Imagine a cross between the 1960s TV show "The Wild Wild West" and the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg.
Throw in a bit of mystery, a teenage love triangle, and an undead killer and you've got the premise of "Last Ghost at Gettysburg: a T.J. Jackson Mystery," the debut young adult novel of longtime Fairfield resident Paul Ferrante.
As a child, Ferrante watched the show "The Wild Wild West," a series starring Robert Conrad about the adventures of two Secret Service Agents for President Ulysses S. Grant. There was one chilling episode that stuck with Ferrante to this day -- "The Night of the Returning Dead", about a Confederate ghost rider.
"I never forgot the image of that ghost rider," he said.
Gettysburg also serves an inspiration for Ferrante.
"I love history, especially the Civil War," he said. "There's something very special about Gettysburg -- there's a mystical aura about it."
So after an agent asked if he had any other ideas after a failed attempt to publish a novel about baseball, Ferrante knew just the story he wanted to write.
'Last Ghost at Gettysburg: a T.J. Mystery' – the Premise
"Last Ghost at Gettysburg: a T.J. Jackson Mystery," chronicles what protagonist T.J. Jackson thinks will be the "worst summer of his life."
T.J., a laidback, semi-popular Fairfield teen who will enter high school come fall, lives with his architect dad. When his dad takes off with his young girlfriend for a project in Paris, T.J. is dumped in Gettysburg with his Uncle Mike, a park ranger, and Mike's family -- including T.J.'s geeky adopted cousin LouAnne.
But as it turns out, adopted cousin LouAnne is no longer a detestable girl, but a self-possessed, drop-dead gorgeous cross-country star. T.J. struggles with his feelings for LouAnne as trouble brews in Gettysburg.
A ghostly Confederate cavalier has risen from the dead to be "Protector of the Battlfield," wreaking havoc and stumping police as the body count starts to rise. T.J. and LouAnne get involved in the mystery, as does T.J.'s hopelessly nerdy Civil War expert best friend Bortnicker, who also falls for LouAnne.
Throughout the story, the kids meet all the kinds of people that make up the Gettysburg community -- the "hardcore" re-enacting segment, the relic hunters, the paranormal guys, Ferrante said.
"They all come together to make Gettysburg almost like a Civil War theme park -- the three kids are thrust into the middle of [this mystery], and the clock is ticking."
Characters Based on Real-Life Kids
Ferrante said the story includes "a lot of things kids would like. -- there's the paranormal stuff, the history, the romantic triangle."
He should know -- Ferrante's an English teacher at Coleytown Middle School in Westport.
T.J., Bortnicker, and LouAnne are "an amalgamation" of the thousands of kids he's taught, Ferrante said. Their love triangle and interactions are "based on things I've see every day," with his "ringside seat" to the nature of adolescent romance.
His students will soon be able to read the story they helped inspire when "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" is published on March 25, just in time for this summer's 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The publication date has been a longtime in the making, according to Ferrante.
'You Can't...Quit Easily'
Ferrante always loved writing -- and sports. He played football in high school and college.
"It was a weird combination. The guys knew I wrote a lot and I got a lot of grief for it."
He became an English teacher and a football coach, the latter a career that lasted 15 years. When he stopped coaching, Ferrante focused his writing on his "first love: baseball." He began writing baseball history and memorabilia columns for Sports Collectors Digest, which he continues to write for today.
"But there was always a novel percolating in the back of my head," Ferrante said. He had written a baseball novel but couldn't sell it, and that's when he took a turn toward young adult fiction and the path toward publishing "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" began.
Ferrante made a commitment to write during school breaks and whenever he wasn't teaching or correcting papers.
"You've got to find the time," he said.
Then came the task of finding a publisher.
"It was tough, there were a lot of rejections," Ferrante said. It was his wife, Maria, who kept telling him not to quit.
"If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have gone on so long," he said. He added that his daughter Caroline -- an aspiring screenwriter and director -- faces rejection in her line of work, and he didn't want to throw in the towel in front of her.
Plus, "you can't be a football player and coach and quit easily," Ferrante said.
'Getting to See the Cover With Your Name On It -- That's a Big Deal'
He managed to track down the publishers at Fire & Ice -- the young adult imprint of Melange Books -- sent them his work, and they liked it.
"Persistence was a major factor in this," he said.
His hard work paid off -- a sequel is already in the works.
For now, Ferrante will enjoy the simple pleasures of being a published author.
"Finally getting to see the cover with your name on it -- that's a big deal," he said. "The next big deal is actually holding a copy of the book."
Ferrante is slated to talk about "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" at Westport Library in May. To learn more about Ferrante's work, check out his official website and watch the book trailer (created by Ferrante's daughter, Caroline). Keep up with updates about T.J. Jackson Mysteries by "liking" the series' Facebook page. The book will be published as both an e-book and trade paperback.