Ghost towns and 45 treasures. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

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45 Treasures
As I work on my next novel, which is set in 1929-1947, I find myself noticing the ordinary items around my own house that date to that period. Many of them came from my grandparents: a yellow ceramic candy dish with a silver handle; a set of Charles Dickens novels bought one at a time from a salesman on the commuter train  to New York; a cedar hope chest. Our house was builin 1923, so the old glass doorknobs and the cloth-wrapped wiring (yikes!) have been here all along. It’s little details like these that really bring a story to life. Historical novelists have to get them right. At the same time, those details should turn up in the story almost unnoticed, as if glimpsed on a mantelpiece by the reader as she passes by.

            What do you have tucked away in your basement or garage or the back of your closet, or perhaps in a place of honor on a shelf, that dates to the early twentieth century? It occurred to me that if I asked that question, I might get some amazing, quirky and fun answers, and that those answers could help me enter the time of my novel.
            With that in mind, I’ve come up with a project called 45 Treasures. It’s a way for readers to help create the world of my next historical novel. What treasure do you have, circa 1900-1945, that you would be willing to share in a photo via e-mail? I’m looking for ordinary household items, clothing, furniture, the kinds of things you’d find in shop windows. I would love to see any treasures you have related to photography or dentistry as well.
            Here’s the best part: I’ll choose 45 of them to include in the novel itself. Your treasure might be one of them!
            The 45 Treasures project will be housed on Pinterest, but you don’t have to use Pinterest to “play.” Just send me via e-mail (KLCzepiel at a photo of your favorite household treasure, circa 1900-1945. Feel free to include a little description--just a sentence or two--about the treasure you’ve shared, and let me know whether I can include your first name when I post it on Pinterest.  (If you’re a Pinterest user, simply follow me. I’ll follow back and you can send me your photo there.) Want to see other people’s treasures as they gather? Here’s the link: can’t wait to see what treasures turn up!


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December 2, 2013
Tea fundraiser, 2:00 p.m.
Estuary Council of Seniors
Old Saybrook, CT

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Welcome to Lulu City!
        Over the summer, our family took a big road trip from Denver to San Francisco, by way of ten national parks. Of course, I couldn’t resist doing a little bit of writing research along the way. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, I dragged the whole crew—family and friends—on a hike to Lulu City, a mining ghost town hidden nearly four miles up the Colorado River Valley on the western side of the Continental Divide. This same hike figures in a chapter of my second novel (still untitled), and I wanted to be able to describe it accurately. The motivation that kept the kids going over all eight miles was, I think, partly to be able to say they were on the hike that will be in the book. (Now it has to be!)
            What we discovered when we got to Lulu City was, as we had been told, not so much a ghost town as a meadow beside the headwaters of the Colorado River. A moose grazed not far away, dunking her head in a creek to collect weeds off its bottom. We ate our lunch of grapes and sandwiches and wandered around, looking for remnants of the busy mountain town that once stood here. According to the National Park Service, Lulu City was occupied for only five years, from 1879 to 1884, with a peak population of around 200. Most likely named in honor of the daughter of miner Benjamin Burnett, who had a claim in the valley, Lulu City was nineteen streets long and four streets wide and included, among other amenities, a clothing store, a barber shop, an assay office, a hardware store, two sawmills, several grocery and liquor stores, a butcher shop, a post office, a saloon, the Godsmark and Parker Hotel, and a red light district consisting of two cabins. In the summer of 1880, “town lots sold rapidly for twenty to fifty dollars each, and hundreds of miners explored the surrounding hills.” But the dreams of great silver ore to be found never quite materialized, and by the fall of 1883 most of Lulu City’s settlers had abandoned her. The Colorado Miner wrote in 1884 that “the bears and mountain lions have taken possession of the boys’ houses and old, discarded overalls and gumboots, and are running a municipal government of their own, to wit; using all their efforts to restore Lulu to its primeval status.”
            We found some sunken areas with newer growth that looked suspiciously like old foundations, and I chanced upon one three-sided cabin, three logs high, hidden in the boughs of a pine tree that had grown up around it. In truth, it may have been not a cabin, but an old grizzly bear trap. On our way back down the trail, my friend Bill called us off onto a little spur. He had found an upended mining cart in the trees, probably a relic of the old Shipler Mine, whose tailings can still be seen along the trail.
            I’m not sure why I (and so many other people) find ghost towns so fascinating. I guess it’s partly the way they put us face-to-face with time itself, with what happens when humans walk away and how quickly all the trappings of our lives can vanish. It’s pretty difficult to stand in that grassy meadow, interrupted by young pine trees and flanked by the nascent Colorado River, and imagine a lively town of several hundred people.
            Imagination itself is a funny thing. As a writer, I access it all the time, yet I took that hike because I know that my imagination is never as good as the real thing. I lived in Colorado for six years, and I’ve hiked my share of Rocky Mountain trails. I could look at some photos of the Lulu City trail online, read about its history, and make up some stuff. But if my characters are going to walk that trail, I know that walking it myself will bring to the story the kinds of details I wouldn’t otherwise imagine: a marmot running ahead of us through the dust, a yellow snow buttercup casting its own shadow on a tiny chunk of granite, a mighty river so narrow you can jump across it, so shallow you can wade in it and keep your shins dry.  
Source: Kaye, Glen. “Lulu City: Colorado River Trail.” Rocky Mountain Nature Association, 1983.


I just read. . .

Pam Houston’s wild and quirky Contents May Have Shifted. This is classic Houston: tough woman with a soft heart stumbles through wild adventures involving grizzly bears, plane crashes, and the wrong men. All of Houston’s work is semi-autobiographical, even though the label on a tiny, heart-shaped cloud on the cover of this book calls it, somewhat timidly, “a novel.” Regardless, this is not your typical novel. Instead, it is a series of 144 vignettes (because, Houston says in an essay at the end of the paperback edition, she thinks in twelves). Most of the vignettes are labeled by place, ranging from her home in Creede, Colorado to her home-away-from-home in Davis, California to her travel destinations in Tibet, Turkey, Mexico, Laos, and more. The rest of the vignettes are labeled by flight, beginning with “UA #368,” which turns around and heads back to Sydney, Australia after a fuel system failure. The entire terminal is evacuated in advance of its landing, just in case the plane explodes on impact and its passengers are “reduced to fuel dust and ash.” Obviously, they are not. (And obviously, if you are a somewhat nervous flyer like I am, you should not take this book on a plane with you.) Like overhead baggage, the contents of the life of the fictional version of Houston, also named “Pam,” are constantly shifting as she navigates not only her seemingly endless geographical travels but, more importantly, the travels of her own mind and heart. At its core, this piece is a 21st-century Thoreauvian meditation on whether we really need to travel at all, or whether we might learn and live just as much if we stayed in one place and explored the boundless countries of our selves.
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Copyright © Kathy Leonard Czepiel