Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Giveaway for President's Day

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Farmer George Plants a Nation by Peggy Thomas

Farmer George Plants a Nation

by Peggy Thomas

Giveaway ends February 16, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Clean Desk

I always start the new year off by cleaning my office.  It isn't a nod to feng shui and good karma for the next 12 months. It's to put away the wrapping paper, receipts, shopping bags, and boxes of Christmas decorations that end up in the one room in the house no one needed to sleep in over the holidays.  It's reclaiming my space.

And this year it gives me a place to start now that I am in that odd freelance place between contracts. What should I work on next?  Which idea has percolated in my brain enough that it's ready to dive into. There are so many options, because like most writers I have several ideas brewing at once.  I wish I could work on more than one project at a time, but I'm not a very good multi-tasker, so I have to choose carefully. Is there a project that is time sensitive? Is a pertinent anniversary coming up? That is a good selling point for an editor. Have newer books on the same subject come on the market while I've been percolating? If so, is my idea different enough to compete successfully, or should I shuffle that idea lower in the deck and wait a few years?

How do you decide what your next project is going to be?  What are you working on now?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Juvenile Nonfiction on the Rise

I  don't usually care about the industry numbers that come out each year ranking book sales, because I always know my category - children's nonfiction - will be mentioned somewhere in the last paragraph, or not at all. But, yesterday PW announced that the sale of juvenile NF increased 15.6% from 2013 (at least among the outlets that report to BookScan).  48,882,000 in 2014, up from 42,283,000 in 2013.  Hooray for us!  It doesn't even dampen my enthusiasm that the top 4 books in the category were handbooks for the Minecraft game. 

These numbers should perk up the ears of editors and agents, and make them more interested in those nonfiction stories that come across their desks.  So, get your manuscripts polished. Let's make 2015 an even better year for children's nonfiction. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Missed Time?

Missed Time
by Ha Jin
My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

I discovered this poem on The Black Board and thought I’d share it with you. It spoke to me because my notebook has also remained blank for months – I did not feel the urge to write while my husband had 5 IVs sticking out of his chest, and I got used to him looking like the boy in the movie Powder. It was an anxious time. Unsettling. But I was also more aware of how much I loved, and how much I was loved. Even without eyebrows Francis can shine a pretty bright light. I was happy in the little cocoon we created so Fran could get well. Wrapped in miles of car rides, foil-covered casseroles, our children’s hugs, get well cards, and prayers. I didn't write because I did not want the fear to overtake me, instead I lived in the love.

Okay, reading that back it sounds hippy dippy. But it’s true. And it’s okay not to write. I’m not Anne Lamott or Natalie Goldberg (whom I adore and admire, and I would give all my Christmas presents for just a pinch of their writing magic) who search, question, and find themselves on the page. For me writing isn't therapy. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Maybe I'm still learning. Or maybe I’m just another kind of writer. And that’s okay.

For me, Ha Jin’s poem kicked another leg out from under the stigma that writers put on not writing and being “storyless.” Perhaps he just meant that he didn’t need to craft a fiction because he was living reality? Sounds pretty good to me. And I particularly appreciate his confession that he did not write because he was happy. Way to go!

If you are temporarily stagnant, storyless, not writing, take heart. Be happy, or be sad, or be whatever it is you need to be right now. Above all, take inspiration. I did. I intend to live now, and write later (for me later is now) -- that way everyone will know how happy I was.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Q & A on Rebecca G. Aguilar's Blog

Last month, Rebecca Aguilar asked me a few questions about my writing for her blog.  I encourage you to check it out at http://rebeccagaguilar.com/2014/peggythomas.html

Monday, December 1, 2014

No Dead Ends

Several years ago when I was writing Bacteria and Viruses for Lerner, I came across a small mention of a doctor who fooled the Nazis with a fake typhus epidemic.  I filed that slip of paper away and when I was finished with the book, I looked for more information. I found the doctor's name - Eugene Lazowski, and where the event took place -- Rozwadow, Poland, and that the man had died three years before.  Dead end? No.

Lazowski had written a book -- Private War -- I located a copy at a Chicago bookstore that specialized in Polish culture. The book was written in Polish, but I bought it anyway. At least I could look at the pictures. Dead end? No.

Using Babel Fish and other online translating sites I managed to decipher a few key bits, enough to know that I wanted to pursue this story. But I needed a better way to translate it. Luckily for me, Buffalo is filled with people of Polish ancestry.  However, professional translators cost a lot, and worried about copyright issues.

I tried a different approach. I located his daughter and gave her a call. Did she know of an English translation?  Would she answer a few questions?  No. She was guarded and mentioned that she was talking to someone about a movie deal.  That felt like a big dead end.

So, I let Eugene sit while I pursued another project that had a contract attached to it.  But I never forgot about Rozwadow and the fake epidemic.

Then recently after finishing the revisions on my Thomas Jefferson book, and needing something completely different to focus on, I again Googled Eugene. Maybe with the movie deal an English translation had been written.  Through WorldCat, the largest online library catalog, I found that  an English translation had appeared. There was a single copy written by the daughter and housed at the University of Chicago.  But it was in special collections marked "non-circulating," and I had no pending plans to be in the Windy City any time soon.  Dead end?  No.

I called the director of special collections and explained my needs. With the stipulation that I use the book at the local library, I could get the book for one month. Hurray! I confused the staff at my little local public library with the interloan request, but they managed to get the book to me within two weeks.  Over several days, I sat in the corner and poured over the neatly typed manuscript bound in a flimsy black plastic.  

Although each bump in the road delayed me from pursuing the story earlier, I didn't let potential dead ends stop me entirely. I don't know what form this story will take, but I do know I have a lot more information to find, and probably more dead ends to push pass.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Writing Exercise - fleshing out emotions

I have the pleasure of being the nonfiction editor for the Oak Orchard Review, an online regional literary magazine. Saturday, we hosted a reading and open mic night when local writers, young and old, shared poetry, flash nonfiction, and visual art. The theme was gratitude.

For each issue, I give myself an assignment. This time I wanted to explore the physicality of emotion. Like many writers I rely on sad tears, a confused shoulder shrug, and happy smiles to show how a character is feeling. It's hard to be original.

If your writing feels too cliche when it comes to emotion, give this exercise a try: Choose a highly emotional moment in your life. Replay the scene in your mind. Let the emotions roll over you again. What sensations do you feel? Weave some of those details into a narrative of the same event.

Below is my NF piece on gratitude:

It begins here, a squeezing in my solar plexus. A sensation rises inside, pops my eardrums and shifts my scalp. I inhale deep as if for the first time.  Then let it go like a silent prayer that rises skyward. It’s the physical reaction that seems to accompany the feeling of gratitude.  I’ve felt it many times. When I see my kids sprawled all over the living room. When the sun lights up the autumn maple next door.  When our dog Bertie stands still to let the cat lick him. But I’ve felt it more so in the last 8 months since my husband was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma.
We’ve spent a lot of time at  Roswell Park Cancer Institute. During Fran’s first round of chemo, when reality was still raw, and my security shattered, I remember walking the halls pretending to study the paintings on the walls…
Giant koi swim past the thoracic clinic, and splashes of orange, pink and yellow brighten ambulatory surgery. But it’s the somber Birchfield paintings on the first floor that I’m drawn to. His mud green, grey and brown match my insides. I could walk into those brushstrokes and disappear.
I’ve been here long enough to know there are 68 steps between floors, the cool Dyson hand dryers are in the third floor bathrooms, and that free tea and coffee is available in the hospitality room. I want to tell all the folks waiting in line at Dunkin Donuts, but I don’t. I don’t sign the guest book in the hospitality room either. I’m a ghost floating through the corridors. I don’t want to make an impact here; don’t want to call Roswell home, although I feel safer here than anywhere else lately.
I could wander upstairs but those corridors are filled with nurses pushing computer carts, and patients maneuvering chemo poles and counting laps. Walking among them, reminds me how useless I am. I have no purpose other than waiting. Waiting for Fran to need something, waiting for the next bit of information to trickle in from the doctors, waiting for side effects to kick in, waiting for the kids to come home, just waiting.
Waiting is a heavy coat.  
I head up to the solarium. Other than the enormous glass window looking south over the city and beyond to the lake and the Lackawana windmills, it is just your average waiting room. There is a round dining table, small fridge, sink, and brown Naugahyde easy chairs that face the window.  I’m looking for privacy.       
The clothes dryer is spinning, but otherwise the room is empty. I leave the TV on for white noise, and curl up on the love seat. It’s embarrassing to admit, how often I’ve envied Fran’s plastic mattress and stiff sheets.  I hug myself and try not to cry.  It’s tricky to relax just enough to fall asleep without allowing a breach in the armor.  I need to keep fear in its cage in order to survive. 
The door opens. Ugh.  Someone checks the dryer.  Without my glasses, all I can see is a fuzzy form in jeans and striped shirt.  The beads in the woman’s corn rows click as she folds her clothes. She’s obviously a veteran of this cancer caregiving thing.  
There probably was once a time when she didn’t know about the free coffee room, or didn’t need to wash a towel and underwear, or keep a toothbrush in her purse.
I’d only started my residency. Will I have to do laundry someday, or put my name on cafeteria leftovers in the mini fridge?  Will I have memorized every brush stroke in “Ice Skating in Niagara Square”?  Pressure builds. Like a ship beached on a sand bar, my hull cracks. A tear leaks out. My arms tighten around me. I can do this. I don’t want to cry in front of a stranger.
The woman gathers her laundry as quietly as she folded it, and leaves.  I can’t hold back any longer and weep into my sleeve.
The door opens again.  I stop breathing. I hope it’s not a whole family. I just want to be alone.  If I pretend to sleep maybe they’ll go away.  I think, maybe I should go back to Fran’s room, although if he’s chatty I won’t be able to sleep there either.  And I need sleep. 
Something warm lands on my feet, my hip, my shoulder.  The weight of the heated blanket melts my muscles. My steeled interior collapses.  Such a gift. My ears pop, and my scalp shifts.  I breathe volumes. The chemo will work. Fran will be well.
Click, clack. A blur of blue slips out the door.  Lifting her up in prayer, I exhale.