Can’t I Just Write?

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This past weekend my daughter, granddaughter and I made what has become an annual fall visit to Weber Cider Mill Farm to buy pumpkins and to enjoy some of the activities. Amelia and I did the maze together. Looking at it now, the picture feels like a metaphor for life as a writer!  I wish I could just write–I love the exploration of ideas, the research, following the characters imaginatively, sharing with Amelia and talking through points where I get stuck.  What I don’t love so much is all the other stuff that has to do with getting some traction for the books.  It is really uncharted territory for me. And it has kept me so busy that I feel like I am–to borrow an expression from my mother–honking at my own tail lights!

One thing I’ve been doing is getting Book Stop  pages ready for the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual  event that displays work of members. I have pages for The Black Alabaster Box and for The Red Abalone Shell. If you have time to visit, please sign the guest book. Small things can mean a lot.

Most of my time has been spent planning for the upcoming event celebrating The Black Alabaster Box and raising funds for the Page Turners, an after school program for kids in Clinton South (Hell’s Kitchen):

save the date

If you are in the New York area I’d love to see you there. It will be good fun for a good cause.

When I met with Kathy Conry and Laura Bergquist in New York a couple of weekends ago, I began to get really excited about the program. On the one hand, we learned that Alan H. Green has returned to his role in The School of Rock–The Musical, So he can’t be with us–bummer! But Kathy is a pro. Undaunted, she  already had a back-up plan knowing that people in theater have to make work their top priority.

In one productive meeting we agreed on a plan for the evening, excerpts from The Black Alabaster Box to use for the Readers Theatre and possible music.  I spent the next day working on the script and left it in their good hands. Laura is working on the music and Kathy has already put together a cast to read the script I provided. My job, having provided the script is to stay out of the way! (Now that is a job I can take to.) They are on a roll. Last I heard somebody is working on a campfire setting and they are planning to have little cups of chili and possibly mini-corn muffins.

Back to the maze. Amelia is so tall this year that I could see her had bobbing up above the bales of hay as she worked her way through. I think there is a metaphor in that, too. There was so much joy in it seeing how much she has grown–the joy is what I connect to when everything seems too much. Joy in the work, the sharing, and the joy that comes when a kid says, “So when are you going to have Book 3 ready?”

 

 

 

 

 

Going Batty: On Illustrating

Mexican_free-tailed_bats_(9413220937)Mexican Free-Tailed Bats By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Mexican free-tailed batsUploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I made the decision to illustrate my trilogy for very selfish reasons. As a child, I hated it when there were pictures of the people in fiction. The illustrator almost always messed with my ideas of what characters should look like. My mother was an artist, though she would add a disclaimer, were she here to do so. (It is she who taught me to appreciate the way the light falls on leaves, the subtle colors in cloud formations, or the importance of a single red lady-bug in the garden.) I took some art classes in college and, as a gift from me to me, I took drawing at Teachers College, Columbia University while I was on the faculty in Curriculum and Teaching. So I figured it would be fun to do the icons for each chapter opening.

It has been. But there have been moments of frustration besides getting Big Red into a truck (see the June 24 post). The bats nearly drove me batty.

I should explain. In The Black Alabaster Box, Grace Willis visits The Alabaster Caverns, but we don’t hear about bats. In Book 2, The Red Abalone Shell, Ruby and Junior do encounter bats. Every spring, Mexican free-tailed bats migrate from Mexico to the Alabaster Caverns, near Freedom, Oklahoma to rear their young. The Mexican free-tail is one of several species of bats to inhabit the caves. They’ve probably been visiting the Caverns long before Ruby and Junior Swathmore got there. Ruby’s attitude toward bats isn’t too different from that of many people today.  We think, “Yikes!” or “Vampire bat!”or “Flying rodent!”or “They’ll get in my hair and it will fall out!”

When I did the research to illustrate the Chapter 6, in which bats appear, I learned a lot about bats.

I tended to see them as valuable insect gobblers. And they are. For example, every evening the bats fly out of The Alabaster Caverns to feed, each bat consuming anywhere from 600 to 1,000 insects in an hour. But I had no idea that they also pollinate some plants and distribute seeds. According to Bat Conservation International, the “African Tree of Life,”or the great baobab tree of East Africa depends on bats for pollination. (I fell in love with the baobab tree when we were in Zambia one summer when my daughter was a child. I can’t imagine an Africa without baobab trees–an unfortunate possibility as baobab trees are at risk–but another story.) Bananas, mangoes, peaches and guavas are pollinated by bats, too. Who knew? Not me. And I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that bats are the only flying mammal left. (Flying squirrels and lemurs actually glide, they don’t flap their wings as do bats.)

Sometimes bats get rabies. That’s pretty scary, but only a very small percentage. Children and their adults need to exercise caution if they find a dead bat just as they would when finding any dead animal. There are other diseases associated with bats that are identified by the Center for Diseases Control, with appropriate cautions.  Bats, in turn, probably have more to fear from us. They are endangered by loss of habitat, pesticides, misinformation, and diseases (the most deadly of these is apparently white nosed syndrome a wildlife disease that affects hibernating bats).

But back to the point: Illustrating.  My first attempt to depict the ribbons of bats that flyRAsCh6Batsa out from the Caverns every summer evening seemed heavy. I wasn’t satisfied.

Then I tried showing the bats more closely. But the chapter isn’t about bats and this attempt didn’t seem to be working either. I liked that little guy at the front, but I didn’t finish the sketch because I thought he was making a promise the chapter didn’t fulfill.

RASChBats

Finally, I cameup with the last sketch that was a bit more satisfying.  What I like about it is the suggestion of bats–a ribbon of bats just beginning their exit from the caverns before sunset.  RASChBatsFinal

 

If you want to know more about bats, there are some great resources. Most of them can be read by children, certainly with children. And the Bat Conservation International website has directions for building a bat house.  Here are a few resources:

Watching Bats The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Wildlife Diversity Program offers the public the chance to watch bats on site near The Alabaster Caverns State Park every summer.  https://wildlifedepartment.com/wildlife/wildlife-diversity/selman-bat-watch

Bat Facts for Kidshttp://www.sciencekids.co.nz/sciencefacts/animals/bat.html

For a bit about the history of bats at The Alabaster Caverns, see: http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AL002

Common misconceptionsabout bats, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/common-misconceptions-about-bats

All Kinds of Cool Stuff About Bats can be found at Bat Conservation International’s website, http://www.batcon.org

Building a Bat House  http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses/build

More About Bats can be found at The World Wildlife Organization, including more information about building a bat house. https://www.nwf.org/sitecore/content/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Cover/Build-a-Bat-House

Detailed Information About White Nose Syndrome and what you can do to help may be found at the White-Nose Syndrome website link above.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Mexican free-tailed batsUploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Mad Artist in Me

Mad Artist

I am still working on launching THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX. It is off to a good start, but a publisher alone can’t get the word out. Getting the word out depends on the goodwill of friends, new fans, and hard work.  I’m adjusting to the idea of fans. I tend to see them as fans of Grace Willis and Mr. Nichols and the outlaws you love to hate, Junior and Ruby.

I’ve had a lot of fun meeting with kids, reading to them, and talking about the book. This spring I visited was The National Trails Museum Independence, Missouri and left a copy of the book for their library. What a fine research collection they are building along with an interesting museum, well worth the trip to Independence.

I was in Kansas City for a visit to Briarcliff Elementary School where my fifth grade friend, Jamison Sherman and his class hosted an author visit. It was a lot of fun reading from the book and talking with kids who had some really great questions about writing process and character development. There were some personal questions, too: “How old are you?” I think that with all my white hair there was the serious thought that I might have set out on the Santa Fe Trail with Grace Willis in the late 1800s.

Some days I feel like that! The past week I’ve been playing what my daughter calls “the mad artist.”  That’s me in the picture above: the mad artist working at the dining room table. Not mad as in angry; I’m thinking of mad as an adverb as in “totally mad, extremely cool.” (We all have our fantasies.)

So while I’m launching Book one, I’m madly working on illustrations for Book two. The thing about historical fiction, even fantasy that situates itself within an historical era, is that it is easy to miss important details. Illustrating the chapters, as I did in Book one, often reveals some new bit of history that I’ve overlooked.  Take Big Red, for example.

Big Red is the White-Faced Hereford calf that James Matthias’ gets ready for exhibit at the county fair. Finding images to create a sketch that is satisfying to me was not such a struggle. Getting him right was a challenge. BUT later in the book, Big Red is kidnapped–I suppose one could say rustled. He’s hauled away to the Oklahoma National Stockyards to be sold for World War I Bonds. This sends me double-checking my facts: when was the Oklahoma National Stockyards opened (1910, whew, that works)  Finding a satisfying image of a 1917 truck was a search in itself. But an image of the backside of a prize-winning Hereford Bull riding in the back of a 1917 truck?) I finally managed to make a sketch that feels right. Big Red the Calf and Big Red in the truck are below. (I still need to do something about that right rear wheel–it’s too dark.)

Then one sketch of the stockyard later, I ask myself, “When did the stockyards get that fancy entrance?” and I discover the completed sketch won’t work because the entrance was there, but it first read “Oklahoma National Stockyard Co.”–start over with a new sketch. All part of trying to keep the history as right as I can and part of the mad artist’s life!

About getting the word out: Thanks to so many who have written wonderful reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Goodreads.  Keep spreading the good word and put THE RED ABALONE SHELL, Book two on your Goodreads “Want to Read” list.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.