Teachers Write 7/11/14 – Friday Feature: Embracing the Process

Congratulations! It’s Friday, and that means you’ve survived your first week of Teachers Write. Gae is hosting Friday Feedback on her blog today, so even if you’re not quite ready to share, you should go visit & see how that works.

And we also have a Friday Feature with guest author Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Lynda is the author of ONE FOR THE MURPHYS and the forthcoming FISH IN A TREE.

Lynda does frequent school & Skype visits. She’s pretty terrific, and she’s here to talk about embracing your process.

Roll with the Hunches: Thoughts on Writing Process


As a writer, I struggled in the beginning because I thought that writing was done the right way or the wrong way. I figured the right way was to write things in sequential order and the wrong way was the way I do it.

Thing was, characters dropped into me. I’d imagine things that would happen to them almost as if coming back to me as a memory. So, I started taking notes. Soon, those notes became scenes. The writing wasn’t great but it was better than it had been. So, I decided to try and go with this lack of form.

I wrote an entire novel that way. It’s a novel that will never be published but it taught me character development, plotting, pacing and–most importantly–to trust myself. To stop emulating my outline-loving friends and to embrace my own process even though it felt like that first white-knuckle hill on a roller coaster. Soon, I realized that at the end of a “writing ride” I was happy and wanted to ride again, so…

When I write a book I write the first two chapters and then I write the last chapter. All the middle chapters are written out of order. I don’t plan it that way—it comes to me that way. While I’m in the kitchen making coffee I have no idea what will leak out of my fingers that day.

I begin by reading some of what I’ve written the previous day and then begin writing—I just jump in even if it’s not coming easily. (I often cut the beginnings of scenes as those words were the map that helped me get to the important stuff.) When I’m finished with the chapter I give it a title and write it on a 3 x 5 card. Then I add three bullet points of important things that happen. Finally, I slap it on a giant magnetic whiteboard in my office.

cards

So, by the time I finished the first draft of Murphys what I had was 50 chapters about a girl named Carley Connors who lands in foster care. Then I had the task of laying them all out on the floor in such an order as to make a novel. Was this hard for me? Very.

I use those cards to organize the book. In the upper left-hand corner of each card I use colored circles to represent each character. When all the chapters are laid out it tells me if I have left a character for too long. For example in the first draft of One for the Murphys I had 11 cards in a row without a green circle which stood for Daniel, an important charater. So, I switched the cards around :-)

I also put the setting in the bottom right-hand corner and if I have too many similar chapters I consolidate them. For example in writing the Murphy’s I had four conversations between Carley and Toni take place in the bedroom. So I printed those four chapters out, highlighted the material I wanted to keep, and rewrote them to make two chapters.

cards plot

When I have it all together in what I feel is novel-form, I put aside a day and read the entire thing out loud in one sitting. That really tells me the shape of it. Then I go back to those cards—still lined up on the floor and go through each card to think about questions, tension, repetition. I look at the length of the chapters, too.

Finally, I make cards of “scenes to write”—holes that need to be filled in the story. I spread those out on my desk upside down and pick from the pile. Then I take a stab at writing the one chosen. This approach to writing is not as smooth. These scenes start our clunkier than most but I smooth them over eventually—the ones I keep, anyway.

So, the beginning really is from the guts and the card part is cerebral. It’s a strange system but it has worked for both One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree (Feb, 2015).

I spoke with a few phenomenal writers and friends about their processes in writing a novel.

Apparently, Leslie Connor, author of five books including The Things You Kiss Good-bye also writes in a similar style to mine which made me happy. Because I’m *such* a fan of her writing! But, I thought you may want to hear from a couple of others who have different processes:

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~~Stacy DeKeyser author of Jump the Cracks , The Brixen Witch and One Witch at Time (follow-up to Brixen Witch out Feb, 2015) writes about her process:

“I’m more a stepping stone person. If I have a character who wants something, I give him some obstacles and plot out Turning Point #1 (at about the 25% point), the middle, and Turning Point #2 (at around 80%), climax, and resolution. And ending that is full circle in some ways but changed irrevocably in others. Then fill in the blanks! So easy! (Ha!)”

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~~e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, author of Fat Angie, writes of her process this way:

“As a filmmaker and short fiction author first, the novel writing process in the first draft is very dialogue based. I hear the characters talking and jot down the tension, texture and nuance of what they need to say. Followed by notes on key sensory detail. I don’t spend a lot of time describing the scene when I’m going. I know I can fill that in, but the dialogue is gold right off the rip. Often I’m thrown right in the middle of the character chaos. Whether it is the beginning, middle or end of the novel, I’m just there.

I also build a soundtrack for the overall book. Music that the characters laugh to — cry with — drive to their passion. The music is something that can drop me right into the story. Often there are specific songs for particular chapters. Sometimes a character theme. This allows me an immediate emotional access to them if I’ve had to step away from the story for some reason. I tend to write the way I would edit a movie. Ten to twelve hour days, six days a week for four weeks. Then I’m done with the draft. Let it sleep for a few days and revisit or send it to my agent to put eyes on the spine of the piece.”

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So, dear fellow writers, experiment with different approaches. Sometimes, you’ll dovetail processes. Have fun with it. Don’t over think it; ironically, the brain sometimes gets in the way of good writing.

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Teachers Write 7/10/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Megan Frazer Blakemore joins us for today’s Thursday Quick-Write! Like some of you, Megan is a librarian, and she’s also the author of great books like THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL.

Today’s Thursday Quick Write: Word Hoards

I’ve taken two writing workshops with Monica Wood (whose Pocket Muse books I highly recommend), and in each she did an exercise where we went around the room each person saying a word until we had quite a lengthy list, maybe three to five rounds depending on the number of people you had in the room. Then everyone wrote a story using the words generated.

I called these lists Word Hoards, a term I learned from Beowulf. I’ve done this exercise in turn with groups I’ve led, and keep the list in a notebook so I can go back and find words to inspire me. Over time, I started doing Word Hoards for my characters. I imagine I am one of my characters and that I’m participating in this exercise, and start listing out the words that the character would say, often with surprising results.

This exercise is both about voice because you are thinking about the specific vocabulary of the character, but also about letting yourself go and seeing where you characters will take you.

The exercise: Using a current work in progress, take three or four of your characters and create Word Hoards for them.

Note from Kate: If you don’t have an active work-in-progress, try writing this from the point of view of a character you dream up today. Maybe it will turn into a bigger idea! Or if you’d like to focus on history or science, try writing from the point of view of some historical figure or scientist or animal!

If you’d like to share a few lines of what you wrote today in the comments, we’d love that – and promise that all our comments will be friendly and supportive. If you’d rather keep your writing to yourself today, in your notebook or on your hard drive, that’s fine, too.

Happy writing!

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Teachers Write 7/9/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Welcome to Q and A Wednesday!

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering – today’s official author guests are Cynthia Lord, Donna Gephart, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

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Teachers Write 7/8/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

On Tuesdays & Thursdays during Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, we’ll be sharing quick-write prompts, designed to get you free-writing for a few minutes in response to a question or idea. Some of these will feel like writing memoir, some will focus more on fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Some of them will just be hard to categorize. Many will be prompts that you can bookmark and share with your student writers later on.

Our Tuesday-Thursday quick-writes can be used as a simple free-write, brainstorming, warm-up activity OR as a way to deepen your thinking about a work-in-progress.  So feel free to approach the prompt in whatever way works best for you, even if that means ignoring it and writing about the other thing that sprouted in your head when you sat down to do the quick-write. Okay… got your keyboard or pencil ready?

Today’s Quick-Write is courtesy of Nora Raleigh Baskin, who’s written a whole bunch of wonderful books, including RUNT and the Schneider Family Book Award winner ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL.

Tuesday Quick-Write: Taking a Risk

The most important skill to have when writing books for children is to be able to get into the mind of a child, not an adult looking back. However, being able to “mine” the memories of your own childhood is key.

Today, choose a memory from your own life, preferably of a deeply felt emotion (i.e. fear, joy, embarrassment, anger, sadness). Now write the experience as fiction, as if it happened or is happening to your character. It can be either in first or third person, past or present tense. It can as close to the facts or as far as you wish, retaining the “truth” of the emotional experience while creating “fiction.”

Note from Kate: If you’d like to share a few lines of what you wrote today in the comments, we’d love that – and promise that all our comments will be friendly and supportive. (We’ll talk about more constructive critiques later on. Let’s just get our feet wet with compliments today!)  If you’d rather keep your writing to yourself today, in your notebook or on your hard drive, that’s fine, too.

Please feel free to TALK to one another in those comments, too! Some things you read there will resonate with you or spark memories or simply make you sigh. Writers will appreciate hearing about that. Nora and I are actually both on a writing retreat this week and probably won’t be able to comment on every single post, but we’ll pop in and read, and you know that cheering one another on is part of this community, too!

Please note: If you’re a first-time commenter, I’ll have to approve your comment before it appears. This may take a while if I’m not at my computer, but don’t worry – I’ll get to it and it will show up later on!

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Teachers Write 7/7/14: Mini-Lesson Monday: You Come, Too

Welcome to writing camp, everybody!

Teachers Write! is a virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians. Click here to sign up if you’d like to join us!  If you’re on Facebook & want to also join our group there,here’s the link. Then click “Join Group.” And please click here to sign up for my email newsletter so that you’ll get updates throughout the year.

A quick note about blogging your Teachers Write experience: There will be daily opportunities for you to share and interact with one another in the comments section of each post. It’s great if you also want to set up a blog where you share all of your writing from this summer. One important request: Our guest authors have given permission for their lessons & prompts to be shared on the Teachers Write blog only. Please do not copy and paste the mini-lessons or writing prompts – publish only your own writing on your blog. If you’d like to reference the ideas shared here, providing a link is the best way to do that. Thanks!

Three quick things before we get started today…

1. Teachers Write is an online summer writing camp with more than two dozen published author-mentors who donate their time to work with us. It’s free. There’s no charge to participate, but we do ask that you buy a few books over the summer as a way to support the authors who are supporting you. Our request: choose one book from each of our three main “all summer long” authors – Kate, Gae, and Jo – and at least one book from one of our daily guest authors. You can read about all of our author mentors and find great books here. If you truly aren’t able to do this financially, we understand that and still want you to write with us. We’d love it if you requested these books at your local libraries & signed them out.

2. Our weekly schedule will look like this:

Monday Mini-lesson, and a Monday Morning Warm-Up on Jo’s blog
Tuesday Quick-Write
Wednesday is Q and A day – authors will be here to answer your questions!
Thursday Quick-Write
Friday Feedback on Gae’s blog, and an occasional Friday feature here, too
Sunday Check-In on Jen Vincent’s blog

3. I’ll be popping in to comment, and I know many of our guest authors will, too, but since this community has grown so much (we’re more than 1400 teacher-writers strong now!) you’ll also need to commit to supporting one another. When someone decides to be brave and share a bit of writing in the comments, or when someone asks for advice or feedback, please know that you are welcome (and encouraged!) to be mentors to one another as well. Watching this writing community grow is one of the best things about being part of Teachers Write.

Today’s Monday Mini-Lesson: You Come, Too

I fall in love with places.

I can’t think about the drenching afternoon rain in Costa Rica or the creaky bridge over the creek behind my childhood house without sighing. And many of my favorite books are my favorites because they transport me so fully to a different place and time. The Revolutionary New York of Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS. The small-town New Hampshire parade of Linda Urban’s THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING. The gritty inner city streets of SCORPIONS by Walter Dean Myers and the Boston landmarks of Erin Dionne’s MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE BREAKING. As a reader, if I can not only see your setting, but also smell its air and hear its song, I’ll come along with you anywhere.

Writing, in many ways, is an invitation to come along someplace. Robert Frost knew this when he wrote “The Pasture” (from North of Boston, 1914)

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’nt be gone long — You come too.
 
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’nt be gone long — You come too.

Those tiny details – raking leaves, the mother’s lick of her calf – make good on Frost’s “You come too” invitation by taking us along on the walk. And we can all do this as writers.

Last night, we hosted my son’s graduation party at the house. Maybe my favorite moment was near the end of the afternoon, when all of the teenagers swam out to our raft and the neighbor’s float nearby.

photo(177)

If I wanted to share this moment in a way that brings you into my yard, I might start with a free write:

The kids have left us late this afternoon, for that small, square island of independence seventy yards from shore. The girls are on one raft, stretched out  to soak up Saturday sun. On the other, the boys stand awkwardly until somebody shoves somebody and there is leaping and laughing and splashing and so much teenager joy that I ache from missing it already, before they are even gone.

Now, I kind of like this snippet of writing. But in order to bring you closer, I’ll want to bring in more of the tiny details – those that go beyond the expected sun’s warmth and light shining on the waves. Sometimes, when I’m searching for those unexpected details, I like to isolate senses and write about one at a time. So I might spend a minute or two focusing only on the sounds of that moment. This is easiest if you close your eyes and only listen:

Call from the house: Do we need more ice?
trampoline springs as the kids bounce – sproing – squeak – sproing
Neighbor’s porch door slamming
wind rustling the oak leaves that hang over the deck
scrape of a metal spatula on the grill

Then I might isolate only the sense of touch – scratchy grass under my bare feet, the tickle of a bright green, newly hatched bug that’s landed near my elbow. And smells – hamburger smoke, sunscreen and bug spray, new cedar mulch from the garden we cleaned up just in time for the party, and that lake-smell that is half fresh and half fish. You get the idea…and then I’d go back to rewrite the passage sprinkling in some of those had-to-have-been-there to notice it details to make the piece more alive.

The kids have left us late this afternoon, for a small, square island of independence bobbing in the lake-wind seventy yards from shore. Here at the deck tables, hamburger smoke drifts through the sunscreen-and-bug-spray air of summer. I wiggle my toes in the rough grass under the picnic table and listen to their cold-water squeals over the hush of rustling oak leaves above. The girls are on one raft, breathing in the cedar planks and lake air, half fresh and half fish. They stretch long and tan, soaking up Saturday sun, while on the other float, the boys stand, arms folded over their chests until somebody shoves somebody and there is leaping and laughing and splashing and so much teenager joy that I ache from missing it already, before they are even gone.

This is still rough around the edges, and if it were to be part of something bigger, I’d revise more, trimming words here, adding more there, and playing with the blend of those concrete details and the inner world of emotion as I take it all in. But you get the idea, right?

So here’s your assignment for today:

Take your notebook or laptop and go outside somewhere – your house, the beach, the woods, a city bench…wherever. If it’s raining where you live today, you can sit by a partly open window.

Write a snippet of that moment, just off the top of your head without thinking about the details. Then, underneath that snapshot paragraph, try to isolate the tiny details of each sense with your words.  Take a minute or two to focus only on the details of what you hear…then what you smell…and so on. And then, go back and rewrite your paragraph if you’d like, working in some of those tiny, had-to-be-there details.

In writing, I find that the first details that come to my mind are not the most original. It’s when I really stop and listen to what’s there – rather than what I expect to be there – that I discover the richest details…the ones that invite a reader into the place I’m writing about. You come, too.

If you’d like to share your revised paragraph in the comments today, feel free! If you’re not quite ready yet, that’s okay, too. We’ll be here when you are. :-)

Want some more inspiration for today? Check out your Monday Morning Warm-Up on Jo’s blog, too!

~Kate

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Life doesn’t permit…and other wise words on making time to write

Teachers Write starts in less than a week, and Cynthia Lord has some brilliant words of advice for us all.  Cindy is one of our Teachers Write guest authors; she’s the Newbery Honor writer of RULES, TOUCH BLUE, the HOT ROD HAMSTER series, and her latest, HALF A CHANCE.

Cindy shared something on Facebook this week that was so wise & wonderful, I asked her for permission to share it here as well:

Next Monday, Teachers Write begins. It’s a free online daily workshop with short writing prompts and lessons for teachers (or really, anyone!) to work on their own writing. Not how to write with kids. Your *own* writing.

All you have to do is sign up and you can do the program all five days a week or as life permits. But let me say something about “as life permits,” just so you’re prepared.

Life *doesn’t* permit.

The thing about writing (or other things you do for yourself to fill your own well), it’s always easy to put it last. And then it hardly ever happens. Or maybe it never happens.

So if writing is something you truly want in your life, you can’t always put it last. My first book, Rules was written between 4 and 6 in the morning every morning. I have a son with autism and our days have always been full of his schedule and his needs.

One day when he was about 5, I saw my writing books from college on my bedroom shelf and felt the pang of missing. I had given all that up for my children and to run his home program. I had no regrets about that, but I also knew that our life might never be less full of his needs, and I either had to make time for writing or I had to let it go without regret and find a different way to be creative in the world. Something that didn’t require the alone time that writing does for me.

I am not good at the end of the day. I’m a morning person. In those days, my son got up around 6 am. So I set the alarm for 4 am and thought, “I’ll do this for two weeks.” At the end of that two weeks, I will either give this up and find something else. Or I will make it work.

As of next month, I will have eight published books. At the end of 2016, I will have fourteen. I made it work.

Life doesn’t permit. First you have to make writing matter. Then you make the time for it. Then you make that time a habit. Writing is that still small voice that is easily drowned out by the hundreds of other voices of things you care about or should do.

But when you listen to that little voice and honor it and make regular time for it, it gives something back that’s precious and healing and true. . . it gives you back yourself.

I hope these gentle words from Cynthia Lord inspire you as much as they do me. And I hope that if you want to write, you’ll make time – and join us starting on Monday!

~Kate

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Introducing Summer ’14 Teachers Write Guest Authors!

It’s almost time for Teachers Write 2014!  Our free online summer writing camp for teachers & librarians kicks off on Monday, July 7th here on my blog. If you’d like to join us, please sign up, and also click here to register for my email newsletter so you’ll get updates throughout the year. If you’d like to know more about Teachers Write, you can learn all about it here.

Now, (drum roll, please…) I’d like to introduce our guest author mentors for Summer 2014.  These writers are all volunteering their time, so we ask that you support Teachers Write by purchasing guest authors’ books and requesting them for your school and public libraries. Clicking on each author’s name will take you to his or her books page on IndieBound, where you can check out the books and also find an independent bookstore near you to purchase them.

I could go on and on about independent bookstores, how they are the hearts of our communities and how they support the authors who are supporting you in this workshop, but I’ll keep it short and say this. Bookstores – real bricks-and-mortar buildings full of books – do amazing things for communities, teachers, authors, and families. Please support yours. Stop in, buy some books, and introduce yourself as a teacher. You may learn amazing things about how your local bookstore can help with things like book recommendations, book fairs, and author visits. If you don’t have a local indie, consider supporting one of mine – the Bookstore Plus has signed copies of many of my books, and they offer free shipping on orders over $50.

Please spend a little time checking out these writers’ websites and books. Authors are listed in the order in which you’ll meet them, starting next week.

Kate Messner That’s me – I’m your Teachers Write hostess & will kick things off with the first mini-lesson on Monday. I’ll also have lots of things to say throughout the summer. Because I am like that. :-) Here’s my newest book & a couple that are available for pre-order, coming out during the school year.

Gae Polisner  Gae hosts Feedback Friday on her blog and is generally the best cheerleader this side of the Mississippi. The best in all the land, in fact. Gae wrote these amazing books.

Jo Knowles  Jo will kick off each week with her Monday Morning Warm Up, a writing prompt to get your fingers moving and writer’s brain thinking. Here are some of Jo’s books. These all made me cry. In a good way.

Guest Authors – These folks will be stopping in to teach Monday Mini-Lessons, offer Tuesday and Thursday Quick Writes, and answer your questions on Q and A Wednesdays.They are all great writers and even better human beings, and I’m so happy to be introducing them to you.

Nora Baskin

Cynthia Lord

Donna Gephart

Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Jeannine Atkins

Diane Zahler

Kathryn Erskine

Sarah Darer Littman

Donalyn Miller

David Lubar

Jody Feldman

Anne Marie Pace

Varian Johnson

Kat Yeh

Lola Schaefer

Kim Norman

Nikki Grimes

Sarah Albee

Erin Dealey

Erin Dionne

Phil Bildner

 For now…check out the links above. Buy some books. Get to know your guest authors. Follow them on Twitter & find them on Facebook if you like to hang out in those places, too. We’ll be back Monday, July 7th to get us started writing!

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Snow, Lakes, & Laser Pointers: An End-of-the-School-Year Update

Between in-person author visits and Skype chats, I visited kids in more than a hundred classrooms all over the country this school year, but now the lake-days are calling. I’ll be taking the next couple of months off from appearances and Skype visits to write, celebrate my son’s graduation, and spend time with family. But I want to say a BIG thank you to all of the schools and libraries that hosted me this year and share some photos from my last two events.

I’d visited Rebecca Buerkett’s students when she worked at Saranac Elementary, so it was a treat to see her again in her new role as librarian of L.P. Quinn Elementary in Tupper Lake, NY.

I love the student art on their bulletin board – the kids used computer graphics to make Over and Under the Lake projects, inspired by my picture book, OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW.

Before my presentations began, I got to have a smaller Q and A session with this second grade class that had read many of my books. They were great readers – and writers, too! They surprised me with a book of description-riddles.

Some of Rebecca’s older students had read my novel THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and taken the “What Tree Would You Be” quiz in the back of the book, so they came to my presentation wearing their tree name tags!

My last school visit of the year was an informal trip to Cumberland Head Elementary to see the OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW inspired research projects that Gayle Roy Collin’s third graders made. Here are the kids with their projects (and one photo-bombing author!)

Other news this week…some books arrived in the mail!

I received author copies for MANHUNT, the third book in my Silver Jaguar Society Mysteries with Scholastic and two new versions of OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW from my editor at Chronicle – the paperback, which comes out this fall, and the Korean edition!

I also made it through some of the paper mail on my desk this week, which is always fun, thanks to the letters from kids. I loved one particularly artistic thank you note from a student whose school I visited. It’s great to know that my laser pointer makes such an impression.

Most of my summer blogging will be related to Teachers Write, the online summer writing camp I run for teachers and librarians, but I’ll probably sneak in the occasional Lake Champlain rainbow and Adirondack hiking photos, too. In the mean time, I hope your summer gets off to a wonderful start!

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Research & Writing: Chasing Stories Back to the Source

I’m working on a book about insects for Chronicle Books right now. I’m in science-geek heaven, up to my eyeballs in research, and wanted to share a tip that I think might help other writers – both students and adults.

 When you’re doing research and you come across THE BEST STORY EVER, you need to chase that story all the way back to its source.

 Sometimes, you’ll be rewarded with the exact quote you need from a primary source document. And sometimes, you’ll run into a dead end, and you’ll need to let that juicy story go. This can be sad – especially after you’ve put in hours of research – but it’s lot better than perpetuating an often-told but undocumented tall tale in a work of nonfiction.

I experienced both of these research moments with my bug book this week.

BEST STORY EVER #1: Bombardier Beetles

bombardier

Image via Wikimedia Commons, photo by Patrick Coin

In researching the Bombardier beetle, I found numerous references to a story about the naturalist Charles Darwin’s encounter with one of these beetles. The Bombardier beetle has a great defense mechanism; it shoots a hot, smelly, chemical mist out its rear end when it’s threatened, a fact Darwin supposedly learned the hard way, when he was collecting beetles, ran out of hands, and popped one in his mouth for safe keeping. This, I thought, was the BEST STORY EVER. But in order to use it, I had to find out if it was true.

When you’re reading information on websites, the best ones cite sources, most often within the text or in a list of references the bottom of the page. Source leads to source, and eventually, if you’re lucky, you can follow that bread crumb trail back to the person who told the story to begin with – in this case, Charles Darwin himself. I found out that this particular BEST STORY EVER actually came from Darwin’s published autobiography. Here’s the quote:

“I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”

My favorite thing about this quote is the matter-of-fact way in which Darwin describes popping the beetle into his mouth for storage as if it’s a regular thing. Because that’s what we all do, you know, when we’ve run out of hands for collecting beetles.

Verdict: This BEST STORY EVER can be verified, at least to the degree that Charles Darwin himself tells the story. A side note: I still have no idea if Darwin was telling the truth, since he was alone with the beetles, but I can phrase my storytelling in a way that reflects this. This BEST STORY EVER makes the cut.

(If you want to read more about Bombardier beetles, Sarah Albee, author of BUGGED: HOW INSECTS CHANGED THE WORLD, has a great blog post called “Please Don’t Eat the Beetles” here.)

BEST STORY EVER #2:The Giant Weta

weta

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Another bug I’m featuring in this book is the Little Barrier Island giant weta, which is known as the heaviest insect in the world. It’s also known for its scary appearance; the natives of New Zealand call it wetapunga, which translates to “god of ugly things.” I also read some reports that this insect is pretty indestructible by conventional means. I found half a dozen websites – including some from museums and educational institutions – that reference a story told by Sir Walter Buller, who supposedly tried to kill some wetas for his collection back in 1871 and had little luck. These super-wetas supposedly survived Buller’s attempted drowning and even his brother-in-law’s effort to kill them by plunging them into boiling water.

It’s a great story – but one that I’ve been unable to confirm so far. The closest I’ve come is this 1895 reference in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, in which Buller writes about two wetas he found feeding in a tree:

“Dismounting from my horse, I secured the two Wetas in a pocket handkerchief, and hung them up in a tree to await my return a day or two later. On coming back, however, I found that they had eaten their way out and made their escape.”

Side note: Buller apparently didn’t subscribe to the Darwin “pop-it-in-your-mouth” method of insect safe keeping. Or perhaps he did, but giant wetas can be six inches long, so that would have been quite a mouthful.

Anyway, this is a nifty story, but it falls short of providing confirmation for the tale I’d read online. Does that mean the story of the wetas who survived attempted-drowning and being plunged in boiling water isn’t true? No…but it does mean that I haven’t yet found the documentation I need to use it.

Verdict: This BEST STORY EVER doesn’t make the cut unless I manage to turn up a document where Buller tells the story for himself.

One more note on chasing down sources… We teach students (rightfully so) that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source for research. But it can be a treasure trove of references. The Wikipedia entries that are well done – and many of them are – have a list of references and resources listed at the end of the article, often with links to their original sources in scholarly articles available online.

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The End of a Series (and the start of a new one!)

I was at a wonderful writing retreat called Kindling Words when I wrote the last chapter of CAPTURE THE FLAG and thought, “I really, really want to write more books with these three kids!”  As an author, when you’ve had the chance to spend time with three kids from totally different backgrounds whose families are all part of a secret society to protect the world’s artifacts, you’re just not ready to let them go after one book. Happily, Scholastic agreed, and CAPTURE THE FLAG became Book 1 of three Silver Jaguar Society Mysteries. Book 2, HIDE AND SEEK, came out last year.

I’m so thankful to readers of these books — especially the kids who have passed them from hand to hand and the teachers and libraries whose passion and advocacy landed CAPTURE THE FLAG on ten state award lists.

Anna, Henry, and José have one last adventure ahead – MANHUNT comes out in June and sends the kids off on their most dangerous missions yet.

Henry, Anna, and José head from Boston to Paris to solve the mystery of an international art heist! Shortly after they arrive, they learn that a member of the Silver Jaguar Society is working as a double agent, passing information to the criminal gang the Serpentine Princes — but who could it be? When the senior members of the Society go missing, it’s up to Henry, Anna, José, and their smug new comrade, Hem, to mount a rescue while staying hot on the trail of a missing masterpiece. Running around — and below — a foreign city filled with doppelgangers, decoys, and deceit, the three sleuths discover they’re the only hope for the Society’s survival!

I have a few advance reader copies of this book and would like to give one away in a drawing.  To enter, just leave a comment with your email before 9pm EST on Friday, May 30th. If you’re under 13, please have an adult enter on your behalf. Open to residents with US mailing addresses only.

MANHUNT is the last Silver Jaguar Society Mystery for now, but I’m already at work on a brand new adventure series for Scholastic. I want to introduce you to Ranger…

Ranger is a search and rescue dog with some incredible talents. He can find missing people. He has a gift for rescuing friends in trouble. And (with the help of a mysterious First Aid kit he digs up in the garden) he can time travel!

In Ranger’s first adventure, he goes back to the days of the Oregon Trail to travel with a pioneer family struggling with a wandering toddler, rattlesnakes, disease, a treacherous river crossing, and a buffalo stampede on their journey west.

The Ranger in Time books are recommended for readers in Grades 2-5.  Book 1: RANGER IN TIME: RESCUE ON THE OREGON TRAIL comes out in late December 2014, and Book 2, RANGER IN TIME: DANGER IN ANCIENT ROME  (Fire! Lions! Gladiators!) comes out in July 2015. Book 3 doesn’t have a title yet but features a fugitive slave as its hero, and Book 4…well…it’s probably too early to talk about Book 4, but it’s going to have a chilly setting.

So while I’m a little sad to be saying goodbye to my Silver Jaguar Society sleuths, I’m so excited to introduce readers to Ranger and all of the historical kid heroes he meets on his adventures.

Don’t forget – just leave a comment if you’d like to be entered in the MANHUNT ARC drawing!

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