One Writer’s Journey

May 4, 2018

Children’s Book Week: Childhood Favorites

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As writers, we are often inspired by our own childhood favorites.  I loved so many books.

The Boxcar Children.  The first non-picture book that I read time and time again was probably The Boxcar Children.  I’m not sure when I discovered it, but I remember checking it out again and again in fifth grade.  I’m not sure why the librarian didn’t just get me my own copy.  I loved that the kids were independent and that they upcycled so much.  We didn’t have that word for it, my grandmother would have called it ‘making do,’ but I loved that aspect of this book.

The Borrowers.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that this was actually several books because mine was a hardback copy of them all.  But again I love the idea of making something out of something else and the whole hidden world  aspect.

Little House etc.  My mother and I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.  Well, she started them with me and then I took off.  I was a voracious reader. We watched the tv show but I liked the books even better.  Yes, I saw the racist aspects but I saw racist people in the world around me so why would a book be any different?

The Meg Mysteries.  I adored mysteries and had to get special permission to check out the Nancy Drews from the book mobile because they were considered “teen” books.  But even more than Nancy Drew I loved the Meg Mysteries.  Not that I limited myself to these two series. I also read Trixie Belden and something to do with Alfred Hitchcock.  The Three Investigators, maybe?

Anything and everything by Marguerite Henry.  Put a horse on the cover and I would snatch it up.  Write a horse book based on fact and I’d knock someone over to get it.  The only fan letter I ever wrote was the Marguerite Henry.

The tricky thing with old favorites is that they inspire us but we can’t generally use them as mentor texts.  Why?  Publishing and literature have changed so much between now and then.  Be inspired by your childhood favorites but also read what is being published now.  Today’s children are just as hungry for great stories as we were.



January 15, 2018

Seeking Inspiration: 3 Things I Learned from Marla Frazee

Last week, I saw this amazing short video of Marla Frazee while I was on the treadmill.  I say amazing because it was inspirational on so many levels. Here are three things that I took away from it.

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<p><a href=”″>Marla Frazee</a> from <a href=””>Adam Goodwin</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

One. Think about what inspired you as a child. Frazee loved Where the Wild Things Are and Blueberries for Sal.  In Sal, she loved that the book was printed in blue. To Frazee, that felt like a gift.  In Where the Wild Things Are, she looked at Sendak’s art and saw the many ink lines. She thought of the amazing effort that he shared with his readers.

What did you love about your childhood favorites?  I loved Marguerite Henry and the Little House Books because while they weren’t nonfiction they brought so much truth to story.  How can I bring this to young readers in my own work?  That’s something to consider as I chose projects for the coming year.

Two. Be willing to put in the time to make your work feel unique and your reader feel special.  Often we look for quick sales and quick bucks.  Frazee talks about hand painting the endpapers in Santa Clause the Number One Toy Expert.  It took her three weeks to hand paint all of the stars because doing it on the computer, though fast, would have altered the feel.

Are you taking a short cut some where in your work where doing it the long way might yield a deeper, richer feel?  It’s the difference between home churned ice cream and a freeze pop.

Three. Put the effort into what matters.  Other things can be kept simple. After I watched the video, I told my husband I was tired of my pencil box.  I’m tired of having to dig through it to find what I want.  I want the awesome organizer that Frazee has or something very like it.  Her organizer looks like either a utensil or drink caddy. She sorts dozens of pencils by color with one space for blue, one for green, etc.

I just rewatched the video.  Her pencils are in tin cans.  The utensil caddy seems to be a central board with a cut-out handle and three cans attached to each side.  While we are busy working to make things special, we need to make certain that we devote that effort to the things that really matter.

Other things can be as basic as a tin can.


September 12, 2017

Folk and Fairy Tales: Inspiration for All Ages

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 am
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Have you ever written a story inspired by a folk or fairy tale?  It is something I’ve been noodling over a lot lately in part because I ran across this blog post – #5onFri: Five Myths to Plunder for Ideas and Inspiration.   These age-old stories can be great sources for story ideas whether you do a fairly vanilla rewrite or use the tale only as a jumping off place.  Just how you use the story may depend on the story itself.

For example, the Celtic story about Brigid and Bres (see the above post) is all about a peace treaty secured through marriage.  Eventually the greed of the bridegroom, King Bres, gets the better of him and everyone ends up fighting once again.  There are deaths and grieving mothers — it is actually a pourquoi tale about funeral customs so you know it is a bummer story.

Picture book potential, no.  MIddle grade?  I don’t think so.  But there are a group of “sons” who have to go to battle because of greedy Dad.  Make one or more of these sons a teen character and you’d have a young adult idea on your hands.

Any story that can be retold for an elementary audience can inspire a picture book.  Just look at the numerous versions of the Gingerbread Man or The Three Pigs.  But retell it from another point of view, with a new setting, or some other twist and you can still have a great picture book such as LIttle Red Gliding Hood or Little Red Riding Hoodie.

But these tales can also make strong middle grade novels as I recently discovered when I read Rump. This novel by Liesl Shurtliff tells the story of a young boy whose mother died shortly after giving birth.  She tried to name him before she lost conscious but all she got out was Rump and the partial name stuck.  The reader journeys along with Rump as he seeks for his true, complete name as well as some clues to who his mother really was and why he can spin straw into gold.  Rump’s best friend is a girl but there’s no heated romance.  He falls out of a tower window and hurts himself but the violence is actually pretty non-violent by fairy tale standards.

Whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer or someone who writes for the picture book crew or young adult or middle graders, look to folk and fairy tales for inspiration.  You may very well find gold.

For more on traditional tales, check out Fairy Tales: Fracture them to come up with something new or Science Fiction vs Fantasy.


May 9, 2017

Inspiration: Some Writer

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:09 am
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When we take our work to critique group, we always hope that they are going to LOVE it.  After all, these are our stories.  Okay, I meant to call them story-babies, but I just can’t do it.  Far too precious for me to do it and survive.  Anyway, these are our stories and we adore them even if they aren’t painfully cute. But our critique groups don’t always share that story love.

Unfortunately, my story is 90% realistic.  All of the characters but one are human.  That one is taking the place of a human but still acting like it’s animal self.  If I can manage to pull this off, it will be hilarious.  Because I said so. But one of my critique buddies rejected the fantasy element outright.

Still, I’m too pig-headed to give up so I’ve got more research to do.  Not about my topic.  This time I need to research existing picture books with both animal and human characters.  If I can work myself up to do it.

Fortunately I just read a highly inspiration biography, Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet.  In the book, we read about the reaction that people had to Stuart Little.  White wrote the book based on stories he told his kids.  Not surprisingly, the stories were a huge hit.  And, no, I don’t say that because your kids love every story you tell them.   I say that because you don’t tend to do “episodes” or “chapters” if your kids hate the story.  You abandon them.

White had had several people, including librarians, ask him to write a children’s book.  But Stuart Little freaked some people out.  They even banned the book.  Banned E.B. White.  Yeah, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that one.

But I also found it very encouraging.  Except for Stuart Little, the book is very realistic.  Except for Tuck, my story is very realistic.  Same same?  Maybe not.  As much as I’d like to claim kinship, I’ll stick with being inspired.  Realistic stories with strong fantasy elements can work.

Mine may not work yet, but that’s the operative word.  Yet.


May 5, 2017

Fiction vs Nonfiction: The Hybrid

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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For the most part, it is fairly easy to categorize children’s books as fiction or nonfiction.  Made up story as in Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon or Linda Sue Park’s Cavern of Secrets?  Fiction, of course.  Just as certainly, books ranging from Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich to Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti that tell factual stories are nonfiction.

But what do you call a story that uses fictional characters to impart information?  Maybe you have a boy and his grandfather plant a garden.  Or a family follows a historic road such as the Nachez Trace.  The only reason these “unreal” people are there is to get something across to the reader whether that something is science, history, ecology or music.

I’ve heard these books called both fiction and nonfiction as well as faction.  Then there is the term “informational.”  More recently I discovered a publisher, The Innovative Press, that refers to ” hybrid texts that blend fiction elements with nonfiction elements.”

One of their books, Zoey and Sassafras: Dragons and Marshmallows by Asia Citro, is the story of a girl who can help magical creatures.  That is, rather obviously, the fiction part of the story.  But there is no veterinary guide on how to do this so she has to use what she knows to ask questions, discover new things, and keep searching for answers in a way that teaches readers about the scientific method.

I have to admit that I like this.  A hybrid.  A mixture of both but neither one or the other.  Of course (sigh), now that I have a name for it, I have an idea that would be perfect for this hybrid form.  After all, the manuscript was inspired by nonfiction research.  With the fictional characters, I can turn the story into something of a reverse scavenger hunt — they have found something that they need to put back but they have to learn beyond their assumptions, observing the natural world, to do so.

I’m still noodling this one over so it isn’t quite ready to draft, but I am looking forward to creating a new-for-me type of manuscript and a fun-for-my-reader story.


March 29, 2017

Inspiration: It Comes from All Over, Whenever

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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Inspiration can come from some pretty strange places. I found this cap in an antique store about 10 years ago. I spotted it because of the calcium carbide lamp on the front. I knew this was a mining lamp because my grandad used them in the mercury mines but the cap was so small. It is so small that no one here can wear it. I have it propped up on a mint tin, my salt and pepper shakers and a water-glass.  Yeah, I’m all about high-tech.  
Anyway, a bit of research revealed that this was a child’s cap most likely used in the Illinois coal mines. Yes, a cloth cap on a child in a mine.  Sigh, shake your head and read on.  It is definitely appalling.
The novel that I’ve had to set aside to write about the Dakota Access Pipeline is set in a community where the mines have played out. I just re-found this cap cleaning at my dad’s. I should be noodling over pipelines and water rights and the Army Corp of Engineers but I’m thinking about kids in mines and my novel.  
I have a new twist that will help increase the stakes rattling around in my head.  When I don’t have time to write it.  I sent myself an e-mail as a reminder and I’m hoping that will buy me some time.  If not, and the idea just won’t leave me alone, I’ll try to find fifteen minutes to work this into my “outline.”  It seems kind to call the increasingly chaotic jumble of notes an outline but there you have it.
Thank you, inspiration.  Your timing is just a tiny bit stinko.

February 1, 2017

TED: Learning about Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:48 am
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tedMost of you already know that I’m something of a TED Talk fan.  TED talks were originally about Technology, Education and Design.  They have expanded and cover just about every topic you can imagine including story.  Here are some of my favorites that, as fellow writers, you might find interesting.

Sisonke Msimang’s talk on the power (and limitations) of story.  Click here.

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s talk about the dangers of only hearing a single story about a given place.  Click here.

Eman Mohammed’s talk on telling hidden stories and gender norms.  Click here.

How Tracy Chevalier looked at a painting and wrote an entire novel.  Click here.

Film maker Andrew Stanton on the art of storytelling.  Before you click here, TED warns viewers about graphic language so I shall too.

Director Shekhar Kapur on creative inspiration.  Click here.

Writer and director J.J. Abrams talks about his love of mystery.  Click here.

Novelist Amy Tan on where creativity hides.  Click here.

The next time you need a bit of inspiration, click on one of these talks and see how someone else works.  I always come away ready to write and I get you will too.


January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:49 am
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I’m not sure how many of you have the day off to celebrate the works and the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I’m spending the day with my high school senior but here’s a King quote for inspiration.  Keep writing, keep working and keep creating the stories that will inspire young readers today and tomorrow.


January 15, 2016

Inspiration from Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 am
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snow-landscape-trees-winter-largeIn order to help your readers connect with your writing, it helps to provide an emotion that resonates with them.  Explorers feel excitement and anticipation.  When things go wrong, they may feel dread or frustration.  To write these things realistically, you just need to connect with emotional inspiration in your own life.

Recently, my son and I were in the dining room when he said something about the baby birds in the back yard. Baby birds?  In January?  We’re in the Northern Hemisphere, Meriwether.  I don’t think so.

Sure enough, I looked out the window and they weren’t baby birds.  “Those are junco.”

“They look like babies.”

“They’re still junco.  Your grandmother called them snow birds.”

“Every baby bird I’ve ever seen looks like that.”

Honestly, I’m not sure what baby birds he’s been perusing but as I tried to discuss facts with Mr. Thanks-but-I-don’t-think-so, it hit me.  This must have been what it felt like for Sacagawea.  Having read bits and pieces of the Lewis and Clark journals, I’ve always been amazed by the healthy dose of stupidity that they drug along with them.  Want to intimidate a vastly superior force?  Shoot at them!   Want to convince someone to take us seriously?  Shoot at them!   Never seen anything like that before?  Who cares if our guide has a name for it, we’re going to call it a brarow.*  We’ll probably take a shot at it too.

Have I ever had the frustrations of leading two mighty explorers? Thankfully, no.  But I have tried to reason with my son.  I’m pretty darn sure I can draw on one to illustrate the other.

What emotion does your reader need to connect with in your story?  Remember a time in your own life when you experienced similar joy, frustration or angst and you will be able to bring it to life for both your characters and your readers.



January 7, 2016

Pie for Chuck

Every now and again I come across a book and as I read it I think “I wonder.” Pie for Chuck by Pat Schories is part of Holiday House’s I Like to Read line.  They call them easy-reading picture books.  I would simply call them easy readers or beginning readers.  Tomayto.  Tomahto.

As I read this one, I wondered what the author’s inspiration was.  As several writing conferences, I’ve heard editors ask writers not to submit one particular Institute of Children’s Literature assignment.  Everyone has to work from this particular prompt and way too many of these stories are submitted to publishers.  The prompt is a bunny rabbit sitting beneath a window where a pie is cooling on the window sill.

In Pie for Chuck, we meet a woodchuck named . . . Chuck . . . who loves pie.  Chuck cannot reach the pie that is cooling on the window sill. Neither can Raccoon or Rabbit or the chipmunk or the group of mice.

See, there’s the Rabbit in the middle of the group.  What can I say?  I just wonder if this started out as an ICL story.

If so, good for Schories for creating an assigned story that found, perhaps in a slightly altered form, publication.

Whether or not this was an ICL story, I also appreciate that it successfully breaks rules.  Which rules?  The rules about cute animal names. Granted, Schories didn’t use Bobby Bunny or Walter Woodchuck but the woodchuck is Big Chuck and the chipmunk is Chip.

I suspect that this works in part because it isn’t, strictly speaking, a picture book.  As an early reader, illustrations give the new reader clues to help decipher the text.  In this case, the illustration matches the type of animal matches the name. Big Chuck and Chip actually shake things up a little bit because they aren’t named Woodchuck or Chipmunk whereas other animals are named Rabbit and Raccoon.

Yes, you can break rules but you have to do so in a way that makes your story work for your reader.


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