Thursday, August 29, 2019

By Charlotte Bennardo

When setting a story in a location we are not very familiar with, the best thing would be to go to that place to absorb the culture, take note of the architecture, listen to the language, and talk to the populace.

Ah, if only.

My co-authored YA novel, Blonde OPS, takes place in Italy. Rome, to be exact. I have never been to Rome, and neither had my co-author. (It's on the bucket list.) So even if I browsed through travelogues, I'd only get a smattering of the information I needed. And, the publisher would have laughed hysterically if we suggested a 'working' trip to Rome. So actually going to Rome was not an option.

Many authors are faced with this dilemma. Sure, you can ask around, see if someone has been there, knows things about the place, but it's not the same as being there. Human memory isn't the best; it is selective, and discards things it doesn't deem important enough to remember although as many criminal trials have proven, it's the little details that can make or break a case/story.

Thankfully, by starting with a travelogue, we could pick out landmarks we wanted to use in our story. Complete histories, addresses, guided tour information, and even a picture gave us a good start. But, a picture is flat. How could we walk down a cobbled street to see a small cafe, with basil pots in the windows, and hidden alcoves with weathered statues?

By traveling with Google Earth. When I give workshops and presentations on research tools for writers, Google Earth is one of my favorites. In Blonde OPS, there are car chases, sightseeing on a scooter, a romantic walk through the back streets, and ancient hidden staircases. By putting in an address, Google Earth lets you 'walk' down the street via GPS in virtual reality.  I saw the blooming spice pots. I saw the uneven stone cobbles. I saw twisty, narrow streets. A fan who read the book said she felt like she was actually in Rome, meandering the streets, or standing in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square. Others, who've actually been to Rome, have said, "I know that place!" Even though we made up hotel names where spy action/kidnappings/etc. take place, the main thoroughfares exist. I spent so much time 'traveling' with Google Earth, it sometimes felt like I'd been there. And that's when you know you've nailed it.

If you want to get a feel for a place before traveling, or when you can't travel, book your ticket via Google Earth, and let your mouse guide you.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Welcome Back to Villa Villekulla!

I've embarked on a bold experiment as of late: I'm re-reading some classic children's chapter books that I loved when I was younger.

It's a little scary because there's a chance that I won't love these books on this go-round and that my memories of cherished stories will be forever tainted. I just finished one the other day that didn't thrill me like it did when I was a child. The protagonist's misadventures were so predictable to my adult mind, and I couldn't help but notice all the things that were perfectly acceptable in a 1950s-era book that just wouldn't fly today. So I was a little hesitant to re-read my beloved Pippi Longstocking for fear that it might tarnish my childhood memories.

But guess what? It holds up!

I tried to analyze why. Astrid Lindgren doesn't use any type of super-fancy narrative techniques, after all. Chapter one doesn't begin with a catchy hook or dialogue; the first couple of paragraphs are straight-up exposition. But here's the thing: when you have a crazy-fun character like Pippi Longstocking who lives in a house like Villa Villekulla all by herself, with a suitcase full of gold from her cannibal king father, and a horse in the kitchen, and a sidekick monkey, there's pretty much no way you can go wrong in telling the story. With such an irresistible setting and main character, the story almost begs to tell itself.

I absolutely loved Pippi when I was a little girl, and I desperately wished I could live next door to her like Tommy and Annika did and have all sorts of kooky adventures at Villa Villekulla. 

I was afraid to try to go back to Villa Villekulla as a grown-up, but I'm so glad I did, because in doing so, my childhood wonder was reborn.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go back to being a Thing-Finder with my friends Pippi, Tommy, and Annika.

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Travels Big and Small (Holly Schindler)

Traditionally, each main character in a story undergoes a pretty radical change—of heart, mind, or both. It’s an internal journey. The external journey that the main character goes on (solving a mystery, saving the planet—or maybe a baby brother, etc.) allows for the internal journey and change to take place. 

But one of the most enjoyable parts about writing MG is how truly small the external journeys can be—especially when writing realism. And showing what an immense internal change those tiny physical journeys can make. 

Characters of this age aren’t exactly going to put themselves on planes. Jump continents. If they travel much farther than their own neighborhood, you’ll start to hear readers grumbling about your storyline being implausible. 

Think about that: their external journey will most likely take place in just a few blocks. It will involve a handful of locations—school, home, maybe a friend’s house. 

And in that small slice of a physical location, they can take the kind of internal journey that means their lives are different. They’ve changed their entire outlook. They believe in themselves in a new way.

Really, though—adult life isn’t quite so different. We have the ability and means to move greater distances, but what really changes us—experiences far from home, or close to it? Strangers or those we’ve come to rely on in our day-to-day lives? 

As a writer of books for all ages, I’m constantly surprised how writing in one genre informs another. And this lesson from the MG world—about a character's small inner circle—consistently helps shape work I write for older readers.

What’s your own favorite story in which the plot unfolds in a tight space?

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.