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

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. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nonfiction for New Folks

Jump start your writing career with nonfiction!

Sign up for Nonfiction for New Folks conference in Fredericksburg, TX on October 9-12th. What else are you doing on Columbus day weekend?

I will be there to talk about writing biographies, research, and voice in nonfiction. The enthusiastic Steve Swinburne will show us how to write lively science, and Kristi Holl, will help us break into the educational market. Pat Miller, the brain child of this unique event, will give us the librarian's perspective, while Kelly Loughman, Associate Editor at Holiday House will show us the editor's point of view. And that's just the beginning.

We promise lots of information, lots of fun, and a head start on your new career as a nonfiction writer.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Nonfiction Minute

Get on the ground floor of the next big thing in nonfiction! THE NONFICTION MINUTE is a website where teachers will find a new short nonfiction article written by one of dozens of award-winning nonfiction authors including Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (winner of the 2014 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award For Exemplary Advocation of Biodiversity Through the Authorship of Children's Science Literature), Jim Murphy, whose books have earned two Newbery honors, history writer/illustrator Cheryl Harness (and even me).

The NF Minute is the easy and accessible way teachers and students can incorporate nonfiction in the classroom. Passages are only 400 words long, and feature fun facts and true stories that can spark a discussion, illustrate a writing technique, or inspire a reluctant reader to investigate on his own.

If you like what you see, become part of the movement to bring quality NF to students everywhere. Visit the NF Minutes Indiegogo page and donate today.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Balancing Writing With Life - or - Why I haven't written a post in 4 months

Just in case anyone out there wondered why I haven't written anything since April 1st, it is because my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Double-Hit Lymphoma, which threw us into a new reality -- one where writing took a backseat. Actually writing blew out the window as we raced through 6 rounds of in-hospital chemos, and clung by its fingertips to the rear bumper hoping we'd hit a stop light soon. And we did. For the last couple of weeks, we have been preparing for Fran's bone marrow transplant, which he'll have at the end of the month. Honestly, I still feel like I'm inside a centrifuge where the force of cancer in our lives is pressing me against the walls of  sanity, but that is another blog entirely.

HOWEVER - I thought I'd try to scrape the shredded remnants of  my writing life off the undercarriage, and see if I could find a better safer place for it to sit among my bulging baggage.  Basically, I need to find a better balance between Writing and Life. Throwing writing out the window was my way of staying afloat when I thought I was sinking. And I'm lucky I can do that. Millions of writers depend on the sale of their words to buy groceries and pay medical bills. My husband's teacher's salary does that.  But, I'm a writer. And when I stopped writing, part of me stopped functioning.

So-- here is my new game plan.  I will write at least one blog a week. Even if it is to tell you how I'm doing. I will attempt to keep it nonfiction focused so that you learn something as well.  I will start to do some Natalie-Goldberg-style-free-writing, ten minutes a day, to work the kinks out of my brain.  Don't know about Natalie Goldberg?  Well, then you are about to learn something. She is a wonderful author and teacher who wrote Writing Down the Bones, and Thunder and Lightning, as well as other books on the writing life.
I've been rereading her books while sitting at Roswell. What I love about her is that she is truly a nonfiction writer who uses all the soul and art of fiction and poetry to make her true stories come alive. Many fiction writers read her, but I think nonfiction writers can learn even more from her candor and guts.

If you would like to help me in this effort, you can bug me if I miss a week, offer suggestions for posts you'd like to see, ask me questions about nonfiction, writing, life, and share my posts with others.

And-- if you have gone through a bone marrow transplant or know someone with double-hit lymphoma and have uplifting news, I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Responding to Copy Editor's Comments - don't be snarky!

It's that time of year again - when I'm up to my nostrils with school visits, preparing for conferences, and trying to work on a new project - when a manuscript comes back from the copy editor. My first response is always an involuntary cringe. I appreciate the copy editor because they can do what I can't - remember what a gerund is and when you capitalize president. But they inevitably make me feel stupid for the same reason. And I've never done well with having a spotlight shined on my ignorance, although I do mention it in school visits so other kids know that even bad spellers and the punctuation-impaired can be a writer.

So, I get the manuscript back, and for those of you who don't know, today's manuscripts are edited using the Track Changes on the word program. I prefer the old way - penciled-in notes in the margins and post-its flapping along the right edge of the page. Mainly because I have yet to learn the proper way to deal with Track Changes. And when I edit, I don't just rewrite a single time, I might start a new sentence, then back track and start again, and again, and the blasted things keeps track of all my back tracking so that my editor and anyone else who looks will know how indecisive I am. I don't like anyone knowing my awkward and pokey writing process.  But there it is.

So, I get the manuscript back and the first thing I do is flip through every page to see how many comments I have to deal with . And this time, I didn't have very many.  49 comments spread over 17 pages. You do the math. That's not rhetorical, I'm asking, please do the math, 'cause that's another thing I don't do well. But 49 that's not bad. for me anyway.  So, right away, I'm happy.

The second thing I do is get my pencil out and go over each comment. I like the easy ones that I can just say "ok" to, like adding "The U.S." in front of Congress. Or changing a the for his.  OK takes care of nearly half of the comments. Great.

Then I read the other comments and put it aside until the next day when I'll have more time to pull out my research and double check things like names of organizations -- Was it the Parisian Society of Agriculture or the Society of Agriculture of Paris?  Was Meriwether Lewis TJ's only secretary? If so, then add commas before and after his name.

The hardest part is to not make snarky remarks when the comments are: "South American may be considered part of the New World, but that may not be clear to readers. And AU's (author. ME!) argument is that TJ wanted people to come to the US, so holding up the superiority of a South America tapir doesn't seem logical to me." Now I know you don't know what all this is about, but basically, that's what TJ did. He bragged about a tapir being larger than European animals that this other guy had bragged about.  So, I just reported it. Blame TJ, not me.

And on another page I call the moose magnificent. The comment said, "Magnificent seems subjective." I guess a moose has never wandered into the copy editor's cubby. But if one did, I'm pretty sure that, after peeing oneself,  even a copy editor would be pretty impressed with a 7-foot-tall ungulate. I think they are magnificent, and i'st my book, so there!

Eventually, I hold my tongue, thank the gods above for copy editors who second guess me, question me, and always make my text better than it was before.

So -- always read through the comments carefully, then answer the easy ones first. Give yourself time to research the questions that need to be backed up with a source note, and hold your tongue when they say something that you think is silly. In the end, you have the final say..... unless your editor vetoes it.