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<<August 2015>>
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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: The Writing Life, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 498
1. Protecting Creativity


I spent fourteen years as an author in training, and while I learned many things in that time, I’m finding there are a slew of different lessons on the other side of publication. One key facet of my writing life is figuring out how to protect my creativity — how to let it grow and expand with a new project, how to feed it, how to keep it from being damaged during the fragile moments a story is finding its way.

Please join me at Kirby Larson’s blog to read the rest. I’d love to hear how you go about protecting and nurturing your creativity.

The post Protecting Creativity appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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2. New Use for Old Manuscripts

My boys and I just re-discovered this particular book. Thought it would be fun to share with all of you again!

Cut in half.

Rustle up some silly kids.
Spread out on the kitchen table.
Set up a chart.

Number your pages.

Create a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.

(Ours is called THE BLACK DOOM and includes a haunted castle with a parking lot, an eyeless lifeguard [who later gets olives as eyes], lots of gorillas, a pool full of raspberry Jello, and an annual haunted castle pizza party).



The post New Use for Old Manuscripts appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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3. On Writing


I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.
― Anne Frank

The post On Writing appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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4. Musing in the Midst of First-Round Edits

jasper edits

What I’m beginning to learn about writing books is that if I show up enough times, I start to run out of mistakes to make. But of course not all at once. That would be too easy.

The post Musing in the Midst of First-Round Edits appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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5. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle

Please tell us about your latest book, Enchanted Air.

Thank you for your interest!  Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings, is a verse memoir.  In one sense it’s a travel book about the unusual experience of visiting relatives in Cuba during the Cold War.  On another level, it’s simply about being bicultural, an experience shared by so many U.S. Latino children.  I wrote this memoir as a plea for peace and family reconciliation, a process which quite amazingly began on December 17, 2014, during the same week when advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep!  Of course, I rushed to revise the historical note to include President Obama’s announcement about the renewal of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, changing my tone from a desperate plea to a song of gratitude.

There have been a number of verse memoirs published the last few years.  Could you explain how you decided to use verse for your memoir?  What does verse offer that prose doesn’t?

While I was writing Enchanted Air, I had no idea that Jacqueline Woodson and Marilyn Nelson were also working on their own verse memoirs!  I was familiar with wonderful older verse memoirs by Lee Bennett Hopkins and a few others, but basically I expected Enchanted Air to languish alone on a librarian’s cart, with no one quite sure where to shelve it.  Now, thanks to Brown Girl Dreaming’s National Book Award, I think verse memoirs will suddenly find their own place in the world.  I chose poetry because free verse allowed me to transform memories into present tense, bringing childhood emotions back to life. 

Already, Enchanted Air has garnered enormous praise.  It’s a Junior Library Guild title and has earned three starred reviews.  Your other books have won such prestigious awards as the Pura Belpré Medal, the Claudia Lewis Award, the Newbery Honor, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award, the Américas Award, the Jane Addams Award, and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor, just to name a few. 

How have you learned to deal with such acclaim?  How do you set the possible pressure of such praise aside when working on something new?

Acclaim is wonderful when it happens, but life keeps me humble.  I still receive plenty of manuscript rejections, especially for my biographical picture books about great Latino scientists who have been forgotten by history.  As far as pressure, there’s nothing I can do to influence grownup reviewers and award committee members.  All I can do is write from the heart, picturing my readers as children.

This is your fourth book to release this year.  How do you handle the juggle while continuing to work on new projects?

Three picture books—Drum Dream Girl, Orangutanka, and The Sky Painter—were released within weeks of each other by sheer coincidence.  I wrote them all in different years, but publication coincided simply because the illustration and book design process is so much slower and less predictable than the writing.  Now I’m back to working on historical verse novels, with only an occasional burst of inspiration leading to another picture book idea.

Learn more about Margarita and her books at www.margaritaengle.com.

The post Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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6. Life and Art: Author Tamara Ellis Smith + Giveaway

Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith 

In this stunning debut novel, two very different characters—a black boy who loses his home in Hurricane Katrina and a white boy in Vermont who loses his best friend in a tragic accident—come together to find healing.  

A hurricane, a tragic death, two boys, one marble. How they intertwine is at the heart of this beautiful, poignant book. When ten-year-old Zavion loses his home in Hurricane Katrina, he and his father are forced to flee to Baton Rouge. And when Henry, a ten-year-old boy in northern Vermont, tragically loses his best friend, Wayne, he flees to ravaged New Orleans to help with hurricane relief efforts—and to search for a marble that was in the pocket of a pair of jeans donated to the Red Cross.

Rich with imagery and crackling with hope, this is the unforgettable story of how lives connect in unexpected, even magical, ways.

The idea

The idea for Another Kind of Hurricane came when my son—who was four at the time—asked me who would get his pair of pants. We were driving a few bags of clothing and food to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort. Of course I didn’t know, but the question stayed with me. I began to imagine who would get his pants—and then I began to actually IMAGINE who would get his pants. And I was off and running…

This was August, 2005, of course, and I had just begun my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had arrived at VCFA knowing I was a picture book writer (note the assuredness of that verb: knowing!), and so that semester I wrote a picture book about a boy in Vermont who gave a pair of pants with a lucky marble in the pocket to a boy in New Orleans.

It was terrible. The picture book, not the idea. My advisor thought the idea would make a great novel—but I wasn’t a novelist, so that was the end of that story.

Except it wasn’t the end of that story—because I couldn’t get it, or the two boys, out of my head.

It took me a long time, but I wrote a novel. This novel. Ten years, 3 major rewrites, and about 25 drafts later, Another Kind of Hurricane has finally been born.



Like any good writer—I did my homework for this story. I read many articles and blogs. I interviewed people. I watched countless documentaries about Katrina. I did everything that I thought I should do. And I tried to do it respectfully – aware that this was an experience that was totally foreign to me.

As a Vermonter, I felt as though I knew—as best I could—what it had been like during those harrowing days during the hurricane. I felt emotionally connected to the incredible people who had survived such a tragic disaster and my heart was bursting with empathy. It was from this place that I wrote Another Kind of Hurricane.


And then in the fall of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene swept through my home state of Vermont, my town, my street and my home—and all of a sudden I was inside the novel in a way I had never, ever, ever imagined.

Life imitated Art.

My block was one of the epicenters of the storm, at least in our general area of Vermont. Two of my neighbors had the foundations of their houses collapse.  One had water on the first floor of hers. Most of us had our basements flooded. The basement in my house was flooded. We lost our water heater and a pellet stove. We also lost our kids’ artwork, my manuscripts, bins of clothing, and many other belongings.

We were lucky—no one was hurt. And I know that what we experienced was only the smallest fraction of what folks went through in New Orleans. But the ordeal gave me new insight.

Here is what I know now: Flood water smells old. It smells like something decaying, like something that has been left out for too long, like a mix of oil and compost and mold. Flood silt is heavy. It sticks to everything it touches. I know what it feels like to walk down a block lined with more appliances than trees and more garbage than grass.

I also know what it feels like to have strangers offer to help, to not know that to do in the face of such kindness, to be overwhelmed but grateful, to hem and haw, and to finally say yes to it all. By crossing into my intimate space, these amazing people took on some of my actual grief and suffering. They helped me begin to transform and heal. Accepting help became entwined with growing an incredible sense of empowerment, liberation and connection. I am still struggling to express the magnitude of what happened to me, but in the end, these strangers and I—we became friends.

This is what happens between my characters, Henry and Zavion, in Another Kind of Hurricane.

I think the reviewer at Kirkus really got what I was hoping readers would take away from the story:

Elegant prose and emotional authenticity will make this title sing not only for those who have experienced tragedies, but for everyone who knows the magic that only true friendship can foster.

True friendship fosters magic. Yes. And sometimes true friendship comes from the most unlikely person, a person seemingly so different from you—and yet, in the end—you couldn’t be more the same.


Schwartz and Wade has kindly offered to give away a copy of Another Kind of Hurricane to one reader here today. Simply leave a comment below. The winner will be selected Wednesday, July 29. US residents only, please.

About Tamara

Tamara Ellis Smith earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Richmond, Vermont, with her family. This is her first novel. Visit her on the Web at tamaraellissmith.com.

The post Life and Art: Author Tamara Ellis Smith + Giveaway appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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7. Enchantment: Playing with Words and Pictures

SCBWI-New Mexico’s second annual Enchantment Show took place earlier this month. The show celebrates the work between the illustrator and the author by flip-flopping the traditional creation process. Instead of the illustrator responding to an author’s words, authors are assigned an illustration and produce a page of writing in response.


I’ve talked here before about the importance of writing bits and pieces not meant for publication. Giving voice to a poem I would have never cooked up on my own was especially satisfying.


This year’s theme was Play. A jpeg of Alan F. Stacy’s “Moonlight Serenade” arrived in my inbox, a picture capturing southwestern animals making music under the light of the moon. I didn’t know who the illustrator was or what he’d called it. I wasn’t even sure about the animals he included. Was that a coyote or a wolf? A Skunk or a badger?

20150711_135755(See Alan reflected in the glass?)

An idea came to me. What if the animals played the stars into the sky each night, led by Badger on his violin? Here’s where things get fun. I called My poem “Starlight Serenade,” almost exactly what Alan named his picture.

When night is hush, the world below
takes upon moon’s silver glow,
awaits the magic that begins
as Badger lifts his violin.

A sparkling song trembles and swells
enchants the heavens with its spell,
invites the first star to join in
when Badger plays his violin.

The orchestra now
takes its place —
Wolf on his sax,
Bear thrumming bass.
The music builds,
calls stars to sing
as Rabbit grabs
his set of strings.
Clear notes pour
from one lone flute,
echo across the arid butte.

The night sky blooms, a burnished shine,
music and starlight intertwined.

Whispering to the sky’s deep hue,
a hint of light slips into view.
Note by note the music fades
as darkness shifts to azure day.

Across the firmament sun roams
and shadows stretch to evening gloam.
These foretell what’s always been
when Badger lifts his violin.

What a great collaborative experience the creative process can be!




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8. Classroom Connections: SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND by Paul Greci


age range: 9-14
setting: Prince William Sound, Alaska
genre: survival; coming of age

A Junior Library Guild selection

“…a terrific thrill on the page.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Greci has taken a popular if somewhat shopworn theme of juvenile literature — being marooned — and given it new vitality. You needn’t be a kid to stay up late reading this one.” – Alaska Dispatch

“Surviving Bear Island is a heart-pounding adventure that both kids and adults will enjoy…It follows its hero through a brilliant coming-of-age the likes of which are unlikely to be found anywhere outside Alaska.” — Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Please tell us about your book.

 Surviving Bear Island is a coming of age wilderness survival story set in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It’s about a boy’s quest for survival with only a small survival kit in his pocket after he becomes separated from his father on an unpopulated island far from civilization.

What inspired you to write this story?

The inspiration for this story was two-fold. First, I am a wilderness fanatic. I love spending time in remote places that I’ve gotten to under my own power by paddling a boat or walking. Prince William Sound is a place I’ve spent a lot of time exploring over the last twenty-five years, and I love it there and I know it intimately. Second, for much of my teaching career I worked with struggling readers and writers. As I both designed writing exercises and chose engaging books for them to read in attempts to engage my students I became focused on writing a book that both enthusiastic and reluctant readers could relate to.

How did you approach the research process for your story?

In 1991, I went on my first sea kayaking trip, which was a nine-week, 500-mile journey in Prince William Sound on the South Central Alaska Coastline where Surviving Bear Island is set. Since then I have returned almost every year to paddle part of the Sound, doing trips ranging from one week to one month both solo and with friends.

On my wilderness trips I have always kept journals. When I decided to try to write a story set in Prince William Sound, my journal entries became much more detailed regarding what I was experiencing at both the sensory and emotional levels. On one trip my wife and I spent several days circumnavigating an island, and that island became the template for the fictional Bear Island in my story. I took very detailed setting notes and was able to use them, sometimes word for word, in parts of the story.

Without creating spoilers for people who may read Surviving Bear Island, many of the experiences that the main character has are inspired by experiences that I have had. Basically, I used my experiences as springboards for some of the trials that Tom faces in the story.

As I started to add new incidents not inspired directly by my experiences, I tried to experience or replicate what I was writing. For example, Tom has an emergency blanket that in damaged in a fire. For research, I burned part of an emergency blanket to see how it would respond to fire and it turned out to be quite different than how I imagined it. Instead of bursting into flames, it melted and made crackling noises.

Paul Greci author photo

What roadblocks did you run into when writing Surviving Bear Island?

The main roadblock I ran into when writing Surviving Bear Island was how to write a story with primarily one character and have it have authentic emotional depth and complexity. Early drafts of my story were very plot heavy and episodic. As the years went by and I wrote other stories where characters were interacting with each other, I developed my skills for exploring emotional depth, and also for writing in first person. I think those other manuscripts I wrote gave me the tools I needed to transform a single-character third-person narrative into a single-character first-person narrative that was much more character-driven and emotionally authentic.

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

Some topics my book touches on that could be utilized in the classroom include, self-sufficiency, courage, what it means to never give up, parent/child relationships, survival skills, emotional growth, coming to terms with things you can’t change, living life in the present moment, learning from observing animals, and learning about Alaska.

You can read more about Surviving Bear Island through the links below:


The post Classroom Connections: SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND by Paul Greci appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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9. On Writing


The only way I can write is to wander along with a story, then rewrite and rearrange and change it everywhere.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder

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10. Finding Home in Our Work Spaces

I’ve talked a lot here about my office space through the years. There was the post about my closet office back in Louisiana and the picture of my research spot in a nearby park. Here in Albuquerque, you’ve seen my office when we first moved in, the addition of my desk, a tour of my bookshelves, the bulletin board above my desk, the rubber rat on the desk itself, and the closet overhaul I had done in May.

While I don’t do the majority of my writing here (I still prefer the couch, the bed, or Starbucks), I love this space. There’s something about being surrounded by familiar books and inspiring words that makes me feel at home.

Last month I added in two more pieces of furniture, a secretary and chair from my parents, who have recently moved to town.


I bought some blue and white knobs and two yards of bird fabric at Hobby Lobby (since a certain sometimes-grubby puppy likes to sit nearby).


The desk as been in front of the window the last year or two, and while I loved being able to look outside, it could get pretty toasty in the summer and rather chilly in the winter. See the little lamp I’ve hooked onto the desk? It’s the one from my office closet days and makes things feel extra cozy in a way the overhead light just can’t.


Here’s a glimpse from the doorway.


And one when standing in front of the window.


Here’s the secretary all prettified.

Sara Zarr in her podcast talks about being “at home in your work”, an idea I really love. Having a welcoming space like this helps me find my way into the writing and all the other tasks that come with the writing life.

How does your work space influence your work?


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11. Writing Links


Why Failing is Good for Us :: Elana Johnson

24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing :: BuzzFeed

Magical Places by Nikki Loftin :: The Nerdy Book Club

Hollins University Establishes Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature :: Tara Lazar

Why We Write in GIF Form :: Nathan Bransford

Writing Life: The Reality :: Kristi Holl’s Writer’s First Aid

The post Writing Links appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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12. There is No Schedule


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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13. June is for Life and Living


I’m taking my blog sabbath a month earlier than I usually do. This is a practice I started four years ago, and it’s something that refreshes and resets me in more ways than I know how to explain. In addition to the blog, I will also be off social media.

I’ve chosen June over July this year for a couple of reasons. First, I’m on deadline this summer. These early weeks, when I’m finding my way back into my manuscript, feel especially important. I don’t need any other computer time vying for my attention.

Second, we have a lot of family things going on next month. My boys are home from school. My parents are moving back to town. My husband and I are going on a cruise to celebrate our twentieth anniversary. This is a perfect time to step away.

Finally, I have a book coming out in July, and I want to be here to share its story.

I’ve scheduled some posts to re-run — a “new” one each week — that I hope will interest you. Enjoy your summer, friends! I’ll see you again soon.

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14. Straight From the Source: Author Jeannie Mobley on Writing Historical Fiction

Jeannie Mobley writes middle grade and YA fiction. Her debut novel, KATERINA’S WISH (Margaret K. McElderry Books), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award, is on the 2014-2015 William Allen White Award Master List, and represented Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival.  Her second novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, released September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and an anthropology professor at Front Range Community College, where she teaches a variety of classes on cultures past and present. You can visit her at www.jeanniemobley.com.

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

I tend to start with big ideas–themes or threads that I then build a story around. In Katerina’s Wish, I started with ideas about what constitutes “magic” and to what extent our own attitudes shape our luck in the world. In my newest book, Searching for Silverheels, I was interested in two varying views on a local legend, and how either way, the character could be seen as a “strong woman.” That got me thinking about what really constitutes strength and womanhood, and it went from there. My next step is matching the setting and historical time period to my idea.


Whats your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

The fact that I can find historical settings to focus the lens on topics, themes, or social issues. For example, in Searching for Silverheels, I chose World War I to explore the issues surrounding strong women, because women are called to do a wider range of things in wartime than at other times. And World War I had the unique additional feature of the clash between President Wilson and the Women’s Suffragist Movement. Of course, I could tell a story about all the ways women are strong in any place or time, but I like historical fiction because I can pick times and places to make the issues much more intense.

What kinds of sources do you use? 

I use different sources at different points in my research. I have a background in history and historical research, so that eliminates much of the initial work I might otherwise have to do. But, in the early stages of formulating an idea or picking a time period, I rely heavily on informational websites and textbooks–the kind of sources that give broad overviews of a topic or time period.

My next step is to create ideas for world building–getting the local setting, the voice, and the details of ordinary life right. This involves reading sources from the era–newspapers, books, reports–anything that gives me a sense of how people wrote or talked. I also look at oral histories that give details of life. Since I write for kids, I especially like oral histories in which people are remembering back to their childhood, because those give me details about what life was like for kids, which is often lacking from history books.

I also love to look at historic photographs for background details, and especially ones that evoke other senses (like the smoke boiling from chimneys in turn-of-the-century coal camps. I try to think about how that must have smelled, how gritty the air must have felt, how the laundry drying on the line must have taken on that smoke.).

There are many good sources for all of these things, but since my work so far has been centered in Colorado, I’ve found the Western History Archives at the Denver Public Library to be a wonderful source of photographs, www.coloradonewspapers.org to be a great place to read for voice, and a variety of sources of oral history, the most extensive being the National Archive oral history project, which has many recordings online that let you hear the actual voice of the teller, as well as the details.

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?

Not long, or even at all. If I’m working with a new place or era with which I’m not familiar, I might spend a few hours doing background research, and a few more listening or reading for voice. I may read a novel written in the era or watch a movie set in the area (not really research–more just a good excuse to read a book or watch a movie.) But mostly, the story is most important to me in the first draft, and it guides me as to what details I need to find. So I research as I write the first draft. For example, in my current WiP, I had a conversation going on between the front seat and back seat of a car in 1930. I had a character glance in the rearview mirror to see the people in the back,  and realized that I don’t know for sure when the rear-view mirror became standard in vehicles. So, I made a note in the margin–“would the car have a rearview mirror?” and when I finished writing the scene, I stopped to look it up.


Whats one of the most interesting things youve learned while researching?

I tend to love (and get lost in) the quirky details, but also the strange connections. So, I lost a whole day one time on the history of toilets on trains. Fascinating, if you go in for that kind of thing. And I am often stunned by connections that sometimes make me feel like I’m channeling instead of creating. In my newest book, Searching for Silverheels, I needed a last name for a character. At the time, my son was in high school, so he was getting recruitment mail for colleges. There was an envelope sitting on the table from Stanford University. I looked at it, changed it from Stanford to Sanford, and made it the kid’s last name. Later, while doing some back-up research on the Silverheels legend, I learned that one of the “eye witness” stories that claims to know the truth about the legend is in a manuscript at the Colorado Historical Society, written by a man named Sanford. The Sanford in my story is searching out an eye witness, just as the real Sanford was. So, I adjusted the story so that my fictional Sanford hears the same story that the real Sanford heard. But the names, that was just a crazy coincidence that sent a chill up my spine when it happened.

Because life isnt always clear cut, the motives behind our actions dont 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?

In Katerina’s Wish, I was deliberately vague and never named the coal camp in which the main characters live. I did this because I wanted to avoid the political implications of setting the story in the place where one of the major battles of labor union history took place. Many readers have made the connection, which is fine, but I didn’t want to imply that my characters were directly part of a movement.

On the other hand, in Searching for Silverheels, I did want to connect my suffragist to the real women’s suffrage movement, so I set the story in the exact month and year when the members of the National Women’s Party were arrested at the White House, and that arrest is a catalyst for setting up the climax of my story. I did, however, create some fictional responses to that event that I don’t think really happened. I am always careful to create an author’s note that clarifies the real from the fictional, but I also think that some of the fun for readers of historical fiction can be looking up the truth themselves, and seeing where the author has been honest and where she’s told lies.

Why is historical fiction important?

I think historical fiction has the opportunity to give kids a passion or curiosity about the past. I think a lot of people are turned off by the idea of “history” because they see it as the dull retelling of a bunch of boring dates about boring politicians. It took me years to figure out that people saw history that way, because for me, history was always about story. I grew up in the west where I could explore old cabins and travel roads that used to be railroads or wagon trails, and to me, that continuation of the past, as a compilation of extraordinary stories about ordinary people, is what history has always been about. Hopefully, historical fiction can make kids (or adults) see history that way too.

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15. On Writing

red branches

You have to give yourself permission to [write badly] because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well.
— Jennifer Egan

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16. Classroom Connections: FISH IN A TREE by Lynda Mullaly Hunt


age range: 10 and up
genre: contemporary middle grade
educator’s guide
author’s website

Filled with a delightful range of quirky characters and told with heart, the story also explores themes of family, friendship, and courage in its many forms. . . . It has something to offer for a wide-ranging audience. . . . Offering hope to those who struggle academically and demonstrating that a disability does not equal stupidity, this is as unique as its heroine.

Mullaly Hunt again paints a nuanced portrayal of a sensitive, smart girl struggling with circumstances beyond her control. . . . Ally’s raw pain and depression are vividly rendered, while the diverse supporting cast feels fully developed. . . . Mr. Daniels is an inspirational educator whose warmth radiates off the page. Best of all, Mullaly Hunt eschews the unrealistic feel-good ending for one with hard work and small changes. Ally’s journey is heartwarming but refreshingly devoid of schmaltz.
— School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

Please tell us about your book.

Fish in a Tree is about sixth-grader, Ally Nickerson, who misbehaves in school to hide the fact that she struggles with reading and writing. Since her dad is in the military, she has moved from school to school; this has helped her keep her secret. Having moved so often, she has not had to opportunity to forge strong friendships as well – until she meets Kesiha and Albert. 

It is also very much a school story with eight different student personalities interacting with (sometimes crashing into) each other and their teacher Mr. Daniels.

What inspired you to write this story?

Well, my own life inspired the story. Although I’ve never been tested for dyslexia, I have been suspicious that I have at least a touch of it. I was in the lowest reading group in grades one through six. Mr. Daniels is based on my sixth grade teacher Mr. Christy. I realized about halfway through writing it that Fish in a Tree is a love letter to him and all teachers like him.

I have no doubt that Mr. Christy saved me. I came into sixth grade wondering what would be come of me and left sixth grade with a laser focus on becoming a teacher and helping kids like he helped me. He set a high expectations. Even as a child I knew this was a high compliment and I tried very hard to reach every bar he set for me. He completely changed my perception of myself in on year – a powerful transformation. The man was amazing.

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

This book required a lot of research, actually. I had the opportunity to speak with some people who have dyslexia and were not helped until they were older. Unfortunately, even with all the screening in the early grades, kids still slip through the cracks until sixth grade or higher. Being a teacher I know that it is a very difficult job. When a child is very bright, they can often compensate very well and mask their difficulties. Ally Nickerson is such a child. 

I also had to do a lot of research for Albert. He is a walking encyclopedia but that took hours of finding facts that were not only pertinent but interesting as well.

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

I think one of the special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade are authenticity. At least for me. It takes courage to be honest but middle grade readers respond very well to it – in fact readers of all ages do.

 So, as the writer we have to crawl into our own basement sometimes in order to get it on the page. Both of the books that I have written make me feel very vulnerable in this regard. They’re honest. And they are me. The vulnerability was difficult at first but now I see it as a gift and I’m grateful to be able to share those aspects of myself with readers.

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

The topics my book touches upon that make it a perfect fit for the classroom are family life, love of siblings, being different is a gift, bullying in the sense that we can’t control the bully’s behavior but we can control how we respond to it, a family struggling financially, and how learning disabilities are not necessarily disabilities – just a different way of learning.

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17. Bullet Journaling My Way Through May

I few months ago I linked to Kate Messner’s post on bullet journaling. She’s such an on-the-ball author (Kate has seven books coming out this year, I believe), I knew any organizational system she uses would be worth looking into. I found her explanation and examples of bullet journaling really insightful.

I started my own low-key version after reading her post. While I don’t list day to day events (I still use my calendar for that), I’ve found it helpful to have one place to stick all my notes — work related or not. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve got down for May.


On the left I have notes about my son’s eighth-grade dance. Our church, which meets in my boys’ school, tries to give back throughout the year. One way we’re helping this time around is by decorating for the dance. It’s an 80s theme. Think Rubix cubes, fun movie posters, and Pac Man!

On the right is May at a glance. My current calendar is a weekly one, giving me plenty of space to write in daily tasks. But if I want to see the general flow of the month, I can’t. That’s why this overview is so handy.


Here’s my checklist for May, which I know will grow as the days pass. It’s life, it’s work, it’s big stuff and small. I’m working again on a manuscript I affectionately call Jasper. Though it’s not due back to my editor until August 10, I want to be sure to get my rhythm down now. I’ll check off each day I work and record the amount of time I’ve spent (my own version of a sticker chart).

I’m also deep in the middle of my Laura Ingalls Wilder class. Well, I’m actually a bit behind. Thankfully participants can finish at their own pace.

Over in the Wetlands releases in July (!!), so it’s time to start thinking about some guest blog posts as well as add to my Louisiana mailing list (my plan is to send postcards to the schools and libraries in the ten coastal parishes).

2015-05-17 08.21.56

Then there’s that dance. The shelves in my office closet. A writing mentorship (I’m reading and responding to two picture book manuscripts a month for a local writing friend). A birthday sleepover. The end of school. An eighth-grade graduation. Other books I’d like to read. A piece of writing for SCBWI-NM’s Enchantment show. My calendar is great for the everyday, but I’m loving the bullet journal for fleshing it all out.

Anyone else out there bullet journaling?



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18. Definitions of Art

desert ridge sunset

Art is what happens when you dare to be who you really are, when what is most alive in you is offered as a gift to others. — Emily P. Freeman

Human, generous work, that might not work, that changes someone else for the better. — Seth Godin

If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art. — Arnold Schoenberg

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19. Straight From the Source: Shannon Hitchcock on Writing Historical Fiction

Shannon Hitchcock is a freelance writer specializing in stories for children. Her work has been published in Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ask, and other magazines. Her debut novel, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl, was published in 2013.

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

I usually start with a story idea. I then spend several months researching, dreaming, and taking notes before I begin writing.

How do you conduct your research?

I start with Google, and as I browse various websites, I make a list of questions. For example: what might my heroine have worn in the 1920’s? What was life like on a farm before automation? How do you drive a Model T? Once I have my questions, I search Amazon for books that might help answer them. I purchase lots of books from used booksellers so that I can mark them up and have them handy to refer back to.

You do have a specific system for collecting data?

I buy a new notebook at the start of every project and record all of my research notes in it.

What kinds of sources do you use?

A chat with a good reference librarian is invaluable to get started. Often they have the inside scoop on resources the average person doesn’t even know about. I also use magazine articles, books, websites, historical societies, Pinterest, and interviews.

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?

About six months. I have to fill the well before there’s anything inside to come pouring out.

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

When I’ve read and taken notes on all of the material I’ve identified as useful, then I start to write. I usually have a good grasp of the material at that point, but often refer back to my notes to double check facts.

What is your favorite thing about research?

My favorite thing is stumbling upon some cool fact or anecdote that will enhance the plot.

What’s your least favorite thing about research?

Sometimes it feels like the research will never end so that the writing can begin. I get impatient with it.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

Becoming immersed in another place and time.

What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?

Historical fiction is a harder sell. When my agent was shopping THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL, lots of the feedback went like this, “My main concern is that this is straight historical fiction, which is a really tough sale in the marketplace these days.”

Why is historical fiction important?

Historical fiction makes history come alive. Readers can get lost in a story and learn lots of wonderful information in the process. It’s like Mary Poppins says, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”

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20. Calling Forth


If your daily life seems of no account, don’t blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its treasures. For the creative artist there is no impoverishment and no worthless place.

— Rainer Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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21. Writing Links

creeping clouds

Logrolling in Our Time, Or You Can’t Take Blurbs With You :: Jennifer Represents

Top Ten Things I’ve Learned From Kids About Writing a Book by Augusta Scattergood :: Nerdy Book Club

Grit and Magic :: Marion Dane Bauer

How to Get Readers into Your Story — And How to Keep Them There :: Live Write Thrive

The Enemy of Creativity… :: Seth Godin

Make Time to Write: 10 Tips for Daily Writing :: Writers Digest

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22. Iron Sharpens Iron


Saying there is one true path to writing a polished work is folly. There are lots of paths and we create them as we walk. – Linda Urban

So grateful to have finally met Valerie Geary, a friend who has helped me find so many paths and walked with me along the way.

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23. Six Years of Working Hard and Believing

winter apples

As much as I love blogging, I’m not always sure other people are listening in. A few weeks ago I got an incredible email from blog reader Linda Jackson that reminded me what I do here does indeed connect with readers, sometimes in very big ways.

Hi Caroline,

Since that day I received an email from Amazon stating that May B. was a book of the month then saw your WOW Wednesday post on Adventures in Children’s Publishing, I have been totally inspired and motivated by your story. I don’t know if you know this, but I have a list of authors on my website under a tab titled Inspiration, and you are at the top of the list. What has inspired me most was your post Plow to the End of the RowAnd today I want to share with you that I have plowed to the end of the row, which is quite fitting seeing that the main character in the manuscript that finally landed me an agent actually has to work in a cotton field. 

After six years of working hard and believing, 200+ queries, 4 manuscripts (one of them rewritten multiple times, once from scratch), 4 R&R’s from agents, 7 pitch contest wins, I finally got “The Call” today.

So, that’s my story, and I wanted you to know how you influenced it…which is why I will ALWAYS BUY YOUR BOOKS! Interestingly, after reading your post on Working Hard and Believing, I remember thinking, Lord, please don’t let that happen to me. I could never survive 200 queries. When I read about Kathryn Stockett and her five years of querying, I said I could never do that. And when I read that Becca Fitzpatrick re-wrote the same manuscript for five years and even trashed it and rewrote it from scratch, I said I could never do that. have done ALL that and more. The manuscript that I queried forever and rewrote forever is still NOT the one that got an editor/agent’s attention. I had to write something new. We never know what we can survive until we have to survive it.

Thanks for being an inspiration,


I’ve been sitting on this email for weeks, waiting to hear where Linda’s book landed. Here’s the official news from Publisher’s Marketplace:

Mississippi-native Linda Jackson’s BECOMING ROSA, a coming-of-age tale set in Mississippi in 1955, about a young African-American girl who dreams of a life beyond the cotton fields, to Elizabeth Bewley at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s, at auction, in a two-book deal, for publication in Fall 2016, by Victoria Marini at Gelfman Schneider/ICM (World English).

Congratulations, Linda! Your story has thrilled me down to my toes and has inspired me to keep plowing. Now, readers, go out and congratulate the remarkable Linda Jackson.

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24. Office Transformation

Some of you might remember the days I worked in a closet office, a tiny 3′ x 4′ space where I wrote May B. When we moved to New Mexico, I graduated into a full-sized office. Last week the office closet got a little makeover.


Here’s how it all started — a jumbled mess.



Closet insides now on the outside.


Here are my wonderful new shelves from California Closets.


There’s even a special nook for my fake sod brick (doesn’t every author who writes about pioneers have one in her closet?).


Getting organized…


I wrote some words in every single one of these books! Way too fun.


I’m hoping this little fella sends his joy and inspiration over Jasper‘s way.


And here it is! Isn’t it beautiful? I trust nothing will fall on my head the next time I pull back that shower curtain…

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25. Risk, Passion, Hope, Determination


While on vacation in the summer 0f 2012, my family visited a small museum outside Denver. I decided I’d like to know more about the particular person the museum honored and perhaps write a picture book about him,* so the following January I dug in with research.

I drafted. I took the manuscript to my critique group. I revised. I sent it along to my agent, Tracey, who submitted it to various publishing houses.

That was about twenty months ago.


Since March, I’ve been at it with the same manuscript, trying to see if I can make it shine. It was interesting to take the story back to my critique group a year and a half later. While they said it was better, they offered plenty of ways to make it even stronger.

I madly took notes while listening to their feedback:

  • Rush into the moment, not past it.
  • Base the story more on senses.
  • This needs to be about the character’s emotional response. Where is the strongest emotional moment in this piece? Currently every moment is treated equally.
  • Don’t slow the story down, zoom the focus closer.
  • Show the story through the character, don’t build it on top of him.

I’ve been working hard with these suggestions in mind.


I used to think once an author sold a couple of books, subsequent sales were a given. And surely established authors didn’t need to keep learning about craft. They’d arrived, right? But that’s not the way the writing life works. An author is always learning, improving, working. There are no promises the things we create will interest publishers, but we keep at it anyway.



*If you’ve read around here a while, you’ve probably figured out I get a bit cagey when it comes to manuscript specifics. I’d much rather keep things vague until I’m finished, or even better, until it’s sold.

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