Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Researching Historicals - Down the Rabbit Hole

“One Breakfast Cape - $3.00” What is a breakfast cape, you may ask? I’m going to tell you if you didn’t ask, but first, I wanted to share something I’ve learned about historical research. Be warned-once you start down the path of research, you may disappear in a rabbit hole of discovery you don’t ever want to leave!

Even though I’ve always loved history, and took several history classes in college, I’d never done research at a history museum archives until recently, and it was more amazing than I ever imagined. I can’t recommend it enough for the fascinating bits of information you can find, which can add incredible detail to your stories. My trip wasn’t even related to a story, though it did spark a story idea. My daughter had to research a Civil War event for a history project, and because she’s not yet sixteen, this particular facility required that I stay with her and help. To give some background on what we found, her project was on a major exhibition in our city to raise money for the war. The archives had twelve boxes of material on the exhibit, from lists of items donated (in beautiful handwriting) to actual tickets people purchased. She had already found a book on the event, but seeing the items from the event gave life to it in a way the book did not.

It was easy enough to get copies of newspaper articles about the event, but we also found a newspaper in the archives that was only printed for the event by the people involved, and detailed the events of each day. It was quite a find, because the newspaper had never been scanned and made available anywhere else.

Here’s one of the tidbits from the paper:
“A gentleman requests us to apologize to the lady, whose dress he trod on and ripped off the skirt, last evening. He is diffident, and she appeared so very angry, he was afraid to express his regret. He hopes she did not break the China vase she dropped during the incident.”

I love this, because I can picture it vividly.

Here’s another:
“There was an incipient fire at Greenwood Hall on Monday evening, creating quite a sensation. The decorations of a chandelier caught fire, falling upon one of the refreshment tables and setting things thereon in a blaze. In a trice it was denuded of its sweet contents, the flames smothered under shawls and cloaks, (not the first time these articles have covered “hidden fires”), but soon order was restored, and the table resumed to its former state.”

With these two descriptions, a writer could add such detail to a story to bring the reader right into the event. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine these on my own.

So if you are writing a historical and have a chance to get hold of some primary source material, you may find some real treasures.

And the breakfast cape? It was one of the items donated. After some further research, we discovered it was a very common item of women’s clothing from the mid 19th century, usually knitted, and worn by ladies when at home (not to be confused with an opera cape.)

Happy research!

~ Dee Garretson

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

You got a book deal? Now What? Continued....

Do not lick your editor. Maybe your agent though....

I posted this a while back, but have been asked about this a lot, so here is my list of things to consider after you get your book deal, with some brand new additions. Please feel free to add anything I might have missed and you don't have to be published to contribute! This list is for all!

1. Don't be scared of working with your editor! You'll do fine! Generally, they are very nice people who will be indispensable to the success of your novel.

2. Be prepared to take what you consider the most special parts of your book...OUT!

3. Concerns? TALK TO YOUR AGENT! He/she knows the business and they will tell you if you're concerns are justified or you're freaking out for no reason. (I would fit into the freaking out for no reason category). If you don't have an agent, don't worry! Ask your friends. Check forums, author websites. The information is out there.

4. Don't be afraid to ask your publisher LOTS of questions-- if you don't ask, you won't get.

5. Your publisher may change your release date several times--this is totally normal, especially for a debut.

6. Know that you have NO control over the cover art...but be happy when your publisher does ask for your input and if they don't, have a nice piece of cake (preferably tiramisu) and tell yourself, they know what they're doing.

7. Keep in mind that Barnes & Noble, along with Indie stores, do NOT pick up every book, even from big publishers! There is nothing you can do if they decide not to carry your book in their brick and mortar stores, so don't worry about it--it does not mean your book won't be successful and this happens to authors all the time.

8. Don't fret if you only get a one book deal (becoming the norm these days), but be merry when they buy the sequel six months later--off a proposal no less! That means they like you, they really, really like you!

9. There are a lot of things out of your control in publishing--in fact--most things. Before giving yourself a facial tick, take a step back, inhale a deep solid breath, and realize no matter what's in store for you, you made did're a first-rate writer--YOU!

10. If you're publisher wants you to speak somewhere--DO IT! Suck it up and say yes. I was terrified the first few times, but it gets easier and you will get BETTER! Speaking engagements can be thrilling! They are a fantastic way to connect with readers and to land more speaking gigs, which can be very lucrative! :)

11. Remember QUALITY, not quantity. It's not a race! Put out good books and the deals with come!

12. Ask ALL your friends to help you with a blog tour and return the favor!!!

13. Walk into indie stores and introduce yourself! DO IT! They will be happy that you did. Don't be shy. Tell them you're an author. Give them an ARC! They may order your book and do a whole lot more. Indies are GREAT!

14. When you get your first royalties statement, don't freak out about returns! Even bestselling authors have returns--lots of them! It's a normal part of the business!

15. Sleep is for suckers.

16. Foreign rights are awesome! If at all possible, keep your foreign rights. Your agent can sell them literally all over the world and you sit back and watch it happen. Generally no work involved on your end, let alone seeing your book translated into another language with an amazing new cover. If you don't have an agent, check online to see how other indie authors sell their rights. There is tons of great information out there!

17. Getting published is no guarantee that it will happen again. In other words, you can be published, well published, and still not get play on your next manuscript. It happens a lot more than you'd think.

18. Projects get squashed! Yes, it happens all the time. I can't tell you how many times I've seen it happen. You get a deal, but 6 months down the road the publisher changes their mind, your editor leaves, the economy slumps, the publisher merges with another...there are millions of reasons. If this happens, DON'T FREAK! You got a deal once, you can do it again. Take a deep, deep breath, regroup, and move forward.

19. If you slack on your blogging, Facebook, and Twitter duties, don't sweat it. Use it as an occasional break from writing/editing and explain to your peeps you're underwater. They will understand.

20. Sleep is for suckers. Yes, this one gets two slots. :)

What would you add to this list?? :)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Chris Eboch on Finding Time to Write

In my January post I talked about defining success and setting goals, and in my February post, I talked about respecting your own path. Last month, I covered developing a support system and getting friends and family to take your writing seriously. This month as part of my “Surviving the Writing Life” series, I’m tackling a big question:

How do you find time to write?

Most of us don’t have the luxury of focusing on writing full-time. If you have a day job or kids at home, how do you squeeze in time to write?

Set small goals and keep them. Write 2 pages or 200 words a day (or whatever your goal is), no matter what! Some people find it easiest to get up early and work before the rest of the family is awake. But if you can’t squeeze in the writing during the day, you do it before going to bed. (You may want to give yourself one day a week off. This can be motivating earlier in the week, as you want to save that free day in case you need it more later.)

Remove distractions. When you sit down to write, write first. Don’t check email or Facebook. Close your email and browser window. Apps such as “Freedom” block you from the Internet for a set amount of time. “Write or Die 2” gives you rewards for writing and punishment for procrastination by images and sounds. There are many others. You can also turn off your Wi-Fi or unplug your Internet cable, and only check  email at set times.

Leave the house if you have to – go to a coffee shop or the library to write. One writer commented that she turns off the phone when she’s writing. Everyone knew to call her husband in case of emergency, which never happened. If she had her phone on, would people have come up with a lot more “emergencies”? Ellen Rippel, author of Outlaws & Outcasts: The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico, says, “They usually say, ‘I know you said not to call at this time, but I thought you should know….’” 

But what if you have to research? Schedule times specifically for research, but don’t stop your writing to fill in one small blank. Checking a fact could lead to hours of book browsing or Internet distraction, so make a note in your manuscript such as [add appropriate clothing] or [check definition] and keep writing.

Look for small chunks of time. When I had an office job, I wrote during part of my lunch hour. Some writers keep a notebook or tape recorder in the car and take notes while waiting in line to pick up the kids. A few minutes here and there can add up over the course of a week. Building habits takes time, so write anything, anywhere, to get in the habit, and don’t worry about quality or whether it’s something you’ll ever use.

Look for bigger chunks of time. Some people may find it easier to schedule several hours to write on one weekend day instead of trying to write daily. Writing retreats – a weekend or a week away, with critique partners or alone – are also an opportunity to get substantial writing done. If you can’t afford an official writing retreat, see if you can borrow a friend’s house while they’re on vacation, in exchange for pet and plant care.

Multitask. One of my friends wrote a novel over the summer, while her kids swam at the pool or had soccer practice. Look for similar situations, where you have to be physically present but can divide your attention.

Use a notebook or tape recorder to capture ideas when you can’t get to the computer. You can get a small digital tape recorder for about $30 and dictate while you walk the dog. Even brushing your teeth can provide an opportunity to ponder a plot problem or brainstorm ideas. For those who think in the shower, bathtub markers can allow you to jot notes.

Focusing on writing while doing other things can take some practice. When I walk with my mini tape recorder, usually the first ten minutes involves churning through all the garbage in my mind, but I won’t allow myself to turn around until I start focusing on my story. I also find that a menial task like emptying the dishwasher can let me think about how I want to word the next section, but it’s important to concentrate and not get distracted by the “to-do list” or random thoughts.

Track your time. Just as dieters are advised to keep a food diary of everything they eat, keep a notebook for a week noting exactly how you spend your time. You may find that you are wasting more time than you realize on social media or watching TV. You may realize that a volunteer obligation has become too much of a burden. You may decide that it’s time to put other family members in charge of more household tasks. Or you may determine that you are doing the best you can already and should give yourself a break. Chances are you’ll learn something.

Set your priorities. When you die, do you want people to say, “She was a fantastic writer” or “She kept a clean house and could always quote the latest TV show.” Fellow Mayhemer Joy McCullough-Carranza says, “I homeschool two children and manage a heavy freelance load, but I make time. It’s the only way. I’m the only one who cares if I write, when it really comes down to it. Family and friends are supportive, but if I don’t make time, then I’ll never progress. So I work really late at night and watch very little TV. Basically I have no social life, which suits me. If I were a more social creature, I would need to find a way to balance things, but I’m happy in my jammies with my laptop.”

Stay organized. This is worthy of its own article, so I won’t go into detail now, but if you have a problem with disorganization or trying to do too many things at once, seek out resources to help. One great one is Managing Your Writing Space and Your Writing Time, by Kristi Holl, available as a free e-book on her blog,

Analyze why you procrastinate. Does it happen when you’re hungry? Keep some quick, nutritious snacks handy. When you’re tired or stressed? Take a 15 minute break for a walk, meditation, or yoga. When you are lonely or discouraged? Set a timer for 10 minutes of journaling about the situation, tell a family member or friend that you need a pep talk, or review some inspiring quotations – but set a limit so you don’t get distracted for the rest of your writing time. See Kristi Holt article on “Silent Sabotage“ for more insight.

In some cases, you may have more serious issues to tackle. If you are suffering from depression, get professional advice. Perfectionism, fear of failure, and insecurity can also interfere with your work. These may be life issues that need work before the more practical suggestions here will be effective.

Tip: If you have an issue that is interfering with your writing, chances are it is showing up in other areas of your life as well, such as exercise habits, eating, and even relationships. Look for these patterns. Do you binge, indulging in an activity to excess for short periods? Do deadlines and expectations immobilize you, leading to a cycle of guilt? Is your identity dependent on being perfect, so that you take on too many tasks and work yourself to the point of exhaustion? If you identify an ongoing problem in your life, take steps to mitigate it. This might include joining a support group, getting counseling, or discussing options with your doctor.

More help: read the comments as well as the post on the Writer Unboxed entry Protecting Your Writing Time – And Yourself.

Kristi Holl deals with many of these issues in her regular blog posts. She also recommends the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Randy Ingermanson, and Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health, by Dr. Caroline Leaf, who also has a video series available online (she speaks from a Christian perspective but brings science to the discussion).

There’s a pair of fun and insightful illustrated posts from Wait but Why on “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate“ and “How to Beat Procrastination.”

Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn about her editorial and critiquing services, and find advice for writers, on her website.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Poetry Isn't Just About Love and Flowers

Happy National Poetry Month! I want to step aside for a moment from our typical discussion of middle grade novels and talk about middle grade kids and their experiences with poetry.
It's interesting to see that at a very early age, kids already form biases about poetry. In my teaching days, when I'd start my poetry unit each year, kids would invariably say all poems were about "love and flowers." It didn't matter where I was teaching or what grade. It didn't matter how immersed kids had been in Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky and the like. I got these answers every time.
A Light in the Attic Special Edition  The New Kid on the Block
Part of my goal in presenting poetry to upper elementary and middle school kids was for them to see poetry is much broader than they'd previously thought.* I shared poems everyday on varied subjects, served as "museum director" in a classroom-turned poetry gallery, assigned secret poetry pals, pounded out the meter of poems we chanted as a class, sang Emily Dickinson stanzas to the tune of Gilligan's Island (it works!), and ended the unit with a coffeehouse, where kids presented their memorized poems and filled up on sugary coffee and cookies.
Before we got very far, I made the point to share a few things with my kids:
Poetry should be seen and heard.
You can understand poetry by listening. You can admire its interesting look on the page, but I think you miss out if you don't blend the visual and aural together. Poetry is pleasing to the ear (word choice, rhythm, repetition, rhyme) but is also pleasing to the eye. A poet uses structure to communicate (line breaks, for example) just as language is used.
Poetry packs a punch. 
Each word counts and better deliver.
Poetry creates mental images.
Words build pictures. Readers must approach with their eyes and minds open. Often readers will be given a fresh way to see the familiar.
Poetry speaks to the emotions.
This fits with the "love and flowers" idea my students were initially sold on. But poetry is so much bigger than one emotion and one topic. A poem is really a request for the reader to respond.
*This is what Sharon Creech tackles so beautifully in her verse novel, LOVE THAT DOG.

What is your gut reaction when someone brings up poetry? Is your response something that formed in your early years?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


 Hi, my name is Tula.  I come from Planet Wump.  I'm a 12 year old environmental lawyer.  I go around the universe protecting the natural beauty on other planets.  I also have a blog.  Today I'm interviewing MG author, James Mihaley.

So tell me, James, when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I was walking in the woods one day and a giant pen landed on my head.  It was about the size of a baseball bat.  I took that as a sign.

What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?

The biggest challenge is not to get distracted by ESPN or Facebook or Twitter or You Tube or text messages.  The key is to stay focused.  I wrote a poem about it.  

How Artists Ripen
                   Discipline isn’t any fun,
                  but oh, my friend,
                  it’s brighter than the sun.


As a young person, who did you look up to most?

 I looked up to dogs and cats.  They never get divorced.  Isn’t that amazing?  There is no such thing as child custody in the animal world.  (I mean kitten or puppy custody.)  You never hear a female cat say to a male cat, “You get him on the weekends.  The rest of the week he’s with me.”

Where do you write your books?

At the bottom of the sea.  My sailing vessel is called ‘The Submarine Of Literary Miracles’.  Poems by Shel Silverstein are painted on its side.  It runs on recycled plastic.  I go around cleaning the bottom of the sea and writing at the same time.  It makes me feel very productive.

What was your favorite thing about school?
The trap door in the cafeteria leading to another galaxy.

What was your least favorite thing about school?
The pencil sharpener that would follow me through the trap door and chase me across other planets.  I don’t like pencils.  I prefer pens.  The pencil sharpener felt insulted by this.  It wanted to grind my fingers and toes.  But eventually I made peace with it.  I introduced it to a female pencil sharpener.  They got married and had baby pencil sharpeners.  I was the best man at the wedding.

What sparked your imagination for You Can’t Have My Planet, But Take My Brother Please? 
I was out walking one day in LA.  People don’t walk in LA, so you feel really strange.  People in cars stare at you like you’re a freak.  “Look.  He’s walking.  What’s wrong with that guy?”  Cops will actually stop you.  “Excuse me, sir.  Why are you walking?”  I tell them it’s because I’m a writer and I get my best thinking done when I’m out walking.  Then the cops apologize and wish me good luck.  So anyway, I was strolling along, seeing all the trash on the streets and the smog in the sky, when suddenly an idea popped into my head.  What if it turned out that we humans were merely renting Earth?  And what if we were about to get evicted because we’re such lousy tenants?  I pictured a sleazy alien realtor planting a For Sale sign on our planet.  All that stuff suddenly appeared in my imagination and it wouldn’t leave me alone.  “Please tell our story!” it said.  “Please!”
So I told it.

What is your favorite planet? 
Earth. I’ve been on 2,356 different planets and I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Earth is the most magnificent.  Roses on other planets don’t bloom like ours do.  Birds in distant galaxies don’t soar as gracefully as ours do.  Tigers in other universes aren’t nearly as majestic.  Also, they have a tendency to smell.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A professional basketball player on another planet.  I wanted to play hoops with no gravity and do a reverse ‘in your face’ tomahawk dunk on a three headed center.  I dreamt about being a superstar in a galaxy that had popcorn machine robots.  The popcorn popper is right there inside them!  I wanted to play ball in an arena where alien trolls lurked under the bleachers, and I’d have to go rescue the cheerleaders at halftime.

Who is your favorite fictional character?
THE BFG.  How can you not love a giant who practices non-violence? 

What would you do if you couldn’t write?
I would leak words.   Words would leak out of my soul while I stood in line at the supermarket.  I’d leave puddles of words everywhere I went.