REMINDER: Voting ends today at noon CST. Tomorrow I’ll announce April winners and give you the new word for May. Don’t miss tomorrow!
Today it is my honor to present Lois Ruby as my Featured Guest. Many of you are familiar with her work. I have a feeling that many others are going to be checking her out. Lois, the floor is yours.
David, I’m honored to post on your blog. Seems like your guests have already said everything on earth about children’s books, but since the saying goes that there’s nothing new under the sun, I’ll try to shine my own peculiar glow on some common thoughts.
Why am I a writer instead of, say, a circus clown? Well, I can’t juggle, nor could I squeeze my body into one of those tiny cars. I’m not athletic or artistic or math-proficient or musical. But I can do words. I started doing them as soon as I learned to read in first grade, because I was sure that language could and should be more captivating than “Run, Spot, run.” I’m still writing. I guess I never grew up.
When today’s world is so complex and enthralling, why do I spend so much of my writing energy on historical fiction? Someone recently asked me if we’re losing aspects of our past. This has nothing to do with dementia. It’s about whether young people value the long trail traversed before they began their journey. There’s a lot more past than there used to be, and I feel a responsibilty to capture some of it and render it palatable to young readers. History was boring when I was a kid, because it was taught in the least appetizing way – facts, dates, and wars — rather than people and places and times of high intrigue. I try to transport myself to those times and places and into the skin of the people in my stories. How would I have endured being a slave? How would I have handled fleeing my homeland with Hitler on my heels, and readjusting to life in China? What would it have been like to be apprenticed to a barber-surgeon in 1607 Jamestown, before the advent of modern medicine and surgery? What if I were unjustly accused of murder, and my soul roamed restlessly until some courageous teen discovered the truth 170 years later?
Of course, writing about the past gives me freedom from the trappings of contemporary life. This week a reader stumbled upon an old book of mine that was “contemporary” circa 1987. The reader shared with me her startling discovery that those characters got through tough experiences without a cell phone and without being able to Google every question that popped into their heads. How ever did they manage? She asked, if I rewrote the book today, would I put all those techie things in? Hmm… I don’t know.
Am I just making it extra hard on myself by writing most of my novels with two narrative voices? Of course it would be easier to use just one narrator through whose eyes and ears a story is revealed. But each story has its own integrity, and the author’s job is to follow where that story leads. In my regular (non-writing) life, I rarely see things from only one point of view. Shades of gray make my perception all the more colorful. So, it comes naturally to me to tell a story from both a girl’s and a boy’s point of view, or from the perspective of narrators in two different time periods. I almost can’t help it; I hear two voices in my head, and by golly, they often don’t agree with one another! That’s conflict, and no story has zing and zest without conflict.
After writing 13 books steeped in reality, both contemporary and historical, what possessed me to write a ghost story, The Secret of Laurel Oaks? It was awfully hard for me to let go of reliable reality. In the literary world, this is called suspension of disbelief. I like that rather high fallutin’ expression, because I tend to be a world-class disbeliever. I have to see it to believe it, believe me. But when a publisher asked me to write a scary novel, I stretched as far as I could until I latched onto a fascinating true story about Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana. It’s on an official Smithsonian list of the ten most haunted houses in America. Who knew there was an official list? I made a special trip to Myrtles to see if I could encounter one of the dozen or so ghosts said to haunt the place. It was a spooky experience, and it freed me to delve into the mind of a ghost who seemed to want me to tell her story. I did my best to be true to her. The first words of that novel are listen, listen. I did. What’s more, I’d like to try writing a ghost story again, if I find the right tale that compels me to jot down what I hear.
What’s my advice for emerging children’s authors? Oh, it all sounds trite, but here’s what I’d say. The hardest thing is to disregard the trends in the market, e.g., vampires are on their way out, though they do tend to reappear every generation or two. Can you afford to wait that long? The problem with trends is that by the time you write the story, the ever-dynamic market has changed, and you’re clinging desperately to its coattails. Instead, write what fascinates you, drives you to ask compelling questions, and fits your artistic style and moral perspective. Then hope, hope, hope that the market will catch up with you.
Then there’s the usual advice: read, write, find a critique group or a mentor who will be gently honest with you about what works and what doesn’t in your writing. Travel, turn off the TV and computer, cherish time with the children you write about and for, and finally, spend a week every year at a writer’s retreat. Not possible? Then at least escape to your own space – both mentally and geographically — for an hour or a day and let ideas flow without distraction. Most important, enjoy!