Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

So it's here! Christmas Eve! And only one more dish to prepare for tomorrow's feast. The tree is finally up, too, with lights. The whole works. Christmas cards are all over the mantlepiece and hanging on garlands. And now, I can sit back, relax, and... of course: READ!

My best wishes to all, for a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy 2011.

Uh-oh... Just a week to decide what my New Year's resolutions are going to be....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Victorian Heroines -- What a Plight

When I should have been cleaning house (my share of it, anyway), or writing, or decorating the tree, I had a cold, which gave me the opportunity to loll in bed and finish reading Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.

First off, I would like to say, it wasn't The Moonstone -- a book I found to be much more accomplished in terms of character and dialogue. The Woman in White had a brilliant plot (Wilkie's great strength), and I loved it. I loved tracking the mystery of it all. It was so brilliantly layered that I could discover things bit by bit and feel excited at every turn.

To be fair, there were memorable characters: In my opinion, Count Fosco is one of literature's most memorable and fascinating villains; the magnificent Marion far outshown her heroine-sister and was much more worthy of the art teacher's affections; and Anne Catherick was mysterious, tragic, and always interesting.

But the heroine's besotted art teacher, Walter Hartright, was more appealing for his artistic bent than for his flowery language as he pursued villainy to its reckoning. How I tired of his inordinate delicacy of feeling when it came to his beloved! (Oh, those Victorians!) As for Miss Laura Fairlie herself (the story's heroine), she made me so glad I was not a Victorian Lady.

If I were a Victorian Lady I should have to swoon at life's every turn:

1. First of all, if my father died and left my uncle in charge, my uncle could marry me off to anyone, and my great recourse in life would be... to swoon.

2. If I found myself attracted to my art teacher (who would be beneath me) and fancied that he returned the interest, I should have to hurry to my bedchamber and... swoon.

3. If my sister sent him away because, after all, I was betrothed to another, and I had to say goodbye, decorum would require that I hurry away -- face flushed and heart beating rapidly -- to my room and... swoon.

4. If a letter came to the house and I recognized the handwriting as being that of my un-intended -- you know, the one that made my face flush and my heart beat rapidly -- well, I would certainly have to whip out smelling salts or... swoon.

5. If my marriage was wretched and the aforementioned art teacher who made my face flush and my heart beat rapidly was bent on my rescue, I would have no choice in life but to... swoon. And for a good long time, too. Doctors would be sent for and no one could visit me. I would be left to rest and take care of my ever-so-delicate nerves.

And so on....

If I were not so lucky as to be miserably betrothed to a villainous man by my uncaring Uncle... say, if my father died and left me penniless and unmarried, I would probably be governess to the above swooning woman's children.

And if I were from the servant class in the Victorian Era, I would be either cooking or cleaning or caring for some swooning woman or another. For some reason the servants weren't considered to have delicate nerves.

Or maybe it was because they didn't lace their corsets up tight enough to bring about swooning?

Now the strangest thing about this, is that, while I find the Victorian heroes and heroines rather lackluster, I love reading about the era itself. The cobblestones. The gowns. The top-hats. The fog. The extremes, I suppose. It's an era laden with story, no matter how you look at the society of the time.

Do you ever have that experience? The time suggests character and story, but the roles themselves are not appealing at all?

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Do Your Characters Feel About Holidays?


The overseas packages and cards are on their way. Now there is only the local mail to take care of. The lights are up. The tree is almost up. I love Christmas. It's probably my favorite holiday of all. Some of my happiest memories are tied up in it: Making gingerbread men and icing them; basting the turkey (this, in my meat-eating days); wrapping presents and keeping secrets; decorating the tree.

And then, as I drove off to an appointment, I wondered (I do some of my best wondering in the car), "How does Imogene feel about Christmas?" (Imogene is the MC in my latest book.) "And how about Nora?" (The MC in another book.) The first book takes place in summer; the second at Easter. But I realized suddenly, that it doesn't matter when the story takes place: If you know how your character reacts to certain holidays and what those holidays conjure up for them -- Christmas, Thanksgiving; Boxing Day; Guy Fawkes day; Diwali (Divali); Kwanza; Ramadan; Hannukah; Mother's Day -- you've learned a lot about your character. It doesn't matter if the holiday figures in your story. Anniversaries of any kind are loaded with nuance, memory, and meaning in a person's life, and in the lives of your characters as well. Those anniversaries give you insights into their memory banks and what to draw on as they turn to other meaningful moments. They are as important as age, height, physical characteristics, favorite colors, treats and toys, wishes or dreams of the future, and even bad habits.

So now I'm on a treasure hunt of sorts: Given the culture of my differing heroines, and knowing their settings, I'm on a hunt to find out how the calendars of holidays in their respective worlds play out in their minds.

How about you? Do you know how your characters relate to their holidays? Are they happy? Nostalgic? Rebellious? Conflicted? Reminiscent? Excited? Do they wish it were like some other year they would revisit if they could? Do they want it to never end? Do they just want to get through it? Are they oblivious and just going along, not thinking? Visiting those questions might surprise you.

Let me know what you find out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I have just finished reading The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. T. S. Eliot called it "the first and greatest of English detective novels." I don't know if it was the first, but I do think it is one of the greatest mysteries of all time. I read it a few year ago purely as a "reader", and was charmed by it. I read it a few days ago as a writer, and once again became enthralled as a reader.This is not a usual book review. This is a share of one of my favorite reads of all time.

First of all, it was refreshing to read again a mystery that was primarily a mystery. No graphic details about the amount of blood or bruising around the wound. No dwelling on layers of skin and vivid descriptions of abrasions, so typical of today's crime novel. The story was about the moonstone: Who stole it? Why? Where did it go?

There are layers of mystery and multiple mysteries all through the book to tweak your imagination and send you on a new train of thought, just when you think you know what is going on. Individuals have their little mysteries, and you get drawn into them: What did Rosanna really know, and why did she act so strangely and pretend to be ill when she wasn't? Why wouldn't Rachel speak to Franklin, even though he was trying so hard to find the diamond? Why was Godfrey willing to propose to a woman he knew loved someone else?

Some of the characters in this book are unforgettable: Mr. Betteridge, the faithful, humble butler whose attitude toward serving the Herncastle family raises it to the level of a veritable calling, and who reads prophecies into the paragraphs he marks in Robinson Crusoe. Miss Clack, the poor cousin and fanatic who spends a whole afternoon tiptoeing through Mrs. Verinder's London house depositing religious tracts among plants, behind sheet music on the piano, under unfinished embroidery work, and even in the pocket of a dressing-gown, and who doles out unremitting forgiveness to those who invite her to leave or slam doors in her face. Rosanna Spearman, the hapless maid who pines for Franklin Blake, although he loves Rachel Herncastle. The melancholy Sergeant Cuff who surely is a forerunner of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes with his eye for footprints and his use of a magnifying glass and his ability to notice details and make shrewd predictions. And gruff Mr. Bruff, the family lawyer who unsentimentally looks out for Rachel Verinder's interests. These characters were so well drawn through their own eyes and through the eyes of others that they linger on long after the book is closed.

The two main characters were refreshing in how they defied stereotype: Franklin Blake is actually a rather shallow rich person who solves problems by traveling sadly around the continent. And yet (and this gives away nothing about the plot) somehow he has won the heart of Rachel. Rachel Verinder is unduly outspoken and decisive for a Victorian era young lady of her station. All through the mystery, their relationship seesaws and adds layers to the search for the diamond's whereabouts that Bettinger, Bruff, Cuff, and a sad-eyed medical assistant, Ezra Jennings, attempt to solve.

And to make the tale even more delightful to read, an underlying thread of humor runs through the book, all 522 pages. True, the story unfolds slowly, through the multiple viewpoints of some of the characters above. Slowly and leisurely. This isn't an afternoon read -- or even one of those "I couldn't put it down and read all through the night" books. It's a delicious book to be savored, bit by bit, full of chuckles in every chapter, and piquing interest on every page. It's a reminder that nothing beats a good read for pleasure, and I'm so glad I took the time to revisit this gem.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Importance of Quietude

I haven't been blogging lately, partly because I am learning the ins and outs of Apple; partly because I was getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday; and partly because recent events have left me too reflective to knock out a writing post.

In September, while we were on vacation, a dear family friend passed away. We attended the memorial after our return, and it was truly a beautiful, life-affirming event. But I miss her just the same. Then, right after Thanksgiving, another dear family friend fell and had to go to emergency. No broken bones, but it wasn't his first fall, and his health problems are definitely going to get worse. Now these people and their spouses have been literally like family; they've supported and advised me in crucial ways at turning points in my life. They all made a difference in how my life turned out.

So they and their immediate families have been very much on my mind. The writing I have done has been philosophical journaling. The time I usually spend flitting around favorite blogs to see what other writers are saying has been spent instead taking long walks around Midtown with my dog. The turning leaves in all their splendor, the crisp air on my face, the quietude of just thinking -- all of these are restorative. It reminds me that in the busyness of current life and the hectic appeal of cyberspace, sometimes it's good to just turn everything off and dwell on simple things.

I know I'll be back to blogging soon enough. And rewrites of stories and books. Query letters and synopses. And a new story that I can feel burgeoning inside. But right now I need to cull memory, and savor the deepening of spirit that comes from remembering what others have given to me -- and the hope of giving something back in return.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Agony and the Ecstacy of Computers

My husband gave me an Apple computer for my coming birthday. Make that coming birthdays -- plural. It's a restored Apple, thus more affordable, but we don't buy computers everyday. It's supposed to be as good as new, and I'm hoping this is true.

Now, my husband has always been the expert I consulted for problems with my old PC. He works on a PC and has for years and years, and knows tons of information for when things go wrong. But even he was stymied by the last problem I had. We took it to the shop, and the man there told us it was clean, no viruses, but even HE could not fix the problem. Instead, he offered to buy it so he could use the parts. (That says something about the PC's state of being, despite years of loyal service.) I felt guilty, as if I'd sent it to the glue factory.

But then I found I was getting an Apple. None of my writing friends has EVER had problems with an Apple. No one my husband knows has ever had problems with an Apple. (I suspect this motivated him a little: the fond hope that I would not be showing up at his office door, a sad look on my face as I uttered sentences that usually began with, "My computer just....")

Since neither of us has ever had an Apple, though, we are embarking together on a journey of demystification over the instructions. I'm armed with a copy of "Macs for Dummies" (after reading the author's assurance that no one in that series really thinks the reader is a dummy). We have lots of little instruction booklets for various software alwready installed or to be installed. At the moment, my Internet favorites, my pictures, and my word documents are on a flashdrive, along with my Outlook mail, all awaiting downloading. (Thanks goodness for Hotmail.) The Apple layout is different, to say the least. When I check out icons and navigate around various sites on the Apple, it feels a little like showing up for Spanish class with a French grammar book: Yeah, there are basic similarities, but there's a world of difference.

So presently I'm working from my husband's "back-up" PC; the one he can use if his main one is in the shop for any reason; the one I could use when my old one was in the shop. This whole transition thing, has left me a bit up in the air. I am avidly reading "Macs for Dummies" in the hopes that I will soon be whizzing around with confidence checking e-mail, Internet favorites, and word documents with no problems. No problems at all. Cross fingers.

What about you? Have you ever had to make the transition from one computer to another? If so, how long did it take? Who do you consult when things go wrong? Or are you one of those lucky computer users where nothing goes wrong at all?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How is a Novel Like a Sonata?

The other evening my husband and I were listening to the classical station when a piano concerto by Cezar Franck came on -- one I remembered from years ago. All through it, I kept whispering, "Wait, it's coming." I was referring to a favorite passage that seemed a culmination of everything that came before it, each note leading up to that musical moment. Then I thought, This is what we look for in a good novel, isn't it: The moment, when, as a reader, you realize, "Yes, this is how it had to be, this is what had to happen." That feeling of inevitability.

So I started wondering about other parallels between writing and music. (I'm comparing western classical music and the traditional novel. There are many other forms of either.)

For one thing, there are different types of sonatas, much like novel "genres". The overall sonata form follows a basic structure. In What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland explains that ever since the eighteenth century, "the basic form of almost every extended piece of music has been related in some way to the sonata." He goes on to say that a symphony is a sonata for orchestra; a string quartet is a sonata for four strings; a concerto is a sonata for a solo instrument and orchestra; and most overtures are in the form of a sonata's first movement. (Similar to mystery novels, sci fi novels, literary novels, etc.)

As for the basic form or structure of a sonata, it's usually comprised of three or four separate movements. The first starts briskly and is the "exposition", the "set-up". The second is usually a little slower; the third is moderately fast, and then the fourth fastest of all. In the case of three movements, the third would be the fastest. In either case, the last movement contains the climax of the piece and its resolution. This is similar to the "three act" structure of a novel (beautifully explained by Lydia Kang in her post of November 3rd: ), where the first "act" sets up the situation, the second confronts or opposes or slows down endeavors, and the last "act" is where the climax and resolution occur.

In a sonata, you have themes and variations on the theme, and they are all related to the piece as a whole -- similar to the main plot with its subplots, or the main character and supporting cast. All have to work together so that the work doesn't seem disjointed. Each musical theme has to follow the "logic" of each movement. In other words, it has to make musical sense. Likewise, in a novel, all the subplots have to tie into the main plot, and the characters can't seem superfluous.

The themes rise and fall and repeat within their own movement, balancing each other, and supporting the sonata's (or novel's) development. Throughout the structure, there is a play of point/counterpoint, (think protagonist/antagonist). And, of course, there must be movement throughout, a musical equivalent of drama to keep a listener engaged. (We all know what happens to a book when a reader finds it boring.)

So, the next time you hear a sonata, think of it as a type of musical novel with a plot and subplots pulling you in, rising to a final revelating, and leaving you to mull over the story long afterward.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Writer's Work

This is going to be short, because I'm leaving for a four day trip in about 30 minutes, and won't be able to blog again before Tuesday.

But, I've been reading a wonderful book by Donald Hall, author of The Oxcart Man, about the nature of work for an author--or a painter, or a musician; for an artist of any field. The name of the book is Life's Work, and he makes a distinction between chores (those things that need to get done and don't require thought), labor (often one's paying job), and work. He makes the case that work (for an artist, anyway) is that which engrosses one's complete attention and focus, that which one feels called to do and cannot not do. It's a beautiful book, and I haven't finished it yet. It's a memoir, of sorts, a memoir about his life's work.

I love that concept of work. We writers often feel hard to justify what we are doing, really, at the computer for long hours. It doesn't look like work to others. And it certainly isn't a chore to us. We do it often without pay. We wouldn't think of not doing it. We're thinking about it, even when we aren't at the computer or the notebook. We are always at work on a WIP, one way or another.

So, now, when someone asks, "What do you do?", I can answer, "I work."

What about you? Are you "at work" on your WIP even away from your tools of trade?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Joys of Cyber Space

Oh, what a week it's been! Two weeks, really. I started having computer problems while we were on vacation, and they worsened by day, so that last week I had to take my computer to the shop.

Oh, the withdrawal pains! You never know your dependencies until you can't indulge them: All the blogposts I planned to write. All the blogs I wanted to visit and read. All the "bookmarks" I needed to consult for my chapter book rewrite. Interviews I'd planned for new posts. Book reviews. Facebook updates, both reading and writing. E-mail. (I could only use my husband's computer, and he uses that all day long for his business; so it was lunch, early a.m. or after dinner. Always rushed.) Worst of all, I wasn't able to write on my new draft, except for taking notes to keep in mind for later.

So it's with great joy that I sit here once again visiting blogs, Facebook, my chapter book, my research sites, my e-mail -- returning to the world I had become immersed in.

But I learned some things while I was so bereft.

1. It really is possible to write longhand, applying pen or pencil to lined paper in a notebook. And sometimes the writing seems to flow more from the heart.

2. I'd almost forgotten the calm quality of life away from the computer. I experience that normally when gardening or painting. But just having to slow down and do things the old fashioned way was a reminder that thoughts flow more smoothly without the buzzing distractions of cyber life. Walking my dog around down, in no particular hurry, I felt drenched in the beauty of autumn in Sacramento.

3. And I read more -- real books, the kind I prefer: the kind you hold in your hand, with pages you can turn and even underline and then reread with a simple flip of the page.

I suppose the whole week was a return to the art of "savoring". I have a busy life, and I love everything that keeps me so busy, but it was nice just to slow down to savor each experience for itself. Even though I'm so happy to have my computer back with all its offerings, I hope to keep some of that "savoring" mindset from now on. And write in longhand a little more in the future.

How about you? Do you get so caught up in a busy, whirling life so that you don't have time to savor things? Do you write best by wordprocessing or by longhand?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Soon We'll Be Homeward Bound

The days go by and the days go by. I had expected to blog more, but my computer has been acting up (including today), especially when I tried to keep up with my e-mail. Who know? Maybe it's a Hotmail problem. But right now we are sitting in a wifi cafe with a good signal and for the moment, my computer is once again user friendly.

We were blest with wonderful weather most of the month, except for a very few days soon after arrival. Slowly we've watch autumn creep closer with cooler mornings and evenings, but the afternoons have been warm and sunny -- enough so that we could eat outside on the patio and listen to the birds and see nothing but greenery everywhere. Only in the past week have a few trees started turning yellow, and certain decorative vines in gardens and in public places have turned a bright scarlet, while above white clouds float in a deep blue sky.

The wine harvest is finally over, and now the quince is in full fruit and chestnuts are ripening. Chestnut trees are everywhere, the nuts encased in golden spiky pods in clusters of three, looking like so many twinkling yellow stars. In olden days, they were more plentiful than potatoes and people ate them (and still do) baked, or mashed with butter. The ripened quince look to me like big, lumpy pears, and they are cooked into a candied sweet that is a little like a hardened halva or a Turkish delight.

This has been partially a working holiday, with both of us at our computers in wifi cafes, sipping cafe con leche or wine, depending on the time of day. The rest of the time has been spent socializing one way or another: Cooking Indian food for friends, accepting dinner invitations, going out for raciones or tapas, or sitting on the local bench with our neighbors, attempting to converse in our growing, though still-limited, Spanish. At least 4 or 5 times a week we walk down the to the carretera, or highway -- a walk of about half a mile each way, except the way back is mostly uphill!

Most mornings in our village the day begins with a blanket of fog in the valley, banks of clouds that obscure the opposite hills. Then the fog rises and disperses into a veil of mist, and the villages that sprinkle the far slopes slowly come into view with their red tile roofs. The morning sun lights the nearest trees and bushes, giving them a soft golden halo. And finally the day arrives in full with its warmth. I could watch the ever-changing scene outside the window forever and never get bored. I store it up inside, along with the musical rise and fall of voices in Spanish or Gallego that flow around us when we go into Monforte or the outlying villages and small towns. It's a magical place to both of us.

And so it goes. One day fades into another, and before we know it, the month is gone and it's time to go home. Each time I carry away new memories of the landscape with its changing cycles and the warm goodheartedness of the people. Returning deepens the experience each time. Part of my heart will always be anchored here as well as in Sacramento: two beautiful places in different ways, for different reasons.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Award Time

Recently I got to a wifi cafe and found that my friend, Rachna Chhabria, had given me the Sweet Friends Award (Happy 101) on her blog. As for any such award, the practice is to thank and link back to the person who gave you the award, pass the award on to others, then share a few things about yourself.

So, first of all, a big thank you to Rachna, who has one of the most interesting blogs to read. She blogs about writing from many angles, whether the craft of writing or the publishing industry. I always find her blogs quite informative and would like to pass along her blog site, Rachna's Scriptorium, at .

Second, my nominees for passing on the award are:
Rachel Dillon at:
Rachel is the illustrator as well as the author of the wonderful book, Through Endangered Eyes. She came out to my art class one week and led the students in a fabulous lesson.

Naomi Williams at:
Naomi was a valued friend as well as full of helpful insights in two writers' groups we both belonged to. Now she writes Pushcart Prize stories. Yes. Wow!

Lia Keyes at:
Lia started the wonderful site: Scribblerati, (notice the badge in the margin), a great site for writers at every stage of the craft and publishing stage. Go there right now and join! You won't regret it! She also has helped me with many aspects of the blog world, novice that I am!

Two other writing friends I would like to nominate, alas do not have blogs, although they are on Facebook. They are:
Nancy Herman and Skeeter Britton. Both have been in writing groups with me, and we continue to meet and critique published, award-winning books as well as providing feedback from time to time on new WIPs. Nancy and Skeeter, please start blogging!

Okay, the third part of the award is to share a few things about myself. I'll focus on what I like to read.

1. I am a mystery addict. Some of my favorite mystery authors are: Cara Black, Rhys Bowen, Robert Goddard, Peter Robinson, Wilkie Collins, Philip Pullman and, of course, Arthur Connan Doyle. The latter three because:

2. I am hooked on the Victorian Era, with its fog and cobblestones and hansom cabs and urchins and charwomen and the aura of foreboding that permeates every novel of the times. Particularly if Sherlock Holmes is involved.

3. I'm also captivated by Arthurian legends, especially when Merlin gets into the picture.

4. I love anything to do with the French Impressionists and the France that they lived in. (Hmmm. I must be a nineteenth-century kind of person. When I'm not an ancient Britain sort of person.)

5. Actually, "I Love Paris" (as the song goes), at any time, which is another reason I like Cara Black mysteries. You get a free tour and history of Paris while chasing down dark alleys, escaping people of ill intent. And a bit of art history to boot -- and I do love art!

Of course, I like to read lots of other things, but currently it seems to be mysteries from any era. Recently I've written a chapter book mystery for kids, but I find it interesting that I have never attempted a grown up mystery.
Can that be in my future? Only time will reveal that mystery.
What about you? Do you find a common thread in what you read and write? Or are they on different planes?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

And Then the Rains Came

After a lovely week of blue skies and white floating clouds, of mist in the valleys and lush green hills -- the rains came. Oh, there was that one evening where a sprinkle of rain cut short a gathering at the village bench and made us all go home early. But that was nothing.

Yesterday's storm first started with warm winds and no rain. We had friends to the house and were enjoying lunch and catching up with news, when there was a strange whistling sound outside the window. A piercing whistling with intermittent high, childish moanings. The kind I've read about in gothic novels. The kind that happens in old, creaky houses with nooks and crannies. And, as I was thinking this, I realized that our house IS an old creaky house, although of stone, not wood; and it has enless nooks and crannies.

In the evening the bench crowd was again dispersed by rain, and this time the winds were cold, and they howled through the night. I have to confess, it was wonderful! For one thing, we were warm and cozy inside, reading mysteries and occasionally peering out the window into the dark night, sipping homemade wine and comparing books.

But I was also mindful of the old Irish tales of banshees and the like. Perhaps a howling wind is behind these tales of fairies and elves and troubled spirits. Galicia has a celtic history, and a strong emotional connection to Ireland, and Galicia is also full of similar tales.

Today the whistling winds continued off and on until the sun came out. In the morning light, the fields and hills were beautiful even in the rain: close-up so many shades of green; in the distance veiled by a misty curtain that muted the brilliance. And then the sun brushing the tips of trees and bushes with a golden glow.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Galicia, Another World

So, here we are in Galicia -- another world in so many ways. It's in Spain, but not tourist Spain. Galicia is the northwest corner, that "bump" at the top of Portugal, fronting two seas. Its most famous city is Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage city with roads leading into it from all over Europe. Relics of St. James are said to be in this cathedral. But my husband and I stay in a tiny village called Trasulfe, about an hour and forty-five minutes southeast of Santiago, and about fifteen minutes away from a town called Monforte de Lemos.

We are sitting in a coffee shop in the Parador of Monforte right now. Paradors are former castles, monasteries, forts, or nobles' mansions that have been converted into hotels and restaurants. Monforte de Lemos's famous structure was once both castle and monastery and it sits at the top of a high hill, rising high above the center of town, visible for miles around. It also overlooks some of the most peaceful scenery you will ever see in every direction.

In Galicia, the main language is Gallego, a language similar to, but not a dialect of, Portugese. You can think of them as "sister languages". Of course, in Galicia, as all over Spain, the official language is Castiliano (Castilian Spanish) and is formally taught in schools. Thus, it is a Galician's second language, all though all are fluent in it. Few people here speak English, although English language schools are springing up to accommodate the English expats who have fallen in love with the countryside and the culture.

I can't say enough about the warmth and friendliness of the people. We come back again and again to the same region, partly because it's such a peaceful, tranquil setting, and partly because it's just so great to see everyone again and catch up on their news. I can't say enough, too, about the honorableness of the culture. People are trustful. This is a region where often business is concluded with a handshake, it being a matter of honor not to go back on one's word. The work ethic is wonderful. No matter how big the job, pay is refused until a job is completed and there is great pride (justified) in the workmanship. Often it's understood that the next time one is in town the finances will be taken care of.

As for the tranquility: This is a rural area, with layers of wooded hills and pasturelands in the foreground, and layers of mountains in the background. Because of the proximity of two sea coasts, blankets of fog and curlycues of steam rise from the valleys in the mornings, and blue skies fill with billowing clouds in the afternoons. Between times there are often light sprinkles of rain in late spring and early fall. In winter the cold rains come, and summers are hot. We come in the spring and the fall when the area is at its most beautiful.

Eventually, I know, we will make the rounds of the more famous cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo, Valencia, Granada. But for five years we've been content just enjoy what we call "working holidays" (since we both work from home); working part of the day on our computers, and hanging out with friends and neighbors the rest of the time, going to a fiesta or two, enjoying spectacular sunsets and homemade wine, the local breads and cheeses, and wonderful cafe con leche.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review - Tortilla Sun, by Jennifer Cervantes

What would you do if you were confronted with a mystery about your father, and your mother won’t talk about it? Izzy’s mother has always been restless. After many moves in California, they have just moved again. While unpacking, Izzy comes across her father’s old baseball with the mysterious words, "Because… Love," written on one side. The words between have been rubbed out. Her mother has never told Izzy anything about her father, except that he died before Izzy was born.

Izzy likes to write stories, although she seldom gets beyond the beginning. Now a new story is buzzing in her mind about the strange words on the baseball. Then Izzy learns she is to spend the summer with her grandmother in New Mexico, while her mother finishes research in Costa Rica.

In New Mexico, Izzy soon steps into another world. Her grandmother, Nana, is an herbalist, full pithy wisdoms. The Castillos live in part of Nana’s house. Their son, Mateo is Izzy’s age. When the two become friends, Mateo tells Izzy about Socorro, the village storyteller who sees the future, and a map that tells of hidden treasure. And often, as life unfolds in the village her mother came from, Izzy hears a mysterious whisper carried by the wind that seems to be the voice of her father.

Tortilla Sun is a beautiful story of a young girl’s search for wisdom and truth and her discovery of her culture. The book moves at a leisurely pace that gathers in momentum and mystery with a touch of magic. The characters are richly drawn and the village blossoms with life. Izzy is a sympathetic protagonist, entirely believable. To tell why the book is called Tortilla Sun would give away too much of the story, and I don’t want to be a spoiler. This is a book young people will enjoy and read more than once.

The author can be contacted at:

Monday, September 20, 2010

New Discoveries

I was recently tipped off to a wonderful writer's site by award-winning writer Deborah Halverson. It's . You can write in any question you have about any aspect of being a writer: submissions, queries, reading at book signings, you name it. Also questions about WIPs: characterization, plot, opening chapters, etc. Ms. Halverson is a former editor, so she knows whereof she speaks. She has earlier questions (and replies) categorized that make it easy to find advice you are looking for. It's a gem of a site.

She also has a website for her books, as well as an entertaining blog,

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Interview with Pam Munoz Ryan

I recently had the opportunity to review Pam Munoz Ryan's, THE DREAMER, for Sacramento Book Review, which can be read at:( Now Ms. Ryan has kindly shared an interview with me from her press kit regarding the process of creating this wonderful book.

1. How did you come together to collaborate on this project? Were you familiar with each other’s work?
I have been a fan and admirer of Peter Sis’s work for a long time. Years ago, when I was in Chicago to speak at a university, I went to see his exhibit at the museum. Of course, as I walked the halls admiring the original art from TIBET THROUGH THE RED BOX and STARRY MESSENGER, I never imagined that someday he might illustrate one of my books. As THE DREAMER progressed, my editor, Tracy Mack, and art director, David Saylor, began to discuss who might illustrate the book. When they told me that they were going to send the manuscript to Peter, I didn’t allow myself to get too excited because I couldn’t imagine that he would say yes. For me, that Tracy and David even thought to pair us was a huge compliment When Peter agreed, I was, understandably, thrilled and honored.

2. Were you a fan of Pablo Neruda’s poetry before this project?
Yes. I had read some of his work as early as high school. Before I traveled to Chile in 2005, I brushed up on Neruda, Mistral, and the early works of Allende, especially since I was visiting their homeland.

3. Did you read any particular Neruda poems as inspiration as you were working on The Dreamer? What’s your favorite Neruda poem, if you had to pick one?
During the writing, I read Neruda every day. And lived with his memoirs and the biographies written about him, which included lesser known works. It is hard to choose a favorite because his writing was so varied. One of my favorite poems, that almost always makes me teary, is Pido Silencio (I request silence), especially the section that begins, “And I just want five things . . .” But for his whimsy and magical realism, I adore THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS. I find them encompassing: joyous and childlike, sad and complicated, simple yet thought-provoking. On this project, THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS inspired me the most.

4. Kids who might not be familiar with the poetry of Pablo Neruda will no doubt be riveted by the details of his childhood. Can you speak about some of the relevant themes in the books that readers will relate to—or that you related to?
I think that there are many elements in Neruda’s young life that will resonate with some readers: his strained family dynamics, his struggle for independence, his painful shyness, his desire to collect and organize mementos. And also, his suspicion and hope that there was something yet-to-be-discovered about himself that was magnificent – something that he had to share. I think that readers will identify with that feeling, too. When I wrote the book, I often envisioned a middle grade boy and girl as the potential readers – brooding adolescents, who might feel misunderstood and might be a closet poets. I saw them carrying the book around, and writing in its margins. That would have been something I might have done. From the fifth grade on, I was an obsessive reader and I carried favorite books with me, underlining and writing in the margins. I was also a day-dreamer and pretender, who could very easily slip into my own wandering thoughts. And like Neruda, I wanted to have a profession that had something to do with books someday, but coming from a blue collar family, that needed to translate into a job that paid the bills. That issue was never dictated or imposed. It was simply my reality.

5. It is not always an easy task for parents and teachers to get kids to relate to poetry, especially these days, with so many other forms of entertainment to compete with. Do you find it a challenge to interest your audience, today, with poetry?
During the writing of this book, I never once thought that this was a poetry book, per se. In fact, I was quite determined that it was not. I envisioned an integrated presentation of language, art, and the unanswered questions. I hoped, that based on the readership of my previous novels, that students, librarians, and educators will first see THE DREAMER as a novel – a novel about a boy from Chile, who traveled a challenging road that led him to become the most read poet in the world.

6. Who are your influences – is there an author or illustrator that has been a particular inspiration to you, or helped shape your work?
That is difficult to answer. I read heavily in the genres in which I write and I also read heavily in the adult market. I’m a fan of Carlos Ruíz Zafón and just finished one of his books. So my love of reading continues to shape my desire to write. As a reader, I have been enthralled. I have carried books to dinner tables, and to baseball games because I so wanted to continue reading. Likewise, whether I accomplish it or not, I very much want my readers to feel compelled to turn the page, to not want to put the book down. I have many colleagues whose work I admire. I’m not in a critique group but I often discuss my early manuscript ideas with Brian Selznick (THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET), and he does the same with me. The person who shapes my work the most, is my editor, Tracy Mack. She keeps me focused with her insightful direction.

7. How exactly does the writing and illustrating of a novel work? Does one part follow the other or are they done in tandem, the writing feeding from the illustrations and vice versa?
For THE DREAMER, the manuscript came first. Then, the text was blocked on the pages and Peter’s illustrations were added, taking the reader to another dimension.

8. In the author’s note at the end of The Dreamer, you give readers some very helpful background information about Pablo Neruda, and how you came to write his story. Can you tell us about your growing interest in Neruda, and your decision to write this book?
In 2005, shortly after my return from Chile, I was a conference with author and illustrator, Jon Muth. During a conversation, I mentioned that I’d just been in Chile and the subject of Neruda came up. He told me a story from Neruda’s childhood, about Neruda passing a gift to unknown child through a hole in the fence. I was intrigued and after the conference I found the essay Neruda wrote about the incident. That was all it took for an idea to plant itself and relentlessly hold on. Then, I received a beautiful book in the mail from a friend in Chile who knew of my affection for Neruda. The book was, in essence, children’s answers to selected questions from Neruda’s, THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS. I began thinking about a book inspired by THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS - something more substantial in text. One thing led to another and I wrote a picture book for older readers. But when it was done, David Saylor asked me to consider making it into a novel. The day before the request, I had just returned 32 books on Neruda to the library! It meant going back to square one, not only in rewriting the text, but to emotionally going back to a book I had “put to bed.” And back to all of the research. So, I will admit, that I had to be convinced. And that I shed a few frustrating tears. But I was convinced, and . . . thank goodness.

9. Are the details about Neruda’s early life factual? Can you tell us about the specific research you did while writing The Dreamer?
The book is a work of fiction that parallels his early years. In a sense, the book is a play, a script of his young life. I dramatized actual events, created dialog, added the voice of poetry, asked the reader questions, and then wrote it in what I hoped would be an appropriate format for my audience. (That is a very simple description compared to the actual tedious research and writing of the book!) In some cases I did not elaborate on some facts, only because his family dynamics were so complicated. For instance, as an adult, Neruda discovered that his Uncle Orlando was not his uncle at all, but actually his older step-brother. And his brother, Rodolfo, was actually his half-brother and did not live with the family until he was around twelve years old. During his younger years, Rodolfo had been raised by a midwife. I tried to give Rodolfo more depth than I could find in the research. Laurita was his half sister and she was close to Neruda all of his life. By all accounts, Father was as mean, as cruel and as dictatorial. In the research, I tried to discover the psychology behind his actions. Giving him dimension and not portraying him as all bad was the hardest part for me. One of Neruda’s biographers reported that their father made Neftalí and Laurita’s lives so miserable that they actually discussed how much better off they might be if he were dead!

10. One of the elements I loved about the book, and your writing, was they way you described Neftali’s (who later became Neruda) obsession with the staccato details of language. Can you tell us how about your decision to incorporate elements of poetry—rhythm, repetition, visual imagery—to tell the story?
I’m not sure there was a conscious decision. Sometimes the story is the dictator. It was clear that rhythm was a presence in Neruda’s life. So, I attempted to create a type of soundtrack. I wanted the reader to hear the persistent rain, the call of the chucao, the pounding ocean, and the monotony of the printing press, too. I hoped the reader would recognize the relationship between the simplest of repetitive sounds and poetry.

11. Neftali’s struggle is so relatable to middle-grade readers—finding your own voice, and the courage to stand up for yourself. But he has to deal with so much more at the same time—a brutal father, and the politically volatile atmosphere in Chile. This is a book that can be read for pleasure, but will certainly be a favorite for librarians and teachers as well. Can you speak to some of the themes that may have practical teaching applications?
The most obvious will be students’ responses to the questions, for which there are no right or wrong answers. The questions allow readers’ imaginations to extend the text beyond the page.

12. You have a devoted readership and are a prestigious, beloved author on the Scholastic list. Can you tell us anything about your future projects?
I have a trade picture book coming out after THE DREAMER. It is a fun and rollicking picture book called TONY BALONEY - about a macaroni penguin, and his best stuffed animal friend, an ostrich named Dandelion. Tony Baloney does not love trouble. But trouble loves him! It will be illustrated by Ed Fotheringham. I have also started a new novel. Both books are with Scholastic.

Thank you for such a rich sharing of your writing process, Pam.

Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets, and Pam Munoz Ryan is one of my favorite children's writers. I first discovered her when I read ESPERANZA RISING, and I am glad to see more of her books on the horizon!

Friday, September 10, 2010

A New Mystery by Lewis Buzbee

Take an unexplained disappearance. Bring in a ghost who points the way. Add Charles Dickens, who knows London’s troubled neighborhoods only too well. Stir in a plucky, thirteen-year-old girl who will let nothing stop her from tailing a dangerous kidnapping gang, and you have the grand, new middle-grade mystery by Lewis Buzbee, The Haunting of Charles Dickens.

Meg Pickel’s older brother, Orion, disappeared six months ago. Her family is still numb with shock. Each night, when everyone is asleep, Meg goes up to the roof-garden to brood. One night, a green glow from the skylight of the Satis House catches her attention and launches Meg on her own personal search for Orion. Part mystery, part ghost story, this intriguing tale leads a reader through twists and turns that parallel the dark streets and hidden alleys of Dickens’s London.

The Great Man, Dickens, is a regular customer at the Pickel family’s printing shop as well as being a close family friend. Orion’s disappearance affects him deeply. He and Meg team up as sleuths, accompanied by the family dog, Mulberry. They find clues on walls and dusty floors. Colorful characters offer them leads. Soon it is clear that Orion has been “press-ganged”, kidnapped into slave labor. Now it is up to Meg and Dickens to save Orion. But not just Orion: A ghost Meg and Dickens met earlier in the Satis House becomes the metaphor for all the ghosts of London’s forgotten children.

This is a fine adventure story with engaging characters, a complex plot, and writing that is rich and vivid. An added pleasure for Dickens lovers is the way Buzbee at times dips into the style of times and addresses the reader directly. And, in the same vein, names of characters give clues to their natures: Micawber; Mr. Hardlywaite; Jenny Wren; Mrs. Podsnap (married now to Mr. Bogle.) Scenes unfold that could be from a Dickens novel. Consider:

“….Out of the dark recess of a far corner, a shadow seemed to be swirling, and swirling, seemed to coalesce into a figure, the figure of a man dressed in the colors of a shadow. He was as thin as a lamp-post, with a long beard as thin as a smaller lamp-post. And he was staring right at Meg. Un-remarked by all, the man moved towards her, as if floating rather than walking. He did not take his eyes off her, nor did his lips stop moving….”

The Haunting of Charles Dickens will be in bookstores in October, 2010 (next month) – a must read for anyone who enjoys a good mystery, enjoys the writings of Charles Dickens, or enjoys any novel set in Victorian London. A triple treat for those who enjoy all three. The atmospheric black and white illustrations by Greg Ruth are a perfect choice for this ethereal tale.

Buzbee is also the author of the award-winning books, Steinbeck's Ghost, and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Book, or the Blog?

So I've been writing this week, staying true to the book. And feeling guilty, I have to admit, about not blogging. After all, everywhere I look, all the advice I read, what I hear is: Platform. Platform. PLATFORM.

That's right: blog; facebook; twitter. I really enjoy all of them, to tell the truth, although not as much when they become my duty. After all, I'm a writer first, and there's this book I'm writing, right? And I'm a part time book reviewer for a magazine that has deadlines. True, there are books I want to review on my blog, as well, and author interviews I look forward to.

But, this week my muse said, "Look, here: just how serious is this relationship, anyway?"

Reader, I wrote. And I'll be writing on the book next week as well. I'll be writing on the book, in fact, until I finish this draft!

What would you do?

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Week-end of Art Refills the Well

Being art lovers as well as well as John Steinbeck lovers, my husband and I love to go to the Carmel-Monterrey-Pacific Grove area and drink in the refreshment of walks by the ocean and visits to art galleries. So early Saturday morning we set off with a change of clothes, a one night booking in PG at a motel that accepts dogs, and a basket full of picnic snacks for the evening meal and lunch on the way home Sunday. (We had Saturday's lunch at a wonderful, inexpensive seafood restaurant called Sea Harvest on Foam St. and Hoffman.)

Along with the art, of course, we love to walk along the ocean front and enjoy the shush-shush of the waves and the damp, salty air. We expected foggy cold weather and came prepared, but actually both days were bright and sunny with just the right amount of soft, cool breeze to make us grateful, given that Sacramento summers are hot and crisp.

Art friends in the foothills told us about the Monterrey Museum of Art, which we had never visited, so this became number one on our list of things to see. We found out the MMA actually has two locations, one on Pacific Avenue in the heart of Monterrey, and one on the outer edges on La Mirada, both with beautiful gardens. The building on Pacific Avenue was exhibiting paintings by American artists, mostly Impressionists, and primarily those that had an art relationship with Monterrey, including Armin Hansen and William Ritchell. We both love Impressionism, and have enjoyed the California Impressionist and American Impressionist exhibits at Crocker Art Gallery in the past. This was a joyful discovery for us.

Then we learned that the building on La Mirada has an exhibit of Ansel Adams's photographs. Ansel Adams is (was, as he is gone now) our favorite photographer. My husband does black and white photography as a hobby, and Adams has been his guru! The exhibit at La Mirada was of 72 photos Adams himself selected out of his hundreds of photos and gave to his daughter with the request that they be made available to the general public. The current exhibit is running until October 3rd. (You can learn more about it on MMA's website: ) Many of these we had seen bfore, and loved, but many were also new to us. All were exquisite!

Sunday, then, we did our usual art-gallery trek into Carmel and visited three galleries we especially liked: American Galleries on San Carlos, Jones & Terwilliger Galleries on Sixth Avenue, and Classic Art Gallery that, in addition to lovely work by contemporary artists, has a collection by renowned artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, like Cortes, Laloue, Loir, among others, as well as the American Impressionist Guy Rose.

We headed home a little after noon, stopping in the sleepy town of San Juan Bautista to have lunch in a small park (where we usually walk our dog on the return trip). Then we browsed some of the antique stores. It was about 6:00 when we finally got home, where, sitting on our patio in the Sacramento heat, we savored our collage of art moments, as we will for some time to come.
How about you? Do you have a special place you go to refuel and "fill the well"? Do you have special interests that affect you that way?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Milagros, a Miracle of a Story

When I was at the LA conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Meg Medina, author of the middle grade novel, Milagros, Girl from Away.

Milagros means "miracle" in Spanish, and this is a story where the protagonist must make her own miracles. When the story opens, Milagros de le Torre lives on the island of Las Brisas in the Caribbean, an island so small it doesn't show on any map. People on Las Brisas are happy; life is abundant. Milagros's only sorrow is that her father left when she was an infant to become a pirate and has never been seen since.

Then one day, envious people of a neighboring island come during Carnival, and, hidden behind masks, attack all the villagers. Milagros's last sees her mother urgently telling her to flee, while she falls during their attempt to escape. Milagros drifts for days in a small boat. Rescued at first by her father, the pirate, she rejects a chance to join him in the pirate life and swims out to the boat again. After drifting northward, she is rescued again by fisherman from an island called Holly Pointe, off the coast of Maine. An artist and her family take Milagros in, and the story deepens.

Life outside the island of Holly Pointe is simply referred to as "away", and thus, Milagros becomes "the girl from away". Holly Pointe is cold and forbidding. The daughter of the artist who shelters Milagros is jealous and hostile. Unlike the islanders Milagros left behind, Holly Pointe residents are chilly and take a long time to know. Yet this new island is where life unfolds for Milagros and where she comes into her own after much inner struggle.

The writing is lyrical and mystical, bordering at times on the eerie. Imbedded in the narrative are wonderful bits of wisdom imparted by the elderly Mexican woman with whom Milagros becomes friends. In her heart, Milagros remembers her mother's way with plants and her mysterious relationship with stingrays. But it is her own determination to be true to herself that give Milagros the inner strength to meet the challenges of her new life.

This is a wonderful read for tweens and teens alike. The book is permeated with deep insight and understanding -- understanding of what it's like to be young and confronted with loss, and understanding of what it takes to overcome life's unexpected difficulties. One can only look forward to future novels from this gifted writer.

You can read more about Meg Medina and her books at:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Read to Write? The Best Homework!

One piece of advice to writers I read over and over is that to write, you must read. Make that read, read, READ! At the conference someone even quoted "For every book you write, read a thousand; for every word you write, read a thousand. Read everything: Read your genre. Read every genre. Read good books. Read bad books. But READ."

To use a cliche, I'm an avid reader. So I loved that advice! I've often quipped to my husband, who sees me lounging around the house with a book, "I'm a writer; this is really research. It looks like I'm just having fun, but I'm actually doing homework."

But it's true: the best homework for a writer is to read. Not just read through a book quickly: Savor whole lines. Savor whole paragraphs. When I read, I find myself noticing how the author plunged me into a scene; how he or she made me feel I knew that character; how hidden clues were laced hidden throughout, so that the resolution felt surprising yet expected, and deeply satisfying. I read for the hidden wisdom inherent in some stories. And always, yes, it's just the way it looks: I am having fun.

Some writing friends and I who critiqued each other's novels through multiple re-writes finally got to the point we knew each other's work too well to critique further. So we decided to read novels in our genres (at this point, historical fiction and fantasy) -- preferably award winners -- and analyze what is working instead of what isn't: What do good writers do right? That's what we want to know. It's a wonderful experience to study these books that way -- quite different from the usual book club. Experts in our chosen art have become our writing teachers. And, of course, it's a great excuse to read yet another book!

We all know we can count on the others to read one of our manuscripts if we request it. But for now, this is how we use our critique sessions. How about you? What are some of the ways you get writing tips and pointers besides the usual critique group?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The World of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

I'm still feeling the resonance of the LA Conference. I've been to smaller regional conferences and always get a lot out of them. But for me, the LA conference was life changing, the way that U.C. Berkeley was life changing after I had attended a small junior college. In L.A. the air was charged with energy emitted by world famous writers and illustrators, by top agents and publishers -- and a sea of attendees (1,139, according to co-host Lin Oliver, who is also a co-founder of SCBW&I.) Lin Oliver referred to the speakers (80 of them) as "faculty". And so they were -- an incredible faculty taking time to not just impart their knowledge and wisdom, but to inspire and urge us on.

One hears about how competitive the writing market is, which can be discouraging. By temperament, most writers and artists aren't particularly "competitive". (After all, trying imagine a new world faster and better than others can is an impossible goal! That isn't how creative people approach their work.) And I noticed that even those who have won awards in the field seemed more interested in mentoring others than elbowing for a top-dog status. There was a genuine warmth between these experts. At times the conference almost seemed like a family reunion. It was a hugging faculty. Maybe this is just the world of children's writers and illustrators. And all who work with them -- the agents and editors seemed quite approachable, too (although I was still too shy this time around). For all the cautions about thousands of manuscripts flooding the market, they seemed on the side of aspiring writers and illustrators. I often read of how an agent or editor has become a particular author's friend. It's a helping-hand profession all around.

It's also true of aspiring writers I know: Those of us who create for children tend to be team players rather than competitors. We cheer each other on, and sincerely hope the best for others as well as ourselves. I count a lot on my writing buddies for realistic assessment of my work and for encouragement to keep on keeping on. I try to do the same for them. And I've received so much help from people I've met online, like Lia Keyes and Rachna Chhabria, who have guided me through the mysteries of navigating the blogosphere and have supported me in other ways as well.

Children's book writers and illustrators live in a kind and kindly world. Despite the daunting numbers out there, I think it's a lovely time to be writing for children. What do you think?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dazzled, Daunted, and...Determined

Dazzled: That's how I felt at the SCBW&I Conference in LA this week-end. I took a picture of the overhead ceiling chandelier in the main auditorium where all the keynote speeches were given; but the photo didn't do justice either to the chandelier or to the luminaries that distilled such wonderful inspiration and wisdom from the stage about writing, illustrating, and the book industry in general. (So -- no photo for this post.)

I can't begin to condense into one post the richness of these keynote speeches and panel discussions. Instead, I will probably be pulling out snippets from my notes from time to time and blogging in terms of what the conference meant to me. There were professional bloggers who blogged about every address and every session, including those I missed. (Interested persons can go to: to get the highlights.) In the meantime, one insight was much repeated, whether from an illustrator like Loren Long, who advised "readers must feel the book; search for your own emotional hit", or a fiction author like Marion Dane Bauer, who advised that "stories begin where the heart beats, where your heart beats," or the advice of biographer, Deborah Heiligman, who wrote, Charles and Emma, that you have to be passionately involved in your project: The key to any work of art is the true and honest emotion that drives it. Illustrator, E. B. Lewis said it another way: You recognize that first mark that captures what the right picture will be.

Daunted: So... the emotion. Advice I heard over and over again in various sessions as well as keynotes was that if you want to know what will resonate with kids, tap into the kid you were, and how you felt. Hah. Well, the kid I once was felt a lot of misery. My family moved a lot, for erratic reasons, and my childhood memories are full of pain: the pain of loss, of uprootedness, of abandonment. And in a life that turned out well (I have a happy adulthood), I notice that I try to wiggle out of painful scenes in my writing. I tend to over-protect my characters. You might say I run interference for them, and sometimes glide past where the real power of a scene might lie. Sometimes tip-toe past. But, as they say, "no pain, no gain." So I came back from the conference

Determined: I'm determined to be a braver writer than I've been in the past. I know from real life outside of story pages, that tracing a nerve of pain can turn it into a vein of gold. Young readers are coping with pain of their own. It's a good lesson for them to stumble on when reading a story that matters to them. They don't identify with the character who has it too easy, who has no worry or fear or ache. To be human is to experience the dark as well as the light and to turn the encounter into some lasting wisdom, something that made the journey worthwhile.

So... no more running interference for my characters. It's time for them to learn their own lessons and make it on their own. With a supporting nudge from me, of course.

How about you? Do you avoid the more difficult emotions and try to slide your characters by them? Or are you already brave enough to let them learn what only they can learn?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Always Time to Pass on a Little Magic

So, I'm busy with my book, but not to busy to send you to a good source of magic:

After all, MAGIC is what THE FOURTH WISH is all about. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

To Write or to Blog, That is the Question

Well, I've been writing.

In a couple of weeks I should be back to interviews and reviews and maybe some essay-type musings, but this new book that popped into my head about four weeks ago has been quite insistent, so I've just gone with it. Surprisingly, it's coming out more easily than other books, although I know it's going to require rewrites. (They always do.) Meanwhile, I'm actually almost finished with this draft, which is a great feeling before going off next week-end to the SCBW&I conference in L.A.

I'm so excited about that conference. I've been to the one-day regional NorCal conferences, and always find them so helpful. But this is the first really big one I'll be attending. Four days of workshops and hob-nobbing. I'll be taking my laptop and camera, and hopefully I'll find time to blog there. If not, I'll certainly blog about it when I come home.

But for now, it's back to the book. Ciao

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Truth Versus Fiction

My husband showed me a small article in yesterday's Sacramento Bee about a dog who took matters into his own hands. Well,into his own paws. This was in Pennsylvania, by the way. Apparently a Labrador was trapped in his car in 90-degree heat for about an hour, due to a shopping trip by his owner: When she unloaded her packages, she forgot he was in the car! Obviously this dog had learned a lot by watching his person's behavior: He climbed into the front seat and honked the horn until she came outside and got him.

Now, my husband and I are dog lovers, and we ooh and ahh over how smart our loveable mutt is, but even we were impressed that this dog knew to honk the horn. Whether our dog would, I don't know -- partly because we wouldn't forget about him for an hour; and partly because neither of us honks the horn to bring people to the car. But this story was confirmation for both of us that dogs are a lot smarter than most owners realize. In this case, spookily smart.

My first fleeting thought was that it would make a good story, if you tweaked it here and there. Or would it? Could a good writer make a fictional tale out of it?

It reminded me of another true story I heard over the radio years ago about a home in southern California that was invaded by a flock of birds so multitudinous they could be called a swarm. I don't remember exactly what birds they were -- some rather small birds that migrate. Well, maybe they needed a resting spot, who knows? For some reason they came down the chimney and swooped all through the house, tweeting or peeping or chirping, and frightening this couple half to death. (No doubt, they had seen The Birds and were filled with premonition.) They finally called the fire department and all the doors and windows were opened, the chimney closed off, the doors and windows closed again, and peace restored -- except....

Except this couple had a parrot and his cage was in the living room. It was evening and the cover had been on his cage. They took the cover off, just to see how he was doing, and they found their dazed, frantic parrot muttering "Shut up, shut up, shut up," over and over again. I kid you not, this was a reported story on the evening news.

I have told this story to friends, and every time they laugh like crazy. Once I decided that if it's so funny, I should write it as a fictional story, and I tried to cobble one together. As it turned out, it didn't work as fiction. I suspect the same is true of the dog story above. Truth really can be stranger than fiction, and more often than not, the "this really happened" part of it impedes any nascent story. Why is that?

Well, to begin with, both of these are just incidents. Anecdotes. Something happened. And that's that. The story -- or not-story -- starts and ends with the incident. There is no beginning, middle, or end. Oh, there's the punch line in the parrot story. In the dog story, there's the "wow, what a smart fella," factor. But where would either of these stories begin? With the flock's leader saying, Hey, listen up, I see a good resting spot down there in that chimney.... With the horrified wife looking at the fireplace and screaming, OMG! With the dog panting away in the back seat and thinking, let's see, now, she always presses that funny looking circle near the front window.... With the preoccupied dog owner checking her "to-do list" -- butter, eggs, bread, dishwater detergent, dogfood... come to think of it, where is....

These are point of view questions as well. Just as you can't have a story without an arc, you can't have a story without characters -- characters who grow and change and learn something that a reader can identify with, some underlying theme. In the case of the bird story, about the best insights one can glean is that if you are a parrot, wear earplugs; if you are a husband or wife, keep the chimney vent closed; and if you are a migrating bird, avoid chimneys. In the case of the dog story, it's either if you are a pet owner, at least roll the window down next time; or, if you are a pet, keep track of your person's habits. These aren't exactly universal themes.

Which is why fiction touches us so much more profoundly than factual anecdotes. Writers work hard to unearth the underlying truths that fuel their fiction; the truths that ripple out of one heart to touch many. A fictional story is not happenstance. Very often the story that rings most true is one that never happened at all. Characters who don't really exist. Words no one really said. Actions that really didn't happen. But it feels real because it touches a reader. And it touches a reader because it touched the writer first. But the writer didn't stop there (being moved in your own heart can actually create slop the first few drafts). The writer honed and polished the work until anything without relevance was chiseled and sanded away, and all that was left was what mattered. What mattered. Writers write stories that matter to them. Likewise, readers read stories that matter to them. And if a story matters to the writer, likely it will matter to others.

I suppose the reason I couldn't write the parrot story was because, other than how funny the true event was, the parrot doesn't really matter to me. At best, he could be a side incident slipped into a scene of a bigger story. Likewise the dog tale. (Well, the dog does matter to me, not for story possibilities, but in terms of both responsible pet ownership and the learning abilities of pets.)

But readers, I give both these story kernels to you. Think of them as writing prompts. Do with them what you will. If you get a story you can run with, let me know. And when it comes out in print, I'll be your eager reader and fan!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Introducing... The Famous Nini!

Can a cat be so remarkable that he inspires composers, charms kings and emperors, and even the pope is impressed? THE FAMOUS NINI, The Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, is the true story of just such a cat.

Well…, mostly true, as the title admits. Written by Mary Nethery and illustrated by John Mandeers, the story of this famous cat captivated me!

What is true is that sometime in the 1890’s, a stray cat named Nini lived in a small caffè on the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Somehow Nini became so famous that he ended up having his very own guest book. Royalty, statesmen, artists, composers—all came to meet this renowned cat. Verdi, the king and queen of Italy, Pope Leo XIII, the emperor of Ethiopia, to name only a few, signed Nini’s guest book. Verdi, in fact, scrawled notes from his opera, La Traviata on a page.

The question is, why?

To answer that question, Nethery leads us through a delightful and serendipitous tale, where an accidental meow at just the right moment sets off a unique chain of events. Aided by the caffè owner’s clever advertising, each new event enlarges the cat’s reputation.

This is a book to be read and savored. Nethery’s gentle humor and quirky imagination make unlikely scenarios thoroughly plausible. John Manders’ lively and dashing illustrations capture both the tale and the era. Small children will enjoy hearing this about a cat so endearing his owner calls him, “my almond, my fig, my cream puff.” Readers will wish they could sign Nini’s guest book too!

In a March 4th interview on this blog with Kirby Larson, I mentioned that Larson and Nethery had co-written two award-winning books: Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival, and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle. In addition to these, as well as Nini, you can learn about more of her books at:

You can learn more about the illustrator, John Manders, at his blog: and also in an interview with him posted on June 30th at the book blog,

Friday, July 2, 2010

An Art Club Guest, Rachel Dillon.

Through Endangered Eyes received the prestigious
Eric Hoffer Award - Honorable Mention

Some of you may remember an earlier post, when Rachel Dillon, the author and illustrator of the remarkable picture book, Through Endangered Eyes, wrote a guest post. A week ago, Rachel was a guest teacher for the Art Club. I've been waiting to write about it until I had parental permission to show kids and their art on this blog. (I already had parental permission for pictures I posted earlier.)

While Rachel's painting style can be called pointillistic, she said her real inspiration was Aboriginal Australian art. Concern for endangered species has been a continuing concern of hers, and the book shown here includes endangered animals from all over the world. Future books will include endangered species in specific biomes. Currently she is working on a book about endangered animals of the dessert.

Rachel showed students her notebooks with various phases of her illustrations -- sketches, thumbnails, drawings with color washes, and finally the pointillistic finishes that make these illustrations so arresting. She gave them templates made from some of the book's illustrations. Then she showed them how to use the ends of their paintbrushes as if they were tips of sticks, and to space the dots for the strongest effect. The students were completely immersed and did some splendid work.

Thanks, Rachel, for a wonderful lesson. This book is one of my favorites, and has me itching to go get a paintbrush and try my own hand at dot-painting. Meanwhile, for those of you who would like your own copy, you can go to:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Interview with Lois Lowry

Photo credit Rhys Lowry

Today’s guest is Lois Lowry, who has long been one of my favorite authors of children’s books. The following are only some of her numerous literary awards: the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award (1977), for A Summer to Die; the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (1987), for Rabble Starkey; the Newbery Medal (1990), for Number the Stars; the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award (1991) for Number the Stars; the Mark Twain Award, (1991), for All About Sam; a second Newbery Medal (1994), for The Giver; and the Margaret A. Edwards Award (2007), for The Giver – this last is an award given for outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens.

Q. When you were a small child you memorized the poem "Thanatopsis", essentially a meditation on death, by William Cullen Bryant. Do you think that poem resonated with you later and impacted some of your own thematic interests?
A. No, the poem had very little meaning for me thematically when I was a young child. But I connected it to my grandfather—to the pleasure of his reading to me, the sound of his voice, the feel of his vest against my cheek as I sat on his lap and listened. There were some phrases in the poem that I related to; I remember “the speechless babe and the gray-haired man” (I may be mis-quoting that, after almost 70 years!) but for the most part I enjoyed simply the cadence and sound, without any comprehension of the meaning.

Q. As a child you wrote stories and poems. You won writing awards in high school. After you married and dropped out of college, during those “interrupted education” years, did you continue to write at home?
A. Not for a while. I had four children in five years, and so had little time for the solitary pursuit that serious writing always is. Then, when my youngest began kindergarten, I went back to college, then to graduate school, and began doing serious academic writing. And eventually: fiction. But by that time my kids were teenagers.

Q. In your more serious books, the writing becomes quite lyrical. Do you still read or write poetry?
A. I read poetry often. Right now I am at my summer home, so I don’t have access to the collection of poetry books that I keep in my office in my “regular” house. But when I am there, I am likely to pick up a book of poetry at the beginning of each day. (Here, in summer, I subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” which delivers a poem each morning to my computer). I rarely write poetry myself---just occasional verse for some reason or another. But reading it reminds me very powerfully of the rhythm and lyricism of language, and of the subtlety of it when it is distilled, as poetry forces the writer to do. I think it is a good way, for me at least, to get my head and my ear into the world of voice and sound and words.

Q. All your writing is visual, with a strong sense of color. In the Anastasia books, Anastasia’s mother is a painter. In addition to your photography, what part do visual arts play in your own life?
A. I am a collector of art rather than a producer of it! I have many friends who are painters—or illustrators—and both my houses are filled with their work. I have one guest room in my Massachusetts house which is filled with work by children’s illustrators who are friends: Allen Say, Rosemary Wells, Diane DeGroat, others. And in another room in that house I have one of the paintings from my own book Crow Call, which is illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. My office—I call it the studio, actually—in Maine is a room I created off of the barn. And on its walls are photographs by me.

Q. What books most appealed to you when you were growing up? Did they have a common theme, or were they quite varied?
A. Varied, I think. But it is clear, from my memories, that I preferred realistic fiction. Two favorites were The Yearling and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think I most liked reading about young people, protagonists to whom I could relate, who experienced enormous hardship, sometimes tragedy, and who made their way through it with determination and grace.

Q. You’ve mentioned you wrote your first book when you were about nine or ten. What was it about, and what was the title?
A. Well, I have a copy of a letter from me which was published in a children’s magazine the summer of 1947, when I was ten. It says, “I am writing a book called A Dog Named Lucky. I am on Chapter 13.” Of course the chapters I wrote at age 10 were considerably shorter than those I write now.

Q. In an interview you mentioned you often feel pulled along by ideas whirling in your head and that you have to scramble to keep up with them. How do you know when one of those ideas is going to “gel” into a new book? How do you know a story is finished?
A. When something keeps gnawing at me—a character, most often, but sometimes little more than a phrase—and doesn’t subside, then I know it is ready to be explored. Sometimes I start the exploration and it goes nowhere. Then I let it go. But usually once I begin, my interest and enthusiasm for it builds, and then it expands and becomes more complicated and is, eventually a book. As for when it is finished? When things come together. When earlier details reappear, changed (a red sled). When questions are answered. But—this is important, to me at least—when interesting questions remain, for the reader. Then it is done.

Q. You write in a range of “genres” – comical (Anastasia and Sam books; Gooney books), historical (Number the Stars), dystopian worlds (The Giver trilogy), and fantasy (Gossamer), and so many of them have won awards. You’ve also written a picture book (Crow Call). Any more picture books in the future?
A. Probably. I enjoyed the process, even though Crow Call was a story I had written (and published) many years earlier. (I did some minor re-writing to turn it into a picture book) And two current books (The Birthday Ball, published this spring, and Bless This Mouse, to be published next spring) are illustrated, though they are not picture books.

Q. It was one of your adult stories that made an editor suggest you should write a book for children, which lead to A Summer to Die. Do you think you’ll ever write fiction for adults again?
A. I could, I suppose. But I love what I do so much. And a writer for young people gets such wonderful feedback from readers. That is less true when you write for adults.

I’m 73, so I don’t have unlimited time, and there is so much I’d still like to do. I’ve written one play; working with theater directors has made me want to write another.

Q. Along life’s way, what was the best writing advice you ever received?
A. I had a professor of writing at Brown—Charles Philbrick—who told me to experience things. I didn’t know just what he meant, at the time; and now he is dead and I can’t ask him. But I’m guessing that he was saying that a writer needed to be keenly aware of feelings, perhaps even to study feelings and reactions in order to reproduce them in fiction. It might be akin to what Henry James said, that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

Lois Lowry’s latest book is The Birthday Ball, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. For those who wish to learn more about her or her books, visit: .

Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer Art Workshops

The summer art workshops have begun, and the class looks terrific: The kids are enthusiastic and focused. We did dot painting to get ready for a visit next week by Rachel Dillon, who wrote THROUGH ENDANGERED EYES, a picture book of poetry, wonderfully illustrated with her own pointillistic paintings, and with a glossary full of important facts about each animal. I took the book in to show the class, and the paintings were inspired by her pictures. The kids are really looking forward to her visit.

Meanwhile, a field trip to an art studio/gallery is in the works for next month. When that event arrives, I'll blog more about it then. For now, it's back to Granny's Jig.

Friday, June 11, 2010

An Interview with Jeri Chase Ferris

I was fortunate to interview Jeri Chase Ferris, the award-winning author of 12 biographies for children. She has won numerous awards in this field, including the 2000 Susan B. Anthony Award for "exceptional literary contributions to women’s history”, the 1995 Author-Illustrator Human and Civil Rights Award presented by the National Education Association, and she is a three-time winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award for the most distinguished books for young readers depicting ethnic diversity in the United States.

Q. You’ve had eleven biographies published, and a new one about Noah Webster is coming out in 2011. How did you get interested in writing biographies for young people?
A. I taught grades 2-4 in the inner city in LA for almost 30 years. About ten years into my teaching I saw (late, I know) a huge need. I wanted books with wonderful life role models for my students. Back in the 80s there weren’t many biographies of minority men and women who had made a difference in our world. So I decided to write one myself. After all, I thought, how hard can it be? As it turns out, pretty hard. After making some dismal attempts I enrolled in a NF for Children class at UCLA taught by Caroline Arnold. With her instructions in mind I wrote GO FREE OR DIE, the story of Harriet Tubman. Carolrhoda Books bought the manuscript, an editor flew to LA, we “did lunch,” and she asked me to write three more biographies: Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, and Noah Webster. In the following years I also wrote biographies of Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Biddy Mason, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Matthew Henson, and Marian Anderson. Most of my biographies are about minority figures, and they all stem from my wonderful years in the inner-city classroom.

Q. What was the most difficult biography you’ve written? What made it difficult?
A. As a historian, it’s pure joy to research the lives of my subjects and the times in which they lived. My most difficult biography was that of the first Native American woman doctor, because of the richness and the differentness (to me) of the Native American culture, and because of the unspeakable destruction of that culture by my own race. I must become the person I’m writing about to the fullest extent possible. Also, it is critical to render cultures accurately, honestly, knowingly. I lived in fear that I would be found out as an outsider. With the help of the tribal historian, who also wrote the introduction, Susan LaFlesche Picotte lives authentically in this book.

Q. Your biography of Noah Webster is a non-fiction picture book. Have you ever considered other picture books?
A. My NF picture book biography of Noah Webster will be out in spring 2012 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Noah was a great character to write about, full of quirkiness and opinions, and with so much more to his story than “merely” the first American dictionary. It was such a joy to capture his voice (I hope) for younger children that I would love to do another picture book biography. Even very young readers can be swept away in the life of another person. Let’s hear lots of five-year-olds saying, “I too can make a difference!”

Q. Your most recent book is historical fiction about the siege of Leningrad. What made you decide to switch from biography to fiction?
A. Because I needed to tell this story. Russia is my passion. The history is accurate; the characters are a combination of several Russian friends who survived the siege. I think historical fiction is absolutely the best of both my writing loves: historical research and accuracy, and the fun of creating fictional characters to live out a real time in real history.

Q. You and your late husband made over 30 trips to Russia and collected memorabilia and artifacts and documents that you donated to the Slavic Department at the University of Southern California. Do you still travel to Russia?
A. My husband Tom taught Russian Studies at Beverly Hills High School. We began traveling to the Soviet Union in 1970. Its history, culture, art, literature, language, music, people, and tragedy were like a magnetic force drawing us into the heart of Russia. (I am still working on the language.) Our Ferris Russian Collection, described as “unmatched in the western world,” is now housed in the Shrine Auditorium, adjacent to USC. You can have a look via a link on my website. As for traveling to Russia, alas, I have not been there since 2000 due to family issues including the death of my husband and a move to northern California. However, maybe – next year in Russia.

Q. As a reader, when you were a child, did you gravitate to fiction or nonfiction?
A. When I was young, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I rode my horse to the Carnegie Library on the outskirts of town and loaded my saddle bags with books – fiction like The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague and Lassie and non-fiction like Horseman’s Encyclopedia (the first book I ever bought, by the way, and here on my shelf as we speak). Embarrassing for a NF historian to say, but back then I was most definitely drawn to fiction. Also back then it simply never occurred to me that an actual person wrote the books I was soaking up like a sponge. I thought they just appeared on the shelves for me to read. In my defense, this was in the days before authors made school visits. I had never seen or met an author, and the only person I connected with books was my beloved librarian. The black stallion was real to me, Walter Farley the author was not.

Q. What books have made a difference in your life?
A. This is tough! I had a long list of adult books, but decided to stick with the important ones – children’s books. When I was little, anything about horses, the Black Stallion series, of course, Pam’s Paradise Ranch, Narnia, Mary Poppins. Books that made a difference in my writing include Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting, Hatchet, The Single Shard, Johnny Tremain. I remember reading Sarah, Plain and Tall, and almost weeping because I knew I could never write such a small and perfect book. Anything by Katherine Paterson or Richard Peck or Linda Sue Park or Deborah Wiles or James Marshall or William Steig or Jean Fritz or …. There are simply too many superb authors and books to list. Every award winner is a wonder and a lesson in how to do it right.

Q. What advice would you give a writer who wants to write biographies for children?
A. Read biographies for children. Read all the Newbery books. Read all local and national award-winning books. Be in a good, solid critique group. Join SCBWI and attend local and national conferences. Become familiar with the age group for which you’re writing. Decide whether you’re going to write a full life biography, or a slice of life in which your character achieved his/her most important accomplishments. Love research! Make your librarian your new best friend. Travel to sites your character inhabited. Haunt libraries, museums, and historical societies. Correspond with the experts in the field. Use the internet very carefully. Trace down primary sources such as letters, diaries, photos, newspapers of the time. Present your character as a real person by showing his/her flaws, doubts, and fears (in a balanced way). As much as is humanly possible, be your character as you tell his/her story. Develop your own unique style and voice. Constantly study award-winning biographies for children to learn how to create a fully alive character, in a real environment, living and interacting with historical events, and, very likely, influencing those events. Have your facts vetted by specialists. These specialists may even write introductions and blurbs for you, too.

Above all, enjoy with a passion what and who you are writing about. Your passion will make your character come alive on the page!

Jeri Chase Ferris can be contacted through her website, , where you can learn more about her books, her awards, school visits, and the Ferris Russian Collection (under "links").

Meanwhile, for those reading this post, what books have made a difference to you in your life, and what biographies for children would you like to find on bookshelves?