Keep it Relevant…Even with Historical Fiction…Even with Kindergarteners

In a recent kindergarten storytelling, one child called my china teacup “a pinky cup.” Another called my metal ladle “a soup slurper.” And when I named the ladle a “dipper,” kids in each class shouted out: “The BIG Dipper!” Well, it was. Big.

I also showed and told some string stories. Parents and grandparents were also in the room. After several pulls with the prattling of the story going on, I showed them a completed broom. On the lovely little faces in front of me, the kids wore blank looks. When I then asked the kids if any of them had ever seen a broom before, the adults snickered but the kids kept up with their stoic blank looks. Although no one replied, I could see their answer in unison: “I donno.”

On the way home, I evaluated my school visit. I realized that even though I talked about things 400 years old, I honestly thought (oh-ha-ha) that six-year-olds would have a knowledge of certain, what I thought were, basic things. What it ended up being was like telling a very funny joke, but having to explain the buildup for them to understand the punch-line, by which time no joke is really quite funny any more.

Still evaluating…

I had fun. The kids seemed to, too — by eye contact and responses to my comments or questions.

Among a ton of other things, they learned that a dipper is more than a constellation and that brooms make a sound that go “swish-swish-swish.” Although I’m not sure they know what they swished, nor where the batteries went.

From the four pictures that one of the teachers took with my iPhone, my coif (cap) had fallen downward over my forehead, over my eyebrows. Hmmm. I was so into the exciting stories that I didn’t even notice.

400 years ago, or even 150, kids would have had the same basic knowledge about dippers and brooms and teacups. Today, I wonder what basic knowledge is. It makes me wonder what they think of Sleeping Beauty, when Beauty pricks her finger on a wooden-machine-with-a-wheel-you-push-to-go-around-that-makes-yarn-and-cloth-for-later-weaving-or-sewing-clothes-because-they-didn’t-have-stores. There. Put that in your story. Or just call it a spinning wheel and hope for the relevant best.

Try Something New (From What You Normally Write) — Non-fiction, anyone?

At a writers conference about 15 years ago, one speaker encouraged people to attend workshops at the conference in which they had no interest, in order to learn new things or experience from a different POV. Learning new things means stepping out of your nicely taped together box, but always well worthwhile–for the good or the bad. I am always learning new stuff.

I’ve worked on a sort-of sequel to my first book for about three years. I call it “a sort-of sequel” because it merely follows one of the characters from the first book over to a new location. Of course, this was going to be a breezy book to write. However, it was interrupted by craft-learning stuff like reading more books and doing other workshops on character and plot, and knowing if I worked with paper I would have dramatically tossed my several-times-revised first draft into the air to start from page one. The writing and revising of this book was also interrupted by family life stuff, like trees breaking down our house, cancer (for son 3,000 miles away) and stroke (for me). But hey, this sort-of-sequel is one of my babies. I didn’t have the heart to desert it.

Working alone, I must give myself my own book goals and deadlines. One thing I’ve learned is that my stunningly fabulous cover illustrator (wave to Charlie Volneck, along with a wink to Samantha Bell) is very, very busy (who isn’t?) and so I must plan on giving Charlie a four-month lead to when I expect to publish a book. Usually I’m off on my next book while I await her cover for my finished book. This was not the case for my sort-of-sequel. Miss Speedy-Pants Artist got the fabulous cover to me in only a couple of months. In the meantime, I’d discovered some major corrections needed in the plot of my baby, knowing it required some deep revisions. Also in the meantime, I’d been invited to be a speaker at a local writers conference at the end of March. In my bio for the conference, written last fall, I wrote that I have five books published, fully expecting this baby to be well out of the writer’s womb before the conference.

Did I mention deep revisions?

(Of course, there is my ABC colouring book and my adult thriller for which I thankfully used a pen name for, and my motorcycle tales. So five books published wouldn’t be a lie, just not books I’d like to wave in the air claiming.)

So, five weeks before the conference, in order to honor my five books published in my bio, I came up with this brilliant plan to write a non-fiction. I’d never written a non-fiction before, but for in my pre-writing and during-writing work, I spend more hours researching my historical fictions than I do actually writing-revising the story. I have about ten times the information of the era and place than ever gets into a book. Creating a short non-fiction as a companion book for the sort-of-sequel which will come out soon would be a breeze.

HA! Did I mention that I’ve never written a non-fiction book before?

I got my seven chapter titles down, outlined the important points to put in each chapter, pictured what illustrations or photos were needed for each, researched formating of a NF book (there are many), went to my good-ole-library and looked at some and took out a gazillion NF books for kids, and came home collapsing into a bawling puddle, sobbing, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!”

Tantrum over, I not only pulled myself together, but the companion non-fiction book for my sort-of-sequel — which will be out soon.

I’ve not only learned something new, I’m back to being so in love with my baby that pushing it out of the writing womb will be a breeze. (Hm. Where have I heard that term before?)

Writing Exercise — Weather

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We’re in part of the “monster storm” area. Eighteen inches of snow is predicted to fall tonight, over top the six or so we’re to get during the day. Power will be iffy. We are also on a well-system, which means if the power goes out, so does our water pump (i.e., no flushing toilets, no showers, no leaving water dripping through the pipes with single digit tempts outside to keep the pipes from freezing). If we use our fireplace, we must keep the flu open or smoke will fill our house. But if we do use the fireplace, that means more warm house air will escape up our chimney than stays inside, because we don’t have a blower. With single digits in the forecast the day after tomorrow, someone would have to be up all night feeding the fire. We simply don’t have the wood supply for that.

This is exciting.

Why?

I am a writer.

Yes, I know there is real-life danger issues with this storm. But as a writer… I’m taking notes, and suggest you do, too. What are my emotions ahead of the storm? During? After? How can I describe the various stages of the storm? What can happen with candles? Then there are always the “what-ifs.” What if this were 1800? (– for those writing historical novels.) What if someone was pregnant and went into labor, but the roads were impassable? What if a child wanted to play outside, alone? What if a tunnel had to be shoveled to the barn to take care of the animals? What if that heavy snow and resulting power outage and … brought people together? How? What? Where? Who?

What fun.

I’m grabbing my journal and pens and pencils (pencils in case the ink in the pens freeze). Bring it on.

WriteOnCon 2010, part II

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I attended 2 days of the very first WriteOnCon last week, but then had to leave town on Thursday. I look forward to catching up with the third of the conference which I missed. The thing about writers conferences, is that I have attended over a dozen of them… in person. Some of the things the speakers talk about are “old hat” stuff to me.

Here are some things I gleaned from the first two days of the conference:

1) It was fascinating to “listen in” on the thought process of agent Natalie Fisher. She reminded us all that what she mentioned was only her own opinion, and other agents might not feel the same way. It was interesting, and helpful. Learn what the agent to whom you are submitting is looking for.

2) I now have a list of about 100 additional books to read, both about writing, and written for MG/YA. (Oh, the time. The time! How to find the time to do all the reading and writing I want to do!)

3) Stay current! Classics are nice, but some of those loved stories wouldn’t cut it in today’s highly competitive market. Read them. Love them. But write for today’s kids.

4) (related to #3) Kids hate retro. (Thank you, J.S. Lewis.) Don’t write about YOUR childhood, unless it’s a historical novel. Write for today’s kids and about today’s kids.

5) Know what the acceptable word counts are for today’s market. Yes, yes. We each can name several books which break the rules, but unless you are an established author with a great fan following, stick to the rules.

(More to come, both on the first two days, and the third day of WriteOnCon!) (Yeah to the organizers!)

Where I Get Story Ideas

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I find bits of story ideas from history, from news, from something I did or heard or saw, and from nightmares or by daydreaming.

I wrote my first historic novel from a fascinating bit of news I heard which happened in 1873. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what it must have been like to have gone through that event and in that setting. So I researched and wrote about it.

I’ve had nightmares and scary visions of the end times lately — of man destroying this world not by nuking it, but by greed, causing gushing oil to ruin the water world we live on. YIKES. Some things are too close to reality for me to write about! I’m very thankful that after 86 days BP finally found a solution which seems to have stopped the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. What the effect of all that oil damage is yet to be seen. (Even more daydreaming fodder.)

Yesterday, my husband and I drove through what we later found out was a thunderstorm watch. But I wasn’t watching. Mostly, I had my eyes closed! Instead of going 75 on the interstate, people who hadn’t pulled over (like my husband and a truck driver or two) were driving 40 mph in the sideways pelting rain, gripping onto the steering wheel which the wind threatened to take control of. Lots of interesting story ideas could come from that experience alone. However, I’ll share here on my writing blog a really fascinating thing I saw for the first time in my life. That is, to me it was fascinating, and therefore writing fodder.

We were heading west. As we came out from under the storm, although it was still raining, we hit sunlight and blue skies. My husband commented, “There’s got to be a rainbow somewhere.” I knew that in order to see a rainbow, you needed two things: sun and rain, and that the sun had to be at your back. Because of our van roof, my vision was very limited. I looked out my side rearview mirror and found my rainbow. It was following us. The rainbow was made in the spray shooting up from our tires turning on the wet road.

There are ideas all around each of us. Storytellers can’t help thinking, reflecting, weaving. It’s half of the fun of being a writer.

Sticking Out Tongues and Pigtail Pulling

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The other day I was thinking about the naughty things kids used to do just a few decades ago– like, when they got mad at each other, they’d stick out their tongues while “making a face.” Or, if a boy wanted to tease a girl, he’d pull on her pigtail.  The victims tattled, and the offenders got disciplined, usually by staying after school for a certain amount of time.

Flash forward to today — and I know this from recently teaching and subbing in elementary schools in three states. When today’s elementary aged kids get mad, they can threaten lives (“I’m going to kill you.”), they say words one would need to watch R rated movies to hear, or they grab the opposite sex in “the privates,” with the boldness to lie about it to the adults who witnessed it, and then threaten to sue the teacher and the district if there is any discipline done. And no one can stay after school because most students are bussed.

I have taken razor blades away from a fifth grader, and broken up many fist fights. One parent tried to run me over with her car after school on the day she found out the principal gave her son a three-day in-school suspension. Her son was one of my students. Another parent yelled at me for several minutes in the hallway, defending her first grade daughter for  angrily throwing markers at my back. I know teachers and counselors who will not place their desks near windows for fear of being shot at.

Times are a’changing. No more tongues sticking out nor pigtails getting pulled. Is childhood innocence really a thing of the past? If so, what’s a writer to do?

One could write fantasy, mysteries, or historical fiction. Or best yet, no matter what the genre or age of your reader, write truthfully, and give your readers hope.

Happy, safe writing.

Speaking of Manuscript Rejections…

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Yesterday I received a form rejection letter from an editor. I’d like to say that’s never happened before, but if I tried to actually say that aloud, you couldn’t be able to make out my words through my laughter. Yes, I received a form letter, even down to the signature, which was typed out. Surprise! (Not really.)
 
I realize that editors are extremely busy folk. I know they receive thousands of queries each year, along with dozens of requested manuscripts. I know their time is valuable and their work is never, ever done, and that picking and choosing what to read and what and how to respond to each letter personally is difficult and time-consuming. I understand, because from this writer end, I certainly feel a similar time-crunch.
 
Lately, I’ve gotten to the point that when “Dear Author” letters come, I don’t keep them. I do usually glance over them before tossing them into the trash. Yesterday, after the toss, there was a line in the letter which kept coming back to me. The more I thought about it, the more I chuckled, so I dug it out. After the greeting of “Dear Author,” and thanking me for sending my manuscript — it was actually a query letter — came the line: “I’m sure there was something that appealed to me about your manuscript — perhaps it was a good idea, a strong character, or some lovely prose. However,…” and then came the reject with encouragement to try my story elsewhere. I’m wondering 1) if the query was even read (I know one conference editor admitted that during busy times, she’d tell her assistant to simply open the mail without reading the contents, and put in form reject letters); 2) if there was some good, strong or lovely part to my story (or query) which truly appealed to her, what was stopping her from pursuing working with me to make it better and stronger and lovelier?
 
(I must admit here, mostly I send things to editors or agents I’ve met at conferences, therefore, most of the reject letters I get are indeed personal. Thank you, kind editors and agents.)
 
I suppose honesty is a bad thing at times. I suppose one couldn’t have a form letter reading, “Dear Author, Man, has my life and work been crazy lately. Sorry. Can’t wade through the slush pile. Good luck in finding someone in a better position.  From, An Editor.” Or how about,  “Dear Author, I couldn’t get to your manuscript/ query/ proposal/ questions. Have you ever considered self-publishing?”
 
I’ve thought of composing a “Dear Editor” letter in response to form rejects, but by doing so, I’m afraid I’d be cutting off my arms at the elbows.
 
Enough procrastination by thinking and writing about this. Time to get back to my real writing, and turn my good ideas into great ones, my strong characters into memorable ones, and my lovely prose into… er… gooder stuff.

Postpartum Depression for Writers

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Last month my critique group did a whole novel critique on my MG historical fiction — a first for me, both writing a historial fiction novel and having a whole book critique from a group. I spent my writing time since then working on the revisions and rewrites.
 
The last week of March, I took an on-line Crash Revisions course, and although I didn’t have editor comments to which to rewrite, I did have my critique group comments. 
 
The result:   Having “finished” my tale, I think I’ve been going through postpartum depression, and now am just letting the baby sleep for a while. I did get one query letter out about it, though, but that may have been premature. Maybe… maybe not.
 
Usually, I let a finished story “set” for a few months, or even years, before I even look at it again with fresh eyes. Even though the story is good, when I do look at it again, obvious errors glare at me.
 
Yeah.  The query letter may have been premature (or not).
Yeah. I think I’m in postpartum depression.
Yeah. I think I’ll go suck on some chocolate.

Spell-Binding History for Writing Fodder

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I just read a news report from the BBC about a mass grave found near Weymouth (UK) last June, where construction workers discovered 51 decapitated men, recently determined to have originated from Scandinavia (i.e., Vikings). They were apparently buried naked since no metal objects, nor bone buttons, etc., were found near them.

Many things struck me concerning this article, which has me still reeling in thought. I find that from either point of view (Vikings or Saxons), the story is emotionally charged.

There is the wonder and horror of the Saxons living near the coast, getting invaded by Vikings, probably more than once in order to be so prepared. There is the remarkable capture of 51 men, assumedly warriors. There is the killing by beheading of these invaders, assumedly witnessed by many people. There is the unceremonious mass burial. Then, there is the last line of the article: “Most of them were in their late teens to early 20s, with a handful in their 30s.”

My father-in-law was born in Sweden. My mother-in-law was the only one of her original family not born in England. My mother’s people are from England (5 generations ago). My sons are in their late 20’s. I love being on the sea.

Is there a story in this find? Certainly. Undoubtedly many stories.  Will I attempt to put flesh and blood on the skeletons for a story? Not sure. It’s still too soon after reading the article for me to process the implications, but for some strange reason, the story is hitting very close to home. I can almost see their story, from the boat, from the land. See their faces. See their hopes. See their fears. See the horror. It all flashes before my eyes as if I’m right there, over 1,000 years ago, carrying a video camera on my shoulder, a silent observer in this tragedy-victory. I can’t seem to stop shaking.

Rewrites and Quick Revision Mode

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I did NaNoWriMo for the first time last November. I came up with about 37K words.

By the end of December I had 44K, finishing the story line.

Then started my “quick revision mode,” which means slashing and burning all irrelevant stuff, and building bridges to make a story arch.

The first week of January, I was left with 3K. Yep. That would be three thousand words, down more than 10,000. Permission to write dreck during NaNoWriMo left me with a skeleton at the rewrite stage, but a very nice skeleton.

Now, mid-February, I am up to 23K with three chapters to revise/rewrite.

Seems like my MG novel will be short even for a MG. When I’m “done,” after I sit on it for a while, I’ll get back to it again for some more rewrites and revisions. I hope to have this baby ready to be submitted by spring. That would be the shortest amount of time I ever spent on a book — not by hours, of course, but by days. Because I’m not working full time, I can spend a lot more time writing instead of spreading it out over years. Pretty cool.