Following I 70 With a Writer’s Notebook in Hand

 

Baltimore, where I live, is at the beginning of Interstate 70. Every time we drive along that stretch of the highway, we pass the mileage sign. I look and I wonder what it would be like to just start out and go to those far-away places on the sign.

Now I’m doing it. I’m off on a road trip across the USA with my daughter and granddaughter, following I 70 most of the way. I’ve been across the US more than once, but not on this route.

When I travel I always have a small notebook with me. Writers do that. You never know what adventures you will run into on the way. Sometimes even the smallest thing sparks the imagination.

My imagination was dampened our first day out, though. We followed I 70 through the mountains in Maryland and Pennsylvania in the driving rain. Sometimes it was blinding. I had the first shift as driver. There were times I couldn’t see beyond the hood of our car. Now that I am away from it, I wonder how that experience could become a story or part of a story. It was pretty scary. The gray of the sky, rain hurling at the windshield like thousands of nails, trucks sending a spray of water at us. Did they do that on purpose? Probably not, but what if they did? Imagination is at work again. I suspect that one day that blinding rain will show up in in some story.

I was eager to get to Indianapolis, Indiana where we planned to stay overnight. It made an insanely long day, especially with the slow-down through the rain. But when my daughter found that we could stay at the Crown Plaza built in the old Union Station, Indianapolis we decided to go for it. They have 26 old Pullman train cars divided into bedrooms. There is a private train car in the third book of The Last Crystal Trilogy. It is attached to the Santa Fe Chief—that was when the Chief was THE train to take from Chicago to LA.

The outside of our train car.

People can still do that—buy a train car and have it fixed up to specification. I saw lots of pictures of private train cars and floor plans for private cars when I did research for the book. But spending the night in half of a car turned into a hotel room sounded like an exciting prospect. Imagination is important, but so is real experience. I wasn’t disappointed! There were lounge chairs and two large beds and a bath. It was cozy, but with just enough room for the three of us. There were plaster cast statues to spark the imagination, too. You could almost see the crowds bustling to get on board. Or, as in this picture taken by my daughter, three mischiefs trying to hitch a ride on top of the train.

Day 1 and my notebook is full of ideas.

Life on the Oregon Trail?

When I taught fourth grade in Portland Oregon–that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth–we had a unit on Westward Expansion. A lot of schools teach about pioneers settling the West in fourth, fifth or sixth grade. We used Mary Jane Carr’s Children of the Covered Wagon as a read-aloud. It was a good match for the unit. (If you haven’t read it, you can still find it in some libraries. I recently tracked down an old copy on line.)

Our understanding of the perspective of Native American People has changed since the book was written. But Carr is remarkably free of some of the errors to be found in social studies and history books of a few decades ago.

I thought it would be fun to form an imaginary wagon train going West. We could mark our progress on the Oregon Trail as we read the book. And we could tie our study in with English and language arts by keeping journals where we made up events that happened to us along the way. Everybody had to make up an identity and stick with it for the trip West.

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A Thousand Wagon Trains Head West

We had a whole wagon train full of single people. No way anybody was going to admit they’d want to be married, especially with somebody else in the class! Being married and having a family was too great a stretch of the imagination.

A lot of the girls were going West to be school teachers or doctors. Some were adventurers. Boys were going to be doctors, farmers, cowboys, or set up a business.

The journals were hardest. A typical journal entry was, “Not much happened today. Just more grass and hills to look at,” or heroic descriptions of battles with Native Tribes. We had to put a limit to attacks by Native People—especially since huge stretches passed through country that was not well populated.  Even then, we knew that attacks were few and far between. And we had to decide what rivers we were going to cross and when or how many times you could step on a rattlesnake and still live.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have some of the wonderful websites available today to help us understand life on the trail.

It was a lot of fun in spite of all our difficulties. We learned a lot about writing, imagination, plausibility and some of the grimmer realities of life on the trail. As hard as it was making up interesting things to happen along the way, I think we all agreed we got off easy. We didn’t have nearly as much to deal with as those who followed wagon trails to Oregon, Washington, and California!

All this is to say that I was really delighted when Jon Dunlap, fourth-fifth grade teacher at Rivendell School, Arlington, Virginia wanted to read The Alabaster Box to his class this spring. I’ll have more to say about that next post.

What Do Writers Do?

Writers write. Right? Wrong. Maybe wrong is too strong.

Writers do write. But that isn’t all they do. They also work on their craft. They meet with other writers and talk about their work. They share ideas about writing. They take workshops and go to conferences to help them learn more about writing.

When you study writing at school, you write. But you probably spend some time conferring with a writing partner or a small group. That way you get feedback on your ideas and on your first draft. Then you revise. Maybe you get a new idea and add it. Experienced writers do these things too.

They also work on getting their work published. At school, publishing is often creation of a magazine or your own collection of stories. Maybe your teacher has stories all put together and bound into a book for parents. You celebrate what you have done.

Experienced writers want to publish, too. They’d like their books to be in the bookstore or on-line. Working to get your work published is also part of your craft as a writer.

Sometimes writers know how to write, but they don’t know what to do about getting their work published and on the shelves of bookstores. They aren’t always sure about how to let people know that they have a great book that they want to share.

I went to an all-day meeting for writers on Saturday, the Kansas City Writer’s Conference. I chose this conference for three reasons. 1) The conference description sounded like it would give me some good information about getting my work published, 2) The Alabaster Box starts out in Kansas City, Missouri* I like to stay in touch with the Kansas City area*. 3) My brother lives in Lawrence, Kansas, less than an hour away. I wanted to  visit him for a few days and attend the one-day conference.

In fact, my brother drove me into Kansas City yesterday. We left early. It was a cold, foggy morning. I was glad to have him do the driving. I looked out over soggy fields and bright green pasture lands where cows were grazing. I remembered that long ago all the countryside was unfenced prairie. If I had been traveling to Kansas City then, I might have followed the Sante Fe Trail. I would have been on horseback or in a wagon. That is what the land looked like when Grace Willis went west with her family.

I spent the whole day learning new things and telling people about my book. The guest teacher was Marisa A. Corvisiero. She is a literary agent who founded the Corvisiero Literary Agency. She told us about things that good writers do, how to work with an agent, and many things a writer needs to know in order to get published. Her talks were interesting and lively.

Good writers write. Right. And they work on their craft.

*If you follow the Kansas City area link you can find out some fun facts about Kansas. There is even a link that lets you hear cattle sounds. If you follow the Missouri link you will find fun facts about the state of Missouri. There are some interesting things about Kansas City, Missouri, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Reviews that count

When I began work on The Alabaster Box my granddaughter, Amelia, was of enormous help. I tried chapters out on her and we talked through issues. It was like having a junior editor. I asked friends, Isaiah and his mother, Sarah VanTiem, if they would kindly read it once I had a good draft. Isaiah is a fourth grade student and I figured that if anybody could give me objective feedback, he could. Sarah is a poet and has a critical eye–just what I needed. When Isaiah said, “I really like your book,” when I saw him a week or two later, I was really pleased.

The next big trial came when Katie Schmidt read it to her fifth grade class at a public school. It was interesting to get feedback via Amelia as they progressed through it. They had good ideas, but best of all, they LIKED it–really LIKED it! It doesn’t get any better than that.

All this time while I am searching for an agent and not getting any enthusiasm, the kids are liking the book and wanting more. It was just the encouragement I needed. Somewhere out there is the sensible agent and publisher who will jump at the chance to support the book, because the kids already do. I got some wonderful thank you letters after I visited the class.  The boys and girls in Mrs. Schmidt’s class are the ones who should be getting the thank you. Below are some of their letters:   Letters for Blog2Okay, so you can’t see them that well. Zach says thanks for “letting us borrow your awesome book, ‘The Alabaster Box.’ Now I want to read the whole trilogy!”–even if I haven’t found a publisher by the time you finish The Red Abalone Shell, Zach, I’ll be sure you get the final book. It takes a long time to get a book into print. You shouldn’t have to wait that long.

Owen and Fisher say they hope the books get published–me too! Owen wrote, “Your first book was great and [I’ll] bet the second book and the third are even better.” Colin M. says, “your book held great things like the suspense, the adventure, and the excitement.” Sam says that the book, “got me more inspired to read more books this year.” That’s good, Sam. The world is full of wonderful books just waiting to be read.

Abby and Maddy both say they can’t wait to read my next books. Yea Abby and Maddy. That makes me feel great. Mary, who wasn’t one of the four who drew the chance to read one of the four manuscripts of The Red Abalone Shell that I left with the class, says that she can’t read it yet, “but I’m very excited to because I LOVED the first book.” So I hope you’ll like the second, Mary.

Colin K thought it was interesting and funny. Malena said that since a lot of students really liked The Alabaster Box it was nice for me to leave copies of the next book. I hope you like it Malena when you get to read it. Natasha says, “I really enjoyed your book and I thought it was AMAZING, I will definitely try to start reading the next one!”  I hope your turn comes soon, Natasha.

Caroline, who was one of the four who drew first chance to read The Red Abalone Shell says, “I love the second book so far it is really good!” Eve says, “I am so EXCITED to read the new book!! I can’t wait to figure out what is going to happen to James and Little Grace…I LOVED the first book a whole lot so you can imagine how exited I am to get to read one of the books.” [One of the four copies I left.]  Elise, who was also one of the four, says, “So far, The Red Abalone Shell is awesome! I also like The Alabaster Box! Caroline, Eve, and Elise, I’ll be very interested to hear your ideas as you finish the book.

From these excerpts, maybe you can see why I call this post “Reviews that count.” I treasure the excitement these girls and boys shared with me. But I also treasured their feedback. I took what they had to say very seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where did you get the idea?

“Where did you get the idea for the book?” This is one of the questions Mrs. Schmidt’s class wanted to know. It’s a good question. Where do ideas come from?

Writing is different for every writer. Many writers say you should write from experience. You write from who you are. I don’t see how a writer can do anything else. Even those things you imagine come from your experience of imagining and wondering. An imagined experience is filtered through your life-experience. Somebody else, with very different experiences might imagine the same thing very differently.

The trilogy started years ago when my daughter was a toddler. I’m a grandmother now, so that shows you how long the ideas incubated. We were visiting family in California. An uncle told us that his father worked for the railroad. His grandparents lived in California, so he and his brother used to take the train all the way from Missouri to California every summer by themselves.

I got to thinking about what kind of mischief you could get into when you’re eight or eleven or twelve and riding on a train without a parent or somebody to look after you. Sometime later I happened to read a newspaper article about private railroad cars. People can buy or lease their own car and have it all fixed up for luxury traveling. So what if you’re a kid exploring the train and you accidentally got into a private car?

Now here is the beginning of a story. Two ideas from very different experiences are connected. But I had a question.  Who might they run into?  What might happen to them? I began imagining a quest. Then it seemed wrong to have two boys and no girls, so I decided there would be two girls as well. Book three in the trilogy was off to a start, even though I didn’t know it was book three.

Experiences, questions, and curiosity are the stuff that help to build a story. I’ll talk more about the ideas in another post. Maybe you have a question or an idea to share.

 

 

 

 

Thanks Mrs. Schmidt and 5th Grade Friends

Here is an excerpt from an article about The Alabaster Box. Mrs. Katie Schmidt and her fifth grade class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School in Baltimore have read the book and given me helpful feedback. It all started when my daughter had a parent-teacher conference. Mrs. Schmidt pointed out that Amelia (my granddaughter) has a great sense of story. My daughter, Liesl, told her about the book. I consider Amelia my Junior Editor.

When they finished reading the book, I visited the class to talk about the experience of writing. The visit was on Read Across America Day.  The article appeared in The Baltimore Sun and The Towson Times:

By Rachael Pacella, Towson Times, March 3, 2017 2:26 PM

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“Frances Schoonmaker has found a unique focus group to test-read the first in a series of adolescent novels she has written and would like to see published — a classroom full of fifth grade students at the neighborhood elementary school.

“For the past month and a half, students in Katie Schmidt’s 5th-grade class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School — including Schoonmaker’s granddaughter, Amelia — have listened as Schmidt has read to them each day from the first book in a series of three written by the retired professor and teacher. “The Alabaster Box” is a story set in the 1840s, just prior to the country’s gold rush, which tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who  opens a magical box and must deal with the consequences.”

Follow the link to read the  article.  (Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing and Reading THE ALABASTER BOX: An Invitation

Chapter 1: The Stokes Company

            “If it had been left up to Grace, they would have stayed home. But she didn’t get to choose. With land opening up in the West, her father and mother wanted go to California and start a medical school. So, sorry or not, she had to leave nearly everybody and everything she had ever known and loved in St. Louis, Missouri where she had lived her whole safe, comfortable life.”

This is the opening paragraph of The Alabaster Box.  Maybe you have a question for me. You may ask questions about the story or about writing the story. I’ll do my best to answer. You can also tell me what you liked and wanted more of as well as what didn’t work for you. You will see some comments below. You can enter your own comments or respond to somebody else’s comment. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will find the place to reply.

If you haven’t read the book, I hope this makes you curious enough to want to read it when it is published.