So many of us--writers, illustrators, editors, agents, publishers--wish a book would come together quickly. Despite all that fervent energy, the creation of a book takes as long, or longer, than creating a Volkswagen-sized elephant child.
I revealed the timeline of my upcoming nonfiction picture book at Rate Your Story: Author Pat Miller's Success Story: The Hole Story of the Doughnut. Whew--the book is almost here! Due date for this long-term literary pregnancy is May 3.
Anne Carrol Moore opened the first children's room at the New York Public Library in 1911.
That led to children's departments like this one in my library. Books and other resources stretching as far as the eye can see.
I still get a flutter of happiness when I see it.
No library can stock every title, but most are part of the interlibrary loan system. That means you have access to thousands of books currently residing in other cities and states.
When I was researching my book, The Hole Story of the Doughnut, I used interlibrary loan to borrow books from several New England libraries and many Texas libraries and universities. I was not charged for shipping, but would gladly have paid for such generous sharing.
Shown below are Shirley Yen, who ordered the books for me, and Daniel Sample, who helped me use the genealogy databases. Thank you!
It simply dropped its green leaves. Okay, perhaps that's to be expected from a tree that is young and still new at this.
I fed it and tucked it into a blanket of winter mulch. Year two came and went with no red, no orange, not even brown. Maybe it was still getting it's tree legs?
More food, more TLC, and even some base plantings to suggest to the tree what color looks like.
I was full of hope this third autumn. Perhaps the maple would be inspired by the mentor trees across the street--sweet gums in full riotous reds and oranges.
Check the photo. Half the leaves are already gone--green leaves on green grass. I think my maple is a dud. A failure. Spectacular is just not in its vocabulary.
Yesterday, winter winds revealed how wrong I was.
This maple revelation reminds me of my writing journey.
For years I tried to write fiction. One story was rejected 32 times before publication. The others continue to circle through publishers, rather like water down the drain.
I thought it was because I was new at this. So, I attended conferences, took online classes, and got my BIC.
Year two and three went by, and my fiction was still "green". Mentor texts and colleagues revealed their secrets, but my imagination refused to get vivid. My writing was a failure. My stories were duds.
Then, one summer, I tried my hand at nonfiction. Research became addictive, my subject became a family member, the writing was more effortless. Turns out, creating color from my imagination isn't my strength. But constructing a nest to support the life of another is.
I'm still not good at fiction. But my picture book biography of Captain Hanson Gregory, inventor of the doughnut, will debut May 3 from HMH. And I think it is pretty spectacular.
What about you? What have you discovered about yourself as a writer? Please share in the comments.
Thanks to Tara Lazar and her Picture Book Idea Month, I’m trying to generate a nonfiction topic each day for 30 days.
In past years, I easily came up with 30+ fiction ideas—after all, you just make them up. But this year, nonfiction ideas are what I’m collecting.
And you can’t make them up. You have to find them. But that's even better--it’s like a scavenger hunt.
Nonfiction ideas are everywhere, often hiding in plain sight. When you are attuned to finding ideas, they will ping like text messages arriving on your mental radar.
Here are five ways to find them:
1. Watch TV. The major networks show documentaries, but your best bet are channels devoted to them, like A&E, Animal Planet, Discovery, The History Channel, and National Geographic. On Pacific Warriors, men and women were out fishing in the Pacific in kayaks, catching fish as big as their boats. The narrator mentioned that the swordfish is the fastest in the ocean, and that the ono is the most vicious fish pound per pound. Ping!
CBS Sunday Morning yields several pings each episode. In the most recent, I was curious to learn more about Nick Benson, the slowest writer in the world. Nick is a third generation stone carver whose family has engraved many of the monuments and markers at famous tombs and memorials. Their shop was built in 1705—they are the second owners. You can view episodes online--be sure to have paper or keyboard ready.
2. Peruse magazines. One I like is The Smithsonian. They have an online version. How can you resist an article about “how thousands of dead bugs became a mesmerizing work of extraordinary beauty.” In September, there was a short article about another fish that intrigued me. It's warm-blooded! The October issue has an article about Armstrong Custer—not as hero but as horse thief. Ping!
3. Read newspapers. Read with an eye for the unusual, the surprising, the one that makes you think, "Say what?" In one of my local papers, an article mentioned there was a German POW camp right here in my small Texas town. That fact demands follow-up investigation. Who knew?!
4. Travel. You can travel abroad, travel our country, or simply take in a local museum. I found the subject of my current project in an area museum that's smaller than my house. A recent trip to New Orleans yielded ideas garnered from a sugar plantation, a cemetery, a paddle wheeler, and a church.
5. Wonder. Catch yourself every time you wonder--write it down. That might lead to interesting investigations and discoveries. Waiting at a traffic light, I wondered how the mechanism worked that allowed longer green lights during peak traffic, and skipped the turn light when no car was in the lane. Yesterday I wondered how mosquitoes could find me even on a sunny day with a breeze in a wide open space. They bit me through my clothes! Anytime you find yourselve wondering, "Why..." you might have the kernel of a publication that will interest other curious readers. BONUS: If you are around children, their questions can be inspirations.
Once you get yourself attuned, the pings will become so frequent you might feel like a xylophone. You will need a big notebook—or a number of small ones stashed in your car, your purse or briefcase, and anywhere else handy for when discovery strikes. Your idea stash could lead to an essay, an article, a book. Or possibly, a blogpost!
A mentor text is a well-written book that gives you the structure, the language, the arc that you could use for your own work. It is especially useful when you hit a wall. I have a fat folder of research on an unsung, feisty American woman with lots of kid appeal. But where to start? What to put in and what to leave out? Should I use chronological, flash-back, anecdotal structure? I was stuck.
Then I came across Kathleen Krull’s Dolley Madison: Parties Can Be Patriotic! (Bloomsbury, 2015) on the new book shelf at the library. A quick scan of the first page and I wanted to yell, “EUREKA!” I had found the coach to lead me out of my literary dead end. Kathleen Krull readily came home with me and has stayed for the last couple of weeks.
Dolley Madison is part of Krull’s new series on Women Who Broke the Rules. That’s also an apt description of the heroine of my current WIP. Studying the way Krull skillfully wrote Dolley Madison is like having her seated beside my desk, patiently tutoring me. Here are some of the things Kathleen Krull has taught me so far:
1. Use a topic sentence with details--but not always. Note how this topic sentence is followed by the quick fire of four telling details.
All the rules in the new country of America were stacked against women. They were like property, first belonging to their fathers, then their husbands. They couldn’t attend college. No respectable jobs were open to them. They couldn’t vote or have any role in government.
2. Use a relevant quotation to hammer home your point. The paragraph above ended with,”In fact America’s FF (Founding Fathers) believed women in politics would be unnatural—‘the world turned upside down.’”
3. When facts are skimpy, frame them with period details you know to be true. Instead of the bare bone fact that Dolley’s husband and child died of yellow fever in 1793, Krull fleshes it out this way:
Then the deadly yellow fever reached town in 1793. Spread by mosquitoes, the horrible disease killed one of every five people in Philadelphia. The victims, alas, included Dolley’s new baby and her husband.
4. Know your theme before you start, and refer back to it often. Krull’s first sentence is “Dolley Payne was born with extra zip.” The last two sentences of the first chapter are: “Good thing she had a third secret weapon working for her. That extra zip.” In another chapter, “Would Dolley come to the president’s house…and help? Would she! Dolley jumped in with her usual zest.” The last chapter tells us that in retirement at Montpelier, after a tumultuous and popular reign as First Lady, Dolley “was still the hostess with the mostest.”
5. Use emotional details. Emotion is what makes us connect to characters, even historical ones. With deft strokes, Krull includes heart touching details that bring Dolley, an 18th century woman to 21st century life.
Any of Kathleen Krull’s many titles are like a master class. Stop by your library or bookstore and invite her over. She may be just the coach you need.
Historical fiction is an alchemy of research and facts mixed with the emotion and immediacy of fiction.
In Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, Pam Munoz Ryan explains in her author's note that the women really did take a brief flight in their evening clothes. The fact is that they were piloted most of the time by Eastern pilots. In the book, Ryan puts the women at the controls.
As she explains at the back, Ryan did meticulous research and included it in her story. She took a few liberties in order to highlight the spontaneity, courage, and strength of character the two women shared. This is an example of historic personalities in an historic situation, and is one of four frameworks for historical fiction.
Find out how to use one of these four structures in your historical fiction writing in my GROG post.
As you are writing your nonfiction and/or reading appropriate nonfiction mentor texts, remember to pay attention to the back matter. Back matter is added by the author after the main text to add more information, clarify something from the text, or provide features that make it easier for the reader to use the book. They can include the Afterword, Author Note, Timeline, Map, Further Information, Source Notes, Further Reading, Bibliography, Glossary, Acknowledgments, and Image Credits. Which should you choose for your book, and why? Read more...
LWH: Who else will help me teach my friends to write nonfiction?
A friendly duck named Steve Swinburne waddled up.
SS the FD: I will help! I know all about turtles and beaks and wolves (oh my!)
A turtledove named Kelly Loughman the Holiday House Editor, a mockingbird named Lucas Miller (singer/science writer), and a bluejay named Kristen Fulton flew down.
KLFE the T: I will help!
LM the M: I will help!
KF the B: I will help!
And they did! Editor Kelly Loughman, and authors Steve Swinburne, Peggy Thomas, Lucas Miller, Kristen Fulton and several others will be part of a fabulous, fun, and very instructive conference for any chick or rooster who wants to become a Skillful Scribes of True Things. More faculty members are flocking to our conference--TBA!
Once upon a time, there was a little white hen. She was a clucker, a strutter, and a writer of nonfiction. All the other chickens in her henhouse were writing fiction. Little White Hen wanted to share the joys and thrills of writing about True Things.
LWH: Who will help me put on a nonfiction conference?
Famous Conference Crow: Not I. We already have a nonfiction conference that works great without chickens.
Local Writing Organization Owl: Not I. Our fiction conference uses all of our volunteers. We cannot do two.
Foxy Conference Promoter: Not I. You are a chicken. I am a fox. You know what that means.
LWH: Fine, then I will do it myself!
And she did. Little White Hen called her conference NF 4 NF, "Nonfiction for the Nicely Feathered". She decided to have it October 9 - 12, 2014, in Texas, because that state is definitely for the birds. Little White Hen found some friendly fowl who were terrific writers of True Things. They were delighted to help pencil-wise poultry make the switch to nonfiction.
First Little White Hen met a lovely and talented swan named Peggy Thomas. This sleek bird penned the definitive book on How To Be Top-O'-The-Barn with Factual Writing. It was reissued with a new title and a lovely green cover. Peggy's book is fun to read and Full of Tips for New Nonfiction Writers!
LWH: Will you help me put on a nonfiction conference?
PT the S: Yes, I will!
You can be a fine-feathered part of our writing conference for children's writers-- NF 4 NF (Nonfiction for New Folks to the Nearly Famous). Check out the NF 4 NF tab (above) for schedule, lodging, the university venue, and FAQs for this October 2014 conference. It will be at historic Fredericksburg in the Hill Country of central Texas.
PRIZE DRAWING! Leave a comment about why you would or would not attend a nonfiction conference. One lucky winner will be chosen on December 1, 2013. You will win a free manuscript critique, fiction or nonfiction, from The Little White Hen, aka Pat Miller.
Ah, books. I never outgrew my love of children's books. My passion became a career--I was an elementary school librarian. And now I write books for kids!