Ken Sheldon’s writing desk is tucked into a tiny closet, piles of papers spilling over the small shelves above his computer.
At this desk, he simultaneously wears the hats of playwright, novelist, actor, and musician. It’s not a particularly glamorous set-up, but Sheldon quips that it gets the job done — and at 65, the Peterborough resident has authored suspense novels under the name Michael Manley, written children’s music for Scholastic, and performed in numerous productions with the Peterborough Players.
This desk is also where he wrote his latest play, “Deep Water,” adding the title of historian to his resume. Commissioned by the Jaffrey Historical Society, the piece marks 100 years since the murder of Dr. William K. Dean, a prominent gentleman whose death remains unsolved to this day.
It was performed twice in Jaffrey this summer, and is set to be performed again Wednesday in Keene at the Historical Society of Cheshire County.
“It’s like a black hole — you get too close and it just sucks you in,” Sheldon says. “But it’s a really fascinating story.”
Some know Sheldon best as Fred Marple, the fictional Yankee persona he created for his variety show “Frost Heaves,” a comedic take on New England featuring “the most under-appreciated town in New Hampshire.”
The show ran for eight years, until Sheldon decided to take a step back from Frost Heaves to focus on some of his other creative projects. But though Frost Heaves is no longer performed regularly, Sheldon still travels around to give one-man shows as Fred Marple, such as his upcoming performance of “Fred Marple’s Christmas Show” at the Dublin Community Center on Dec. 6.
When it comes to Frost Heaves, Sheldon says finding material to draw from has never been difficult. Asked where he’s from, he simply replies “New England,” as his family moved around the region when he was growing up, from the North Shore of Boston to Kittery, Maine to outside of Burlington, Vt.
Save for two brief stints living in California, Sheldon’s life has been a series of small towns. And that’s really what Frost Heaves is about — after all, “all small towns are the same,” Sheldon says, quoting “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder.
And his character, who he says is a bit like him — only crankier and much more opinionated — really seems to resonate with New England audiences.
“I go to shows and I sit up there and I look out in the audience, and there’s like 50 Fred Marples looking back at me with the flannel shirt and the suspenders and the ball cap,” he says, laughing.
Sheldon has always had a knack for the creative, but he didn’t always plan to channel that creativity into a career. After studying art at the University of New Hampshire, he had his sights set on medical school.
“The medical schools of America were not amused,” he says good-naturedly.
Not being accepted to medical school was the first major disappointment of his life. But looking back now, he can’t imagine taking a different path than the one he’s on now. In fact, it was after about a year in physicians assistant school that Sheldon decided to drop everything and try to make writing a career.
So he got a job at Belletetes hardware store to pay the bills, until he landed a full-time gig at Byte Magazine, a Peterborough-based publication that was known for its coverage of computers as the technology field was rapidly developing in the 1970s and ‘80s.
That job took him to San Francisco for a brief time, where he was the magazine’s West Coast bureau chief, but he soon landed back in the Monadnock Region — and that’s when his creative career really began to take off.
Now, he’s confident he ended up in exactly the right spot.
“The analogy I came up with one time is, you know if you grow plants, when they first start out and they break the seed through the ground, they’re just like little green shoots. You can’t tell what they are. It’s the same with babies. Babies pretty much all look alike,” Sheldon said. “But the job is just to nurture this thing, and then watch it and see what it’s supposed to be.”
Looking back on his childhood, it seems obvious now that he was destined for an artistic life. As a boy, he was always whistling or writing or putting on little shows, and he and his siblings loved to rifle through the family’s dress-up box. On more than one occasion, Sheldon recalls throwing on some of the old clothes and performing Elvis Presley imitations in the middle of the living room, ever the “dramatic middle child” of the family.
That dress-up box is part of what inspired his most recent series of middle-grade books, “The Above Average Adventures of Nicholas Herriman.” It’s the story of a boy who finds an old trunk at the town dump. After prying it open, he’s at first disappointed to find that it’s full of old clothes. But he soon realizes it’s no ordinary wardrobe — each item of clothing imparts some kind of superpower to whomever wears it.
The second book in the series, “Nicholas Herriman and the Enchanter’s Medallion,” was recently published, and Sheldon is hard at work on the third. He always seems to be hard at work on something — in fact, he laments that some of his ideas will likely never come to fruition, simply because he’ll run out of time to finish them all.
He’s already crossed off a few of his dream projects, such as writing a novel and making a CD. But there’s one he still hasn’t completed — making a film. And true to form, Sheldon has several screenplay ideas on the back burner.
Throughout his work — from his novels to his plays to his performing — small-town life is often a constant. It’s not something he explicitly set out to do, but it makes sense, he says.
Small towns are what he knows. And for a writer, what you know is often where your ideas sprout from, he says — no matter the size of the city.
“To sum it up: Bloom where you’re planted, know where your roots are and connect to those roots and dig into them,” he says. “And then you’ll find your creative urge.”