Archive for the ‘Secrets in the Hills’ Category

Secrets In The Hills

July 28, 2013


Secrets In The Hills

When my editor at American Girl asked if I’d like to write a mystery about Josefina, I was delighted! This project combined several of the things that I love to learn about:  history, people with different cultural backgrounds, and an intriguing and beautiful landscape.

I started by reading all of the existing Josefina books. It was essential that I be respectful of the wonderful writing done by Valerie Tripp, who created Josefina.

Then I began reading about New Mexico history. But before going too far into my research, I needed to travel to New Mexico and experience Josefina’s terrain myself.

My first stop was El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a wonderful living history museum near Santa Fe, Mexico.


I knew that a visit to El Rancho de las Golondrinas would give me a great glimpse of what Josefina’s rancho would have looked like.


The historic rancho dates from the early 1700s, and was an important stopping point along the famous Camino Real, the Royal Road from Mexico City to Santa Fe.


These are the kind of carts traders used. The wooden wheels made so much noise that they could be heard for miles!


The house was built around an inner courtyard. These domed bake ovens are called hornos.


Visiting the site let me soak in all kinds of details, and made it easy to imagine Josefina’s home. (El Rancho De Las Golondrinas photo.)


I found the strings of hot peppers called ristras so beautiful and interesting that I wrote them into a scene.


A guide demonstrated how an old loom worked. (This style of loom is different than the Navajo loom Teresita uses in the Josefina books.) The weaver works standing up.


Aren’t these colors beautiful? They were created with natural dyes.


This is an acequia flume, used to get water where residents needed it to be. (El Rancho De Las Golondrinas photo.)

Next, I went exploring.  The New Mexico landscape is very different from what I know at home in Wisconsin! I took several hikes, imagining Josefina traveling with her aunt to look for medicinal plants.


I was so impressed with some of the rock formations I saw that I decided to use one as a clue in the story. This photograph was taken late in the day, and doesn’t do justice to the beauty.

I visited several very old churches so I could study the architecture and construction styles.


How does this adobe compare to the materials used to construct old buildings in your area? What resources were available?


If you’ve read Secrets in the Hills, you already know that a gravestone in the churchyard plays a role in the mystery.

While in New Mexico I also visited several traditional museums. The old postcard below shows the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, which is now full of exhibits about the region’s history and culture.


This adobe structure was originally constructed in the early 17th century, and used by the Spanish government in what is now the American Southwest.  (Wikipedia photo.)

The hand-made malacate (spindle for spinning wool) described in Secrets in the Hills is just like an old one on display in Santa Fe.

I found more inspiration in New Mexico than I could fit into one book. Why not try writing an historical story set in your community? Visit an historic site or museum and see what sparks your imagination!

American Girl and Me

May 17, 2012

I know lots of American Girl fans are eager to learn more about the new Historical Character coming this fall. Since I created the character, I am too! Her name was announced this week:

I had a marvelous time writing six books about Caroline. While I can’t tell you anything more about her yet, I can answer one of the most common questions I hear from readers:  “How did you get started writing for American Girl?”

Actually, I first connected with American Girl long before anyone at the company knew that I was a writer! When the first books and dolls were introduced in 1986, I was working as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large outdoor museum. During the day I got all kinds of hands-on experience with historical activities, from gardening to cooking to crafts. I also had the fun of conducting research to support new events and programs at the museum.

That’s me working at one of the Norwegian farms at Old World Wisconsin.

In the evenings, I wrote historical novels. During those early years I was practicing, learning the skills I needed to be a successful writer. And I had big dreams about that!

While American Girl was developing its first Historical Characters, I got a few telephone calls from researchers at the company. They called me because I was a curator, not knowing that I was very interested in writing historical stories. Sometimes the researcher was looking for a particular antique to use as a model for an object in one of the stories. In each case, I would check the antiques in Old World Wisconsin’s collection to see if we had something that might be helpful. If so, I’d take a photograph and send it to American Girl.

Some of old objects are on display at Old World Wisconsin.  Many more are kept in storage.

Once or twice someone from American Girl read me a short paragraph from one of the stories being developed. They wanted to see if the specific details about some process or activity were accurate. I could tell that everyone involved with American Girl cared a lot about getting the details right.

Whenever I got one of those calls, I was happy to help. And each time I hung up the phone I’d think, I’d love to write American Girl stories one day!

After working at Old World Wisconsin for twelve years, I moved on and took a job developing programs for public television. I was still writing in my spare time, and in 1996, my first historical novel was published.

Soon after that, editors at American Girl decided to develop a new line of books called History Mysteries. Someone who worked at the company knew of my interest in historical fiction, and she recommended me. The editor in charge of the History Mysteries called and asked if I’d like to try writing one. That call was a huge surprise.

Of course I said yes!

That was the first time I tried writing a mystery.  It took me a couple of attempts to get the story put together well, but in time American Girl accepted my manuscript.

This was my first book written for American Girl. The main character, Suzette, lives in northern Wisconsin

Later I wrote two more History Mysteries, Whistler in the Dark and Betrayal at Cross Creek.  After Betrayal at Cross Creek was published, the company ended the History Mystery series.

The editors knew how much readers were enjoying the historical mysteries, though. They decided to publish mysteries about the main Historical Characters. My editor invited me to write a mystery about Kit.

It was a real privilege to write a story about such a beloved character! I worked hard to develop a story that fit well with the first six Kit books. I traveled to Cincinnati to learn as much as I could about Kit’s time and setting.

Danger at the Zoo was the first book I wrote about one of American Girl’s Historical Characters.

In time I also wrote a second Kit mystery, as well as mysteries about Josefina, Kirsten, and Molly. (You can find stories and pictures about all these books on my website:

This is my most recent American Girl book. It was fun to write a story about Molly!

I was having a fine time writing these books.  Then, one day, I got another telephone call from American Girl.  Editors were ready to plan a new Historical Character.  Would I be interested in writing the books?

Of course I said yes!

Next month, I’ll share a bit about how that project developed.  Stay tuned….