Teachers Write 7.31.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: The Thing about Things with Kat Yeh

Good morning! Are you ready for one more week of writing together? Head over to Jo’s blog for your Monday Morning Warm-Up, and then come on back for today’s post!

Our guest author today is the amazing Kat Yeh. Kat is the award-winning author of middle grade novels, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE (an NPR Best Book of 2015) and THE WAY TO BEA (coming Sept, 2017) from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, as well as picture book, THE FRIEND SHIP, from Disney-Hyperion. Kat and her family live in one of those crooked little nooks along the north shore of Long Island where they like to spend time exploring all the secret beaches and hidden paths. Learn more about Kat at katyeh.com.
P.S. You pronounce her last name YAY!


As writers and storytellers, we want our characters to be interesting and complex and unique. We want them to feel like people in the real world. And the thing about interesting, complex, unique people in the real world is that they usually have very specific interests or obsessions. They usually have Things.

In my first middle grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, my main character GiGi’s Thing was recipes from her dead Mama’s cookbook. When GiGi discovers that a girl from school has revealed an unexpected side of herself that GiGi thinks threatens her close friendship with new best friend, Trip, she reflects on a recipe from her Mama’s cookbook:


All I could think about was this salad DiDi used to make for potluck dinner. It’s covered with this blanket of mayonnaise on top, so you assume it’s all bland and mayo through and through. What you don’t see is that right under that blanket of bland, there’s all this stuff just hiding there. Waiting. Waiting for someone to realize that there’s more to it than just mayo. I used to feel sorry for that salad whenever I saw it sitting there on the table with no one digging in. But now I think it was lying in wait. All mayo and innocence on the outside, not letting us know what it really was on the inside.


This passage is followed by a recipe for Secret Layered Salad. By including recipes in key scenes, I could further the emotions of those scenes and the themes of the story, while also reinforcing this part of GiGi’s world and personality.

In my new middle grade novel, THE WAY TO BEA (Little, Brown Sept 2017), my main character, 12 year old Beatrix, is an exuberant artist and poet whose world turns upside down when she loses her friend group, upon entering 7th grade. By including her poetry throughout the novel, I am able to show how the ways Bea expresses herself change and reflect her emotions. She goes from fanciful free verse painted on her walls to strict haiku secretly scribbled in invisible ink as her world begins to feel unsafe and her actions more guarded. She struggles when she realizes that sometimes what she wants to express might not fit into the rules of haiku.


But just because you act a certain way, that doesn’t mean it becomes true or real.

Does it?

I mean, what if I just started acting differently? What if…I acted that way I wish I were?


if I act the way

I wish I were

am I still acting…or becoming?


Five, four, nine.

Start over.

I watch the lemon juice and water shine and then fade. It doesn’t fit in the haiku structure. But I like it. And I don’t know how else to explain how I feel.


Having a Thing is a great device to show your character’s personality and emotions, but Things are even stronger when they are also tied into the driving force of your plot. Think about Ali Benjamin’s THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH and her character, Suzy’s obsession with – well, jellyfish and how this obsession plays throughout the storyline. Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME with Miranda’s reading and rereading of A WRINKLE IN TIME. It may seem like a young girl’s quirky habit at first, but reveals itself to be much, much more.

That’s the thing about Things.

When your character has a deep seeded love, fascination, or interest, their story can unfold and be told in varied and dynamically different and wonderful ways. Which gives our readers all the more ways to connect and invest emotionally in our characters and stories. And isn’t that why we tell stories to begin with?

Your Assignment: Try giving your main character a Thing or a few Things. See what fits. What works. What would help drive your storyline. Write or revisit a passage in which they deal with conflict or deep emotion or sudden joy. Express it through their Thing. Experiment! You might learn something new about your character. And they might surprise you with a hidden layer that you never knew they had.

48 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.31.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: The Thing about Things with Kat Yeh

  1. Dear Kay, thanks for sharing this morning. Can’t wait to check out your new book. Love the thing idea. The character in my current WIP is concerned about time enough so that she wears two watches. I am hoping this adds another layer to the story. Best wishes in your writing.

    1. Okay so it should be Kat not Kay. Can I claim bad typing or bad paying attention either way I am sorry.

      1. Ha! No worries Martha (an old boyfriend used to call me Kay) I really like the two watches idea 🙂 It says so much about your character’s personality. Good luck!

  2. In my current WIP, my character and her best friend have a thing for musicals. Here’s snippet of verse that shows this.

    Simmy’s always been here,
    playing mermaids in the deep end.
    We’d hold hands, take a deep breath,
    fold into the water, deep as we could go,
    flapping our make-believe tails,
    like wings.
    Under the sea, everything’s better.
    Echoes of Little Mermaid bursting from the waves.
    Twin Ariels, one golden, one blonde,
    Up where they walk, up where they run.
    We sing together.
    We are always together.
    She’s melody; I’m harmony.
    I’m missing her anchor voice.

    1. Margaret,
      I love the last two lines
      She’s melody; I’m harmony
      I’m missing her anchor voice
      This makes me want to know more about these two. Having a “thing” for musicals myself I find this endearing. Music is definitely something that can pull people together. Thank you for sharing!

    2. Margaret: I have SUCH a thing for musicals – I love this! Good luck and thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Kat, I just finished THE FRIEND SHIP recently and really liked the understated way the MC “finds” friends. I mostly write PB but am working on a CB, so having a “thing” may really work to depend the character’s emotions.

    1. Kathy – thanks for reading. I think Things can work for PBs and chapter books – I hope you try out the exercise and good luck!

  4. One of the things I have been considering for Alice is a diary of lists. Alice feels a little lost in her world. Her family moves a lot, then they stop, then her Gram goes missing. I’m using today’s prompt to explore this possibility, something I haven’t worked in yet. While fiddling around this morning, I decided Alice would make something her own – a new kitten. These two things, her diary and kitten, give her a sense of stability.

    In Alice’s journal that day, she recorded her new lists.

    Pets we have right now
    No dogs
    4 chickens
    2 roosters
    2 cats
    6 kittens
    1 horse

    Things I did today
    Rode my bike to Will’s and baked a pie
    Stopped at the creek on my way home
    Tried to catch a crawfish but missed

    After writing her list, Alice went to the back porch to check on the box of kittens. They were just two days old and their eyes weren’t open yet. Alice thought they looked sort of funny, bumbling around, mewing, bumping into each other. Their mom, Cupcake, was out hunting around the field so the kittens were all alone. Alice had a favorite. He was mostly orange with a little white splattered in here and there. Brindle, her Gram called it. When she asked Gram what brindle meant, Gram said it meant that there was a mix of streaks of color. Alice thought the word brindle was a delicious word so she decided to remember that one. Alice also decided this was the kitten she was going to keep. Her dad said they were all outside cats but that didn’t stop Alice from unofficially adopting her little brindle. She tried to decide on a name. Pumpkin seemed too expected but also mandatory. She also read in a poem at school cats were supposed to have three names. Nikolas James Pumpkinhead. She whispered it to him in the box and he floundered toward her. Alice took that to mean he agreed with the name.

    Later she added to her list of things done that day:
    Things I did today
    Rode my bike to Will’s and baked a pie
    Stopped at the creek on my way home
    Tried to catch a crawfish but missed
    Adopted Nikolas James Punpkinhead

    1. Sharing something similar here too Megan. My character has a thing for lists and bullet journaling. A recent entry for my character actually inspired by a prompt from this group.
      Things I noticed today-
      I worry less when I am busy
      Aunt Kiki is the funniest person I know
      One legged seagulls make me sad.

    2. Megan – I love lists and make them regularly. I like that the two things giving Alice stability are 1) something she creates entirely herself – her diary of lists 2) something she makes her own – but is its own creature and will not always be under her control. Her story has a lovely feel to it. Good luck!

  5. I’m not sure if this passage works, but your advice got me past a block that has had me frozen at the laptop for a few days. Thanks!

    Bree’s plan includes setting up a bubble machine on the boardwalk so the ocean breeze sends bubbles through the air to the deck of the retirement home.
    “When we go visit my Nana, some of her friends look lonely and sad. I know what you are thinking, and it’s not illegal to blow bubbles, and no we won’t get arrested.”
    I can’t deny that she has just read my mind. I also can’t deny loving a good smile mission so before my brain can overthink things and imagine us on death row for public bubblication, I blurt out
    “I’ll grab the backup bubbles from my Smile Kit.”

    1. This is so great! I love the “smile mission” and also the way she’s overthinking. This is so perfect for a middle grade novel!

    2. Maureen – I love your list above and the passage has such a wonderful feel to it – bubbles blowing over the ocean and a ‘smile mission’! I’m so glad that the assignment helped you get past that block! Another trick I like to use when I feel stuck or blocked is find a moment in my story where my character feels stuck or blocked and start writing there – using how I feel. Same goes for any frustration or feeling you may have. When you’re figuring out a story and starting out a draft, don’t be afraid to jump into a different scene – even if you don’t know where it will belong or if it will make the final cut. Just grab onto your current emotion and write xo Good luck!

  6. Kat – thank you for the assignment. This helped me with a passage I have been working around in my head. My MC is based on our own experiences with adopting. We adopted two children from Tonga. Our daughter was almost 4, therefore, she struggled with identity among other things. She is now 22, and we collaborate together on this book. I have always loved looking for motifs in a story. I read somewhere that some authors don’t even realize something is symbolic throughout their novel until later. The motif just sort of happens, evolves. Here is what I came up with, and this assignment helped because I will have my MC refer to it often.

    Samena had spent time at different Polynesian events. Her parents had made sure of that. When she was six, they flew to Oahu where they spend a week touring the island, going to a luau, and a whole day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Her family went again when she was nine. At the center there were Tahitians, Samoans, Fijians, and Maoris. They danced, and sang. They laughed. Samena wanted to join in their laughter, but she felt she did not belong. She saw two different ways of looking at people. People who looked like her, and people who did not look like her, and even though these people looked like her, she still felt she did not belong. Her mother said, “Look, do you want to dance like that?” But she felt like a fraud.
    In the gift shop, her mom bought her one of those tourist necklaces with the white rounded fish hook. Weeks later when the black cord broke, Samena kept the fish hook in her pocket. Sometimes she would sleep with it under her pillow. She imagined it was magic, and that it had somehow sped through the ocean from her birth mother’s hands to her own.

    1. Kay, I like that you are using something that is deeply personal to you. I always write from a very emotional place. The idea of the fish hook is cool. I especially like that it is from a necklace that broke. This gives it a history – and the actual breaking of the cord can have meaning as well. Keep it up and good luck!

  7. Thank you, Kay! This is really cool. I liked giving my main character, Frankie, a thing. I actually think she needed it.

    Frankie’s Thing
    I sat on the back porch. The breeze was refreshing, the kind that makes you close your eyes as it sweeps past you. I placed a jar of purple ink on right arm of the adirondack chair. I opened my sketchbook. I chose the broad nib and attached it to the pen holder. I dipped the nib into the purple inkwell. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. One swoop and the ink started as a thin line and gradually grew forming a crescent. I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. Back to the top of the crescent I swoop the ink in the opposite direction.
    The breeze is keeping me calm. I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. Parallel to the top of the O I drag the ink straight down.
    I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. I align the nib to the L and halfway down I drag the ink straight down again.
    I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. Parallel to the I the ink flows on a small diagonal. I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. I align the nib and swoop the ink to meet the bottom of the diagonal line.
    I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. Next to the V I allow the ink to the flow down in a straight line.
    I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. I swoop the ink into a crescent. I dipped the nib again. I swiped the excess ink on the glass edge. The nib meets the top of the crescent. The purple ink spills from the nib forming a line.
    My calloused middle finger is purple. The breeze coming off the sound is cool and the ink dries quickly. The letters before me are dark and light like my heart. I read the letters, Olivia. I close my eyes and breathe deep as the breeze coming off the sound sweeps past me. Olivia.

    1. Annie – I love dip pens and the main character in my new novel uses one too! Though her ink is invisible 🙂 I love the detail of the calloused middle finger. I have that exact callous and it is always smudgy with ink 🙂 Keep writing and good luck!

  8. Hi thank you for this prompt. I wrote to the prompt Jo Knowles gave about showing joy, and this fits right into what I wrote for her. My main character is a 12 year old girl who is waiting to hear whether her Dad’s cancer has metastasized. Her dad is considerably older than her friends’ parents, and so Krissana is constantly worrying about his and her mom’s health.

    Mom let me pick out an “adult coloring book” and colored pencils in the hospital gift shop to help me occupy my time while waiting for Dad’s next appointment. I had brought some books to read, but when your mind is traveling to every “what if,” imaginable, it’s hard to keep track of the storyline going on in a new story. I should of brought along some old favorites like See You at Harry’s or Wake Up Missing.
    Back on the bench I took the book out, scanning through to try to find the perfect picture. A beach scene? No…there could be thunderclouds on the horizon. Fall trees? – weren’t those leaves dying? A momma cat and kittens – no, can’t be thinking of poor sweet Misty right now. A vase of wildflowers? A vase of wildflowers….Now there’s something. All that came to mind was grandma, and believe it or not, even though Dad is 80, I still have a grandma. She’s mom’s mom, a young 87 full of energy and optimism and always working in her flowerbeds. Yes…this was a picture where I could use colors in vibrant hues, colors that would bring joy where there’s been only gloom. Colors that would get my mind off of the prognosis we were about to receive – whether Dad’s cancer was contained in his esophagus, or whether it had spread.

    1. Hi Carol – I can relate to finding solace in coloring pages. And the need to find exactly the right page. It’s something everyone will get. And the simple act of coloring is so powerful. You are actually making something beautiful in your very own way. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Hi Kat,
    Thanks for this great prompt. My MC was going to make a model of the Mars Rover Curiosity, but it was fun to write this scene and make his working with cardboard a bigger deal in his life. Not sure where it will go, but we’ll see. Thanks again!

    After dinner, Bailey brought out the cardboard cartons he and his mom had collected. Small to large, paperboard and corrugated. He laid them out in order of size–one tiny jewelry box, three Life cereal boxes (his favorite), four Xerox paper boxes with lids, and one jumbo Pampers box. Bailey liked a good box like a bear in Yellowstone likes a locked cooler. The challenge of unlocking the power and creativity in a cardboard box gave Bailey a thrill.

    Bailey’s room had more cardboard and duct tape than it had store-bought furniture. He had a headboard made with “tie-dye” painted cardboard, a model of the Spirit of St. Louis inits fawn-colored glory hung from the ceiling, and a frame with cutout cardboard fish adorned the perimeter of his fish tank.

    He never did tell his mom that the folding chair she had been looking for is actually serving as the base for his cardboard armchair. It was safe from discovery because the metal chair was completely encased in cardboard and a roll of duct tape. It took another three rolls of rainbow duct tape to cover the cushions.

    1. Denise – this is such a cool Thing for Bailey to have. It says a lot about his character. Seeing potential in plain brown cardboard. Being a builder. An artist. You can take this and think about how these traits can drive your story to where it needs to go. What your MC can learn, etc Good luck!

  10. My main character touches a well-loved and oft-used baseball mitt for the first time. Although the tactile is such a strong part of the writing I’m working through, I’m working through the other senses, too. That leather has not only softened but taking on a few scents from where it’s been as well.

    Thanks for the writing prompt! I look forward to sharing your books with my students in the school library this year, this Teachers Write experience has precipitated a desire on my part to launch a student book promotion group this year, so they’ll get a chance to choose their platform to write about / talk about / create a FinisheD project to connect other young readers to books. I’m looking forward to starting with some titles by authors I’ve encountered this summer!

    1. Barb, a baseball glove is such a good object to attach to some emotions. I can imagine it softening up and taking on different scents.

    2. Barb – I can already feel and smell that old worn leather. What a great piece to introduce into your character’s life. Something with a history that represents so many different things. Americana, sports, summer, playing catch. There’s so much you can do with this! Can wait to see where you go! Good luck!

  11. Kat, I’m looking forward to reading your new book!! Thank you so much for this prompt. I really liked how having a “thing” can help show character emotion and personality.

  12. Hi Kat,

    I am so, so late to the Teachers Write party, but I suppose late is better than never. Thank you so much for the writing assignment.

    The thing that my main character (from a chapter book that I am working on) is obsessed with is soccer. Sammy eats breakfast while dribbling a soccer ball, reads a book at the library with a soccer ball between his legs (although I realized that wasn’t even in my story – I just imagined it:), sleeps with a soccer ball at the end of his bed, and dreams of being a professional soccer player (or some professional athlete). Soccer, soccer, and more soccer. Here’s my snippet:

    Ugh! Science is my least favorite subject, and projects are worse than homework. “Maybe, the project will be about the velocity of a soccer ball when kicked into a goal, or how gravity affects a foul shot, or the motion of a lacrosse stick when making a pass.”

    Mom and Christy roll their eyes at me. “Ms. Dean picks your partner. All I know is that I better get a good partner who works hard and wants to get an ‘A+’ on the project, like me.”

    “You worry too much.”

    Now Mom, who is looking really annoyed, says, “You don’t worry enough when it comes to school!”

    “I do too worry. I worry about which college I’ll get a scholarship to for soccer, basketball, or lacrosse.”

    “Now I’m worried.” Mom says.

    1. Andy – I taught a young boy while I was Writer in Residence at Bank Street this spring. who would love this. He was obsessed with soccer and everything he wrote centered around it. So fun and on target and yes! Better late than never. Thanks for joining and good luck!

  13. Hi Kat,
    Sorry to be so late to comment. Busy day. I read your exercise this morning and thought about it all day, though. I don’t know if this will work, but my WIP is a story of three characters who ave spent their summers on Torch Lake their whole lives. It is a somewhat generational story with the main characters flashing back on their youth at the lake, and their own children’s time there, as well. I have considered having the lake be a “character” in the story, but I haven’t been clear as to how to make it work, but if I used the lake as a “thing” I could tie in the purchasing of the land to a snippet of the creation of the lake from glaciers, the development of the friendships with a factoid about the early development of the western shore, etc. I think this might really work. Thank you SO much for your suggestion. I’m excited about the possibilities.

    1. Susan – I’m excited you’re excited 🙂 I really like the lake as the “thing.” I grew up near a lake that was incredibly meaningful to me and can really relate to this. I canoed in the summer, skated in the winter, took long walks around it all year long. There is so much possibility in a story with a lake 🙂 Good luck!

  14. Hi Kat,

    Thank you for the great prompt! Here’s what I came up with this morning:

    Zoe had been in El Paso, Texas for just under two weeks. Twelve days that felt more like twelve years. Jim’s journey had taken him to the border, and his journey was threatening to take Zoe along for the ride.

    Zoe wandered through the sparsely decorated, three-bedroom ranch that Jim currently shared with another agent. She hesitated at the doorway of the smallest bedroom. In a normal house, this room would be the perfect study or even a nursery. In Jim’s home, it was an armory. Guns of every shape and size rested on racks mounted on all four walls. There were crossbows and ammunition in every nook and cranny. Shuddering, Zoe stepped back, closing the bedroom door behind her.

    Outside, a small table and chairs were set up. At this time of day they were in the shade, a welcome respite from the searing heat of late morning. Zoe sat, cradling a fresh cup of coffee, contemplating what life would be like in this place. Her left hand drifted up to her well-worn necklace. A gift from an Aussie she met years earlier, the necklace was nothing more than a carved piece of driftwood on a thick, black cord. What would Kim think of this place? What sage advice would he give to her? If only rubbing the necklace between her thumb and forefinger could make Kim appear – a personal genie to rescue her from this impossible decision.

    1. ooh I like the idea of driftwood. Something that takes time to shape and fade. I am wondering who this Aussie is who gave the necklace to her. How the symbolism of the driftwood will play out in Zoe’s life. In the way she approaches situations or thinks about things. Nice job and thanks for sharing! Good luck 🙂

  15. Dear Kat,

    Sorry for joining the conversation so late. I loved reading your post and am curious to read your books. I thought about a thing for a character in a story I have been working on since the beginning of this TW camp (I didn’t have a WIP). I was in Ghana at the time we started and saw this lady sitting in front of her house one morning as I went on a walk. That inspired a first idea for the story and with each assignment, new ideas came about. I think her thing would be a collection of glass beads, the old type, originally produced in Murano, Italy, and then traded in West Africa. The beads would have been in her family for generations and would be a very special treasure; a treasure she would turn to especially in troubling times (and she is going through big problems at the moment). I am thinking of the cooling and calming effect of touching the beads; the imperfection, yet also beauty and individuality of each bead (some might have a little chip, others might have a slightly distorted pattern etc.); their symbolic status as family heirloom as well as connected to the family’s history; the beads vibrant colors, the multifaceted patterns… and of course also their monetary value, making them her last reserve when facing financial difficulties.
    (If you make an image search on Google about Venetian trade beads, you get some examples of what these beads might look like.)

    Do you think this might work?

    Many thanks!

    1. Hi Tanja – thanks so much for sharing. The imagery of the glass beads is just gorgeous. I love how you already seem to have such a connection to them and your descriptions of their characteristics are so compelling. I’ve loved beads since I was a little girl. If you ever go to Beads of Paradise in NYC you’ll see some amazing specimens (it’s also really hard to leave without a stash of new beads to play with). I also really like how beads are so individual (as you mentioned) but strung all together they can create a single piece. I really hope you continue to work on this piece! Good luck!

      1. Many, many thanks for your feedback, Kat! I am so grateful for your kind words an encouragement. I fell in love with beads while living in Ghana. I would love to visit the store you mention; maybe I’ll get a chance one day when I visit the US.

        Thanks again!

  16. Thank you for being here on Monday. I love the idea of giving a character a “thing” or “things.” I think my students would have fun with the idea too. I’m exploring writing some of my grandparents’ story, and the first “thing” that comes to mind is a half clothespin. My dad found a half clothespin in my grandfather’s drawer after he passed away. When my dad asked my grandmother about it, she said he picked it up on a walk one day. She also said he insisted on keeping it because he might find the other half another time. I think his thing was seeing potential/use in everything.

    1. Oh I love this story. I love things that are based on parts of our own family or history or experiences. And the idea of another half somewhere out there is such a wonderful feeling. It’s so hopeful which I love. I hope you do something with this and I think having your students play w the idea of Things in their writing is great 🙂 Thanks for sharing and best of luck w the new school year!

  17. Canvases show her pain
    Rough edges
    Soft lines
    Sometimes she smiled
    Inside there was torment
    Hiding and seeking
    Where did it begin
    Was it always
    Scattered images
    Are now on my wall
    Remembering my sister