Elizabeth Flanagan, a senior at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, published her first novel in August after writing the book over the course of 2017 through work with Portland’s The Telling Room.
Flanagan wrote the novel “The Secrets They Left Behind” in the midst of a busy year spent prepping for the SATs, and as a member of the Medomak Valley High School theater program, manager of the high school’s basketball team, and part of the school’s math club.
“The whole experience taught me so much, and I will carry on what I learned with me when I keep writing,” said Flanagan in a recent interview. “I learned so much. Getting to work with three other students who were as passionate about writing as I am was great.”
Flanagan said she learned a lot about time management and grew as a writer by writing her book last year. “It was stressful at times but I learned a lot and I think my writing has improved a lot as well,” she said.
Flanagan said writing a book was something she always wanted to do before graduating from high school. “I have always written things. Writing has always been constant in my life. For a long time I said I wanted to publish a book before I graduate from high school,” she said.
The book is a work of historical fiction and mystery set in Iowa during the 1950s, with an alternating story line set in the 1920s, complete with flappers and bootleggers. It follows a young girl as she learns the secrets of her late father, and of her relatives, after a mysterious stranger comes to town with a letter from her dead father.
According to Flanagan, the idea for the book — which follows the girl, who doesn’t talk after experiencing her father’s death — was an old idea she had, which she tweaked as she wrote the book.
“I had been working on the idea for a while but wanted something completely fresh. I found this old idea and rebuilt a new story around it,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan said the book is set in Deep River, Iowa, a real place. When she picked the name, though, she didn’t know it was a real town until her father looked it up on Google.
“I don’t really know why I chose Iowa. I was looking for a place on a farm and it made sense,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan, of Waldoboro, worked with The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative-writing center that empowers youth through writing, as part of the organization’s Young Emerging Authors fellowship. She traveled to Portland once a week with her father to complete her debut book, working with mentors and professionals to write and revise her work.
Flanagan said she appreciated the assistance from the Portland-based organization in reaching her goal of publishing a novel. “Before I went to The Telling Room, I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off,” she said.
According to Flanagan, “one of the neatest parts” of taking part in the fellowship was learning about a network of writers in Maine she never knew existed. “It was really cool to see all these writers. My foot is kind of in the door and it is cool to realize that,” she said.
Flanagan also thanked the teachers and her school for supporting her efforts during her junior year.
“The teachers and entire school were so supportive — they were all interested, even teachers I didn’t have,” Flanagan said.
The debut author, who was accepted into the program in October of last year and was one of four students across the state of Maine in the fellowship, said The Telling Room works with young writers ages 6-18.
The fellowship offers its young fellows the chance to plan, write, edit, design, and publish their own book in a single year.
Flanagan said she used any and all free time to write the book, going to the Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop Cafe in Damariscotta for a change of scenery and working on the book at school and during basketball games. “Literally any spare moment I had, I worked on it,” she said.
Flanagan expressed gratitude towards her mentor, Deirdre McDonough-Fulton, assigned to her in January. McDonough-Fulton helped her focus on the big picture and overarching themes of the work. “Our conversations sparked a lot of ideas. She learned my story and made specific suggestions,” Flanagan said.
In addition to her mentor, Flanagan said she worked with Kathryn Williams, the lead teacher at The Telling Room.
Writing the book in only one year, Flanagan described the editing process as an edit-as-you-go procedure.
“The alternating story line was the hardest part, making it all fit together,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan said she first got connected with The Telling Room by submitting a poem to a Telling Room contest in Portland her sophomore year that was later put into an anthology.
During this trip to The Telling Room for the contest, Flanagan found out about the fellowship program and returned to her high school with a desire to apply to it.
“I saw the four students in the Emerging Writers Fellowship and thought ‘I want to do that.’ The next day, I walked into my teacher’s room and said ‘I’m applying for this,’” Flanagan said.
Flanagan has attended area schools since her youth, going to elementary school at Friendship Village School before attending Medomak Middle School and Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro.
Flanagan held a reading, book-signing, and Q&A session at the Waldoboro Public Library on Wednesday, Nov. 14. She said a previous book launch was held at SPACE, an art gallery in Portland, in mid-August.
Flanagan said she is currently taking a break from writing but wants to continue writing and study creative writing when she goes to college.
“This is the first of many, I hope,” Flanagan said of her book.