Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Stories of Heavenly Peace

Dozens of Christmas books come out every year, but some of my favorites are the tried and true ones that I reread each December.  I especially like the true stories that reflect the spirit of Christmas more profoundly than any fictional tale can.  My favorite is Silent Night, the Story of a Song by Hertha Pauli.

Pauli recounts the song’s birth in a small Austrian church on Christmas Eve when Joseph Mohr, a priest, was moved to write a poem. He shared it with his friend Franz Gruber who wrote the music on Christmas Day. The story follows the song’s life in anonymity as a folksong to its royal performance by four poor children in front of the King of Prussia. Only the singing of a trained finch leads the reader and the King’s musical detectives back to the village where Gruber was stunned to learn that his song had traveled farther than he ever had imagined.

But the most fascinating part of the story is that Hertha Pauli wrote it 1943 when Austria was no longer a country unto itself. At the end of the book, she writes, “For years, on each Holy Eve, Silent Night was sung at Hallein under his [Franz Gruber’s grandson’s] baton, in the house where Gruber lived and died, by the choir he founded and trained, to the accompaniment of his own ancient original guitar, played by his grandson, the new organist and choir leader. And every year, this performance was carried round the world by radio – until a day, five years ago [1938], when the land of Austria was wiped off the map and the little song of peace became “undesirable””

That reality chills me, and makes me even more grateful for the gift of song.

I also love Jim Murphy's book Truce that took place on the battlefield in WWI, and the picture book version of the same story by John McCutcheon called Christmas in the Trenches

It's not a coincidence that these all feature the same peaceful song.  It makes me wonder where its magic will be felt this year.  Perhaps it will drift over sand dunes and Afghan mountains, or float along flooded streets, or wrap its warmth around cold shoulders closer to home. I hope you hear it.

Merry Christmas and Sleep in Heavenly Peace!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Write What You Know?

Is it appropriate to write a children's book about menopause? 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The National Visionary Leadership Project

In 2001 the National Visionary Leadership Project began. It is a collection of recorded video interviews with dozens of African-American pioneers in politics, the arts, business and academia.  Listen to Jazz Bassist William Betts talk about his first gigs, and Judge Robert Lee Carter describe his days as lead attorney in Brown V Board of Education.  The thoughts and words of more familiar celebrities like Maya Angelou, Della Reese, Faith Ringold, Charles Rangel, and Quincy Jones have also been preserved on this site.  NVLP is a valuable resource.  Check it out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holiday Shopping

I know I am preaching to the choir on this one, but I have to plug independent booksellers for your holiday shopping.  Yes, I do order books from Amazon from time to time, but I try to order through my local shops, and I am happy to live in an area that has quite a few. 

The Book Shoppe in Medina is excellent.  Sue Phillips has hosted several book signings for me and other authors in the area.

Kim and Kathleen at Monkey See, Monkey Do in Clarence, NY have done an amazing job bringing authors into the store and connecting books with young readers. They are always coming up with new ways to create traffic with art lessons, book clubs and other classes.

B is for Books in Orchard Park is another great gathering place.  Its wide open spaces makes it perfect for Book themed birthday parties.

And the Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport, NY has been a thriving indy store for many years.

Check them all out online and then find an independent bookstore near you. Make it a holiday tradition throughout the year. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My nonfiction writer’s list of things I am thankful for.

Like everyone else, tomorrow I will gather round a Thanksgiving table and celebrate my appreciation for family and friends.  But today I lift up a few things that make my job as a nonfiction writer easier and enjoyable.  What would you add to the list?
  • The spark of another new idea
  • The perfect kid-friendly analogy to show a complex concept
  • Nonfiction-reading boys
  • A dynamite quote that lifts me off my seat
  • A thorough bibliography in the back of a book
  • Experts who love to talk
  • Fifteen cent notebooks at a back-to-school sale
  • Finding the perfect“Oh Wow” fact
  • A new ream of paper
  • Eeking that last page out of the printer before the ink cartridge croaks
  • The smell of an old reference book
  • Librarians
  • My critique group - Irreverent only begins to describe them
  • An enthusiastic husband who doesn’t mind slamming chicken bones in the car door for an experiment.
  • oh, yeah - and the next book contract.





Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finding the Right Voice

For quite a while I have been struggling to find the right voice to tell someone else's story.  As a writer I have my own voice, my own vocabulary, my own style. But when you write a biography, you want to give the reader a flavor of who the person was. One way to do that is to find a voice that reflects the character and and can convey the conflicts that occured.  Of course, you are not going to write in Early American dialect if you are writing about Paul Revere, but your prose might be clipped and quick like his race across the countryside. 

Jonah Winter, for example, captured artist Frida Kalo's bold fierceness with short bursts of text in Frida. 
Carole Boston Weatherford uses a first person narrative to tell the story of polar explorer in I, Matthew Henson. It seems to be the perfect vehicle to show the contrast of the world he lived in and the world he dreamed of -- "I did not take a job as a stock boy at a men's story to work my way up the ladder to clerk.  I yearned for wind at my back."

Using voice as a vehicle to tell the story allows you to be more lyrical than straight forward prose, however, it might constrain you too.  It is harder to weave in facts that a student, teacher, librarian or reviewer might be looking for.  You might need to create an author's note or give more info in the back matter.

It is a delicate balancing act, and I am still falling off the rope as I play around with voice.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Two Great Articles in PW Children's Bookshelf

In today's issue of the PW Children's Bookshelf, Antonia Saxon had a lovely article about the Rochester Children's Book Festival that I participated in last weekend.  Check it out.

And Jean Fritz turns 95! Margaret Firth, Jean's editor, recounts the author's career and her many, many outstanding nonfiction books for children. Along with my mother, Margery Facklam, Jean Fritz has also been my role model for nonfiction writing.  Here is the link --

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stuff This Old Dog Has Learned

I have never been particularly computer savy or overly excited about new technology.  However, walk me by a stationary story and I will salivate. So I was pleasantly surprised to see the title "I Hate Twitter" gleaming on the powerpoint screen, especially since the speaker was young, svelt, energetic author/illustrator Katie Davis.  If she hated Twitter, then my disdain was not as prehistoric as I thought. 

But it was false advertising.  Katie Davis tweets!  And loves it!!  And she was about to teach the members of the Rochester Area Children's Writers and Illustrators how social media can benefit them. 

I may be skeptical, but I am all for learning new ways to help my career and make me a better writer.  That's why I started this blog.  I wanted to find out if I could say something pithy every week. (Not once a day. I do have a life.)  So I listened intently as Katie led us through the process of signing up, logging on, and finding friends to tweet to. 

Believe it or not, I went home that night and tweeted.  Actually, I couldn't sleep so I got myself up out of bed and slogged down the stairs and figured it out in the middle of the night.  And if you know me, you'll know that I prize sleep well above taxing my brain in the early morning hours.  Katie Davis gave a compelling and humorous arguement for Twitter.  And this old dog learned a new trick. 

I learned that I should purchase domain names of my book titles to link to my website. 

I learned that if I begin to Twitter now, I can build up a list of people with similar interests, so when the book comes out, I can spread the word through them, reaching a wider audience very quickly.

I learned that my tweets should be helpful to others rather than self promotion (at least until my book comes out).

I learned that I can navigate a twitter page on no sleep and half a glass of wine. 

I learned that by the time the wine glass is empty, so is my enthusiasm for Twitter. 

However, I will tweet again.  Look for me.  I'm Pegtwrite.

Thank you Katie.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Their Own Words

For those of you who are too young to receive the AARP newsletter, I am passing on a link they featured where you can hear first person narratives.  Once only accessible by visitors at Ellis Island, the website,, has now posted 1,700 taped interviews with immigrants who went through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.  Each interview lasts 30 - 40 minutes and discusses what the person remembers of their homeland, why they emigrated, what they remember of the trip, and what happened when they landed in the U.S. I logged on out of curiosity, and got hooked on each person's story, imagining them as a stranger walking down the street and peeking into their private history until they felt like an old aunt or uncle at the dinner table.  Check it out.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rochester Children's Book Festival 2010

Anyone within driving distance of Rochester New York, should get themselves to the 2010 Rochester Children's Book Festival on Saturday, Nov. 6th.  It is one of the biggest book festivals to focus solely on children's books.  Nearly 40 authors will be there to sign books, give presentations, read, chat and kibitz, all day long!  From 10-4, you'll be able to meet Jane Yolen, Bruce Coville, Katie Davis, Mary Jane and Herm Auch, Vivian Vande Velde, Linda Sue Park and dozens of other authors. Picture books, mid-grade, YA, contemporary fiction, fantasy, it will all be there.  And nonfiction will be well represented, too. Mark Shulman will be giving a talk, "It's a Fact - Writing Nonfiction can be Fun." Jane Wattenburg will be discussing the "History of Photography in Children's Books." And, of course, I will be there. So, stop by my table and say, Hi!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Haiku Kickstart

I have never been into writing exercises, but recently I have been mentally writing a haiku on walks with  my dog Lily.  A haiku is short enough for me to remember as we make our way up the towpath along the Erie Canal and back home. I found it to be a nice kickstart to my writing day.  It flexes my vocabulary muscles and gets me thinking of words, rhythm and images. And hopefully, it helps stave off the Alzheimer's gremlin that lurks in my family genes. 

The next time you are taking a walk or waiting in a line or driving the car, try writing a mental haiku.  5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third.  Kick start your prose with poetry.

Golden, flitting joy
Nose to the ground, my Lily
Race, tumble, roll, splash!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Is Nonfiction Dead?

In the Sept/Oct issue of the SCBWI bulletin, Caroline Arnold (author of Polar Bear's World) asked the question, is nonfiction dead?  Thankfully, her answer was no.  However, I was surprised that she even asked.  Nonfiction has enjoyed a lovely resurgence with new awards such as the Sibert, and nonfiction writers have raised the bar in research, format and storytelling. 

But Arnold did have one insight that I found interesting.  Because of the Internet, young adults and even mid-grade students are not using nonfiction books as much as they once did.  So the market for nonfiction has grown younger, because most information on the Internet is not geared for children in primary grades.  It is one piece of advice that I intend to take to heart and use as a lens to view new projects in the future. Thanks Caroline!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where the @#%** is it?

I tell my writing students every week how important it is to keep their materials organized. Record bibliographic information when you take notes so that you know where the material came from and don't have to scramble for the info months later. 

Sadly, I am one of those teachers who needs to be more diligent practicing what she preaches.  I am pretty good. Most of the time. But there have been incidences, like yesterday, when I checked my notes and discovered the perfect quote scribbled diagonally across an otherwise blank page with no notation to nail it in time and place.  Aha! I say. Not a problem.  I remember this one.  It was Polly Campbell, a quote on voice, in an article in Writer's Digest.  So.  I go to my file for the chapter on voice.  No copy of Writer's Digest there.  Perhaps I photocopied it. Perhaps not.  Okay.  I flip through the other chapter files with no success.  I empty the large box containing every bit of information that I have collected for this book, but come up empty. 

Now my floor is covered in file folders.  So I look up.  In some bizarre fit of tidiness, did I put the magazine on a shelf?  I am surrounded by more than 500 books stretching up to the ceiling.  I can safely say that the magazine in question would not be on the top two rows.  I would have needed a step stool and I think I would have remembered that.  However, with my mother's memory declining, I have started to doubt myself and carefully scanned each shelf, even the highest ones, for the missing mago. 

I pulled out a few errant Writer's Digests dating back nearly ten years; none of them the one I sought.  I know the quote was on the left hand page in the bottom right corner of the article.  Too bad I can't remember who wrote the @#&& article!

That's it.  I will collect every copy of Writer's Digest currently in my house.  Surely, if that issue exists, it will appear during this thorough manhunt.

Or not. 

By dinner time, I had a stack of old magazines piled on the kitchen counter and the air was cloudy with dust disturbed during my frenzy.  Take a break.  Relax. It will turn up. It's not the end of the world. 

But this morning, I'm thinking, maybe it wasn't Writer's Digest. Maybe it was Poets & Writers!

The search continues!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Career Day Blues

Oakfield-Alabama High School in Oakfield, NY had a career day the first day of school. They asked me to talk about being a writer. Certainly. But what would I tell them? Do you have to go to college? No, not necessarily. Do you have to be an English major? Most writers I know were not. Does it pay well? It depends how hard you work.

So I told them how I fell into my first book contract – another writer dropped the project leaving the editor in the lurch and I filled in. And what I liked most about writing – learning new things everyday, meeting fascinating people, and getting to share what I learn with kids.

I told them the perks – working my own hours, choosing my projects, and having nobody standing over my shoulder.

I described the down side – nobody standing over my shoulder, so that I am responsible for making myself work (which I am not good at).

How could they get into the writing business? I looked at their smooth faces and glazed-over eyes, and realized that they were all having cell phone withdrawal. Then I thought how lucky they were to be growing up in this age of technology. For them it is second nature. They write more now than kids ever did, putting their thoughts and emotions into text. It may be textING, but it is still written. They can create a blog for free, write and hone their style, cozy into their own voice, and develop a following all before they are ever published. No one ever read anything I wrote until it was in print. Now, kids can come to traditional publishing or whatever it morphs into being able to say, “My blog has 500 followers…” which would make any marketing department salivate. I, on the other hand, have to remind myself that I have taken on this challenge to write a short blurb once a week, and then stare at the blank screen wondering what to write about. My world is not as open as theirs is. My world is not as documented. I don’t feel that anyone needs to know or cares about what I'm thinking as asked on Facebook. I envy these kids. My evil side even resents them for how quickly they could surpass me.

After the last session, the teens slogged to their lockers and out the door, each one reaching for their cell phones that had been dormant for too long, to reconnect with the world.

I did too. I sat down and wrote this blog. Just one step ahead.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tired of Being the Tortoise

Several years ago I wrote a book called Bacteria & Viruses, and while doing the research I came across a curious anecdote. Two Polish doctors fooled the Nazises during WWII using a benign bacteria. The germophobic Germans quarentined whole villages because they thought there was a typhus epidemic when there really wasn't. I photocopied the page and tucked it away in my idea file and went on to finish the Bacteria and Virus book.

A few years went by and other projects came up -- co-write a book on New York State, finish a biography of George Washington. But the story stayed in my head. Occasionally, on a dull day, I would search the Internet for more information about the incident and I even ordered the doctor's book although it was written in Polish. Another year or so went by and I finished another biography (For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson) and an adult nonfiction title (The Anatomy of Nonfiction: How to write true stories for children). That brings me up to last week.

So I'm sitting at my desk thinking, "What should I do next?" What about that WWII story? So, several years after I first got the idea I finally dug out the information and tracked down the phone number of the daughter of one of the doctors. I called and she answered immediately. She was pleasant and kind. I liked her voice. But then she stopped me in my tracks. She could not talk to me because she was negotiating a contract for the English translation for her father's book and possibly a movie. I thanked her for her time and wished her the best on her projects. Then I hung up the phone and cursed myself for being such a tortoise.

Why hadn't I jumped on the project when I first heard about it? She might have been eager to share with me personal stories, diaries, letters, and memories of her father. Why did I just sit on it? I am always telling students that the story that keeps nagging at you is the one you write. Then why didn't I take my own advice?

The sad thing is this is not the first time I have been usurped. Many years ago I learned of an artist who created the first life-size replicas of dinosaurs, or at least what scientists thought they looked like at the turn of the century. I even had a sister-in-law living in Europe at the time visit the site and take photos for me and collect info. Almost done with my research and half way through the writing Barbara Kerley's book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins came out. The illustrations by David Selznick won it a Caldecott Honor. My project was dead in the water.

What have I learned? I want to be a Hare. I want to jump on ideas, write faster, and query quicker. The adage - so many books, so little time -- is apropo. But from now on, I am going to do my best to even up my odds.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Summer Break

After sending off the revisions of an adult nonfiction book, I changed gears and worked on fiction this summer. I needed a break from research and fact checking, from bibliographies and interviews. I wanted to go somewhere where I was in total control. I created the characters, invented the setting, made up the dialogue, and carved out my own plot line. But as September nears, I'm ready again to dig into another nonfiction project. I need to learn something, dig up new material, and envision a fresh slant. I can't wait!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

From the shores of Lake Champlain

The view from the balcony blurs in the distance. The Green Mountains just a gray shadow across the blue sky. The water ripples in between cradling islands and sailboats, and it is here that I am trying to revise a novel. My mind is telling me "Fat chance" but I hope I'm wrong. After this evening, the view will no longer hold my gaze and I'll bury my nose where it belongs - in the story I brought to work on during a writer's retreat. Perhaps retreats should be in some inner city warehouse where the windows are so thick with grim that you can't see out or would not even want to if you could. Is a pretty view a good thing in the revision process? I'll let you know later this week.

Monday, April 19, 2010

OZ -- Literally

I had the great pleasure of attending the Empire State Book Festival in Albany, NY last week. When I wasn't sitting on a Children's Nonfiction panel with Alexandra Siy and Karen Beil, I got to listen to other discussions and best of all the keynote speaker Gregory Maguire (Wicked).

One of Maguire's stories really hit home and reminded me of why I write nonfiction. He took the audience back to 1962 and a dusty backyard in Albany, NY. As the oldest, he was in charge of entertainment, and after exercising his veto power over playing church and playing school, he gave out parts for an impromptu production of The Wizard of Oz. The lilac bush was the twister, his sister was Dorothy and his baby brother was the Wicked Witch of the East stuck under the house. But there were more kids than parts so he added Captain Hook and Tinkerbell. When one of the munchkins reminded him that they were not a part of the movie they had all watched the night before, Maguire affirmed that it was okay. This was their version.

And that is the difference.

Fast forward to 1969 and zoom in on me playing Oz in my backyard with my friend Jeannie Doerr. I didn't have enough kids so we double and tripled up on parts. I, of course, got most of the important ones, at least the ones with the best songs. But even at 9, I was a literalist. I could not veer off script. Adding Captain Hook would have capsized the whole production and Tinkerbell would have just been wrong.

Like millions of other kids, Maguire and I were captivated by Oz. He was bold enough to open the gate at the end of the yellow brick road and see what else lay beyond. I, on the other hand, felt a certain reverence for what I saw and put myself inside it. I wrapped myself in the cowardly lion's cape/rug and continued the tradition. I read about Margaret Hamilton and her fake chin and the the original tin man's allergic reaction to the silver makeup. (Buddy Ebsen? What were they thinking?) I had not read the book yet, so to me this was the way Oz was supposed to be. You didn't vary it.

That is still how I feel. The technicolor world outside my door does not need additional made-up characters or fictionalized scenes. It is wonderful and miraculous just the way it is and I hope my nonfiction reflects that.

It did not escape me that as a nonfiction writer I did not sell a single book that day at the Empire State Book Festival (although they only had one of my titles in the shop) and Gregory Maguire got a hand cramp signing nonstop for almost two hours. It also didn't bother me. I was thrilled to get my copy of Wicked signed by one of my favorite storytellers.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nonfiction Monday - Empire State Book Festival Nonfiction Panel

On Saturday I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with two other nonfiction authors at the first annual Empire State Book Festival in Albany, NY. Moderated by author Steve Tomecek, Karen Beil (author of FIRE IN THEIR EYES), Alexandra Siy (author of CARS ON MARS and other nonfiction titles) and I discussed our research, photo aquisition, and how we found structure in a true story.

Sitting with dozens of amazing NASA images of Mars, Alexandra explained how she came up with the perfect theme to tie them all together. A long journey from Alaska reminded her that Spirit and the other rover had simply gone on a long road trip so she set up the book to reflect that.

Karen impressed upon the audience how important first person interviews were to bring a fire fighter's experience to a young reader.

And when a physics professor in the audience asked how he could bring his field of study to kids, I suggested that he think about what he would do or say if he were showing a neighbor kid through his lab. As a professional, he knows all the answers. Now he just has to figure out what the questions are. What would kids want to know? How does his work affect or connect with a child's life? Why did he go into that field? What stories can he share?

Thank you to Karen, Alexandra and Steve for a spirited discussion.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Nonfiction Monday --book review

In honor of Nonfiction Monday I'd like to recommend THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM: THE TREMENDOUS, STUPENDOUS LIFE OF SHOWMAN P.T. BARNUM, by Candace Fleming. Right off the bat, the reader will be drawn to the circus theme in the design of this book. Ray Fenwick announces each chapter with period style illustrations, and Fleming delivers with bright prose, fun facts, and dozens of photographs, posters, playbills, and etchings to throw a spotlight on fascinating aspects of Barnum's life.

A biographer can begin a person's story in a number of ways, most commonly starting at the very beginning. But Fleming introduces Barnum later in life when his flim flam and bluster had been diminished by illness and age. Through the eyes of a reporter who came to interview Barnum, Fleming is able to answer the questions a young, probably non-circus-savy reader has, namely who was this man and what was it about Barnum that endeared him to so many even to this day.

I loved the sidebars that paint a picture of life in 19th century America, gave the secret recipe for Mr. Proler's Bear's Grease (made sans bear) and told of one of the few jokes played on the biggest jokster of them all.

Fleming's book would be the perfect choice for a biography assignment especially for boys who will like the bizarre pictures of some of Barnum's stars and admire a man who made fun a career.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nonfiction Monday

I am so excited to know about Nonfiction Monday - a network of nonfiction writers, readers, and reviewers who will take turns writing about children's nonfiction. What a terrific idea. I had run across Nonfiction Monday before but never knew the kinds of connections it would provide and the exposure it could give to nonfiction titles. If I can navigate the posting procedure you can expect to see me there sometime in the future. Learn more at --

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Award-winning Nonfiction

It is so gratifying to work in a business where there are so many exemplary writers and such an abundance of awesome books. Congratulations to all the award winners and honor books that were announced this past week: to Hester Bass for winning the Orbis Pictus for The Secret World of Walter Anderson; to Tanya Lee Stone for winning the Sibert Award for Almost Astronauts; and Deborah Heiligman for YALSA's Award for Excellence in NF for one of my favorite books - Charles and Emma, just to name a few. This year there were dozens of excellent books to choose from and these awards just help to publicize what the rest of us already know - the art of telling true stories is alive and well and good reading!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Revision Relief

The revisions from the copyeditor came back for "For the Birds" a biography of Roger Tory Peterson. For this book they came via email and when I saw it pop up on my screen, my stomach tightened. I always get a queasy feeling, afraid there will be questions I can't answer and glaring mistakes pointed out. Why didn't I write fiction, I wonder. They don't have this kind of pressure for accuracy.

I take a deep breath and call up the text and see how many notes there are - 41. That amounts to more than one on each page. Ugh! My stomach flips. Then I start to read them. The copyeditor's first query is whether to use italics or underline a particular heading. Okay, I can handle that. I keep reading. More style and format questions -- do we use italics or quotation marks or both for quotes? Another easy one.

Then I get the queries to double-check names and dates. Is it called the Rivers School or The Country Day School for Boys of Boston in 1931? Is the Hunts Point dump a proper dump with a capital D? Should I include the full name of DDT in this picture book or not? I relax a little. Nothing I can't handle.

But one point brought up by an expert reader does present a problem. He questions some of the details of an incident that happened in Roger's childhood. I have to weigh my sources. There are discrepancies. The writer Edwin Way Teale, a friend of Roger's, describes one moth incident, and Roger's sister Margaret describes it another way. Are they writing about the same event? Roger did not write about it, so I don't have his word, but I feel like Margaret, who was there, would remember it well. Moths flew all around the house. So back to the drawing board I go. Is there another source out there? And if not, how can I write this scene accurately without killing it with phrases like 'some sources described...."

The revision process is a necessary evil. I hate being questioned about my research, but I welcome the opportunity to fix mistakes. I want to be proud of this book, and the only way to do that is to make sure I get it right -- facts, format and feeling.

Monday, January 11, 2010

There Is More to Writing Than Just Writing

Over the weekend I went to the SCBWI conference in Syracuse, NY and felt quite at home with the unofficial theme of the day - research. In the morning, nonfiction writer Clara McClafferty shared her process and the importance of keeping track of your resources from the start. Her tips:

About Internet information - "Print that baby out today." It might not be there the next time you need it. And note the date the site was last updated.

About calling an expert - know what you want and be specific. Don't waste their time.

And the best advice - When in doubt, ask. "I'm all about point-blank asking." (I loved her Arkansas accent)

Even the illustrators Debra Bandelin and Bob Dacey stressed their need to do research in their business. Bob noted that book illustration was 75% research and 25% illustrating. They take photographs, use magazine, book and Internet material, but the best reference is the real thing - that is why they still have 7 hermit crabs after doing a hermit crab book.

In the afternoon, Charlesbridge editor Randi Rivers outlined how to get the most out of your submission. And guess what? She encourages all writers to do their research. Read the kinds of books that you want to write. Know what is already on the market and how your story fits in or is different. Use market guides to choose the right publishing house for you and your manuscript. Go to conferences and meet editors.

It was unusual for a whole conference to have such a strong common thread running through it, but it reflects how important it is for writers to do the leg work. There is more to writing than just writing. And I agree completely.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New Year of Writing

I don't usually take New Year's resolutions seriously, because like most people I don't follow through. But I do find that January is a good time to take stock of the projects I have been working on. I think it has something to do with taking down the tree, boxing up the decorations and returning everyday nick-knacks to their rightful places on the shelves. I'm ready to get things back to normal and get back to work.

Here is where I stand at the start of this year --
- Picture book biography of Roger Tory Peterson - is at the illustrator
- Writing Nonfiction how-to - on editor's desk
- WWII novel - finished, but I need to look more closely at character development
- mid-grade fantasy - just read chapter 7 to my critique group
- Preliminary research for a new biography subject

So, this year I need to call the editor about the how-to, polish my novel and dig deeper into Milosz's back story. I will finish my mid-grade manuscript and decide on who I will focus on for my next biography.

One year from now, I'll be able to look at this list and see how well I did. And I promise to tell the truth. Honest.