Friday, August 23, 2019

Character as a Complexity of Images: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Like every writer, I use my imagination to bring characters to life, flesh them out, animate them. But I never considered how images are related to that process until I read these words by archetypal psychologist James Hillman:

"If the character of a person is a complexity of images, then to know you I must imagine you, absorb your images. To stay connected with you, I must stay imaginatively interested, not in the process of our relationship or in my feelings for you, but in my imaginings of you. The connection through imagination yields an extraordinary closeness. Where imagination focuses intently on the character of the other . . . love follows.”  —The Force of Character p185

Hillman wasn't writing about creating fictional characters, but certainly could have been. Because yes. Writers do love—with all the complexity of love—their characters. This quote also gives a clue to why readers often feel more connected to a book character than a living person. “The connection through imagination yields an extraordinary closeness.”

To look at your characters in a new way, try to consider them as a "complexity of images." Also, if you're having trouble developing one of your characters, consider this from the next page:

“Relationships fail not because we first stop loving but because we first stop imagining.” p186

 Hillman's ideas also speak to the current cultural crises of immigration and gun violence. Failure to connect with the unknown other is a failure of imagination. No imagination equals no love or empathy. Abominations follow.

Not only does The Force of Character offer insights into imagination and character, but the prose is gorgeous. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Characters: Our Traveling Companions

No matter what the story, most would agree that books take us to many places. Sometimes they take us to faraway countries. Other times they allow us inside a new culture. They even, at times, take us to the future or the past. As a reader, I enjoy when a book I read brings me inside a world I know nothing about, but I also love when a story takes me to a familiar place I've been many times before.
As an author, the books I write provide me with that same pleasure as well as the added excitement I feel in knowing that the words I write are a roadmap for the journey my readers will take.

I have just recently completed my newest middle grade novel, When I Hit the Road. It just so happens that it's a travel story. The main character, Samantha, ends up on a road trip with her grandma, and she records her journey by writing letters to her future self. Because I've been working on this book for a while, I've thought a lot about the journey my readers will take when they read When I Hit the Road. I have also thought a lot about how my main character's journey is profoundly impacted by the people she ends up traveling with.

When we travel in real life, the places we go and the things we see and do often end up changing us. But sometimes, it's the people who travel along with us that hold the most significance in the transformation that takes place when we travel. I think this may also be true in our "reading journeys." The characters who tell their stories and take us on our "reading journeys" may be just as important, maybe in some cases even more important, than the places they end up taking us to.

So, do the books I read take me on journeys that often impact my life? A resounding "yes." Do the characters who serve as my guides influence that impact? Most definitely. And do each of those character-led, reading journeys change a little bit of who I am? Absolutely. It's actually one of my favorite reasons to read.

Happy Reading,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

When I Hit the Road
(Coming Spring 2020 from Sourcebooks for Young Readers)
In this fun and wacky road trip novel from Nancy Cavanaugh, Samantha thinks spending a summer with her Gram will be boring, but when Gram drags Samantha on an unexpected road trip, Samantha’s summer takes a wild turn and becomes one she will never forget.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Traveling Through Life

As a kid, my family didn’t travel much. We spent most days at home - at holidays or in the summer visiting my grandmother who lived along the Wisconsin River not far away. 

In my teen years, I would work and travel little. 

It was mostly through books that I learned about the world. I wouldn’t see much of the United States until I’d be in my 20s. 

But through the pages of my fiction and non-fiction and even textbooks, I learned much and dreamed a lot in those formative years. Writing also transported me. It took me to places I couldn’t access but still could feel in the corners of my imagination. 

Writing and publishing brought me to new people and friends - all across the United States and even overseas - without spending as much as a tank of gas. 

About two years ago, I left the county I spent most of my life in to move north. Until then, this was only an area I’d pass through or sometimes vacation in for a long weekend or so. I’d always wanted to live in the lake towns here. In many ways, it was a dream come true. In many other ways, it was terrifying. 

I had to start my life over, mid-way through life, with nothing but a pile of books, pages of manuscripts of my own and my cat. I had no friends here, no roots. 

As I prepare these last few weeks to move yet again - this time to a place I’ve only ever visited and never once dreamed of belonging in, I again find myself turning the pages of books and scribbling in my notebooks and laptop to process all the upcoming change. All the fear that comes with travel and the unknown.

Those pages are my one main constant. The books and my writing travels with me, no matter where I go. It IS my blood, my stability, my core, my soul. I also have my writing friends, because we have established true roots with each other as well. It is these things I rely on as I again hit the blacktop to start over once again. 

The truth is, we never know if those miles will be the best of us or the worst of us. Had you told me two years ago how in love I’d become with this place - the towering pines, the sunsets across the lake, the mist off the creek in the morning, the towns firmly set 40 years behind the rest of the world, the friends I’ve made, the pages I’ve written, the words I’ve lost and gained - I’d never have believed it. 

So I’ll pack a bag again. With those same books I’ve had since I was a kid. And a teen. And a young woman. With a few new ones I’ve gained here the last two years. 

Who knows what words await me there? 

Happy Reading!

AM Bostwick

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Traveling to Write Our Books

I don't travel to seek ideas for books: all my ideas come from my own ordinary life.

I don't travel to research my books: they all take place close to home.

But I adore traveling to write my books. That is to say, I adore writing in Other Places.

There is just something so magical and stimulating about writing Somewhere Else. I write more and better when I'm not lying on my couch at home. Or at least this is what I tell myself to give myself permission to arrange to write on the couches of my writer friends.
I love writing in cafes, preferably on a snowy day, sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on a pastry.
I've taken myself on the bus from Boulder to Denver to write in beautiful Union Station, preferably with a jaunty elf to keep me company.
There is no lovelier place to write than in the Denver Botanic Gardens.
My favorite recent writing stint elsewhere was sitting cross-legged on the floor at the Denver Convention Center, when I was speaking there at this year's Pop Culture Con. I finished writing the last two chapters of my latest book under the gaze of a curious Big Blue Bear.
So if you're feeling stuck, or sad, or just in need of an extra jolt of joy in your writing life, go write somewhere else. Take yourself out on a writing date. All writers need writing treats!

Oh, and here I am in my most exotic writing spot to date: seated on the Great Wall of China.
Who wants to come on a writing date with me?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Traveling, Page by Page - By Michele Weber Hurwitz

I grew up in the late seventies in a middle class suburb of Chicago comprised of stay-at-home moms, ornery poodles, summer days at the public pool, bologna on white bread with red Kool-aid, and front seats of cars that were as long as a sofa. Looking back, it was a lovely, idyllic childhood. But when I was young, it was absolutely, positively boring. Nothing all that exciting ever happened, except the time my brother decided to moon the cantor at our synagogue. But that's another story.

I had to go somewhere to find excitement, and where I found it was in the pages of beloved books like Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Heidi by Johanna Spyri.

Oh, to live on a remote island away from my annoying brothers! To fish for my dinner (even though I hated fish), and make my own shelter from palm leaves! To fend for myself and eat when I wanted, not be called down to the dinner table when my dad pulled up exactly at 5:30. To confront real danger!

Or to meet larger-than-life people named Billy Bones and Black Dog, not Mrs. Dietch at the end of the block who yelled at kids for stepping in her flower bed. To search for treasure with a real map where X marks the spot. To dig and dig, finally hit the chest with my shovel, and open it to find jewels and gold coins galore!

Honestly, I was convinced there was treasure buried in my backyard, or at least, an Indian arrowhead. Never did find either.

And to have a grandfather who lived on a mountain like Heidi's! Mine lived in a retirement home on a busy city street and got in line for dinner at 4 p.m.

I firmly believe that the stories we read when we're young stay with us long into adulthood and shape the people we become. I think those books I cherished planted in me the desire to (actually) travel and meet people who aren't part of my normal, every day life. This year, I took a hiking trip in Death Valley and a long weekend in sultry, mysterious Savannah. I didn't come across anyone named Black Dog but I'm still hoping.
In between trips, I still travel on the page. I'm currently taking a break from reading middle grade and I'm deep into the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrente - immersive stories of the lives and friendship of two women in 1950s/1960s Naples, Italy. I feel like I'm there.

Find Michele online at Her newest middle grade novel, set in a small Wisconsin town, is coming May 2020 from Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What The Dickens!

Frontispiece and title page, first edition 1838
Illustration and design by 
George Cruikshank
This week I revisit an old theme.  A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, before the first Enterprise took flight, before the TARDIS was stolen, there lived a sickly child.

And, as it turns out, this sickly child read a lot and wrote a lot.

Way back then, I lived in the wild, wild west on the front range of Colorado. Colorado Springs was small then, full of open spaces. The public library was way, way on the other side of town. There were no bookstores. The only library available to me was my school library. I checked out every book I could read. By fourth grade, my favorite authors were already Mark Twain, Jack London, Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And if I wanted to have my very own copy of a book, so I didn’t have to return it, I copied the book.

One of the first and favorite books I copied was Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. You may remember, Charles Dickens wrote the story in part to expose the hypocrisy and cruel treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London. Dickens blended a grim realism with satire to describe the effects of industrialization, creating a story of an innocent child trapped in a life with no hope. What better story to entertain a sickly child!

He introduces his character by assigning an impersonal pronoun to the character, one without identity, calling the babe ‘it’, predicting its doom:

“For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country…” - Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

But the baby survived, earning the right to life as well as a name, Oliver:

“... There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.” – Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Little did I know that it was a good thing, to write by hand. Scientists now know that cursive writing is an important tool for cognitive development. It teaches the brain to be efficient, helps to develop critical thinking skills and refines motor control. In fact, children who learn cursive tend to learn how to read faster, generate more ideas and retain more information. When I was copying Oliver Twist in the fourth grade, I paid more attention to the details of the story. I experienced the characters on a deeper level because the very act of writing them out engaged all my senses. I had to pay attention to the words, how they were ordered, and how they were used. And, of course, I experienced the linear logic of the plot.

George Cruikshank original engraving of the Artful Dodger (centre), here introducing Oliver (right) to Fagin (left)

One of my favorite characters in Oliver Twist was Jack Dawkins, otherwise known as the Artful Dodger. The snub-nosed, flat-browed, common faced pickpocket and leader of the gang of child criminals. He was not without heart, however.

It is the  nature of reading that every story we’ve read stays with us, and its characters become a part of our lives. We are the product of all the stories read and lived. Even as we become characters in each other’s story. These stories settle within us, blend with our experiences – for why else could we become so attached to these characters, unless we see them as friends– and work their magic on us. They engage, and encourage, and guide. 

And, when we least expect it, especially as one becomes a writer, such persistent characters ooze to the surface in some form found in our own works. Many light years down the road, when I read about the history of San Francisco, about the plight of the poor and that gallery of characters that walked those cobbled streets along the Barbary Coast, it was no accident that I envisioned Oliver Twist meets the wild, wild west.

My character became Jack London, in honor of my old friends, and not by coincidence:

“Jack of all trades, Lady Jane had called her. Pickpocket, escape artist, and a bold little rascal. A kid after her own heart, said Lady Jane. Lady Jane named Jack after one of her favorite towns, London. Jack London, that was her name. And this den was her home.
“She was by everyone’s accounts ordinary. Not small, not tall, not too thin. Not so clever as some but not near as dull as others. All except for her eyes. They were a pale, bright blue. They seemed like ghost eyes. Old sailors said she had the evil eye, saying she brought nothing but bad luck to everyone she knew. Get away with those buggery eyes, they warn her, or they’d take a switch to her backside.
“Despite being so common, she carried herself with the dash of one standing six feet tall. She wore a man’s coat over her tattered dress, one that nearly touched her boot heels. She had turned the cuffs back so she could use her hands, and stuff them comfortably into the large pockets.”

 Still a work in progress, Jack London has yet to find a home. As she skips away, down the road, tipping her bowler, she sings out to me, “ Once a villain, you’re a villain to the end!”

And I call out: “And you, Jack London, you’re my friend! To the end!”

What favorite reads did you have as a child? How did they influence your life?

-- Bobbi Miller

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


NOTE: I'm going off-topic this month and putting up an entry that originally appeared on the SCBWI blog last month. It evoked more response than anything I've ever posted, so I thought it might be worth sharing here as well. Enjoy! 

Since 2001, when I took my first kidlit writing class with Barbara Seuling (who a lot of SCBWI folks will remember as fondly as I do), I’ve worked on thirty published novels. Of those thirty, twenty-nine have been ghostwritten, work-for-hire, or co-authored. 

Which is also to say that twenty-nine of my thirty published books have someone else’s name, and not mine, on the copyright page. But more about that in a minute.

I didn’t set out to become a professional co-author. It just kind of happened that way, through a series of unforeseen opportunities and coincidences. It turns out, though, that I like it. A lot. I like how it’s allowed me to write full time. I like the creative synthesis of working with other storytellers. And I really like having high-profile partners who take care of the marketing and promotion end of things. For a prototypically introverted writer like me, that’s no small thing.

All of this has afforded me some experiences that go way beyond the hopeful imaginings of my eighteen-years-ago self. The MIDDLE SCHOOL books I’ve written with James Patterson have sold millions of copies and been made into a movie. I also got to write two trilogies with Jeff Probst, the host of my honest-to-god favorite t.v. show of all time.

So yeah, no complaints.

But what I’ve never done—until now—is publish a book in the usual way: written on spec, sold through my agent, and with full ownership of the copyright at the end of the day. 

That new book is a YA novel called ME, MYSELF, AND HIM, out July 9. It’s a “Sliding Doors” story with parallel narratives that follow my 18-year-old protagonist through two different outcomes from the same inciting incident (an autobiographically drawn episode in which my character breaks his nose huffing whippets behind the ice cream store where he works). The story is one part memoir, a lot of parts fiction, and also the most personal thing I’ve ever written, by far. 

That seems appropriate, too, since this is the first time I’m stepping out as a solo act, and, by extension, as the person in charge of selling my own work to its prospective audience. It’s been a whole new experience with a steep learning curve—not just about the business end of publishing, but also in terms of the emotional rigors of doing such a thing. 

There’s a kind of cruel joke in the world of publishing. This is an industry that attracts some large number of people (like me) who thrive on working in quiet isolation, only to then ask them to turn around and shout “LOOK AT ME!” in the most convincing voice possible when it comes time to share that same work with the world. It tends to bring up an insecurity or two. Or three. 

I’ve never needed skin so thick before. Never grappled with the kind of loin-girding that this level of self-promotion requires. And what’s more, I find myself feeling envious of other writers in a whole new way. I obsess about the things my publisher is (and isn’t) doing to promote the book. And I’m constantly measuring my own highs and lows against whatever it is my colleagues seem to be experiencing with their own 2019 releases. (Emphasis on the seems to be, given the slanted reality that is other peoples’ lives on social media.)

Should I even be admitting all of this publicly? Maybe not. As I said, I’m learning as I go. But I also know that talking about it has helped as much as anything. Naming these things out loud has been pretty good at taking away some of their power. It’s also come to show me how much I’m not alone in all of this anxiety.

The more I talk with other authors about this subject—the nasty grip of social anxiety in the face of self-promotion; the impossible odds of breaking through the white noise; the “who am I?” sting of impostor syndrome—the more I realize that it’s one of the most common themes in the lives of writers. None of that awareness takes away the stress, per se, but there is certainly something to be gained from recognizing it as a shared experience. (And tangentially, let me recommend this article from the Guardian, “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.”

The good news is, we’re in the business of shining lights into dark places. We have a unique obligation to our audience, to offer some hope where it’s needed, and to show our readers how very much not alone they actually are. And that extends to the way we treat each other as well. My non-writer friends are always commenting to me about how cool it is to see all of my kidlit people on social media, cheering each other on, promoting one another’s work, and generally making this a wonderful industry to be a part of. 

So, even as I’ve dipped my toe into these new waters, and even as I’ve found it to be distressingly chilly at times, I’ve also come to realize that if I raise my head and look around once in a while, I’ll find that I’m not swimming alone.  

Not even close.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Traveling Through Our Books

Writing fiction is a form of time travel. Science fiction takes us into the future, and historical fiction gives us a ride into the past. Even if a story is set in the present, we have to provide enough detail to make the reader feel like she is a witness to what is taking place.

There is a reason why many beloved books have stood the test of time. The authors of books like the Little House Series, Chronicles of Narnia,
Island of the Blue Dolphins

Island of the Blue Dolphins, and A Wrinkle in Time create realistic worlds that we want to visit again and again. When the setting, characters, and unique details are painted with words, we lose all track of time and want to stay in this place.  Wrinkle in Time / Wind in the Door / Swiftly Tiltling Planet

As a writer of historical fiction, research is what brings a time period to life.

If I want readers of my novel WHEELS OF CHANGE to follow Emily Soper’s adventures, they have to be grounded in the reality of 1908 Washington DC.

            What was life like in the Nation’s Capital 110 years ago?

            It was very rural for one thing. With the exception of Pennsylvania Avenue, the area around the train station, and a few streets bordering 7th Street – the main street of commerce - there was only gas lighting and no electricity. Indoor plumbing was still a novelty. Many roads were unpaved or had cobblestones. There were farms and wooded areas surrounding the government buildings. Most people still rode in horse-drawn wagons, carriages, or buggies.  Many goods were still made by hand. Incorporating these details into the story grounds it and fixes the time and place.

Character is another way to create an authentic story. When a story takes place in another era, the writer has to be sure to use language and sentence structure that rings true. In 1908, children spoke in a more formal style, like their parents. Very little slang was used. Children addressed other adults as Mr. or Mrs. and often used “sir” or ‘ma’am” when speaking to their parents.

A character’s actions and behavior was different than it is today. Expectations for males and females were much more divided and specific. Boys had more freedom to explore and be adventurous. They were expected to roughhouse and get into trouble now and then. Girls on the other hand, were expected to be lady-like and exhibit proper behavior at all times. They were encouraged to excel at the “domestic arts” such as sewing, cooking, housekeeping, and child rearing. 

The best books transport us and make us feel we are right beside the characters. Finding the right details takes us there.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Travel and Story: A Tale

by Jody Feldman

Once upon a time, there was a book idea that lived in and around the Port of Los Angeles. Sure, the story could have happened in Newport or New Orleans or New York, but the story’s spark ignited in LA.

In its infancy, the story traveled down the usual roads, anchored in character and theme and plot, but when it came to setting, it begged to be on the West Coast. The problem was, the author lived smack dab in the middle (phrase intended) of the United States.

How would the author make it real? How could she convince readers they were actually walking among the characters in the sun and the sea and salt air? How could she add those small, but vital impressions without soaking them in herself?

If only she’d known that her visit would spark a story, she would have taken pictures. She would have been more aware of her surroundings. She would have breathed in the smallest of details.

Instead, she did what could. She relied on her general memories. She relied on people who did live there, friends and family and strangers. She relied on Google Maps, and the ability to walk down streets, virtually. True, she couldn’t hear the sounds or feel the air or smell the smells herself as she wrote the scenes. She could only hope that she’d get every detail right.

That was truly important to her. She once saw a movie, set in her hometown, that got several details so flagrantly wrong, she couldn’t enjoy the story. If only the (much-heralded) director had done a little homework!

Aha! The author needed to do her homework! One day, preparation met opportunity. She smelled the smells, breathed in the vibes, walked the paths.

And now, she can begin to hope that the story will live happily ever after.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Traveling Through Our Books -- by Jane Kelley

I've just returned from a trip to the moon.

Or as close as one can get to it on earth. My family and I visited the Craters of the Moon -- a National Monument in Idaho. The lava field is so rugged that NASA actually used it to prepare astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, and Joe Engle for their mission to the moon that's 239 thousand miles away.

The landscape was beautiful. Spatter cones were as intricately carved as any work of art. The geology was fascinating. The lava under our feet had oozed up from a great rift and was over a mile deep. In many places, caves had formed as lava continued to flow beneath the rapidly cooling surface. I loved being there. It sparked my imagination in a multitude of ways. These are probably the only words I will ever write about it.


I have great admiration for writers who can transport me to a brand new world. That is one of joys of reading. I've tried sometimes to do that, but I always find myself returning to the landscapes I know. The woods. Manhattan. Rural suburbs of Wisconsin. Brooklyn. Often it's a specific spot. For instance,  my parrot Zeno perched on an actual statue of an angel at Greenwood Cemetery -- which he, in his arrogance, believed was a Parrot-Man.

How did I think of that? Well, I spent a lot of time wandering around that cemetery. It helps me to know a place. To be familiar with everything about it. To be a resident and not a tourist.

And yet I know I travel when I write my stories. I try to visit an emotional geography--like the foot of this immense mountain of cinders that erupted from deep within the earth.
And there, despite howling winds, the blazing heat of the sun, and an uncertain water supply, I discover that some flowers can still bloom.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Celebrate International Peace Month with YPPL Naomi Shihab Nye

By AdiJapan - Own work,
CC BY-SA 3.0,
I was pretty excited when I heard Naomi Shibab Nye had been selected to serve as Young People's Poet Laureate. And I can't think of a better way to celebrate International Peace Month than with some of her poetry! So, I'd like to direct you to a recent Poetry Friday Roundup that had poets sharing all things Naomi... spend some time digging into these posts, and I guarantee you'll feel better about the world.

Some quotes I recorded in my notebook:

"Poetry allows us to cherish what we've been given." -  Naomi Shihab Nye

"Poetry opens us to life, to surprise, to shadow, to beauty, to insight." -  Naomi Shihab Nye

"There's no place that poetry doesn't live." -  Naomi Shihab Nye

Go forth and find a poem today!
Irene Latham lives on a lake in rural Alabama. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she is the author of hundreds of poems and nearly twenty current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books from publishers including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Lerner, Boyds Mills, and Charlesbridge. Her books have been recognized on state lists and honored by NEA, ALA, NCTE, SIBA, Bank Street College and other organizations.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


I tried to think of a different angle for this month's topic, because I know this is really a downer, but this summer, I can't see the phrase "hot dog" and not think about this guy:

This was Jake--my dog who passed away last winter.

I've sort of been thinking of him lately in a kind of bittersweet light--I'll always be so glad I had him, but from here on out, no matter how many other dogs might fill the house, there will always be a little piece that's missing.

But that, in all obviousness, is life.

And it should also be part of fiction.

The thing is, we don't win without losing too. And what we lose is often unrecoverable. But the things we lose also leave marks on our heart--marks we would never want to erase.

In THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, a subplot surrounds the mother of the MC, Auggie. Auggie's town has led her to believe her mother is in California, shining brighter than any of the stars--the ones in the sky or the ones on the big screen. Her wishing spot is even a billboard featuring her mother's face. During the course of the novel, Auggie finds this story is untrue. As a result, she loses any hope that her mother would return. She loses her belief in a safety net she felt could call on should times get bad.

But learning the truth about her mother also pushes Auggie to stand on her own two feet and do her own fighting. In the end, Auggie succeeds in her quest to save her neighborhood. She finds her place as a folk artist, and she even mends a broken friendship. Along the way, Auggie might have lost any hope she ever had for seeing her mother again, but the whole experience surrounding her mother also taught Auggie to be something of a dreamer and a wishful thinker--qualities that help her develop her artistic eye.

Yet again, that's life--we never win without losing something along the way. Sometimes, the loss is a person, sometimes it's a dog, sometimes it's a belief. But there's always a little bit of bitter that accompanies any taste of sweet.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Give Me One With Everything, But Hold the Ketchup

By Charlotte Bennardo

Hot dogs are like books. Some are basic, like Ernest Hemingway's novel Old Man and the Sea. For purists, the simple language allows them to appreciate the story and literary nuances. A plain hot dog allows one to taste the spices of the juicy meat, appreciate the delicate texture of the roll, and with one condiment like mustard or ketchup, get a little flair. Many people like their books like their hot dogs- don't mess with perfection by overloading.

Others are more demanding. Like the person that loads on onions, mustard, relish, and sauerkraut, or chili, beans, hot sauce, and peppers, the more, the better. With writers like George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones, the adjectives and descriptive language are piled on. For some, it's too overpowering, but for others, the long parade of varying flavors and textures simply delights.

Like many, I'm in the middle. I love my hot dogs with spicy brown mustard and relish. I have to put mustard under the dog, then on top, then relish, which has excess water drained out so the roll doesn't get soggy. I'm particular about what I read too. I like what I like, and don't want to mess with perfection. Books that I like have description, but more action that adjectives. I like a little backstory, but am not too fond of extensive flashbacks. Bare bones language books tend to bore me because I need a little kick. I need a balance of bones and extras.

Enjoy your hot dogs and your books- however you like them!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

I Only Want a Hot Dog (Are You Sure?)

I’ll be honest: I’ve been struggling about what to write on the topics of hot dogs or niche marketing. I don’t know much about either. I wasn’t sure I could generate enough enthusiasm for either topic.

But today when I saw this t-shirt advertised, I knew what I could get excited about…and that’s the abuse of the poor little four-letter word “only.”

If we want to communicate effectively, we must know our syntax. Every time I teach a writing class, I go on a rant about “only” and how everyone seems to have forgotten where to put it.

I saw an ad for cable TV the other day, saying, “Only pay for the channels you want.”

If they offer you fries with your hot dog and you don’t want fries, most of us will say, “I only want a hot dog.”

And the t-shirt in the above photo? That poor dog!

No, no, and no.

Pay ONLY for the channels you want. You want ONLY a hot dog. And don’t you think that in addition to talking to your dog today, you should also feed him and play with him? You’re only talking to him? 

And with apologies to Stevie Nicks, let me point out that thunder happens ONLY when it's raining. 

“Only” should go next to (or as closely as possible to) the word or phrase it modifies.

Would I break this rule if my character is a child or a regular Joe who talks like most of the population? Absolutely. Otherwise, as the great James J. Kilpatrick, my hero and author of TheWriter’s Art, would say…

If your only’s lonely, move it!

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Maybe Goldilocks Doesn’t Need a Chair At All: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

 Whenever I’m stuck making an either/or creative choice—I know my imagination is on vacation. Imagination is a land of both/and. Don’t get me wrong. Either/or does have its place. But it’s not always generative and often negative because it doesn’t allow for possibility.

The struggle to hold a both/and place, at least for a while, often allows a third thing—a new solution—to arise. This is hard to do, of course. We want to know the answer and want to know it now. Rational brain is a necessity for writers, but relied on too much, it can limit options.

Both/and is not a simple formulation such as: this chair is too soft, this chair is too hard, so this chair in the middle must be just right. In a choice between a hard chair and a soft chair, the solution might not be a chair at all. It might be a swing. A hammock. A hot air balloon. The writer must allow herself to dwell in the discomfort of not knowing in order to give imagination time to create that third thing. I call this creative drift.

Trust process. In your creative life, make process goals like time for creative drift as important as outcome goals (generating a certain number of words or pages). If you do, your work will be easier in the long run, better, and much more imaginative.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Ketchup Please!

Anyone who lives in Chicago, as I do, knows you’re not supposed to squeeze one of kids’ favorite condiments on your hotdog. Once past a certain age, putting ketchup on a Chicago dog, as some people call them, is kind of like sacrilege. But, whether I’m getting one of these Chicago favorites from one of my Chicago favorites like Portillo’s or Buona Beef, I still love to drench my dog in ketchup. What can I say? Maybe I’m only grown up on the outside. Even so, alongside my ketchup, I do enjoy some “grown-up” things on my hotdogs too, like cucumbers, pickles, tomatoes, and celery salt, but what I don’t love is what most might say is a hotdog necessity – mustard. I just don’t like the stuff. On hotdogs. On sandwiches. Even on big salty pretzels.

Maybe you’re wondering, even during National Hotdog Month, what my love of ketchup on hotdogs has to do with anything. For National Hotdog Month, I decided I’d use the example of my personal preference when it comes to my hotdog condiment choice to say a few words about character. Many writers fall in love with a story they want to tell because of a character. Many readers fall in love with a book they read because of a character. But what does that have to do with hotdogs and ketchup? More than you might think.

It’s the myriad of tiny details about a person that make them who they are – their likes, their dislikes, their opinions, their strengths, their weaknesses, their faults, and so on. By themselves, each detail may not seem to be important, but when authors intentionally put specific details together, they create a character, and some might argue, even breathe life into that character. Maybe a character to love; maybe one to hate; but regardless, if an author does it well, the characters they create will evoke emotion of some kind in their reader.

So, whether I like ketchup or mustard on my hotdog, doesn’t make much difference, but what the characters we read and write about like, and dislike, makes all the difference in the world because it’s those details that tell us who they are. And, once we know enough about them, whether we hate them or love them, they become real to us, giving them the power to tell us their stories. The very stories they’ve inspired their authors to tell.

Happy Reading & Writing,


Friday, July 19, 2019

Hot Dog...Hot Cat Month? Popular Cat Titles in Literature

Hot Dog...Hot Cat Month? Popular Cat Titles in Literature

Upon noticing this month's options for topics for our blog, I couldn't help but entertain the opposite of "Hot Dog Month." As a writer from the point of view of a cat, I couldn't help but grab onto the play on words. 

Also, I'm a cat person. 

So, here are some popular titles of favorite "hot" cats in literature to revisit or discover for the first time for the rest of your summer reading list. 

1) The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss: Always a classic, Dr. Seuss delivers yet another fun and light quick read for kids (and kids at heart). Written during the 1950s, Dr. Seuss engaged a huge generation of young readers as well as their children and grandchildren who would pass along the tradition of reading these books to the young. The Cat in the Hat is the original curious cat into everything!

2) Dewey The Small-Town Library Cat by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter: Dewey was shared with me when my grandmother passed along this book to me. As a dedicated cat-rescuer and believer adopt-don't-shop, I was entranced by this tale of one cat - dropped off by another - who worked his way into hearts of so many librarians, patrons and eventually all his readers. It's a victory story for any stray cat, and shows the power of humanity and love for creatures who need a helping hand (or paw). 

3) James Herriot Cats by James Herriot: Growing up, at two different points in my life, both my mother and my father would gift me this book of short cat stories. I always found it that touching that they both knew me so well. James Herriot was someone we would watch on PBS with his variety of animals, kittens and cats being no exception. Herriot is a hero to many animals, and a celebrated vet that brought so many great stories to pet fanciers around the world. 

4) The Cat Who Mystery books by Lillian Jackson Braun: A series of twenty-nine mystery novels, it's hard not to be drawn into the world of a reporter and his two Siamese cats, who manage to solve a horde of difficult and story-worthy cases in their time together. An unlikely mystery-solving bunch, the novels are cozy yet entertaining reads any time of the year.

5) The Chuck Book by Cody VandeZande: A stunningly illustrated, ABC-style Children’s storybook about Instagram feline phenom, Chuck the Duck!’s human, Cody, is one of my favorite fellow cat writers. Clever and creative, this one belongs on every shelf, of every age reader. 

6) The Great Cat Nap by AM Bostwick: I'd be remiss not to mention my own literary cat, Ace, in my current two-part series of middle grade mysteries. Ace is a reluctant detective, working out of a newspaper office with his feline and canine friends (I’m a dog person, too), solving crimes and righting wrongs. He's smart-talking and often in over his tail, but hopefully always keeps readers on their toes (and paws). 

Happy reading! =^^=

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Having Fun with Your Niche by Claudia Mills

I have always declared that I HATE MARKETING. I whined and complained about the need for writers (nowadays) to market their books, when once upon a time, we weren't expected to do this, it was enough for us just to write the best book we could and leave the rest to ... well, to someone else.

But now I've decided that whining and complaining isn't the best strategy for selling books. Or for living one's life generally.

The best strategy for selling books, and for living life, is to have FUN doing it. And analyzing your book to find its niche in the market can point you to all kinds of way to make marketing FUN.

My newest book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, is set in an after-school cooking camp.
So what fun cooking-themed ideas could I come up with to celebrate my book?

In line with my general aversion to marketing and desire to grouse incessantly about it, I had mocked authors who wear costumes. How silly of me! Because costumes are . . . fun! So here I am at the book launch for Nixie at Denver's delightful indie children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right, looking a bit sheepish but jolly, too.
As I tested recipes for inclusion in the book, I made sure to take photos, particularly cherishing photos of my failures. Here are my failed dog biscuits.
Even a dog wouldn't eat those! Well, my dog would. But they are definitely unappetizing.

Here are the vastly improved dog biscuits.

So: as you work on your book, take photos of anything you do along the way that connects with the setting, theme, or activities of the story. You will be glad later!

And if you can come up with a fitting costume, go for it!

Why not make marketing just plain FUN?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Hot Diggity Dog, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Our July blog topics are niche marketing and National Hot Dog month. No contest for me as to which one to write about -- marketing is definitely not the favorite part of my job but I'd happily eat a hot dog anywhere, anytime, as long as it has mustard, onion, and pickles.

I'm in good company. On the Fourth of July, more than 150 million hot dogs are consumed in the U.S., and between Memorial Day and Labor Day, more than 7 billion hot dogs are eaten! Millions of people tune in on the Fourth to watch Nathan's Famous hot dog eating competition live from Coney Island. Joey Chestnut won again this year, eating 71 hot dogs in ten minutes.

I'm in good author company too. Mo Willems included a tale of this tasty treat in his picture book series with "The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog," and Tom Watson did too, with "Stick Dog Wants a Hot Dog." What a great title.

Growing up in a north suburb of Chicago, the best place to get a classic dog was Poochies. As the years passed, I've frequented such notable establishments as Weiner Take All, Frank 'n Fries, Frankly Yours, Portillo's, Irving's, Weiner's Circle, Super Dawg, Fluky's, and Wolfy's. Wolfy's even gave out little hot dog shaped gum with each order.

Just writing those names for this post brings back delicious, mouth-watering memories.

So what is it about hot dogs that Americans love? Food historian Bruce Kraig says that hot dogs are one of the most humble foods and a symbol of America. You can find them at baseball games, carnivals, beachfront concessions, and picnics. New Yorkers eat the most hot dogs, more than any other U.S. city. Mustard is the most popular topping.

Rachael Ray offers up some new twists on the old favorite with these 20 recipes. Check out her buffalo onion dog, taco dog, and hot dog flautas. And here are some fun hot dog party recipes, including hot dog sliders with mango-pineapple salsa and cheddar corn dog muffins.

In fact, a hot dog can actually be a metaphor for good writing! Just go with me here.

A hot dog has to be juicy and pop when you first bite into it, like the hook that grabs a reader. Condiments and toppings add personal flavor, and each one can be different, like your characters. And the bun holds everything together, tucked in neatly like a well-written plot with a strong beginning, hearty middle, and satisfying end.

And don't forget the fries -- a salty and essential subplot.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels. Her fifth will publish next year from Penguin Random House. Visit her at

Monday, July 15, 2019

Making History

This month we are exploring Hot Dog Month. Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of hot dogs. But I am a big fan of summer adventures! This week I learned that my MG, Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, 2014), is now featured through the Gettysburg Foundation!  Am I ever excited to see the ongoing support this book continues to receive. Everyone should at least once in their lives visit the Gettysburg National Park, considered a turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee's second and most ambitious invasion of the North. Often referred to as the "High Water Mark of the Rebellion", Gettysburg was the Civil War's bloodiest battle and was also the inspiration for President Abraham Lincoln's immortal "Gettysburg Address". From June through August, many family programs explore the sights and sounds of this defining point in the American story.

My interpretation of the battle featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.

The book began when I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following the Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I decided I was going to write her story.

When I tackled the battle of Gettysburg, I had to first get the facts right. This was a daunting task because no other battle has been studied so thoroughly. I read A LOT to get these facts right. And then, there’s the emotional truth, the story behind the facts.
Historical fiction makes the facts matter to the reader. 
If I didn’t get that right, creating characters true to their time and place, the readers wouldn’t care about the facts. For me, the only way to discover this emotional truth was to walk the battlefield of Gettysburg, and witness that landscape where my characters lived over one hundred and fifty years ago. I traveled to Gettysburg four times, walking the battlefield and talking to re-enactors and the park rangers.

As I pieced the story together, I took notes. I am a great fan of purple and pink post-its. I also like anything neon colored! I outlined everything. I wrote my first drafts in longhand. I find the relationship between pen and paper much more intimate, and demands me to go deeper into the character. Then, I transferred the story to the computer. But even as I edited the manuscript, I had to print the story out, and work with pen and paper again. I use recycled paper, to be sure!

But as we know, stories tend to be organic, and sometimes outlines, research, and all the "great plans of mice and men" need to be tossed as characters take over. In which case, I tag along for the ride. Even in historical fiction, with its challenging blend of story and fact, It’s as much about story-building as it is about story-creating. Mollie Hunter explores this process in her book Talent is Not Enough in which she offers:
  "The child that was myself was born with a little talent, and I have worked hard, hard, hard to shape it. Yet even this could not have made me a writer, for there is no book that can tell anything worth saying unless life itself has first said it to the person who conceived that book. A philosophy has to be hammered out, a mind shaped, a spirit tempered. This is true for all of the craft. It is the basic process which must happen before literature can be created.”

History isn’t dull or dry, as textbooks would have us believe. It isn’t a list of dates and names, like a shopping list that no one remembers once the task is complete. History is real and relevant. The study of history, in essence, is a way of making sense of the present. As David McCullough once said, in one of my favorite quotes, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate. [But] there is literature in history.” History enlarges our understanding of the human experience, suggests Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and as such, it needs to include the “stories that dismay as well as inspire.”

And there is no more powerful story to tell than that of the American Civil War.

When summer time has come, and all
The world is in the magic thrall
Of perfumed airs that lull each sense
To fits of drowsy indolence;
When skies are deepest blue above,
And flow'rs aflush,—then most I love
To start, while early dews are damp,
And wend my way in woodland tramp
Where forests rustle, tree on tree,
And sing their silent songs to me;
Where pathways meet and pathways part,—
To walk with Nature heart by heart,
Till wearied out at last I lie
Where some sweet stream steals singing by
A mossy bank; where violets vie
In color with the summer sky,—
Or take my rod and line and hook,
And wander to some darkling brook,
Where all day long the willows dream,
And idly droop to kiss the stream,
And there to loll from morn till night—
Unheeding nibble, run, or bite—
Just for the joy of being there…

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar, In Summer. Public Domain. See complete poem here. Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 to freed slaves from Kentucky. He became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. 

I hope you are making history this summer!

--Bobbi Miller