Writing my book: Part One

Do you ever wonder what it might have been that led anyone to sit at a key board, or labor meticulously over a hand written page, or ponder the shape of a story so late at night that even the dog has stopped stirring and your family members are sound asleep? I know that feeling and I want to tell you all about it. But this time, my story is not about me, not directly.

It is about my book.

“A Measure of Justice” is a mystery set in the 1930s in Western Pennsylvania, Cambria County for the most part, although it moves all over the state, anywhere coal was mined back when it was the king of fossil fuels. There were hundreds of mines scattered across the state, with hard coal dug in the northeast and bituminous in the vast coal fields of South Western Pennsylvania.

The book will be available on Amazon and a host of other websites in January.

This is a mystery with a lot of victims and many criminals, some of them running coal mines, during the Great Depression. There are conspiracies that lead to crimes, compelling and courageous investigators, including an unforgettable woman who was a master at what always had been a man’s job. Did it happen this way? I very much doubt it, but it came to me because I needed it to be this way. And to be sure, I didn’t have to invent the disasters that claimed the lives of hundreds of miners every year.

If you ask me where this story began, I would have to say it was born in the lap of my father, Gerald. After a hard day working on the railroad, the job he took after his years underground ended, he would sit in a comfortable chair in our home in Altoona and cross his one leg over the other and invite me, as he had invited my sisters before me, to sit in what he called his nest. He would sing to me, sweet old songs in his lovely baritone voice, and he would tell stories.

Sometimes, they were about how it was to work in the mines around Portage, a place we always called “up the mountain” whenever we climbed in our car and drove the 45 minutes or so it would take to go from hilly Altoona to mountainous Portage, which sat on top of the Alleghenies, so far up it was like moving into another world. We would pass through Duncansville, then to Newry, then up one of the back roads to the town of Lilly, which was where the coal mines started. You could see where they were because they all left piles of boney near their portals. That was where the miners dumped the waste from the mine, the shale and dirt and rock that was left after they blasted down whole walls of bituminous.

Boney piles, my father called them. They were remarkably ugly hills sitting amid the hardwoods and bushes, the berry bushes and the arching arms of the oaks and walnuts and maples that took root and grew long after those mines closed. Sometimes the piles would catch fire, spontaneously, because of the amount of coal that remained in the mix. They would smoulder for days. Trying to extinguish them was dangerous because some of them still retained the pockets of gas that made coal mining such a dangerous job.

Miller’s Shaft, Fiddlers Green, Cooper Brother’s Sonman, Last Chance, and many more followed the path of an orange stream, colored by sulphur from the mines, that ran down the hill at the end of Portage. My father would point them out, and my sisters and brother and I would squint through the trees trying to see what was left of them. My father knew them all, just as his father Thomas knew them and and Thomas’s father Martin had known them all. They all spent their time underground. Black lung killed Thomas, and left my dad struggling for breath at the end of his life.

Martin was the first Madigan in Portage. He came from Houtzdale, a town with anthracite coal all around it. Money chased it because it burned clean. But Martin and his wife Anne left town and headed for Cambria County. He took a job burying victims of the Johnstown Flood. That was so heart-breaking he walked away to move up the mountain to Portage and returned to mining. He raised 14 children, became a coal field cop and later the Burgess of Portage. He was shot twice (the paper reported that Italians were the suspects) and beat up once when he tried to arrest a hall full of drunken miners on New Years’ Eve. I have a picture of him in his hospital bed, his pipe and his rosary beads on the pillow. “Madigan Recuperating,” the headline said.

Sonman Tipple

The heart of my book, not literally but figuratively, was an explosion at the Sonman mine that killed 63 miners on July 15, 1940. My grandfather Thomas, who by that time was the Portage fire chief, arranged to have all the bodies delivered to the second floor of the fire hall, where he bathed, shaved faces and combed the hair of each victim so their families would not be shocked when they came to identify their loved ones.

People await word about the dead at Sonman

It was the defining event in my family’s life. My cousin John told me he saw my father running “like a deer” down the hill toward the mine, stretchers under his arms. The whole town gathered on the hillside outside Sonman waiting for the rescue workers, my father among them, to bring out the survivors and then the dead.

It has taken me most of my life to process these stories, to understand the pain and loss, and to think about the narrative I would have to create to tell the stories of miners who died, not just at Sonman, but all over the state. I wrote one book that was completely factual, based on hundreds of records, documents, books about mining processes. My agent read it and said he was angry that I even sent it to him because there was no demand in the marketplace for a book about an ancient coal mine disaster.

I will never speak to him again, which is why I am speaking to you.

I trust you.

I believe you will find in this book every bit of the tragedy that happened at Sonman that morning in 1940. It is. of course, fiction. But like all fiction, it focuses on a collection of undeniable truths that we see in life all the time, the unfairness of it, the brutality of it, the deceit in it, and ultimately, the goodness in people who look for truth, always searching for truth.

Writing a book is hard. I will show you why and tell you why you have to push past the problems and tell the story. If it is a true story, a real story, a story with heart and soul, you will not quit. And we will all be the better for it. It all began up the mountain when I was a little boy. I was in love with Portage, mostly because that is where my father set his stories. I spent my professional life as a journalist, and I wish I had been able to tell any of the hundreds of stories I wrote as well as he was able to tell just one. He was a gifted, intelligent and compassionate man, but a part of him would always be underground up on the mountain, where he learned his miners trade and fed his family.

His dad, Thomas, was a wiry and very tough man who had a set of personalities, one for above ground where he was active in St. Joe’s Holy Name Society and one underground, where he was loudly vulgar, comfortable with obscenity and would not hesitate to use violence to keep his co-workers in line. He shoved one of them up against a coal car with another car he just rolled into him. My father was responsible for sharpening his pick, and on a morning he overheated the tip in the grinding machine, it broke off at the coal face and my grand father turned and put the pick through my fathers foot.

Decades later I had my own foot injury and my father took care of me like I was a baby and worked on the top of my shoe until he had closed the hole where a nail had penetrated my foot. I could never understand why until we had a truth telling about Tom. He was a good man, my father said, and very dependable but you never wanted to cross him underground.

No one ever saw the other side of my grandfather when he was above ground. He treated children like kittens and indulged them with candy and jokes. He was so kind to my sisters I suspect they would never believe what I found out about him when he was underground. He was great fire chief, as brave as a bear and not afraid of fire. He was the one who ran into houses to save people.

These memories and thoughts had been spinning in my head for decades, never far from reach but never resolved in a story. That took time to come up with, time to write, time to rewrite and time to think more about what their lives meant up on the side of that mountain.

I wish I could tell the story as a reporter. I was very good at that. But this story won’t work that way. The details of my family’s life up on the mountain were endlessly fascinating to me. But I doubt they could be of any interest to anyone outside the family. I needed to find another way to describe how it was, what people paid to work underground, the corruption that was pervasive in the world of coal.

NEXT WEEK: A framework emerges and what to think about agents, publishers and success.

8 thoughts on “Writing my book: Part One

  1. I think fiction can be a btter way to reveal history. Though I believe that fiction comes with a point of view, it is more relatable to me. I immediately started thinking of Devil in the White City and can’t wait to read this new story!!


  2. Can’t wait to read! My mother’s sister, Frances, lost a husband in the Sonman Mine explosion. The day before was their daughter’s birthday and my siblings went to the party in Cresson. How quickly joy can turn to tragedy. Recently my sister and I learned that 3 of our Leap relatives died in it too: the newspaper account said the father and 2 sons died clasping hands. To me, that was so poignant. The more I delve into the history of the area where we grew up, the more I want to know. Can’t wait for this book, Charlie!


  3. Thank you for telling the story of your early life through the lens of another story I doing so you bring those of us who wish to know the stories, and your family, better


  4. Hello, I found your book excerpt fascinating. Our family was affected by the Cherry Mine Disaster in Cherry IL. My grandmother talked about many trips to view the corpses searching for her father and uncles…when she was 5 years old!


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