Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Back to Granny

Yesterday I got back to Granny's Jig, and it felt like a "homecoming". It's weird, but when I haven't seen my fictional characters for awhile and then return to the manuscript, I have new insights about them and see them in more depth, actually the way it works with real life people.

I knew I wouldn't get any writing done last week. There was cleaning, decorating, baking for neighbors, gift wrapping, cooking for the big day, and then, of course, getting together and feasting. And then relaxing afterwards. But I was happy to see my motley crew of characters again, and yesterday I finished Chapter 12 (this draft). I believe I'm halfway through the re-write -- that is, if my characters don't spring new surprises on me.

I've been reading about the era some more. I had a neighbor, Kitty Flynn, who told me she lost her cousin to the 1918 influenza epidemic. (Kitty passed away about 3 years ago, but she was born the very year of one of the girls in my story, and so I have named that character Kitty.) Anyway, Kitty told me that there was a saying that if a person was dizzy today, you could read about them in the obituary column tomorrow. And in the book I just finished reading, A Time for Courage, by Kathryn Lasky, in the epilogue, a character gets sick one night and is in a coma by the next morning, dying a few days later. Even with the present swine flu deaths, it's hard to imagine how many people died of the 1918 epidemic -- more than twenty million people throughout the world -- and how swiftly it acted. For those of us alive today, it can all seem so distant and settled.

One of the things I appreciate about historical fiction is that it gives you the lives of history, not merely the facts. And it certainly makes you see the present from a different perspective.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wizardy Tales

I've been reading a new series -- well, new to me: The Lost Years of Merlin, by T. A. Barron. I don't know how many books there are in the series, but I've read Book One (of the same title as the series) and Book Two, The Seven Songs of Merlin. Both are wonderful reads, but I especially like book two because of the seven deep insights that unfold as Merlin unravels the meaning of the seven songs. The book is multilayered, and I can imagine tweens discovering it, then rereading it through young adulthood and full adulthood (if any of us ever really achieve the latter).

Each book is a quest, and each book ends with Merlin on the verge of a new quest. While danger-laden adventures and obstacles pile up from chapter to chapter, Merlin grows in wisdom as he meets each new challenge. Merlin's journey is a journey that takes him both inward and outward and adds to his growing stature as he deals with problems his own flaws have caused. Thus, he's a character young people can identify with. And his example of redeeming his mistakes and wrestling with his own flaws offers hope to anyone who has ever suffered the angst of adolescence.

It's a lovely series. While it's a little late to suggest it as a Christmas gift for this year, it will be just as relevant to young readers next year, so look for it and shop early!

Meanwhile, in the Varadan household, the tree is finally up, the cards sent, the loaves baked, the presents wrapped. Merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

To Blog or to Novel, That Was the Question

It's been awhile since I blogged for several reasons: A new bout of seasonal viruses, a mini-family reunion, art class and art club. Around all that I had to decide: Post a new blog? Or work on my novel? The novel won out, and I am happy to say I am moving along on Chapter 12 of the re-write.

I did a lot of reading the past ten days as well, because the more I write, the more I realise how important it is to read. One especially good read was the Quantock Quartet, Sisters of the Quantock Hills, a historical series of YA or juvenile novels (depending on which sister's story you are reading) set in England. The time frame is 1910 to 1920 for the first two books (Sarah's Story and Francis's Story). The third book, Julia's Story, takes a reader up to 1930. And the last, Gwen's Story, takes one up to pre-WWII.

At one point my husband asked, "Is there any point to reading the same story four times?" But that was the beauty of it: As in real life, even though the four sisters all had common experiences, the experiences meant different things to each sister, and each sister also had her own separate encounters and issues. I was surprised at how engrossed I became in each new book (although Gwen's Storywas perhaps the least interesting until about the last third of the book).

I checked these books out from the library primarily because my own book takes place in the last of the 1910's decade, when war and influenza were issues in Sacramento as well as in England. Partly I wanted to see how the author handled clothing of the era. But I liked seeing how she handled the family relationships. I found the leisurely pace engrossing; I suppose family stories to ring true, call for that. (As opposed, say, to mysteries or action novels.) The writing took its time.

I also liked how each character got her own book. What wasn't dealt with in one book was picked up in another. It was probably overly ambitious to devote four books to the same family cluster, but it worked quiet well for the first three.

In re-writes, a writer has to do a lot of cutting. That old saw, "Kill your darlings" (attributed to about every famous American author you can think of) is quite true. I've had to kill a lot of darlings in my current re-write. Already the book is better for it. But my pruning meant inviting a lot of characters to leave -- relatives of the main characters -- since they were beginning to hijack my story. I was really sorry to send them packing. But, after reading the Quantock Quartet, I'm reminded that they can always get a book of their own after I finish this one. (I never throw anything away. The cousins are alive and well in files of the earlier drafts, hopefully sorting things out among themselves to get a second chance.)

Meanwhile, I really missed blogging. It's good to be back.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Holiday Mixer

Another busy week, but one of the highlights was the SCBW&I Holiday Mixer at MAIYA Art Gallery on J Street. What a perfect place for writers and illustrators to meet: When my husband and I moved to Sacramento over 20 years ago, there were only a few art galleries. Now there is a burgeoning of galleries all through Midtown, and MAIYA, relatively new, is a great enhancement to the expanding art community.

It was a lovely gathering Wednesday evening. Members' art was on display, as well as work by Midtown artists. Tables were set up with snacks and wine. I met writers and illustrators like Linda Joy Singleton, author of the Strange Encounter series and the Seer series, who also presented at the May regional conference this year; author/illustrator Rachel Dillon, who wrote and illustrated the remarkable poetry/picture book, Through Endangered Lives; author Connie Epstein, who has published a series of health books for secondary schools and libraries (and is working on three novels! ) and regularly writes articles and market updates for the SCBW&I Bulletin; Erin Dealey and Patricia Newman, co-regional advisors for the California North/Central region; and Genny Heikka, assistant regional advisor, who also reviews children's books for Sacramento Book Review.

I go periodically to the regional conferences and I always get so much out of them. This gathering was smaller and more intimate, and consequently I was able to get to know people a little better than when I get lost in the hubbub of the larger conferences. I'll certainly keep attending the larger conferences, because they are so rich in their own way, and I'm even planning to go to the even bigger L.A. summer conference in 2010. But I hope more "mixers" like Wednesday's are planned for the future.

If so, I'll be there!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Blogger, K. Michael Crawford

K. Michael Crawford is the writer and illustrator of the unique The Mystery of Journeys Crowne, a book full of riddles and clues, part picture storybook, part game and treasure hunt, calling on a young reader’s own drawings to solve the mystery. The adventure is fun, the riddles intriguing, and the illustrations are a visual treat.

Here is K. Michael Crawford to tell you all about his book and about his writing and artistic process.

"Around three years ago, I decided I wanted to create a first-of-its-kind book. I had no idea at the time what the book should be, but I knew it had to get kids to use their imaginations and teach them how to figure things out on their own. After I let the idea brew in my head for a few months, it hit me: I would create a book with everything that I liked; mysteries, magic, creativity, drawing, adventures and silliness. I am just a big kid at heart. After that, the book took shape and everything fell into place. It was very magical.

"It took me six months to layout all the drawings and another six months to create and write the clues. The clues were a huge undertaking, because I had to write them so they would work together and get the reader to the end of the book. Some clues had to help you solve other clues and make sense to the story. I knew I need a character for the background story, so I created Bazel Lark to help me with writing the clues and to complete the story, explaining why the reader was getting the adventure to solve in the first place.

"Once I had the spreads laid out and the clues written, then I started the paintings. I use a number of mediums in one painting so that I can achieve the effects I want for the finished painting. These paintings have Dr. Martin's Radiant Watercolor, Colored Pencils, Acrylics and Pastels. I still haven't figured out how to throw in the Kitchen Sink.

"From start to finish it took me two years to complete CThe Mystery of Journeys Crowne. It was a wonderful and challenging journey that I am repeating with the next book in Bazel Lark series called The Island of Zadu. Even though I kept a record of how I did The Mystery of Journeys Crowne, in order to keep the books consistent with each other, I soon realized each book in the series (there will be 5) has to have a life of it's own. Now I'm facing the challenge of getting everything to work in this new book as well as in The Mystery of Journeys Crowne."

You can visit Michael at his website, http://www.happilyeverart.com/ and see some of his other titles. The Mystery of Journeys Crowne can be purchased at www.happilyeverart.com/BazelLark.html .

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Lightning Thief, By Rick Riordan

Last week I read Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, a fast-paced fantasy that combines ancient Greek history with contemporary situations in a mix of suspense and humor that made the book hard to put down. So, here is my review:

Gods and goddesses of ancient Greece have long been discounted as myth, right? In The Lightning Thief, these “immortals” still live, and their half-mortal offspring walk among us, pursued by monsters.

Percy Jackson is in trouble again at his new boarding school. He’s dyslexic and he suffers from ADHD, and he assumes that’s why he has the kinds of mess-ups that get him regularly expelled from schools. What Percy doesn’t realize is that he is one of the demi-gods. Monsters find him; after a narrow escape, still unaware of his identity, Percy heads home to his mother. New developments cause her to take him to Camp Half-Blood, a safe haven for demi-gods.

At Camp Half-Blood, Percy discovers his heritage, but soon finds he is the main suspect in the theft of Zeus’s lightning bolt. He has less than two weeks to track down the real thief and to prevent a war between the gods that will rival the Trojan War. Percy is also desperate to free his mother, who is being held hostage by Hades.

Percy’s friends, a demi-goddess named Annabeth, and a satyr named Grover, accompany him on his mission. One mystery leads to another: More than Zeus’s lightning bolt has been stolen. More is at stake than a war between rival gods. Riddles and prophecies abound. Percy and his friends encounter an array of legendary creatures and Olympian gods, and Percy learns there is more to being a hero than he ever imagined.

Rick Riordan’s sly humor keeps the tension high in laugh-out-loud scenes. The Lightning Thief is a must-read for middle grade readers.