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By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith
's CynsationsMy current work in progress is a middle grade historical fantasy set in 1903.
Delving into the past has made me think about how history is presented in novels and the balance between real and imaginary.
For more insight on that topic, I turned to the authors of two of my favorite recently published books, focusing on process.
Kate Hannigan’s The Detective's Assistant (Little, Brown, 2015) is based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, America’s first female detective. It won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award in 2016. Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Detective's Assistant?
KH: I was researching a story about camels in the American West in the 1850s when I came across a single nugget about Kate Warne. I read how she walked into Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency in downtown Chicago, and he had assumed she was there for a secretary position. But she talked her way into a detective’s job, convincing Pinkerton she could “worm out” secrets from the wives and girlfriends of the city’s crooks and criminals.
Stumbling on this little gem, I was hooked! I dropped that camel story and ran with Kate Warne!
At what point did you start researching that? Did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?
|Kate's model for her main character|
KH: I’m kind of a nutter about gathering facts. My background is newspaper journalism, so maybe that’s to blame. But I wanted to know all I could about Kate Warne, Allan Pinkerton, and Abraham Lincoln during this part of American history.
The biggest research was around understanding the Baltimore Plot, which is the pivotal part of the story — the plot to assassinate Lincoln before he could be sworn in for his first term.
So the whole process was immersive. I dove in deep before writing a single word. Once I felt like I had the facts, then I began my story. Did you continue doing research as you were writing?
KH: I’m still doing research! And the book published over a year ago! But I love this story so much, I can’t not
learn more about it. I do school visits all the time, and I talk to students about it. So it’s very much in the front of my mind.
As I was writing, I would come across a question — my characters are walking down the street in 1860 Chicago, so what were they walking on? How comfortable would a train ride be in 1860? Would we ride on upholstered seats or hard wood? — and drop down another rabbit hole.
Research is never ending with historical writing! Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?
KH: If you’re writing historical fiction, you’re probably a pretty huge history nerd. So digging up a juicy nugget can be a thrill
! And I dug up so many!
I enjoyed researching and writing this story to a ridiculous degree!
My characters live in a boardinghouse, so getting that setting right was foremost in my mind. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
(1852) and Sister Carrie
by Theodore Drieser (1900) (which was set a bit later but still illuminating nonetheless), just to get a sense of language of the times.
But I also plunged into nonfiction about the era, and I found a particular book about boardinghouses that was helpful. It described how incredibly cheap the managers — usually women — had to be to keep these places afloat. They were notorious for serving terrible food, which I thought could be played for a lot of humor in my book.
And this is what led to the chapter about Nell and the other residents eating a questionable meat for dinner, and Mrs. Wigginbottom getting shifty when there is talk about the orange tabby cat going missing. Your book mixes well-known historical figures (Abraham Lincoln) with lesser-known, yet real individuals (Kate Warne) as well as completely fictional characters.
Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction – did you lean heavily on things the historical figures actually said? Were there some details you changed for the sake of the story? Were there some fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered?
KH: Fact and fiction! This balance kept me up at night! I agonized over being true to the players and what was on record as having happened. I visited Kate Warne’s grave site here in Chicago more than a few times, and I deeply desired to do right by this woman.
But I also worried about the reader, and I wanted to make sure that the story I was telling would hold the interest of a 21st-century American kid. So it was agony!
Pinkerton had written about the cases that involved Kate Warne, so of course I wanted to nod to those. But I took artistic license and shuffled their order, so that the culminating case is the saving of Lincoln’s life. I needed to put them in a different order to serve my story, and I had to come to terms with that decision. It took me a bit though.
Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?
KH: I very much believe authors for young readers have a greater responsibility to get historical fiction right. Because history is all new to this audience — this might be their first introduction to the Civil War, to Abraham Lincoln, to the Underground Railroad.
And if we make history engaging for them, we’re opening the doors to more exploration of our past, to creating more history lovers.
It’s a responsibility I take pretty seriously. Which is why I tend to research my books to death
! Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? Or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?
KH: Yes! And it’s been so great! I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from teachers and librarians.
The Civil War hits with fifth-grade curriculum in many schools, so The Detective's Assistant has been on reading lists around the country. I’ve done Skype visits as well as in-person school visits, and the response from young readers has been mind-blowing!The New York Historical Society
included it in their family book club, the Global Reading Challenge in Chicago listed it among their 2016 books, an entire fifth-grade in Dallas read the book as part of their Civil War history unit. It’s been wonderful to share the story with so many kids! Was there anything you found while doing research for The Detective's Assistant that will find it’s way into your next book?
KH: Answer: I’ve been bitten by the research bug, and specifically, research into amazing women and people of color forgotten by history. So my next book is focused on World War II women beyond Rosie the Riveter. I can’t say there’s any overlap with the Civil War era, but the passion I feel for dusting off these remarkable players from the past and sharing them with a whole new audience, that definitely has carried over. It’s kind of become my mission! The Detective's Assistant is realistic historical fiction, do things change when the story includes more fantasy elements? For that aspect, I asked Janet Fox, author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle similar questions.Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle? (what was it?)
JF: Yes! I was mucking around on the internet when a friend posted a picture of an object the like of which I'd never noticed before. It was an 18th century German chatelaine. I thought it was peculiar, and I had to find out more about it, so I googled and discovered that this chatelaine was an offshoot of the more practical set of keys - to the chateau - worn at the waist.
I learned that chatelaines had evolved from keys to practical items, like scissors and coin purses, to charms. This chatelaine was all charms, and they were so odd that a story began forming in my mind almost right away.At what point did you start researching that? (i.e. – did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?)
JF: Once I'd learned what a chatelaine was I began writing almost at once. Within a week of seeing the image, which is the same as the image that's in the novel, I'd completed the first 40 pages of what would become the novel. That's generally the way I work. I have to discover who my main character is and what her problem is before I can begin to flesh out the story, and research is part of that fleshing out.Did you continue doing research as you were writing?
JF: Yes - once I have a handle on my protagonist and what the story is generally about I tend to blend research with writing. For example, as soon as I decided to set the novel in Scotland, I took a pause and did a bunch of research on Scotland. That's almost always how I work - I write first to discover what I need to know more about. But it all starts with the character and her problem.Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?
JF: Not really - at least, not in this story. But read on - there's a relevant answer to this in your last question.Your book mixes actual events and places completely fictional – and fantastical - events and characters. Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction? Were there any fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered? (why?)
JF: I felt it was very important to be true to any factual details. For example, I had to learn what I could about enigma machines, about the inner workings of clocks, about movements and activities in the North Sea during that part of World War II, and so on.
That's where I really pay attention to accuracy - when I'm weaving facts into fantasy I want those facts to be right. In that way the reader more readily suspends disbelief for the fantasy elements.Do the fantastical elements have a historical influence?
JF: In a way. My grandparents were Irish and English, and I heard many stories growing up about the fantastical beliefs they carried with them from home, things like the stories my grandfather told me about "the little people." And Celtic and pagan practices have a basis in history and yet are mystical or fantastic in nature. To me, there's always a kernel of truth in a fairy tale.Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?
JF: I think any writer writing for any audience has an obligation to be accurate when it comes to historical detail. But I do think that the vulnerability of the younger reader requires a special adherence to accuracy. These are readers who will feel cheated if I give them information they later find to be false. They are also readers more likely to believe whatever you tell them, and I would hate to plant falsehoods in their minds.Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? (or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?)
|Dunrobin Castle, Janet's inspiration, located in Scotland|
JF: Not yet, although I would love to present something about the specific history aspects of the story.
I'm fascinated by World War II (and as we can see by the large number of middle grade novels out the past couple of years set during the war, so are others.)
The Blitz alone was a big deal, and I've given talks at bookstores at which adults have come forward after to tell me that they or their aunt or their father was sent out of London - and that's why they're in America today.Was there anything you found while doing research for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle that will find it’s way into your next book?
JF: Since Kat is clever with clocks, I did a bit of clock research and uncovered a rare old timepiece called a "Death's Head" watch. After further research I discovered that one of owners of one of the most bizarre of these was the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, that didn't feel accidental. As you can imagine, that watch is the centerpiece of my sequel.
Cynsational NotesJanet Fox on Blending History with Fantasy
from Cynsations. Peek: "Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right."Gayleen Rabakukk
holds a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts
. She co-moderates the middle grade book club for Austin SCBWI
and loves making discoveries – both on and off the page.
Always eager to track down a story, she has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and freelance writer. Gayleen is married and has two caring and outspoken daughters. Their Austin, Texas home is filled with books and rescue dogs. You can find her online at or on Twitter @gayleenrabakukk
Congratulations to Gayleen on recently signing with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for CynsationsChristian McKay Heidicker
is the first-time author of Cure for the Common Universe
(Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:Sixteen-year-old Jaxon is being committed to video game rehab...ten minutes after he met a girl. A living, breathing girl named Serena, who not only laughed at his jokes but actually kinda sorta seemed excited when she agreed to go out with him.
Jaxon's first date. Ever.
In rehab, he can't blast his way through galaxies to reach her. He can't slash through armies to kiss her sweet lips. Instead, he has just four days to earn one million points by learning real-life skills. And he'll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, even learn how to cross-stitch—in order to make it to his date.
If all else fails, Jaxon will have to bare his soul to the other teens in treatment, confront his mother's absence, and maybe admit that it's more than video games that stand in the way of a real connection.
Prepare to be cured. How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?
This all began when I told my agent, John Cusick
, that I’d write a YA book about a kid committed to video game rehab. His excitement was infectious, and I got that fluttery feeling of embarking on a new adventure. Of darkness unlit. Of stones unturned. Of all the little surprises that come with blindly slashing out with my pen and hoping for the bloody best.
That fluttery feeling vanished when I realized I hadn’t played video games for years, let alone had any clue what it was like to be addicted to them.
In order to survive as a freelance writer, my entire life had become carefully structured to eliminate time-wasters. I worked all possible hours, filled my downtime with reading, exercising, eating healthily, and not buying expensive things like the next generation of PlayStation or Xbox. I had become completely unversed in the world of video games and unhealthy amounts of playing.
I realized if I tried to write a book about video games, I’d out myself as a fraud. I’d make out-of-date gaming references, the community would eat me for breakfast, and I’d become next on Gamergate
’s death list. (Now that I know a thing or two, I can confidently say that many gaming references do not go out of fashion, and that being on Gamergate’s threat list is actually a good thing.)
Let’s face it. As novelists we’re all impostors. We don’t really remember what it’s like to have that first kiss. We’ve never reached to the back of the wardrobe and in place of fur felt pine needles. Our goal is to seem the least impostery as possible. To convince the reader that this stuff is legit.
|Christian's office & Lucifer Morningstar Birchaus (aka writer cat)|
Still, the idea was good. Video game rehab? I’d never seen that before, and that’s a rare thing in any medium. So I needed a plan. My plan was this: get addicted to video games.*
So out with work!
Sod off, schedules!
Be gone, exercise routines!
Forget healthy eating and gluten intolerance. Forget that coffee turns me into an absolute monster and dairy turns my insides into the Bog of Eternal Stench!
I bought myself a month and turned my life into that of a sixteen-year-old video game addict on summer vacation. I drank coffee from noon (when I woke up) until three in the morning when I went to sleep. (My character drinks energy drinks, but one can only go so far, dear reader.) I slept too much. I didn’t exercise. Sometimes I put whiskey in my morning coffee. I only read gaming news, but only if I really felt like it and only if I had to wait for a game to download.
Mostly, I played video games. I played a lot
of video games. I continued to play throughout the duration of writing the book, but in October 2012, I played so much it would have made the characters in my book quirk their eyebrows.
I was trying to get addicted. All of my dopamine release came from beating levels, leveling up characters, downloading DLCs. When I went to the bathroom, I brought my iPad with me and played Candy Crush. (Considering what my new and worsened diet was doing to my digestion, I played a lot of Candy Crush.)
I beat Dark Souls. I beat Sword & Sworcery. I played Starcraft and Hearthstone and Diablo III. I bought a Nintendo 3DS and played through all the Mario and Zelda games I’d missed out over all the years. (Definitely the highlight.) I got lost in world after world, and adulthood as I knew it became a faint haze around an ever-glowing screen.
And guess what? It was hard.
You’d think it would be easy doing as little as humanly possible, only filling one’s time with video games.
Video games are fun. Many are designed to keep you falling into them again and again, to captivate you enough to stick around for hours on end. But I had so carefully trained myself to not be that way so I could write.
During this indulgent month of October, I felt lazy. I felt sick. I felt jittery and uncomfortable in my skin and a little voice inside my head kept saying, “No, no, no. Stop doing nothing. You’re dying.”
I was disgusted with myself. I liked the games I was playing, but they didn’t bring the same satisfaction of selling a short story.
Like I said, it was really hard. But it was nothing compared to what I was going to embark on next.
I ended my month of terror with a bang. On Halloween night, at 11:56 p.m., I drank four shots of whiskey and became a vomiting sprinkler on my friends’ front lawn. (Apologies, Alan and Alan).
My girlfriend at the time drove me home and poured me into bed. I slept for thirteen hours. . . and when I awoke late afternoon on Nov. 1, I began something new. I didn’t put on the coffee pot. I didn’t boot up the PlayStation to see if any system updates needed downloading. I didn’t bring the iPad to the bathroom.
Instead, I entered Phase 2 of my research.
The character in my book was going to rehab, where all creature comforts would be taken away from him. And so I spent the entirety of November without sugar, caffeine, music, phone, books*, internet*, or of course, video games.
I called it my no-nothing November.
(Er, no stimulants, at least. But that isn’t quite as catchy.)
After surviving a two-day hangover unaided by stimulants of any sort, I crawled out of bed . . . and I went out into the world. I ran in the morning. I talked to people at coffee shops while sipping herbal tea. I took ukulele lessons. I learned how to cross-stitch. I cleaned Alan’s and Alan’s puke-covered lawn (just kidding I didn’t; I just realized this would have been a nice thing to have done (sorry again, Alans)). I studied life without my nose buried in a book.*
And mostly, I wrote. I wrote about a kid who had all of his comforts taken away and was forced to earn points through a sort of gamified therapy. I don’t know if any of this actually worked or not . . . I’m not sure if it really added anything to the book.
So, um, take that into consideration before flying off the rails for your own book.
*I use the term "addicted" lightly. Read Cure for the Common Universe
for a full explanation.
**The most difficult, by far.
***I also didn’t surf the internet, save my email—for emergencies and so I wasn’t fired from my job.
****Ug, this is starting to sound like some sort of new age instruction manual, which I swear it is not; I just wanted to see what it would be like to be the character in my book. As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn't address these factors? Why or why not?
Video games are the fastest growing medium in the world, so it’s pretty difficult to remain relevant when writing about current games. Fortunately, there’s a persistent spine in gaming (your Blizzards, your Nintendos, your Easter eggs). I tried to focus on those mainstays and accept the fact that no matter what I did I would probably piss off and please an equal number of gamers.
If I had attempted to copy the language of gamers verbatim, I would have set myself up for failure. (Although having a game-addicted roommate during the edits of this book definitely helped me sprinkle in some legit jargon.) That’s why I like to follow the Joss Whedon
rule of leading the charge on language instead of attempting to copy it.
For the dialogue, I ended up stealing a lot of hilarious lines from my friends—truly iconic things that I lifted straight out of real-life conversations and put into the text. During a rousing game of racquetball, a friend aced me, stuck his racquet in my face, and screamed, “Nobody puts princess in a castle!” A barista once mentioned how stepping on a LEGO was a lot more rage inducing than playing Grand Theft Auto. And a previous student told me about a—ahem—particular sensory combination involving Nutella. I blushed . . . and then I stole it.
I stole all of these with everyone’s permission, of course.
By E.M. Kokie
for Cynthia Leitich Smith
From the flap copy of Radical
by E.M. Kokie
(Candlewick, 2016):Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued. While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie. In a gripping new novel, E. M. Kokie questions our assumptions about family, trust, and what it really takes to survive.
Determined to survive the crisis she’s sure is imminent, Bex is at a loss when her world collapses in the one way she hasn’t planned for.
Before writing Radical, I had never touched a gun. I had never wanted to touch a gun.
But in the early drafts I was struggling to get to the heart of my main character Bex. Then I realized I hadn't really thought about how Bex would feel about guns. It was a blind spot caused by my own discomfort with guns. Once I had that realization I could see all the ways I didn't yet know Bex.
Bex wouldn't just shoot or possess guns. She would have spent most of her life shooting them. They would be part of her family tradition, part of her social life, and part of her identity. She would love her guns. She would be proficient. She would be responsible in their care and maintenance.
In order to understand Bex, and to write her with any kind of accuracy and credibility, I needed to understand guns.
I started with online and print research -- reading about different kinds of guns, popular makes and models, shooting ranges and training programs, and eventually gun laws and the tradition of gun ownership within families and communities.
Then I moved on to watching online videos about everything from training techniques and amateur shooting videos, to videos about comparing models, and cleaning and maintaining firearms. I was fascinated by the many videos of girls and women shooting guns, and handling knives, bows and arrows, and other weapons.
But reading and video research could only take me so far. I needed to understand the tactile and visceral details of how a gun felt in my hand, the heft, and texture, and kickback. The tang in the air after shooting. The smell and feel of cleaning different models. I needed to have a vocabulary and understanding that gave her character depth and provided context for the plot.
But I also needed to get inside of how she would feel, physically and emotionally, about her guns and while she was shooting.
For Bex, shooting guns would be about more than fun or competition or even defense. It is part of who she is.
I was lucky to connect with some people who let me shoot their guns on their property, in an outdoor setting with a dirt berm and a pond, much as I pictured Bex and her brother shooting in their woods.
We started with a small, light gun that even felt small in my hand, and then worked up to larger and more powerful firearms. Then I got a crash course in cleaning and maintenance, sitting on the side of a porch, much as Bex does in the book.
I left with all these sensory details, insights into how shooting could be fun and cause a sense of competition or accomplishment, and bruises in several places.
Even the ride out to the shooting site on a homemade cart attached to an ATV unexpectedly informed the setting and context for my story.
During the writing process, I also reached out to some firearms experts online to answer questions and to seek input for crafting certain plot elements and scenes. And once Radical was in the last stages of the editorial phase, my publisher hired one of those experts to perform a content read to make sure we got the details right.
The research didn't change my mind about my own potential gun ownership, or how I would feel about having a gun in my home. But it did help me better understand Bex and her world, and, hopefully, helped me craft more organic and believable characters and scenes.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for CynsationsSonya Mukherjee
is the first-time author of Gemini
(Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.
Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins, Clara and Hailey, have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence and they’re slowing becoming more apparent. Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.
Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?
This is cheating a bit, but my answer has to be Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
by Carol Dweck
(Random House, 2006). This is a book that I studied and contemplated until its ideas sank in, and it helped my writing more than anything else that I’ve read.
The basic idea is one that’s seeped into the culture in the last few years, but as far as I know, it all stems from Dweck’s work: Some people have a fixed mindset, in which they assume that their intelligence, talent, and personal qualities are mostly immutable, while others have a growth mindset—an assumption that all these qualities can be changed and meaningfully improved with effort. With the fixed mindset, you hear feedback as a reflection on your immutable qualities. With the growth mindset, you hear feedback simply as useful information. And the growth mindset is the one you want.
When I read this book, I realized that I’d always had a fixed mindset about writing. Whenever I received criticism or rejections, I worried that I wasn’t a good writer and never would be—which made it harder to get back to my writing, and harder to learn from the criticism. Whenever I received praise or other kudos, I became hopeful that maybe I had talent after all.
It was a roller coaster, and just like a real-life roller coaster, it made my stomach hurt and got me nowhere.
But Dweck makes it clear that just as you can grow your intelligence, grow your talent, and grow your compassion, you can also grow yourself a growth mindset. That’s the whole point: Believe you can change, and you really can.
Still, change wasn’t easy. For me, the hardest part, but also the most important, was when I realized that in order to be less hurt by criticism, I would also need to be less delighted by praise.
They were two sides of the same coin, and there was just no way to have one without the other. I needed to hear both positive and negative feedback as potentially helpful input that I could use to improve my work, and nothing more.
In short, I had to give up caring about whether I had talent.
This change in mindset allowed me to take in tougher feedback with much less discouragement, and it allowed me to become much more merciless in cutting and overhauling my manuscripts. It also meant less time wasted on feeling bad about criticism and rejections, so I could get back to work sooner.
I’m not claiming to be fully reformed, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I think it’s made a huge difference to the quality of my writing. As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?
The truth is, although I haven’t been a teenager for quite a while, I never really changed the way I talk.
When I’m at my most relaxed, I still use pretty much the same speech patterns, the same sarcasm, and the same words I used then. I was never one for the most faddish slang, so I didn’t say “rad” as a teen, and I don’t say “bae” now, but I’ve been overusing “awesome” and “cool” the entire time.
Gemini was originally all in Clara’s point of view, and her voice was the first thing that came to me and drove the book forward, so it wasn’t something I struggled to find. But it was basically just a relaxed, uncensored version of my own voice, mingling with some of the thoughts and perspectives and worries that I had as a teen.
Hailey’s voice was added much later in the process, and hers was a bit more challenging, because I wanted her to feel distinct from Clara. They have two different personalities, but because they’re twin sisters who have never been apart, they also have a lot of similarities.
Since Hailey has a harder, tougher edge than Clara, I decided that she would tend to speak in somewhat shorter sentences, with shorter words, and with some mild swearing that we don’t get from Clara. I made her less inclined toward metaphors and other writerly ways of saying things; she’s more direct and literal.
With both of them, though, there was an element that I think must resemble what Method actors do, in imagining themselves into a character. I just tried to be this person and see things through her eyes, and let the voice flow from there.
For writers whose natural voices are more formal or mature than mine, I would suggest that you still just lean into whatever voice comes naturally to you, and allow it to be what it is.
I doubt that trying to consciously imitate younger people’s speech patterns would ever work very well, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There are plenty of great books for young readers that don’t have an obviously teen or kid-sounding voice.
Read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
by E. Lockhart
(Hyperion, 2009) or The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
(Little, Brown, 2008). These books have pretty formal-sounding narrative voices, and they’re fantastic, and young readers love them.
Granted, they’re in third person, but who says you have to write in first person?
And then again, if you want to write in first person and still give your narrator a more formal style, who says you can’t do that?
Kids and teens have all kinds of voices, and their slang doesn’t necessarily need to be on fleek. (Which MTV tells me is out anyway. “On fleek” was so 2015, apparently.)
If you're going to refer to an astronomical event in your book, make sure your science is correct.
Lauren Castillo, a Caldecott Honor author and illustrator, kicks off this year's Author Spotlight Series with a piece about how important research is to her artistic process.
Lauren Castillo, a Caldecott Honor author and illustrator, kicks off this year's Author Spotlight Series with a piece about how important research is to her artistic process.
By: Emily Gorney,
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, Psychology & Neuroscience
, Arnaud Chevallier
, cognitive psychology
, Developmental Psychology
, Personal Development
, problem solving
, Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving
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Solving complex problems requires, among other things, gathering information, interpreting it, and drawing conclusions. Doing so, it is easy to tend to operate on the assumption that the more information, the better. However, we would be better advised to favor quality over quantity, leaving out peripheral information to focus on the critical one.
The post Looking for information: How to focus on quality, not quantity appeared first on OUPblog.
Research-based writing need not be collections of facts. Teach your students to interpret as they research and to use their ideas to expand their writing.
By: Heather Acerro,
Blog: ALSC Blog
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Rochester (MN) Public Library’s core values focus on being a welcoming and inclusive environment. A few years ago we started to hear from adults and teens in the community that there were not a lot of safe spaces for LGBTQIA teens to hang out, so in our 2015 Action Plans we included “Develop programming to specifically meet the needs of Rainbow Families and LGBTQIA teens” and got started.
Before we share our ideas for serving LGBTQIA kids and families, let’s talk about “LGBTQIA”. LGBTQIA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual or Ally. Without including the word “queer”, this alphabet soup is not inclusive of the entire spectrum of sexual and gender identities out there. But as you can imagine, when we use the word queer in our program descriptions or trainings, people have a lot of questions.
Queer is a word with a terrible history, a confusing present, and a bright future. It was used negatively for many years, but over the last 30 years or so has had a comeback as a word that is embraced by many people as an identity, and is used regularly as a positive umbrella term for the LGBTQIA community (think: “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”).
Like any word, it can still be used negatively. It is all in how it is used and delivered. We would not label someone as queer who had not self-identified, nor would we refer to someone as “a queer” – those would be negative and inappropriate uses of the word. Our use is to be inclusive of the many teens and grown-ups in our community who self-identify as queer or under the queer umbrella. Embracing their choice of word further proves our commitment to creating a safe space for them. If you would like to read more try this website, this article, or this.
Why are we focusing on serving LGBTQIA kids & families?
Youth Services at RPL started undergoing changes in 2011 that included things as small as purchasing and displaying more books with LGBTQIA content. Once these books were on display and available in the library catalog, we started to hear from customers who appreciated having access to them. We also started regularly printing and keeping on display a Booklist for Rainbow Families which received a lot of positive attention. The conversations that we had around the books and booklists brought to light a need in the community: LGBTQIA kids and families needed safe spaces, they needed to see themselves represented in the library collection, and they needed to feel welcomed!
We also have bigger reasons for wanting to provide a safe space for LGBTQIA youth and families. The Human Rights Campaign study “Growing up LGBT in America” reports that 4 in 10 LGBTQIA youth say the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBT people, and and only 21% say there is a place where LGBTQIA youth can go in their community and get help or be accepted. LGBTQIA youth face higher rates of bullying, homelessness, substance abuse and suicide, but teens who have supportive families and friends or safe spaces in their community are better equipped to deal with these additional challenges.
So what can libraries do to serve LGBTQIA kids & families?
Create a Safe Space
The most important step a library can take to create a safe space for LGBTQIA patrons is to train staff to be LGBTQIA allies and hold staff accountable. It is important that you have buy-in from the library administration, and that the people at the top understand why safe spaces are important, but it isn’t necessary to start there. Start with yourself and the staff around you, sometimes change has to trickle upwards. If you don’t have resources in your community such as an LGBTQ Community Center or a local college Gay/Straight Alliance which can provide you with training, there are plenty of options online to get started:
There are easy things you or your staff can start today to be good allies. Being inclusive with your language doesn’t hurt anything, and can go a long way to making everyone feel more comfortable. For example, when talking to kids about their parents, use “grown-ups” or “adults” or another neutral term that feels natural to you. Not every kid has a “mom” and/or a “dad”. You can also choose to use gender neutral terms to refer to individual kids or groups of kids. Use “people” or “friend(s)” instead of “guys” or “ladies”.
Another easy change is to wear a pronoun name badge. Even if you have never been mis-gendered, wearing a name badge with your pronouns on it sends a message to everyone who sees you that you accepting and welcome conversations about pronouns. It also opens up opportunities to talk about how and why your library is a safe space or the LGBTQIA programs you offer.
Once your staff is better equipped to be allies, you’ll need to make sure you have policies in place to protect your LGBTQIA kids and families, and train staff on how to handle issues that may arise. For example, does your written code of conduct include a statement about harassment? Are staff ready to step in with words connecting back to your code of conduct if they overhear teens saying, “That’s so gay!” or “No homo.”? For example: “The library doesn’t allow abusive language and your words are not inclusive or nice.”
All staff should pay attention to what is happening in your space (bullying). Some bullying can be subtle; watch the way teens are interacting in your teen space. When a certain group arrives, does another group always leave? Talk to your teens and make sure you know what is going on. Some bullying that starts at school may continue at the library after school.
Your library may also have business practices and procedures that need to be updated in order to be inclusive to your LGBTQIA community. Does your library card application ask for a person’s gender? Does it need to? Do you allow a patron to use a preferred name on their library card in addition to or instead of their legal name? What about your bathrooms – do you have single stall restrooms that you could convert to gender neutral spaces?
The next step is to start the safe space conversation with the rest of the community. Meet with other youth workers in your community to talk about LGBTQIA services and creating safe spaces. The library can be a great neutral ground for offering training that is open to community youth workers.
Create LGBTQIA Inclusive Collections & Displays
It’s important for LGBTQIA youth to see themselves reflected in the books they read. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, only 19% of LGBTQIA students report that positive representations of LGBTQIA people are included in their school curriculum.
There are a lot of really great books (fiction and nonfiction) available with LGBTQIA content, with more and more books coming out (get it?) every year. Not all of them are published by big houses, and not all get picked up for reviews, but it’s worth the time to seek out the titles to make sure your collection is representative of the full spectrum of gender/sexual identities. To get started, check out the ALA GLBT Round Table’s Rainbow Booklist. The Rainbow Booklist Committee reads hundreds of books with LGBTQIA content and publishes its best-of list for kids and teens annually. In addition, ALA’s Stonewall Award and the LAMBDA Literary Awards both have categories honoring Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
Once you’ve got the books in your collection, you want your patrons to know they are there! While special displays highlighting LGBTQIA materials are great, it’s important to include LGBTQIA materials in all of your displays and booklists.
Offer LGBTQIA Programs
Once you have created a safe space and opened dialogues with LGBTQIA customers and community members, you will start to hear about programs and resources that people would like to see in your community.
Our first program focusing on LGBTQIA teens was q club. q club began in September 2014 with just one teen; it now boasts regular attendance of over twenty at each meeting, and is hands down our highest attended teen program. Like all of our teen programs, we let the teens decide what activities we plan and what topics we discuss. Last summer, in partnership with Gay/Lesbian Community Services of Southeast Minnesota (http://www.glcsmn.org/), we hosted the first ever Pride Prom “Smells Like Pride Spirit” in Rochester. Forty-four teens attended and afterwards some called it the best night of their lives! We are currently in the early planning stages of our 2nd Annual Pride Prom.
q club teens are interested having the chance to just hang out and be themselves, and they are also embrace opportunities to have their voices heard in the larger community. They have created zines to celebrate Pride, National Coming Out Day, and Transgender Day of Remembrance which they distributed at the library and at local businesses. q club teens were a large voice in our October National Coming Out Day celebration, and will soon be participating in a community health needs assessment.
In addition to q club and in response to community requests we currently offer:
- Parents Empower Pride: a meet up for parents of LGBTQIA kids to talk about how to support their kids on their journey.
- Pride Prom: An annual a safe & welcoming after-hours party for LGBTQIA teens and allies in grades 7-12 held during Rochester’s Pride Fest.
- Rainbow Family Storytime: During Rochester Pride we offer Rainbow Family Storytimes for preschool children and families.
Just in the last month we have received two more requests: one to offer a q club for tweens and the other to offer a meet-up group for kids of LGBTQIA parents. As staffing and space allows, we will make these programs happen. Even without special programming just for LGBTQIA youth, you can ge started by integrating inclusive LGBTQIA materials into your regular programs, such as storytime or book clubs. The possibilities for inclusion are endless. We would love to hear what you are doing to serve LGBTQIA kids and families at your library!
Heather Acerro is Head of Youth Services at Rochester (MN) Public Library.
Sarah Joynt is Teen Librarian at Rochester (MN) Public Library.
Heather and Sarah use the pronouns she/her/hers, but they are okay with they/them too, even when you are just talking about one of them.
**YALSA just released research on Teens, Libraries, and LGBT issues.**
The post An Invisible Minority: Serving LGBTQIA Kids and Families appeared first on ALSC Blog.
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You may know Christopher Marlowe and Richard Burbage, The Globe Theatre and The Swan, perhaps even The Lord Chamberlain's Men and The Admirals' Men. But what do you know of modern Shakespeare: new productions, new performances, and ongoing research in the late 20th and 21st centuries? Shakespeare has, in many ways, remained the same, but actors, directors, designers, and other artists have adapted his work to suit the needs of the world and audiences today.
The post How well do you know 21st-century Shakespeare? [quiz] appeared first on OUPblog.
By: Valerie Storey
Blog: Valerie Storey, Writing at Dava Books
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I don't think I'm alone in being a writer who's just as passionate about my artwork as I am about my writing. Clay, collage, pencils, watercolors, beads . . . they're all poetry to me. Each one of these mediums and disciplines informs and inspires my writing life, and I can't imagine dropping any of them.
But one of the things I've struggled with for a long time is finding the right kind of art group, one that matches my wonderful writer's group: a free-form meeting of women with interests that range from screenwriting to structured poetry to pithy vignettes. When we meet every two weeks, it's to write, not critique. We freewrite for about 30-40 minutes, and then we read aloud to each other. Our very informal meetings conclude with conversation and a chance to catch up on each other's personal news. It's a great system, and I've been trying to find that same kind of experience in an artistic environment. Enter: Urban Sketchers!
I discovered Urban Sketchers while I was searching Pinterest for examples of travel journal lay-outs. Over and over my favorite illustrations came from Urban Sketchers members and I was uber-curious to find out who they were. A few Google searches later, and yay, I found a chapter here in Albuquerque.
I've been attending their various events off-and-on now for about nine months, and I love the way the format follows that of my writer's group: a group of enthusiastic people gathering in an interesting place; setting off on our own to sketch; then meeting up again to share and discuss our morning's work. I particularly enjoy the positive, warm atmosphere of viewing the various sketchbooks without tearing them apart in search of perceived flaws or "mistakes."
I've grown to love Urban Sketchers so much that I want to spread the word to everyone I know--not just my artist friends, but with my writing friends, too, as well as those who are photographers, potters, jewelry makers--everyone. There's so much to be gained from being with creative people regardless of whatever medium you work with. For instance, even if you've never dreamed of doodling in the margins of your latest draft, you can still:
Some samples from my own meditations over the last two months include imagining myself as a cave-dweller at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology:
- Take note of settings. Many of the places we've sketched in are venues I've never been to before. Making notes on all the fresh sights and sounds and smells, recording what I liked about the place (and what I didn't) has all gone into my sketch journals along with my drawing.
- Take note of details: Architecture, clothing, people watching . . . So much of what makes a story come to life depends on the details. Taking a few hours to really concentrate on every single little thing can only add to your next story project.
- Photography. Okay, let's say you really, really don't want to draw. Take pictures instead! Who knows, photography may become an entirely new vocation for you, one that fits your written work perfectly.
- Artist's Date: Before, during, and after. Most writers I know find the hardest advice to follow in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way to be taking the "Artist's Date," probably because it involves a) going by yourself, and b) treating yourself to something fun. Writers are notoriously mean to themselves, especially when they feel they haven't written enough or to the quality they expect on any given day. Hence the need for the artist's date. Urban Sketchers allows you to start out in the security of a group, but then sends you on your way to discover your own unique path for a few hours. Take advantage of the time alone to do something that pleases your writer-self while feeding your entire creative being. (And you can buy yourself a treat somewhere along the way too!)
- Meet creative people. Who knows? They might be writers! (Or want to read your books!) Seeing the work of others is always inspiring.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Sketching, especially in public, might seem a scary thing if you've never tried it before. But if you can get over your initial fear of "What will people think?" wow, imagine how confident you'll be pitching a manuscript, or cold-calling on bookstores. Or even starting a new manuscript!
- Sketching is meditative. Remember how much fun you had when you were a little kid and able to zone out with your crayons and paper? Believe it or not, you were meditating at the same time. Giving yourself that same childlike joy for a few hours now and then can help you solve a myriad of character and/or plot problems.
Going back even further in time at the Natural History Museum:
If you do decide to visit your local Urban Sketchers, some essentials you'll need to bring along are: a collapsible camping-type stool, a set of color pencils (much easier and cleaner than fussing with watercolors or felt pens), a pencil sharpener, a sketch pen that you also like to write with, a hardback journal or sketchbook, hat and/or sunglasses, optional camera. Minimal tools for maximum fun.
Tip of the Day: Urban Sketchers is a world-wide phenomenon. Any Internet search will help you find a group somewhere in your area or close enough to travel to . Toss out your inhibitions and tag along--I know you'll be welcome!
By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith
's CynsationsCongratulations on your new picture book biography Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) and the starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal! I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?
I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.
These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?
Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.
I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.
I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!
Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process?
Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum
|Heather researching Ruth Law's scrapbook|
Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.
While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.
I also consulted with the folks at the Glen H. Curtiss Museum
and the National Air and Space Museum.
I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help. What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?
Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.
I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support. What are you working on now?
I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit
and having a blast creating the content.
It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.
I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine. What do you have coming out next?
I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”
Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.
I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere. Cynsational Notes
is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College
. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies.
Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing
sponsored by Hunger Mountain
("Paddy Cats," Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals
("Francesca’s Funky Footwear," Finalist, 2013).
When she’s not at her desk busy writing you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events, volunteering at the New England SCBWI
conference, or teaching creative writing workshops for children. Helen also serves on the on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance
. Find her on Twitter @helenkampion
Think of the Twitterverse as an introduction to experts in any field.
Greetings! As part of this year’s Emerging Leaders cohort, we are a group of public and school librarians from different libraries around the country (Arkansas, California, Missouri, Ohio, and Washington) working with the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, to conduct an environmental scan of current trends in children’s library services.
We hope that you can take approximately two to four minutes to answer this quick survey. Our goal is for this survey to give us a more detailed sense of what trends are the most relevant and important to librarians serving children and youth and how ALSC can best support librarians’ professional development needs. If you have any questions or would like to talk more about the survey and/or the project, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Take the 2016 ALSC Environmental Scan Survey2016 ALSC Environmental Scan Survey
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By Shawn K. Stout
for Cynthia Leitich Smith
Several years ago I had a story idea swirling inside my head. It was about three sisters who try to clear their father’s name after he is accused of being a Nazi spy.
The story was based on the real-life experiences of my grandparents, whose restaurant in Maryland in 1939 was boycotted by the townspeople over my grandfather’s purported “secret back room” and rumors of espionage.
It was a story that was personal to me and to my mother and her two sisters, but I kept it safely locked away for a couple of reasons.
The first was that I had never written anything even close to historical fiction before, and the story ultimately would have elements of xenophobia, racism, and super-patriotism of that period—heavy themes that, when I thought of writing about them, gave me the willies. The other reason, and perhaps the bigger one, was that I didn’t know how to balance the knowledge of historical facts with telling a mostly fictional story.
Basically, I didn’t want to write a history book—one that was so bogged down in historical details that the characters were overshadowed by the time period.
When I finally got up enough gumption to give my idea a chance, I began by interviewing family members and others who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant. Then I dived into history books, newsreels, newspaper articles, old radio shows, spy movies, and World War II timelines. A lot was going on in 1939, apparently, and I spent months trying to learn it all.
Pretty quickly, though, I became overwhelmed. I had accumulated piles of folders, newspaper clippings, CDs of digital recordings, and at least a dozen notebooks labelled “Important Pieces of History.” And, unbelievable as it seemed, there was still more to know.
After spending nearly a year in 1939, I wondered, how would I know when I’d learned enough? How much “historical” did a person need to know to write historical fiction, anyway?
Enough turned out to be tricky to define. The truth was that I had already learned a great deal. I knew about the short-lived Studebaker Dictators, about Hitler’s advances in Europe, about the voyage of the St. Louis
, about restaurant prices, and about widespread anti-German sentiment.
But was that enough?
And then the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami
gave me some wise advice, which was essentially this: You could go on researching forever, but at some point, whenever you think you have a sense of place and time and a feel for that world, you have to take what you’ve got and just start writing.
Just start writing.
You can always go back and do more research, if you need to, she told me, but let your story and characters dictate what else you need to know.
Uma, of course, was right. I did start writing, and as I began filling out the characters of the three sisters, the edges of their small town, with bits of historical detail, became more defined, and their world soon came into sharp focus.
I only ended up using a small fraction of the many historical details I found in my research, but in the end, for my characters and their story, it was enough.
A short list of tweets from the past week of interest to teens and the library staff that work with them.
Do you have a favorite Tweet from the past week? If so add it in the comments for this post. Or, if you read a Twitter post between October 30 and November 5 that you think is a must for the next Tweets of the Week send a direct or @ message to lbraun2000 on Twitter.
By: Clare Hanson,
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Research for the developing world is the application of science to the challenges facing poor people and places. In the 20th century, such research fell into two camps.
The post Research for the developing world: Moving from development studies toward global science appeared first on OUPblog.
I have the honor of wrapping up the TA Three Weeks of Thanks-Giving. To read the eloquent posts of my fellow TAs, follow these links:
Like all of you, I’m thankful for many things like family, friends, church, health, a place to live and thousands of other things that I sometimes take for granted. But since this is a TeachingAuthors blog, I’ll confine my thankful thoughts –online anyway – to blessings in that part of my life.
I’m thankful for great teachers.
I recently spoke at the Arkansas Reading Association where I did a session titled “Writing Nonfiction Using Fiction Techniques” which was attended by some amazing teachers.
Teachers today are given the task of teaching students how to write.
It is a tall order and not an easy thing to pull off even for a professional author of books.
I’m thankful for teachers who do their best even though their classes are filled with a wide range of students that include both gifted and talented and struggling readers.
I’m thankful that people, organizations and museums through the years have preserved our history by preserving documents and artifacts. As a nonfiction author who does lots of primary source research, I can do research like I do because those before me had the forethought of preservation.
I’m thankful to enter this holiday season with an exciting new project spinning through my mind.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the real treat of having my newest project go to auction.
It is a dream of authors for more than one editor would want to publish their next book.
I know the new publishing house and editor is just as excited about the project as I am.
What are you thankful for?
Carla Killough McClafferty
By: Shannon Hazard,
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If you went to college, your school likely had an official statement about plagiarism similar to this one from Oxford University: Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition.
The post Plagiarism or text recycling? It depends on the context. appeared first on OUPblog.
By: Peggy T,
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The best part about being a writer is that it gives me an excuse to do whatever the heck I want to do. That includes taking off shortly after the holidays to spend four days "Down on the Farm."
When Julia Recko from the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture (AFBFA) asked if I wanted to spend a long weekend getting to know a bunch of farmers, I said. "Of course I do!" I didn't have any immediate plans to write about farmers, but sometimes research opportunities come to you, and when it does, grab it.
I was a little suspicious that I was flying down to Orlando, land of Disney, rather than Iowa or Kansas, but it turns out that a short drive away from Cinderella's castle are some of the most beautiful cattle ranches in the country. (And a large percentage of farmers were there for the AFBFA convention.)
I wasn't the only one to jump at this opportunity. Eleven other children's authors and illustrators were there: Albert Monreal Quihuis Loreen Leedy, Sandra Neil Wallace, Susan Grigsby, Eric Ode, Lela Nargi, Lisl Detlefsen, Lizzy Rockwell, Michael Spradlin, Shennen Bersani, and 2009 Miss America Katie Irk. The first day we toured a meat processing plant (not a slaughterhouse!). Other than the freezing temperatures and hairnet it was like touring any other processing plant. Highly efficient and organized, beef was trimmed to chef's orders at a rapid rate. I was struck by how many people worked there even though it was partially mechanized. No machine can take the place of a real person making sure each filet is measured properly.
That afternoon we toured a family-owned cattle ranch. The black Angus trotted after our hay wagon eager to get a snack. Several week-old calves shyly peeked around their moms to see what the fuss was about. Although I could have stood in the pasture for hours watching the animals, the real stars of the show were Riley and Reagan Rowe, the farmer's granddaughters, who were proud to show off their 4H projects. At 14 and 9, these two girls were more poised and well spoken than most adults. And they knew there stuff. I had no idea 4H kids had to keep such careful records of expenses, depreciation of equipment, and send letters to potential buyers. Sounds similar to what we have to do as writers!
The next day we were set up on a "blind date" of sorts with a farmer. I was very nervous when I met Carlton, a farmer from Iowa. He lives on a Heritage Farm that has been in his family more than 100 years. He and his wife grow corn, soybeans, and finish cattle, which means they buy calves and fatten them up for market. We talked about new technology and why people are so suspicious of innovation in farming. Did you know that by the year 2050 that the world population will be 9 billion people? Yet, the world's farmland is decreasing. That concerns Carlton and other farmers. When I asked him if he thought about the weighty fact that he was responsible for feeding the world, he said yes, he does think about it. I was humbled. I just write children's books.
|Me and Carlton Kjos|
I didn't have any plans to write about farmers before, but now? Who knows. I have a notebook full of ideas. And I'm curious to know more. That's what happens when you put yourself out there. It makes you think. So take a leap. Take a trip. Talk to people. You'll be a better writer, and a better person, for it.