My guest this week is Marcia Melton, whose debut novel, The Boarding House, was just released by Raven Publishing Inc. Although written for middle grade readers, I was caught up in this story of survival. Marcia has captured the flavor of the early 1900s in the rough-and-tumble mining towns of Montana.
The lives of eleven-year-old Emmie Hynes and her twelve-year-old brother, Conrad, are changed forever when a tragic mining accident kills their beloved Papa. Forced to bid a numb farewell to their home and friends in Butte, Montana, they move into a dilapidated boarding house in Philipsburg, a small town across the mountains. When Mama finally gets the boarding house shined up and running smoothly, and Emmie and Conrad are beginning to fit into their new community, a financial crisis threatens them with homelessness. Join Emmie and Conrad in the tumultuous world flavored with political intrigue, the fight for women’s suffrage, dangerous mining practices, and labor conflicts in 1914.
Marcia, congratulations on your young readers’ novel! Tell us where the idea and inspiration came for this book.
I grew up in Montana and for me, it is a place rich in family history and stories. Like many people (no matter where their place of roots is), I wandered to many other places, but now that I am able to spend more time in Montana, the stories are bubbling. There is a vast kaleidoscope of material here for me – both family stories and the stories of Montana in general.
I visited the small town of Philipsburg, Montana, where my great-great grandmother had run a boarding house and lo and behold, the building was still standing! When I stood in front of its weathered wood façade, a story just hopped out!
Why did you decide to write for young readers?
As a child, books and libraries were magical places for me. In the best of times, they held adventures and friends, and in the hardest of times, they held solace. My career was spent as a librarian and a teacher of children’s literature so a children’s book is comfortable territory for me.
I’ve always loved history and historical fiction which can truly resonate and make history come alive for young readers. Stories connect us (readers of all ages) through time to the history that has brought us to “now.”
I certainly can identify with you about the magic of libraries!
How much of the book is realistic?
The setting is in real places – Butte, Philipsburg, Anaconda, and Helena, Montana. The characters are fictional as are many of the events. As happens in writing, I think, I used memories and people from my family for my inspiration, but when I got into it and the story got going, it took on a life of its own and magically galloped along. By then, I was just glad to be along for the ride.
I did thorough research so that the story, dates, and events which occur within the context of the story would be accurate. The backdrop of mining and labor struggles, the suffrage movement, the events of 1914, the State Fair, and Jeannette Rankin’s leadership and speeches in favor of suffrage are all things which I researched to be able to accurately weave them into the story.
In many ways, I feel as though I am always learning to consider this. It is humbling. However, I’ve always like to write. Even in writing journals, letters, poems, and small stories, the hours would fly by and it felt like a special place to be where one could both “tell” and also “reflect.”
My grandfather, who was a small town newspaper columnist and poet for many years in Dillon, Montana, wrote me a letter on my 16th birthday in which he said, “Try to be a writer…[there is] a touch of class there.” I have that letter framed and sitting on my desk. Sixteen to now is, for me, quite a long time. Still trying!
Who/what motivates you to write?
When writing fiction, the best motivation is that feeling of entering another world, somehow crossing an imaginary threshold to see what will happen as the story and the characters take on a life of their own and “become real” (as in The Velveteen Rabbit). Time at one’s desk, or in the old green easy chair where I sit, keeps one world at bay, while another world beckons.
When working on researched writing such as articles, essays, or nonfiction, the interest and learning that comes from research, the treasure hunt aspect, is surely motivating.
Overarching all is that writing gives a way to share and connect with fellow lovers of ideas, books, and stories.
Are there any writers (living or dead) that have influenced you?
In the field of children’s historical fiction, the standard bearers for me are Katherine Paterson, Karen Cushman, Patricia Reilly Giff, Lucy Maude Montgomery, and Deborah Hopkinson. That being said, my all time favorite writer for children is E.B. White and for adults is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
What do you find particularly challenging in writing?
Three words best answer this – Stick To It. I don’t know if having a “wandering mind” is a phenomenon for all writers… but for me, this is both a wonderful blessing and a challenge. Corralling my wandering mind to focus on working on the story at hand, instead of dreaming up new ones can be my biggest hurdle.
Do you have advice for beginning writers?
Those three words “Stick To It” are surely applicable again and at the same time, to follow your dreams and let the stories carry you away. Knowing that there will always be readers out there who need and want to sink into a good story (like we did growing up and all through life). The formats may vary and change, but the power of story-sharing stays the same. It connects us and for all writers, but especially for beginning ones, turning on this light gives a beacon and keeps us on the path. The integrity of staying with the story is first and then one can enter the whole bailiwick of the publishing world with the gem of your story in hand.
There are many publishing avenues available to beginning writers and creative ways to bring one’s words to the public. I felt very grateful to find a fine-quality, small, independent publisher, Raven Publishing, Inc. of Norris, Montana.
Are you working on another project?
Ideas are popping like popcorn and I hope to be able to write more Montana historical fiction for middle grade readers. This summer brought trips to two history-filled places in Montana — Fort Benton with visions of 1860’s steamboats along the levee, and Bannack with gold rush fever. I am hoping some characters and stories await here.
Where is the book available?
The book can be obtained at:
I am a librarian and former teacher of children’s literature. My family roots echo back to the 1880’s in Montana in the Butte, Dillon, Philipsburg, Fort Benton, and Bears Paw mountain country. I have worked in many education settings from Head Start to higher education in Arizona, Montana, and New Zealand. I am glad to now be living back and forth between Arizona and our family cabin by the Gallatin River in Montana.