Wednesday, August 15, 2007


One of the most pleasurable parts of being a writer is the research, even the part where you have to read some musty old book on history or medicine or the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Why? Because it tells you things that will make your story sing with authority, and to an author that’s golden. But there are other kinds of research that are even more exciting. Take this past Saturday. It was the twenty-first annual Antique Car Run, in which cars nearly or even more than 100 years old go tottering down the by-lanes between New London and New Brighton, Minnesota. I wrote about these wonderful old cars in A Murderous Yarn, in which Lars Larson, a running character, had purchased a 1910 Stanley Steamer. Stanley Steamers are my favorite antique car. They look pretty much like any other really old car, with their big wooden-spoked wheels and shining brass trim (auto manufacturers hadn’t discovered how to stamp steel when these cars were made). But look closer at the Stanley and you will see odd instruments and valve handles on the dash, and several levers on the floor. And if you venture to open the round-fronted hood, you’d see this big, white cylindrical thing instead of an engine. That’s a boiler. The engine is on the underside of the car, and unlike internal combustion engines, its two pistons both push and pull, so it’s very powerful. And it doesn’t go whacky-doodle, or PUTT-putt-putt, or make a sniggering sound as it goes down the road, like the other old cars. When it first moves off, it chuff-chuff-chuffs, but as it gathers speed it turns quiet. It can go about 55 miles per hour in a marvelous silence, though at that speed its old suspension and steering become a bit iffy. (The rest of these old cars can maybe hit twenty-five going downhill in a strong tailwind; most of them are content at fifteen or twenty miles an hour.) This early model of the Stanley doesn’t have a condenser, so it has to take on water about every forty-odd miles. The problem is, if you reach the end of your journey and you still have a head of steam, you have to let it off – and when you open the valves to do that, it comes out with a huge hissing and big clouds of steam, which makes people standing around jump sideways in alarm. This, by the way, is where the expression, “letting off steam,” meaning someone making alarming noises comes from.

The reason I wanted to see Mr. Grengs, the owner of the car, was that I want to have Lars Larson’s Stanley stir into action again in Thai Die. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to Gene because first of all, the person who was supposed to have a water hose available for him had instead locked it inside a shed, and he had to run around awhile to find someone to open it. Then, after he’d filled up and parked to have a quick lunch and answer a few questions from people, he began to get ready to set off again. Some fuel from the pilot light (steam-powered cars have pilot lights) leaked out the lower front of his car and started burning briskly. Not a big fire, but a fire nonetheless. He calmly shut down the fuel and slapped the flames away with his heavy gauntlets. (This gives a partial explanation of the jest that you can usually tell a Stanley owner by the burn and scald marks on his hands and arms.) Anyway, we didn’t have much time to talk, so I and two other people are going to drive down to Eau Claire in a couple of weeks to talk to him some more. The topic will be “Steam and Its Many Uses.” Like boilers, steam-powered boats, and the wonderful Stanley Steamer. I’m hoping he’ll start it up for us (it takes twenty minutes from a cold start) so I can refresh my memory of how it’s done. Maybe he’ll even give us a ride.

I finally finished the last stitched piece (a punch-needle of a weather vane with a rooster on top of it) for my chicken-themed quilt, and sent the fabric and pieces off to Ms. Kerner in Wisconsin. She’ll make the top, send it back to me to put a couple of applique chickens on it and stitch the fox’s tail so it runs onto the border (done in chicken-wire-patterned fabric!), then send it back to her to finish. She seems to think she can have the thing done by December, which is great, because I’d love to bring it to signings for Knitting Bones – in which a customer of Crewel World makes the very quilt I’m having done for myself.

Even my fun projects, like the quilt, are research for the books. Life is sweet.


Linda O. Johnston said...

Monica: What a fun post! I loved your description of the Stanley Steamers. Both my husband's family and mine had Model A's as we were growing up. Now, he and I have met someone, at a place where we have breakfast often on weekends, who has a collection of old cars. He drives them to breakfast now and then. His oldest that I've seen so far was a cute Model T. I haven't figured out yet how to use them in a story, but I'd love to!

Kathryn Lilley said...

Ooh, antique cars, what a fun topic! My first-ever car (circa 1973) was a Triumph TR6, which now qualifies--some 34 years later--as an "antique" car. YIKES! For a major-milestone birthday, a member of my family recently presented me with a fully-restored TR6. Nowadays, I toodle around town in it, enjoying the throaty roar of the engine!

Disney Mummy said...

I cannot wait for Knitting Bones to come out Monica!