Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Idle Writer

Relaxing with a book--my favorite way to be idle
Recently I read HOW TO BE IDLE: A LOAFER’S MANIFESTO by Tom Hodgkinson. It’s as tongue-in-cheek as it sounds, and although I didn't agree with everything Hodgkinson proposes, he makes some interesting points. He goes through various habits we consider lazy (sleeping-in, going for leisurely strolls, etc.)  and shows how they are really important to being creative. According to Hodgkinson, most writers, compared to other professions, really understand the importance of being idle.

 He even cites research on how the half-asleep time is one of the most fruitful times for thinking and being creative. (Now there's a good reason for sleeping in on the weekends.)

This got me thinking about when I’m most creative and hands-down, I get my best ideas when I’m idle. Our yearly trip to the beach (when I’m completely unplugged), long car rides, laying in bed on the weekends, not quite ready to get up, are all times when I’ve gotten epiphanies about plot holes or characters.

I can think of ideas at other times, but the thoughts I have when I’m idle are more creative and more out-of-the-box than the ideas while plugging away at a manuscript. It’s like my thoughts are unleashed.

So perhaps as writers we should also make sure to “do nothing” in addition to all that time in our chairs, staring at screens.

What do you think? Are you most creative when you're idle?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

MMGM: The Book of Time

I’ve been reviewing a lot of girl books lately, but today I have one that will appeal to boys or perhaps boys and girls. It appealed to me.

I picked this up because as I said in this post, I like to read what’s already out there in my genre before I start writing. As I’m drafting a middle grade boy book and this book had some similarities to mine, I had to check it out.

Here’s the synopsis:

A statue; a coin; an old book. They look as dusty as everything else in the Faulkner Antiquarian Bookstore, where 14-year-old Sam Faulkner seeks his father, who's been missing for days. But when Sam slips the coin into the statue, he's swept back in time -- to Scotland in 800 A.D. -- where he must find both the statue and another coin in order to return to the present. It's the first step in an adventure that will take him to ancient Egypt, World War I, even Dracula's castle -- and a mystery that will end only when Sam saves his father, or loses him in time . . .

By the way, this is a book that was written in French initially, so this is a translation.

What I loved:

--Third person narration. It seems like it’s becoming rarer to find books, MG or YA, written in third person. I thought this was a great choice for this book. The focus was on the action, not introspection, but still Sam’s personality came through.

--Sam was a very likable and relatable narrator. His difficulties with Monk, a bully, and his family, especially his aunt’s boyfriend, made him sympathetic. It was fun to discover with him what time period he was in and watch him adapt.

--I loved how that his time travel adventures didn’t go as planned. He’d think—I’ll try this to get to Dad—but then it wouldn’t work and he’d have to try something else. Notes from Dad and mysterious Latin inscriptions were highlights for me!

--His relationship with his girl cousin, who helps him in the modern times, was well-done.

--I loved the whole concept of a “Book of Time”—that wherever Sam or his dad travels, information about that place shows up in a book.

My only quibble was that at the beginning of the book, it seemed like he jumped from time period to time period with no apparent purpose. I would get attached to characters in one time period, only to have him leave. Once he got to Egypt, what he learns there impacts everything else. So just stick with it! I really enjoyed the ending and how the author tied up loose ends, but left room for a sequel.

I would class as upper middle grade, especially since the age of the protagonist is on the verge of high school. There's some violence in the historical time periods. I think older readers (junior high age) would relate to Sam's modern-day issues with bullying, girls, and family.

If you like time travel, history, and adventure, this is the book for you.

This is the first in a series. There is also: Gate of Days and  The Circle of Gold.

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fiction as Research

It seems like cheating to admit that I read fiction for research. Don't real writers only use primary sources as heavy as doorstops as research?
Not me. When I’m working on a project, I read a lot of fiction from that time period or setting.

Here’s what I've learned from fiction:

What’s already been written. Whenever I start a new book, I search my library catalog for books like it. I like to know what else is written about my topic or in my setting/time period, so I don't unknowingly cover the same ground. These titles can also be used for comp titles later on.

Get a feel for the atmosphere.  For my historicals, I do tons of factual research, but for me, there’s nothing like getting lost in the time period through a novel. I often take notes of what time period details make the story come alive. I always double check these details later, but I remember details from novels better than nonfiction books.

Voice and word choices.  It is often in fiction that I get a sense of the vocabulary of the period or the place. I take note of what things are called in this setting/time period, diction, and dialect. Fiction makes the voice of the time period come alive for me.

Go to the author’s website or read the author’s note/acknowledgements.  Going to the author’s website when they’ve written a book with my setting or time period is often helpful. They often have a bibliography or research notes about the book.  For example, Catherine Delors, a historical novelist for adults, has an extensive bibliography about Marie Antoinette on her website.

Here’s a few novels that I’ve used as a jumping off place for my research:
1812 Russia: War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), For the King (Catherine Delors),  *An Innocent Soldier (Joseph Holub)
Novels with Falcons: Falcon in the Glass* (Susan Fletcher),
Wildwing* (Emily Whitman)
17th Century France: The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexander Dumas), The Moon and the Sun (Vonda N McIntyre), Gardener to the King (Frédéric Richaud)

Scotland: *Love Puppies and Corner Kicks (Bob Krech),  Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson), *Wild Wings (Gill Lewis)

*These novels are middle grade or young adult titles, the rest are adult titles.

Any one else read novels for research?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Rooftoppers

The majority of the books I read are from recommendations from friends, online or in real life.

But sometimes it's quite fun to discover a book on your own. To see it sitting with its glorious cover on the library shelf--and think, "I've got to read that."

That's how it happened with me and THE ROOFTOPPERS (Katherine Rundell). I'm guess I'm a bit of a sucker for anything involving musical instruments, even though I'm not that musical myself--I just admire people who are. 

Here is the synopsis from Amazon:
Everyone thinks that Sophie is an orphan. True, there were no other recorded female survivors from the shipwreck that left baby Sophie floating in the English Channel in a cello case, but Sophie remembers seeing her mother wave for help. Her guardian tells her it is almost impossible that her mother is still alive—but “almost impossible” means “still possible.” And you should never ignore a possible.

So when the Welfare Agency writes to her guardian, threatening to send Sophie to an orphanage, she takes matters into her own hands and flees to Paris to look for her mother, starting with the only clue she has— the address of the cello maker.

Evading the French authorities, she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers—urchins who live in the hidden spaces above the city. Together they scour the city in a search for Sophie’s mother—but can they find her before Sophie is caught and sent back to London? Or, more importantly, before she loses hope?

This story has a lot of magic, not the fantasy kind, but the magic of an old-fashioned story with whimsical language, a caring foster parent, an interesting roofhopping orphan, and a spunky main character who never gives up on finding her mother.

I'm not sure I've ever met a parental figure like Charles, who always tells Sophie, "Never ignore a possible."  He encourages Sophie to be herself, allowing her to draw on the walls and eat off books (because she breaks plates). When a worker from Asshat Children's Home is concerned that Sophie does not know about shirt buttons, Charles responds, "...she knows the things that are important."

Favorite quotes (and it's hard to choose only a few):
"I am going to love her. That should be enough if the poetry I've read is anything to go by."

“I know these sorts of people. They're not men. They're mustaches with idiots attached.” 

“It was what her mother had always been. A place to put down her heart. A resting stop to recover her breath. A set of stars and maps.”  

The narrator reminded me of chatty narrators like Lemony Snicket in THE SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS or the narrator of THE INCORRIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE (Maryrose Wood). (Except it's much more hopeful than Lemony Snicket's style.)

If you like France, cellos, and interesting orphans, check it out!

Have you discovered any interesting middle grade books lately?

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

DIY Writing Retreat

What do you do if you can't attend a writing conference this year?

I have a scheduling conflict with my favorite writing festival this year. It’s my yearly writing recharger: there are no editors or agents present, just local authors and poets. All the workshops are about craft and each time, I walk away renewed and reminded why I write: for the love of it.

Since I can't attend this year, I’m putting together my own writing retreat. Like a staycation, I don’t plan on going anywhere. My kids are going to two homeschool science days, one this month and one in May. These are roughly from 10-3, which I plan to devote to writing.
Here’s what I did last week for the April day:

(This is how I imagine I’d order my life would be if I didn’t have to take care of kids or work):

10:00 drop kids off
10:30-12:00 write (I added 1500 words to my WIP!)
12:00-12:30 Lunch while watching a little Netflix (it can’t all be about writing)
12:30-1:00 more writing
1:00-1:30 leisurely stroll around the park (because I get my best ideas when I walk)
1:30-2:00 more writing (I ended up writing 1800 words for the whole day)
2:00-2:30 reading for pleasure (because reading is just as important as writing)

It was a wonderful day. 

What I'd like to do for next month is to also read an inspirational writing book around the same time. I haven't read Bird by Bird (I know!), so that's a possibility, but if you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


I realized after I finished EIGHT KEYS by Suzanne LaFleur that I've read a lot of sad middle grade books lately. This is a good one, but I can’t promise it won’t make you cry.

I first discovered Suzanne LaFleur’s writing in LOVE, AUBREY, another powerful book that should not be missed.

Like LOVE, AUBREY, EIGHT KEYS deals with belonging and loss and family.

Here is the synopsis:

Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise's parents died when she was too young to remember them.  There's always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.

When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish.  Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the bar . . .

Even though this is a quieter, character-driven book, the elements of the eight keys were a really interesting hook. There’s a mystery about who’s giving them to Elise and what they mean that drives the narrative.

The way LaFleur dealt with bullying in this book was one of the most realistic portrayals I’ve seen. I hurt with Elise as I remembered my own middle school days. What Elise learns about bullying and how it changes her and how she treats the people in her life was very powerfully done.

I love how LaFleur gives such attention to detail—to the foods the family eats and how they interact. Every character is lovingly drawn, just as they are in LOVE, AUBREY. If you want to study character, LaFleur is a master.

Have you read any amazing middle grades lately?

 For more Marvelous Middle Grade titles, please see Shannon Messenger's blog. She is the author of KEEPER OF LOST CITIES (MG) series and SKY FALL (YA).

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Insecure Writer's Group

I had a somewhat humorous post planned for today, but as I got some sad news today,  I am just not in the right mood for it.

So, instead I’m wondering: When life gets hard, do you press in to writing?

Sometimes when I’ve been going through something difficult, writing is my release. It distracts me and heals me.

Sometimes, though, I just need a break, which is how I’m feeling this week. I will be seeking solace in books, but I doubt I’ll be picking up the pen.

And that’s okay. I’m not going to feel guilty for letting my work-in-progress sit for a bit.
It will be there when I get back.