Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Power Outages and Learning to Write Historical Fiction

The other night, my sleep was interrupted by a loud bang. This summer has been so hot and once again we had closed up the house and turned on the air conditioner. I much prefer open windows, breezes, and crickets to the hum of machinery. On the other hand, waking up sticky isn’t fun either. But on this sultry night suddenly the world was silent. The dreaded bang was the transformer behind our house, and thus, no power.

Thinking about past lives and cultures has always intrigued me. However, as I conducted my day; no coffee, no hairdryer, no radio or TV, and no laptop, as it was not sufficiently charged, I decided that even though I love history, I didn’t want to be a woman in the 1870’s that day.

You see, for the past 10 months, I had been “living in 1877” as I sweated through the first draft of my historical middle grade novel. The novel begins in June, 1877 along the Mississippi River in a place called the Bohemian Flats. The Flats still exist as a green grass park bordering the winding river near downtown Minneapolis. Recently it held the twisted steel of the 35W Bridge collapse so the engineers could study and determine what went wrong.

The remains of the bridge are gone, making it even easier to imagine over 500 immigrants living in poorly constructed shanties so close to the river. When I began this 1877 adventure the first thing I did was go to the site itself. I read the kiosk with its brief history and noted the sources.

Because there isn’t much written about the Bohemian Flats I grabbed every source I could find. From real immigrant letters illustrating their struggles, to histories of the Minneapolis Fire and Police Departments, to Bohemian recipes. When I checked out the Minnesota Historical Society, I hit the jackpot. I found dozens of photos from the time period and a book about the flats written by the Writers Project during the depression.

The pictures were my gold mine. For with them I could imagine the children, women, and men, as they made their way through this life. Many of the men walked up the seventy-nine steps to the city each day to work in the flour, lumber mills, or cooperages. The women stayed on the “flats” as they were called, and ran their homes by collecting wild mushrooms, planting small gardens, baking in a large communal oven, and raising hordes of dirty-faced children.

The river flats drew in immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Russia. A real melting pot crammed on the flats, beneath the growing city of Minneapolis.

The more I read about this community the more I knew I had to write about it. A story appeared in my head and I backed up the facts with books, articles, and photos. In order to try and get a feel for the time period, I read literature written around 1877, as well as fiction about this time period. One of the best sources I found was called, “The Boat of Longing,” by O. E. Rolvaag. This takes place a little bit after my story but the feel was what I was looking for. I listened to music, looked at period clothing, and even attempted to bake a loaf of bread, without a bread machine, mind you!

Putting the draft aside for a few days has helped me garner the courage to dive back in for revisions. But when our power went out, I was back there again whether I wanted to be or not. This is the first historical fiction manuscript I have written, learning the genre as I typed and loving every minute. Since our brief power outage, I’ve decided I like living in a new time period for only a few hours at a time, reassuring myself that I can surface again, sip my coffee and enjoy other comforts of 2012!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Foxy Friday: Best Friends

Welcome to another fine Foxy Friday! About every two weeks we ask Red Fox Literary artists to create an image on a given theme. This Friday's theme is "best friends." This week we have illustrations by Jed Alexander, Rosalinde Bonnet, Diane BrowningStacey Dressen-McQueen and  Marty Kelley! Thanks to all our fine foxy artists for sharing their interpretations, and keep an eye out for our next theme, "traveling" in about two weeks hence!

Jed Alexander

Rosalinde Bonnet

Diane Browning

Stacey Dessen-McQueen

Marty Kelly

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pay It Forward

We don’t come into this world alone, and hopefully we don’t die alone either, and along the way, as writers, we don’t get published alone. It takes a team to raise a writer, a team of caring people that will walk beside you for encouragement, somebody that will stand behind you to push you when you are tired, and somebody that will traipse in front of you so that you can find your way.

If you work hard, hone your craft, and create magic, you will find people along the way that you will call friend along your journey. We never write alone. Critique partners are integral to our success, and should you find yourself with a book deal or two, all great critique partners probably had a good hand in your success. Make certain that you thank them properly and that you are there for them as well, if they need a middle of the night hold handing huddle, don’t drop the ball, but press on for the victory.

During your journey it is imperative that you pay it forward. If somebody is kind to you, and offers to critique for you, if somebody opens a door with an agent for you, do the same for somebody else. Take the time to answer an e-mail, or a phone call from a writer that is dreaming, struggling, creating, and holding on by a mere thread.

You never know what your words of encouragement will mean to them, and you never know what your discouraging words could do to them either. We all know people, who know people, who know people. Use your connections not just for you, but for a talented writer that you meet online, at a conference, through a friend. If you know of a perfect house for a storyline, share it. It’s okay, we can all share. We can share our editors, we can share our publishing houses, we can share our dreams. We all went to our first conference; we’ve all sat down to write a story that will stand out in slush, or to an agent.

Remember how long it took you to get where you were going, focus some energy on helping somebody else. Be a mentor, a critiquer, a friend. You’ll be glad you did, what goes around, comes back around. It’s Karma!

When you pay it forward, somebody someday will take all you’ve done for them and give it to somebody else. A new dreamer, a new writer, somebody that will make a difference for the writers of tomorrow. And then the dream continues, and storybooks are created, and you leave a living legacy that matters, it really truly does.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Foxy Friday!

 Hi everyone! Welcome to our first Foxy Friday! Foxy Friday (so named by our own Sarah Watts) is Red Fox's own version of Illustration Friday and will be happening about every other week. Each Foxy Friday we will feature a topic for our Red Fox illustrators to take on. This weeks topic is "summer." This week we've got illustrations by Jed Alexander, Rosalinde Bonnet, Diane Browning, Mary Ann Fraser, Adam Gustavson, Elizabeth Haidle, Marty Kelley, Tatjana Mai-WyssTeri Sloat, and Sarah Watts. Tatjana's piece is a spread she did for Whole-y Cow: Fractions are Fun (by Taryn Souders and Tatjana Mai-Wyss from Sleeping Bear Press). And Sarah Watts not only provided us with our new name but she's offered us something a little different than what we usually see from Sarah: a collage! So maybe Foxy Fridays will be a place where you can see other work from our Red Fox Artists in a style or medium that you might not otherwise see. Keep coming back and I hope you enjoy this fine Foxy Friday!

Jed Alexander

Rosalinde Bonnet

Diane Browning

Mary Ann Fraser

Adam Gustavson

Elizabeth Haidle

Marty Kelley

Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Teri Sloat

Sarah Watts

Thursday, July 5, 2012



It’s the 4th of July as I write this and fireworks are exploding all around me.  It was a very big day.  The unexpected happened.  The fireworks are appropriate.

It all began eight months ago when I opened my email in-box and found a manuscript that absolutely melted my heart.  I am a very sentimental soul and I desperately want the good in this world to overcome the bad.  As a result, I am drawn to stories that encourage children to bring their best to this difficult world.  

This little gem of a story, A Jewish Child, written by Barbara Pronin, is the most powerful tool I have to make a difference in this world, and I want to share with you its serendipitous path to publication.

I called Ms. Pronin immediately upon reading her story and explained to her that although I am not Jewish, and the market is opposed to didactic stories, that I loved her manuscript and would do the very best I could to find it a good home.  We both researched large and small publishers that edited and published Jewish-themed picture books and prepared a carefully targeted submission list.

After several responses coming back with the dreaded “We tend to shy away from didactic stories,” I was not sure where to go next.  Ironically, a Blue Apple Books catalog showed up in my mail, which I eagerly reviewed as I was not familiar with their books.  Within days, out of the blue, I got a note from Cecile Goyette, an editor I had known many years before but had lost track of, letting me know that she was now acquiring and editing for Blue Apple Books. 

Upon reviewing the catalog, I noted that many of their books had a Jewish theme, and so I immediately sent the manuscript off to Cecile to see if it might be a good fit for her. All fingers, toes, and eyes were appropriately crossed.

Two weeks later I was at the ALA and I saw the Blue Apple Books booth.  Harriet Ziefert, the publisher, greeted me, and I told her about my introduction to her company and that I had a manuscript I just loved that I had recently sent to Cecile.  We discussed the content and she stated that she was looking for a picture book for an illustrator she really wanted to work with, and that she would be sure to get the manuscript from Cecile; that because she was Jewish and Cecile was not, that it may appeal more to her own sensibilities than to Cecile’s anyway.

Today, a week later, I awoke asking myself why wait to see if she actually takes the time to get the manuscript from Cecile.  I had her card, so I sent it directly to her.  By mid afternoon I had an offer from Ms. Ziefert for the book that breaks all the rules, and I have strong a feeling it’s going to blow the roofs off when it comes out.  Ms. Ziefert has contracted with a National Jewish Book Award Honoree to illustrate this timeless picture book, and it will be published on the fall 2013 list.

So, as I said in my last blog post (yes, more than a year ago!) that you never know what’s around the corner.  Keep your eyes peeled for signs and seize every opportunity that comes your way.

Carpe Diem!


Monday, July 2, 2012

Writer's Voice

By Sandra Brug

When I first started writing children’s stories, what appeared on the page was verse. I didn’t want to write verse. I wanted to write stories. For months, I rewrote my verse into prose. The prose was ho-hum, the verse was great. It took me awhile to get it. I have a poet’s voice. My writing is lyrical. Rhymes pop out! Rhythm happens.

Voice is what happens when we allow whatever wants to be said to flow out in its own style, unfettered by thinking. Voice comes when we allow our deep original expression to come forth without censorship. When I first started writing, my voice peeped out and the critic chuckled, “How corny … How lame.”

Now I know that a harsh critic resides within. This inner critic dismisses my voice by ridiculing it. When the critic rises, my voice scurries into hiding. The critic and the voice are linked.

How does a writer allow deep, original expression to come forth without censorship? Sometimes it’s tough. I’ve devised a practice that works for me. When I hear the critic, I stop writing and speak out loud. I acknowledge the critic and have a conversation that ends with: “I hear you, buddy … but I’m not hiding today.” It’s kind of like standing up to a bully. Then I let go and write my heart out.

Allowing voice is a courageous act.

Another way I call forth voice is to engage in spontaneous writings. What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “What are you waiting for?” or “Open the box!” or “There is a gate”? First thought! Go … no mind-editing. It’s a little like laughing or vomiting. And for some, it takes practice to allow the style of expression to pop out with the idea. In my early writing days, this worked well for me, both as a warmup and as a way to let the voice of the character or subject come forth. An excellent source for spontaneous writing ideas is A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves (2010).

Now, after years of befriending the deep sounds of me, I jump into voice right away. Hey! … could I have finally tamed that bully critic? Wow.