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A Midwesterner's Love Letter to Martha's Vineyard

by Julie Flanders

In the summer of 2010 I was 41 years old and feeling unfulfilled and adrift. To say I was in a rut would be an understatement. But that summer ended up changing my life in ways I never could have imagined because of two seemingly unconnected actions.

One, I started volunteering as a writer for Best Friends Animal Society, writing features for their website. Two, I made a trip to Martha's Vineyard. While planning the vacation, I started looking at the Aquinnah webcam on the Martha's Vineyard online website. Those two activities planted the seeds that allowed me to blossom into the person I am today.

While I am a life-long Ohioan, my Martha's Vineyard roots go back a long way on my father's side of the family. My great-great grandfather, Samuel "Squire" Flanders, was the keeper of the Gay Head Light from 1845-1849 and again from 1853-1861 and appeared in a feature Horace Greeley wrote about the island for Harper's magazine.

My other great-great grandfather, Franklin Hammett, set sail on a whaling boat in his teens before settling down with his wife, Nancy, on the Vineyard on a Tea Lane farm. We made the trek from the Midwest to New England nearly every summer when I was a child.

In 2010, I was looking forward to returning to the island after an absence of several years. When browsing the website, I looked at the webcam in anticipation of when I would once again be at the top of the Aquinnah cliffs myself. But I also felt the beginnings of an idea. I started to wonder, what if I saw the same person every time I looked at this webcam? As the idea took root, the person became a woman dressed in 19th century clothing. Who was she? And why was she wandering around the cliffs at all hours?

The idea didn't go any further, as I didn't feel I had the ability to develop a story around it. That was something creative people did, and I had spent a lifetime telling myself that I wasn't creative. But for the next few years, as I continued to write for Best Friends, I realized that writing features was something I enjoyed more than anything else I had ever done. Before I knew it, I wanted to write more.

My father died in the summer of 2012. I spent the rest of the year in a haze of grief, but I also started thinking again about my mysterious woman on the Martha's Vineyard webcam. While I had always loved the island, I came to cherish it more due to its connection to my father. Thinking about my summers on the Vineyard with my father and grandparents was comforting. And somehow, the story I thought I didn't have the ability to write came together.

While researching the novel, which begins with the wreck of The City of Columbus off the coast of Aquinnah in 1884, I enjoyed trying to recreate the Vineyard of the 1880s in my mind. I came to appreciate my family history on the island much more than I ever had before.

When I was a growing up, it seemed everyone at my school went to Florida for their vacations. No one had heard of Martha's Vineyard, and any mention of where my family went each summer was met with blank stares.

I sometimes secretly wished that I could go to Disney World or Fort Lauderdale instead of the Vineyard. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized what a treasure I had been given. In writing my webcam story, now called The Ghosts of Aquinnah, I grew to love the Vineyard even more.

I visited the island again in the summer of 2013. This time it was a thrill to imagine my characters at the cliffs and the lighthouse, on the Chilmark farms, and in the towns of Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven. I looked at the familiar beaches and landmarks with different eyes.

When I returned from my trip, I submitted the story to my publisher, Ink Smith Publishing, who had already published my debut novel, Polar Night, in February of 2013.

I was ecstatic when the publisher not only accepted my novel but also said it could be published in December of the same year. The Ghosts of Aquinnah was published on December 5, 2013. On December 6, I turned 45. I was a twice-published novelist who had finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life. The rut I had felt so stuck in was a distant memory.

The seeds that were planted during the summer of 2010 took a few years to develop, but with the right amount of nurturing they blossomed into a novel that I will always hold dear to my heart.

While I didn't plan it that way, The Ghosts of Aquinnah became my love letter to the island where, at four years old, I'd held my father's hand and tentatively climbed out on the Menemsha jetties. The island where my great-great grandfather climbed to the top of the Gay Head light to make sure the perilous cliffs below him were illuminated for passing sailors. The island where my great-great grandparents farmed with a horse named Grover. And the island I have now been able to share with a new generation of Flanders family members.

I'm still a Midwesterner, but I have a passion for Martha's Vineyard that ultimately helped change my life. I am looking forward to returning to the island this summer.

I no longer wish I could go to Florida instead.

Julie Flanders is a novelist and freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has a life-long love affair with the ocean and has spent more summer vacations than she can count on the island of Martha's Vineyard. She is an animal lover and shares her home with her dog and cat.

Julie's novels, The Ghosts of Aquinnah and Polar Night were published in 2013 by Ink Smith Publishing.

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