Story Bite #17: World Building and History (Today)

For this Story Bite in a time of global social isolation, I’m going to delve into one of my favorite parts of writing: research that helps a writer to understand a world. This post will also connect to the incredible historical situation we all find ourselves in today…but more on that in a bit. (By the way, keep in mind that all of the below is useful for fantasy and sci-fi as well. But stick with the concept of history for now, and certainly at the end. You’ll see why.)

The fundamentals of research allow you, the writer, to know your time and place—not just what people ate, and wore, and how they traveled (and if they traveled), but what issues were facing people’s lives. Some important questions to ask about another time or place as a writer—so you can recreate it—might be: What was life like? What did people care about? What mattered most?

Here’s our photo, some detail about an important historical site in Edinburgh, Scotland, that shares a bit about how people thought and what mattered in 1886…and in 2007:

About Well Court, Edinburgh. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s the Part One of our Story Bite:

Write a series of questions that you would ask someone from the past—or from a fantasy or sci-fi world— to get to the bottom of what life was like for them. Would it be a medieval person from the time of knights and castles? Someone who lived in 1886 as Well Court was being built? A world where faeries and goblins lived alongside humans?

Here are some questions I might ask:

  • What was normal for people to eat? What was special? Where and how did they get their food?
  • What did people do for medicine? Did they do anything special to keep healthy? What was considered “healthy?”
  • What did kids do during an average day? If they could do anything they wanted, what would they do?
  • What were some of the crises that their families dealt with? How did their family, community, or world deal with regional, national, or global challenges?
  • What did people worry about? What made people scared?

Go ahead and use these questions if you like or come up with your own.

Do you have your list now? Fantastic.

Here’s Part Two:

Answer your questions yourself: about your world right now.

You are living in a historic time right now. With the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s world across the world is being disrupted. Recording what’s going on around you is important. It provides what’s called a primary source document, which shows to people in the future what the world was like now according to people living in our world and time. These are crucial in understanding events and lives of the past, but many of the past leave gaps: Few primary source documents that were written by children exist.

Your voice matters. Imagine what your documents would be like for people to read a hundred years from now. This is your chance to tell part of a big historical story.

Part Three (optional):

If you were disappointed to end with current history and really want to write about the past or an invited world, please go right ahead! This is world building, a crucial part of writing any story, and you’re just creating your primary source document for your fiction world. Have a bit of fun with it and think about what kind of character would be filling this out. You can tell a lot about a character by their answers…just as someone can tell a lot about you by yours above! But pay a lot of attention to the final question. What made people worried? And maybe add this one: How would your characters react to a world like ours?

Further Directions:

I always invite young writers to share their Story Bites with me; I love to see what you come up with. For this one, with your permission and a guardian’s permission, I’ll keep a record of what you send on my website, linked to this post. As I wrote above, your voice matters. I want to keep a record of what kids are thinking right now.

If you’d like to share your Story Bite, please submit it through your teacher (I know a lot of you are working with Google Classroom!) or through a guardian 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. I hope this is helpful.

 

 

Story Bite #16: It’s All About Perspective

Perspective—the voice that tells a story—can entirely change a story’s meaning, purpose, and feel. Here’s an example: When I was four years old, I was invited to the birthday party of my older brother’s best friend, Aaron. There was a chocolate cake in the kitchen while activities went on outside. I grew bored with the activities and, when no one was watching, crept into the kitchen and licked off a good quarter of that cake’s frosting. I tried to join the crowd again without revealing what I’d done, but the evidence was pretty obvious all over my face. From my perspective, the experience had been something I had always wanted to do, and, even with the very angry scolding I received from my mother, it was worth it. From my mother’s, it was a huge embarrassment, and she felt bad for Aaron and his mother. From Aaron’s mother’s perspective, I was the kid who ruined her son’s birthday party (she forgave me eventually, but it took over a year). From Aaron’s perspective, it was hilarious, and there was plenty of cake still (he was always incredibly nice to me). Thus, the story of the frosting theft could either be one of triumph, humiliation, despair, or humor.

We’re going to play with perspective in this Story Bite. Here’s our picture:

Borthwick Close, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

This is a “close,” a narrow passage between houses, in one of my favorite places in the world: Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s a busy street, the Royal Mile, at our backs as we step into the close. Everything becomes quieter. The walls smell of damp stone and are cold to the touch. We’re going to write about a walk down to the end of Borthwick Close from three different perspectives.

Choose Your Voice
Let’s try out a few different types of voices. Pick a character from each category below, or create three of your own voices.

1. A nervous voice: someone who’s looking for their family, or is running away from a bully, or has followed a child or sibling or parent down the close (and the person they’re following has just disappeared beyond the sun)

2. A confident voice: someone who’s eager to explore, or lives in the building at the end (so it’s normal to walk down this close), or is hot and tired and being in the close is a relief

3. An angry voice: someone who lives in the building at the end but wishes they lived somewhere else, or is a visitor and has been lost in the city and is getting more and more frustrated, or is the sibling or parent or child following a family member above and is about to lose their temper

Have you picked your characters for each kind of voice? Now write a paragraph (around four lines, but it’s your choice) of this action in the first voice you chose:

Your character walks into the close, brushes against the rough and damp stone wall, feels their footsteps against the hard stone tiles on the ground, and hears a noise at the end beyond the sun.

Use first person (“I walk into the close”) or second person (“She walked into the close”) and whatever tense (present: “I walk” or past: “I walked”) you like.

When you’re done with the first voice you picked, write exactly the same scene—brushing the wall, feeling their footsteps, hearing a noise (you decide what that noise is)—from the second voice you’ve chosen. And do it again with the third.

Read over what you’ve written. Which voice did you enjoy writing most? Which do you like most now? Did any one of them feel like a good start to a story? If so, this could be a great beginning: You’re starting right in the middle of an action with tension and a secret with that noise at the end.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share this Story Bite 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.

Genre Fiction for the Classroom

From You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Tom Gauld, 2013

In the world of literature, there’s often prejudice against genre fiction. This becomes especially pernicious when it’s applied to children’s fiction: Students’ love of reading can ebb when they’re told or showed that the things they love to read aren’t “good” or worth reading.

Not all children love genre fiction (in fact, teachers have shared that many students who aren’t regular readers love realistic fiction because it’s often shorter and easy to jump right into). Yet for those who find their interests awakened by worlds with magic, special powers, kid-led adventure, romance, action, and more, it can be easy to assume that their favorite genres aren’t valued when they don’t see it in their classrooms. And it can be hard to sustain a habit of reading when much of after school reading is assigned books that you don’t care about.

I see that as a wasted opportunity: So much children’s genre fiction is rich with big ideas and powerful themes, transcending the label. Its authors want their books to please on the surface but also provide opportunity for discussion and deep exploration underneath.

I know some teachers don’t read a lot of children’s genre fiction and may not be aware of the depth of literature out there in that field. In September 2019, I put out a call on Twitter for recommendations from teachers, librarians, and authors. With the incredible response I received, I’ve begun a list of genre fiction for the classroom.

These are stellar examples of middle grade and young adult genre fiction, most recommended by teachers and librarians. Where I could, I included themes and links to teachers’ guides. The purpose of this list is to spread the word of how genre fiction can transcend genre and, I hope, give teachers and school librarians a few more options to add their book group selections for the kids who would prefer this kind of story.

This is a working list for elementary through high school teachers. It’s not even close to being a complete resource, and I plan to keep expanding it for as long as I have time. Please comment on this post if you have middle grade and young adult titles you’d like to suggest. Share the author, the title, year of publication, genre, and themes (not what the publisher defines as themes, but themes that would apply specifically to a classroom’s use of that book), and a link to any discussion guide or Teachers’ Guide. And if you’ve used this in your classroom, please share some of the topics or themes that you’ve discussed (you’ll see I have some teachers who did so on the list). Thank you!

One last request: Please share this post in your schools and on your own social media so that we can add to this list and reduce some of the hesitation people may feel about using genre fiction for serious purposes. I hope we can ensure that children in our schools always have a broad selection of books to choose from. Imagine a world where deep work of genre fiction is the subject of essays—and also the book read for pleasure late at night.

Story Bite #15: Writing Action (Part 2)

In our last Story Bite, we wrote an action scene. We focused exclusively on the path and the obstacles facing our character, but mostly the journey itself. Those scenes are fun to write. For many authors, they just flow onto the page: We’re narrating what’s going on and that’s often not too hard to write about.

But here’s something to think about: A really good action scene isn’t just the action but the feeling behind the action. It reflects why the action is happening in the first place. It includes the stakes (why it matters that the character reaches the end of the action). If you keep that in mind when you’re revising, you can add a whole extra layer to the scene.

Here’s your picture for this post: a close-up of tower of Abbotsford, the house that’s the destination for your character’s action scene.

Photo: Diane Magras

For this Story Bite: Take the action scene you wrote before (Story Bite #14).

Ask yourself: Why is it important for my character to reach the house? What will happen if they don’t?

Look for places to add a few lines to show that. It can be your character thinking about why it matters, and despairing when things start looking bad.

Here are a couple of examples of the kinds of lines I might use for my action scene:

“I have to reach the house, I thought. My family needs me. I dodged the cat’s next blow, my heart almost still.”

“The noisy machine was too close. In seconds, it would eat me. I would never see my mother again. But it was hopefully. I could never pass the green with that metallic beast.”

You may have guessed this by now, but this Story Bite is all about revision. I hope it will help you find ways to make your writing even richer and more emotionally powerful than before with just a few lines.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share this revised Story Bite 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.

Story Bite #14: Writing Action (Part 1)

Writing action scenes can be a lot of fun. They’re energetic and your character is truly doing something. They can move along the story, end or begin a page with power, and hook your reader. For a lot of people, they’re easy to write—because it’s just movement. And that’s a great place to start. For this series of Story Bites, I’ll share some tips about writing action—and how we get our minds around the different kinds of action that a truly great action scene needs to have.

Here’s your picture to start:

Photo: Diane Magras

This is Abbotsford, a mansion that looks like a castle in Melrose, Scotland. It was built in 1824 by Sir Walter Scott, a historical novelist and poet. This is going to be the setting for our action scene.

Your character’s goal: to reach that house.

Who is your character? It’s important to know this before you begin. Choose one quickly: Is it you? The crow in the picture? A mouse or vole? A person (kid or grownup, and figure out the approximate age)? An animated carrot? A broken robot? An enderman? Any kind of creature at all!

What’s in the landscape? We have tall grass, an opening in a hedge, and what look like earthen fortifications. What else do you see?

What will be your character’s path? Draw a rough map showing how your character will reach their destination. What features of the landscape will they cross? What features will stand in their way?

How can you make your character’s path even more difficult? We’re talking about physical action in this post, so focus just on that. Make a list of all the things that could make your character’s journey to the house more challenging. For example:

  • Weather (torrential rain? poison rain? snow or sleet? hot sun?)
  • Insects and other such tiny beasts (bees? mosquitos? midges/blackflies? monstrous dragonflies? beetles? spiders?)
  • Larger beasts (guard dogs? cats? murderous crows? eagles? dragons? monsters?)
  • Mechanical (robots of various sizes? machines? projectiles? sensors?)
  • People (guards of various ages? the house’s owner? kids playing?)

Think about what would make this hard for your character specifically.

When you’re done, look over that list. Pick what you’d like to keep, and what you’d like to set aside to use only if you need it. Sometimes it’s fun to hit a character with literally everything, but that can be hard for you as the writer because your job will then be to figure out how your character succeeds. Sometimes it’s easier—and just as interesting—to pick only one or two challenges.

An Everything Approach
I might pick a mouse as my character. The landscape itself will be a challenge. My mouse is also dealing with hot sun, a nest of bees in the ground, a cat, a lawnmower, and kids playing. But my mouse is fast, smart, and tough. She’s young, but she’s dealt with infiltrating houses before. And she just needs to reach a tiny crack in the lower stones of that house. While writing this action scene, I’d have her hide in the shade from the hot sun but then have to deal with the nest of bees; and when she escapes from them, the cat is waiting for her. And then it becomes a chase through everything else, dodging the lawnmower and the kids. She loses the cat at times, but then it finds her again, and just barely makes it.

One Character, One Conflict
I’m still with my mouse as my character, but I’ve chosen to have only one challenge in the field: moving sensors. The mouse’s whole goal is to avoid the sensors (if she doesn’t, they’ll trap her). This action scene will involve a lot of problem-solving as my mouse figures out how to get above, below, and around the sensors. Oh, and how to hide from them.

Special Powers?
Want to give your character a special power or talent or advantage? You might have noticed that I did that with my mouse: She’s fast, smart, and tough. What does your character have within themselves that equips them for this challenge? Think also what they have on the outside that would help (a wand? Mechanical wings? A tiny weapon? A spray bottle? A bodyguard?). Come up with a list.

Now get to the scene. Start writing in the middle of an action. Something has just happened and your character needs to run. Make sure that your character encounters the problems and worries at least once (ideally twice or three times!) that they won’t make it.

Active Words
When writing an action scene, it’s crucial to use active language. If you’re having trouble thinking of active verbs, grab a thesaurus and make a list of synonyms. Describe how your character moves (do they bolt? sprint? pound? scamper? leap?). Think of how your character’s body is reacting (Is their heart pounding? Are they sweating? Are they cold with fear? Are they faint with terror?). What are the landscape and the challenges doing around your character?

Have fun with this scene! This is all about writing external action, so it might end up looking like a video game (in fact, a lot of external action often does). Absolutely use that inspiration if it helps!

In my next post, we’ll think about internal action. So keep your piece on hand!

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite 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.

A New Year, and Looking Back

Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you all a joyous, peaceful, warm, and creative year filled with the light you need in your particular lives.

For me, I’m looking forward to editing a new book that I’m very excited about. More on that when it’s closer to publication.

Today I looked back on some of my favorite memories of 2019. A big one was the trip my family took to Scotland. When I do research on the ground, I cast my net wide. I usually visit four or more castles and thoroughly explore them, hunting for details that will be useful in my settings. But in 2019, with my husband and son backing me up all the way (as they always do, kind souls that they are), I decided that I’d do a deep dive into the history, people, and architecture of my favorite city instead: Edinburgh. Here’s a taste of that.

We begin, of course, with a castle.

At Edinburgh Castle

My son prefers not to have his photo shared on social media and the like, so you won’t see him in this post, though he was a wonderful companion on this trip. However, you will see the other important gentleman in my life: my husband Michael. He’s kindly posing for me at Edinburgh Castle. He enjoys castles and history, but isn’t obsessed the way I am. Yet he never shows any hesitation to go off to visit any castle or historical sight to which my obsession leads me.

Edinburgh Castle is a fascinating place. When rediscovered in a state of disuse in the 1800s, it was envisioned by many as a crucial historic site (which indeed it is), leading to its enthusiastic preservation. But remember: Medievalism was quite fashionable and romantic then, and a frequent subject in works of art that paid more attention to beauty than accuracy. The good 19th century preservationists of this castle also reinterpreted much it, rebuilding with a 19th century idea of what history looked like. Those parts  aren’t historically accurate from a medieval or Renaissance sense, but they feel like walking into a pre-Raphaelite work of art, and are fascinating as such. And the ground hold a wonderful modern-day museum of the war history, which include the periods when it was used as a POW camp during the American and Napoleonic wars (those are thoughtful and beautifully accurate). That’s why I love this castle: Its many reincarnations are represented, which is something you don’t often see in castles.

And, to loop back to what I was writing at the start, it’s lovely being married to someone with whom I can discuss this kind of thing as we visit such sites.

Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle

I always visit the Scottish National War Memorial when I’m at Edinburgh Castle. This is an incredibly powerful place. Built in 1927 by Sir Robert Lorimer, it holds printed books with the names of every Scottish man and woman who died in service in conflicts from WWI on. It’s a moving place that doesn’t allow photos inside, which is s good thing; it’s a place to reflect and honor of those who died in armed conflicts, especially the  many, many of WWI. You really understand the impact of that war if you look at any one of the regiments’ books of names.

Borthwick Close

The Royal Mile, an important road in the Old Town, goes all the way up to Edinburgh Castle. And of course, lots of people wander down it from the castle. When you’re wandering the Royal Mile, you’ll notice all sorts of interesting bits of history if you look carefully. Here’s one of them: Borthwick’s Close, one of the many narrow passageways between the historic buildings. Borthwick’s Close was once one of the crucial byways that helped people get around what was a fashionable place to live in the early 17th century. Houses were huge, towering, and tight, and the streets were long. Closes like this led to other streets, and sometimes courtyards or other houses. These days, most closes lead to restaurant back doors or are places where residents put their rubbish (trash, to those of us in the U.S.). Borthwick’s Close now leads to an apartment complex, but we can still imagine the history of this spot.

A basket-hilted broadsword…

 

…and its blade

You knew there’d be a sword picture, yes? Well, this is a beauty. It’s a basket-hilted broadsword, c 1715, which greeted me as soon as I walked into the National Museum of Scotland’s gorgeous and insightful exhibit “Wild and Majestic”. This weapon is from the Highlands, and looks as if it received some use (see the second pic). A sword of this era could stand up to the nicks you see a bit better than the swords in my books (which are from 500 years before). By the way, a lot of people think my books (which are set in and around the Lothians and the Scottish Borders) take place in the Highlands, which is an understandable mistake. This exhibit brilliantly explains why the common perception of Scotland is of Highland Scotland.

The New Town

Onto the New Town, with a picture of the street where I stay when my family visits Edinburgh. The New Town isn’t known much by tourists, as there aren’t many attractions of the kind one finds in the Old Town (the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle, etc), but it’s one of my favorite places to wander because of this: rows of Georgian houses in crescents and “places” with parks in between. These were built during the early 1800s when the city was as a hotbed of intellectualism and culture and decided to clean itself up a wee bit to compete with elegant cities in Europe. James Craig (at only age 26) was the architect who designed the New Town, down to and just past Princes Street.

Now, let’s wander to a different part of Edinburgh, past the New Town, into what was once a difference town altogether. Dene, as it was known in the 11th century and on for a bit, was a village with a powerful tradition of milling. That it’s on the Water of Leith, a lovely burn that snakes through Edinburgh, makes a lot of sense. Here’s a quiet bit of the Water of Leith near St. Bernard’s Well.

St. Bernard’s Well, with Hygieia, goddess of health

And while we’re talking about St. Bernard’s Well…it’s a lovely spot on the walk to Dean Village, an ornate structure with Gothic columns. People came here for the mineral waters, and in 1760, this well marked the site of a purported healthful spring (though one person described the taste of the water as being like “the washings from a foul gun barrel”). In the 1940s, it was closed due to things like arsenic in the water.

Dean Village

A few pictures above, I mentioned the village of “Dene.” These days, it’s called “Dean,” and this was my first visit to it. Dean Village was its own separate village until it was sold to an Edinburgh provost in 1826. Here’s a very famous view.

Well Court

In Dean Village, one of the most historic places is Well Court. This is a series of buildings built in 1886 to provide good, affordable housing for local people and to encourage community with common spaces. It fell to ruin over the years but was renovated in 2007 with a similar aim. This is the courtyard, and while we were there, we heard a wisp of Scottish folk music playing from upstairs in one of the flats, pots clanging as someone was cooking in another one, and people chatting with friends. This would be a lovely place to live.

Dundas House

Back in Edinburgh proper, and to St Andrew Square, where this gorgeous little mansion sits. Dundas House was built in 1774 by architect Sir William Chambers for Sir Lawrence Dundas, a businessman who worked with the British during the Jacobite wars. It became the Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters in 1825. When you start learning the players in history here (especially during the period of the Jacobites), you’ll find that everything starts to connect. And buildings like this tell their own stories. (By the way, it’s still a Royal Bank of Scotland.)

St Stephens Church

As you can tell, I was really drinking the history of buildings in Edinburgh. Here’s another building that I passed often and absolutely adored: St Stephen’s Church, which dominates the start of Stockbridge near the New Town. It was built in 1827 and 1828 and is one of the masterpieces of William Henry Playfair, one of Edinburgh’s renowned architects of that era (he did monuments too). Its use as a church declined more recently, and it was purchased in 2014 by a private owner and now is a performance space. I’m grateful that a commitment has been made to keep this stunning landmark intact.

At Foogs Gate, Edinburgh Castle

I’ll end this post with one of my family’s traditional photographs. Each year, my husband or son takes a picture of me beaming at Foogs Gate, a 17th century part of Edinburgh Castle. I love being here, and Foogs Gate was once an entry, and a checkpoint. It’s a place where I always pause to soak up the history and reflect on how happy I am to be there.

Inspiration with a Cuppa: Memories of Eileen Curran

I was going through my files recently, and noticed a tribute I’d written for a very dear friend I had during my early career here in Maine: Eileen Curran (born 1927), the Victorian scholar, who I’d met in 2004. Every once in a while, I’ve found that I meet people with whom I have an instant bond. Eileen was many years my senior, but she came into my life as I was researching the Victorian period for a historical novel I was writing. Back then, I was fascinated mostly with England (Scotland was certainly an interest, but not the obsession it is today—it became that shortly thereafter). My interests at that time made my meeting Eileen quite advantageous, in many ways, and for both of us, I think. Here is the tribute that I spoke at Colby College’s Special Collections in October 2013 for the Maine Humanities Council board. (I thought it might be fun for readers who know only my attention to Scottish castles to see that I’ve had other influences.) —Diane Magras

Columbine and chives in Eileen’s Cottage Garden. (Photo: Diane Magras)

Each summer, Eileen Curran’s garden was the most colorful on her street: with pink lupine, ivory scabiosa, white violets, and golden gloriosa daisies among the most outstanding. Other perennials wove between them, creating a 19th-century tapestry of color and texture, like the gardens that had inspired the very concept of English cottage gardening. It made perfect sense that such a garden would surround Eileen’s home, or that you’d find further evidence of a Victorian life inside, where illustrations from Punch hung on the walls over William Morris “Willow” patterned wallpaper.

The first time I met Eileen in 2004, on a sunny early July day when her massive hedge of lilacs was the most striking thing in bloom, I had no real idea that I would be stepping into the home of a person who would inspire me so thoroughly. I’m one of those Americans who looks longingly at Anthony Trollope’s world: at the sense of adventure laced with certain good manners—not to mention the long country walks over a verdant English countryside and, yes, that abundance of boldly-patterned skirts—and I didn’t have many people in my life who were quite as obsessed about these things as I was.

Eileen, however, was. And obsessed with far more.

Eileen was like the Victorians she researched: while honoring the past, she embraced new technology, to the point of exclusively publishing her work online in The Curran Index of Additions to and Corrections of the Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals. Biographies of Some Obscure Contributors to 19th-century Periodicals, published on the Victoria Research Web, expanded the Curran Index’s content. These resources delved into the prolific world of Victorian men and women who published their articles, stories, poems, and essays with their real names, pseudonyms, and anonymously, but whose identities help researchers today weave together the booming industry of letters. (Dickens’s famous Household Words was only a small part of the picture.)

This is one of Eileen’s passport photos. She’d saved many from many years of primary source research in England, Ireland, and Germany.

The most obscure of these writers—writers who never published more than a few articles, those who were never sufficiently established, or those whose anonymous paths seemed to peter out in old parish registries—were Eileen’s special delight. She believed in the important contributions that anonymous writers made, and was like a private detective in seeking their identities—a detective who parsed through birth, death, and marriage records in small country churches, online, by phone, through microfiche, and through mail, to find all these “Obscures.” When I first met her, she had already mapped out hundreds of families in Britain. In my many visits to her house, with my cup of loose leaf Lapsang Oolong (Eileen’s favorite) and the most wonderful homemade biscuits outside of England, I heard stories of her “Obscures,” their families and their aliases and who they might have been but really were (as far as she knew; she was always open to corrections that might come up in future research, and never made assumptions without being clear that they were just that).

We also talked Victorian literature, but in a way that I certainly had never talked it before. Eileen spoke in casual conversation about the great Victorian authors and their characters as if they were old friends, often in present tense. And she spoke in gorgeous sentences, the kinds that these authors had written, composing in her head as she spoke. I don’t know how she did it (I need paper to build such sentences). She rearranged how one would normally speak a sentence, roll out a clever and unusual verb, and end with a punch line that caught you a second or two after you heard it. Eileen never laughed at her own jokes; she hardly waited to see if I caught them, though once in a while she’d pause with a slight eyebrow arch.

I spent the whole day with her on my visits. During those rewarding hours, Eileen also told me stories of her family, of her parents’ upbringing and her own. She was a precocious child (of course) who surprisingly didn’t speak until she was three years old, but began speaking almost at once in complete sentences. It was as if she had waited, listened, and learned. She had many opportunities to listen: her parents included her in conversations about educational theories, business, and WWII. They respected her mind. She graduated from Cornell University, where she also earned her PhD, and also was among the first graduating class of Cambridge’s Girton College in 1948. She experienced Austerity firsthand, living with a Cambridge family in town, and shared the care packages sent from home with them: packages of sweets, tinned foods, chocolate, and cigarettes (an excellent currency, she said).

This is an early passport photo when Eileen was still a student.

We went out to lunch in Waterville most days that I visited. Once, in the private dark corner of a busy restaurant, hearing a story about her independent, free-spirited, curious, and intellectual schooldays, I felt a powerful connection: I had been exactly the same at my school nearly fifty years later, reading big books for fun in the corner of the library, finding few like spirits around me. If time and place had somehow put us together in the same town, I suspect we’d have been best friends. And she’d have probably egged me on to become a Victorian scholar, too.

The last time I saw Eileen, her eyesight was nearly gone—a huge blow for a person whose life was built around her scholarly research—but she was still able to see some of the walk we went on. I pushed her wheelchair around the oceanside path of her assisted care facility, up to the fading rosebushes and cold chrysanthemums. She spotted in the distance a yellow flower and though her distance vision was quite impaired, she opined its identity. I darted into the grass and fetched one for her. She was right. It was goldenrod, a weed in America, Eileen told me, but a fine addition to a cottage garden in England. We found a cup for a vase in her room.

Eileen died on April 22, 2013, at the age of 85. It’s been hard for me to drive past her house, but the last time I did, that massive hedge of lilacs was in bloom.

 

Historical Novel Society Review

The Historical Novel Society is a great resource. On their website, aficionados of historical fiction may learn about what historical novels are out in the English-speaking world, or research ones from the past. I’ve gone to their website many times to look at reviews. It’s especially nice because the people reviewing are as big on history as I am (or are actual professional historians!).

So imagine my delight when an editor of the Historical Novel Society emailed me this review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter! I especially like the ending, where the reviewer notices how Drest’s reliance on her brothers’ voices shifts to a reliance on her own.

Book critics don’t write reviews for authors, and authors really shouldn’t read reviews with their author brain switched on. We’re not the audience. And that’s fine. But that truth doesn’t take away from my pleasure in this review as both an author and someone who loves historical novels.

Classroom Book Club Giveaway!

There’s a great movement among teachers these days to put books in students’ hands that students want to read, not just books that adults admire. It’s the best way to ensure students’ love of reading. I’ve been thrilled to hear about student choice like this happening all over the country.

But I know that it can be hard for teachers to be aware of all the incredible new books out there. Often, stellar novels that would be great for the classroom—and favorites too—are missed.

A group of middle grade and young adult authors are joining me for a massive giveaway to bring discussion-worthy books across genres into the classroom. We’re offering three groups of middle grade books, one of upper middle grade, and one of young adult (five books in each) to teachers and school librarians in the U.S. (sorry to restrict, but this helps with mailing costs). These are books published in 2018 and in 2019 that we all think could have a strong place in future classroom book clubs.

Below, I’ve posted a list of all the books, in order of their groups, with themes we think teachers would find useful, author websites, and, where available, teacher and discussion guides.

But first, here are the giveaway instructions:

1. Choose which group of books would be best for your classroom or school library: middle grade group A, B, or C (for grades 3 through 6), upper middle grade (grades 6 through 8), or young adult (grades 8 through 12). Retweet the post, and tell us which category’s giveaway you’d like to enter.

2. Follow all the authors in your chosen category.

3. Retweet before Monday, November 4, 2019. We’ll be drawing winners for each category on that day.

And now for the books! Be sure to scroll to the end to see the amazing upper MG and YA contributions!

MIDDLE GRADE: GROUP A

Skylark and Wallcreeper (Little Bee Books, October 2018)

Anne O’Brien Carelli, www.anneobriencarelli.com

Themes: Understanding and respecting contributions of elders; persevering under challenging circumstances; and girls can be clever, strong, and brave

Discussion Guide

 

 

Unwritten (Jolly Fish Press/North Star Editions, October 2018)

Tara Gilboy, taragilboy.com

Themes: Finding your own identity, sometimes good people do bad things/forgiving yourself and others, controlling your own destiny

 

 

 

The Three Rules of Everyday Magic (Boyds Mills and Kane, September 2018)

Amanda Rawson Hill, amandarawsonhill.com

Themes: Kindness, mental health, music, dementia and multigenerational relationships

Discussion Questions

 

 

If This Were a Story (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2018)

Beth Turley, bethturleybooks.com

Themes: Friendship, bullying, speaking up, grief; there are also elements of magical realism

 

 

 

Spin the Golden Lightbulb (Amberjack Publishing, January 2018)

Jackie Yeager, www.swirlandspark.com

Themes: This is a STEM/ STEAM type book (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) that promotes teamwork, creative problem solving, and pursuing dreams in the face of huge obstacles.

 

 

MIDDLE GRADE: GROUP B

Everlasting Nora (Starscape, A Tom Doherty Associates Book, Macmillan Publishers, October 2018)

Marie Cruz, www.cruzwrites.com

Themes: What does home mean to you? Building empathy for how people live in other parts of the world. How does empathy play a role in how we treat each other? What is perseverance?

A discussion guide is in the back of the book.

 

 

The Key of Lost Things (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 2019)

Sean Easley, www.seaneasley.com

Themes: Listen to others. Everyone is just as valuable as you. Asking for help is not weakness. Don’t lose yourself while trying to be what others want you to be.

 

 

The Cryptid Catcher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux (BYR), August 2018)

Lija Fisher, www.lijafisher.com

Themes: Friendship, learning to trust yourself, protecting our natural world

Research Game

 

 

The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin Young Readers, March 2019)

Diane Magras, www.dianemagras.com

Themes: Determining your own identity, challenging expectations of birth and gender, standing up to those in power, living with the consequences of mistakes, seeking ways to heal, forgiveness, and gender equality

Teachers Guide and Discussion Questions

 

 

A Swirl of Ocean (Knopf Books for Young Readers, August 2019)

Melissa Sarno, melissasarno.com

Themes: Choosing family, discovering connections to the natural world, learning to let others in, accepting that friendships and families change.

 

 

 

MIDDLE GRADE: GROUP C

Where the Watermelons Grow (Harper Collins, July 2018)

Cindy Baldwin, cindybaldwinbooks.com

Themes: Tolerance/acceptance of differences, resilience, community, and disability

Teaching Guide

 

 

 

 

The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic, February 2018)

Sayantani Dasgupta, www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer

Themes: Bengali/Indian folktales, string theory/astronomy/space, immigration and immigrant identities, prejudice and discrimination, oppression, parent-child relationships, girl power

 

 

The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press Kids, April 2018)

Lauren Abbey Greenberg, laurenabbeygreenberg.com

Themes: Dealing with change as we grow up and get older; intergenerational relationships; how our attachments to things, places, and even people can sometimes affect our well-being; showing empathy towards mental illness

Study Guide

 

 

The Fang of Bonfire Crossing (Henry Holt for Young Readers, February 2019)

Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester, www.bradmcbooks.com

Themes: Teamwork, friendship, justice versus revenge, family

 

 

 

 

The Spinner of Dreams (Harper Collins, August 2018)

K.A. Reynolds, www.kareynoldsbooks.com

Themes: Mental health, courage, empathy, and identity

 

 

 

UPPER MIDDLE GRADE

Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, May 2018)

J.H. Diehl, www.jhdiehl.com

Themes: Family: How a young teen finds resilience to cope with family trauma (a parent with mental illness, parents separating, a child with challenging developmental delays);    Friendship: How the good friends we make – and sometimes the most unexpected friends we make – can help us to grow up; STEM: Math concepts of Pi and infinity, and the science of fireflies; Sports: Competitive swimming, and, more generally, the learning experience of participating on a team.

Teacher’s Guide

 

Up for Air (Amulet Books/Abrams, May 2019)

Laurie Morrison, lauriemorrisonwrites.com

Themes: Honoring your unique intelligence and strength, developing self-esteem that’s not tied to external validation, managing the emotional and physical changes of puberty, the social pressures of having older friends

Teacher’s Guide

 

 

Good Enough (Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends, February 2019)

Jen Petro-Roy, jenpetroroy.com

Themes: Self-esteem, body image, mental health, self discovery

Teachers Guide and Discussion Questions

 

 

 

The Prophet Calls
(Yellow Jacket/S&S, November 2018)

Melanie Sumrow, www.melaniesumrow.com

Themes: Figuring out who you are and what you believe, female empowerment, toxic masculinity

Discussion Guide

 

 

The Woods (September, 2019)

Rachel Toalson, www.racheltoalson.com

Themes: Family, loss, grief, escape

 

 

 

YOUNG ADULT

 

What the Woods Keep (Imprint (Macmillan), September 2018)

Katya de Becerra, katyabecerra.blogspot.com

Themes and Discussion Guide

 

 

 

Sanctuary (Simon Pulse, July 2018)

Caryn Lix, www.carynlix.com

Themes: Personal identity, corporate power in the world, prejudice, thinking for yourself

 

 

 

 

Nothing But Sky (Flux, March 2018)

Amy Trueblood, amytruebloodauthor.com

Themes: History, found family, chasing your dreams, risk vs. reward.

Classroom Discussion Questions

 

 

Paper Girl (Entangled Teen, December 2018)

Cindy Wilson, www.cindyrwilson.wordpress.com

Themes: Inner strength and courage and overcoming fears. The book talks heavily about anxiety as the MC is agoraphobic. Also, homelessness and substance abuse.

 

 

The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig (Hyperion, October 2018)

Don Zolidis, www.donzolidis.com

Themes: 1. Break-ups, 2. Learning how to see people for who they are, 3. Family struggles, 4. Funny animal stories

 

 

 

Thanks for participating in this giveaway, and good luck!

Story Bite #13: The Very Beginning (Part 2)

In the last story bite, we came up with an idea. Now we’re going to put that idea on the page. And what we’re looking for is…an opening line.

First, I want everyone to know that it is extremely rare for a professional author to nail that opening line in the first writing of the first draft. It took me about three tries and at least three tweaks to get the opening line for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter:

“The fog drew back upon the dark sea and revealed a gleaming point like a ship’s bow, which seemed to nod at the girl brooding by the glowing bonfire.”

Opening

This is a picture drawn by a 6th grade student of this opening line. Cool, isn’t it?

An opening line is your entry into your work. Often referred to as a hook, it can also be an open door with a soft carpet: It’s something that will make your reader want to come in.

And opening lines are hard. It’s not uncommon for a professional author to sit in front of a blank page agonizing over that opening line. If you can’t think of a good one, you might feel stuck on the whole piece of writing. But there are ways you can write an opening line that will put you on your path, and I’ll let you into one of my tricks: It’s to use mentor texts.

A lot of you will have heard of this concept: Using a work of published fiction to help inspire or educate you about writing when you’re struggling with your own work. When I’m struggling with an opening line, I look at some of my favorites of my author peers to see how they managed to invite the reader into their story. Here are a handful:

1. “The first time the horn sounded on the hill, Wolf mistook it for a sheep bleating or a bird crying, and thought no more of it.”
—from Katherine Langrish’s The Shadow Hunt (first published in the UK as Dark Angels)

2. “Even the woods are burning.”
—from Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur

3. “I have a secret.”
—from Megan Shepherd’s The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

And here’s mine again, just to compare:

4. “The fog drew back upon the dark sea and revealed a gleaming point like a ship’s bow, which seemed to nod at the girl brooding by the glowing bonfire.”
—from The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

Each one of these opening lines does something different.

1. In The Shadow Hunt, a character hears a sound, but mistakes it for something else. This kind of opening hints at tension. Why write about this unless it’s important, and the character is wrong in his assumptions? To model this opening, write about your character making a mistake about something: a sound, a sight, a taste, a smell. After this, you can have a line about why your character made that mistake—they were busy, distracted, unwisely certain—and go on from there.

2. Something very dramatic is happening in Here Lies Arthur. The author wouldn’t share that “even” the woods are burning unless that’s important. This opening implies that the woods shouldn’t be burning, but they are, because everything’s burning. And that immediately introduces tension. But it’s a basic statement, an observation. Write an observation beginning with: “Even the…” Think of something that shouldn’t be happening but is happening. It could be something disastrous that leads into your story, something that your character sees or feels as a result of a momentous event. (In this case, someone has just attacked the protagonist’s home, and everything is burning around her, and she’s woken up to the terror and chaos.)

3. In The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, the character declares something, and a secret is a wonderful something to start with: By its very nature, it has mystery and tension. Why keep it a secret unless it’s important? Think of what your character could declare. Start with “I have…” or “I know…” or “I saw…”

4. In The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, I wanted the reader to see what the character sees just as she sees it: something unusual, unexpected, sometimes that bodes ill. Put your character right in the start of an action and show something happening from your character’s perspective: something flying toward your character, or retreating. Modeling this kind of opening means you need to sketch out your character in a scene. If it helps, actually the scene with a pencil on paper (like the picture above) and see what you can write about.

If you’re still stuck after reading these examples and can’t figure out how to start, that’s okay: Open a book that you love and examine the opening line. Do you feel drawn into the story by that line? Write your own version of it for your work of fiction.

Once you have an opening line packed with tension or mystery, it’s a lot easier to write the next: You already have a sense of where your story might be going.

 

I hope this helped! If you’d like to share your an opening line 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 this story bite part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And I’d love to see your students’ work.