Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Literature" Versus "literature"

I recently walked into a specialty book shop and spotted a copy of Edward Lear's the Owl and the Pussy Cat gracing the shelf. As I excitedly made my purchase, my family gave me a "what's the big deal look" the whole time. As I read the book in the car, (I couldn't even wait until we pulled away from the curb) my son yelled out "this is some junk." I guess he didn't care too much for the lines "What a wonderful Pussy you are, you are, what a wonderful Pussy you are." I on the other had, I was giddy as I read the book. There are other books from childhood that produce the same excitment from me. Those stories are: Corduroy, Seuss's books (especially Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish), Runaway Bunny (sorry, Monta already mentioned this story, but it is a favorite), and a certain book that I remember loving, but can't remember the title. It featured an animal; I believe it was some type of bird making split pea soup.

In elementary my favorite author was R.L Stine with the Goose Bumps and Fear Street series. I also read a lot of the titles that my blogmates have listed. Around this age, I even crossed into adult books, reading authors such as Dean R Koontz, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steele (who was probably a little inappropriate for me at that age).

While my blogmates passed around books that have stood the test

of time, I was trading Harlequin Romance novels. I have literally read a thousand of them, since I would sometimes go through 2-3 a day. My cousin and I would lie in bed on opposite sides, then we'd switch books when we were done. In high school, I was exposed to more substantive material: Shakespeare, Madeline L'Engle, and John Steinbeck, to name a few, though out of class I always had a romance novel in hand.

In college I was told by more than one professor that these books were absolute junk, so I became ashamed of my reading habits and started to indulge in more quality "Literature." I have to admit that they were partly right. Once I put down romance novels, I started picking up more quality works. Some of which have become my all time favorites. I read Pride and Prejudice 2-3 times a year, I cry every time I read Withering Heights, and am still intrigued that Lady Chatterley's Lover was scandalous when published and banned for 30 years.

These days, my reading choices vary greatly from Shakespeare to Twilight, and everything in between. My favorite children's book author is Mo Willems. Go Pigeon! But I love horror, romance, and fantasy. And if you can combine the three, you have made a fan of me. My bookshelves are filled with "Literature" with a capitol L, books I have come to love and treasure, but I still have a guilty pleasure. There are several storage bins, hidden away from every day view, filled with romance novels. I've learned that it is okay to read one every now and then, as long as this is done in moderation, and out of sight of condescending educators.


Friday, February 26, 2010

A Litany of Literature

Last week I took my children to a production of Goodnight Moon (one of my early favorites) and the Runaway Bunny. I didn't know what to expect because the text is so slight in both of those books, but the experience turned out to be wonderful. The theater troupe, dressed in black, maneuvered puppets around the stage. The sets were magical, with the room in Goodnight Moon done in phosphorescent paint and lit with black light.

But, I digress. As a youngster I also was really fond of Dr. Seuss with Hop on Pop and Go Dog Go being the first books I read on my own. Then there were the Berenstain Bears, Encyclopedia Brown, the Animals at Maple Hill Farm, Richard Scarry's stuff, Amelia Bedilia, Peter Pan, Rikki Tikki Tavi (My dad used to use voices when he read and I particularly remember him being a great mongoose.), and the Jungle Book (the Disney version).

I was a devotee of the Bobbsey Twins and have a whole collection to share, although I don't think my boys will be all that interested. I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as the books that followed.

Gosh...Ramona the Pest, anything Judy Blume (even Forever, which someone passed around in fifth grade), the Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Black Beauty, Sweet Valley High...

As for my teenage years, it becomes harder to distinguish between what I picked up for fun and what I was required to read. Perhaps this is because I enjoyed most of my reading assignments and they were probably, for the most part, more memorable and meaningful than whatever I chose.

I do know that I read Gone with the Wind, the North and South books, and the Power of One on my own. Of those that were for school, I loved For Whom the Bell Tolls, Pride and Prejudice (still a favorite), Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five (Karen Vonnegut, Kurt's niece, was a roommate of mine at Cornell), the Great Gatsby, Crime and Punishment, Cry the Beloved Country, Lord of the Flies.

Some of the newer books I've enjoyed with my children, include Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Bear's New Friend, the Toy Boat, Snowmen at Night, and Mortimer's First Christmas. I also reread Little House on the Prairie recently with my son and a shortened version of Around the World in 80 Days. Now, he is even interested in listening to Harry Potter, thanks to a commercial he keeps seeing during the Olympics, but we'll see.

So much good stuff out there...As for young adult fiction, which I'm reading for solely for research (yeah, right!), I seem to be stuck in the supernatural...I liked Twilight, (sorry, Trager), Fallen, Hush, Hush, and Shiver. A really terrific book is Sherman Alexi's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and a page-turner is The Hunger Games.

Sorry for such a long post...the memories just kept coming.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Books From Back in the Day

Apparently before I could truly read, my parents would allow me to fool my grandparents by “reading” some of my little books aloud to them. In actuality I had memorized every word and where each turn of the page occurred. I know I was read to as a child and eager to have that independence of doing it myself. The stories I remember from when I was very young are the Little Golden Books--I always felt bad for the Pokey Little Puppy. And, like Ellen, I had a book of fairytales for which I remember the colorful illustrations almost as well as the stories--Cinderella, The Shoemaker and the Elves, Sleeping Beauty, and Rumpelstiltskin. Rapunzel was in a different book, I think, and I was fascinated by that tale as well. It’s fun to re-visit some of these as an adult by reading something like Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Dr. Seuss was always fun. (And fun in college when the first gift i gave my new boyfriend, now husband, was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, since he was upset that I was going to a dance with someone else the night of his dorm’s Christmas party, to which he had forgotten to actually invite me.)

In elementary school, the poems of Shel Silverstein totally cracked me up. Then I read his book The Giving Tree as an adult and totally wept. I also read a lot of Beverly Cleary, The Beezus and Ramona books, and then many many Nancy Drew books--it takes about one second for my brain to pull up the images of titian hair, green sedans, “tomboy” George and “plump” Bess. I thought it was so cool when my older cousin gave me her ND books--they were old musty hardcovers with the black edging around the pages. The Secret in the Old Clock! The Hidden Staircase! And I remember everyone in my class loved the book Superfudge. Elementary school also had the book order forms every couple of months and trips to the local library’s book sales.

By junior high I wasn’t as much into following a whole series of books. I read some of the Anastasia books from Lois Lowry, maybe a couple of the scary Lois Duncans. I loved a book called The Girl with the Silver Eyes (a smart girl with super powers!) and I really liked What Katy Did. I remember some of the mandatory books for classes: My Side of the Mountain, Sounder, Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia (how could the teacher make us cry like that?), even How to Eat Fried Worms.

In high school I was very affected by Elie Wiesel’s Night and adored The Count of Monte Cristo. Senior year brought the Canterbury Tales and Hamlet, and I chose The Catcher in the Rye for a term paper. (Salinger just passed away a couple weeks ago and there is still so much intrigue associated with him and that book.) By high school I was involved in so many activities and my classes were so demanding that I didn’t have much time to read for fun. I did work in a bookstore my senior year of high school, so I got the torture of browsing all the books I wished I had time to read. I do remember making time for the non-fiction book Friday Night Lights, however, and being obsessed with it, as my love of football in general was quite strong by then. (I liked the movie that was based on it, and I love the tv series that was inspired by it.)

Wow--it’s funny how much you can remember about the things you read as a kid, how they made you feel, and how you see that you have revisited some of them as an adult. It seems like the pure joy of reading was greatest in the early years, elementary, and junior high. Reading the Harry Potter books brought back that feeling. When they first started coming out, I was working as a school social worker, and my students from elementary through high school were reading the books, eagerly anticipating the next in the series. It was so much fun to share it with them and have an excuse to have HP items around my offices (it helps me better connect with the kids!). As a parent it is special to relive the classics with my son and discover all the new books out there. He absolutely loves “stories” and has memorized a couple short books that he reads to us. He is only a young four, and he expresses frustration that he can’t yet read by himself. I feel like his enjoyment of reading and eventual reading skills are more important than any academic area. Right now reading for him is associated with parent-child time, the joy of a book received as a gift, the independence of getting to choose his own books or use the computer for interactive books, and at preschool an opportunity to contribute answers or opinions since he loves to talk. Maybe someday he, too, will have the inspiration to write and will be much more successful than his mother at bringing ideas to fruition!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Correlations of Inspiration

I've always been a visual person, so I when I was very young hours would be spent looking through anything with beautiful illustrations or photos. Non-fiction animal books and National Geographic especially interested me; I went through a "I'm gonna be a Veterinarian when I grow up" phase.

I also loved fairy tales and had a beautifully illustrated compilation of them. I wish I still had it, but I did keep a Cinderella pop-up book that I loved to pieces, literally. I remember signing my name in cursive, so everyone would know it was mine. I was so proud, because I hadn't learned cursive yet. Looking at the signature now cracks me up; it certainly doesn't look as neat as I remembered it.

"Where the Wild Things Are" was one of my early favorites. I'm not sure if it was the illustrations that hooked me, or if I was dreaming of being as mischievous as Max and wanted to take an adventure. Now that I think about it, I'm sure it was the latter because I also loved "James and the Giant Peach". The image of a boy who was mistreated by his caregivers I guess was a real draw. Not unlike Harry Potter who became so popular. Dr. Seuss' "To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street", "Pippi Longstocking" and "Peter Pan" were more of my early favorites, all of which were also strongly character driven. These kids got to do things I never would have dreamed. They went against authority and had wonderful experiences. My parents were probably happy I didn't live by that theme. I was a very boring child who lived vicariously only through the books I read. That's okay because I made up for it when I became a teen.

As a pre-teen and teenager, edgy books were my thing. I went to a Catholic school, still stuck in my shell when my friends and I found "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret". A group of us passed that book around like a hot tamale, hiding it in our school folders because we knew our parents wouldn't approve. We thought we were being so naughty reading about puberty. After junior high, I went to a public school and found "The Outsiders" and "Go Ask Alice". I didn't use the characters as role models, but these were the kinds of books I enjoyed reading as I learned to break free and become my own person. Then I got away from reading all together as I thought I had more important things to do.

I hope to write books that will inspire teens to keep reading. I'd like to write about things they can relate to while trying to break free from their own shell. I also think it would be fun to write a middle grade novel. I'd like to create an adventurous character like the ones who inspired me as a child. I guess I'm still living fantastic adventures through books. Is that wrong?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Read to Write, Right?

Anyone else a (water) closet reader? Books and magazines, of course, but I admit to soap labels, shampoo bottles, the DANGER tag on my blower dryer, those teeny papers that come with OTC medication. My eyes never stop searching for some letters to put together!

So as writers hoping to inspire a new generation, what did we read growing up?

Our house was full of books. Every noontime my mother accompanied the soup-and-sandwich-for-picky-eaters with a book: Little Golden Books, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson. "Now eat one more bite and I'll read the next page..."

Once I could read on my own I was a fan of those turquoise bound biographies no one else ever checked out: Juliette Lowe, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott. Vacations were the only time we were allowed comic books, my mother figuring the quiet in the back seat was worth whatever dip in intellectual stimulation we were sure to experience! As peer pressure for Noticing the Opposite Sex increased, I read my way through the Romances of the Month, living vicariously through Sheri and Bobby as on the third date their "hands touched and his lips grazed her cheek." Swoon!

The only book I was inspired by in high school was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

I keep meaning to write big heavy books about theological issues or Parish Life matters, but the lure of a creating a rhyming text about Bush Dancers in the Australian outback is calling me. What rhymes with wombat?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stuck Again!

Getting stuck is an internal and extremely frustrating struggle for me, as I'm sure with all writers who find themselves in this sticky situation. Sometimes, the answers to my problems are simple, but in my dedication to produce something "brilliant" the first time around, I over analyze, second guess, and often lose direction in my writing.

I'm never totally satisfied with my writing, which often contributes to me getting stuck in the first place. Sometimes, I have to except that this is the best that I can do at the moment, move on, and then come back later to revise. This is my method of "walking away" (Ellen's words). Sometimes I don't walk far, just to another part of the story. Even if I do decide to put the story down in order to return with a fresh perspective, my difficulties are never far from my thoughts and I find myself working them out internally even as I work on a different story.

I think the worse part of being stuck is being unclear on which direction to take a particular piece. When I lose my direction, it helps to read other books. I've noticed that when I'm reading, I often get the itch to write. Sometimes, reading a book in the same genre that I'm writing helps me to refocus on my goal. Also, I have to come to terms with the fact that writing is reversible. Anything I write I can be unwritten. Sometimes I have to just choose a direction, and know that I'm not stuck with the outcome. If it doesn't work, I can erase and try a different path.

Lately, when I've lost direction I find myself thinking about what Carmela said in her class. She was quoting someone when she said "Don't be afraid to write a bad book." I try to keep this in mind when I'm writing. This advice has helped me a lot when I find that I don't know how to move forward.

Right now, my ideas for Camp Lagoon are percolating and I am stuck again on a PB manuscript. In regards to the PB, I'm grappling with the question, how should I bring it to a close? Endings are always sticky. As I work on my YA novel, my PB question is brewing in the corners of my mind. I find if I don't think too hard on things, the answer will eventually come.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Write with the spirit of an Olympian...

In honor of the 2010 Winter Olympic Game, which my family and I are greatly enjoying watching, please indulge me as I compare my fellow bloggers to Olympic athletes in their efforts to combat writer's block. (It's been a long week.)

Robin has all the grace and elegance of an ice dancer. Her writing flows with lyricism and musicality. When she's stuck she plays something called bedazzled and chuzzles. (I don't know what that is, but it sounds like something a skater would do.)

J.B. in his binge writing rushes down an icy course like a luger or whatever you call an athlete that does that skeleton event. If he falls, he picks himself up quickly and barrels onward.

Trager's methodology is like ski jumping. She heads down a linear ramp until it stops and then shoots herself off, executing a number of fancy tricks before landing somewhere far down the mountain.

Urania hasn't posted her blog, but it is my understanding that sometimes she is like a biathlete whose event is actually ten combined into one. If she is having trouble hitting the target in a story, she switches to another.

Ellen is a little harder. Maybe ice hockey, where the object is to get the puck into the goal while avoiding being sidetracked by defenders. Or, don't laugh, curling, where the players attempt to direct large stones across the rink by sweeping in front of them to clean the ice. (Perhaps I just wanted an excuse to mention curling?)

As for Me, I'm going to go with the snowboard event called the halfpipe, even though I'm sure I have next to nothing in common with the red-headed flying tomato.

In the halfpipe, the snowboarders move from one side of a cylindrical snow tube, gaining momentum to fly above it and perform tricks. When I'm stuck, I find that it helps me to go back to the beginning and work through all of the plot/character issues that have become jumbled in my head. This gives me the drive to then push through to the other side and hopefully go further and faster, with niftier acrobatics.

This is how I've worked as a journalist too. The lead is very important as it directs the flow of the entire article. If I get into the body and find that the building blocks are not falling into place, it helps to redirect by reworking the beginning.

With my current manuscript, I was struggling with some plot choices in Chapter Seven. I knew I wanted to make some changes to the previous six chapters based on critiques/suggestions, and needed to go back and get them on paper to achieve clarity.

I don't have much hope of winning a medal in the Olympics, but maybe this strategy will help me achieve publishing gold. (Wow! And you thought this piece couldn't get any cheesier.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stuck-ness and Un-sticking

For me, getting un-stuck for picture books is different than for longer stories. When starting a PB story, sometimes I have the idea of what I want to write about. I might do a quick outline--especially if my story is following the rule of threes--think ahead what the obstacles will be and how the character will move from one to the next, what the resolution will ultimately be. These can easily change as I do the actual writing, morph into things different from what I originally envisioned, or maybe I will decide to take the story in another direction entirely and rewrite what I had so far. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to write about, so I pull up my list of very many ideas. These could include verses of rhyme, characters’ names, or 2-3 paragraphs of a story. I might choose a couple ideas and start writing for each of them, see which one seems to flow better at that time. There have been times I started writing and decided it just wasn’t working, scrapped it, and started a whole new book. This happens more when writing for a class deadline. I also really like Eve Heidi Bine-Stock's three volumes of How to Write a Children's Picture Book, using specific examples from well-known children's books. Sometimes just reading a little about structure or being very deliberate in word choice and sentence construction can give some new spark to your words just lying on there on the page, making your eyes cross!

If I get stuck in a novel, I might take a break from the narrative and delve more into a character’s backstory--flesh out a bio or “CV” on that person: favorite foods, songs, movies, color, who was his first kiss, who was her hero, when is his birthday. Where have they lived in the past? What jobs have they held? What are their strengths, weaknesses, talents, goals, any special powers? Who are their best friends, enemies, co-workers, family members, past loves? Can they drive a stick shift? How do they normally dress? Do they wear braces, glasses, wigs, prosthetic devices? Religious affiliations? Political leanings? When is the last time they laughed or cried? Write a few pages of a journal the character might have kept. Many of those details wouldn’t make into the narrative, but this kind of exercise might spur some ideas about where to go or how a character would behave, what choices he would make, that in turn drive the story. It’s kind of like spending time with the character outside the constraints of the plot and emerging with a better understanding of her and, thus, the story.

One “trick” with which I have never had a problem but noticed some people do in regard to novel-writing--I don’t write in chronological order. When I am inspired to tell a certain part of the story or write a certain scene, I do it, even if it doesn’t come till much later, even if it wouldn’t be till the next book of a series. I am always surprised when another writer starts at the beginning and writes all the way through and never has considered writing out of sequence. One of my friends was doing a memoir-type work--he wasn’t looking forward to the part that would come next chronologically in his life. Ummm, so why write it right now? Move ahead to the part that you WANT to tell. Plus, let’s be honest, if there’s a part in your own memoir that you find boring or tedious to get through, why would you expect a reader to slug through it? Another big help: skip ahead and write the ending. I learned this in junior high when we had to choose a children’s author and write a letter to that person. How exciting when I received not just the usual form letter response but an actual personal note from Lois Lowry! Her advice when getting stuck was to skip ahead and write the ending. Know where you’re going and it will help guide you in how to get there. Sometimes it is tricky to then go back and put scenes in correct order and transition them appropriately.

One technique I have not yet tried but am keeping in mind is one of Carmela Martino’s suggestions: go back and write part of your story using a different point of view. For example, if your book is in first-person, try writing some of it in third-person limited. I’m not a huge fan of the writing in the Twilight series, but I was really intrigued by something the author did. The books are mostly told from the point of view of the female protagonist (except for part of a book from the werewolf friend’s point of view), but the author did write a draft of some of the first book from the point of view of the male vampire who becomes the protagonist’s boyfriend. She posted this draft online so that readers could have access to it. I read that the actor who portrayed this vampire in the movie actually used this draft to better get into his character’s motivations, which weren’t as apparent in reading just the published first book. I think this would be a very interesting exercise in getting unstuck--write from a different point of view of your main character or write the same events from the perspective of a different character entirely.

My main point of stuck-ness is in revision. I don’t know if it’s just not as exciting as writing something new, if I am worried the revised version will end up worse than the original, or the anxiety of making choices. I know I make choices in writing an original draft of a story, but it seems like the choices in revising are more deliberate, like you’re more accountable for WHY you made certain decisions. I should just approach it as a fun to chance to play around with stuff I have already created.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Striving to Make it Stick

This is where I admit I'm a procrastinator. Every time I get stuck on something my answer is avoidance. I hate to admit it but this sometimes actually works. I will walk away from something that I've been frustrated over, and come back later when my mind is clearer. This gets me back to work with a renewed sense of accomplishment. I wouldn't recommend this course of action though, it's just something I do if all else fails. I'll have to come up with something better if I have the opportunity to work under a deadline.

The issues that I get stuck on may be due to my lack of experience; for example, which tense to use and how to structure the storyline. I stop during writing to check the characters voice, or the plot line, then find out I'm not happy with how things are going. I hope in time this won't be such a problem, until then I have reference books on writing to turn to, and of course my critique buddies.

I could wish for a magic wand when I'm stuck. What's the purpose of struggling anyway? Then I noticed in the thesaurus that a synonym for struggle is strive, and realized that I'm constantly striving to make my story better, which is a good thing. I guess getting stuck is part of the natural process of writing, this struggle makes the end product that much better. I'll have to remember that next time I'm walking away from the keyboard and throwing my hands up in frustration.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stick it

When I get stuck it is not a matter of not knowing where to go next in the plot. I get stuck on details and solving potential plot hole issues and pacing. I honestly binge write so when I do find myself mulling over details and can't find a way out of it, the momentum of my writing suffers. Just recently I began work on my third novel and made it about 24 pages in but in the midst of those 24 pages was a timing issue.

My novels tend to use time as a tension builder, the marked crescendo of rising action, so when I had trouble with the time frame I stopped writing until I figured it out. Alas, I had to sacrifice a time period for my first chapter I envisioned for months beforehand. Yet in the process of embarking on this literary quest I learned that getting stuck in the mud can be gratifying if what comes out of it is a golden nugget. (Nugget is a funny word)

Every experience with writing seems worthwhile. Every obstacle when met with a real-time persistence can be overcome. Since I could remember, the problem-solving element of writing invokes the sharpest critical thinking and truly immerses the author in their work. I know it does for me. So here is to getting stuck.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stuck in the cocoon

In my perfect writing world, I move from the creeping caterpillar of an idea, consuming green leaves of research, then cocoon briefly as I let the ideas flow from brain to keyboard, and emerge quickly as a complete and glorious butterfly, ready to soar to the editors.

Reality: lots of great ideas are stuck in the cocoon! They have been jotted, noted, filed, researched, started and…stuck. I soooo wish hours of playing BeJeweled was the answer!

And yet in my last career (counting retirement as a full time job!) I never once showed up at church on a Sunday morning without a 10 minute homily. That was 5 pages, double spaced, researched and ready to go!

So the answer for me must be deadlines. It helps to have someone or somewhere a particular piece will go. A SCBWI conference, an assignment at an online writing class or (mostly) my critique group keeps me plugging away.

On the other hand I just discovered Chuzzle….

To Research Or Not To Research, That Is The Question?

I think there is an element in the imagination that reality often tries to kill. Of course, they can coexist, but the imagination is often looking over its shoulder waiting for reality to strike. When I am writing fiction, I am constantly looking over my shoulder, because I will be the first to admit, that I don't do as much initial research as I should.

Although I do not ignore research altogether, that would be a major folly on my part, I have a one track mind. It's either the research or the writing. They compete for my attention. Two battling competitors, one winner, one loser, writing usually wins.

Or maybe it's my imagination that wins, but not for long, because I find myself using place holders where facts or descriptions should be. Even with my zaniest plots, I am reeled in by reality. Take for instance my PB manuscript "What's The Worst You Could Eat?" While writing about boogers was fun, reality came knocking in the form of critiques, and I finally had to question, "Would parents want their children to read a book about eating boogers in this swine flu paranoid society?" A little research could have helped me approach the story from a slightly different angle.

My blogmates have listed ways in which they research or don't research. Many of these techniques are shared by me, so I won't repeat them. But I do want to share what I find to be the most difficult thing for me to research, my setting.

I can vividly describe places that I've been, but when it comes to setting stories in unfamiliar places, I feel sort of lost. I can easily pull up pictures and descriptions of a place with a few taps on my keyboard, but reading about these places, leaves me wanting. If I am to describe a place, I like to have breathed the air and experienced the atmosphere, if you can image what I mean. I feel as if I'm painting a picture with a broken brush. I have to make do, but I can never completely capture the place I'm attempting to recreate.

I have had to change the setting of my vampire novel for this reason. My original setting was going to be in New Orleans, but I had to move it to the Midwest / Chicago since I felt my descriptions were lacking. Now I want to have a scene where one my characters jump off the Sears Tower or John Hancock. Don't worry she can fly, but first I have to find out if it's even possible for a human to breathe up that high? Is the observation deck outside? I don't remember. What's the security like? Okay, okay—I'll have to do some research. I haven't been to either the Sears Tower or Hancock building in a long time, but I figure a trip downtown is more convenient and cheaper than one to New Orleans.

Then it comes to my lack of research before writing this post. If I had researched the Sears Tower before writing this post, I would have remembered it is now called the Willis Tower. I think that's the new name, but don't quote me on that. If you don't know, please do your own research.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Confession of a Serial Researcher

Today I hosted a Valentine's party for 43 homeschooled children ranging in ages from 2-12. Does this count as research? I learned that not everyone is familiar with glue dots, the tried and true games are the most popular, and small (or big, for that matter) boys on sugar highs can't be within arms distance of each other without pushing, shoving, wrestling or causing some kind of mayhem.

What's that? You want to hear about research for the young adult novel I'm working on? I guess I have a confession to make. In the interest of actually getting a complete draft written before I turn 40 (two years), I've decided to cease and desist researching until I've finished said draft. My reason being that I, like my fellow bloggers, tend to get whisked down the rabbit hole so to speak when I start digging around.

I have been keeping track of items for future research, i.e. how people react when they find a dead body, what precisely happens when someone is in the foster care system and turns 18, what types of weapons 16th century pirates might use, etc. I realize that this method might result in some rewriting, when all is said and done. But, I'm OK with that. I am just so anxious to get a complete draft on paper that I don't mind the thought of having to add or change detail later.

That said, I have learned a great deal about one particular pirate although there isn't actually too much known about her. There are a number of legends and postings on the Internet and one comprehensive history book about her life and times. My goal is to write vignettes about this woman at the beginning of each chapter and also to tie events in her life to that of my main character.

Methods of research? I like the Internet. Is there anything Google can't find? I also read a lot. But, what I really like to do is find real-people to interview. I probably will try to find a homicide detective who will speak with me, for example, and a social worker. Maybe even an expert on searching for lost pirate treasure. I guess I find that sometimes if I need to know the answer to something it never hurts to ask.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How much research? How little time?

I don’t have much scintillating information to add to what my colleagues have already said on the topic of research. (And I apologize for the lateness of this post. Between doctor appointment and family night at son’s school, I was busy from 1pm till 8:30.) I do think picture books provide a wide range of topics to research. When I was writing a story about a kitchen band, I looked up a couple different sites that explained what kinds of instruments might be made from various kitchen items, and I also listened to a few children’s songs about playing in the kitchen so I could better convey what sounds those instruments would make. When writing a Halloween story, I actually looked up lists of spooky names. When writing a story about a girl who moved and changed schools, it helped to be familiar with the way many schools are laid out today and to visit playgrounds to see what modern equipment looks like instead of relying on my memory of what schools and playgrounds looked like back in the day when I attended elementary! I think it really helps to spend some time around children to get a good feel for the way they talk and the words they use. Even if your characters in a picture book are animals, you want the way they speak to be relatable to your audience. If you’re writing adolescent characters, you definitely want their dialogue and thoughts to be realistic.

If I’m writing about vampires, research might depend on for which age level I am writing. If it’s a beginning reader book, I might research how authors for young audiences have handled the issue of the vampires’ “diets.” If it’s a YA novel, I research some of the myths about vampires. Anytime you have a supernatural element, there are certain myths or rules that are commonly accepted, that the reader expects. If the author changes one of these (vampires can be out in the sunlight, vampires have heartbeats, etc.), there has to be a definite purpose and plausible explanation. If a vampire character has lived longer than a normal person’s lifetime, that’s a wonderful opportunity to choose which places and historical periods he or she has experienced and then research those times and places. For YA novels especially, it may be helpful to research how other writers have presented issues of violence, language, and physical intimacy.

Setting has to be one of the most fun things to research. If part of my story is taking place in Ireland or a character’s family has a strong Irish background, I research Irish surnames and first names, perhaps in which counties of Ireland they are prevalent, Celtic traditions and festivals. Of course I think the best research would be to actually travel there! I think traveling, even locally, is a fun way for writers to do research and feel connected to the world, not always holed up typing away. It can boost creativity. One woman I know was writing some animal characters but wanted their behaviors to be realistic, so she made an appointment to talk to staff at a local zoo where she could observe these animals. Brilliant!

As my fellow bloggers (Peabodies!) have mentioned, time must be spent researching the subject of writing itself. And as far as writing memoir-type stuff, it sounds silly, but you really do have to research yourself. Researching yourself is not a bad idea anyway, as I learned from Carmela Martino, in doing writing exercises to get ideas flowing. These two topics of research could easily evolve into their own blog entries at a later date!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relax with Researching

Finding info on the internet, in books, and even TV and movies are ways in which I research. Since part of my current project takes place during the Civil War, I find myself searching the web a lot. Sometimes I loose myself in the vortex of information; reading things that may not pertain totally, but are interesting nonetheless until I find and hour or more has gone by.

I've been thinking of taking an afternoon, lounging in sweats, eating snacks and renting current movies set during the Civil War. It would help me imagine what they wore, how they talked, etc. and it might inspire me. If nothing else, it sounds like a good excuse to relax. I also plan on visiting Virginia again hopefully soon, a plethora of information is there and writing while actually being there could help me get into the characters.

I also research on the art of writing. I wish I could devote more time right now to this because I know I have a lot to learn. I have some books I refer to often. One that I'm reading right now and would recommend is "Keys to Great Writing" by Stephen Wilbers. Websites like and are also helpful for researching writing techniques. My favorite way to research writing is reading books in the genre I'd like to become proficient in. The only drawback I have though is when the book is good I find myself engaged in the plot and forget to concentrate on things the author has done well, and things I should avoid. In general when it comes to any research I have to find good ways to help my brain retain all of this info, so when it comes time to use it, I'll remember it. I guess good organization should be considered when researching.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


A phone call to friends and family with knowledge of certain details of my story acts as part of research as does a quick search in a book or online but the fantasy comes first. The layout, storyboard, or plot diagram is laid out and then I fill it in with the information and details. I have absorbed a compendium of story materials through the years. My whole life is based around telling, researching, and writing the story. Whatever the story may be... my whole modicum of thought relates in some way to the fantastic. I can walk down the street and imagine the street suddenly jolting upwards, gravel and all, and then having to dodge out of the way of the debris and then come back to the real world and try to develop a story from the imagined catastrophe.
I try to come up with more exciting ways to communicate stories all the time. I am forever trying different ways to make something exciting, dramatic, and meaningful. Thus, the fantasy comes first. It drives my curiosity to research and sometimes I don't research on purpose and wing it. Sometimes the realm of pragmatism doesn't mesh with a good fantasy.... sometimes the truth is far more interesting. The fantasy and the research when balanced to great effect can truly complement a story thus making it worthwhile.
Some writers get to into their research and it detracts from the story, others should have done more research both can take the reader out of the narrative and that is never good. Strike a balance.

I must say the bulk of my research is skill-related. Reading similar books to see how the author handles certain scenes counts as research as well. This I do and analyze. Most of the time I am able to pick up things rather quickly with my powers of absorption but the need to improve never wanes. I always know I can be better. I hope this blog made sense otherwise I might have to do more research on blogging.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Which comes first: fantasy or fact finding?

I love ‘em both: creating ideas and digging deep in research. Even when I am writing pure fiction – a dragon waiting for wings to grow – there are things to learn.

I use two sources: children’s books at the library where I am employed and the internet. That wingless dragon book leads me into the mythology section for dragon traits and the picture book area for the ways others have pictured dragons. Then I comb the internet for difference between Western and Eastern dragons, and always check to see if anyone else has recently published a story about wingless dragons! If so I might as well put it in a file for next decade or work on it until it is really unique.

For years I focused on Bible storybook writing where there is only one source: the Bible. Publishers vary on how close to Holy Scripture the story has to be. Can I introduce talking animals? Can I put words in anyone’s mouth or only use direct quotes? Can I fill in settings with information I know is culturally accurate? Then I research the abilities and interests of the intended reader. What are children at various ages capable of understanding about terms like “crucifixion” and “incarnation”? What is the attention span of each age? (Pictured: Robin Currie's Baby Bible Stories about Jesus, Cook Communications, reissued with new art, 2009.)

Recently I may have found my real place in the publishing world: Edu-tainment: fun stories that teach new ideas and cultures with words introduced in glossary or sidebars. Who doesn’t want to know more about the arctic or the Sonora desert?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I have always pulled inspiration from the things that surround me, people, events, and sometimes it seems nothing at all. Many times with my picture books, the title comes to me first, and the story is the byproduct. Sometimes a couple of lines from a story will pop in my head, and the rest of the story is constructed around these lines.

Novel writing is different. Usually the outlines of an idea come to me and I have to brainstorm to get a clear picture of the story I want to tell. This process is more evident with the vampire novel I am writing. It took me years to plot the story. Actually, I'm still working on the plot even as I write it.

But sometimes, there are those events or places in my childhood that provide such warm memories, that I want to relive them through my writing.

Monta so eloquently described a place like this in her post.

But for me, that place was Camp Mathieu which my Middle Grade novel Camp Lagoon is based on. When I was a kid starting at age 7, I went away to camp every year for 10 summers. Since Camp Mathieu was owned by the Off The Street Club, a boys and girls club in Chicago, it serves inner city youth who normally wouldn't get the opportunity to go away to camp. Although I never attended the club, ( I lived on the other side of town) I did get to experience Camp Mathieu through my church's coordination with the facility. For one entire week, my brothers and I were whisked away to camp for a week of hiking, swimming, horse back riding, and a host of other activities.

But the highlight of the week, was always Thursday nights. On this night, campers were gathered around the camp fire and told the story of Goon. A half human, half monster like creature with a child-like mind and super human strength, who had possibly killed a camper or two as revenge for a prank pulled on him years ago. Then, we were marched through the woods half scared out of our minds looking for signs of Goon. After of course, they showed us the half foot print left in the road leading up to the camp, and the broken chain at the camps entrance.

It was always a wild time. Even when we were older and no longer believed in Goon, it was exciting to walk through the woods pretending to be brave while surrounded by a chorus of screaming children.

My MG novel Camp Lagoon, which I hope will be a bit funny and a bit scary, is based on the experiences my brothers and I had over the years at Camp Mathieu. The main character Tyler is a combination of me and my brothers. Mostly them, except the nerdy part of his personality, which is me. Although this is irrelevant to the topic of writing inspirations, writing this novel has prompted me to start donating to The Off The Street Club in hopes of sending someone to Camp Mathieu this summer.

I should say, a lot of my ideas come from me having children. I haven't based one particular character around my boys, but they do help me keep in touch with what children like and how they think. They remind me of what it was like when I was a child, which helps me try to relate to other children while I'm writing, so in essence they are probably my greatest source of inspiration.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Under the boardwalk...down by the sea

My grandfather emigrated to the United States from Italy when he was eleven-years-old. After a circuitous route (including a six-month stint in the hoosegow for operating a speakeasy), he found himself a legitimate bar owner in Wilmington, Del. and in want of an Italian wife.

In 1925, he went back to Pettorano, a small village in the Abruzzi, and picked out my grandmother from among the ladies in the piazza. Luckily, it had always been her dream to marry a man with clean socks who would take her to America.

Skipping ahead to the 1950s, like many families in the tri-state area, the Monacos vacationed at the Jersey Shore. Wildwood was a boomtown during that era with a wide, beautiful beach, a two-mile boardwalk lined with amusement rides, games, restaurants, and even sideshows, and clubs that attracted entertainment like Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell.

My grandmother saw there was money to be made and asked my grandfather for $5000 to buy a hotel. One led to another and they ended up owning five. When my grandparents were ready to retire to Florida, their eight children were given the opportunity to purchase the properties. My father joined four of his siblings as part of a corporation that would run several of the businesses, including a new parking lot and a commercial property on the boardwalk.

I spent every summer in Wildwood until I turned 21. It's a place of magic, adventure, and, truth be told, testing boundaries. I always thought that if I made the jump to fiction, I'd like to use Wildwood as a backdrop. I just needed a hook, and I think I've found one in my pirate adventure story.

My biggest challenge with using a place so familiar has been scene setting. I forget that people might not know that the boardwalk is raised, or that the amusement rides sit on piers that stretch out onto the beach. It's a good thing no one in my writers' group has been to Wildwood, and so they tell me when more detail is needed. Who knows? Maybe my redone descriptions will give them the urge to go down the shore.

(If you couldn't tell, I also find my family history fascinating on both my paternal and maternal sides. Perhaps if I ever finish this first novel...)

Photos: My dad is in the front right. He is on Wildwood beach with his brothers-in-law. The boardwalk building on the left is what their commercial property used to look like. Next to it is the boardwalk chapel.

My grandmother and three aunts are in the other picture. I think the building behind them is one of the old dance halls.