When I was five, my parents did something surprising. Though neither had grown up on a farm, they decided to buy the old Clopton place, which was somewhere out in the country, near a tiny town called Gloucester, Virginia—a town my brother and sister and I had never heard of before. Suddenly, we found ourselves moving across the wide York River— miles away from our tidy little rancher in a neighborhood full of kids—to a large rundown farmhouse on 65 rambling acres. I still remember lying out in front of the buckled porch with its rotten boards, watching the knee-high grass sway above me in the wind and wondering, “Are Mom and Dad crazy?”
But gradually the magic of the place took hold. While my father cleared brush and built fences and my mother planted a vegetable garden and painted over the peculiar shade of green on the farmhouse walls, my brother and sister and I explored. There was a weather-beaten cottage out back that had once served as slave quarters. There were sandy-bottomed streams and acres of woods for fort building. . . .
Sometimes I think my fascination with old things began in those woods. Scraps of history turned up everywhere. Playing among our forts one day, I rolled over a mossy log, intending to use it for a bench, and uncovered a treasure load of antique household items dating from the 1800s—a huge key, miniature medicine bottles, a fork with a bone handle, and shards of pottery decorated with delicate blue designs. I thought I had discovered artifacts fit for the Smithsonian.
My parents agreed to rent a metal detector on occasion and over the years we accumulated an entire collection of interesting remnants from the blacksmith, wagon and coffin-maker’s workshops that had once occupied our land. More history was waiting to be discovered beyond our property lines, in the handful of abandoned houses and barns that used to be scattered across the Virginia countryside. My sister and I, along with our cousin visiting from the city, spent summers daring each other to venture inside those haunted-looking buildings covered in vines and brambles. Before long I forgot to be afraid. I was too busy searching the rooms for old letters or newspapers, pieces of furniture, any clue I could find to help me solve the mystery of who might have lived there and why they had left.
With so many sparks to set my imagination on fire, maybe I was bound to become a writer. In elementary school my best friend and I wrote for fun, churning out co-authored booklets of poetry, a novel about a witch named Agatha that filled up an entire spiral notebook, and our own version of Greek myths with made-up gods and goddesses. Creative writing and literature continued to be my favorite courses throughout high school, then college at the University of Virginia.
After graduation, I found an editorial job with a tiny publishing firm in Seattle, Washington, where my husband was beginning his medical residency program. There I was in charge of improving other people’s writing for an unpredictable variety of projects, ranging from a beginner’s guide to the little-known Olympic sport of racewalking to a collection of tales told by survivors of bear attacks in Alaska. While the subjects weren’t always my favorites, this grab-bag of editorial work provided great training for an amazing opportunity that unfolded just after my first daughter was born—the chance to write a non-fiction book for young readers about the Klondike Gold Rush.
Suddenly I was traveling to the Yukon Territory in Canada to search for information about the goldseekers who risked their lives and flocked to this remote region to find fortune during the late 1890s. Although Gold! A Klondike Adventure is no longer in print, this project opened the way for creating more books where my love of words and imagining and “old things” could come together.
Now I live in Iowa City, Iowa with my husband and three daughters. The office where I write looks down on a bend in a river. Although my house isn’t very old, we have eight acres to explore and plenty of woods for fort-building. I’ve also spotted a few places in the woods that look as if a metal detector might turn up a treasure or two.