Teachers Write 7.25.17 Tuesday Quick-Write with Martha Brockenbrough

Good morning! It’s time for your Teachers Write Tuesday Quick-Write, and our guest today is the brilliant Martha Brockenbrough. Martha is the author of The Game of Love and Death, a Kirkus Prize finalist, as well as the forthcoming Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary, and Love, Santa. She teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, founded National Grammar Day, and likes dogs and cats equally well. Martha continues our focus on research today with some more great resources!

Getting started is often one of the hardest parts of writing—or anything, really.

Because I write fiction and nonfiction for a variety of ages, I’ve faced a lot of blank pages. One of the best ways I’ve found to get started is to have a little bit of help. Writing prompts in general can be useful. And I find all sorts of them in research, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction.

Here are some of my favorite places to dig up research-based nuggets:

The New York Public Library Digital Collection: This is a huge archive full of images, newspaper clippings, and other documents. This link is to the last letter Alexander Hamilton wrote his wife before he was shot to death. It’s fascinating all by itself. But it also makes a writing prompt: Consider writing your character’s last letter to someone he or she loves. That someone can be a child. An exceptionally gifted pet. A criminal who needs to receive on a secret message. Or it can be something your main character receives.

Internet Archive: This site has a variety of digitized media, including old newsreels and audio reels. When I was researching The Game of Love and Death, a historical novel set in 1937, I used video of the Hindenburg tragedy as the basis for a scene.

I’d listened to the audio recording of it in a chemistry class when I was 12, and remembered it always because it was so vivid (which is why it’s not for every student. Still, it’s interesting.)

One of the first things I did when I decided to set the book in 1937 was look at a list of things that happened that year.

As your story prompt, search on a year (or use the one your story takes place in, or the year a character was born). Find a great vintage photo like this one, and write about someone in it receiving the best news of their life—which they are unable to enjoy.  https://archive.org/details/1937KSUcollage

Moon phase calendar 

One of my pet peeves is the preponderance of full moons in movies. With The Game of Love and Death, I took care to make every moon phase accurate. It became a good creative constraint. What did my characters think when they looked up to the sky and found it empty of moon?

Your assignment: Look up the moon phase on your character’s birthday, or some other significant date in your story. (If you don’t have a work in progress, choose a date like your own birthday!) Write a scene about a character doing something in the light of that moon. And as always, feel free to share a snippet of what you wrote in the comments!

46 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.25.17 Tuesday Quick-Write with Martha Brockenbrough

  1. Here I am in Connecticut.  Autumn is beautiful here compared to California. I have enrolled in college along with my sister.  Today is my birthday, but I am not happy.  My boyfriend from California is fighting in Vietnam.  I pray that he will survive this terrible war.  There is so much news about the war.  People are protesting out on the streets and it is televised on t.v.  I can’t help knowing how hard it must be for him to fight for our country knowing that people in our country are angry about it.  

     I am outside, the air is cool, and it is very peaceful.  I look up at the half moon and imagine that John is looking up at the moon as well.  There is an eleven -hour difference, so that is not happening, but I want to imagine that maybe in eleven hours he will be looking at the moon and thinking of me. Tears stream down my face as I wipe them away.  I make a wish on the moon for his safety and I go in and write him a letter.

    1. Great job, Margaret!

      “I make a wish on the moon for his safety and I go in and write him a letter.” – I love this line because it makes we want to read more. I want to know more about the mc. I want to know more about John.

      Thanks for sharing.
      Happy writing!

    2. Thanks for sharing, Margaret. This is a nice thought about seeing the same moon as a loved one so far away. Like Andy and Andrea, that is a nice thought at the end. I want to read the letter she writes.

    3. Hi Margaret, I’m with everyone else, the last sentiment is wonderful. I’m curious to read her letter, too. Thank you for sharing!

    4. Hi Margaret! This was intriguing to me. It sounds like this is from your main character’s diary. That seems like a really authentic way to portray thoughts and fears, especially in a tough time like this. Can’t wait to read more!

  2. Thank you, Martha.

    I did the activity as a warm-up this morning. I had some fun and may even try to make it fit somewhere in my story. I also love the idea of the character’s last letter. I may try that one later. Thank you again.

    Today’s (basketball under the full moon:) snippet:
    “See you tomorrow, Stevie.” Jamie shouts over the dribble of the ball.

    “Thanks for having us over on the last official night of summer vacation. Tomorrow is a school night,” Christy says, “I can’t wait.” Figures.

    Both of them disappear into the envelope of darkness at the bottom of the driveway.
    I stare down at my long shadow and wish that I were this tall. I could totally dunk a basketball. I walk under the hoop and realize that I wouldn’t even need to jump, but I back away down the driveway to get a better look at the hoop. The white backboard glows in the light of the moon. Begging me to take a few more shots until Mom tells me it’s time to come in.

    That’s it.

    The final moonlit basketball game of the summer was as lame as those love movies that Kristie watches with her friends. One more day of summer vacation, and then back to school on Tuesday. Summer vacation is way too fast.

    I dribble twice, step back, fully extend and release. Swish. I grab the ball, pull it close, and throw up my super high arching shot, which I call my moon shot. Nothing but net.

    Mom’s shadow walks across the back porch. The final summer basketball game is over.

    1. Andy,
      I love the envelope of darkness they walk into at the end of the driveway. The tall shadow idea is very fun and realistic. And the “Figures!” line is priceless. I like your full moon scene.

    2. Andy, I love the continuation of reading your writing. I found myself flashing back to those last days of summer vacation as a kid. You describe the shadows perfectly. And I agree with Andrea, “moon shot” is perfect. Thank you for sharing!

    3. Andy I loved this! I love the subtle relationship built between the three friends in the beginning dialogue. The last moment alone before summer vacation ends is so precious. Your snippet made me nostalgic for those lost moments from childhood. Well done.

  3. Thank you, Martha, for these great resources! I also enjoyed thinking about the moon and its different phases, and how that would affect the atmosphere in a story (and realized that one of my novels doesn’t even SHOW my characters at night time. Hmm.) Anyway, here’s something I wrote in response to the prompt:

    The chickens scuttled up to the coop wire, even though it was late enough that they should’ve been sleeping or roosting or whatever. They probably didn’t have a normal chicken schedule since they were part of this ridiculous experiment too. Or maybe it was the moon, so weirdly big and low in the sky. Why did it have to be so bright tonight? The last thing she needed was a giant spotlight shining on her as she slipped past the cabin. Kaiya hoped that, like her own parents, the Gorski’s were snoring inside. Except for Lily. She was supposed to join them all in the clearing. Unless she’d fallen asleep too, after a whole day of trying to rabbit proof the fence and beat the laundry clean and whatever other pioneer chores her parents made her do.

    Kaiya slipped past the coop, past the water pump, past the field of baby bean plants, and headed for the forest. This was the most exciting thing she’d done since they’d started this whole live-like-a-pioneer project. Tonight, under the giant, glowing globe, they’d plan their mutiny.

    1. Awesome snippet, Andrea!

      I love a full moon and the light that it sheds (walking, snowshoeing, canoeing), so I really enjoyed the contrast (at least for me) of the moon being an annoyance for someone trying to sneak around in the dark. You captured it with, “a giant spotlight shining”.

      I also enjoyed the last line. I want to know more about this mutiny. Thank you for sharing.

      Happy writing!

      1. Andrea,
        Yes, good idea! It is a nice snippet. You sound so at home with Kaiya and the chickens and chores and neighbors and the whole idea of mutiny from the pioneer life. Keep writing!

    2. Andrea,
      This is great! I really like the line, “The last thing she needed was a giant spotlight shining on her as she slipped past the cabin.” I had so many visuals passing through my mind from this line. I thought it was a perfect. I didn’t want to stop reading! I want to know more about this mutiny and the pioneer project. I’m so intrigued!

    3. Wow! What a great moment in time. You used the moon so beautifully and it will definitely be important for a pioneer project. Just like the others, I am curious about the mutiny!!

  4. This one really made me think about my character. Thanks for the great advice. Here goes……

    “You are 83% illuminated,” That makes sense now, Bean thought to herself. She had always read her horoscope the day after it happened because the last thing she needed was something else to stress about. What she really wanted to do was go back and make yesterday an 89% illuminated, maybe then Trey would have laughed at her jokes instead of Bree’s.

    1. Great way of catching a phrase from your character’s “research” that really illuminates her thinking, Maureen!

    2. Very creative, Maureen!

      I loved the end because it brought out the emotion of the snippet. The goal is to capture the reader’s attention, and you definitely caught my attention. Thanks for sharing.

      Happy writing!

    3. Maureen, I think the horoscope idea is so creative. I am so curious to find out WHAT happened! I really like how your last sentence bought in Bean’s emotions towards Trey. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I love the moon phase concept and the looking at the sky. My 12yo character is very connected to the land she lives in and doesn’t realize it until she is ‘a fish out of water’ and wants so much to return to home and what she knows. The letter idea is exceptionally wonderful. Her mother died when she was 2 and she’s being raised by her grandmother, father, and a houseful of older brothers. The letter could come from her mother or her grandmother; something that was given to her or something she finds, by accident. I’m putting all these ideas in my new writing notebook for later reference. Love the prompts!

    1. Melissa,

      I, too, loved that prompt. I was also thinking that you could use it with students. At the end of a certain amount of chapters or the end of the book, you could have the students write a letter as the main character or a supporting character about something specific in the book or to another character.

      Good luck with your letter and writing!

  6. When looking at a photograph or artwork, we often talk about how an artist uses light. Thanks for prompting us! My start:
    Randy wasn’t one to watch the moon. He could remember Dad excitedly leaning over the huge blue steering wheel of the station wagon when they were kids, headed on a camping trip, to point out the perfectly sliced half moon. Though Dad predicted that meant they were going to catch a mother lode of fish, instead he and Jimmy had run through all the bait they brought with them plus used their last money earned mowing lawns to buy the styrofoam container of local worms that the guy at the bait shop had assured them was what the fish were hitting on this time of year. Wading through the stream near where they pitched the tent, they had even hunted helgramites, but the most excitement they produced was when Kelly screamed when she opened the styrofoam container in the cooler. She had thought it was French dip to go with the bag of potato chips she was trying to get first dibs on before her brothers reached in the bag with their half-washed hands.

    Seemed like a long time since any kind of laughter or half moon celebration in their lives. So when he drove up the hill toward the house and caught a glimpse of the silvery sliver of a moon, he slowed down like Dad would have to peer over the steering wheel to look through the trees to spot it again as if he were now peering through a telescope. He parked the Jeep quickly next to Kelly’s little rental car and ran up the porch steps to try to convince her to come out to see.

    1. Well done, Barb!

      First of all, I learned something new today. I had no idea what a hellgrammite was, so I looked it up and realized that I did know what they were, but I did not know the name of insect. Thanks for teaching me something new.

      Second, I thoroughly enjoyed your vivid description of the action and setting. My favorite part was, “She had thought it was French dip to go with the bag of potato chips she was trying to get first dibs on before her brothers reached in the bag with their half-washed hands.” I laughed out loud.

      Your prompt made me think about a short story that I wrote many years ago (“Capturing the Harvest Moon”). It needs some work, but I enjoyed rereading it so thank you for helping me remember it.

      Also, thanks for sharing. Happy writing!

    2. Barb, this is beautiful. I want to keep reading. I love the hope of Randy as he tries to make a connection with his sister and this memory of the perfectly sliced half moon. That was a nice description and it put a picture in my head.

      I just have one question. The silvery sliver sounds nice, but I think of a sliver as a quarter moon or less, like a crescent. Is there another word that can better convey that perfectly sliced half moon that calls for celebration? I don’t know what it would be, but it’s just a thought.

      Keep telling this sweet story!

  7. Question about finding writing prompts online for a writing exercise:

    Do you tend to give your students free reign over finding material or giving them one that you found that you think is wide open enough? It’s that time factor again that we teachers always struggle with.

  8. This school year I had my students do an activity for the 100th day of school. They had to look up something that happened 100 years ago. Some found things about famous people at the time, some found inventions, some found events…there was quite a variety.
    But this has sparked an idea. I am looping with my class this year, so I’m thinking I will have them do actual research on what they find and write about it rather than just share the event.

    I’m really liking this focus on nonfiction!

    1. Me too, Lacy!

      Your classroom sounds so awesome. Lucky kids! I bet the students will love the research assignment, and they will learn so much through doing the research.:)

      Happy writing and researching!

  9. Bailey’s Dad had been in the hospital for five days now. Each day Bailey and his mom sat in the hospital room and watched their hope of him coming home slip away. At night as they walked to the car, Bailey watched the moon do the same. He was interested in the moon phases since his teacher read Horrible Harry Goes to the Moon to his fourth grade class. He always seemed to know when the moon would rise and set and he tried to estimate how much of the moon was left (or how much it had grown each day in a waxing moon.)

    Tonight’s moon was partially hidden behind the sparse autumn leaves of the row of red maples. “I’m guessing the moon is about 60% now,” Bailey said to his mom.

    “What?” asked Mom.

    “It’s waning, Mom. The moon was full when Dad came to the hospital. Now, it’s getting smaller.”

    “Oh, yeah, OK,” Mom said distractedly.

    “Mom, do you think Dad will ever come home?”

    1. Denise, I really like how Bailey relates the moon phases to how long Dad has been in the hospital. I wonder, too, if he’s got a budding interest in astronomy! I really like how you connected his interest in the moon to a book he read!

    2. Wow, Denise, you have an awesome snippet!

      The dialogue helps the reader learn about the characters and moves the story along. The descriptive details are beautiful – especially, “Tonight’s moon was partially hidden behind the sparse autumn leaves of the row of red maples.” I love the comparison between the moon and the dad being in the hospital. It makes Bailey seem so real.

      I also love the connection to Horrible Harry Goes to the Moon. Nice connection to the power of a good book/story!

      Thank you for sharing.
      Happy writing!

    3. Ugh, this tugged at my heart strings Denise. I could imagine Bailey feeling like maybe is dad was waning with the moon. The fourth graders I taught would definitely have thought something just like that. Way to capture the voice and emotion. I agree with Andy, nice connection to Horrible Harry!

  10. I love all of this! I may or may not have gotten lost playing around in NYPL digital collection. All of these resources sound amazing. I am looking forward to using them to my advantage. This writing prompt is so interesting in me, Here is my snippet. I’m writing this about Frankie, the main character in my WIP, through the eyes of another character Alex. Alex and Frankie have an extremely long history together.

    A half moon. I’m really not too surprised. This is the perfect way to describe Frankie. She is the most indecisive person I have met. Half the time I think I know her, the other half I feel like she’s not there.
    Frankie only allows you to see a piece of her. She keeps the rest of her hidden from your view. You think you know her, you think she is giving you all of herself. When in reality she is only giving you the half she chooses you to see. And you’re left wondering when you’ll really get to know her. I love Frankie. I know the whole Frankie and I may be the only one who does.

    1. Terrific, Annie!

      Alex definitely knows Frankie. I love what you’ve done with this snippet. You have brought Frankie to life through the eyes of Alex, which is difficult to do. I want to know more about Frankie and Alex. You have done an amazing job.

      Thank you for sharing.
      Happy writing!

    2. Wow! I really like the comparison of a person to the half moon. What a great way to learn about a character. I’m wondering what made Alex think of the moon in the first place. Are they in class learning about the phases? Does Alex see the moon? Something else? Can’t wait to read more!

  11. Thank you for being here today, Martha. I enjoyed your post, and I pre-ordered Love, Santa, since I’m the parent of an almost 10 year-old.

    I don’t have a write in progress, but I’m really moved to try to write about my grandparents and how they met. Guess what? I looked at the lunar calendar for September 5, 1944, my grandfather’s birthday. September 3 was actually a full moon, and September 5 was a waning globus, 90% visible. So much for me thinking of my grandfather, sitting far from his family in Egypt, looking up at the sky and barely even seeing a moon. Your post and resources pushed me to try to make stories that aren’t mine even more accurate and realistic, but for this one, I guess the moon actually was pretty full.

    So here’s a snippet.

    Tonight, I’m 24 years old. Instead of celebrating at home with Mom and Dad and the boys, I’m somewhere I never thought I’d be. I’m darker than I’ve ever been and will ever be working on the farm at home. No one can tell, though, when the sand’s blowing at us. It’s hotter here than any of the summers working the fields at home, and we’ve no crops to show for it. We’ve got weapons and machines, but we’re too far to feel like we’re actually helping with the war. I’ve been on night watch for four hours and have four more to go. No company, no cake, no idea when this might be over and I’ll make it home. The bright, round, but not quite “full-y” here moon is my only companion. Happy Birthday to me. I know what I’m wishing this year.

    1. Great job, Jen!

      The snippet has vivid description and it is a beautiful story. I love the line – “No company, no cake, no idea when this might be over and I’ll make it home.” So much emotion! Well done!

      Thank you for sharing.
      Happy writing!

    2. I like the idea of the moon being a companion in such a lonely moment. It also reminded me of being one big candle for his birthday, especially with the line, “Happy Birthday to me.” I would love to hear more about what you imagine the world around him looks like, below that moon. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I hadn’t really thought about the date my story takes place. I take a lot of inspiration from my own childhood, in the 80s, and mix it with more recent experiences. I guess I never really thought about the year or dates until today! I picked a date near when my dad lost his job, something that happens to Alice’s dad in her story. I kind of like how this shaped this moment of my story. Thanks for the inspiration!

    The moon was gone that night. And so was Gram. It was a regular Wednesday but for some reason Alice thought to stop by and see Gram on her way home from school instead of waiting until Saturday like she usually did. She dropped her bike on the walkway, knocked, walked in and hollered for Gram. When she didn’t get a response she wasn’t surprised. She went down to the basement but Gram wasn’t there.

    Alice glanced at the bookshelves and desk covered in gadgets. That is when Alice noticed the thimble was gone. The last time she saw it, Gram had placed it on top of an old cigar box. Alice flipped open books, lifted jars of buttons, and picked up the wind-up radio. She was looking for a note, the thimble, anything that might tell her where Gram was. Alice rushed upstairs and searched every room. It felt like seconds to Alice but it must’ve been longer. When Alice ran outside it was dark. She knew she needed to get home fast.

    Alice picked up her bike, kicked off and went racing down the road, cutting through the still humid air. She looked up, hoping the moon might guide her way the 2 miles to her dirt road. But tonight, the moon was gone. The thimble was gone. Gram was gone.

  13. Thank you Martha!
    I never thought about the exact birthdate of my character. I always thought he wouldn’t know for sure. Making a conscious choice on that helped me focus more on who he really is. I do use the moon a lot in my story so this is super helpful.
    Carol Zink

  14. A little girl enters the world
    New moon
    No light visible in sky,
    Only in our eyes.
    We stare adoringly at this being
    who will forever change our lives.
    Knowing that she will shine bright
    like a full moon.

    A little boy enters the world
    Full moon
    Visible light in the sky
    Reflected in our eyes.
    Once again staring
    in amazement at this being
    Adding to our happy family.
    He is our sun.