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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: the writing life, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 538
1. On Writing

If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.
— Nikki Giovanni

The post On Writing originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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2. An Update on Writing Smart and Not Scared


Last January, my local SCBWI chapter held a discussion on writing goals for the new year. At the time I had been processing a quote from Brenda Ueland as well as a recent email exchange with my critique partner, Valerie Geary, and was inspired to declare 2015 the year I learn to Write Smart and Not Scared.

Regular readers around here will know I’ve blogged about Smart and Not Scared writing throughout 2015. I’m still learning what this sort of writing looks like in my own life and will continue to do so in the year to come. Here’s a recap of the blog posts I’ve run and the topics I’ve covered. I hope you might click through to read them and join me in learning what it means to approach creativity in this way.

5 Ways I’m Learning to Write Smart and Not Scared

  • I want to be aware of the work beneath the work
  • I want to be proactive instead of reactive
  • I want my work, even when it’s hard, to bring about joy and satisfaction
  • I will not be afraid of anxious vanity
  • I will learn to mentally thumb my nose at the jeerers, critics, and doubters

An Update on Writing Smart and Not Scared

  • Discomfort will always be part of my process
  • My deepest satisfaction comes from the work itself
  • “No” is often a gift
  • Choosing a challenge is ultimately satisfying
  • Breaks feed my creativity

Write. Make. Create.

One way I’m choosing to free up the overwhelming creating-something-from-nothing phase is to do a little mental word play. Much like I trick myself into steady work by focusing on the story’s present moment (rather than reminding myself I’m writing a whole darn book), I’m going to claim two words from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic:

I’m not going to write right now. I’m going to make. I’m going to create.

Writing Smart and Not Scared: More Words from Isabel Allende

I find it interesting that Allende has only recently learned to “go easily with confidence” when it comes to her writing. “If I sit long enough, it will happen,” she says. She’s twenty-one novels in, but only recently has she realized she has a skill. Now she knows “If given enough time, I can write almost anything.”



The post An Update on Writing Smart and Not Scared originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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3. Writing Links

one way

What Does it Take to Finish a Book? :: Lisa Schroeder

When the Fun Begins :: Marion Dane Bauer (working with an editor)

6 Ways Authors Over-Dramatize :: Jody Hedlund

8 Paradoxes of Creative People :: Modern Mrs. Darcy

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Top 10 Tips for Writers to Stay Inspired and Kick-Start Your Creativity :: Goodreads

Revision Mindsets: Artist, Story, or Audience :: Fiction Notes

The post Writing Links originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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4. Two Quick Cartoons on “The Writing Life.”


I recently came across these two comics and they made me, well, not LOL, but I believe that I chuckled inwardly, silently. My funny bone was tickled.

I didn’t make a big show of it.

Remember back in the early days of the interwebs when people used to type ROTFLMHO (or other body parts)? That drove me insane, because I would immediately envision it. A person actually rolling on the floor — the dirty floor! — rolling! — and laughing like a lunatic. Hahahahahaha. And rolling.

Who does that?

Yet I’d read it multiple times a day. Fortunately, those dark days of the interwebs are gone.

Wait, where was I?

Oh, yes, this, taken directly from my life:


And this:




Thank you, Peanuts, and thank you, Simpsons. Charles and Matt, two masters.

Carry on, writers!

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5. Straight from the Source: Cheryl Blackford on Writing Historical Fiction

Cheryl Blackford was born in Yorkshire, England but now lives in a house in the woods in Minnesota where she is entertained by a wide assortment of wildlife, including coyotes. Lizzie and the Lost Baby is Cheryl’s first middle-grade novel. She has written three non-fiction books for young readers, and her picture book Hungry Coyote (inspired by a coyote she saw one winter morning) won the 2015 Moonbeam Award in the category of picture books for ages 4-8.

What typically comes first for you?

Setting is often the first thing I think about with a new story. In LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY I wanted to set a story in England and I modeled fictional Swainedale on Rosedale in the North York Moors, where my parents owned a cottage for many years. Rosedale is beautiful: wild in some places and pastoral in others. I love hiking across its purple-covered moorland on a sunny day and I worked hard to get the feel of the place into the story. I didn’t set out to write this book as historical fiction, but when Lizzie appeared she seemed to belong to a very specific time and place.


How do you conduct your research?

I usually begin on the web and then migrate to other resources such as the library or a primary source. In LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY I needed information about English World War II evacuees and about the Gypsy/Traveller culture. I found fascinating BBC online archives of ordinary people’s wartime experiences and my primary source was my parents. My father was an evacuee whereas my mother stayed in her home in Hull and suffered through the bombing blitz. To learn about the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller culture, I began with memoirs, including Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy Family’s Hard and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s by Maggie Smith Bendell. Much of what is written about Gypsies was written by outsiders but this was information from a primary source. Maggie and I have since become friends and she was an early reader of my book. She gave it the thumbs up – which makes me very happy.

What is your favorite thing about research?

Everything! I love falling down the “research rabbit hole.” I always learn far more facts than I ever use! And actually, I shouldn’t have said “everything” because keeping accurate detailed records of my sources isn’t my favorite thing to do.

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

For LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY, the most astonishing thing was that my father and uncle were evacuees — I had not known that before I began writing. The other fascinating things I discovered were all related to the Gypsy/Traveller culture in England . For example, I knew that Gypsies were avid horse traders but I didn’t know that they preferred a specific type of horse (grys in their language) that is sturdy and steady and has a beautiful long tail and feathery hair dangling over its hooves.

Why is historical fiction important?

Modern problems often have historical equivalents and we can all learn from the lessons of the past. Fiction can help readers develop empathy with people or problems they otherwise know little about, such as the Gypsies in LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY. The prejudice towards the travelling people that Lizzie encountered is nothing new; it has existed for centuries and continues to this day. During World War II, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime murdered tens of thousands of Roma in an effort to exterminate a people they deemed inferior. Genocide is an ugly difficult subject and narrative fiction can help us find a way to discuss it with students.

More fabulous books about this time period:

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books, 2015

A Frost in the Night by Edith Baer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, reissued 2011.

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2007.

Click here to download your own Blue Birds printable. Enjoy!

The post Straight from the Source: Cheryl Blackford on Writing Historical Fiction originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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6. MIDNIGHT WITOUT A MOON: A Cover Reveal, An Interview, A Giveaway

Readers here might remember Linda’s extraordinary writing journey. I’m honored to play a part in welcoming her debut novel into the world.

It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. But for now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation.

 Then, one town over, a fourteen-year-old African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change . . . and that she should be part of the movement.

Linda Jackson’s moving debut seamlessly blends a fictional portrait of an African American family and factual events from a famous trial that provoked change in race relations in the United States.

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

Typically, a story idea comes first. But with this book, my first stab at historical fiction, it was an era. I knew I wanted to write a story that included the Emmett Till murder. Hence, 1955.

Next came the character. Many African Americans were migrating to the North before and during this time, and some of them were mothers who, for various reasons, left their children in the South to be raised by grandparents. My main character, thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter, happens to be one of those children.

Finally, the story idea came to me. Besides the Emmett Till murder being woven into the story, what would be the premise? I couldn’t think of one until I read the book Vernon Can Read! by Civil Rights activist Vernon Jordan. In his book he stated that his family was not concerned, one way or the other, about the Civil Rights Movement or what white people did or did not allow black people to do. They set out to enjoy their lives despite their circumstances in the South. I thought, “How interesting! Not every black person was concerned about equal rights.” This also explained quite a bit about my own Mississippi Delta family. I often wondered why no one in my family was ever involved in the Civil Rights Movement, or even spoke about it, for that matter. And from that concept I found my premise: A young girl who longs for something more than the cotton fields of Mississippi, yet she is being raised by grandparents who are content with their segregated Southern existence and even resistant to the quickly approaching Civil Rights Movement.

How do you conduct your research?

Most of my research was done via the Internet. I read many online articles about the Emmett Till case, plus I was able to find the entire FBI transcript of the case online. I also read books—both fiction and nonfiction—either about the case or simply with a 1955 Mississippi setting. Additionally, in order to get a good grasp on the time period, I read other works of historical fiction set in that time period, regardless of the plot/characters.

Since I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, and spent most of my childhood in sharecropper shacks that were not nearly as nice as the one in which I have placed Rose and her family, some of the scenes in the novel are based on actual events that occurred during my own childhood. What I found, while reading other works set in 1950’s Mississippi, was that conditions had not improved much between 1955, when Rose was coming of age, and 1975, when I was coming of age.

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

I feel comfortable beginning a draft when I know I have a strong enough premise to complete a novel. I need to have a starting point (date/timeframe) and an ending point. With this novel, my starting date is two days before Emmett Till’s 14th birthday, which was July 25, 1955. The novel ends a week and two days after his murderers are acquitted, which was October 2, 1955. My original starting date was Emmett Till’s actual birthday (July 25) and the end date was sometime in January. But after I began drafting, the structure changed as I found more material and story to fill the timeslot between July and October than I had anticipated.

I continue my research through the Internet and any print material that comes my way. Oh, and I will purchase books if I’m not able to find the material online or at the library. Many of the books I’ve purchased for research are good books to have in my personal library anyway. Plus, they’re tax-deductible.

MWAM cover-linda jackson

What is your favorite thing about research?


What’s your least favorite thing about research?

Too much discovery! I could spend all day reading and might not ever get to the actual writing!

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

Turning fact into fiction! I absolutely love that—gathering all these facts then weaving them into a setting with dialogue and narrative. I love the challenge of providing information to the reader while putting them inside the story at the same time.

What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?

Making sure you get those facts right! If you don’t, the people who are familiar with that time, place, people, or events, will have no mercy when it comes to criticism. Of course, no one is perfect, and even memory isn’t perfect. So there might still be a fact or two that we don’t get right. And all we can do in that case is pray our readers have mercy and remember we did our best to get all the facts straight.

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

Well, I actually learned two things that sort of blew my mind during the research. One, my mom said she “thought” she knew of someone who was involved in the Emmett Till murder. But during my research, I found someone that I did know who was involved. Can you imagine my shock when the name turned up in the research? And two, I found out that the place where the murderers originally planned to take Emmett Till in order to “scare” him was in my hometown. So the story became even more real to me as a result of these two discoveries. I felt a personal connection to the story.

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

Yes! There was so much conflicting data regarding the Emmett Till case that I basically had to pick the sources I thought would be the most reliable. Then there were other facts that I simply had to leave out of the story due to so much contradictory data on the case.

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

In order to make the Emmett Till case relevant to my main character, I had to somehow make a connection between her family and the family of Mose Wright, the great-uncle that Emmett Till was visiting in Money, Mississippi, when he was murdered. Since I didn’t want to go overboard with tying real historical figures to fictional characters, I tried to get away with only one line stating that Rose’s grandfather and Mose Wright went “way back.” But my editor (Elizabeth Bewley) said I needed to make the connection stronger. And, of course, she was right. So I had to carefully weave in a few more connections without going overboard. I know this isn’t necessarily changing history, but it involved the trickiness of marrying fact and fiction.

Why is historical fiction important?

First of all, studying history in itself is important because it helps us understand the present. Historical fiction, in my opinion, is important because it gives us a more engaging way of studying and understanding the past.

For me, this book in particular was important because I needed to understand my own past. My mother didn’t register to vote until she was in her 50’s, and that was because for the first time, an African American was running for mayor in our small town. Furthermore, I don’t think she would have registered then if someone hadn’t come to our house, picked her up, and actually taken her down to the courthouse to register. Writing this book helped me understand that. My mother, and many other African American people in the South, hadn’t registered to vote because they could have been killed for doing so. Killed! Just for registering to vote. I knew this in a shallow kind of way. But writing the story helped me understand it. It helped me feel the fear. And I hope my readers will, too.

Also, regarding Emmett Till, I often asked myself, “Why would his great-uncle Mose Wright allow Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam to take him away from the house in the middle of the night when he knew his life was in danger? Why would he suggest they just ‘whup the boy’ and let it be?” Again, writing this book helped me understand Mose Wright’s predicament, which was quite heartbreaking.

Writing the book, I set out to answer the question, “Why didn’t more people stand up for their rights?” But my editor has stated that the book will make young readers ask the question, “What would I have done?”

I have always admired writers of historical fiction but felt it was impossible to do so myself. After taking the plunge, however, I feel more confident and plan to write more historical fiction pieces that I hope will inspire, encourage, and entertain young readers. It takes a lot of research to write historical fiction. But now I know that the research is the best part!

Caroline, THANK YOU, for allowing me to be a part of your blog today and to introduce readers to Midnight without a Moon. I am excited to give them a first look at the cover, which was illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman, who illustrated the covers for Sharon Draper’s Stella by Starlight, Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird, and the 50th anniversary edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

It’s absolutely my pleasure.

Giveaway: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is kindly offering one ARC of Midnight without a MoonThe contest closes Monday, February 1. US residents only, please.

linda1Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta in the teeny-tiny town of Rosedale, Linda Williams Jackson likes to spin stories about everyday people in small-town settings. Though she has lived in a few other states (Alabama, Missouri, and Kansas), Linda currently makes her home in a not-so-small city in Mississippi with her husband and three children.

While a degree in Math and Computer Science from the University of Alabama allowed her to enjoy careers in Information Technology, Linda now prefers manipulating words rather than numbers and symbols. Besides her forthcoming debut middle-grade novel Midnight without a Moon from HMH Books for Young Readers (January 3, 2017), Linda is published in multiple Chicken Soup for the Soul titles and has written reading assessment passages for various educational publishers. Find her online at www.jacksonbooks.com.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The post MIDNIGHT WITOUT A MOON: A Cover Reveal, An Interview, A Giveaway appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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7. On Writing in the New Year

one way

This quote isn’t necessarily about the writing life, but it certainly could be. One of the biggest writing lessons I learned last year had to do with mistakes — not avoiding them but working through them. My experience echoes Neil Gaiman’s advice:

I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

Here’s similar advice from Seth Godin.

Don’t be afraid of mistakes. They lead you one step closer to finding the best way.

The post On Writing in the New Year appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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8. Classroom Connections: PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban

genre: historical fiction
setting: Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, 1942
age range: 9-12
Lois Sepahban’s website

A superior story of survival and love.
— School Library Journal, starred review

This historical debut speaks volumes of love and longing.
— Kirkus, starred review

Engrossing and heartrending historical fiction.
— Publisher’s Weekly

Please tell us about your book.

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

What inspired you to write this story?

My book takes place at Manzanar in 1942. From 1942-1945, it was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, most of whom were children. I grew up in central California, and I had two classmates whose grandparents were Manzanar internees. My classmates’ mom spoke to us a few times about her parents’ experiences at Manzanar. So, by the time I was seven or eight years old, I was aware of Manzanar. I was too young to understand it, but having something of a personal connection to the camp made me curious to learn more. My research led me to so many heartbreaking and poignant stories, as well as some very strange ones. One strange story was in an newspaper article. The old man being interviewed said that at some point, dogs started showing up at the camp. No one knew where they were coming from or how they got there. When I read that article, I got goosebumps. Suddenly, I knew what my story would be. 

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

Researching my book was a process that stretched over several years. It began, unintentionally, of course, in my childhood. Every time my parents drove past Manzanar on family trips or I listened to someone talk about Manzanar–these moments were layers of research that slowly built over time.

My curiosity really flamed to life in 2013 when I read Heather Lindquist’s book The Children of Manzanar. For the next few months, I devoured Manzanar true stories. I found an archive of oral history video interviews with former internees on Densho.org. My research at that time was deliberate. I knew that I wanted to write a story set at Manzanar. I knew I wanted it to have a love story between an internee and a camp worker. I knew I wanted the story to be from the perspective of a little sister. So I focused my research on the areas that were important to these storylines. I looked at old maps. I read supply lists and building reports from 1942. I drove along Highway 395 in California and tried to imagine how it must have looked to eyes that saw it for the first time. It is a landscape of scrub brush and red dirt. Very different from the lush rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. I continued to research as I wrote–looking for details and facts as I needed them for the story. And I was fortunate that a historian at the Manzanar National Historic Site was willing to read the manuscript to check for historical accuracy.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

The real challenge is that you can’t make certain things up in historical fiction. The characters, yes. The conversations, yes. Known historical events? Not so much. Writers do take liberties with history. I did. But I was careful to point out those liberties in the author’s note. When I speak to groups about my novel, it is not uncommon for me to hear from attendees that they had never before heard about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. So I feel a great responsibility to honestly portray this history.

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

My book is a good fit for 4th grade social studies in California, Oregon, and Washington because these were the states affected by the Exclusion Zone rule. It is a good fit for 5th grade and 8th grade social studies because it discusses U.S. history. This history applies to Canada, too, which also had Japanese internment camps during World War II.

The post Classroom Connections: PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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9. Creating A Blended Office Space For A Productive 2016

As a way to kick-start 2016 on a fresh slate, I spent the past week cleaning my home office and rearranging the furniture to create a comfortable work environment. View of my office from the door I'm very pleased with the result - it has the tools I need to brainstorm, write and track projects. It also provides me with the space to organise my life and hobby projects. So when Sarah from

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10. Fragile Beginnings and Too-Early Audiences

counting by 7s

I’m always finding metaphors for the writing life in the world around me, and this exchange from Counting by 7sreminds me of the way I think about early drafts.

“Are you really planning on running?”

Dell mumbles a form of yes. But then adds:

“But I’m not going to join any kind of team in the spring. I made that part up. I’m just going to run for myself.”

I don’t think that’s strange because almost everything that I pursue is for my own understanding or amusement.

I believe having an audience naturally corrupts the performance.

And I believe the more private my writing is in the early stages, the more its about my own understanding and amusement, the more it will eventually connect with an audience. To invite in an audience too early, even an imaginary one, complicates things, for this writer, at least.

That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes talk about or even show early portions of things to writing friends. But mostly I give stories the room to unfurl, to take root in the midst of their fragile beginnings.

For those readers here who write, I’m curious about how your approach this aspect of  your work.



*This book comes highly recommended!






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11. Wisdom from BIG MAGIC


“… Learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person… Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process…You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies… .

So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’ the question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”

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12. Links to Help You Write Smart and Not Scared


Here are a few posts that tie in perfectly with the writing theme I adopted last year. Let’s keep approaching our work in an intentional, life-giving way — even if it feels counter-productive.

To this my doctor responded, “So basically you use sugar and caffeine to whip yourself into a manic frenzy in order to write a book?” After I nodded grimly at her assessment, she went on, “Well, we either need to figure out how to completely overhaul your writing process or you need to find a new career, because being an author is literally killing you.”

My doctor’s pronouncement was both devastating and a big “duh” moment for me. Rather than give up the career I love, I decided to dedicate myself to creating healthier (and happier) writing habits.
— Beating Deadlines with Healthy Writing Habits by Bree Despain :: Publishing Crawl

If you’re a somewhat neurotic and anxiety prone writer like myself, you probably have a voice inside your head that likes to tell you that you’re not good enough, or your writing isn’t good enough, or that everything you put on a page is crap and you’re never going make your deadline on time (or finish this book, or sell this book, etc.). For me, this voice goes into hyperdrive when I’m on deadline. I start questioning all of my plot choices and second-guessing every word I type. It can be crippling if I don’t either turn it off or change the words that it’s telling me.
Beating Deadlines with Healthy Writing Habits Part 2: Write Happy by Bree Despain :: Fiction University

I now approach writing focused on what could be instead of what I think it should be. Instead of expecting results NOW, I accept that writing is a long journey, where going slow is the norm.
Author Overwhelm: Five Ways You Can Stay Away from Despair :: Children’s Writer’s Guild

But I am learning more and more, especially over the past year, that being nonproductive is actually essential to mindful, intentional living. In fact, being nonproductive is one of the most productive things we can ever do—even if the behavior wars against every inclination in our body.
— The Productivity of Being Non-Productive :: Becoming Minimalist


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13. To Beginners and Ever-New Beginnings


There is something beautiful and clarifying and terrifying all at once in being at the beginning… To be a beginner is to be full of hope-filled humility, to be overflowing with eager expectation that is simultaneously held in check by the obvious gap between your aspirations and current abilities. To be a beginner is to be pregnant with dreams but nascent with skill, and then to set about the work of cultivating the life of both.
— Michael Yankoski, The Sacred Year

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14. Straight From the Source: Lois Ruby on Writing Historical Fiction

Lois Ruby slipped in the back door as a writer for young people. That is, she was a Young Adult librarian for the Dallas Public Library, and after reading a thousand books in her department, she decided she could write the stories herself. Her first book was published in 1977. Since then, 18 more have seen print, and Lois is no longer a working librarian. Instead, her time is divided among her family, research, writing, presenting at conferences, and visiting schools to energize children, teens, and teachers about the ideas in books for young readers. Lois’s novel, Steal Away Home, is used in the 5th grade Civil War curriculum in almost every school in Georgia.

Although Lois and her husband, Dr. Tom Ruby, raised their family in Kansas, they now share their lives in Albuquerque. Their three sons and daughters-in-law, and seven amazing grandchildren, are scattered around the country.

Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts about historical fiction. It’s my first love, although I didn’t like history while I was in school. In those days it was all about kings and wars and memorizing dates. As I began writing historical fiction, I came to realize that history is individual people and their personal dramas within the context of events – large and small – swirling around them. So, yes, history is war and dates, but also art and music and law and order and ekeing out a living and planting and sowing and seeking meaning and purpose in the midst of huge events one cannot control. Once I saw all that, I allowed my imagination to wander until characters fixed to a certain time and place popped into my mind. Then it was simply (but not so simply) a matter of letting those characters poke around in their environment until a story emerged. I wait for characters to tell me their story. Sometimes it’s a long wait, maybe years of patient waiting.

I’m a recovering librarian, so I love the research as much as the writing. One of my friends does a huge amount of research for each novel, then disposes of all those materials before moving onto the next book. Not me. I continue to collect info and artifacts long after a book is written, which is why my office is such a jungle. So, I have boxes and boxes of research notes, print-outs, maps, articles, glossaries, bibliographies, photographs, and, of course, books on each of my historical subjects. And guess what. Even after all this research and later intense scrutiny of facts by my editors, there are still errors that surprise me in my books.

The process of writing contemporary novels differs from that of writing historicals. For contemporaries, the character comes first, and I have to figure out who this person is, and what his or her story is, and why this person is interesting or important enough for me to spend two or three years with. However, for historical novels, the time period comes first, and then my task is to figure out who populates that specific era and locale. Once that’s established, the story begins to write itself, and I have the privilege of hearing what the character has to say and recording it as fast as I can, like watching a movie in my mind.

I begin research for historicals by reading the best children’s book I can find on that subject, because the breadth and clear language are going to tell me what I need to know to get my own thinking cranked up. Then I move on to depth. Of course, I read online, but you can’t trust everything on the Internet, so any specifics I pick up, I need to verify with material that’s actually vetted and fact-checked by reputable publishers.

It’s important to visit the places we write about whenever possible, even if the events we’re describing happened centuries ago. We need to see the terrain, feel and smell the atmosphere out of which our characters spring, for I believe place affects one’s orientation and thinking. For example, I’ve been researching southeast Kansas in the 1870’s. Recently my husband and I visited the very place those dramatic events occurred, read the local papers on microfilm, interviewed people whose ancestors grew up in that area, and soaked up details about the trees, hills, and sky for sensory-loaded setting. I’ve had to put that book aside to work on other things with deadlines, so it could be years before I get back to writing it, but I’ll keep researching. In fact, I normally spend about two years researching an historical novel, all the while mentally interviewing my characters to plumb for the peculiarities and doubts and certainties, and especially the poignant moments in their lives.

When to stop research and start writing? Who knows? For me it’s a circular process. The research peppers the narrative, and as I write and realize how little I actually know, I return to the research … which yields new details and possibilities for my characters. I ask a zillion questions. Each answer opens the window on another question, the answer of which leaves me gasping because so many, many ideas pop up, and I haven’t “world enough, or time” to explore them all. Let me give you an example. I’d been doing a great deal of research on Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s, for my World War II book, Shanghai Shadows. Finally, I said, enough study – write it, already! Then I thumbed languidly through a book I’d actually already read for this project, and a tiny, but very significant detail jumped off the page. It was something I’d overlooked in the first reading because I wasn’t ready for it yet, but now that the detail was mine, it led me in a whole new direction of inquiry. What a joy!

Something about the research process: As I read, I write or type notes on 3×5 cards, one for each fact or captivating observation. These cards are organized by broad subject, such as dates, relevant laws, crops, quotes, historical figures, geography, etc. I index the information on each card by very specific details, much as you’d see in the index at the back of a book. That’s how I can retrieve info quickly to flesh out a scene. It’s a slow and arduous process, and yeah, I know, there are programs for collecting and sorting info, but I was writing before the term apps was invented. I’m old enough to remember and love library card catalogs!

I’m intrigued by the question Caroline posed: “What sorts of decisions have you had to make about ‘muddy’ historical figures or events in order for your book to work?” Wow, that gets an author’s heart thumping! The easy answer is that I often find contradictory information from one source to the next, such as the year of a certain major occurrence that affects my created characters. Sometimes a fact can be clarified or verified by a more definitive source, but at times even that doesn’t work, in which case I have to make my best guess. But what the question is really getting at is something more complex, and it leads to the query, how much can we tweak history to fit our story? We might need to juggle less significant dates a bit. We might need to intentionally omit some historical facts in service of the story, particularly about unsavory characters who might have done things too raw for the young audience I’m hoping to reach. We might need to put words in the mouth of an actual person who lived, though we can’t verify that that person said those words. We might need to invent characters who never existed, and drop them into an historical context to breed more drama for our protagonists. After all, it’s why we call historical novels fiction. So here are two things I try to remember: (1) make the story engaging and accessible to readers; but (2) don’t lose track of the deeper truth – which is beyond the facts – of what really happened.

Historical fiction is important, I believe, because it makes the dry back-story of our shared human experience spring to life with vividness and insight. There’s a common saying that if we don’t study our history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Some terrible things have happened; some terrible things continue to happen. But my hope is that as writers of historical fiction, particularly for young people, we cast a questioning and understanding eye on cultural, historical, and heroic events of the past, to help readers make wise, humane choices for the future.




The post Straight From the Source: Lois Ruby on Writing Historical Fiction appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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15. Writing Links


A Bowerbird’s Guide to the Writing Life by Ammi-Joan Paquette :: Nerdy Book Club

The Protagonist Must Protag by Sarah Prineas :: Kate Messner’s Teachers Write

Almost :: Jennifer R. Hubbard

Managing Creativity When It’s Your Job :: BookEnds Literary Agency

How To Drive Yourself Crazy as a Writer: Read Reviews :: Fiction University

Four Steps for Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel :: Jody Hedlund

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16. Writing Smart and Not Scared: More Words from Isabel Allende


After I heard Isabel Allende talk at the KiMo Theater, Valerie Geary emailed me her favorite Allende quote about the writing life: “Fear is inevitable, I have to accept that, but I cannot allow it to paralyze me.”

I find it interesting that Allende has only recently learned to “go easily with confidence” when it comes to her writing. “If I sit long enough, it will happen,” she says. She’s twenty-one novels in, but only recently has she realized she has a skill. Now she knows “If given enough time, I can write almost anything.”


Knowing even Isabel Allende lives with the discomfort of creativity gives me courage to keep pressing forward with my own work. Fear can come along for the ride, but must stay in the back seat.

It can’t drive. It’s not allowed to paralyze.

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17. Silence and Solitude

My job has a wonderful privacy. I work in silence and solitude, which is such a joy.
— Isabel Allende

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18. The New Mexico – Arizona Book Award

blue birds nm az
Last Friday, Blue Birds got this fancy sticker.
may bb

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19. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT Release Day!

There’s this book I wrote a while back, something I started in 2001 and officially set aside three years ago. It’s called CAN’T BREAK US and is loosely based on my mother’s girlhood club. The manuscript is something I love to pieces, but after years and years of work just wasn’t coming together. It was my second attempt at a novel, the one that served its purpose in teaching me to write (of course, I still have a lot to learn). I figured we’d reached our end together (the manuscript and I. Book are friends, you know).

Little Nippers

In the summer of 2013, author/editor/teacher Mike Winchell asked if I might be interested in contributing two pieces of writing — one non-fiction, one fiction — for an anthology proposal. The idea was to show students how authors can take ideas from real life and turn them into a story. My mind went immediately to CAN’T BREAK US, which initially grew from the stories my mother told me in my childhood. Using my author’s note as a starting place, I created my non-fiction piece. Then I pulled out a pivotal chapter, re-wrote it as verse, and sent it in.

The anthology sold to Penguin in a two-book deal:

“BEEN THERE, DONE THAT [is] a thematic anthology series with a kid-friendly Common Core tie in, in which a who’s who of award-winning and bestselling MG/YA authors will share a nonfiction narrative, and then write a related short story in order to show the “from-life-to-page” process of taking real-life experiences and transforming them into works of fiction.”

Been There, Done That cover (1)

I’m honored a portion of this manuscript will live again in an entirely different form. I’m thrilled to be included alongside so many talented people. And I love that my mother’s club, The Little Nippers, will finally, finally be introduced to the world at large.

Because what young person hasn’t dreamed of a little pocket of the world where the kids are in charge?

Here’s a video about the background of my story “Lemon Squeeze.” You can click through to the Been There, Done That website and find similar items from the other authors in the “teaching materials” section.

Today across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the Been There, Done That authors will use the hashtag #BeenThere to share one-line glimpses into the real-life event that inspired their work. We’d love if others might respond with their own #BeenThere moments!

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20. Writing and Reading Links


Five Writing Tips: Ann Packer :: Publisher’s Weekly

What the Novel Needs :: Avi

Ten Ways Writer-Moms Can Gain More Writing Time :: Jody Hedlund

On Poetry and Shyness and the Way I Wish I Were by Kat Yeh :: Nerdy Book Club

Use these 10 writing productivity hacks: Finish your novel this year :: Now Novel

The Art of Persistence by Martha Brockenbrough :: That Wee Bit Heap

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21. Write. Make. Create.


My mind is alight with a new idea that isn’t even a true thing yet, more a sensation looking to find its form wrapped up in a handful of questions.

This book is going to be a joy to write. This book is going to be fun. Not that my others haven’t had both, but regular readers here know I find the creative process daunting, especially when it comes to a book’s beginnings.

One way I’m choosing to free up the overwhelming creating-something-from-nothing phase is to do a little mental word play. Much like I trick myself into steady work by focusing on the story’s present moment (rather than reminding myself I’m writing a whole darn book), I’m going to claim two words from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic:

I’m not going to write right now. I’m going to make. I’m going to create.


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22. On Writing


Name the book that made the biggest impression on you. I bet you read it before you hit puberty. In the time I’ve got left, I intend to write artistic books – for kids – because they’re still open to new ideas.
–Gary Paulsen

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23. Postcard Marketing in the Age of the Internet


Part of my month-long writing-free vacation was spent with these lovelies.* Like I did with May B., I collected addresses in dribs and drabs over the last year, waiting until I had a stretch of time to devote to stamping, labeling, and writing.

On 699 postcards. For real.


While it isn’t the 1,662 I sent out for May B., it was still a pretty big commitment, one that I found surprisingly satisfying.


You’ve probably heard the rate of return on direct mailings falls somewhere between 1/2 and 2 percent. Pretty dismal and probably not worth the effort, right? For me, the process has become a ritual where I can exert the tiniest bit of control over the unwieldy and unpredictable experience of releasing a book into the world.


Because the books I write are largely sold to the school and library market, that’s where I focus. I had graphic designer Sierra Fong create two postcards for my mailings this time around, one meant to introduce Over in the Wetlands to the schools and libraries of the Gulf Coast, and another to share both Wetlands and Blue Birds with New Mexico schools and libraries.


Here’s what’s happened since the postcards went out: I have had a handful of teachers email me after receiving the card. My sales for both of these books have increased slightly in the last few weeks.** I’ve gotten more website hits from the areas I’ve targeted. And I’ve been invited to speak at Mosquero Elementary School, a K-6 school of 22 students in Mosquero, NM (population 93). Seeing young readers in corners of my state I’ve never visited is pretty much the best thing out there.

While I’ll never know the actual results of the mailing, every postcard was a chance to directly tell a teacher or librarian about something I believe in, and in this age of quick and impersonal blasts of information, it felt significant, important even. However small the return, my efforts to match books with readers has left a mark, perhaps in ways I’ll never know.

Which is exactly how this publication thing works, anyway.


*Points to the person who catches the typo. My son spotted it immediately!

**Penguin Random House has a website called Author Portal where sales can be tracked, using numbers from Nieslen BookScan. Many, many bookstores don’t report sales, and few, if any, schools or libraries do. Until statements come in months from now, it’s really impossible to know true numbers, but the BookScan stats are a start.

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24. Classroom Connections: THE LAURA LINE by Crystal Allen

age range: 8-12
genre: contemporary fiction with historical flashbacks
Crystal Allen’s website

Please tell us about your book. 

THE LAURA LINE is about Laura Dyson, a thirteen year old, overweight girl who has dreams of being a model…or a major league baseball pitcher.  Because of her weight issues, students make fun of her to the point that Laura begins to believe that she is all of the ugly things her classmates say she is.  It’s not until Laura ventures into an old shack on her grandmother’s farm and finds a ledger filled with documents from the female ancestors in her history, (all of them named Laura)  that she begins to stand up for herself.  Now, Laura Dyson not only knows who she is, but has evidence of all the wonderful things she can become.

What inspired you to write this story?

My mother raised my oldest brother and sister in an extremely small, one-room, family-built house on my grandmother’s farm.  I missed my opportunities to tour this family landmark, but I knew it held valuable history, along with proof of the strength and determination of my mother.  I wanted to honor her, and the house, in some way.

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

Talking with family members and memories of growing up on my grandmother’s farm in Indiana were the biggest tools I used when writing THE LAURA LINE.  However, while visiting Boston one summer, a replica of the Amistad was docked in the Naval shipyard, and people were encouraged to tour for free!  Since the Amistad was going to make a “cameo” appearance in THE LAURA LINE, I thought this was an excellent opportunity for some research, and the price was perfect!  With camera in hand and money for snacks, I took off to the shipyard, expecting a fun day in the sun.

But that’s not what happened.

Touring that schooner caused such an emotional stir in me, I was completely caught off guard by its affect from the moment I stepped onboard.  I had no personal ties to anyone aboard the Amistad, yet I wept right there at the shipyard as if I did.  To see pencil-drawn portraits of the captives, some as young as seven-years-old, took all of the fun out of my day. I knew the story of the Amistad, but standing downstairs, in the belly of that schooner, put the whole story in my face.  This was no longer a research project.  It was now personal.

Even though the THE LAURA LINE is based on fictional characters, I felt as if I met the first Laura that day. She was real, and she needed me to feel her pain, her fear, her frustration, her hunger, her tears, her anger. I rushed back to the place I was staying and began to empty out everything I had felt that day, whether it was in complete sentences or not.  I will never forget that experience.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

Making sure each Laura was given a talent that existed in her era, and the materials, left by each Laura, were believable.

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

THE LAURA LINE teaches its readers:

Love yourself.  Love your “Line.”  Live your dreams.

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25. The Adversity of Creation


Rejection educates. Failure teaches. Both hurt. Only distraction comforts. And of these, only distraction can lead to destruction. Rejection and failure can nourish us, but wasted time is a tiny death. What determines whether we will succeed as creators is not how intelligent we are, how talented we are, or how hard we work, but how we respond to the adversity of creation.

How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

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