INTERVIEW WITH FRAN CANNON SLAYTON, TIPS FOR WRITERS. NEW BOOK IDEAS
with Fran Cannon Slayton
Like Jimmy Cannon, I grew up in the 40s and
50s, and my father worked on the railroad. My
dad wasn't the foreman though, he was a fireman.
It was comforting to hear the old steam engines
pull trains through our little Colorado town
at night, and hear that whistle that sounds
like nothing else. It's something that modern
kids can only read about or see in the movies.
Fran Cannon Slayton makes it all come to life
in Jimmy's story. She makes a chapter out of
the history books real and relevant in this
compelling story. Fran was kind enough to answer
some of my questions about
When the Whistle Blows.
Bev: I read the bio posted on your
website. Wow, you have been a very busy lady.
Tell us about yourself and your road to publishing
a children's book.
I double majored in Psychology and Religious
Studies at the University of Virginia, and then
went to work on Capitol Hill for two years.
A few months before going back to law school
(again at UVA), an idea for a story took hold
of my brain; I couldn't shake it so I just gave
in and started writing. Thirteen years and 100
pages later, and after careers as both a child
sex abuse prosecutor and legal publisher, my
daughter was born and I decided to get serious
about my writing. I looked at my 100 pages and
decided I just couldn't risk showing it to the
world. So put it away and began my next novel.
That was around the beginning of 2005.
When I was halfway finished with that second
effort, I received a full scholarship to attend
Highlights Magazine's week-long children's
writers workshop at the Chautauqua Institute
in July 2006. There I met my editor, Patricia
Lee Gauch, who read the first 12 pages and loved
them. She asked to see the rest, exclusively,
and promised to read it while she was on vacation.
She contacted me three weeks later and offered
to work with me as I finished the novel, offering
her opinions and insights. When I completed
the book, she bought it!
Bev: I really enjoyed reading When
the Whistle Blows. It was not at all what
I expected when I picked up the book. You really
brought back the 1940s and made the era exciting,
which history books somehow fail to do. How
much research did you have to do for this story?
Fran: Thank you. History truly can
come alive when it is wrapped around stories
that are exciting to begin with! I did a lot
of research, but it was the fun kind of research.
I interviewed people, took road trips, looked
at pictures of trains online, and read about
various details, including local history and
colloquial expressions, to try to create the
most believable and authentic setting possible.
Much of the setting description came naturally
to me, since I am intimately familiar with the
town the book is set in: Rowlesburg West Virginia.
Both of my parents are from there, and I have
visited—and have loved—the place
for my entire life.
Bev: Tell us about developing the characters,
Jimmy Cannon and his family and friends.
Fran: Jimmy Cannon was inspired by
my father, whose name is Jim Cannon. Dad grew
up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940's,
and my love of the town comes directly from
him. He had terrific adventures growing up there,
and many of the stories in my book are based
on true stories that my father actually experienced.
The Cannon family had seven children, and I
chose two of them—Bill and Mike—to
be characters in my story. Of course in reality
I don't really know exactly what my uncles were
like as kids, but it was fun to use their names
and create characters in their honor. I didn't
intentionally leave my other relatives out;
rather the story itself seemed to guide how
big the fictional family had to be and I just
tried to listen to what the story was calling
Additionally, Jimmy's parents in my book are
named W.P. and Mary Etta Cannon, as were my
grandparents in real life. I did not know my
grandfather at all because he died before I
was born, so I made up his character completely,
based upon some of my dad's old stories.
It was wonderful to be able to use snippets
of reality and blend them with fiction when
creating my characters. I needed to let go of
some real things in order to do it, which was
an important lesson to learn. But hopefully
the result is the best parts of both reality
Bev: And so, the setting in When
the Whistle Blows —the town of Rowlesburg—is
a real place?
Fran: Yes, it is a real place that
I encourage you to visit! It is not a rich town,
but the people are wonderful and the scenery
is stunningly beautiful. The Cheat River wraps
itself around the town in a "U" shape, and there
are mountains on three sides.
When the railroad declined, however, so did
the town. What was once a bustling little burg
of 1800 people during my father's childhood
is now a town of 600 or so that offers few places
of employment within its limits. But the people
who live there are rightfully proud of Rowlesburg,
and are always working to make it a better place.
Rowlesburg Revitalization Committee is a
group of old-timers and newcomers alike who
work together for the good of the town. It's
a great organization.
Bev: What the heck is “dieselization,”
anyway and why did it put so many men out of
work? Wasn't there still a lot of maintenance
and other relevant jobs with diesel engines?
Fran: Dieselization refers to the
era and events surrounding the replacement of
the steam engine with the diesel engine. This
happened to railroads worldwide at different
rates of speed and at varying times, but in
Rowlesburg it primarily occurred in the late
1940's and early 50's.
Steam engine locomotives were complicated machines
that took many, many people to run and maintain.
At a minimum, each crew needed an engineer,
a brakeman, a fireman and a conductor. Maintenance
required extreme skill and the ability of many
men to fashion new parts when the old ones needed
replacing—which could happen at any place
and at any time. The steam engines required
a constant supply of coal and water to work,
which also created jobs. And in the war days,
trains were always hauling men and equipment
for military purposes so they were constantly
making trips east and west across the mountains.
When the diesels came along, some positions—such
as the fireman—were completely unnecessary
and eventually eliminated. They used a different
type of fuel and a simpler, more easily maintained
engine, which eliminated many jobs. Many older
people with steam experience were often replaced
by younger—and fewer—folks who had
knowledge and understanding of diesel engines.
And eventually, as trucks became more prevalent
for hauling cargo, railroads fell into harder
and harder times. What had once been a revenue-generating,
backbone of the community became a ghost of
its former self. It was progress, on some levels.
But loss of a way of life on other levels.
Bev: Do you have relatives who actually
worked on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad?
Fran: Yes, my father's father was
the foreman of the B&O Railroad in Rowlesburg
in the l940s. My uncles Mike, Bill and Dick,
as well as my cousins Roger and Kevin also worked
for the railroad.
Bev: Each chapter takes place in a
different year on Halloween... tell us why you
chose that date for each year.
Fran: The lore in my family is that
my grandfather was both born and buried on Halloween.
There is something about this fact that really
resonates with me—it is as if his life
came full circle in a very concrete way. And
to a certain extent, that is what my book is
about—coming full circle.
Bev: The secret society that Jimmy's
father and uncles belonged to is intriguing...
tell us about that.
Fran: 'The Society' is a mysterious
group of townsmen that Jimmy's father belongs
to. It is unclear what they do, or what their
ultimate purpose is for much of the book, and
Jimmy chases around behind them, trying to figure
them out during his yearly Halloween adventures.
I have to confess that there was no real secret
society back in 1940s Rowlesburg—that
part of the book is truly fiction. But my father
did—and does—belong to the Knights
of Columbus, which is a fraternal organization
of Catholic men, similar in some senses to the
Masons. I think that my dad's participation
in the K of C probably subconsciously influenced
my creation of 'The Society." The K of C has
some secretive elements, or at least it seemed
so when I was a child. And they are very much
about doing good and helping those in need,
which plays into my book's plot as well.
Bev: There are still a few spots in
America that have steam engines and trains on
a narrow gauge railroad and offer rides as a
tourist attraction... Have you ever ridden on
a train pulled by a steam engine?
Yes, and I wasn't just a passenger on the train—I
recently had the opportunity to actually ride
in the cab of an old, refurbished, working steam
Just this past Memorial Day I was invited to
experience an old Nickel Plate steam engine
in North Judson, Indiana that was running on
eleven miles of track, sponsored by the Hoosier
Valley Railroad and the Fort Wayne Historical
Railroad Society. It was a fantastic event,
drawing thousands of people.
I was fortunate to be the guest of John Hankey,
a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad historian who
read an early version of my book and has since
become a friend. Over the course of several
magical days, John helped me to better understand
the workings of a steam engine from the ground
up. We talked brakes, air compressors, fireboxes,
boilers... you name it! Best of all, I had the
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of
a steam locomotive in action—to feel the
heat and humidity inside the cab, watch the
fireman and engineer in action, and basically
experience the ins and outs of the work my ancestors
did every day of their lives. It was a weekend
I will never forget!
Bev: Jimmy Cannon is such a great character,
it would be a shame to limit him to one book.
Do you have any other plans for Jimmy?
Fran: I would love to spend more time
with Jimmy in the future, although I do not
currently have plans for a sequel.
Bev: Are you working on anything new?
Fran: Right now I'm working on my
next novel, which is a fantasy tentatively titled
Ship's Boy, about a girl who wants
to be a pirate.
Bev: That sounds like fun! Do you have
any other thoughts you would like to share with
Fran: Thanks for having me!!
Bev: It was entirely our pleasure,
thank you so much and good luck with your new
to read Bev's review of When the Whistle
Writing for Children—Tips for
Making your characters come alive
Did you ever read a story where one of the
characters had green eyes in chapter one, and
then over in chapter three, they were brown?
It isn't so easy to keep all the details straight
when you are writing a story... but that isn't
going to happen to you, is it? Of course not,
because you are going to keep a detailed profile
on each character. Here is a handy profile
chart that you can download to help you
learn absolutely everything about your character.
Complete one for each character in your story.
This highly detailed chart is a writer's guide
to creating fictional characters who are believable,
captivating, and unique
You won't need every detail in your story,
but don't take any shortcuts here... fill in
the blanks anyway. You need to know everything
about your character to be able to portray his
personality and make your complex character
come alive for your reader. Now practice writing
profiles, and see just what kind of characters
you can imagine!
Brand new books for summer reading:
Have You Seen My Cat?: A Slide-and-Peek
Board Book by Eric Carle
A Round the World search for a little
boy's beloved cat. Lots of excitement for the
Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover
(Gallagher Girls) (Hardcover) by
Cammie "The Chameleon" Morgan is in Boston to
watch Macey's father accept the nomination for
vice president of the United States. But. Cammie
and Macey soon find themselves trapped in a
kidnappers' plot, with only their espionage
skills to save them.
Soon Cammie is joining Bex and Liz as Macey's
private security team on the campaign trail.
The girls must use their spy training at every
turn as the stakes are raised, and Cammie gets
closer and closer to the shocking truth. Ages
9-12 will enjoy this fast moving summer read.
A Taste for Red (Hardcover)
by Lewis Harris
Svetlana Grimm has recently discovered she’s
a vampire. The clues are all there: she can
eat only red foods, has to sleep under the bed
because of her heightened sensitivity to light
and noise, and can read others’ thoughts. But
things get interesting when Svetlana’s cruel
yet beautiful science teacher, Ms. Larch, reads
her thoughts. Svetlana is excited to have found
another of her kind—until her new neighbor,
The Bone Lady, fills her in on Ms. Larch's true
identity and her own. What happens when your
sixth-grade science teacher might also be your
immortal enemy? Middle Graders story in the
vampire genre that's sure to be at the top of
the summer reading list.