Thursday, July 11, 2013

Turning Points: American History and Writing Mysteries

July seemed to me an excellent time to offer a number of history-oriented entrees, although not necessarily focused on the American Revolution or other July events. My guest today gets us started with some fascinating bits of American history that I'll bet none of us learned about in school. Please join me in welcoming Beth Kanell. ~ Sheila

Turning Points: American History and Writing Mysteries

by Beth Kanell

“Research local, write global.” That’s my mantra for developing mysteries that hinge on turning points in American history. And in July, a month that starts off with celebrating the network of people, ideas, and forces that erupted in the American Revolution, I’m excited about how big turning points show up in small-town changes and conflicts. I live in Vermont, and for my own books (the most recent is Cold Midnight), I dig up village documents and images, like this fabulous post-World War I postcard of the “new” Armory in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, with Company D lined up in front. Their faces look so young; what turmoil is within? What residue of battle could flare into peacetime retribution? And who among these men could be the wise one who’d see the crime-in-waiting and offer a different solution?
St. Johnsbury Armory
But I also dig into “local” for others, especially teachers, to give middle schoolers and even high school students a head start into crafting their own suspense. One of my favorite investigations took me into the records of Bonesteel, South Dakota (where I’d love to visit). This tiny town’s first written history began with a science expedition that fed the independent nation’s hunger to expand. Here’s what I sent to the Bonesteel students:
When Lewis and Clark visited the Bonesteel area in 1804, they were shown the 45-foot-long skeleton of a ‘fish’ that actually had been a dinosaur. Merriweather Lewis and William Clark were fascinated by the animals and plants along their journey, and needed to give the President a full report of those. (Why did the President want to know?) What if a 12-year-old boy in the expedition crew was making his own drawings of the creatures along the way -- and someone stole his drawing of the "fish" skeleton. The thief saw a way to make money from the drawing. How will this boy find out what happened? Where will he have to go to get his drawing back? Who will he meet along the way?”
Another quintessentially American spot is Delray Beach, Florida. I wasn’t thinking of beaches, but of the Seminole Wars, which mixed the population in this area and also created a demand for education that reached beyond the European-stock men who wrote our Constitution. Delray students received this note as I dug more deeply into the way their area’s history included unexpected inhabitants: “A haven for the shipwrecked called the Orange Grove House of Refuge #3 was built in 1876 by the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The first refuge-keeper (like a lighthouse keeper, for you Yankees reading along) was Hannibal D. Pierce. If a suspense story you’re about to write were called ‘Meeting Hannibal,’ what would happen to the young person narrating the story? There must have been pirates and navy heroes and clever craftsmen among the people living at the refuge!”
And for Beverly, Massachusetts, I kept finding links from the Colonial past to the very modern scientific labs and corporations that now ring the town. A recent re-dating of one of the town’s featured gems led to this proposal for a thriller:
“This town’s history mentions that ‘The John Balch House (circa 1679, but for many years was purported to have been built in 1636), located at 448 Cabot Street, Beverly, Massachusetts, is one of the oldest wood-frame houses in the United States.’ The age of the house was established in 2006 through ‘dendrochronological testing’ (that's trees and wood and time). Find out the details of the testing. Who could have had a motive for wanting the house to stand as 1636? Who could have set the testing equipment (maliciously) out of kilter, or broken it the first time it was used? Maybe the testing team includes a woman who is a descendant of John Balch ... and the timing of the house will determine whether she might inherit rights to some extremely valuable land, or to a painting, or to water rights. Also, who was John Balch -- could there be a mystery about why certain people in his family die young??”
Wondering about your own “local” potential for mysteries like these? I have a great offer for you! Because I really love the research … tell me the name of your town (and state), and your e-mail, and I’ll provide five possible launches for mysteries set where you live, for the first five people who jump into this. If I have the time next week, I might even try for more of your locations, so don’t be shy, put those places into the list of Comments as soon as possible!
Maybe you’re wondering what turning point in American history started the plotting for Cold Midnight? This: a massively unjust law (by today’s standards) passed by Congress in 1882, called the Chinese Exclusion Act – and the local aspect that drove me into research and plotting was the all-too-real death 35 years later, five miles from my home, of a Chinese laundry owner named Sam Wah. For more about the real Mr. Wah, check here:; and to see photos and postcards that prompted the plot (and the growing rage I felt about that American law, which stayed in effect until World War I), check out this Pinterest page

Beth Kanell writes young-adult mysteries where teens resolve dangerous situations – and learn something about how life is expanding for them. Her suspense novels are The Darkness Under the Water (Molly Ballou’s Abenaki heritage turns risky during the Vermont Eugenics Program), The Secret Room (not every New England hiding place is an Underground Railroad room, but Shawna and Thea aren’t supposed to realize that), and Cold Midnight (because she’s climbing the town roofs at night, Claire meets Ben, whose Irish-ness wouldn’t have let them connect otherwise, and the two teens almost see the Chinese laundry owner’s murder taking place). Her blog digs into American history, discussions for reading groups and classrooms, and evidence of “what really happened”:


  1. Thank you, Sheila, for welcoming me today. I enjoy your mysteries (loved Drop Dead on Recall!) and am awed by your wide education in areas that feed your muse with such variety and depth. I hope some of the readers this week will mention where they live, so I can try out their regions for mysteries, too!

  2. Beth Kanell, I'm really glad you agreed to guest-blog. That sounds like an extremely interesting way to construct a mystery. I'm not a writer, but your post made me think about what's in my area. I'm in Lanham-Seabrook, Maryland. Probably a fairly boring area in itself, but a couple miles away is the famous old abandoned Glenn Dale Sanitorium, and the Battle of Bladensburg (War of 1812, and not the new U.S.'s finest hour) was fought nearby. There's an old "Chapel of Ease" at the intersection of Routes 193 and Lanham-Severn Road, now associated with St. George's Episcopal Church.

  3. Hi Linda - Wow, your area is rich in "assets" for starting a mystery story! I also often notice the place name of "Lanham, MD" in terms of a major book publisher there; of course, the manuscript long forgotten in a back room can launch either a mystery/thriller or a paranormal adventure. And ... you're within a pretty easy drive of the ocean, yes? If I were researching your region for mysteries, I'd look at the founders of the town -- any of them retired ship's captains? Last but far from least, I'd want to know a LOT more about Thomas Junius Calloway, whose Lanham home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Don't you think his mother must have been amazing? (And maybe his dad.) Now you see, you've got me so excited that I'm going to have to visit your area one of these days!!

  4. Thank you! Calloway's home is news to me! And if you do visit the area, please have Sheila put us in touch. I'd love to show you around!