The Perks of Research: Mad River Valley, Vermont

Ah, I love research and travel. Among my suggested list of ways to research (books, library/online research, in-person resources/interviews, museums, etc.), my favorite is to actually go to the source...to touch, smell, and breathe it. Living only 3 hours away from my next book's locale (central Vermont, in the quiet, rustic, gorgeous Mad River Valley), means one thing...road trip! The hubs and I planned a getaway with the kids north for Memorial Day weekend so I could do some hands-on research. And take time off from our busy schedules.

Getting ready to hike a 3.5-mile part of the 273-mile Long Trail (that runs North to South in Vermont) up to a warming hut in the Mad River Glen ski area with views of the valley and nearby mountains.

Getting ready to hike a 3.5-mile part of the 273-mile Long Trail (that runs North to South in Vermont) up to a warming hut in the Mad River Glen ski area with views of the valley and nearby mountains.

More familiar with the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the coastal towns and mountains of Maine, I now know why the Green Mountains are called such. Not only is Vermont a very "green" and environmentally-conscious state, it is in fact, quite green in late spring through summer. Granted, I'd visited Vermont once before to tackle a climb up Mt. Mansfield, but this time my goal was different: research. We planned a relaxing, low-expectations itinerary with plenty of down time. 

Our explorations included visits to the historical, small towns of Waitsfield, Warren, and Iraville, and a few others along the way. No visit to Vermont would have been complete without a tour of Ben and Jerry's and cheese tasting at Cabot Creamery (yum!). Rounding out our trip: a 20-ft cliff jump into a water hole (brrr...I took the pictures and kept my shoes dry!), long country drives, waterfalls, and a climb up Mt. Stark. Note the mud in the fourth picture below...Vermont is known for it's 5th season in early spring, "Mud Season," and we got to experience the tail end of it.

Our days were filled with overcast skies, some sun, and rain, but that's to be expected over Memorial Day weekend in New England. The Warren Lodge was a splendid find! The courteous staff provided us with s'mores fixings and we enjoyed nightly fires by the Mad River while our kids went for a dunk (with clothes fully on -- why not? -- and also with bathing suits later once they realized they had them). It was a lovely respite from the daily grind of school projects, chores, and work assignments (okay, okay, I did do some writing over the weekend!).

Vermont Signatures:

  1. Cows

  2. Covered bridges

  3. Green Mountains

  4. Farms, meadows, long drives

  5. Cheese, ice cream, chocolate

  6. Rivers and waterfalls

  7. Hikes or skiing

  8. Rustic small towns

How do you actually do the research?

Well...

1. No matter what you do, make sure you have fun. Take in the moments and cherish them.

2. Take lots of photos!

3. Chat it up with locals - ask questions about anything! There are always stories to be heard, or some interesting facts only locals know.

4. Get trail maps, brochures, road/park maps, etc.

5. Visit places off the beaten path.

6. Observe people in their everyday routines (parks, restaurants, etc).

7. Eat the local cuisine.

Well, that's all from here! Hope you enjoy the photos, and always remember to follow your heart and have fun while on this ride called life. And when researching, take it all in...and write detailed notes.

Fording Rivers

Last week Facebook nicely reminded me of a fond memory, that ironically, I’d already been thinking about that very week. Spooky ESP aside, the image was an exclamation point on a road sign in Mt. Aspiring National Park, in the Wanaka area of New Zealand. I’ll start with a disclaimer: we traveled to this jewel of a country (Middle Earth if you’d like to call it that) for our honeymoon over a dozen years ago and it is hands down my favorite place on earth (sorry, Scotland, you’re second place). But I digress. What’s interesting about this sign is that it’s an exclamation point! First, you laugh at the image and think what the what? Then you see the sheep photobomb (and laugh more).

Why the exclamation point?

Doesn't look intimidating at all, right?

Doesn't look intimidating at all, right?

Let’s start with how we got there. The drive to the Rob Roy Track was long, gravely, and a shakin’, window-nearly-breakin’ nauseating ride. There was no way to drive “just right”: fast, slow, in the tire ruts, or dodging holes…our car rumbled and roared on the 19-mile (30km) gravel road. The second challenge was alluded to by those lovely yellow signs. Fords in the road.

Yes, with our small rental car we needed to ford washed out parts of the road. Another disclaimer: we had asked a park ranger if the tiny rental car could handle the fords and she advised that it could. These were not little trickles of water. They were a foot deep, twenty feet in width, filled with rocks of all sizes, like your typical river. And we had to ford it over and over. I lost count. We probably crossed eight passes. Each time, I held onto the car for dear life while my husband drove us down, through the rocky, deep bottom, and back up the other side.

Looks easy?  Tell our car that. Just you wait and see what's coming for  you in a few more miles...(Okay, I just personified the road, but hey, it was mean!)

Looks easy?  Tell our car that. Just you wait and see what's coming for  you in a few more miles...(Okay, I just personified the road, but hey, it was mean!)

We were so busy crossing the river that I didn’t snag a photo of the fords!

How often in life are we living in the moment, crossing fords, and hurrying to the finish line (or to the next adventure)? We are so hyper-focused on the task that we don’t take a moment to enjoy the journey. Or at least to appreciate it. Certainly, we reminisce in happy fondness later.

But what do we do during those times?

Sometimes we survive. We wake up, do the daily grind (whatever it may be: careers, parenting, caregiving for a loved one, going to school…the list is infinite). Some nights, we crawl into bed, achy and beaten by the day.

Sometimes we live. We cherish those moments like enjoying a great cup of coffee at sunrise, strengthening muscle while paddling a lake, listening to the laughter of our kids building Lego structures, conversing with a good friend or partner, or writing a new scene in a manuscript with sweet abandon!

And sometimes we doubt. On our trek in New Zealand, we questioned that road, those fords, even the track itself: can we make it? Should we keep going?

While on that bumpy-ford-crossing-will-we-ever-get-there road, my husband and I took in the magnificent glacial valley scenery: slender trees lined up like lollipops, cows and a million sheep nibbling on grass, tall cascading waterfalls, blue sky, puffy clouds, and sweeping mountainsides.

When we reached the trail head, we were exhilarated to have made it through the cumbersome, scary, nerve-wracking, beautiful, amazing journey there. But the journey wasn’t finished yet. First a rain shower hit, and we took cover (it was spring after all). Then we donned our packs and huffed up the mountain trail to even greater views of the valley. “Oh, look, swing bridges!” my husband exclaimed. My stomach didn’t match his excitement. But I made it across. The reward at the end of the trail: the Rob Roy Glacier.

But truly, the real reward was the journey it took to get there.

Would we do it again?

Of course!

p.s. There will likely be more travel adventure posts coming from me because this gal loves to travel, photograph, and write all about it! And you betcha’ I have many misadventures to share, too!

Going Berserk: Research!

This week I delved into the definition of berserk. Sure, I knew that it meant going a little crazy. I guess I never knew that it originated from the Vikings until I happened upon it in a book and online. A few clicks and turns of the page, and I read some fascinating articles by experts in the psychology field.

What does Merriam-Webster define it as?

Berserk(er): an ancient Scandinavian warrior frenzied in battle and held to be invulnerable

Old Norse berserkr, probably from ber-bear + serkr shirt

First known use was 1800. [ahem: I can’t refer to this elite frenzied warrior sect of the Vikings by that name in my circa 1300’s manuscript unless I can verify its use that early]

My research avenues: travel, museums & historic sites, libraries, my bookshelf (and cyberspace), and in-person interviews.

My research avenues: travel, museums & historic sites, libraries, my bookshelf (and cyberspace), and in-person interviews.

While I was on the berserker bandwagon, I also enjoyed (yet again) researching a variety of Scottish and Norse swear words. These are the things research for novels are made of. :) It can be entertaining…and time-consuming. Certainly I do my fair share of research for historicals, but contemporary novels also require a bit of digging for accuracy and authenticity. Writers submerge themselves in their worlds, and research is one powerful way to achieve such immersion. Sometimes I do the research up front, but usually, I find myself veering off the word-count train to look up a medieval remedy for fevers, to figure out if cork or stained glass was available in 1263, to find that perfect curse word, to read about the legends of the Kintail mountains, or to unveil the Norse wolf god Fenrir's story… and, and, and…. :) The list is long. Everything from minor to major…requires some level of research. And I am a bit of a research junkie.

What are my go-to methods for research?

  • Travel! Explore the location if possible. Be it a small seaside Maine town or the grand castles of the Scottish Highlands, nothing replaces being there, breathing the salty air along a bustling fishing dock, listening to the rustle of trees in an ancient wood, touching the crumbling stones of a grand keep, or observing the patterns of guards flowing in an out of an army base.

 

  • Museums: When you can’t get to the location, museums are a great place to find information, see relevant period pieces (furniture, tools, art representing time periods/clothes/culture, weapons, etc.).  Also, museum curators and employees usually LOVE to talk about the displays or may share anecdotes not typically found on the information plaques. A recent museum visit to look at dinosaur fossils and geologic specimens was such a delight (granted, I’m not writing any prehistorical novels) as the curator (I think a geology college student) regaled us with lots of information not found on the displays about the collections. This past spring I visited Mystic, CT where the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a reconstructed authentic Viking ship, was being housed. I walked on it, touched it, and asked questions (like why in heavens are there rocks in the hold below the wooden deck? - Answer: they needed to toss anything in there to give it the weight/balance it needed. Insert my college physics that I aced but still don't understand). It was an amazing experience. Lots of oh's and ah's.

 

  • Merriam-Webster or other etymology websites: Words have different meaning and usages among time periods and cultures. This website also allows me to know when a word first came about, so if it’s too modern, the phrase/word must go if I am writing a historical novel. Researching slang words and idioms is also quite enlightening! 

 

  • Websites: Wikipedia is an okay start but I always expand to other websites since Wikipedia is not always accurate or validated. I recommend starting there and then branching off to other reliable website sources. Double check. Find a fact and you’re unsure about? Hop around on the ‘net and verify it. Find academic articles or primary sources. We all have our favorite websites. I will not lie when I say that Mapquest or Google Earth are close seconds to Merriam-Webster. Again, they are stepping stones to lead me to other more time/area-specific mapping resources.

 

  • Libraries: Ah, books. Nothing can beat a book. I have so many favorites, and even though I’ve been knee deep in medieval Scotland for years and consider myself adequately knowledgeable, I still fall back on books. There is always room in my library for another book on lore, customs, clans, names, or life in a medieval castle. This time around as I write the prequel to A Hundred Kisses, I added in Viking and old Norse books and they are absolutely fascinating! Librarians are a great asset, too. Like the museum curators, they are filled with hidden knowledge.

 

  • In person/interviews or experts: Know somebody from the region you're researching or who has expertise in a specific area? They’d probably be more than happy to answer your questions.  Network. Connect. Put fishing poles out on social media. I bet you have a lot of friends and family who are experts in something you need help on. My graduate school thesis adviser and my editor are both from Scotland, so I asked them a few questions about words/phrases. I have a friend who knows all about horses, so she is my horse expert go-to. My father-in-law is an avid sailor who crossed the Atlantic Ocean solo in a sailboat (at the age of 70...yes, that's a story in its own!). I have friends in recovery who know about addiction (applicable to a character I’ve written). I’m a parent of a special needs child. I have relatives who are/were in the military. I connected with authors who live in an area of the country I’ve never traveled to but need to know about for a novel. The list goes on and on. People are a great resource!

I think that covers it. So what do you say…is it time to roll up your sleeves and go a little berserk on some research?

Sláinte,

Jean

Finding Magic and Myths in Scotland

Thistles and heather. Kilts. Castles. Ruins. Craggy mountains. Rain. Lots of rain. Sheep.

Magic. Mystery.

My trip to Scotland fulfilled a bucket list goal and it also fed my imagination for writing about this windswept, mystical place. It was a memorable trip indeed!

When I finally made a trip to Scotland in 2008 after reading books set there (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, or Judy Garwood’s books, anyone?), I was not disappointed. Those books were just teasers. I was going to see the real thing. They don’t call me a Daydream Believer for nothing (although I was not a homecoming queen, but the Monkees got it pretty close). Kilted Highland lairds (and Jamie Frasier), castles, mountains, and enchanting romances…ah, yeah, I was hooked. And as luck would have it, I even married a man with Scottish ancestry, who – drum roll, please – wore a kilt for our wedding (round out with a bagpiper for entertainment). So, for our anniversary a few years later, it only seemed logical to set off on a fairy tale trip. My husband had studied in Scotland for a semester in college, so he brought a wealth of insider knowledge.

Oh, but did I mention that it rains in Scotland? A lot. Even though September is supposed to be a drier month, many of our supposedly breathtaking sights were shrouded in a gray cloud of heavy precipitation. Aside from our mishaps (which I'll elaborate upon in a moment), Scotland fulfilled my preconceived notions, with my own Scottish knight by my side to escort me through the perils of winding highland roads, haunting castle ruins, and dark alleyways to questionable hostels.

Lone sheep wandered down the middle of a meandering country road. Windswept moors, heather fields, and green rolling hills flanked our drives. Wild rocky trails and impressive mountains greeted us on our hikes. Blue lochs were aplenty (yes, Loch Ness is a deep beautiful loch and no, we didn’t see Nessie – but we did see the ghostly remains of Urquhart castle) on our two-week trip in this geological gem of a country. I think I gasped on the tarmac when I emerged from the plane in Glasgow.

My husband and I packed our itinerary because when we go tramping, we set the bar high and want to soak it all in! What can a couple do in less than two weeks? Well…

  • Visit a dozen castles and palaces (Threave castle required a rowboat ride across an overflowed River Dee)

  • Kayak on the astutely named Loch Awe to the ruins of Kilchurn Castle

  • Hike through Highlands and mountains

  • Watch a Highland game

  • Partake in culinary delights such as haggis and fish and chips

  • Carry on conversations with locals (about the upcoming American presidential election)

  • Drive over sketchy bridges to reach Rua Reidh, a lighthouse hostel on the North Minch of Wester Ross (no, not the Westeros of Game of Thrones fame, but I can see the striking similarities)

  • Expand our navigation skills on double-roundabouts (like a figure 8), one lane roads, and left-side driving

  • Meander through abbey and church ruins

  • Take a moment of reflection at the remains of Culloden battlefield

  • Stay at the haunted (yes, there's a ghost) 14th century Borthwick Castle

Certainly there were lows (err, mishaps?)…blowing out a car tire on a rock, getting a manual car instead of an automatic, while driving on the opposite side of the road (it is the UK, after all) – oops!, castles closing before we got there, getting lost on city roads, plodding trough the deluging rain to find a hostel down a dark alley, and hiking a washed out trail through Glencoe, while hundreds of midges made a home in my hair…okay, those are a lot of mishaps for one vacation. Nonetheless, I left Scotland feeling rejuvenated and inspired and ready to take on the next big novel!

The setting in A Hundred Kisses (release date is this spring, stay tuned!) takes my hero and heroine on a journey across Skye (another soaker of a day on our trip – those majestic Cuillin, yeah, they were hidden by rain – thank goodness for internet research). But their journey begins at a signature castle, Eilean Donan, and remarkably, sunshine visited us that day. This castle is as resplendent and utterly romantic as all the pictures portray. We even managed a solo visit right before a tour bus arrived. We didn’t get out to the big islands to see standing stones, so as luck would have it, there’s a bit of that in my novel, too. I did say I have a good imagination (and love research), right? Our visit to Dryburgh Abbey inspired one of my “practice novels” (the manuscript currently sits on my desk for revision, awaiting resurrection as I contemplate throwing a ghost into that story). And magic? What thirteenth-century Scottish romance would be complete without that magical element entrenched in those standing stones and a culture rooted in superstitions (remember Nessie)?

So, how did we do on our Scotland adventure? Thistles and heather – check! Kilts, castles, ruins, craggy mountains, lots of rain, sheep – check!

Magic and mystery?

Checkmate.

Slioch (a view from a hike up Ben Eighe), a thistle, Eilean Donan Castle, and Glencoe.

Slioch (a view from a hike up Ben Eighe), a thistle, Eilean Donan Castle, and Glencoe.