Taking a minute to crow…

It was a journey through my keyboard this month, a journey to 50,000 new words toward as yet unpublished fiction. And, starting Dec. 1, my goal will be to get from the second half of the middle all the way to “The End.”

À bientôt!

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Back on the debate trail

Charleston (left) and Galesburg, Illinois, debate sites. (Sharon’s photos)

A couple of months ago, after I finally took a few photos of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate site in Ottawa, Illinois, and the second one in Freeport, I said I was going to put the seven sites on my “to visit” list. Well, I ticked off two more this month on the way home from a southern road trip.

(Sharon’s photo)

I stopped at Charleston, site of the fourth debate, and Galesburg, site of the fifth debate. No, I’m not taking them in the order they happened. This was the order that worked for my route back home to northern Illinois. I figure I’ll try to do three, six and seven on my next trek south.

And I don’t expect to log as many miles as Lincoln did while he was on the debate circuit. There’s a map of the whole route, including details about how many miles Lincoln covered via train, boat and wagon at the Charleston museum. (Apparently Douglas didn’t keep track as closely.)

My only advance research for the sites was finding them on my GPS. I was expecting small parks, like the surroundings of the two sites I’d already seen. Each of those has some relatively new signs explaining what went on back in 1858. But neither of these sites is in a park.

Charleston’s debate site is at the Coles County Fairgrounds, and its statues of the debaters are the most accessible of the ones I’ve seen so far. They stand at the corner of a little museum that features some hands-on exhibits, as well as a little theater that shows a short film at the press of a button.

(Sharon’s photo)

The political nature of the debates is clear, with red white and blue bunting and colors throughout the room. But the location was considered especially friendly to Lincoln, where his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, and other family members still lived. The local hospital bears her name.

(Sharon’s photo)

In Galesburg (also the home of Carl Sandburg, but that’s another story), the debate was held outside Old Main, a building that was finished in the summer of 1857 on the campus of Knox College. There are no statues to commemorate the debate, but on the east side of the building large, bronze plaques of each candidate frame doorways into the building. (The handicapped entrance is on the west side of the building.)

Inside along the hall, several signs and photos illustrate the history of the college, as well as the significance of the debate. And in a small room on the left from the debate doorway is the Lincoln Chair room. The chair is the one Lincoln sat in while waiting for the debate to begin.

(Sharon’s photo)

The room also houses a collection of memorabilia from the debate, as well as from the life of the 16th president. Across from the doorway sits a detailed miniature of the law office Lincoln shared with William H. Herndon in Springfield, Illinois. There are also a variety of images — posters, photos– and a small statue of Lincoln on a bookshelf.

Historical note: One of Knox College’s graduates was Hiram Rhodes Revels, who would become the first African-American U.S. Senator and the president of Alcorn University in Mississippi.

To the left of the miniature, is the window Lincoln and Douglas climbed through to reach a platform that was built for their debate. It blocked the door between the plaques, making the window the only access for the debaters. The effort, according to a small sign near the window, led to Lincoln’s remark, “At last, I have gone through college.”

À bientôt!

Mississippi stops

No, this isn’t about the state. It’s about the river.

(Photo by Sharon)

On my way home from Bouchercon, the world mystery conference, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, earlier this month, I took a diverting drive along the Mississippi River. I started, obviously enough, in Minnesota on state Highway 26, south from La Crescent, a beautiful little bluffy town across from LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

(Photo by Sharon)

That led me into Iowa, and the little town of Lansing with its steel bridge across the river. You can see from Iowa to Wisconsin on the bridge that sits high across the river, its metal frame ringing under tires warned to go a mere 25 miles an hour while crossing. More about that in a minute.

I saw the bridge initially late in the afternoon on my way to a little motel in Ferryville, Wisconsin. I’d never heard of the town or the motel, but I asked family for suggestions for places to stay on my trip. Turns out the mother of the wife of one my cousins lives in the area and, from her, I learned about the Grandview Motel. (The owners are about ready to retire, in case you want a second career,) It’s the only place I’ve ever stayed where the room instructions include the rules for using the game cleaning station. The place was immaculate, so even if you aren’t hunting ducks or fishing, you might enjoy a sojourn in a place where the vista is 20 miles up and down the Mississippi.

(Photo by Sharon)

I arrived in time to appreciate sunset and outdoor seating, to meet my hostess, Donna, and settle in for a quiet, relaxing evening. Be warned, the steps in and out of the rooms are a bit steep, so this place might not work for people with limited mobility. But I loved my stay and plan to go back for a mini-writing retreat.

Though you can’t see it in the photo, the motel sits up on a little bluff with the highway and railroad tracks lying between the parking lot and the Mississippi. Only the occasional rumbling of a train on the tracks below broke the silence of the night. But I grew up in a town with two rail lines crossing it, so it was a comforting sound.

I’d planned ahead and packed breakfast foods for the morning. — this is also one of the rare motels that doesn’t include a buffet. But, hey, hunters. — I cleaned up and headed back across the river to Lansing, Iowa, where I’d discovered the Allamakee County Conservation Board’s Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center. There, I found another spectacular view of the Mississippi on its front porches — there are two levels. And I learned about the history of settlement in the area from the first Native Americans through more recent history. There were also some wonderful exhibits — including some snakes and frogs — about wildlife in the area. Look for hands-on learning options you — or kids — will enjoy.

(Photo by Sharon)

And there were several exhibits about industry after European settlement, including logging, fishing and button making. A wire basket of “button holes” held the remains of mollusk shells after workers — mostly women — had punched shiny buttons from them. Did you know the buttons were called “mother of pearl” because the shell linings are made of nacre, the same thing that coats the outer layer of pearls? That little museum is another place I plan to revisit.

In the meantime, my list of places to go keeps growing.

À bientôt.

History and mystery

(Sharon’s photo)

My sister has been really getting into genealogy now that she’s retired. She had the bug already, but little time to spend on it.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to take a day trip to our parents’ hometown. That was an easy yes. We grew up about an hour away — serious planning on our father’s part — and spent at least a couple of weekends there every month while we were kids. I estimated once that I spent five years of my first eighteen there on the weekend- and occasional-summer-week-installment plan.

My sister wanted to have lunch with some relatives, stop in a few downtown shops, and — the main event — find the graves of our mother’s great-grandparents.

I didn’t even remember the name of mom’s great-grandparents, although I read a family genealogy once that may have included it. (The focus was on our grandfather’s family.) And I really didn’t have it firmly in my mind that parts of the family had been in Ottawa since the 19th century.

But my sister used an online resource to find their graves. And it turned out they’re in a cemetery neither of us knew we had relatives in.

She had a description of the location and I managed to find a map of the cemetery. Between us, we “orienteered” our way to three, mostly grass-covered slabs over our grandparents and a great-great uncle we’d never heard of.

(Sharon’s graphic)

But that’s just one journey into history I’ve been on lately. The other is a journey through the history of the mystery. A book club I belong to — founded more than 100 years ago to study Shakespeare — is spending several months on the mystery. I offered to do our “opening presentation,” a talk to set the context for our studies.

I mean, I’m writing mysteries. Shouldn’t I know a little about whence they came?

Of course, I knew about Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I’d even heard of Wilkie Collins and Anna Katherine Green and Gaston Leroux. But in the last month, I’ve also met a number of early — and some not-so-early — contributors to what today we call crime fiction.

I find myself doing what I always did when I’ve had to write a paper. I’m getting lost in the research.

I hear my thesis advisor’s voice in my head. “Get out of the library and write!”

I’m on a deadline. I have to be done by Labor Day.

But I just need a little more time in the library.

So it’s back to the past for me.

Home-grown inspiration

Clockwise from top left: Freeport debate memorial; Ottawa debate memorial; Ottawa ‘radium girl’; Dubuque Mark Twain (Sharon’s photos)

There’s no place like home.”

– Dorothy Gale

If it’s fair to define home broadly — as the whole Midwest — I’ve been looking around my back yard a lot lately.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to set some mysteries in the places I know best. I think there’s a lot of hidden charm in areas I can drive to in a day or less. This summer, I started doing serious research in those areas, especially around the upper Mississippi — Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. I’ve made a few trips to collect experiences, maps and tourist publications. I’ve talked to people I’ve met along the way. And I’ve made a point of stopping in places I’ve taken for granted to take pictures of things I usually just pass by.

In Dubuque, Iowa, I sat with Mark Twain on his bench at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Some of my kids had already been there, but I hadn’t. In the few hours I was there, I only got through half the facility. I need to go back for the rest.

I also spent a day with family in Ottawa, Illinois. I have no idea how many times I’ve driven by Washington Park, glanced at the Lincoln-Douglas fountain and statue, but never stopped. This time, my sister and I parked the car and walked to the memorial of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. We took pictures, then strolled out of the park to visit another statue.

Many have read the book Radium Girls by Kate Moore, or seen the play or movie based on the book. My parents grew up in Ottawa, where the story began. And much of the family is still there. In 2011, the city erected a bronze “Radium Girl” at the corner of Clinton and West Jefferson streets, just a few blocks from the park where the debate is memorialized. Local sculptor William Piller created the statue, after his daughter, then in eighth grade, began asking local officials to commemorate the tragedy of the women who died from radiation poisoning after working at the Radium Dial company.

And, having finally stopped to photograph the Ottawa debate site, I decided it was time to do the same in Freeport, which is close to where I live. Debate Square is between the public library and the city’s favorite ice cream shop. On a pleasant summer night, couples sat in benches around the bronze, talking and eating cones.

The site of the second historic debate, the encounter between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas remains significant because that was where Douglas established what would become the “Freeport Doctrine,” an attempt not to eliminate, but to restrict the spread of slavery in U.S. territories. In 2020, Douglas’ statue at the capitol in Springfield, Illinois, came down, while Lincoln’s remained. Still, their debates were an important milestone in history of the state and the nation.

The 1858 debate tour stops were Ottawa on Aug. 21; Freeport, Aug. 27; Jonesboro, Sept. 15; Charleston, Sept. 18; Galesburg, Oct. 7; Quincy, Oct 13; and Alton, Oct. 15. (And that is a clue about which were the important cities in Illinois in the 19th century. Notice anything missing?)

I’ve added visiting the rest of the Illinois debate sites to my “to do” list. Why not? Maybe I’ll write a book set in each town.

All that is to say, I’ve been finding lots of inspiration for stories close to home this summer.