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Author uses 13-year-old to re-create War of 1812

Inspired by the beautiful Niagara River, which she tries to visit every day in all seasons, local author Norah A. Perez has created a gripping and timely tale for young adults titled, "River Burning, a Novel of the War of 1812."

The slim paperback views the confounding war through the eyes of 13-year-old Delaware "Dell" Hawkins, a resourceful frontier girl living with her father on the Niagara River between Youngstown and Lewiston. Dell witnesses the burning of the Niagara Frontier in December 1813 as a revenge attack by the British and their Mohawk allies.

Drawing on actual events, Perez brings local history to life with engaging snippets gleaned from real letters and diaries.

Perez, a genteel and engaging grandmother of three, was born and raised in Ontario and has lived in the United States since attending St. Lawrence University, where she met her future husband, Louis Perez. The couple raised three children while living in Youngstown for more than 40 years before moving to the Village of Lewiston nearly a decade ago.

Perez started her writing career focusing on adult fiction, winning an international short-story contest at age 16. She continued to write for adults, including television scripts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Alfred Hitchcock on American television.

But she found her niche when her three children were young and she won the prestigious Little Brown Canadian Children's Book Award for "Strange Summer in Stratford," a young adult mystery involving the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Ontario.

Three of Perez's award-winning young adult books have been widely used in school curriculums throughout the United States: "The Slopes of War," focusing on the Battle at Gettysburg; "Breaker," about a boy working in the Pennsylvania coal mines and the strike of 1902; and "One Special Year," a fictionalized account of Youngstown in the year 1900.

"River Burning," Perez' sixth young adult fiction work, was published by the Historical Association of Lewiston in anticipation of the commemoration of the War of 1812.

How did the idea for this book originate?

I actually wrote this book about 10 years ago. I was living in Youngstown. I'm a walker, and I'd walk to the river each day, and the reflection of the sun on the water gave me the image of the river on fire. I could see Niagara-on-the-Lake right across the Niagara River so clearly, and I realized the people here could see the burning of Newark [now Niagara-on-the-Lake] in the War of 1812. I soaked up the local history and wrote the book, but no publisher was interested in the War of 1812 then.

But 10 years passed, and it happened that Diane Finkbeiner of the Historical Association of Lewiston asked me to write a story about the War of 1812, and I said, "I already wrote one!" The Historical Association published it.

What is it like to write historical fiction for young adults?

My father [Leslie McFarlane] wrote and directed documentary films, and I loved them because they were about something real. I like writing about things that really happened -- are really true -- but I can fictionalize them. When I write for young adults, I'm not writing down to them, so that adults seem to enjoy the books, too.

Ten years ago, when I was doing the research for "River Burning," I was just getting into computers, so there was no online research then, just general reading. I read firsthand accounts and letters to give me little details to weave into the story. I did research at Old Fort Niagara, the libraries and the historical associations.

During the war, they [the British] burned the whole Niagara Frontier, and many settlers escaped this area by traveling down Ridge Road. Many ended up in Batavia -- some of them walking. The people of Batavia took in many settlers and wounded soldiers. I visited Batavia for research for this book, and they have a very nice museum there, but many don't know this story, and it's nice to be able to give the people of Batavia credit for their help in this war.

And an important part of all of this is the peace that we have enjoyed for the past 200 years with Canada. The War of 1812 was very confusing, with a lot of meandering around, but the end result was very positive. The river that divided us unites us.

How did the process of publishing this book differ from the publication of your earlier books?

This was my first experience with digital publishing. I worked with a publisher in Buffalo [Digital@batesjackson], and I've enjoyed the process and am pleased with the results. We already sold out our first printing [of 250 copies] and are in the second printing. They can do it so quickly! It would take at least a year to produce a book with the old process, and you had little control.

What is your writing process like?

I always write a complete novel without any input from anyone, and it gives me a certain freedom. Some of these books can literally take years to write. I know some writers who send an idea to a publishing house and then maybe an outline, but with an assignment, there are certain restrictions -- you need to write to please an editor. I write about something I'm just fascinated with, and I don't want to be influenced by anyone's opinions. Some editors just love your work, and others are indifferent to it, and it's a matter of getting it into the right hands. It's kind of a rough situation, but you're doing what you want to do.

Who is the first person to read your work?

The first person to read my finished work is my lifelong agent, Al Hart. He'll say, "I'll send it here or I'll send it there." I trust him. He's a true professional and very discerning. My husband and children read my books after they've been published.

Are you working on anything right now?

I am writing my memoirs right now. I had really wonderful parents. My father was a writer and director, and my mother was the survivor -- living with a freelance situation, especially during the Depression. This is a love story to both of them, and I've been working on it several years now, because it brings up all of the details of the past.

Please tell me more about your literary family.

My father, Leslie McFarlane, was very prolific. He wrote the first 20 Hardy Boys books as a freelancer -- he had no regular paychecks during the Depression [the books were written by ghostwriters, all under a pseudonym]. No one knew my father was writing these books -- we were all sworn to secrecy. I don't think as a child reading the Hardy Boys, which I loved, that I even made the connection between the books and the man down the hall writing these books. My father considered it hack work, really, but he enlarged the characters and added humor and always did such a professional job.

In fact, [McFarlane's name was not revealed] until the 1970s when a reporter wanted to find out who really wrote the Hardy Boys books. My father was astounded to learn just how popular those books were -- he never received any royalties. He was just such a professional, and he did such other fine, literary work.

My father also wrote for radio and then went to work for the National Film Board of Canada, and that was a big part of our childhood because he wrote and directed about 70 documentary films and traveled all over for this work. He also later wrote for television. He was very professional and adapted to change.

And my brother, Brian McFarlane, was quite a famous sportscaster for Canadian Broadcasting Corp. -- he was on "Hockey Night in Canada" for many years. He is retired from broadcasting but is still writing.

Where is your book available locally for purchase?

The Book Corner in Niagara Falls, DiCamillo's Bakery in Lewiston, Canterbury Place in Lewiston, the Lewiston Historical Museum, Bob's Olde Books and Barton Hill Hotel and Spa.