Writers at Work: What We Did for Love, Part 4 (a)

Hi everyone,

Sandy Asher and I have enjoyed bringing you another episode of WRITERS AT WORK this month. The topic has focused how writers and illustrators prepare for the work they do. During the process of research, what do we sometimes find ourselves doing? Our thanks again to Debbie Dadey for leading us off on April 7. I followed on April 14 and Sandy posted on April 21.

We also asked other published artists and authors to share some of their stories and observations on the subject and have been delighted by the responses. We have so many that it will take today and tomorrow to share them all, so here goes.

For Nellie the Brave, an historical about the Cherokee Trail of Tears, I went to Tahlequah, OK, to the Cherokee Nation headquarters and saw objects that were brought to OK on one of the wagon trains from the Indian removal. I also took the tour of the grounds to learn more about Cherokee culture.

For First Cousins (out later this year from Schoolwide) I went to Washington D.C. and toured the White House and other historical sites.

Because I write for adults, I’ve researched occupations I’ve given my heroines. When I wrote about a newscaster, I spent two days at at TV station, interviewing folks with different jobs and going into the studio, the engineer’s booth with at least 30 screens, even crawling into the remote van. When I wrote about a professional baseball player, I toured a ball stadium, even going into the locker room. When I couldn’t go to a place, I interviewed people with the jobs of my main characters.

The book I’m just now planning for this MFA thesis will be set during the Vietnam era and in Vietnam. I’ll have to trust Jimmie’s memory for some scenes, but I’ll research the historical time instead of trusting to my memory about what was going on here in the States, and I’ll interview other Vietnam vets, too, and read tons of books about that war.

(Some of Veda Boyd Jones’s books are now e-books. Look for them on Amazon. Veda is a proponent of more education, no matter your age, and will graduate in January from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast with an MFA degree in creative writing. http://vedaboydjones.com . New ebooks:
The Governor’s Daughter
That Sunday Afternoon)

Since for many (most) authors a trip to Hawaii or Egypt would be at least as much and probably more than they will get–IF they get–any advance on the book, and might be more time than they can reasonably take away from family duties, we have to consider other imaginative ways to get into the blood and bones of a book.
I haunt old bookstores where I found a travel book on Edinburgh datelined 1929 which slots nicely into a 1930s graphic novel set in that very place.
I joined a friend who was doing a paid-for article for Yankee Magazine as she went around the Shaker Village in New York State just as I was writing a novel about Shakers.

I had an Indian colleague of my husband’s read a manuscript set in India in the 1920s.
A friend just back from a trip to Poland brought me photos and travel brochures, post cards and snapshots from there because I was writing a novel partially set there. And I used her interesting take on the Polish airport that I got from her when I took her out for lunch.

(Jane has authored more than 350 books, including Caldecott winner OWL MOON and Caldecott honor book THE EMPEROR AND THE KITE. Recent titles include HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY THEY’RE MAD, YOU NEST HERE WITH ME, and STONE ANGEL.http://janeyolen.com )

I just thought I’d share a short example of diligence in creating authenticity…

A year and a half ago, I had an idea for a counting, rhyming picture book – but no way to write it. That’s because the concept involved 12 different languages – only one of which I knew fluently (English) and one I knew partially (French). But these needed to be diverse languages from all corners of the Earth, from English to Chinese to Navajo. So what’s a guy to do??

First, I searched online for educational material on speaking each language. Then I needed to search that language’s use of numbers – specifically, natural numerals (1, 2, 3…) and not ordinal numerals (first, second, third…). I needed to figure out what the numbers looked like AND what they sounded like (in order to provide phonetic pronunciations). Interestingly, many numbers of the same language are written differently and even spoken differently, depending on dialects and accents – so what I thought was going to be moderate amount of research turned into a major, MAJOR effort, watching videos of natural citizens speaking their native tongues, watching them draw the characters, and comparing and contrasting the differences and similarities.

I finally got it done and am quite proud of it – of course, I’ll be prouder if it gets picked up! – but the research was mind-boggling. It probably took me 10 times as long to research it as it did to actually write it!

(Matt has 5 poems included in three new children’s anthologies out now, and another will be included in J. Patrick Lewis’ National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2015) due this Sept. http://www.MattForrest.com , http://www.MattForrest.Wordpress.com (blog), http://www.Facebook.com/MattForrestVoice )

I am the author of one book so far: I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY. It came out to starred reviews in 2012 and is illustrated by Michele Wood.

Each poem is named for a traditional quilt block pattern and each references/recalls slavery in one way or another.

For example, “Log Cabin” is a poem depicting what archeologists have found excavating the slave quarters near a plantation. To research that idea, I went to Mount Vernon, Virginia and took notes as the historians gave us a tour of the actual dig that archeologists were working on.

For the poem “Anvil” I went to several blacksmith demonstrations at arts and crafts festivals in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Annapolis and talked to them about their work.

I listened to the WPA interviews with former slaves and their children and grandchildren, not just for the information, but for cadence, their rhythms of speech in order to get the sound right in my poems.

I also researched the history of the quilt blocks themselves and spoke with quilt historians and museum curators about their quilt collections, the variance in quilt designs and names. And finally, I made by hand, a queen-sized quilt including all of the quilt blocks I wrote about in order to get a sense of each block, of hand-piecing, and working with a limited color palette.

(Born in Whidbey Island, Washington off the Northwest Coast, 6th of 9 children. Grew up in the redwoods and on the beaches near San Francisco. http://www.cynthiagrady.com/html/books.html )

My husband Tom and I made two trips to China during the years I was researching my book, SHANGHAI SHADOWS, which is about the resettlement of eastern European refugees during the Hitler years. In the Old City of Shanghai there is a small park sandwiched between two crumbling buildings that had been part of the ghetto where 20,000 Jews lived from 1939 to 1945. They weren’t mistreated, or worse, as they would have been had they not escaped from Europe. But they were confined in the Hongkou Ghetto to starve along with everyone else during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. We walked into this little park peopled by Chinese retirees taking their graceful morning exercise. Suddenly everyone stopped and watched us conspicuous westerners wend our way to the back clump of trees in front of which stands a monument inscribed in three languages — English, Chinese, and Hebrew — dedicated to the “Stateless Jews of Europe.” Tom and I trembled as we read the monument in the two language we could, running our fingers over the other words as if they were in Braille. We were profoundly moved by the fact that 20,000 people, who might well have been our own ancestors, survived the war and gave breath to all their descendants, because of the generosity of the Chinese people. Tom and I held one another as tears slid down our cheeks. And finally, we turned to go, and were stunned to see that all the people in the park had formed a semi-circle behind us in silent sympathy. They’d probably never noticed the monument before and maybe had never even seen westerners, but they were clearly curious about our reaction to this odd piece of granite, and we felt cradled by them 65 years after the ghetto had emptied. None of my research moments has equalled this experience. Thanks for letting me share it.

(www.loisruby.com . Author of …
Steal Away Home and Soon Be Free
The Secret of Laurel Oaks
Rebel Spirits and The Doll Graveyard (now in Scholastic Book Fairs!)

CLAIRE RUDOLF MURPHY with John Lewis Claire Murphy and john lewis
As a writer of many nonfiction books, I too have gone to great lengths to conduct research, from studying 100-year-old journals and letters from the northern gold rushes to holding in my hand Susan B. Anthony’s actual 1896 letter to California suffragist Mary McHenry Keith. I never fail to get the shivers reading the words of real people. In the past few years I have been doing research about current events in my own lifetime and my favorite is to interview these participants by phone or even better, in person. So my most memorable research experience was my November 2014 interview with my hero Rep. John Lewis. Long before he served in Congress he was one of the early civil rights’ activists, a Freedom Rider, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, a leader of the voting rights march in Selma when he was beaten senseless on Pettus Bridge. The last remaining civil rights activist in Congress he’s been interview often during these anniversaries and recent events in Ferguson and New York City. So I knew his face and voice well. But nothing prepared me for his generosity, his kindness, his belief that America can move forward toward a better country for all of us. I will never forget those 60 minutes with John Lewis, a highlight of my writing life.

(www.clairerudolfmurphy.com . My Country Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights June 2014 http://www.hamline.edu/mfac)

Off to Orlando

Hi everyone,

Today is a travel day. I leave this morning for IRA and am looking forward to seeing many friends there. Tomorrow I’ll participate in an all day institute called TEACHING READING THROUGH POETRY: THE PHONICS, FLUENCY, COMPREHENSION, AND MOTIVATION CONNECTION. This event will be co-chaired by Tim Rasinski and Alicia McCartney

Topic titles are, “How to turn Kids Into Poetry Readers (and Writers) (by making it fun!);” “Why Poetry to Teach Phonics?” “Why Poetry to Teach Reading Fluency?” “Poems for Multiple Voices — Performing and Writing;” “Poetry from the Voice of the Child;” “What Do You Do When Kids Memorize Their Poems?” “Putting Poetry at the Heart of the Classroom;” and “Putting it All Together: How Poetry Fits into the Whole Reading Curriculum.” I’ll try to take good notes and share some highlights when I get back to work.

My thanks to all the outstanding people who have appeared as my Featured Guests in recent weeks. When I have more time, I’ll repost their pictures and give links to their appearances. For now I’ll be content to list their names and the dates they were my guests. You can find them this way but I’ll try to make it easier later.

March 25, Hans Wilhelm
April 1, Kelly Milner Halls
April 8, Robin Brickman
April 15, Janet Wong
April 22, Jane Kurtz
April 29, Lois Ruby
May 6, Jean Stringam

A number of people are at work on their articles or responses so the coming weeks will certainly carry on the tradition.

Don’t forget, the word of the month is PROMISE.


Lois Ruby today

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!

Hi everyone,

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!



Lois Ruby tomorrow

UPDATE: Have you voted yet? Polls close tomorrow at noon CST. Current leaders among adults are Mary Nida Smith and Ken Slesarik. Young Poet leaders are Samina Hegeebu and Peter Meyer.

Hi everyone,

I’m happy to tell you that tomorrow my Featured Guest is Lois Ruby, a very gifted and accomplished author and lecturer. I was delighted when Lois agreed to appear and I know you’ll enjoy her remarks. Be sure to read her tomorrow. For now, here is a brief bio provided by Lois. It’s much too modest but here is a link that will tell you much more about her. www.loisruby.com

After reading a thousand books in her young adult department of the Dallas Public Library, Lois decided she could write the stories herself. Since her first book was published in 1977, 13 more have seen print, and she’s no longer a working librarian. Her time is divided among family, research, writing, and visiting schools to energize young people about the ideas in books. Lois shares her life with her psychologist husband, Dr. Tom Ruby, in Albuquerque, as well as their three sons and daughters-in-law, and five amazing grandchildren, who are scattered around the country and – for this year – in India.