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1. Straight From the Source: J. Anderson Coats on Writing Historical Fiction

J. Anderson Coats is the author of historical fiction for young adults that routinely includes too much violence, name-calling and petty vandalism perpetrated by badly-behaved young people.  Her first YA novel, THE WICKED AND THE JUST, was one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012, a 2013 YALSA Best for Young Adults (BFYA) winner, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 2012 selection.  It also won the 2013 Scandiuzzi Children’s Book award (the Washington State Book Award for teens).

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft? At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

The answer is, maddeningly, it depends.

With W/J, I had an advantage when it came to research. I was the kind of unbalanced teenager that had research interests, so I was deep in the DA section of the library* by the time I was thirteen. So most of the background content I had going in. If I ever were to write about lumberjacks or samurai or galley slaves, I’d have to do a lot more research up front. But as long as I’m in the medieval or early-modern British Isles, I’m off to the races.

Basically I write along until I encounter a detail I either 1) don’t know or 2) am not sure of. Then I make an educated guess and put the affected content in [brackets] and look it all up at the end (or when I’m stuck and need to justify taking a break, whichever comes first).

What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?

One of the most significant challenges for W/J was a scarcity of pre-rebellion primary source material concerning Edwardian planted towns, since a lot of the records kept by English authorities in Caernarvon were lost in the rebellion itself. The rebels were aiming for the tax records, but everything else went up too. (There’s a lot of stuff on the castles and the minutiae their construction, but not on the towns themselves, although since W/J came out, this book was published.)

I had to approach the problem creatively, researching other towns founded by Edward I in other places, general medieval urban culture, and the North Wales planted towns in later ages when the records are better. When you’re a writer of historical fiction, you’re part garbage collector, part treasure hunter, part psychologist and part microfilm wrestler.

Why is historical fiction important?

I’m not sure how it’s important in a cosmic sense, but here’s why it’s important to me.

There are budding teenage history geeks out there, and I want to be on the front lines of handing them books that let them know they’re correct that history is in fact awesome. And that they’re not alone in thinking so.

There are kids who don’t think much of history because all they’ve ever had to judge it by is “social studies.” I want to hand them real stories about real people who feel familiar, who have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we all do.

There are kids who might like history if it was more real. Or maybe it’s not so much that I want kids to like history, but to understand that it’s not as foreign or irrelevant as they think. I can’t unindoctrinate them, but I can hand them a story that doesn’t pull any punches, that presents the past in all its corrupt, seamy glory, and let them decide for themselves.

How do you conduct your research?

I research iteratively, and I love to compile.

Mostly I use books and articles (it’s rare I find a good online resource), and I record all my research notes on the back sides of sheets of recycle paper I scavenge out of the bin. I write the title of the research book I’m working with at the top and number the sheets as I need to. Each book gets its own set of note-pages.

I go through books chapter by chapter and jot down individual pieces of evidence followed by its page number. For articles, I underline and annotate in the margins. If there are images, maps, charts or graphs, they get scanned/copied and the bibliographic information logged at the top.

After I work on a topic for a while, I’m able to compile my evidence into charts and tables or timelines for quick reference. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, and I’m especially fond of my spreadsheet o’ swears. It cross-references rude, vulgar, and otherwise unsavory terms; when each one came into the language, its context, terms that are similar and/or related, and how it changed over time.

F’r instance, if I need someone to insult someone else’s parentage, I just need to look up a term I know was used and I’ll get all the rest, plus some idea whether it’s appropriate for the era. My other spreadsheets work this way too, but this is the one I use the most.

What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?

Medieval people were really pretty raunchy. A lot of people in the modern era have this impression that medieval people were straight-laced and humorless, either because their lives were hard or because religion played a central role in their world. This really isn’t true. They had a deep and abiding love of poop and fart jokes, and they adored what we would call slapstick humor. If people were getting hurt, they thought it was hilarious. Medieval people were also fans of wordplay, especially the double-entendre. They could make dirty puns like you wouldn’t believe.

* History. Particularly medieval history. Particularly medieval Welsh history.

The post Straight From the Source: J. Anderson Coats on Writing Historical Fiction appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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2. Historical Fiction Writing Links

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Our Story: American History Stories and Activities You Can Do Together (1801-1861) :: Smithsonian’s History Explorer (this ties in nicely with May B.!)

Research Matters :: Avi

Five How-Two Tips for Writing Historical Fiction :: Live, Write, Thrive

Crafting Historical Fiction :: Caroline Starr Rose

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3. Writing A Life

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Thinking, thinking after the LMM journals and the Laura Ingalls Wilder class* just what it means to capture a life on the page.

  • Is it ever really possible to get distance and perspective?
  • Are memoir and autobiography ever fully “true”?
  • How much can a writer truly reveal in public or even private writings?
  • Are these things fully known to the author herself?
  • How much do emotion and distance color things?
  • In the shaping of a life story, should a reader “listen in” on what is omitted?
  • Where is the moment autobiography shifts to autobiographical fiction?
  • What does it matter in the end?

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I keep circling back to the ideas infallibility and omniscience — two things no one has, but two things that would be needed to fully recored a “true” life. I don’t write memoir or autobiography so I am no expert, but I can’t help thinking what a challenge both formats would be. Memoir allows for more artistic license, (focusing on portions of a life rather than a whole life, for example, or in arranging events for thematic purposes), but both genres are expected to speak truth.

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Perhaps the windows autobiography and memoir afford us are enough to catch a glimpse of a true life. Perhaps journals, though they don’t tell the whole story, remove the public filter enough for a reader to know the author intimately. Maybe fictionalized accounts like the Little House books can give readers as strong a sense of a life as non-fiction.

Thinking, thinking, thinking.

 

* Laura Ingalls Wilder herself used fictionalized accounts of her childhood to get at greater truths. She said about her book, BY THE SHORES OF SILVER LAKE “All I have told is true, but it’s not the whole truth.”

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4. On Writing


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What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”
— Maya Angelou

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5. Classroom Connections: THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer

age range: middle grade (10 and up)
genre: contemporary fiction
study guide
Tracy Holczer’s website

“A lovely and captivating debut . . . Holczer writes with depth, heart, and a poetic lilt . . . nuanced characters engage from beginning to end.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Holczer expertly crafts the characters and dialogue to create a story readers will identify with, and thoroughly enjoy… More than simply a book about grief and the death of a parent, Grace’s story is about the search for identity. An essential purchase for middle-grade collections.” —School Library Journal, starred review

Please tell us about your book.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy is a story about love and loss and what it means to be a family. It takes place after the sudden death of twelve-year-old Grace’s mother. Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she’s never met in a small town she’s never heard of. A town Mama left years before—with Grace in her belly and a bus ticket in her pocket—and never looked back. It doesn’t take long before Grace desperately wants to leave, too.

Until she finds the first crane.

A mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, takes Grace on a journey to find home. And it might just be closer than she thinks.

What inspired you to write this story?

I read a blog post recently where it talked about artists being “fundamentally inconsolable.”

This knocked my socks off for about two days while I thought about the reasons I sit in my chair to write. While “fundamentally inconsolable” isn’t the way I would talk about my life—I’m rather happy, actually—I do find that in my artist’s heart, this is very true. I feel compelled to write about themes of love and loss and belonging. These are deep rooted and wind in and out of my earliest memories, so when I sat down to write about Grace, it seemed natural to draw upon these themes that have special meaning to me.

Could you share with readers your writing process?

While I’m writing, my brain resembles something of a Jackson Pollack painting. Actually, even when I’m not writing, my brain tends to look like that. Ha! So, mostly, the writing process consists of me trying to figure out the order of things. As an instinctual writer, outlines don’t particularly work for me, but with my second book, I’m finding Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to be very helpful.

My books always start with a character and a situation. Family comes next and how that character interacts with the world. Once I see whatever it is that particular character yearns for, in their most secret heart, then the story begins to unfold. So the first few months of a book has me chasing down dead end roads and backtracking, and chasing down more dead end roads. It’s a little crazy making, but it’s what I’ve got. I am completely lacking a left brain, it seems.

What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade?

Plot is so very tough for me to wrap my mind around. Especially in a contemporary story where the character isn’t questing for anything on the outside, like winning a competition or landing the lead in the school play. I mean, how to you write about yearning for a ten and up audience and keep them engaged? So, what I do is read writers who have mastered this. Kate DiCamillo. Linda Urban. Sharon Creech. Then I pray that things rub off.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

There is poetry from Robert Frost and from the main character, brief clips from different poems that felt very true to the themes of the story. I liked the idea of using clips since they can be easier to grasp and might encourage young writers to start small, as Grace does. The poetry also lends itself to the bigger idea that great sadness is always healed little by little, clip by clip.

The book touches on Sadako Sasaki and her thousand paper cranes, how we all have to find our own ways to heal. Magical thinking is part of that and children are so very good at it.

It would also tie in well with abstract art.

The post Classroom Connections: THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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6. Writing Links

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Debut Year Reflections, Tips for New Authors :: YA Highway

Novel Revision Charts: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story :: Darcy Pattison

Life Doesn’t Permit…and Other Wise Words On Making Time to Write :: Kate Messner

The Crushing Weight of Expectations :: Writer Unboxed

Redefining Expectations in Order to Stay Sane :: Read Write Thrive

The Hectic Life of a Multi-Published Author :: Jody Hedlund

 

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7. Troubles

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The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.

The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.

The Millions :: The Trouble with Writing

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8. Hooray for Val’s CROOKED RIVER! A Giveaway

‘Tis the season for critique partner debuts!

Last month we celebrated Kate Bassett’s Words and Their Meanings. Now it’s time to cheer on Valerie Geary and her Crooked River. It’s been especially thrilling to watch these two talents find their agents, sell their books, and then release them into the world just a few weeks apart. Val and Kate have been instrumental in my own writing process. Here’s a little glimpse into CROOKED RIVER and the way the three of us work together.

Before I hand things over to Val, though, I want to share that Crooked River made November’s Indie Next list. It’s that good.

Tell us about your book.

Still grieving the sudden death of their mother, Sam and her younger sister Ollie McAlister move from the comforts of Eugene to rural Oregon to live in a meadow in a teepee under the stars with Bear, their beekeeper father. But soon after their arrival, a young woman is found dead floating in Crooked River, and the police arrest their eccentric father for the murder.

Fifteen-year-old Sam knows that Bear is not a killer, even though the evidence points to his guilt. Unwilling to accept that her father could have hurt anyone, Sam embarks on a desperate hunt to save him and keep her damaged family together. Ollie, too, knows that Bear is innocent. The Shimmering have told her so. One followed her home from her mom’s funeral and refuses to leave. Now, another is following Sam. Both spirits warn Ollie: the real killer is out there, closer and more dangerous than either girl can imagine.

Crooked River is my first novel, a coming of age story and a page-turning mystery that I hope will touch readers’ hearts and keep them up past their bedtime.

What is it like to work with two other writers you’ve never met in person?

I was in a local writer’s group for a short time, and while it was nice meeting in person to talk life and writing, it was also incredibly awkward to have to sit there and listen as my group members picked apart my chapters. There was very little time and no space to consider what they were saying, and for me it ended up being this horrible emotional roller coaster that did more harm than good. 

My socially anxious personality tends to fit better with a virtual writer’s group. Whenever I’m ready, I send Caroline and Kate part or all of my manuscript. They take their time reading it and then they send the manuscript back with their notes attached. There’s less pressure this way, and a lot of distance, a feeling of detachment. Revision is all about setting aside what you think a story should be and really seeing it for what it is so that you can figure out what’s working and what’s not and why. During this stage, it’s important to be as objective as we can with our own work, and the best way I’ve found to do this is by not having my critique partners in the room while I consider their feedback. There’s no one around watching, or judging, or expecting things from me. No one for me to try and justify, defend, or explain my choices. It’s just me alone with my manuscript and their notes, finding a way to a better story.

That said, there are definitely times when I just want to go grab a cup of coffee and talk shop with my friends. Or pop by their house with a plate of cookies when they’re having a hard day. We can’t do this because of the distance, and that’s something I miss.

How often do you read for each other? Do you respond differently as a manuscript progresses? If so, how?

As long as I’m not pushing up against a deadline, I’ll read as often as Kate and Caroline need me to. I’ve read their manuscripts at various stages of development. When I read early drafts, I tend to look more for big picture problems like pacing, story arc, and character development. As the drafts progress, if I’m asked to read again, I still keep big picture things in mind, but I also edit for details, oddly worded sentences, grammar errors, and typos. At every stage, too, I try and point out things I love, beautiful phrases, sections that make me hold my breath or shed a tear, characters that steal my heart. Drawing attention to where a story already shines is just as important as pointing out where it might need a little more elbow grease

Beyond critiquing manuscripts, how else do you support one another?

In this business, there are highs and lows, good days, bad days. When I need to vent, when I want to celebrate, when I feel like a sham, when I read an interesting article, when I need encouragement, when I have stupid questions, when I need someone to tell me I’m not going crazy, or a safe place to be myself, or someone to bounce ideas off of, I go to Caroline and Kate first. No one understands the strange life of a writer better than other writers. 

What is something you’ve learned from your critique partners?

Perserverence, courage, resilience. 

Also, that I overwrite more often than underwrite. Thanks to Caroline and Kate’s keen eyes and wicked red pens, I’m more aware now of the places in my manuscripts where the prose gets wordy or redundant. Of course, I don’t catch everything–I still need them to help me trim the fat.

And finally…

One thing I always remind Caroline and Kate (or anyone else who asks me to critique their writing) is this: At the end of the day, it’s your story. So take the feedback that rings true to you and throw out the rest.

I feel like this is good life advice, too.

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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9. Wild Readers Show Preferences

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We’re examining the five traits Wild Readers have in common, according to Donalyn Miller’s book, READING IN THE WILD.

Show Preferences

While Wild Readers show preferences, these “are not fixed. Wild readers move between different types of reading material depending on their needs and interests at any given time.” Preferences may change and grow along with the reader. (p. 169)

“Wild readers develop attachments to beloved authors and types of stories.”  Re-reading, re-visiting, returning to these authors and stories is a normal part of an active reading life. (p. 169)

“Encouraging students to read what they want while exposing them to high-interest, engaging, quality texts of all kinds fosters their engagement and provides the diverse experiences they need to find texts that will meet their reading interests and needs both today and tomorrow.” (p. 192)

What do you think?

  • Have your reading preferences changed over the years? How so?
  • Are you a re-reader?
  • If you are a teacher, how to do you expose your students to a wide range of texts?

Finally, a quote I adore:

“I want my students to remember our classroom as a home that they may leave, but it will never leave them. They are forever mine, and I am forever their teacher.” (p. 89)

Thank you, Donalyn, for making such a profound difference and sharing your ideas with the rest of us.

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10. Wild Readers Share Books and Have Reading Plans

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We’re examining the five traits Wild Readers have in common, according to Donalyn Miller’s book, READING IN THE WILD.

Share Books and Reading with Other Readers

To raise Wild Readers, all adults must show reading is something “our culture values as a life activity. If we want children to read more, we must provide them with classrooms, libraries, and homes where reading is the norm.” (p. 91)

“Readers need other readers” for discussion and recommendation. Reading relationships enrich the reading experience. (p. 97)

“Building relationships with other readers sustains a student’s interest in reading because it reinforces that reading is an acceptable and desirable pastime.” (p. 98)

Teachers need to consciously expose their readers to a variety of “books, authors, genres, and writing styles” so they might “branch out and try reading experiences they might not discover or attempt on their own.” (p. 98)

Have Reading Plans

Classroom assignments must “support students’ development of wild reading habits,” not “hinder them.” (p. 139)

Kids need to see their teachers actively reading and planning “ways to expand [their own] reading lives.” (p. 147)

“Who can say what books will mark my students’ lives? It’s not my journey, but I am happy to walk alongside them for a few miles. Perhaps a few of the books I invited my students to read will become part of their personal canons. I hope they find many more without me.” (p. 161)

What do you think?

  • Do you regularly share titles with fellow readers or students?
  • Have you picked up and enjoyed a book a book on recommendation that wasn’t your typical preference?
  • Do you set reading goals? What are they like?

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11. Wild Readers Dedicate Time and Self-Select

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We’re examining the five traits Wild Readers have in common, according to Donalyn Miller’s book, READING IN THE WILD.

Dedicate Time to Read

Children need time to read, and some of that time should be during the school day. “Our students must see themselves as readers, or they will never embrace reading beyond school.” (p. 9)

Self-Select Reading Material

Children need to be given the opportunity to try a variety of books “even if they don’t work out.” (p. 59)

“Books teach you how to read them…When students self-select books, we must value their choices as much as possible. This means accepting failed attempts when readers choose books that don’t work out or select books that span a range of reading levels.” (p. 62)

Ideally teachers lead children to books they think they will enjoy, with the aim “to help [students] develop self-confidence in choosing books themselves.” (p. 73)

What do you think?

  • When you were a child, did your teacher dedicate classroom time to reading?
  • If you are a teacher, are you able to do this in your room?
  • How did the opportunity / lack of opportunity to self select books as a child later affect your reading life?

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12. READING IN THE WILD: 5 Things Wild Readers Do

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It’s been five years since I stepped away from teaching, but everything that Donalyn Miller writes still deeply resonates with me. After reading her BOOK WHISPERER, I interviewed Donalyn, blasting her with way too many questions. She graciously answered every one. That interview became a series I ran in four parts. The posts continue to be some of the most popular on the blog.

Last week I finished Donalyn’s second book, READING IN THE WILD: THE BOOK WHISPERER’S KEYS TO CULTIVATING LIFELONG READING HABITS. It’s a look at how teachers can help their readers — even those enthusiastic ones — move from dependence to independence, how students can maintain an active love of reading well beyond the classroom. Donalyn developed a Wild Reader Survey to gauge “reading habits and preferences of adult readers.” Here’s what she found.

Wild Readers

  1. Dedicate time to read
  2. Self-select reading material
  3. Share books and reading with other readers
  4. Have reading plans
  5. Show preferences for genres, authors, and topics

READING IN THE WILD focuses on these five Wild Reader traits and how they can be used to foster a lifelong love of reading. Here’s a taste of what Donalyn believes:

“A reading workshop classroom provides a temporary scaffold, but eventually students must have self-efficacy and the tools they need to go it alone.” (p. xvii)

“Children who love reading and see themselves as readers are the most successful in school and have the greatest opportunities in life.” (p. xix)

“We believe that teaching our students to be wild readers is not only possible; it is our ethical responsibility as reading teachers and lifelong readers. Our students deserve it, society demands it, and our teaching hearts know that it matters.” (p. xxiv)

Over the next few days, I’ll share more about each Wild Reader trait and will invite you to share your thoughts and experiences either in the classroom or as a wild reader.

Looking forward to learning from each of you!

 

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13. The Complexity of Art: Creating and Connecting

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I’ve been thinking about how to define art ever since Emily P. Freeman began her 31 Days of Artful Living series a couple of years ago. Is art something that we do? Is it who we are? Who gets to decide if something is considered art?

But if I think back even further, I’ve been wrestling with my own definition of art for much longer.

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In 2001, a few months before my first child was born, I remember going to a high school art show. As I looked at the displays I knew it was time to decide what I was trying to do with words and why. Moving through the exhibit, from one piece to the next, I came up with a working definition for the artistic life — that it’s the process of creating and connecting.

Art as transaction, in other words.

I had a guest post over at Modern Mrs. Darcy a few days ago and in the comments section tried to explain this very sterile / non-lovely / perhaps controversial* picture of art.

Before I was published, I ached and ached for that final step of connection. All I could do was write my best and consistently submit to agents and editors. The connection portion was out of my hands. I found myself getting anxious, bitter, envious, all that lovely stuff. Even though I continued to feel the artistic process was incomplete without that final step, I had to make peace with how I was going to feel about my work and how it was (or wasn’t) received.

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Honestly, it’s still that way. There’s no promise what I write now will get anywhere. So I often have to lay that part of things aside and just write for myself. I am the one the work needs to connect with, ultimately. Oh yes, I want the “real” readers. Always, always. But the work is the satisfying thing, not the contract or recognition. It gets harder once people are looking in, anyway. I’ve had moments where I’ve been paralyzed worrying about how things would be received.

Publication — that final step — adds a complex layer to things. It means the art no longer belongs to just me. It’s the final step in letting go of a thing that was always temporarily mine.

Somehow, I’m able to hold these two opposites at once: Art isn’t complete until it’s been given away. Art is ultimately for ourselves.

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What do you think? How do you define art?

*Am I saying only those with a audience are the trust artists or that our efforts are only legit once shared with someone else? I’m not fully sure, actually. But for me that final step is part of the creative endeavor — even if that only means I’m pleasing myself.

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14. This Creative Life

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The discipline of creation, be it to paint, composite, write, is an effort toward wholeness.
—Madeleine L’Engle

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15. Handspring’s Writing Conference 2014

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has played a huge role in my writing life.  Joining SCBWI was a leap for me — for the first time I was able to see myself as a professional, even though I had no published works to show for it. The organization has led me to dozens of writing friends, critique groups, opportunities to better my craft, and now, as New Mexico’s assistant regional advisor, a chance to give back to the children’s writing community.

Ever dreamed of writing or illustrating books for children? If you live in New Mexico or in a neighboring state, I invite you to join us in Albuquerque for the upcoming Handsprings Conference on Oct. 24 and 25, 2014 at the Ramada Inn, Eubank and I-40.  Faculty will include the following publishing professionals:

  • Liza BakerExecutive Editorial Director, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Patti Ann HarrisSenior Art Director, Little, Brown
  • Sara MegibowAgent, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Julie Ham BlivenAssociate Editor, Charlesbridge ​​

The conference will include an evening social event on Friday and a full conference scheudle on Saturday, including a First Impressions Panel, individual faculty presentations, plus the opportunity to attend two of our five targeted breakout sessions.

Breakout Sessions

Here is an overview of the breakout sessions offered during this year’s conference. When you register, you’ll be asked to select two different workshops, one for breakout session #1 and one for breakout session #2.

Sara Megibow: Spoken Words and Written Words: Talking about Our Manuscripts and How This Helps Nail Pitch — Talking about a book can be helpful both to pitching your novel and to the actual written creation of your book. Attendees will talk through their pitches and their stories in a safe environment (or just listen to others talk if that’s more comfortable).

Julie Ham Bliven: Writing Middle-Grade Novels: Voice Your Voice — Using recent Newbery Medal and Honor books as a guide, this presentation examines qualities of remarkable middle-grade novels and suggests ways for you to strengthen your novel’s unique voice.

Patti Ann Harris:  Good Habits of Successful Illustrators — Learn how simple ideas like keeping a sketchbook, taking the time to research your subject, and being open to the revision process can help you to grow as an illustrator and a picture book artist.

Patti Ann Harris and Liza Baker: Picture Book Boot Camp — A behind-the-scenes look at the world of the picture book and the steps leading up to publication. A focus on craft will include lively discussion and some in-class work on such topics as creating strong characters, the best practices of succeful illustrators, and tips on polishing your picture book.

Liza Baker: SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW:  Bringing Creative Twists to Perennial Themes in Picture Books — There is a reason why some picture book themes are perennially popular and timeless, and why books that explore those themes are beloved by so many children. Be it bedtime, dinosaurs, princesses, or monsters, some topics are universal and resonate with children in a deep and resounding way. But within those themes there is a great deal of room for authors to explore new areas of creativity and bring a fresh point of view. In this workshop, we’ll discuss some of those most resonant topics, discuss examples of great books that bring an original approach to classic themes, and also brainstorm ideas for creatively layering themes in a playful way that offers readers a satisfying twist on those most celebrated topics.

Please click through to SCBWI New Mexico if you’d like to sign up for the event. I’d love to see you there!

 

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16. Picture Book Poetry Collections

picture book poetry

Thinking, thinking, thinking about a seed of an idea that even my agent says would be a hard sell.

Go for it if you do it as a labor of love, knowing it’s a long shot,

that’s what Tracey says. That’s pretty much been my approach for the last sixteen years. What’s one more try this way? Satisfaction, that’s what.

 

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17. Straight from the Source: Carole Estby Dagg on Writing Historical Fiction

Carole Estby Dagg worked as children’s librarian, CPA, and assistant library director before beginning to write historical fiction. Her first book, THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS, was based on the true story of her suffragist great-grandmother’s 4,000-mile walk with her daughter across the country in 1896. The book won the Sue Alexander Award for most promising new manuscript and went on to earn a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a WILLA award, and a place on the American Library Association’s 2012 Amelia Bloomer list of best feminist fiction.  She recently sold a book set in Alaska during the 1930’s to Nancy Paulsen and her imprint at Penguin, and is researching and writing a book set in the San Juan Islands during the mid-1800’s. Under the supervision of a bossy cat, she writes in Everett, WA in a converted woodshed on San Juan Island.

What Have I Done in the Name of Research?

Climbing part of the Chilkoot Trail, sewing Victorian undergarments, bidding on 115-year-old postcards on e-Bay–this is research for historical fiction? In my case, yes. For me, research isn’t just piling up reference books and printing off internet articles. Research is getting into the heads of my characters and into the times and places my characters go.

union pacific map Carole Dagg
For each book, I start with background reading to familiarize myself with the period, speech patterns, and interests of people of the time. For The Year We Were Famous, about Clara and Helga Estby’s walk across the country in 1896, I read about six million words of biographies of people my main characters met, diaries of people similar to my characters, popular books–including dime novels–of the time, women’s magazines of the 1890‘s and histories and geographies of places they passed through. As I began to write, I researched the details I need for each scene, such as the elevation of the pass through the Blue Mountains, the history of Underwood typewriters. frontier treatments for blisters, or the eating habits of cougars. I studied old railroad maps to work out a plausible day-by-day itinerary for the whole 232-day trek and scrolled through miles of microfilms of newspapers which chronicled their walk.

Mrs. William McKinley Carole Dagg

An unlikely source, eBay, yielded detailed descriptions of antique items and period postcards of people Clara and Helga met met and places they passed through. Sometimes a postcard inspired a whole chapter, such as the one I bought of twin Cayuse papooses in their cradleboards and the one of Mrs. William McKinley in her rocking chair.

Carole Dagg

Trying to imagine what it would have been like to walk across the country, I drove part of the route my characters took, taking notes and poking in at little history museums along the way. Further getting into character, I found patterns for clothing of the 1890’s and sewed a Gibson Girl shirtwaist and Victorian under-drawers, right down the three rows of pin-tucks on the ruffles. I walked a mile in reproduction Victorian shoes, and prowled antique stores to find items such as a curling iron and match safe that were similar to the ones they carried.

For another book, I hiked what is reportedly the hardest part of the Chilkoot Trail. Since I turn 70 this year and am barely five feet tall, I sometimes had one person above me to pull and one person behind me to push, but I did it. For the book I’m working on now, I climbed a slippery 45 degree slope to peel off madrona tree bark and pick the madrona berries before the birds got them all. According to one research source. Lummi Indians made tea from the bark and mixed the berries into various dishes. If my main characters used the tea and berries, I had to know how they tasted, didn’t I?

Chilkoot trail sign Carole Dagg

By the end of my first draft, I usually have a banker’s box full of file folders. Typically, headings include chronology, character backstories, natural world, period slang, popular culture, calendars for the years the book covers, maps, transportation, period recipes, and brief biographies of historical characters. Each book also prompts folders with headings of subjects needed just for that book, such as Civil War statistics, Appalachian speech patterns, Lummi Indian tree burials, sheep guardian dogs, reef net fishing, feeding baby ravens, how to grow a champion pumpkin, sled dogs, and how to make jellied moose nose. In case you are hungry for jellied moose nose, you’ll find the recipe in Northward Ho!, coming out in 2016.

Sometimes research starts as an intrusive clump of data into a scene, but as I revise, I find ways to unobtrusively feather in bits of research in a more natural way. At the end, ninety-eight per-cent of my research never makes it directly into the book, but it has helped pull me into each scene as I write. I hope the details my research uncovers make a difference for my readers!

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18. Why We Read

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A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.
- Roberston Davies

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19. Background Reading

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There’s plenty of plain ol’ research that goes into my writing, but sometimes I also study fiction with a specific aim in mind. Here are the novels I’ve read recently  to help me get a sense of things in my newest manuscript. (It shares nothing in common with these books — and everything.)

Okay for Now – Gary Schmidt
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple – Karen Cushman
Bo at Ballard Creek – Kirkpatrick Hill
The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin

I love how iron sharpens iron in the writing life.

 

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20. Kate Bassett’s WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS, a Giveaway

Today we’re celebrating my wonderful critique partner, Kate Bassett, and her debut young adult novel, Words and Their Meanings, which releases today. Here’s a description of the book:

Anna O’Mally is a born writer—gifted, perceptive, headed for the stars. Or she was, until the tragic death of her uncle Joe. He was barely older than Anna herself, and she worshipped the ground he walked on. Best of all, Anna got to live in the glow of knowing that she was the most important person in his world, too.

Anna has promised everyone—her shrink, her parents, her best friend—that Joe’s one-year “deadaversary” will be the end of her period of mourning. But when a strange note suggests that her saintly uncle had deep secrets, Anna stumbles into a chain of events that changes everything she thought she knew about the past, the possibilities of love . . . and origami.

Praise:

“With a compelling voice and evocative prose, Kate Bassett establishes herself as an author to watch.”—Sara Zarr, author of The Lucy Variations and National Book Award winning Story of a Girl

Starred Review“Bassett’s debut novel scores a hat-trick of literary merit in a strongly crafted and complex plot, deeply drawn characters with palpable grief, and beautifully woven and rich prose.”
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review)

“A heartbreaking and fantastic debut.”—VOYA 

In celebration of Kate, I want to share the wisdom she’s lavished on me and our fellow critique partner, Valerie Geary, over the years. Though what I’ve included here is often personal, it’s also universal, and I think all writers will benefit from Kate’s sensible, compassionate approach.

On First Drafts:

Own the fears and let them go…Even if the story is full of holes, it only means you are still discovering it. That it’s still just finding its way. It’s part of the journey– and leaves room for so much possibility.  Give yourself a minute or two of wallowing. Then get out for a run. Take some time to think of each character– let them try on ideas and personality traits and possible scenes like dresses. You’ll get there. We believe in you!

the first draft is about discovery, nothing more.  Plus, we are, of course, our biggest critics. We should make a pact to be gentle on ourselves.

Val, write, write, write through it. You’ll find the steam and soon first draft blues will be a thing of history.

Revisions:

I hear you. And I know that place in the process. But remember: it’s just a place. It’s just that rotten, wicked stupid seed of self doubt we all wrestle with, and while I wish I had magic words to take it away…the best thing I can tell you is to do the work. Even if you have to cry. Even if you feel so overwhelmed you need to walk away. Especially because the biggest doubts come to us when we know, deep, deep down this is our calling…You CAN do this. You WILL pull it all together with grace and tender, moving language. Because you are enough. You have the skills.  You are a writer. The hard stuff is what you do.

The Writing Life:

I get all grumpy and frustrated…but then, I take a step back and realize….hurrying never makes a good book.

Words are good. And they matter.

Writing and Doubt:

Hush those doubts, my friend. YOU are a beautiful writer.  Beautiful writing NEVER goes out of style. You’ve written ANOTHER beautiful book. And it will sell. I know it.

I’m convinced the new book fear will NEVER leave.  But maybe that’s what makes new writing good, right? I mean, if there was no fear, there would be no risk, no love, no creative force.  So be filled with the fear, and then translate that into a burst of beautiful writing like only you can.

And finally…

We’re each on our own journey, but it is sure nice to have friends along the way. 

 So happy to have you walking this path with me, friend.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

 

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21. Wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt, crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, for tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

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22. Writing Links

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When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don’t Know :: The Write Practice

The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner! :: Ingrid’s Notes

The Power of the Pre-Order :: Lisa Schroeder

Brava, Birdy! Kirby Larson celebrates CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY’s twenty years :: The Nerdy Book Club 

3 Insights that Lead to Successful Publishing Careers :: Writer Unboxed

Nonfiction Family Tree :: From the Mixed-Up Files

Artwork above by Maggie Steifvater

 

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23. Ode to a Research Notebook

I’m in the thick of the manuscript connected to this notebook. Thought it might be fun to share again!

I wrote this a few days ago in an attempt to express a piece of my writing process — the behind-the-scenes work that goes into writing historical fiction. You guys. In four years of blogging I can honestly say this is the most fun I’ve ever had in writing a blog post. Writing this poem has reminded me I need to give myself more permission to play. There is something incredibly satisfying in starting and finishing a project in one day and in experimenting with a format I’ve never used before.

Here’s to your own creative processes and the opportunity to find joy there!

I
Oh, notebook mine,
the place I gather records, thoughts
before I know the way a story winds,
unsure whether or not
I’ll need what I’ve written down,
or if the scribbling of a word will be mere passing fact,
a jot to teach, inform me of the world I’m learning,
a collection of phrases to ground
me in the things I sorely lack,
to multiply my yearning.

II
You are a place of lists,
dates, maps, quotes, sometimes a sketch,
this novelist’s definition of bliss,
my source when I long to catch
a whiff of history, a summer berry’s hue,
a sense of place, the voice of one long dead,
the temperature when kerosene solidifies –
truths I can bend and shift, make new,
and like a ball of dough transform to bread
with heat and time. You stoke the fire in my mind’s eye.

III
You are a testament to months of labor,
a tribute to half-formed thoughts and starts,
a vestibule which leads to something greater,
the fresh firsts of a future art,
a net that gathers every object nearer,
sifts and filters, groups and sorts,
until like seeds that push to germination,
truth and story blend, grow clearer:
dear notebook, you help me bring forth
a story to its liberation.

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24. Classroom Connections: ALWAYS, ABIGAIL by Nancy J. Cavanaugh + Giveaway

genre: contemporary fiction
setting: middle school
age range: 9 and up
educator’s guide
read an excerpt
Nancy’s website

Please tell us about your book.

Abigail and her two best friends are poised for a life of pom-poms and popularity. But not only does Abigail end up in a different homeroom, the pom squad doesn’t turn out exactly as she planned. Then everyone’s least favorite teacher pairs Abigail up with the school’s biggest outcast, Gabby Marco, for a year-long “Friendly Letter Assignment.” Abigail can hardly believe her bad luck. As her so-called best friends and entire future of popularity seem to be slipping away, Abigail has to choose between the little bit of fame she has left or letting it go to be a true friend.

Could you tell readers a little about your writing process?

My story ideas always come by way of a character.  Usually along with that character there is some type of premise for the story.  The part that is difficult for me is the plot.  As I write my first draft, I discover the “possibilities” for my plot and those discoveries lead to lots of revision.  It’s in the midst of those many revisions where I uncover what the plot of my story is really supposed to be.  This leads to even further revision to make the writing and the plot as strong as they can be.

What are some challenges associated with writing middle grade fiction?

I think resisting the urge to preach to readers is always a challenge.  I’m a former teacher, and I’m used to guiding young people and helping them learn.  Books do teach lessons, but the lessons readers take from books shouldn’t come from a preachy author but rather from the story itself and from the reader’s own discovery.  Young readers will learn a lot from the books they read, as long as we let them learn those things on their own.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

One of the themes in AWLAYS, ABIGAIL is bullying.  Abigail has to make some really tough choices in the book, and ultimately, she has to decide if she will sacrifice her own reputation to be a true friend to the school’s biggest outcast.  Young people make choices like that in classrooms all over the country every day, and I think as educators we often spend too much time telling young people what the right choice is, but we don’t spend enough time talking about how difficult it is to make that right choice.  ALWAYS, ABIGAIL is all about finding the kind of courage it takes to make that right choice.

Giveaway:

One advance reader copy of ALWAYS, ABIGAIL is up for grabs. To enter, please leave a comment about why you’d like to read Nancy’s book below. Contest closes Sunday, 9/21. US residents only, please.

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25. A Free Online Course on Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’m up against a deadline, so this will be brief.

If you’re a Laura fan like I am and you haven’t heard of this amazing opportunity, let me fill you in. Pamela Smith Hill of Missouri State University is teaching a free online course about Laura starting Monday, September 22. Click here to learn more. You might have heard Laura’s long-awaited autobiography has recently released. Pamela Smith Hill is its editor.

This is a class for Laura fans and for those curious about authorship (how much of a role did daughter Rose play in the creation of the Little House series?), the fuzzy lines between historical fiction and memoir, and the complex, sometimes uncomfortable portrayal of pioneers and natives.

I’ve ordered Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (South Dakota Biography) and Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. I’ve got all the others. So looking forward to digging in!

If you’re taking the course, please let me know. I’d love to talk about it.

From the course description page:

Required Materials:

Little House In The Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, 0060581808
Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, 0064400034
Little House On The Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, 0064400026
On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, 0064400042
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, Pamela Smith Hill, South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 097779556X

Recommended Reading:

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Edition, Pamela Smith Hill, South Dakota State Historical Society Press
Young Pioneers, Rose Wilder Lane, HarperCollins, 0064406989

 

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