The Power of Place in Researching Ranger in Time: Long Road to Freedom

Writing the Ranger in Time books is a dream job for a long list of reasons. I get to spend my days making up adventures for a time-traveling golden retriever. I write for amazing, enthusiastic readers who devour chapter books like M&Ms. And every time I send Ranger off on a new adventure in history, it feels like I get the chance to time travel, too. I read piles of books and devour diaries, journals, letters, and newspaper articles from each time period Ranger visits. I tend to save my favorite part of the research for last — the field trips.

When I was working on Rescue on the Oregon Trail, I traveled to Independence, Missouri, a jumping-off point for the Oregon Trail, to see where Ranger would have met the Abbott family for the first time. Danger in Ancient Rome sent me overseas to explore the ruins of the Roman Colosseum and Ludus Magnus gladiator school where Marcus and Quintus trained.  

The third book in the series, Ranger in Time: Long Road to Freedom, is the story of two enslaved children who escape from a tidewater Maryland tobacco plantation and make their way north in search of safety and freedom.

Ranger #3 Final Cover

Ranger travels with Sarah and Jesse through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont. I decided that the best way to gather details from all those settings was to plan a road trip that traced my characters’ imaginary journey, so in the summer of 2014, my daughter and I flew to Philadelphia, rented a car, and drove south to the Mount Harmon plantation in tidewater Maryland, where we’d arranged a tour. This planation became the model for the Bradley planation in Long Road to Freedom. 



So often, details of a site visit help to inspire the plots for my Ranger in Time books. That’s why a creekside tobacco prize house, where tobacco is packed in barrels for shipping, plays an important role in Long Road to Freedom.



The plantation house at Mount Harmon has a widow’s walk, where someone could spot an approaching boat. That scribble in my notebook became a plot element, too.


From Maryland, Sarah and Jesse escape through Odessa, Delaware to Philadelphia. My daughter and I explored real-life settings like William Still’s house and the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, and I took notes on details that I thought Sarah and Jesse might notice, too. 



From there, Sarah and Jesse make their way to Albany and end up, for a time, at Rokeby, a farm owned by the Robinson family in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. That farm is a museum now and tells the story of two real-life enslaved men who found their way north to Vermont in the 1800s. Interestingly enough, the “hidden rooms” that we hear about in many Underground Railroad stories are nowhere to be found here. Vermont was a free state, and historians say it was no secret that the Robinson family, who were powerful land owners, were helping and employing people who had escaped from their enslavers. Some of those men reportedly slept in a not-so-secret room above the kitchen and worked openly in the fields and with the sheep, alongside the other workers.


RobinsonSheepDip2 RobinsonSheepDip

Across Lake Champlain, in Northern New York, it was a different story. In early 19th century Clinton County, historians believe that about a third of people were against slavery, about a third were pro-slavery, and a third wanted nothing to do with the whole issue. That meant that abolitionists who did help escapees had to do so more in secret. This barn owned by the Keese Smith family, documented abolitionists, does indeed have a secret room that might have been used as a hiding place.

NY Barn


I spent some time in this damp, cobwebby space with my notebook, soaking up the details and imagining what it would have been like on a dark night, with cows walking over the boards on the floor above. 

As I read and research and travel and read some more, elements of the story take shape, and then it becomes even more fascinating to try and see all these places through my characters’ eyes. You’ll recognize some of these settings if you read Ranger in Time: Long Road to Freedom – and I hope seeing these photos from my research will help you to imagine their journey even more vividly.


Want to hear more about my research for the first two Ranger in Time books, set on the Oregon Trail and Ancient Rome? Check out this virtual author visit!



33 Rules of Writing from Some of the Most Brilliant Women in Children’s & YA Literature

Yesterday, I spoke to class of teachers and soon-to-be-teachers at our local SUNY college. Their professor had asked me to talk about how authors plan and draft and revise, and how those practices might apply to student writers, too. I spent a wonderful hour doing that but also promised the teachers that if they brought in a dozen other authors, they’d hear about a dozen different processes. A process or strategy that works for one of us might or might not be effective for another — and that doesn’t vary only from author to author but from book to book. So perhaps the best advice for writers of any age is to understand that – and to honor lots of different processes, in the classroom, the coffee shop, and the office.

I love posts like this one from Brain Pickings, sharing Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing. But I couldn’t help thinking, in reading this, that it would be even more interesting to see a list of rules that didn’t all come from one guy. So I reached out to some friends, and we’ve come up with…

33 Rules of Writing from Some of the Most Brilliant Women in Children’s & YA Literature

Do the work. Don’t waste your precious energy on doubt, except where it shows you more opportunities for growth. Pretend you’re working on the last thing you’ll ever write. Give it that much ferocity and that much love. That’s the book the world needs from you.

~Martha Brockenbrough, author of The Game of Love and Death

My newest novel is teaching me this one: Keep showing up, and you start to run out of mistakes to make.

~Caroline Starr Rose, author of Bluebirds

Often, the story comes during the act of writing, not thinking. So even if you have no idea where you’re headed, start writing.

~Barbara O’Connor, author of The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

Write the book that you (or that you as a child) would want to read.

~Christina Diaz Gonzalez, author of Moving Target

Regarding process, whatever works is what works best for you.

~Sarah Prineas, author of Ash and Bramble

Keep your story materials in one place. I keep a dedicated notebook for each novel in which I brainstorm ideas, jot critique partners’ notes, work through issues, etc. I stuff hard copy research materials in a pocket in back.
For you, a folder or 3-ring binder or envelope might work better–but figure out something to keep your work together. It saves time and serves as a map if you get stuck or lost in your story–you page through and, chances are, there’s an idea in those pages to help you along.

~Erin Dionne, author of Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting


Fast-drafting is fine, but don’t be afraid to go slow. When I begin something new, it helps me to focus on each word, as if I’m writing a poem. To sit with each line, and think about tone and voice. Those first paragraphs matter so much.
A very wonderful poet once told me that he sits down at his desk and gives himself an hour to come up with a line. If he gets that line, he gives himself an hour to come up with the second line, and so on…   I like to remember this, when other people talk about word counts per day. In the end, I’d rather find the ten right words than the 2,000 quick words.
The main thing, I think, is to remember we all write differently. Slow or fast. Clean or sloppy. One book at a time, or with 4 manuscripts open simultaneously. When people tell you to NEVER do something, or to ALWAYS do something, they’re generally wrong. Write in the way that feels best to you.

~Laurel Snyder, author of Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

There is no one writing process, and if anyone tells you there is, they’re selling you snake oil. What works for me, might not work for you. And what works for me on one book might not be the right process for the next book. As brilliant female author Laurie Halse Anderson said at Kindling Words (and this helped me SO MUCH) each book requires different tools from the writer’s toolbox. For me, writing the first draft quickly helps because it helps me trick what I call “The Inner Crazy Lady.” If I can get the first draft mostly written before she wakes up and tells me everything I’ve written is complete garbage and all of my (insert previous number of published books) were flukes, I can be much more productive. I also find that when I write the first draft quickly, my subconscious leaves me nuggets that I can tease out later to make the novel richer and more nuanced.

~Sarah Darer Littman, author of Backlash

Become familiar with the subtleties of your own particular brand of crazy. I have a hard time discerning whether I’m avoiding writing or giving my subconscious some time to pick apart a tangled plot point. I think it’s important to trust your instincts when they insist you need time away from a particular project but always examine the true root cause. Avoidance wears many deceiving disguises.

~Audrey Vernick, author of Screaming at the Ump

Keep reading until you find a book that blows open the doors of what’s possible.

~Melanie Crowder, author of Audacity

I tell my students that what elevates a book to that Next Level is tiny details and huge risks. Fill your work with tiny details, all kinds of unique specificities, little moments that add texture to the greater plot of the book, and then take huge risks as you’re writing. Take unexpected turns and push to go beyond what feels comfortable. I love that writing requires both that careful attention to detail and that ferocious risk-taking.

~Corey Ann Haydu, author of Rules for Stealing Stars

Write to your passion. The world is full of zippy plots and larger-than-life characters; these are important, of course. But what’s going to elevate YOUR book is finding that story that only you can tell, and setting it down in the way that only you could tell it. Write what thrills you. Write what terrifies you. Write the big questions lurking at the edges of your mind. This is how your book will stand out from the rest.

~Ammi-Joan Paquette, author of Princess Juniper of the Hourglass

Don’t read your reviews.Even the good ones will probably not be good enough to fill up that gaping hole you were hoping to fill. And the bad ones will gut you like a fish, stealing all your joy. You need the joy in order to believe in the next idea when it settles itself around your shoulders.

~Ellen Wittlinger, author of Parrotfish

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Experiment with form. Write beyond what you feel your abilities are. You are allowed to write whatever you can dream up.  When your inner voice starts asking, “But what if it won’t sell? What if I am wasting my time on this?” gently tell it to hush. Tell that voice what you are learning from the writing and how it energizes you. Remind that voice that you are allowed to define your own idea of success. And then write with wild abandon.

~Heidi Schulz, author of Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code


Beauty comes from honesty, no matter how ugly the truth is. Let your writing shine light on that dark place–that’s where hope starts to grow.

~Jo Knowles, author of Read Between the Lines

Backside in chair. Lots of people talk about writing, but to be a writer, you have to write. You have to close your mouth and sit down and do it – with a monklike self-discipline. And that’s where you find the joy.

~Kate Hannigan, author of The Detective’s Assistant

It’s okay if you return to the same thematic material over and over again. In fact, it means that you have found something that matters deeply to you.

~Elana K. Arnold, author of The Question of Miracles

Try not to be scared. But if you are scared, use it as fuel to push through whatever is in the way.

~Tracy Winfield Holczer, author of The Secret Hum of a Daisy

Go for a walk, preferably in the woods. Going for long walks away from the keyboard allows your ideas to work themselves out without the pressure of writing them down in the moment.

~Karen Rivers, author of The Girl in the Well is Me

Read your work aloud. Listen to the rhythm and musicality of your words. You’ll hear repetition and problem sentences. I do this for individual scenes and whole novels, walking and reading. Don’t do it in public though – people will think you’re nuts.

~Cheryl Blackford, author of Lizzie and the Lost Baby

The moment you are frustrated and ready to quit on a manuscript: Don’t! It means you are on the verge of a breakthrough.

~Kirby Larson, author of Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Remember the books you loved to pieces as a kid? Remember all those authors you never wrote to? Out there in this world is a kid who will love the book you are writing just as much as you loved those books. You will never hear from that kid. The love, however, will be real. That’s the person you are writing this book for. On his or her behalf, thank you, thank you, so much!

~Anne Nesbet, author of The Wrinkled Crown

Find peers who will cheer for you and challenge you. (They don’t have to be the same people and they don’t have to do both at once.) The right friends will help you get through the rough times, push you to become a better writer, and enrich your life in general.

~Jenn Reese, author of Above World

Write the first word that pops into your head– even if that word is “the.” The rest will always follow.

~Danette Vigilante, author of The Trouble with Half a Moon

Writing is fun until it isn’t and then it is hard work, plain and simple. But trust that if you show up and put in the work, day after day, the universe will respond. Magical moments will happen, often when you least expect them, giving you goosebumps because the words are so right and true, and exactly what the story needs. A lot of grit + a teensy bit of magic = how the book gets written.

~Lisa Schroeder, author of My Secret Guide to Paris

All the advice in the world ain’t gonna help you write the #$%@ book. So quit looking for reasons to procrastinate and just write the #$%@  book. Remember the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that they persevered.

~Ellen Oh, author of Prophecy

The first draft is going to be awful. Briefly acknowledge that, then move on.

~Lisa Yee, author of The Kidney Hypothetical

Behind every “breakout hit” is a whole lot of hidden study – study of craft, of the classics, of what’s being written right now – and an even greater dose of perseverance and discarded material.

~Janet Fox, author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

Don’t be afraid to go big. Allow crazy things to happen in the plot, make room for wild emotions and passions, be brave and risk your characters’ hearts. You can always dial it back a little later if you have to, but you don’t want to regret not having gone far enough.

~Liz Garton Scanlon, author of The Great Good Summer

1. You *are* a writer. Not “trying to be”, or “aspiring” — you are.

2. Know that *your* story is precious and powerful.

3. Nothing you write is a waste, even if you don’t explicitly “use” it.

4. Value every scrap, phrase, or bit of an idea by writing it down as soon as you can, preferably the old-fashioned way, on paper. Then don’t worry about it. When you need it, it will be there.

Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich, author of 8th Grade SuperZero

Don’t give up! If your first book doesn’t get published, write another book. If your second book doesn’t get published, write a third book. It took me 8 years to get a book published. Most of the people in my first critique group never got published. Most aren’t even writing anymore. And they were all better writers than I was at that time. The reason I got published and they didn’t is because I didn’t give up.

~Dori Hillestad Butler, author of The Haunted Library

Find your way of writing. I had a ton of instructors who said you should overwrite because you can always cut. But I don’t work that way. I start slight and add layers. It took me years to shake the idea that I was doing it wrong.

~Megan Frazer Blakemore, author of The Friendship Riddle

Don’t be afraid to fail. Fail often and joyfully and make lots of things. If you do, you’ll get better at it. And some of them may work out. (I have a whole post about this advice as it relates to picture books here.)

~Kate Messner, author of the Ranger in Time series

Ranger #3 Final Cover

So there you go. 33 rules to follow. Or not. But hopefully, some of them will resonate for you.

Go on now.