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26. 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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27. 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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28. 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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29. 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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30. 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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31. 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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32. 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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33. 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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34. 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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35. On Writing

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The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.
- Norbet Platt

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36. On Writing

DSC_0626

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.
- Norbet Platt

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37. Why Word Count Doesn’t Always Tell the Whole Story

word count

I’ve written here before about word count goals and how tricky they can be for a verse novelist like me. While my friends are cranking out 2,000 words on a bad day, I’m often lucky if I can hit 300 on a good one. Usually I don’t keep record of these sorts of things.

Unless I am, like when I tried my own version of National Novel Writing Month last year. The draft was absolutely awful, but the experience was a good one. It helped me realize fast and furious can sometimes be as beneficial in my writing life as slow and steady.

I’m working on that messy NaNo manuscript now. It’s due to my editor at the end of the month. The book is prose, and while it’s my third novel written this way, it’s the first non-verse novel I’ve ever sold. That’s made me fret a bit. I’m not sure if I know how to do what I’m doing. But isn’t that a hallmark of the writing life?

When I started back with the story, I thought it might be wise to keep a record of my progress. I set up a chart, all ready to watch my word-count numbers grow. But they didn’t, not really. Even as I moved forward, sometimes those numbers stood still or even found a way to travel on a backward path. So it was interesting to read at Project Mayhem a few weeks ago that many writers aren’t fans of using word count as a way of marking progress, either.

What do you writers out there think of word count goals?

PS – Those aren’t tears on my chart — just water that dripped off my cup. Promise!

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38. Why Word Count Doesn’t Always Tell the Whole Story

word count

I’ve written here before about word count goals and how tricky they can be for a verse novelist like me. While my friends are cranking out 2,000 words on a bad day, I’m often lucky if I can hit 300 on a good one. Usually I don’t keep record of these sorts of things.

Unless I am, like when I tried my own version of National Novel Writing Month last year. The draft was absolutely awful, but the experience was a good one. It helped me realize fast and furious can sometimes be as beneficial in my writing life as slow and steady.

I’m working on that messy NaNo manuscript now. It’s due to my editor at the end of the month. The book is prose, and while it’s my third novel written this way, it’s the first non-verse novel I’ve ever sold. That’s made me fret a bit. I’m not sure if I know how to do what I’m doing. But isn’t that a hallmark of the writing life?

When I started back with the story, I thought it might be wise to keep a record of my progress. I set up a chart, all ready to watch my word-count numbers grow. But they didn’t, not really. Even as I moved forward, sometimes those numbers stood still or even found a way to travel on a backward path. So it was interesting to read at Project Mayhem a few weeks ago that many writers aren’t fans of using word count as a way of marking progress, either.

What do you writers out there think of word count goals?

PS – Those aren’t tears on my chart — just water that dripped off my cup. Promise!

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39. Reading About Writing, A Mid-Year Update

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I declared 2014 the year to learn about writing and committed to quite the list of non-fiction (which I only can read in small doses). How have I done so far? I’ve read a grand total of two.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art – Madeleine L’Engle

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers– Mary Kole

Of course, I re-read large portions of Second Sight and Novel Metamorphosis  for the Novel Revision class I taught in the spring. I also raced through The War of Art , which didn’t make the list back in January. Same with Advanced Plotting, which I also forgot to add. And I’ve read lots and lots of fiction, which I can’t help but learn from, (two recent titles I picked up to study character — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Okay for Now – completely knocked my socks off).  As for my list, I’m a little behind. It’s time to jump back in!

Any books on writing you’re planning to read this year?

 

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40. Reading About Writing, A Mid-Year Update

DSC_0728

I declared 2014 the year to learn about writing and committed to quite the list of non-fiction (which I only can read in small doses). How have I done so far? I’ve read a grand total of two.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art – Madeleine L’Engle

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers– Mary Kole

Of course, I re-read large portions of Second Sight and Novel Metamorphosis  for the Novel Revision class I taught in the spring. I also raced through The War of Art , which didn’t make the list back in January. Same with Advanced Plotting, which I also forgot to add. And I’ve read lots and lots of fiction, which I can’t help but learn from, (two recent titles I picked up to study character — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Okay for Now – completely knocked my socks off).  As for my list, I’m a little behind. It’s time to jump back in!

Any books on writing you’re planning to read this year?

 

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41. Wisdom from ONE CAME HOME

1camehome

Living with uncertainty is like having a rock in your shoe. If you can’t remove the rock, you have to figure out how to walk despite it. There is simply no other choice.

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42. There is No Schedule

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If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you know my friend  J. Anderson Coats says a lot of things that resonate with me. She’s the one who gave me my favorite piece of writing advice and came up with that great cow-through-a-colander writing metaphor.

During a recent email exchange with my Class of 2k12 friends, Jillian shared this:

A writing career is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re not on a schedule. There is no schedule.

That first part, I’ve probably heard it a thousand times. But the second part? It felt like a revelation. It’s true that when you’re on deadline you most certainly have a schedule, but otherwise, the writing life is wide open.

So you know what?

  • If there’s no schedule, someone else isn’t going to beat you to the punch. What you’re working on now will not somehow be replaced by someone else’s (faster) efforts.
  • The market isn’t in charge of your story. You are.
  • For you published folks, you will not be forgotten if you somehow don’t get to keep some “regular” publishing schedule. Yes, your readers might age out, as they say, but there are always new readers to take their place and earlier books to introduce readers to the new ones, whenever they happen to be published.
  • Unless you’re contractually committed, you can write whatever you want whenever you want.
  • And there’s what author/illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw (my niece’s former Girl Scout leader!) posted on Facebook a few days ago:

Repeated themes I heard at the writer-illustrator conference in LA: Slow down. Take time to do your best work. When you think it’s done, set it aside to assess again later. Build on what you borrow. Be courageous — do work you find important, no matter what others say. LIVE so you’ll have a rich portfolio of experiences to draw and write from. What gets your next book published isn’t luck, desperation, a magic shortcut, or networking with stars; it’s your hard work, your being ready to jump at sudden opportunities, and your connections with friends. #SCBWI14

Here’s to approaching your writing with freedom in the days ahead!

 

 

 

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43. Why We Read

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Books are the plane, the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey.
-  Anna Quindlen

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44. On Writing

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You never again love a book the way you do as a child. Let’s make sure our books are worthy of their love.
Linda Sue Park, SCBWI Los Angeles Conference, 2014

Yes, that’s original Little House art!

 

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45. We Need Books: The Editor’s Perspective

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We need books — and I want to publish books — that reflect the whole range of a child or teenager’s emotional experiences and take us through those experiences with them. So the stories come through a child’s heart and speak to a child’s heart; so they have the bravery and honesty to look at a muddle* and acknowledge its pain, and not to be moralistic or easy; and, in the end, to help us all make it through.

– Cheryl Klein, SECOND SIGHT: AN EDITOR’S TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING, AND PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS

*A muddle is a concept Cheryl has borrow from author E.M. Forster. “It’s the point at which your vision of yourself and your purpose in the world is clouded by other things — by other people’s opinions, by the fact that you don’t know who you are or if you have a purpose in the world. It’s an identity crisis, essentially.”

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46. Straight From the Source: Michele L. Hathaway on Writing Historical Fiction

Michele L. Hathaway has an M.A. in Social Anthropology and is a freelance editor and writer. Her stories are in various stages of emergence.

What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?

My stories vary tremendously, but at their core is a love of culture, past, present, and even mythical. The era and story idea come first, the characters emerge later to make the culture come alive. Sometimes the landscape is the starting point. This is the case for the Navajo stories I am writing. I spent quite a bit of time in the North American Southwest as a child and an adult, so it occupies a large swath of my inner landscape. I feel more alive here than anywhere else on the planet. Sometimes I am captivated by an entire era, such as the first 400 years A.D. of Mediterranean history, along with key historical figures from this period. Then again, I have a story idea that takes my characters around the modern day world, but the research involved with getting these cultures right is almost identical to historical research.

How do you conduct your research?

At the beginning of a project, especially one where I don’t have a large body of knowledge already in place, I’m like a child at a carnival. I careen from one amusement to another until I find myself breathless at the top of the Ferris wheel. From here I look down on the whole journey. When I get back to earth I filling in the blank spaces on a need-to-know basis.

If you are wondering what I’m talking about, here’s the general plan: I go to the library and load up on as many books as I can get my hands on. I scan these, usually finding I am attracted to some more than others. Resources that are most helpful I might buy so I can mark them up and keep them near for reference. I copy the bibliographies of the most helpful to see what inspired the author, where their research originated. I’ve found gems this way. From there I follow trails that branch further and further. If a source is mentioned by several authors, I look at that. I never stop researching, I always have a book or two going as I write. This keeps me in the story, inspires, guides, and corrects. One thing to be aware of is new research coming out. Since I began my Navajo stories, I’ve found a few new books that are gems. So check back with your library from time to time.

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Do you have a specific system for collecting data?

No unless you count the carnival method mentioned above, and the aftermath.

What kinds of sources do you use? 

I use any and all resources that apply. I use books, the Internet, travel, experts and interviews. Books may include academic, historical fiction, and picture books. Picture books should not be underestimated. They are great for researching folk tales and imprinting visual details. When I was researching for a forest fire scene, I needed the photos to help me with concrete details.

The Internet is also helpful for visual images as well as hunting down an obscure fact, like the name of the owner of the Thunderbird Trading Post in 1945—Leon Hugh “Cozy” McSparron, by the way. I couldn’t have thought up a better name. Sometimes you need to hear coyote song or the crackle of a forest fire, or see Mexicans harvesting vanilla beans, or Navajos playing string games.

If I find a book that does more than inform, but inspires, I contact the author. This has led to great help and a friendship or two. You’ll find that people who are passionate about their topic are happy to talk about it.

Finally, if I can, I travel and observe the setting of my novel first hand, be it Navajoland or Egypt—what a great excuse to travel, eh?

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

An author, whose name escapes me, once said, “Write sooner than you think you can.” When I feel, not quite saturated, but too impatient to wait any longer, I begin. Usually my characters are coming alive within the history, the culture, the landscape, or the myth. I write until I find a hole in my knowledge. Then I stop and research until that hole is filled. I continue on as quickly as I can. When I find new information, I add that or rewrite if I need a course correction.
What is your favorite thing about research?

I love to learn new things, and I love to put these things into the framework of a story. Writing historical fiction allows me to be a perpetual graduate student without the exams—the book is my thesis. I haven’t graduated yet, but I can see the day, shimmering in the distance.

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What’s your least favorite thing about research?

I wonder if I have done enough, if I am missing something important. I don’t have time to read every book cover to cover, so I worry that I have missed something. Or missed the “right” book.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

Studying history is time travel. I am transported to places and times I can’t go to any other way. It is one of the most thrilling rides of my life.

What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?

I believe the most difficult thing about writing historical fiction is getting the psychology of the period right. It is easy to fall into the trap of dressing a modern American in a toga and calling him a typical Roman. Critics will jump all over that. As they should. A 1940’s Navajo girl in boarding school will not talk back to her teacher, no matter how spunky she is. A Greek-Egyptian Boy from 345 AD is probably not going to see slavery as extreme injustice. Making your story true yet accessible to modern readers is tricky. Check out Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book for a good example of grasping the psychology of medieval England. (warning—this is a devastating book, a Hugo-Nebula Award Winning, wonderful, devastating book. I love it.)

Sometimes it is helpful to read a stratified selection for research. Read writers from as many decades or centuries as you can find to help off-set bias. This is complex and yet fascinating. The reality is there is no way to see history through a pure lens. We bring ourselves, our culture, our social bias to any historical interpretation. We have to do our best here. We have to work hard, work honestly, write the truest story we can.

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

Wow! It is hard to pick one and hard to think of one, because at some point the research goes internal and becomes a part of me, transforms me. I can think of one or two things that stand out though. One is the complexity and beauty of Navajo myth and legend. We hear so much about Greek and Roman myth, but have no idea how deep and interwoven Native American literature is with history, culture, creativity, beauty. I could go on and on. Part of why I write these stories is to share this body of wonderful literature.

Has your research ever affected the overall trust of your book? How so?

My research has shown me where I have gone off track, but most often where I need more depth. I find the feedback from “experts” most helpful. Research has not caused me to have to abandon the work, rather it provides course corrections and transforms it, always transforms it, so that I am following a truer path. Not a perfect path. Not a path everyone will agree with, but a truer path. And that is the best all of us can do.

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Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?

When retelling myth, there are almost always different versions of the story because it is from oral tradition. At some point, the writer of fiction has to choose one version (or even blend versions, which does not change the truth of the story, but that is another topic). For example, in Navajo legend, the Hero Twins are sometimes born of one woman, or sometimes they were born of two women but are still twins. This does not present a problem for the Navajo, but the rest of the world can’t reconcile the dissonance. To avoid confusion, I have chosen to have them both born of one woman.

If a historical figure is famous enough, there will be problems. No question. One of mine is a saint. He is revered by millions. I cannot presume to write a biography; few are qualified to attempt it. Therefore, I am writing about him through the eyes of a young protagonist. This way the story is about the boy, but I can open a window on this amazing historical figure, allow for his flaws, but not presume to offer a complete biography.

Why is historical fiction important?

Historical fiction is not only important, it is fantastically important. It is obviously important for its historical content, but there is so much more. I believe, historical fiction is a safe environment to explore modern issues. For children this is critical. Because the story is set in another time, it is not so close that it generates anxiety, but it brings up situations and issues children may have to deal with now or in the future—a sick sibling, an absent father, or even the trauma of war. All of this can provide them with tools to help them cope with their situation, help them discover who they are and who they want to become.

One day I was on a bus driving along the waterfront in Alexandria, Egypt. Two women in head scarves were sitting on the sea wall talking while their toddlers played nearby. It struck me in that moment, in that one scene as the bus sped by, that I was more like them than I was different. They were two friends, with children, having a chat. I’ve been there. They are me and I am them. I’d like others to see the world that way. That we are more alike than we are different.

 

 

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47. The Mystery of Grace

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I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
– Anne Lamott

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48. Who Gets to Write It?

As regular readers here know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to write outside my culture. Thank you to Valerie Geary for pointing me to this article at The New York Times.

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These two quotes especially spoke to me:

We’re doing what fiction writers have always done: trying to investigate the world, explore human experience, render precisely what it means to be alive. We’re trying to give voice to everyone on the planet. And who has the right to do that? Do I have the right to write my version of your story?

A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful.

– “The Right to Write,” Roxana Robinson

Read the full article here.

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49. Writing Links

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Rejecting Rejection by Sarah Aronson :: The Writing Barn

The Real Job of a Writer :: Chatting at the Sky

Introverted: The Writer’s Power and Downfall :: Darcy Pattison

Dear Soon-To-Be-Published Author :: Writer Unboxed

Self Publishing vs. Traditional: Some Straight Talk :: Nathan Bransford

Picture Books Are for All Ages :: Publishers Weekly

 

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50. Classroom Connections: I HEART BAND by Michelle Schusterman + Giveaway

age range: middle grade
setting: middle school band
genre: contemporary fiction
Michelle Schusterman’s website

Fellow band geeks will be thrilled to see themselves in Holly and nonmusicians will appreciate the world of music. A sweet debut.
–School Library Journal

Please tell us about your book.

I HEART BAND is a middle grade series about a seventh grader named Holly who’s pretty obsessed with being first chair French horn in band. Unfortunately, she’s got a rival in new girl Natasha, who’s not only a talented horn player, but spent all summer at band camp bonding with Holly’s best friend, Julia. Band might be a competition, but friendship isn’t, and Holly needs to figure it out before she loses Julia for good.

What inspired you to write this story?

Actually, I was commissioned to write this series. My editor, Jordan Hamessley, is a self-proclaimed band geek from Texas, just like me. She came up with the idea for the series, I wrote the outlines, and we went from there!

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

I was in band from third grade through high school, got my bachelor’s degree in music education, and was a middle and high school band director in Texas for four years…pretty extensive “research” for this series! I had plenty of anecdotes and experiences to draw from when I wrote these books. And of course, my editor had lots of stories about her own time in band too. For each book, we started by meeting for lunch and brainstorming ideas. Because the series progresses throughout Holly’s seventh grade year, there were certain markers we knew we had to hit – all-region auditions, holiday concerts, solo and ensemble contest, the band trip…

After brainstorming, I’d write an outline, my editor would make changes or suggestions, then I’d write the first draft and we’d go from there.

What are some special challenges associated with writing middle grade?

I think one of the hardest things about writing humorous MG is that the humor has to be authentic or kids just won’t buy it. In other words, I can’t sound like a thirty-something year old trying to sound like a seventh grader. My teaching experience definitely came in handy here – lots of time spent listening to how kids talk and joke around. But I’ll definitely catch examples of “trying too hard to be funny” in my drafts during revisions.

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

One comment I’ve been seeing a lot in reviews is how I HEART BAND emphasizes the importance of music education in schools. Throughout the series, Holly and her friends learn not just about music, but how to work together to achieve goals and how to handle winning and losing with grace. There’s also an emphasis on friendships, which often go through a lot of change and strain during adolescence.

Giveaway

Michelle is giving away signed copies of books 1 and 2 for one lucky winner. To enter, simply leave a comment below, sharing a memory from your middle school years. US residents only, please. Contest closes Saturday, August 23.

 

 

 

 

 

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