Ten writers for children. All with something to say.

11/29/08

The Eager Researcher by Edie Hemingway



Maybe it's my lifelong interest in history and historical fiction, or maybe it's the relentless snooper in me, but I love the research part of writing--so much so that I run the risk of just researching and not getting to the writing!

I think of writing historical fiction as a connect-the-dot picture.  The dots are the facts I am building my story around.  The lines connecting the dots are the fictional characters, scenes, and events I create to make my story come alive.  I know I must begin with research and finding more facts than I'll ever need for the story. Then I must verify the facts for accuracy and consistency, knowing that even one small mistake* makes me lose credibility as a writer.  (*Several years after Broken Drum (aka Drums of War) was published, I went up in a hot air balloon and realized a fundamental mistake my co-author and I had made about Charley King's adventure in the observation balloon.  Can you find it?)

The two faded photographs above (Charley King, a 12-year-old Union drummer boy in the Pennsylvania 49th Volunteers, and Nancy Hart, a 16-year-old Confederate spy and rebel raider) were the inspiration for the two Civil War middle grade novels I co-authored with my friend Jacqueline Shields.  We were fortunate to live in Maryland, an area steeped in Civil War history and within easy driving distance of Gettysburg, Antietam, Harpers Ferry, as well as countless other Civil War battlefields and museums.

We began by reading background books on the Civil War to get the big picture, overall facts and strategies. But we concentrated on the daily lives of the common soldiers.  How did they fill the long hours of boredom?  What did they eat?  Where did they sleep? What did they wear and carry on their backs?  We looked for diaries, letters, and first hand accounts.  Above all, we were inspired by the eloquence of the common soldier.  We also went to re-enactments and talked to the re-enactors, listened to the music, the cadence of the drums, tried on the clothes.  Can you imagine wearing the same itchy, wool uniform summer and winter and having no change of clothing?  Can you imagine running in the long skirts and petticoats the women wore or riding a horse in such a dress?  No wonder Nancy Hart preferred men's britches.

We also traveled to every place our characters traveled, studied the lay of the land (mountainous, flat, swampy), looked at the trees and vegetation of the area, walked the length of the battlefields, and even lay down in the redoubts (trenches).  In the midst of writing Rebel Hart, we ran into a lack of information about the rebel raiders during the winter months of the war.  I decided to go back to central West Virginia in January.  After looking at the rugged mountains with their humps and dips and spiny ridges, clearly defined by the white of the snow and the starkness of the bare trees, I realized no one, not man nor animal, could travel undetected in the wintertime.  No wonder the raiders went into hiding.

The biggest reward for our research came from our readers.  After finding Rebel Hart in the Harpers Ferry bookstore, the great great grandson of Nancy Hart contacted us and invited us to lunch so we could fill him in on information he never knew about his great great grandmother.  Broken Drum triggered such interest in Charley King that a boy scout, with the help of a regiment of re-enactors from Charley's hometown of West Chester, PA decided to dedicate a memorial stone to Charley as his Eagle Scout project.  We were invited to speak at the formal dedication ceremony.

For my first "solo" middle grade novel, Road to Tater Hill (forthcoming from Delacorte Press in September 2009), set in the more modern 1960s, I spent hours researching the craft of weaving and learning to play the mountain dulcimer.

As for my current research--my novel-in-progress is set on the Island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine. If you can't find me at home in Maryland, I may be sifting through the books and old photographs in the Vinalhaven Historical Society, interviewing the 7th and 8th graders in the island school, or kayaking the basin, hoping to catch sight of the harbor seals lounging atop the rocks at high tide.

11/28/08

Carmen T's Papas Calientes--Research



To your right are Alicia Alonso's bloody, toe shoes and her Giselle costume. On my trip I learned that her mother made the dress.






Unlike David I love to research. There are dangers to that. You don't write because you want to keep reseaching and, you show your research in your writing . That's a no-no. I show my research among the action. The rest I put in the back notes.

As David pointed out, research is not just for non-fiction. When I was writing In the Shade of the Nispero Tree, I went back to Ponce, Puerto Rico to eat nisperos, and remember streets and buildings.

I find myself researching twice.

Before and while I write the first draft:
  1. I read children's books because they are short and usually have good bibliographies. Then I read the adult books listed in the bibliographies.
  2. Search the web, but because so many people write there, I make sure the sources are accurate.
  3. Read poetry, old newspapers and magazines, and ballet critiques.

  4. Watch movies realted to my topic.

  5. Listen to the music related to my topic.

  6. Eat at restaurants from the culture.

  7. Talk to farmworkers to listen to the way they speak.

  8. Go to plays and ballets.

  9. I go to talks. When Diego's daughter came to Portland, I followed her everywhere.
  10. E-mail anybody who can help me.
After I have written the first draft I do on-site research because I need to see, smell, touch, and hear the place. (I have already tasted the food and now I am fat!)

  1. I have visited cemeteries to verify that Munoz's first wife was buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and that she wasn't cremated.

  2. I didn't go to California to visit farmworkers but I went to Hood River, Oregon.
  3. I visited the Farmworker Union headquarters.

  4. I went to Mexico City and visited Frida Kahlo's Blue House, the San Angel studios (this helped firgured out how Diego Rivera's pink studio was separated from Frida's blue studio), and I climbed the Sun Pyramid because she climbed it with Leon Trostky.
  5. I have visited many museums and galleries in Mexcio and Cuba.

  6. I have watched murals in the making.

  7. I went to Guanajuato, Mexico to learn more about Diego's childhood.

  8. I went to Havana, Cuba and interviewed ballet dancers, historians, choreographers, costume designers, Alicia Alonso's first husband, Alicia's second husband, and Alicia.

  9. I watched ballet rehearsals and have gone to many ballets, here and in Cuba.

  10. I made sure that I have the contacts for the historians, and have asked them to check my manuscripts for accuracy.

Now I need to write without showing my research.

A quick Snow Report

Just a quick announcement! The children's book site, Just One More Book has created a lovely little podcast about my new book SNOW. Enjoy!

11/26/08

The Reluctant Researcher by David LaRochelle


I don't really like research. That's one reason why I enjoy writing fiction; I can simply "make up" whatever I want. When I started writing my young adult novel Absolutely, Positively Not, I chose a topic I knew plenty about already (a teenage boy struggling with his sexuality) and was confident I could skip the messy, cumbersome element of research.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

As the book progressed, I realized that if I didn't want to sound like a complete idiot, I'd need to check facts that I had blissfully "made up" as I went along. This fact-checking took me down such diverse paths as:
  • Calling bait shops to determine a reasonable weight for a winning fish in an ice derby contest (Six pounds. I had originally written twenty-four).
  • Sending emails to coaches across the state asking about specifics of high school hockey schedules (I paid no attention to sports when I was in school).
  • Attending meetings of a square dance club to verify details of my main character's hobby (Square dancers are without a doubt some of the warmest, friendliest people you'll ever meet).
Then, being inspired my friend John Coy's thorough research for his young adult books, I decided I would return to my high school to get an accurate portrait of what teenagers are like today.

It was a disaster.

The moment I walked through the door, all my high school fears came flooding back to me. I imagined every student I passed thinking "faggot" and "homo" as they saw me. I was just as clueless to their tastes as when I was in school (when I was a teenager I listened to the "elevator music" station and wore whatever my mom bought for me at J.C. Penney's).

I left the school feeling like a research failure. Discouraged, I decided I'd forgo working current language and styles into my story. Instead, I'd focus on the feelings I remembered experiencing when I was a teenager and hoped that they would still be relevant today.

And they were. The fear of not being accepted, the struggle to be authentically yourself, and the confusion of finding your place in the world are issues that young (and old) people continue to grapple with. And though I had been reluctant to do so, I had done plenty of this research when I was growing up.

11/25/08

Collaborative Research by Christy



I have a passion for travel. Fortunately, I’ve had several opportunities to illustrate stories set in other cultures. Unfortunately, each time my lack of mula kept me at home. Hmmm… isn’t reading all about experiencing the world vicariously?

When I first began illustrating I lived in Brooklyn. The world wide web was unknown. No problem! I had resources everywhere I turned: museums with art and artifacts from around the world; botanical gardens with vegetation from every climate; an amazing public library system, including the New York Public Library Picture Collection (my home away from home); and daily I rubbed shoulders with people from each part of the earth. Yes, I do miss NYC.

My first book, Juan Bobo and the Pig by Felix Pitre was set in Puerto Rico. I bought a book of Caribbean interior design to inspire my palette. I listened to salsa to keep things loose and fun. The creative process opened up further when I invited others to help. My husband acted out many of Juan Bobo’s gestures. He suggested adding chickens, which I have since tried to include in my books whenever possible. I spoke with Jorge, my hairstylist from Puerto Rico. He helped with costuming and setting. In Paco and the Witch, my second collaboration with Felix Pitre, Felix sent me a beautiful g├╝iro (gourd instrument) for reference. Sharing is fun!

When I began visual research for Elizabeti’s Doll (set in Tanzania) I again had insufficient resources to travel, so I visited the Library Picture Collection, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and the Robert Goldwater Library at the Met (dedicated to documentation of visual arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas). I made a list of items I needed to include in each scene. Finally, never finding precisely what I needed, I asked my editor if I could speak with the author. Authors and illustrators usually have no communication while the illustrations are being created. I have worked as an art director for many years and feel protective of artists. They need to have space to tell the visual story without someone breathing over their shoulders with preconceived ideas. On the other hand, I knew it was my job to create culturally authentic illustrations. I wanted direct access to the most informed resource. Enter Stephanie.

I still have the list of questions I scribbled for my first conversation with Stephanie. She told me what kind of bathtub would be used for babies. She described their diapers, the chores a young Tanzanian girl might do, and the animals found around the yard (yippee—chickens!). She provided me with many, many helpful bits of information. Over the course of the three-book Elizabeti series, Stephanie sent numerous color photocopies from her stay in Tanzania, a video made by colleagues in the Peace Corp, and Stephanie’s husband even drew a picture to explain how corn is ground! I had been struggling to create visual interest. Elizabeti lived in a mud hut in an area of open plains. Who wanted to look at a book of mud and dirt? Stephanie unlocked the problem when she sent me a brightly colored kanga (African cloth). I decided to use colorful patterns papers in collage to simulate African textiles.

I am grateful for Stephanie’s wonderful stories and helpful resources. Collaboration can allow projects to grow bigger and better. It’s tricky work though. Stephanie never pushed a vision of how she wanted things to be. She always gave me space and support.

11/24/08

The Accidental Researcher by Stephanie




Research of some kind is a given when you are a writer. Whether it simply be figuring out who was President in 1911 ( William Taft) or if there was color television in 1959 ( yes), I find myself always looking up something. But sometimes I discover that the research has already been done, without me realizing that's what I was doing at the time.




In 1989, my husband and I joined the Peace Corps and went to Tanzania. While there, I spent some time living with a Tanzanian family. The one pictured above. And yes, that is their house behind them. Made of mud and sticks, the house was surprisingly sturdy. There was no electricity, so as soon as it got dark, everyone went to bed. There was no plumbing, so the bathroom was a hole in the ground out behind the house, surrounded on three sides by a ramshackle fence made of cornstalks and sticks. The gaps in said fence allowed me a great view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Alas, the gaps allowed anyone on the nearby road to also have a great view. Not just of Kilimanjaro.


My stay there was hard. There was a language barrier, with them speaking no English, and me speaking some fairly lousy Swahili. The smallest child was terrified of me. The poverty was overwhelming, as was my helplessness to do anything about it. The rats under my bed didn't help either, and I wasn't that sorry to see my time there end.


About five years after my stay in this Tanzanian home, I decided to start writing stories. And this little house came to mind. And I wrote Elizabeti's Doll, which is about a Tanzanian girl with a rock for a doll. There are details in there about Tanzanian life, the kind of details I usually have to research for a story. But I didn't need to. That part had already been done. And now, I look back on my stay in that Tanzanian home as a blessing, an experience I'm very happy to have had.






Potato in the Press

Collectively, we've decided to reserve the right to give a shout-out to members of the blog when needed. This last Thursday, Lauren Stringer's work was featured in the PW Children's Bookshelf. Check it out: www.publishersweekly.com/enewsletter/CA6616362/2788.html