Story Bite #24: Finding Your Beginning Through Touch

When students are having trouble with the beginning of a piece, they’re sometimes advised to think about what their character is feeling. Often, this means emotions. But the actual sense of touch can be effective too. This series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—offers tips for students on how to jump-start a scene through the senses. By writing about a sensory elements like touch, the writer can instantly put the reader directly into a scene.

Touch is powerful. It can be soothing, painful, or something in-between. It affects our minds and physical reactions. Think about temperature and what it feels like to be very cold or very hot. As a sensory element of writing, touch is often the most powerful when used in the extreme. But subtlety can be very compelling too.

If you’re walking barefoot on stone like this, you’ll feel the warmth and the hard, rough surface of the stone—and the momentary softness of that lichen. (Photo: Diane Magras)

Think of what it would be like to feel the following:

  • A 1×1 Lego brick (under your heel)
  • A hamster’s fur (against your palm)
  • A casserole dish just out from the oven (on your finger)
  • A sopping-wet fresh snowball (in your knitted mittens)

What would your reaction be to those physical sensations? Create your own list of physical feelings that cause either an instinctive or emotional reaction. If you can’t easily think of some, here are four more prompts:

  • A very soft pillow (against your head)
  • Water in a lukewarm pond (all around you)
  • A muddy lawn (against your knees)
  • The eroded stone of an ancient castle wall (against your hand)

How would these touches make you feel? And the character you’re writing about: How would they feel and what would be happening to them as they felt these things? What would happen next? Water in a lukewarm pond could be a delight (it’s been a hot, long day and someone is thrilled to be swimming at last)—or a terror (someone who can’t swim has just been pushed into the water).

Starting your piece of writing with a feeling can be an action, a reaction, or a prelude to an action. No matter what, it’s a fantastic way to help your reader truly feel the emotions you’re trying to evoke. And the beauty of this approach is that there’s always more to write.

For this Story Bite, think of something you’ve physically felt (or pick one from one of my lists above). If you can (without harm), find it and touch it (or just remember what it feels like, or try to imagine). What’s your reaction? Write down a description of that feeling. Make it quick (The water was cool and refreshing.) or link it with your character (The water filled my ears and eyes. It was all around me, heavy and cold.) and then write what comes next: how your character responds. For example:

The water was cool and refreshing. She surfaced, took a deep breath, and dove back down, away from the world above.

or

The water filled my ears and eyes. It was all around me, heavy and cold. I thrashed, desperate to reach the surface, but I was sinking instead.

What comes next? Is anyone with your character? What are they doing? Add that. What does your character do? Write that next. What happens after that? Keep writing.

Touch is a traditional way to begin a scene for a good reason: It’s an extremely effective way to put your reader directly in the action. And it’s a fantastic way to put your own mind in the scene as well.

Story Bite #23: Finding Your Beginning Through Smell

Students often struggle with the beginning of a piece of writing. (So do many published authors as well.)  This is the second series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—that offers tips for students on how to jump-start a scene through the senses. Using sensory elements can put the reader—and the writer—directly into a piece of writing. For this post, we’re focusing on smell.

Smell creates an instant reaction—emotional and otherwise! Think of walking into a room that has a bouquet of fragrant lilies on the table…or a dog that passes gas on the rug on the floor. Smell hits us, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a way that makes us want to turn around and walk out.

Photo: Diane Magras

Think of how you would respond to the following:

  • The sweet scent of lilacs
  • The brisk scent of the ocean and seaweed
  • The bitter scent of burning rubber (like a tire when a car skids)
  • The heavy scent of freshly-baked cinnamon bread

What would your reaction be to those odors? Create your own list of smells that soothe you, irritate you, make you hungry, or make you want to get away as fast as possible. If you can’t easily think of some, here are four more:

  • The husky scent of a pond
  • The heavy scent of wood smoke on a snowy day
  • The thick scent of air freshening spray
  • The sharp scent of a passing skunk

How would you react to these scents? What would be happening as your character is smelling them? Where is your character? Are they with anyone else? Are they expecting something to happen? What kind of mood are they in? The crisp scent of the ocean could inspire a sick feeling (someone who picks up the scent of dead fish or crabs)—or it could inspire a smile (someone who grew up by the ocean and finds comfort in it)

Starting your piece of writing with a scent that evokes an emotion will give you the first words of a beginning, then more to write about: the situation your character is in.

For this Story Bite, think of a scent (or pick one from one of my lists above). If you can, find it and smell it (or just remember what it smells like, or try to imagine). What’s your reaction? Write down a description of that sound. Make it quick (The scent of the sea was brisk and clean.) or link it with your character (That ocean smell made me want to throw up.) and then write what comes next: how your character responds. For example:

The scent of the sea was brisk and clean. He leaned back, his hands on the railing, and closed his eyes. This scent meant home.

or

That ocean smell made me want to throw up. The beach was empty, but I smelled all those pogies that had washed ashore and died and then rotted on that beach when I was six.

What comes next after your character’s initial reaction? Where are they? What are they doing? Write that down. Who is with them, or are they alone? Add that. What do they do in reaction to that scent? What happens after that? Write that as well.

Scent is a less traditional way to start a scene than sound or sight, but it can puts your reader directly into your character’s mind without too much trouble. And it might put your mind right into your story too.

Story Bite #22: Finding Your Beginning Through Sound

One of the most common questions I’ve heard from students about writing is how to find ideas to start a piece. They’re often told to start with action in the middle of a scene. But sometimes they can’t think of an action or a scene, and the ideas just won’t come.

A scene is a snapshot of a moment in your character’s life in which your character is feeling and thinking about something. This series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—will share tips on how to jump-start a scene through the senses: things that evoke emotions. In the first, let’s look at—or, rather, listen to—sound.

We all respond emotionally to sensations around us, and sound is one of the biggest.

Think of how you would respond to the following:

  • A clap of thunder
  • The beat of a bass drum
  • The tinkling of sleet on glass
  • A hawk’s shrill cry

Do you have an emotional reaction to any of those sounds? Create your own list of sounds that startle you, delight you, interest you, or frighten you. If you can’t think of any off the top of your head, here are a few more:

  • The crackling of fireworks
  • The crackling of fire
  • The creak of a floorboard
  • A creak of a tree in the woods

What do sounds mean in a story? Think about what might be happening around them. Is something creepy about to occur? Or something wonderful? A sound like the crackling of fire can inspire a feeling of relief (someone who manages to finally, finally start a campfire for supper) or comfort (a crackling fire in a fireplace)—or it can inspire terror and despair (a forest fire).

Starting with a sound that evokes an emotion will give you a beginning, then something to write about: the situation your character is in.

For this Story Bite, think of a sound (or pick one from one of my lists above). Go online and find an example of that sound. Notice of your reaction. Do you flinch? Do you smile? Write down a description of that sound. Make it simple (The fire crackled.) or link it with your character (A clap of thunder filled her ears.) and then write what comes next: how your character reacted. For example:

The fire crackled. I pulled my legs up and smiled. At last, I was warm.

or

A clap of thunder filled her ears. Shivering, she hugged herself. Would it ever stop?

Think of what comes next after your character’s initial reaction. Where are they? What are they doing? Write that down. Who is with them, or are they alone? Add that. What do they do in reaction to that sound? What happens after that? Write that as well.

Sound is a great way to start a scene. It puts your reader directly into your character’s mind. But it also puts your mind right into your story.

Favorite Reads of 2020—Part 2

Yesterday I posted my favorite middle grade books from the first part of 2020. Here’s the rest from the second half of that year!

Class Act by Jerry Craft
Jerry Craft’s New Kid, the first book in this graphic novel series, dealt with casual racism and micro-aggressions head-on (in a compelling and sometimes funny story of a Black student’s experiences at a new and primarily white school). This second book in the series touches on those same issues from a different Black character’s perspective. It also goes deep into privilege and differences and how hard it can be to be friends with people whose backgrounds and life experiences seem light years away from your own. Funny in places like the first, but incredibly thoughtful.

The Verdigris Pawn by Alyssa Wishingrad
This debut by Alyssa Wishingrad is coming out in July 2021, but I was fortunate to have an early read. The book is magnificent. I loved the gentle boy who leads the story and finds his strength where he doesn’t expect, and the determined girl who introduces him to the real version of the world he’s meant to one day rule with an iron fist. This story is packed with themes of authority and privilege, depicting how corruption can spread easily if you don’t watch out, and how we all need to stand up for the rights of each other.

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
I make a point of reading everything that’s coming out by these two authors, so it was quite fun to read a book they’d collaborated on. And what a fantastic book. Two characters from two different cultural backgrounds—Muslim-American and Jewish-American—become friends in a cooking class taught by the mother of the first one. Expect a great story about friendship and food, as well as a depiction of how differences are good for our world.

The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson
This powerful story stars a pair of First Nation foster kids living with a white family in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who discover a portal to a world that reflects their heritage. There, time is different. Animals speak, wear traditional clothing, and follow traditional lifestyles. And everyone is worried about the hardships of a winter caused by a visitor to the land who took over far too much. A new version of Narnia that includes an important historical note as well: the impact outsiders have had on First Nation people and their traditions. And the main character, Morgan, is a fantastic edgy voice to add to middle grade lit.

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
For some reason, I hadn’t read this classic children’s fantasy, a book that helped build the genre, until this year. But I’m so glad I did. This stands up well with its wildly imaginative world and characters, and feels relevant today. It’s a story of growing up, of dealing with power and temptation, and facing one’s greatest fears. It also stars a protagonist of color in a world where people of color dominate, back when readers rare saw that in books for kids (the author mentions in her note that, to her great annoyance, cover art for this book often depicted her main characters as white).

Favorite Reads of 2020—Part 1

I read many incredible middle grade books in 2020. Here’s my list of my very favorites from the first half of of last year. While I liked nearly everything I read, these rose to the top as stories I enjoyed tremendously, thought about long after, and could see many young readers picking up and having the same response.

Last Pick by Jason Walz
This first in a graphic novel series about a dystopian society where aliens have invaded earth, taking all those they considered able-bodied (and leaving all those young and with disabilities behind), stars two siblings who were left behind. They’re starting a revolt against the aliens, but also finding value in the ways in which they differ from what aliens consider the perfect human.

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter by Debbi Michiko Florence
An incredible realistic fiction with a bubbly narrator who is trying so hard to keep her friends connected, take care of others, and be a good person while everything is changing around her. Keiko is an utterly engaging character whom readers will love to follow—and tries so hard to be understanding that, at first, she makes excuses for the micro-aggressions she endures, ones the readers will surely notice.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
I read a lot of books this year that dealt with immigrant experiences in the U.S. This novel in verse stood out for its depiction of Syrian life back at home as well as in the U.S. and the challenges of entering U.S. society as a new Syrian immigrant in a time when racism against Muslim-Americans is intense. Yet this is a sweet story as well—of family, fitting in, finding one’s place, and finding one’s home. This is a  truly beautiful novel.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me rave about this marvelous answer to Little House on the Prairie. A half-Chinese girl and her white father enter Dakota Territory, where racist townsfolk, gender stereotypes, and hostile attitudes toward the native tribes make life especially challenging. It’s a sensitive depiction of frontier life and Hanna is an inspiring guide. This book is also about the importance of following your dreams.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
A boy escapes from a prison community where he’s grown up, desperate for a new life, and a policeman’s daughter is after him, determined to save her father’s honor. There are clear shades of Jean Valjean and Javert in this exciting fantasy about the abuse of privilege, what a sticky beast “justice” can be, and the power of protest.

Story Bite #21: Writing Symbols

Happy New Year! I hope everyone has a great year of writing ahead.

Late in December, I had a lovely chat with a young reader and writer about a story she was working on. She’d come up with a great scenario and there were many places her story could go. Ever since, I’ve been thinking over our conversation and what made her initial scenario so powerful: the symbols she included.

You probably have heard about symbolism in school, maybe with a bird as a metaphor for freedom. Symbols are like guideposts in your story. They hint to your reader what kind of story you’re telling and what kinds of issues you’re bringing up. You can write a story about the brutality of a corrupt government, for instance, without ever mentioning a government official or specific actions.

Sometimes symbols are obvious, part of your culture, something that everyone would understand. But sometimes they’re more subtle—and the words you put around a symbol send the message.

Before jumping into that, though, let’s think of some symbols.

For each picture below, list between one and three things that it could represent. Go as close to what the picture is as you like, or think widely beyond it. And feel free to be silly or snarky.

From your list of symbols, pick your favorite/s and think about how you’ll convey what they mean in a scene. For example, let’s say you chose the peach as a symbol of the sweetness of life. You might write, “Aisha took a bite. Juice dripped down her chin as the sweetness of that perfect peach filled her mouth. Nothing else mattered but that taste.”

Make this Story Bite as short or as long as you like. And if you’re not sure what to write, focus on one of your symbols. How could you start with it? Would the narrator notice it, walk through it, taste it, touch it? What would that be like?

Symbols will add meaning, atmosphere, and color to your writing. And while you can consciously create a scene around them, sometimes you won’t even realize when you’ve put one into your work. Symbols can just appear as part of an ordinary scene (a bowl of oatmeal during breakfast, symbolizing the comfort of a daily routine or small beauties of life, for instance) and you might not realize until later the power it holds for your readers.

On Inspiration, My Mom, and How Drest Entered the World

If you’ve read my blog or follow me on social media or heard me speak, you probably know how much I am obsessed with Scotland. It wasn’t always that way, though. But I met Scotland at a pivotal time in my life.

I first visited Scotland when I was 13 years old. I was with my parents and my two brothers on a long trip to the U.K. and we drove up from London, through the Lake District, to Edinburgh. I remember stone everywhere, Edinburgh Castle’s cannons, eating chocolate, and being wet! I had fun, but I didn’t return for many years. (The affordability of it was part of the reason.)

Fast forward to 2015. My mother, one of the best friends I ever had, died of ALS. In her final days, I couldn’t be with her in person, but I called 4 or five times each day. I kept a list of stories and told her about memories we shared over the phone. She couldn’t talk but I hoped she could hear me. Among other things, I described the many wonderful trips we’d taken.

Mom and me

After she died, my older brother and I had a conversation about one of the things we learned from Mom during her illness: the importance of appreciating what was beautiful and doing things for yourself—a bit of the classic carpe diem philosophy, though appreciating beauty was a big part of it. My brother, who is a professional rafting guide in northern California, went river rafting in Costa Rica. My husband, son, and I planned a trip to the U.K.

When we planned our trip, it was late fall 2015. I’d just finished a near-final draft of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter and I wanted to take a research trip to a place filled with castles. I asked friends on Twitter where I could find the best castles. A few people recommended the Scottish Borders. I saw what was there (many castles! tons of history!) and was hooked.

Castles like this! (Craigmillar)

In early 2016, I signed with my literary agent for Drest’s story. And just as we were leaving for our trip, literally at the airport in New York en route to Edinburgh, I had my first chat with my editor, who wasn’t my editor then but who was interested in my novel.

Scotland and the Borders were a dream. We kept to Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders and dipped down to England to visit Corbridge and Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall, outside of Corbridge, England

I drove everywhere in a little car, on the left side of the road, and loved it. I was where I belonged surrounded by the things I loved: castles and history. I kept thinking of my mom, who would have also loved the history. (She was big on learning.) I was in a state of near-constant beaming.

Constant beaming like this.

One of my favorite castles to visit was Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh (on the outskirts of the city). As soon as I saw it, I knew this was a place that would matter. I took so many pictures. At that time I was thinking of another Drest book, one that would feature a strong noblewoman* with her own castle with a secret passage. This, Craigmillar, was going to be its façade. (*That strong noblewoman became Lady de Moys and the book became The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter.)

Craigmillar Castle (or, in Lady de Moys’s world, Harkniss)

I was inspired, in my element, and very happy. We drove down to Jedburgh to stay in a cottage on a sheep farm (parts of this feature in a coming book, by the way), where I checked my email… …and learned that my editor was making an offer for Drest and her world! Suddenly, the story of my wee lass was going to be a book.

I wrote The Mad Wolf’s Daughter a few months after my mother died. I wanted to write something that would help me escape my grief. So I wrote a story about what I loved most and what I’d always wished I could have read as a child. I learned it would become a book in a place I visited because of Mom.

I wish Mom could have seen Drest outside Edinburgh Castle’s Portcullis Gate. I can just imagine her smile.

Thank you, Mom, for teaching me so much about how to live. I miss you.

Reading Black Voices in Fantastic Middle Grade Fiction

I am angry and depressed by the ongoing systemic racism of this country. It needs to change. Every single person needs to understand that Black lives matter. Everyone needs that knowledge to be part of their daily lives. And we need to flood our libraries with books that show it.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade books by Black authors. And these are books that have a lot of joy in them (even though some may have some heaviness too). These are books for any kid of any race or ethnicity, books that kids enjoy.

And these are books that every elementary school classroom and library should carry.

 

My first is a recommendation for fans of creepy stories and folktales. These are some of the best books of that kind I’d ever read: The Jumbies trilogy by Tracey Baptiste. Kids who love good stories loaded with menace will eat this up.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks is brand-new realistic fiction that goes into family, truth, serious baking, as well as bias and our prison system. The writing is as warm as this cover art, and I know a lot of kids already love this.

Love Like Sky by Leslie C. Youngblood is a fairly new realistic fiction book, the powerful and sometimes heartbreaking story of a blended family, sisters, illness, fitting in, and early romantic love. (And it’s very timely as well: One of the characters is involved in protesting police brutality against Black people.) This book packs in a lot of issues and weaves them together beautifully.

If you’ve ever heard me talk about Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, you’ve heard me say that this book is like The Westing Game but better. With vivid scenes zipping between the present and the past, this mystery with its historical subplot and story of racism is utterly brilliant and a leader in the middle grade mystery genre.

The amazing Sharon M. Draper has written so many incredible books, Stella by Starlight high among them. It’s a historical novel about a girl in the 1930s facing the KKK in her community. My son reread this again and again, from 3rd grade to 5th grade, at least once each year. And wrote his one and only fan email to the author (who answered him within a day sharing news of her next book, Blended).

Finally, if Jason Reynold’s Track series isn’t in your classroom or library, you need to put it there right away. This series has a huge fan base in every school I’ve mentioned it to. They’re fast-paced, exciting sports books, but books with issues, and I’ve not met a single kid who hasn’t loved them.
 
These are amazing books. Kids love them. And by having authentic Black voices in these stories help children see themselves or see what kids of another race and ethnicity are like: with experiences distinct to the Black experience, yet with hopes and dreams a lot like their own.

(I tweeted the pictures and some of the text of this post on May 31, 2020.)

Black Voices in Middle Grade Historical Fiction

It’s crucial to have Black voices in the middle grade curriculum in classrooms. Too often, historical stories that have meaning because of the Black experience are told from the white perspective. We need to bring these stories back to authentic voices. Here’s are four of my favorite historical fiction books for elementary and middle grades that do this right  (each graphic has the publisher’s blurb and era).

 

 

 

(These images are from a thread I tweeted on June 3, 2020. I wanted it to be here as well.)

Story Bite #20 (Special): How to Write an Action Scene!

This is a little bit different from my other Story Bite posts. I wanted to try this format and see if young writers would this kind better (maybe I’ll just mix it up in the future). In this post, I’m sharing a video for a series created and hosted by Debbie Ridpath Ohi called Ask Me to Ask, in which authors and illustrators share tips relating to their crafts and answer a question.

Here’s my contribution: how to write an action scene. This could be a good introduction to my other posts on this, Story Bite Number 14 and Story Bite Number 15.

I love that Debbie used Minecraft in her intro.

What do you think? Was this fun?

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite action scene with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.