dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

It’s parent-conference week at school, and I’m a little stressed …

So I’m going to cheat a little and revisit a blog post from over a year ago — an explanation for the volcano at the top of my blog. That particular volcano means something to me. It represents a break-through in writing: the discovery that sometimes, in order to tell your story, you have to let your characters discover themselves and show you the way.

People who are familiar with We Hear the Dead may have guessed – that’s Dr. Elisha Kane’s volcano. Not his personal volcano, of course, but the one he explored as a young, impulsive adventurer and the one which almost cost him his life.

On the island of Luzon in the Philippines, there’s a freshwater lake called Taal Lake. The active Taal Volcano lies in the middle of that lake, and inside the volcano is a smaller lake (called Crater Lake) which contains its own tiny island, called Vulcan Point. That’s right: an island in a lake in a volcano in a lake on an island. Have you got it?

In 1844, while traveling in the Philippines, the impetuous young Kane descended by a vine rope into the gaping maw of Taal Volcano to investigate the chemical composition of the lake within. Once he reached the interior …

No, I’m not going to tell you the whole story. Elisha Kane tells it himself in We Hear the Dead, but I will let you know this much: Readers have told me that this is the point in the story when they fell a little in love with the dashing explorer. The same goes for my heroine Maggie Fox … and probably for me, too.

More importantly, this was also the point in my writing where the character of Elisha Kane developed his voice and his personality. Up to that point, I’d had trouble wrapping my head around this man. He was my romantic lead, but the real Kane had some traits that were going to be hard to portray sympathetically. Not to worry – Elisha burst onto stage, fixed his sights on Maggie Fox, and firmly took control of the story, steering it in a direction I never intended to go.

He was a strong-willed young man in real life. His fictional version ended up no different. I wasn’t able to complete the writing of this novel until I let Kane take me where he wanted to go.

Where are your characters taking you?

I’ve been practicing all week for this weekend’s reading at Dorian’s Parlor. Actually, you could say I started practicing last weekend, when my husband and I learned how to dress me up in my costume. Yes, it took two of us. All those movies you’ve seen where a servant or a sister has to lace up the heroine’s corset while she hangs on to the bed post? Completely accurate! The part you don’t usually see in the movies is the husband using Google to figure out how to lace up the corset in the first place.

After I got into the corset and skirt, I had to get into the car – not that easy a task when your body doesn’t bend normally, and thank heavens I wasn’t driving! Bob drove me to my mother’s, because she claimed she’d put together the perfect hat to go with my outfit. And wow, she was right!

Do you want to see a picture?

Well, sorry. You’re going to have to wait for the unveiling at the steampunk ball. I’ll probably post on Twitter and Facebook during the event – and then blog about it on Monday. (Oh, wait a minute. I’ll have no place to keep my Droid, I just realized. Maybe Bob will hold it for me?)

I’ve also been practicing my reading. I decided to focus on Maggie Fox’s beaux, Philadelphia native, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. After all, he’s buried just a couple miles away from where we’ll be. I only have ten minutes, which is perfect for reading the story of how he fell through the ice with his sled dogs. Hopefully, the audience will appreciate that most of the story is told in his own words (although my editors made me trim him down – they found him too wordy, LOL!).

Speaking of Dr. Kane, my husband will be in costume, too, and he asked the costumers to get him something as close to Kane’s naval uniform as possible. I didn’t get to see the fitting, so the whole ensemble will be a surprise to me tomorrow.

I can hardly wait, although I am a little nervous. I keep envisioning the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Elizabeth can’t breathe in her corset and falls off the parapet …

So, it’s all set:

Saturday, November 27 at the Doubletree Hotel in Center City, Philadelphia, I’ll be reading from We Hear the Dead and leading a Q/A session at a “Dress-to-the-Nines, Steampunk, Neo-Victorian, Black-Tie” evening – in full 19th century costume!

How did I end up here?

Well, it starts like this: A man and his wife go into a corset shop …

Yeah, I know it sounds like a dirty joke, but it’s true. My husband took me to Philadelphia for a surprise shopping trip last month, on the hunt for a nineteenth century-type costume. The wonderful staff at Passional were not only able to help us put together an outfit, they suggested we check out Dorian’s Parlor, a monthly steampunk extravaganza held just down the street. Passional apparently outfits a number of steampunk enthusiasts and has a regular vendor table at the event. Even though We Hear the Dead is not steampunk, they seemed confident the subject matter would be of interest to the Dorian crowd.

(Of course, the romantic lead of WHTD, intrepid Arctic explorer Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, was a Philadelphia native and rests eternally within the city limits. See my blog post about visiting his tomb here.)

My promotional staff (ie: Bob) contacted Gil Cnaan, one of the organizers of Dorian’s Parlor, and before I knew it, the two of them had booked me on stage – in corset – to do a formal reading. I am psyched! When I learned that the evening’s entertainment will also include a showing of the animated short film The Tesla Experiment: Twain in Vain, I knew it had to be another SIGN!

Dorian’s Parlor was recently named the Ultimate Geeky Getaway by Geekadelphia. Well, with my lovely new outfit, at least I’ll be dressed in appropriate Geek Chic … Pictures to come, I promise!

The next entry in my series of intriguing Pennsylvania graves (caged graves, the ticking tomb, multiple graves for Anthony Wayne) is a salute to Dr. Elisha Kane, the romantic hero of my novel, We Hear the Dead.

Located in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in the middle of Philadelphia, this mausoleum is the resting place of the most beloved adventurer of the mid-19th century, as well as a few of his relatives. I made a pilgrimage to see it when I reached the conclusion of my first draft.

When I say the middle of Philadelphia, I mean right smack in the middle of a tough neighborhood. When my husband and I wandered into the cemetery office, we were greeted by a girl behind a bullet proof window. She nodded knowledgably when we explained that we were there to see Kane’s grave, and circled the location on a map, which she slid through a crack in the glass. “You can’t get to the tomb,” she said. “You’ll have to look through the fence.” We stared at her in disbelief, disappointed and rather confused. “It’s for your own safety,” she explained. “You’ll see.”

We followed the map through the cemetery and eventually reached a tall, chain-link fence. Walking along the length of it, still confused, we eventually spotted the Kane tomb — and yes, we could see the girl’s point. The dark stone monument is built into the side of a steep hill and partly obscured by grass covering the entire roof. A narrow stone path leads down to the entrance, but one false step and a visitor could tumble headlong down the rocky incline and onto East River Drive. A couple of bounces and – assuming he wasn’t hit by a speeding car – the unlucky visitor might roll off the highway, plummet down another few hundred feet, and plunge into the Schuykill River. It’s a precarious location for a mausoleum to say the least, although it commands a stunning view.

I had come out of curiosity and to pay my respects, but once I’d seen the tomb’s location, I knew I would have to re-write one of the scenes in my book to better match reality. According to historical record, Elisha Kane took Maggie Fox to visit his family mausoleum as part of a romantic carriage ride during their courtship. Supposedly, he pointed out the tomb as his future resting place and informed her that the future Mrs. Kane would rest there as well. He was, of course, broadly hinting she was under consideration for that choice slab of granite!

A romantic date in a graveyard. What a guy! All right, blog readers, here’s a question for you – have you ever had a romantic interlude in a cemetery? Or, alternatively, have you ever been on a date to a place stranger than this?

Astute blog readers might notice that the picture above does not look as if it were taken through a fence. I’m not going to reveal how that was done, but I will mention that if you are serious about keeping people on one side of a fence, you should spring for a padlock instead of just looping a loose chain around the bars of the gate.

As soon as the press discovered that gentleman adventurer Elisha Kane was courting the spirit medium Maggie Fox, newspapers scrambled to print the story, reporting sightings of them together, repeating gossip, and even following Dr. Kane on the street in the hopes of catching them together.

This 19th century version of paparazzi-type journalism attracted some criticism from high-minded people. Horace Greeley (who happened to be a friend of the Fox family) even wrote an editorial denouncing it, saying: “What right has the public to know anything about an ‘engagement’ or non-engagement between these two people? Whether they have been, are, may be, are not, or will not be ‘engaged’ can be nobody’s business but their own.” 

Were they engaged? Well, if Facebook had existed in the 1850’s, Maggie would have posted her status as “In a Relationship,” while Kane would undoubtedly have said “It’s Complicated.”

Both families opposed the match. Maggie’s family knew that Elisha was well above her station, and they expected him to break her heart and ruin her reputation. In addition, Elisha was outspoken in his contempt for spiritualism, and his intrusion into their life threatened to disrupt the family business. “The only thing that gives me fear,” Kane wrote, “is this confounded thing being found out!” Meanwhile, the aristocratic Kane family was appalled that their eldest son had taken up with a spirit rapper. Their biggest fear was that he might actually marry her, and they raged against him for his low taste and lack of discretion.

With all the world against them, it’s a wonder that Maggie and Elisha had any enjoyment from their relationship at all. Yet, their surviving letters paint a picture of two young people passionately in love – teasing, flirting, sometimes arguing – and yet hopelessly attracted in spite of their relative unsuitability. “Am I not correct when I say you are an enigma past finding out?” Maggie wrote to Kane. “You know I am!” Their love affair presented each of them with a personal dilemma, forcing them to choose between family loyalties and romantic attraction – and between their respective careers and love.

Perhaps it’s time to introduce the love interest in We Hear the Dead. He’s not the typical boyfriend you find in a YA novel, although I’m pretty sure women did swoon over him. In fact, Elisha Kent Kane was one of the most beloved celebrities of the 19th century: a doctor, an explorer, a scientist, a writer, a world traveler, and a military hero who combined the flair of Indiana Jones with the science of Jacques Cousteau.

Born into an illustrious Philadelphia family, Kane nearly didn’t make it to adulthood due to an illness that almost killed him in his late teens. Young Kane’s reaction to his near-death experience was to throw himself headlong into a life of adventure worthy of a dime novel.

Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree, Kane traveled extensively in Asia and Africa. In the Philippine Islands, he performed his first feat of derring-do — rappelling down the gaping mouth of a live volcano. (Yes, the volcano in the picture at the top of this blog!)

Upon his return to the U.S., Kane secured an officer’s commission in the Mexican-American War. On the field, Kane defeated a Mexican detachment, but afterward clashed with his commanding officer over the treatment of their prisoners.(Kane was against slaughtering them!) He narrowly escaped a court-martial, but he returned to Philadelphia a hero, the darling of the press.

Still, it was his role in Arctic exploration that made Elisha Kane truly famous. His first foray into the frozen north occurred when he served as ship’s surgeon on the U.S. Grinnell Expedition in search of the missing British explorer, Sir John Franklin. Although the expedition didn’t find any trace of Franklin’s men, Kane returned afire with the exploration bug. He threw himself into the lecture circuit to raise money for the next expedition, which he was destined to command. Kane attracted crowds all across the country with his enthralling tales of adventure in the north.

But no celebrity is complete without a romantic scandal, and Kane was no exception. Maggie Fox burst into the limelight in 1848 with a talent for contacting the dead, manifesting mysterious messages from spirits. Kane was no Spiritualist, but he fell helplessly in love with the enigmatic Miss Fox and began to court her with an enthusiasm he had heretofore reserved for his career.

And Elisha Kane was used to getting what he wanted.

To Be Continued …