I was living in a cabin way back in the Vermont woods with no electricity, phone or running water. I had to hike in on foot, hauling groceries, laundry, and water. Anyone who has spent a night in the woods knows the strange noises you hear, the way sounds play tricks. The trilling screech of an owl becomes a horrific clown blowing a slide-whistle; a baby bear’s cry turns into an old man screaming for help. Every snap of twigs and crunch of leaves can seem sinister.
During the daylight hours, I would walk along the old abandoned railroad bed that bordered the back of our property, and if I went far enough, I’d pass what locals called “the hippie shacks”: a small group of poorly made cabins that had been built in the late 60’s or early 70’s. The tarpaper roofs had collapsed; the wooden walls were rotted and mossy. I’d imagine the work that went into building the cabins, the hope and promise of living close to nature, going back to the land. And now here they sat, abandoned and in ruins, a dream unfulfilled.
It was in this environment that the idea for Promise Not to Tell was born. I thought I could write a ghost story, set in the woods of Vermont. A story in which the setting itself plays a role as important as the characters — a vivid, living thing.
It was early spring, and down the road from us was a small vegetable farm. One morning, I noticed a dead crow in the center of a nearly sown field, hung upside down from a post, a string tied around its foot. I’d heard farmers did this to keep other crows from eating seeds before they’d sprouted, and that it was far more effective than the traditional scarecrow. For weeks that crow hung there on its string like a broken marionette, quietly rotting, a gruesome warning for other crows to stay away.
When I sat down to write my ghost story, I began with that crow. As I was describing the bird, a hand appeared in the scene and began stroking the greasy feathers. At first, all I saw was a dirty little hand, but then, as I wrote, a young girl came into focus and I had an immediate sense of who she was — and I knew she was going to be my ghost. She told me her name: Del. “I’ve got a secret,” she whispered and I listened, writing it all down.