museum heist. Funny how some things stick with you.

That single moment gave me a visual and behavioral model that I could creatively develop. I added some personality as I imagined it and a situation that might have placed him there. I made my character crotchety and stubborn because living on the street takes fortitude, but I also made him street wise and proud, because he had self-worth. For depth, I gave him a backstory and imbued him with eloquent writing skills which are revealed as my characters engage with him.


The mild weather also brought out street people and panhandlers. Jared and Alexa tried to keep walking but were intercepted by a homeless man shaking a cup with a coin in it. “Spare change for coffee?” the scruffy man asked. Jared glanced down at the fellow in multiple layers of stained gray clothing and dropped a couple quarters into the cup. All of sudden, Jared felt Alexa grab his arm.



Jared stared at the man. “So, you follow that story?” Jared asked, heartbeat accelerating.

“Oh, yeah, been following it for 27 years. I was actually near the building that night, when that red hatchback pulled up with the crooks in it. I could have told that guard those guys were phonies. Their tin badges looked like they were bought at a costume shop.”

“Did anyone ever question you?” Jared asked. “I mean the cops or the feds.”

“You kidding? When you’re homeless, you’re invisible.”



That weekend, with brisk breezes blowing, they walked along the waterfront to the familiar diner on the street corner. The waitress recognized them, and without saying anything, motioned with her chin to where the homeless man sat. “I pay for his coffee once in a while,” she whispered. “He thinks it’s free.” Alexa marveled at how kind people could be.

“Greetings, stranger,” Jared said, still not knowing his name.

The scruffy man looked up. This time he wore a reddish corduroy jacket with too-short sleeves over plaid flannel pants. He had a woman’s frilly blue scarf at his neck that covered the stretched neck of a faded black tee-shirt. “Well, if it isn’t the ace reporter and his gal,” he said in a way that neither confirmed nor denied he cared.

“I was hoping we could ask you some more questions,” Jared said. Before the man could answer, Jared added, “Do you want some pie to go with that coffee?”



“Would you like to give me your name so I can credit you properly? Jared asked.

“Not important,” the man muttered as he pushed down on the door handle and walked into the sunlight. Jared and Alexa combined their money to pay for the food and left the waitress a 20% tip. Jared clutched the envelope all the way home, but it wasn’t until they were back in his dorm room that he looked inside, dumping the contents onto his bed in a multi-colored pile.

“Probably not the cleanest thing to do,” Alexa said, eying the mix of grease-stained yellow sheets, crumpled napkins, and inside-out gum wrappers. Jared picked up a sheave of typed pages, most likely printed at a library. As he started to read, his eyes grew wide.

“Some say that cities have no heart, that they’re an impersonal mix of  concrete and congestion. But for those of us who live on the street, we know that heart exists. We are that heart, and our energy helps drive the pulse of the city. We see things that others miss. We watch people come and go… young lovers, old friends, children at play. But the public at large doesn’t see us. We’re transparent, invisible, and like parts of a mobile, constantly in flux.”

 Jared flipped to another page. “This guy can write,” he said out loud.


So, if you’re an author looking for inspiration or a reader wanting to better relate, dig into your memory bank to find gems that crystallize the experience. Do you remember the combination? For me it’s sensations – something I’ve intentionally forced myself to utilize in remarkable situations. I ask myself: “What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, touching?” I tuck those impressions away in my memory bank for future recall. On a lucky day, something random — a parhelion, perhaps — opens the door.



When History Comes Alive

Fall 2021 — Maybe it’s the season, when the veil between the living and dead is said to be thinner, or maybe I was just in the right place at the right time to enjoy a flash from the past. Either way, as someone who writes historical fiction and likes to research, I find it fascinating when both collide.

So, there we were at the Colonial Faire and Fyfe & Drum Muster at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA, standing in our booth in the field. We were talking shop, selling books, and trying to determine if there was interest in framed illustrations from vintage publications. Such a wonderful collection of people stopped by — many with expertise in music, art, history, and education. Some were authors themselves; others were hoping to be. We talked about our personal book publishing journey and what services we could provide through Sudbury Publishing Group.


But imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw a fellow wearing a tee-shirt that said Edes & Gill . This Boston-based company was one of the earliest printers in Colonial America, publishers of the outspoken Boston Gazette. Today they operate a print shop along the Freedom Trail, where they use plates and processes employed by Paul Revere.

Why this thrilled me, is that I mention Edes & Gill in #ToryRoof, and my main character, Sarah Sutherland (in her former life as Sarah Covington) visits their establishment in the North End and ends up writing for them. If anyone checks, they will find Sarah’s words resemble actual language published at the time. To maximize authenticity, I located a digital archive of the Gazette from the summer of 1766 and positioned my character as writing anonymously, lending to the illusion that the words could be hers.

I soon learned that our booth visitor was Andy Volpe, an artist, engraver, and presenter in his own right, who is affiliated with Edes & Gill. He was gracious enough to pose next to our sign, then did one better: he held up his hand-engraved card with an image of an old printing press.

The serendipity of meeting him convinced me that history is alive and well.

*  * *

In keeping with this realization, I joined a tour of the Mt. Wadsworth Cemetery this weekend, coordinated by the Sudbury Historical Society. It was a wonderfully organized event, featuring reenactors and descendants who told tales of the deceased at their gravesites. We had a town founder (Mr. Goodnow), a Minuteman, a Victorian artist (Florence Hosmer), a Civil War soldier (Mr. Moore), the farmer (Mr. Browne) who had donated his land for the cemetery, and one of my favorites: a socialite named Jerusha Howe who is said to have died of a broken heart and now haunts Room No. 9 at the Wayside Inn. (If you follow me on Facebook at Sutherland Series, you can see videos of her presentation).

What I didn’t expect, was an unexplained blur in my last photo taken at Memorial Park. Was it just sun flare? Movement in the lens? Or something of a more spiritual nature? Whatever caused the aberration, it has fueled my imagination.



Author Interview by Mary Smith

February 2021 —

How do you launch a writing career? What’s the process for publishing a book? Where can I get help? What is your personal experience?

I posted this Q & A interview on Linked In to answer many of the questions I’m asked in person and in my #WritingCommunity on Twitter @SeriesSarah. By all means, follow me there — but if you’d like a quick run-down, take a read. Hopefully, helpful… and a bit amusing.

Author Interview by Mary Smith | LinkedIn

Summoning the Genie

I hadn’t thought about the literary significance of polishing an artifact. We usually leave patina intact. But as I decided to clean our brass doggie doorstop, which doubles as a nutcracker, I was filled with memories and unanswered questions. With each layer of tarnish that I wiped away, I seemed to recede deeper into my past, remembering this doorstop in my family home, holding open a porch door in summer. I was told it had belonged to my mother’s father, who died when she was young.

Not having met the man, I began to wonder about him and why he would own an item such as this. It seemed somewhat frivolous for a father of five, but perhaps it was a symbol of manliness or economic success. Maybe it was a gift or traded in barter. No one ever said. And in thinking about the acquisition, I realized, I had no idea what this man did to earn a living.

I recall a sepia-toned photo of this person, sporting a moustache, in which he appeared tall and dapper, and I have fond recollections of my petite grandmother telling me how she flirted with him in the “Old Country” by ‘stealing’ his cane, while in a park. But other than that, I know little.

As I polished the surface to a subtle shine, I sensed what rubbing Aladdin’s Lamp might feel like and wondered if I should proceed. After all, that action carries the caution of “getting what you asked for.” Would I uncover details I didn’t want to know or facts that would only lead to more mystery?

A bit of research put me in touch with the realm of genies and jinns (a word I’ve always wanted to use in Scrabble, in its alternate spelling of ‘djinn’.) I guess I never realized the balance between malevolence and generosity in the jinn/genie world.

For me, much more an innocent, this polishing exercise was all good. It was tactile and therapeutic — and it let my mind wander. How did my maternal grandfather come upon this item? When did he get it? How did he use it? And why did my mother end up with it?

My mother had shared certain anecdotes from her youth, but I know there are things she didn’t say. I wondered if this dog could tell me more. After all, generations of family hands had lifted its heft to move it. Someone likely used it as intended, raising its tail to accommodate a nut in the mouth and bringing the handle down with force, to feel and hear the crack of a shell. (In thinking of this, I remember a bowl of walnuts sitting, every fall, on our living room table, accompanied by metal, hand-held nut-crackers and thin, silver plate ‘picks’ … just the kind of detail a writer craves.)

As I let my hand glide over the dog’s tail, sloping and smooth, I wondered what this critter might have seen. World War I? The Great Depression? The daily lives of a large, loud family growing up in New Jersey, among other immigrants, before grabbing a piece of the American Pie?

This dog has been a good companion. He doesn’t bark, doesn’t need to be fed , doesn’t require a walk. Instead, he’s a patient observer and collector of invisible things. He’s solid in composition, strong in stance, and durable in demeanor. Now, more than 100 years later, he’s hardly aged a day. In polishing him, the task peels back time – revealing, with each layer, a story that could be told. Might I tell of a man who came to America on a big ship, with his young bride, having only a few coins in his pocket? Might I write of my grandmother, who lied about being married, so she could get a factory job when they were being given only to men who “needed them.”

But with this dog … the curiosity lingers. Where was it made? What did it cost then? What is it worth now? I can find a few clues about vintage door stops online. Apparently, there is quite a selection of brass doggie nutcrackers on eBay, and according to some articles, many are fake. (Thankfully, this one does not have Phillips’ head screws in the base, and I know the provenance). These doorstop nutcrackers, it seems, command only a modest price, but the worth to me, is not in the mechanics but in its ability to unlock secrets. I notice examples in photographs, though, that are not as refined, with a snout cut short or a hole in the side. This leads me to believe there was considerable thought (and maybe savings) given to this selection by my grandfather or the gift-giver.

As I continue my research, I learn more about nutcrackers in general. Who knew there was a nutcracker museum? Truth is, I’ve never given much thought to nutcrackers at all, but here we are, in Nutcracker season, and ballet troupes are streaming their performances.

Like so many things, choosing to polish this nutcracker now, after years of neglect, is probably just a random gesture, but maybe it’s trying to tell me something. I return the heavy, brass dog, spiffy and clean, to its place of honor near a bedroom door, and each time I pass, its glint catches my eye. Surely this is merely a shiny object from a past I’ll never know, but then again…maybe it does contain a gentle genie trying to get out… a genie bearing creative gifts a writer can use.


The Art of Foreboding


As Hurricane Isaias barreled up the coast, I rushed outside to pull a towel from the line. The wind was already whipping the swamp maples, spindly and lithe, bending them in the force. The usual, gentle rustle of leaves had turned into a roar that accelerated with each gust.

Acorns were dropping from the oaks, hitting the porch roof like buckshot. Fern fronds ruffled and rearranged, rebellious. I could sense the foreboding – unknown and exciting – as energy swirled around me. It was then that commonplace objects assumed the presence of evil.

A dead bird lay by the bulkhead – gray feathers and a beak, strewn on the mossy ground. Our indoor/outdoor cat had obviously been hunting, and I scolded her as I ran through the house and out the side door to get a large metal dustbin from the garage.

I rounded the house by way of the front and could feel the anticipation. As the skies darkened, the color of our tall garden phlox deepened. A pale, yellow swallow tail butterfly clung to one of the blossom heads, bobbing with it, wings a-flutter. How strange this was. I had seen only one butterfly all summer long, and here was this elegant creature, edged in black, seemingly blown in by the storm. I watched until it lifted off for the back yard.

Following it, I scooped up the dead bird and hurried toward the woods, trying to balance the dustbin without spilling the remains. I became keenly aware of the equally dead branches caught in the trees, potential spears as I ran under them. The clouds were billowing, and I could feel change on my skin, now damp and cool, where hair stood up in anticipation.

As I ran, I noticed other feathers, too. Soft tufts from the underbellies of wild turkeys, caught in the grass. So many feathers all over the yard. When did they get here? I knew our visiting turkeys molted in late summer, but these feathers were profuse. An omen, maybe? I thought of Jack Nicholson in the movie, the Witches of Eastwick, where he was cursed to spit out cherry pits and poofs of down.

I buried the dead bird at the side of the woods and covered it with pine needles, saying thank you as I usually do, for gracing us with its presence. As I retraced my steps, the old pine creaked, sending immature pinecones earthward.

I returned to the house, on edge, but invigorated. The sky was threatening now. All we could do was wait. I knew I had witnessed what writers only hope to achieve – those fleeting moments when characters and readers are caught in suspense and expectation.

The rains came as predicted. First a few splats, then walls of water. We heard a dull thud in the woods and envisioned a large limb falling. A tornado warning scrolled on the TV screen as our cat hunkered down in the porch. We closed the north windows, and then the others, expecting our lights to flicker. But they did not. With all the intensity of a good plot, the storm peaked and subsided.

I ran outside in hopes of catching a rainbow but no luck. The trees were still dripping. A puddle had formed on the brick walkway. The birdbath was overflowing, as were the downspouts, gushing into the garden, escaping their designated path. The grass glistened; my feet got wet. The air was cooler now, fresh. The wind had lessened, and the sound of tires on wet pavement was amplified by the stillness everywhere else. I breathed in deeply. Ozone. Nature’s skill at foreboding was not lost on me.

How Color Infused the Writing of ABSENT

May 6, 2020

When I was a student in communications school, I produced a short film called “Green,” which I copyrighted as part of a series about colors. “Green” conveyed the contrast between the beauty of nature (even before the term was popularized to mean environmental concerns) and the harsh politics of the time. It opens with a young woman finding a green bottle in a park – and wraps up with her blissful world being destroyed by anti-war protests.

Years later, in 2011, I stumbled upon an article about synesthesia, the neural mingling of senses, and was intrigued by the idea that some people could see words as colors. On January 12, 2012, I posted a blog on my since-dismantled website, “Words on the Fly,” that proposed the idea of “reversed synesthesia,” where writers could turn colors into words.

I had just returned from a trip to Aruba, and my head was filled with tropical images. I wrote:

“This building, for example, wasn’t ‘yellow.’ It was sunshine, finches, bananas, and optimism. It was brighter than legal pads, less orange than yolks; it was coreopsis in the desert, daffodils in spring. It was baby chicks and lemon meringue pie.

This building, was not ‘green.’ It was Ireland and watercress, tempera paint and mint jelly. It was the sweater worn by redheads and parade hats. It was lime Jello ™ and Crayons ™.

Nor was this building ‘pink.’ It was cat paws and possum noses. It was the inside of fading roses that climbed on the fence of my childhood home. It was raspberry ice cream and vintage damask. It was ground phlox and wood hyacinths.”

The fascination with synesthesia slept in my mind, until it was awakened several years later when I was writing an article about an academically accomplished family. In interviewing the father, he advised me not to be confused if I saw his daughter’s name spelled two different ways. He explained that she had synesthesia and that the color palette of her birth name was irritating. Consequently, they had legally changed the spelling of her name in recent years. At that point, I knew I had to use the experience.

In the following months, I began writing “for real,” and conceptualized the first three books in The Sutherland Series – about an unusually ‘gifted’ family. Tory Roof became the wife’s story, Silver Line was the son’s story, and Absent was to be the father’s story. After Tory Roof and Silver Line went to market, I focused on Absent. The premise is a bit different, because Carter, the husband, is not naturally endowed with precognition or the ability to traverse time. On the contrary. He is a practical, reserved, partially colorblind, think tank executive, limited by his restraint. To handle a camouflage project at work, he needed help – so I introduced Tracee Green, a synesthete who sees words as colors, under the premise that she could improve his perception.

While you might think there is a typo in her name, there is not. By spelling it this way, I create a bond with Carter whose name shares the same letters (quite by accident as this was never imagined way back when I named him).

Using a structure akin to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, I unravel the plot through 4 cerebral journeys, each of which includes 3 trips. These events intertwine with a present-day storyline that involves, not only the camouflage project, but something disturbing at the grand Victorian where Carter is being counseled.

Perhaps drawing on my early appreciation for green, I open the book in an absinthe café, circa 1905 France, and step back from that to tell how this all came to be. It dawned on me, midway through writing, that there’s an interesting dichotomy here: too much color on one hand (in the synesthesia) and not enough on the other (in the camouflage), or thinking of it another way: color gone wild vs color controlled.

Enjoy the read!

ABSENT ebook is currently on a Summer Sale.



There’s Always More to the Story

As someone who respects words, I try to avoid phrases like “all” and “always,” but in the case of following a lead, I’m convinced, there’s no end in sight. Journalists and researchers are trained to recognize a good lead, knowing it can spark a story, uncover a wrongdoing, or reveal little-known facts. But sometimes an author finds herself on a path she hadn’t expected.

Such is the case of the many-tentacled story that took place close to my home, thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, decades ago, and still, today. The story concerns The Saxonville Mills, in Framingham, MA, developed in the mid-1800s by an entrepreneur named Michael Henry (Harry) Simpson. Simpson lived in Boston with his wife and five children, until she unexpectedly died in 1878.

Four years later, in 1882, at age 72, Simpson married Evangeline Marrs, 45 years his junior, and built her a mansion on a hill in the nearby village of Wayland. The mansion, constructed of brick, wood, and stone, spanned 200 feet and overlooked Dudley Pond, which served as a source for running water. The grounds included a stable and bridle paths because Evangeline liked to ride. Unfortunately, two short years after completion, Simpson died of heart failure, leaving Evangeline a $10 million estate.

But that is only part of the story. Evangeline Marrs went on to lead a fascinating life. A person of means, she engaged in charitable work on behalf of war refugees and Native Americans. She sold real estate and championed women’s rights. She eventually left Wayland, and in 1889, met Elizabeth Rose Cleveland, sister of President Grover Cleveland. Rose had served as First Lady for her unmarried brother and, as a poet and essayist, had become a prominent figure in her own right.

A new book, called Precious and Adored, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, details the romance between Evangeline and Rose through a series of love letters, following them on travels that took them around the world.

The connection to Minnesota derives from the fact that in 1890, Evangeline married Bishop Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, who shared her interest in humanitarian work. Although he died in 1901, Evangeline remained in Minnesota for nine years following his death. In 1910, she reunited with Rose and together, they moved to Italy. They remain there still, buried side-by-side, in the town of Bagni di Lucca.

But the story diverges again, as good stories do, causing us to wonder what ever became of the mansion built by Mr. Simpson. One source says that Evangeline turned the building over to Simpson’s son, Francis, but does not state how long he maintained it. Other sources describe the building as becoming a “roadhouse” (and worse) at the turn of the century and a speakeasy during Prohibition. Some even claim it was the scene of a shooting.

I have yet to find the dates and changes in ownership which led to the transformation of the property, but one can assume that sometime after the Great Depression, the property was reclaimed and turned into the elegant establishment called “The Mansion Inn,” known affectionately by locals as “The Castle.”

The Wayland Historical Commission provides excellent detail about the post-War heyday of this Inn and its operation well into the 1950s.

The Wayland High School Project does an impressive job in providing photos and anecdotal input, and the Bryant Funeral Home website offers a similar account with additional details and images.

Wicked Local excerpts “Wayland A to Z: A Dictionary of Then and Now, edited by Evelyn Wolfson and Dick Hoyt, and reprinted by the Wayland Historical Society in 2009, which offers additional perspective.

Today, some older Wayland residents still remember The Castle. They tell of a dark, opulent interior, grand mahogany staircase, the statue of Venus in the heart of the Venetian Room, and a magnificent dancehall with a spring-loaded floor. Others talk of wrestlers who trained on the lawns and big bands that came up from New York City to entertain the guests.

There are those who recall childhood memories of sitting on the carved granite lions that graced the estate and being paid ‘real money’ to pull frogs from the pond, since frog’s legs were on the menu. In these quiet outskirts of Boston, the Mansion Inn became a destination for the upper echelon and a source of employment for locals, until a fire erupted on March 24, 1956. Impeded by a spring snowstorm, firefighters were unable to control the blaze that spread from the kitchen and eventually, engulfed the entire structure. The Inn was razed.

Although the owner considered rebuilding, neighbors voted it down as “too noisy.” Excavation began shortly thereafter, and by June 1958, developers were turning the soil. This is where the story takes another dramatic turn. It was then that layers of ash and artifacts began to surface – blades, bowls, and carved stone tools — thought to be of Native  origin. Local children and curiosity-seekers descended and removed these items before archaeologists from the R. S. Peabody Foundation in Andover could preserve the find. Vast knowledge was lost. Thought to be the site of a 3,000 to 4,000-year-old cemetery and crematory, D.S. Byers painfully describes the incident as “The Rape of Wayland.” By December 1959, it was too late. Bulldozers had leveled the land, dropping it 8 feet, to make room for modern housing.

Able to pin the location on a map, I decided to drive to the area which I’ve, unknowingly, passed hundreds of times. I found Mansion Road which took me on a scenic drive around the lake but not quite to the destination.

I retraced my steps and then saw Castle Lake Road, and upon entering, noticed the two stone pillars described in historical accounts. I drove down the road—it was a blustery day – and could feel the chill of history. While I have yet to locate the exact quadrants where the Mansion stood, there is no doubt I was in the right place. As I returned to the main road at the south entrance of the original property, I noticed the gateposts were carved, as documented, with the letters “H” and “Y” to commemorate Harvard and Yale, where Simpson’s sons and son-in-law attended school.

I sat there for a moment, imagining the glitterati arriving in highest style and feeling a sense of sadness for a landmark lost.

Now, I would never have pursued this story were it not for serendipity. I had been running ads at a small movie theatre which apparently caught the eye of a local author. She contacted me and we met at a coffee shop. She descends from prominent New England lineage and is writing historical fiction based on events that occurred in her family. In trying to suggest potential publishers, I remembered the book about Evangeline and Rose and sent her a link.

But there’s one last bit of the uncanny:  As I explore this story, I conjure up romantic nights fueled by liquor and money. I can almost hear the slow jazz and smell the smoke of cigars and cigarettes. There’s perfume in the air and a hint of prime rib. Women laugh. Men boast. This is the good life that makes people forget economic depression and war.

It dawns on me, slowly, that I’ve been here before – not to this exact place in this exact town, but to a similar venue in New York City – a club described in my third book, Absent, which was started long before I heard this story and which will debut shortly. You see, my main character, Carter, on one of his attempts at self-discovery, is regressed to the Roaring Twenties, where he hobnobs with the rich and famous and falls for a woman named Rose.