Chatting with California Trail Discovered Book 1 of The Whitcomb Discoveries Author Marie Sontag

Congratulations on your newest middle-grade historical novel, California Trail Discovered, which releases this fall.  Can you tell us about your novel, and what drew you to this story?

Thank you. I was drawn to the story the last time I visited Yosemite National Park. At that time, I wondered, “Who were the first whites to see Yosemite Valley?” After doing some research, I discovered one of the first non-native groups to witness the valley’s beauty was a battalion led by a man named Jim Savage. He had traveled West on a wagon train that, in the beginning, included the Donner Party.

I decided to create a series of two books to relate this event. Because I write for middle grade and young adult readers, the first book, California Trail Discovered,  features thirteen-year-old Daniel, an orphaned fictional character, who travels West on the Oregon/California Trail with Jim Savage as his guardian.

Book two, written for young adult readers, takes Daniel and Jim, along with the Mariposa Battalion, into Yosemite. Titled Yosemite Trail Discovered, Daniel finds that when Native Americans and gold miners clash in the goldfields, more is discovered than just Yosemite Valley 

Book two sounds exciting as well From reading your wonderful novel, I’d imagine writing it took many hours of research. Do you ever visit the places where your novels are located?

Yes, as much as I can! I’ve been to Yosemite several times. The last time I went I also visited and filmed most of the locations where Jim Savage established a trading post. Another place I’ve visited is Poland. It helped me research my historical novel about the Scouts in Poland during WWII as they joined with the Underground to try and overthrow the Germans. Visiting the places I want to write about really helps the story come alive.  

That's fantastic you were able to visit where Jim Savage had trading posts. It had to be an interesting learning experience as well. Speaking of learning, as an educator, what led you to incorporate STEAM activities into your novel?

For those who don’t know, STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. Teachers are expected to include these strands of learning in their curriculum, no matter what subject they teach. As a former middle school teacher, I know how difficult it is for teachers to accomplish everything expected of them. Including STEAM lessons at the end of chapters in California Trail Discovered can provide a seamless way teachers can weave STEAM components into their curriculum as they teach a novel that relates to this area of study.

Could you please tell us about the other middle-grade novels you’ve written? Around what historical era do these take place?

I’ve written a middle-grade series that takes place in Ancient Mesopotamia during the time of King Hammurabi, around 1810 BC. The series is titled Ancient Elements: The Bronze Dagger, The Alabaster Jar, and The Silver Coin. The teen characters travel to Babylon, Egypt, Crete, Cyprus, and Phoenicia discovering stolen jewels, secret tombs, and a coin that unlocks a special treasure. When I give author talks in schools, I share with students my artifacts of a 3,000-year-old bronze dagger, an alabaster jar, and an ancient Phoenician coin. In case you wondered, no, I haven’t traveled to these areas—yet! 


I'd imagine the students are very interested in the ancient artifacts you bring to show. If you had to choose one past century to visit, which one would you choose and why?

I’d like to visit the 1800’s and have a visit with President Lincoln. The nation was polarized in his time. He had to make many difficult decisions, much as today. I’d like to hear first-hand how he made these decisions and why.


That sounds very interesting, Lincoln would have to be an intelligent conversationalist. Referring to persons and places in general, do pieces of the region where you live or characteristics of family or friends ever sneak into the pages of your books?

As hard as I try to keep myself out of my novels, I find some of my own characteristics creeping in. I’ve always had challenges with my left leg. My main character in the Ancient Elements series walks with a limp and uses a cane. I didn’t realize that similarity until after the first book in the series was published!


What a coincidence! Do any of the movies you watch or books that you read influence your story ideas? And, what are some of the books you’re currently reading?

As a young teen, I saw “The Sound of Music” on a large screen, and was captivated by the story. I wanted to learn all I could about the WWII era. I recently finished Winter Garden, by Kristen Hannah, and am about to start My Dearest Dietrich, by Amanda Barratt—a book that I learned about from your blog!


I love The Sound of Music, happy you became familiar with Amanda Barratt's work from this blog! Since the title of the blog names a beverage, curious minds want to know what type of coffee or tea do you prefer?

I definitely enjoy coffee more than tea—non-flavored cream, please, and no sugar!


Sounds delicious, Marie! There must be a new idea on the horizon for you. Could you give us a hint as to what you’ll be creating for your readers?

Now that I’m a Texan, having moved here four years ago from California, I’d like to write an MG or YA novel about Lorenzo De Zavala, the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas. I learned about him when my husband and I toured Texas’ capitol. I wondered, “Why would a man born in Mexico, who served in Spain as a deputy for Yucatán, and who then helped draft the constitution for Mexico after it won its independence from Spain, end up supporting Texas’ independence from Mexico?”  

Thank you again, Marie. It was a lot of fun chatting with you!

Thank you!


We have a winner! Congratulations Lori Z. Scott!! 

Marie has generously offered one copy of California Trail Discovered as a #Giveaway. Once it's released she will send the copy via USPS to the winner. Please comment to enter this wonderful giveaway. (Contest is open to US continental residents, only).  The contest drawing is on Tuesday, August 11th at 4 pm. 


About Marie:

Marie Sontag enjoys bringing the past to life, one adventure at a time. Her fifteen years of teaching middle school and high school have given her insight into what students find entertaining, and her B.A. in social science and M.A. and Ph.D. in education provide her with a solid background for writing middle grade and young adult historical fiction.

 Born in Wisconsin, she spent most of her life in California, but now lives with her husband in Texas. When not writing, she enjoys romping with her grandkids, playing clarinet and saxophone in a community band, and nibbling red licorice or Tootsie Pops while devouring a good book.




 Where to connect with Marie:






  1. Thanks for the interview, Stacy. It was fun!

    1. You are welcome, Marie. Thanks for coming on the blog, it was a blast!

  2. What an interesting interview! It's so nice to learn the background for stories like the ones Marie writes. Congratulations on the newest novel, Marie!

    1. Thanks, Sweet Bee. I appreciate your feedback. If you private message me on my FB page with your email, I can enter you in the giveaway drawing August 11!

    2. Hello Sweet Bees Press! Thank you for stopping by. Happy to hear you enjoyed the interview. Have a great day, wish you the best on the giveaway!

  3. I am amazed at how much research must have gone in to each of the books you wrote. It blows my mind. I think the stories would be a great tool for teachers to use in the classroom, especially those dealing with those particular time periods.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lori. I am entering you in the giveaway drawing August 11!

    2. Hi Lori, Thank you for visiting the blog. Isn't it incredible all the wonderful learning activities Marie incorporates for teachers in schools and for homeschooling parents as well! You've been entered into the giveaway, I wish you the best!


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