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.
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.
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.
“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.