I recently returned from a book tour in northeastern Pennsylvania where my novel, The Common Hours, takes place. My arrival in Pennsylvania was timed with peak fall foliage, something which I had not seen since leaving the state in 2001. It was not only a visit to my past, it was a revisiting of the sights, sounds, and smells of a place far removed from my home in Phoenix Arizona.
The day after my arrival I headed to 4th street in Williamsport where Otto’s Bookstore was hosting me for a book signing during Williamsport’s monthly first friday event. A misting rain and temperatures in the 40’s gave a classic feeling of fall. Throughout the evening people ducked inside the bookstore to take respite from the temperatures and to treat themselves to the hot cocoa, apple cider, and donuts provided by the bookstore owners. Sometimes customers would make their way over to my table to look at my books or to tell me local folklore and other tales of history. Otto’s Bookstore itself has a long history which began in 1841 as a store selling wallpaper and books. Phoenix is populated by newcomers, whereas the residents of rural Pennsylvania have generally lived in the same place one generation after another. Life and stories are passed down through the years and storytelling is a rich tradition in the Pennsylvania culture. Although my book is fiction, it dates to 1888-1889 in the Williamsport and the Pine Creek areas. During the event, I felt a strong connection to the history of Millionaire’s Row just up the street from the bookstore, and all the places and events around me which dated back to that time.
The next morning was a rainy Saturday. I had forgotten how the damp air formed a foggy ring on the windows and how eventually the rain would drip down the surface of the glass pane creating an abstract view of the world outside. It was a day to snuggle on the couch with one of my mothers home-made quilts and to sip coffee and read.
On Monday I hiked into the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon with my parents, who were providing my housing during the tour. It was a dark foggy morning when we left the house. I couldn’t tell if were under a heavy fog or under the potential threat of another rainy day. When I tried checking my phone for a weather update I couldn’t receive enough reception to load the information. By the time we reached the edge of the canyon the sun was burning through the fog. Dense strips of puffy white clouds were rising from the Pine Creek far below.
After a few pictures we hiked downhill into the dark forest. We were the first visitors of the day. The only sound was the occasional scurry of a squirrel in the leaves. Our footsteps were quieted on the blanket of pine needles, and damp leaves which coated the ground. Then we neared a stream where the water plunged off rock ledges on its way to the Pine Creek at the bottom of the canyon (or gorge, as the locals call it). The sound of the falls dominated our senses. When we reached the Pine Creek my father saw a bald eagle fly over. I put my camera down to follow my fathers direction to see the eagle, but it was already gone. Fortunately I would see a bald eagle later in the week. After a rest we hiked back out of the canyon. We drove home on dirt roads, passing a sugar shack where maple lines tapped into a tree ran to a large tank near a small wooden shack. We saw cornfields, barns, wild turkey and deer, under a clear blue sky.
My mother and me left early Tuesday to head toward Clarks Summit for an event I had at Summit University on Wednesday. We routed our trip to take us by Rickett’s Glen State Park where we planned to spend the majority of the day. The fog remained thick all morning as we hiked the trails in the glen. It was perfect conditions for photographing the many waterfalls in the park. At one point I mentioned maybe one of my characters would honeymoon here. My mother wanted to know if it would be Mat and Sarah. I smiled. I wouldn’t reveal any secrets about the novel today.
After four and 1/2 hours of hiking and photographing, we had seen 11 of the 20+ waterfalls in the park. I showed my exhaustion more than my mother; she was quiet, but I groaned out load every time we climbed a hill. Following our hike we stopped at a general store where we treated ourselves to ice cream which we ate while sitting on a wooden swing on the store’s front patio. Our scenery was farmland in the glow of late afternoon light.
Wednesday was my event at Summit University. This was the place I met friends I still keep in touch with; this was the place I met my husband (of 24 years now). I sat in the coffee shop at the university, with my books on a table, greeting many new faces and seeing a couple of old ones too. My favorite, and unexpected, part of this event were the literature students who came in asking if they could talk to me about writing. In depth questions and conversations continued throughout the event. I was exhausted but it had been a rich experience.
Early Thursday I left pre-dawn to drive through dense fog to my former high school, Walnut Street Christian School. I drove over hills and around many curves, stopping once for wild turkey crossing the road. The sun rose over the mountains, slowly lighting the west hills and creeping down into the valleys. I arrived at my school. It had been 27 years since being here. Mr. Longnecker, my high school English teacher, now the principal, recognized me as soon as I walked in. A table had been put in the lobby, decorated with pumpkins and a lace doily. The school had sold 49 books ahead of my visit. Someone brought me coffee. I got comfortable and started signing books. Then I taught the high school English class. I shared some of the humorous things I learned while writing a historical fiction and the students asked questions they had prepared ahead of time. In 1988 I graduated from here in a class of 4. One of the three boys I graduated with came from his work to visit me, and we reminisced. It was the closest thing to a class reunion I would ever experience and I suspect more meaningful. I spent the afternoon with my high school best friend who remained my best friend in college. Twenty some years had passed and we found our journeys in life had taken eerily similar paths in life. A renewed friendship had just begun.
On the last day of my trip I visited the Pine Creek gorge area where I grew up, and the area where John Richardson and his daughter Sarah (in my novel) moved. My parents came with me. The colors had been changing throughout my visit and the leaves were now at peak. A narrow single lane road hugged a cliff wall on one side and dove down to the Pine Creek far below us on the other side. We drove down into the town of Slate Run where we stopped at Wolfe’s General Store. They were excited to hear I had written a book which took place in their small town. Three books sold before the manager had time to write a check for the books. The manager wanted to know if I could come back the next day, but my flight was leaving early the next morning. They put extra copies on their bookshelves to sell.
We left to explore the rest of the town. I wanted to see the hotel across the creek which had been the inspiration behind Aunt Virginia and Uncle Harold’s hotel and restaurant in the novel.
We drove to the graveyard behind the hotel, walked along a stream which Uncle Harold and John had hunted. My mother looked at the mountains at one point and asked me where Matthew Stephens home was (except she referred to him as Mat). We talked and speculated for awhile about my fictional characters.
We left town heading further south on the Pine Creek. We stopped at the church in Jersey Mills where my father had pastored in my teen years, visited the parsonage, and walked the path along the creek where The Common Hours had begun to form in my teen mind many years ago. I found it overgrown and darker than my memories. Some acquaintances sent us to the Waterville Fire House where we would find friends I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Preparations were underway for the Apple Butter Festival taking place the following day. Apples were piled on tables, and everyone was peeling and cutting apples, and telling stories to each other.
Word got around quickly that I had written a novel which took place along the Pine Creek. Everyone purchased a book and wanted to know if I could come back with books for the festival. I couldn’t, but my parents agreed to return with books. I was intrigued with the process of preparing apple butter and the experience of the atmosphere in that fire hall.
The rest of the day was spent enjoying the scenery in the valley. I was saying goodbye once again.
It was time to return to my family in Arizona and to write book two, The Waking Hours.
Author of The Common Hours