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.



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.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

President's Day Activities with Farmer George Plants a Nation, part 2

Washington as a Scientist

Ask students what it means to be a scientist. Make a list of the qualifications of a scientist as they understand it. They might say, “Conducting experiments, going to college, being smart…” Write them all done.

Science is a way to acquire knowledge through observation and experimentation. The classic scientific method includes Observation/Research, Hypothesis, Prediction, Experimentation, and Conclusion.

Now ask if George Washington was a scientist. Reread the passages on page 11. Make a list of the ‘sciencey’ things he did.

He made observations and recorded them. He kept a daily diary where he noted the weather, what was happening on his farm, and what occurred in each test plot. Let the students see some of George’s original observations (see below).

Are we sure that he stated a clear hypothesis? — He asked a question - What fertilizer works best?

In a way, he predicted that the best fertilizer would be among the handful of manures and other composted material that he chose to observe.

And he experimented –Washington used ten boxes of similar size, the same number of seeds and a single variable -- the fertilizer. Locate in his diary, Monday, April 14, 1760., to read the full description of the quote I used on page 11 in FG.

What was George’s purpose in doing these experiments? And what did he do with the knowledge he learned? Why?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

President's Day Activities with Farmer George Plants a Nation - Part 1


Each week in February, I will post a new lesson that can be used with Farmer George Plants a Nation.  This week it is all about  Mapping Mount Vernon.  

MAPPING MOUNT VERNON:
On the end papers of Farmer George, is a map of Mount Vernon that Washington drew in 1793. Compare that to the map he create twenty-seven years earlier in 1766. How do the two maps compare? Locate a modern map of the area. What differences do you see?  What features have remained unchanged?  Discuss how maps show changes over time, and the kinds of information you can learn from a map.  




Sources: 
Library of Congress, Maps in our Lives - www.gov/exhibits/maps/maps-exhibit.html
Mount Vernon - www.mountvernon.org
Rand McNally - www.randmcnally.com

Can be used in relation to these and other Common Core and Next Generation Standards:
CCSS ELA – Reading Informational Text 4, 5, 6 ;  CCSS ELA- Lit Reading History, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas ;  CCSS ELA-  Lit Writing-4, 5, 6 ; CCSS Math, 4-5 Measurement and Data.A.1;  4 &5-ESS1-1;  4&5 ESS2-2, Earth’s Systems;  4&5 ESS3, Earth and Human Activities.



L

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How to Create Vivid Imagery and Mood

Working on revisions again -- still. And I thought I'd share one technique I use to weave in specific imagery  and create a particular mood for the reader. It's just a list of words, in this case, agricultural words that I might use to reflect the point I am trying to make, namely that Jefferson grew a nation. You can be fancy and call it an image system, 'cause it's the same thing - a list.

I won't use every word on the list. That would be overkill. The list just reminds me of what I can do if I find myself using dull words like use, sent, or did. Instead, TJ can harness, or scatter, or cultivate....  My mother used to do this when she wrote poetry, and I'm still finding pages with word lists on them. Sometimes I can tell which project she was working on by the words - creepy, crawly words for the Big Bug Book, holey words for a poem about animals that dig. 

Exercise: Make your own word list for the project you're working on now.  Think of the connections you want to make. What is your subject matter?  Use a thesaurus to get you started, but don't stop there. Go heavy on verbs because they carry the action and will be most useful. 

You'll reap a more vivid text that blooms with multiple layers of meaning.  


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Writing a Biography -- How do I start?

Just the other day someone asked me about writing biographies. "How do I start?"  I'm always perplexed by such a question because if you know you want to write a biography, you must have already started. I can't imagine choosing the general genre before choosing a person to write about. It's like planning the wedding before you meet the guy.

The first thing you have to do is fall in love (or at least become infatuated with) a character. And usually the subject of a gotta-read biography has character --  faults and ambitions, temperament and talent, a singular drive or a mass of contradictions -- something that makes her stand out.  Think of Thomas Jefferson's bipolar emancipator on paper/slave holder lifestyle. Shirley Chisholm's ramrod opinions. Einstein the sock-less daydreamer.

Above all, the person has to act. Just like a novel, a biography has to move.  And usually it is this action that initially draws you to a subject. For example, Homan Walsh flew a kite over the Niagara River that started the bridge to Canada. But it is his character that drives the story in The Kite that Bridged Two Nations by Alexis O'Neil.

But a great act doesn't always signal a great biography. I've come across a lot of acts in history that sounded like it would make a good story, but either the character wasn't there, or wasn't kid-friendly, or there wasn't enough information to go on. Further research resulted  in a dead end. Don't discard those names, though. Those types of leads make a good basis for a fictional story where you can fill in the blanks.

Once you've fallen in love. Test the waters. Can you live together?  Is this person interesting enough to spend months, years with?  Will you begrudge him for taking over your dining room table and spilling onto the floor? How about your family? Will they withstand listening to the constant barrage of boring facts that you find fascinating? If you answered yes, then you've got yourself a new roommate.

Now ask yourself if this person is book-worthy.  You might be star-struck, but would a kid find it as interesting? Will an editor?  Should kids know about this person?  This is always a hard question to ask. But if you want to publish through traditional channels it is something you have to look at.

Ask: Are there any books already out there?  If no, ask why?  Maybe your character doesn't fit neatly into a curriculum niche. Editors don't like that because it makes it harder to sell.  Maybe the subject matter is inappropriate for a young age. I've had people comment that Shirley Chisholm would be hard to put in a picture book because the politics would be over the reader's heads.  Or maybe you've found something truly new to offer.

If yes, then ask yourself, "What am I bringing to the table that is different than what is already out there?" This is key. A well-written biography can sit on the shelf a long time. Give the librarian a reason to buy a new title on the same subject. Are you going to include newly discovered information?  Can you find a new slant on the subject. That's what I did with Farmer George Plants A Nation. GW's farming was a new take on a very overdone subject.

In order to answer all of these questions, you've had to have done a fair amount of research already, which means you have already started. So you shouldn't be asking me, "How do I start?"  You should be writing!

So should I. Bye!