Monday, August 30, 2010

Mentor Monday--Submitting

You've written, rewritten, and polished your manuscript. It's time to submit, but, to what publisher?

Ten years ago, it was much easier. There were more trade publishers to chose from. Editors were willing to read manuscripts in their slush pile. More publishers, than not, were open to submissions.

My, have things changed! Houses have gone out of business or been absorbed by one of the larger publishing conglomerates. Others refuse to even look at a manuscript and will send it back unopened, or worse, will simply throw it out (even though you've enclosed a SASE for its return).

What do you do? A little research. Start with the oft-repeated advice to visit a bookstore and look at the new releases. You'll get an idea of what a particular house is publishing. Look at publishers' catalogs (most publishers' catalogs are now available online), again, to get an idea of what is currently being published.

Next try to find out which publishers are still accepting unsolicited manuscripts. You'll also need editors' names. Here are several places to visit that may help you find the information you need:

1. Check publishers' websites, often, on the "Contact Us" page you'll find out if they are accepting submissions.

2. One of my favorite places to look for publishers is the Children's Book Council website. If you click on "About" and then "CBC Members List," you'll find out if a publisher is accepting unsolicited manuscripts, names, addresses, and links to their websites. Of course, if the publisher you're interested in isn't a CBC member, this information won't be available, but, most of the larger trade publishers are members.

3. Another favorite place is Ellen Jackson's website. Ellen has compiled lists of editors, and what they are interested in, which writers can consult. She's done a fabulous job--thanks, Ellen!

4. Join the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators organization and you'll have access to the members only areas of the website. Read the SCBWI newsletter and visit the discussion boards.

5. Join children's writers' lists, such as Children's Writers and Illustrators. There are several others found on Yahoo.

6. Visit Harold Underdown's site, The Purple Crayon, for information about editors' moves between houses.

7. Check out Verla Kay's Blue Boards here.

8. Pick up the latest copy of the Children's Writer and Illustrator Market. The 2011 edition is already available. It provides more than publisher contact information, so you'll get your money's worth if you purchase a copy for your home library.

Good luck with your submissions, and let us know when you have good news to share!


Image courtesy roadeeccha

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mentor Monday - Building A Plot In 8 Easy Steps (More or Less)

According to Aristotle, every plot needs three things - action, character, and thought, which basically means - who is doing what, and how and why is she doing it? But the type of plot we end up with depends on which of those three things we choose as most important. For instance -

Mary likes to drive fast. She searches out a race car driver, gets him to give her lessons, enters the Indie 5oo and wins.

If the emphasis is on the action, on all the things Mary does to get what she wants, we have a plot driven novel.

If the emphasis is on why Mary wants to be a pro racer, and how and why she makes the decisions she does, and what she learns from her experience, we have a character driven novel.

If the emphasis is on the message, the moral or point the writer is trying to get across, (Follow your dream) we have a theme driven novel. So . . . .

Step 1 - Decide

Choose what kind of novel you want to write - plot driven, character driven, or theme driven.

Step 2 - Set Up

Where does the story take place? At what time/era? Who are the main characters and how do they all relate to one another?

Step 3 - Problem

What is the catalyst that sets the story in motion? Everything is going along just fine, just like any other day until . . . . . (fill in the blank.)

Step 4 - Conflict and Tension

Depending on the type of novel, one of three things should happen. In a plot driven novel the MC should act to solve the problem. In a character driven novel, she should think first, then act. In a theme driven novel she should do something that totally contrasts with the message the writer wants to send because she will eventually come around to the writer’s way of thinking. The object is to create opposing forces which will then create conflict and tension.

Step 5 - Foreshadowing

This should actually take place all through the novel. If the story isn’t over until the fat lady sings, we need to see her taking voice lessons in an earlier chapter.

Step 6 - Complication

The MC reacts to the original problem and resolves it (it doesn’t necessarily have to be resolved right away) but solving the problem should create another, slightly more difficult problem.

(More or Less)

This keeps happening, with each problem becoming worse than the last, and with each problem arising from the last, until the MC is up to her neck in it, and then . . . .

Step 7 - Crisis & Climax

It’s do or die time. The ultimate action must be taken. Everything is at stake for the MC and she has to make a choice. Does she go for it (whatever it is) or does she simply fade away?

Step 8 - The End

How does it all turn out? Did the MC get what she wanted? In a plot driven novel, the problem is solved. In a character driven novel, the problem is solved and the MC learns something about life or herself. In a theme driven novel the writer proves his point. (See. Honesty really is the best policy.)

Writers have been using the above method (or some derivative) for thousands of years, even before Aristotle. He just happened to be the guy who wrote the method down and brought it to everyone’s attention. If it worked for everyone else, it can work for you, too. Follow the formula and you will almost certainly end up with a logical story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that works.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Today Is Our Blogoversary!

We started three years ago today, but we didn't hit our stride until March 2008. Still that's pretty damn good--have you ever tried to get six women to agree to do anything on a regular basis?

We reach out to the children's writing community with our Mentor Monday posts. We've hardly missed a week! That either means we have a lot to share, or, that we're getting old and tend to repeat ourselves!

Isn't this Library of Congress photo fabulous? It's of two suffragettes taken in 1916. The real celebration for the suffragettes came four years later when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. So, not only are we celebrating our blogoversary, we're also celebrating the 90th anniversary of women's right to vote!

We hope you've enjoyed our posts and will continue to visit us often! We look forward to it!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Poetry Friday: Jane Kenyon, Poems for the End of Summer

I am not entirely comfortable with posting this whole set, copyright-wise. So I'm just posting the second of the three parts. You can (and should) read the whole piece here:

Jane Kenyon was New Hampshire's Poet Laureate and the wife of the great Donald Hall.

This short piece is the center of her poem, Three Songs at the End of Summer. The whole is achingly beautiful, and not as anguished as this section feels on its own. Section 1 (or maybe it's the first Song) talks about haying, the last section/song talks about the first day of school.

The cicada’s dry monotony breaks
over me. The days are bright
and free, bright and free.

Then why did I cry today
for an hour, with my whole
body, the way babies cry?

Poetry Friday round-up is at Teach Poetry K-12 this week.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mentor Monday continued: Tapping genealogy resources for historical research, Part II

Last time, we looked at newspapers and vital records as research resources. Today, some other, less-obvious places to look for information.

Town and state histories, organizational histories and documents, family histories:
In the nineteenth century there was a huge interest in recording the histories of towns and states. These books often include quotes of everything from congressional records to criminal citations to headstones and bronze memorial plaques. It’s not uncommon for them to also include detailed family-tree information about every resident of a community at the time of publication. Later town histories tend to have been produced in conjunction with anniversary celebrations and may be more circumspect, providing essentially “summaries” of the town’s history. On the other hand, recent books sometimes have indices and bibliographies, both of which may make them more useful than some of the older tomes. Many of the old Town Histories have been scanned and are available from commercial genealogy sites such as At the same time, a lot of them are also on the internet archive (, or google “wayback machine”) – here you are more likely to find an OCR scan that hasn’t been corrected, not as easy to read – but free!

Histories compiled for organizations like the Rotary Club or the Lodge may not meet modern standards for unbiased accuracies (some may question whether those standards are myths, anyway) but they may be the only recorded source of some delightful bits of information about local activities. Family history books are self-edited and published, usually the result of someone’s life-long obsession; again they may be self (or rather, ancestor)-aggrandizing, but they also often preserve the memories of people who were elderly a hundred or more years ago.

Census pages, military records, immigration records and ships’ manifests:
These dry documents, mostly just lists, can reveal surprising details that may bring your subjects to life. The US census has asked for different information in different years – some of the early 20th century census records include details of occupations, years married and age at marriage, literacy, racial heritage and languages spoken. The census pages also allow you to see who lived next door and across the street from your subject, which in turn could reveal how she met her husband. Military enlistment documents give physical descriptions as well as dependency information.
The census bureau has many of its reports available on line at, however access to the scanned pages is as far as I know only available from Immigration and ship’s manifests may tell you when your subject arrived, at what port of entry, and from where.
Be aware that all of these forms (except for some of the military enlistment documents) were completed by employees, not by the subjects themselves – and generally on the basis of information given by one member of a household. This means that spellings may be erratic (some immigrants were given surnames "created" by immigration employees who gave up on the attempt to transliterate Eastern European names). Details are not always accurate, either. My mother spent years chasing a reported birthplace of her great-grandfather that was incorrect – it had been reported both to the census-taker and to whoever completed his death certificate by a daughter-in-law. When you find conflicting records (and you will), this second-hand recording is one factor to take into account.

Maps and city directories:
There are post office maps from the mid-1800s that have household names marked on them, showing where families lived at the time. City directories predate phone directories, any and all of them may show you both where your subject’s family lived and what their business or professional details were. Some of these are available from genealogy and local history sites (for maps, try googling the name of the community and choosing "images" from the options at the top of the page) but your best bet is the local library's non-circulating collection.

Deeds and probate records:
Maintained at the county level in the United States and Britain, these official records primarily detail transfers of property, although they can also include records of indenture and other legal obligations. Older deeds and many probate records often list not only land and buildings but also other household goods, providing a glimpse of the owner’s status and creature comforts. Both deeds and probate records can also yield clues about siblings and in-laws that may prove to be productive avenues of research. Like vital records, these documents are public record but often only accessible on site, and/or for a fee. Do be aware that county lines are not fixed – the county your subject lived in may have been merged into another county later, or towns may have been shifted from one county to another. Massachusetts eliminated a number of counties some years ago and the old records of those counties have become very difficult to access. Different states and counties have different policies and access-protocols for this information: some are completely searchable and viewable online, many have indices online but the documents themselves are on microfiche, others are still only recorded in giant, heavy, leather-bound books. Look for the "registry of deeds" and the state's name and you'll probably find a link to the information you need.

Yearbooks, alumni newsletters and school archives:
Few discoveries are more fun than your subject’s high school yearbook. Senior pictures, club affiliations, even the nicknames and quotes they chose to put under their names; all these tell you a lot about the person who grew up to be a famous scientist or President of the United States (What? You haven’t seen Barry Obama’s yearbook picture?) has a growing collection of scanned yearbooks, but I’ve also found them just by googling the subject’s name and town then drilling down  a dozen pages in the results. Again, search for "images" with your subject's name and town or state to increase your chances of success. (One family was sure their grandmother was an adult immigrant from Scandinavia – until I found her U.S. high school yearbook photograph.) Alumni newsletters often produce lovely tidbits about people’s personal and professional lives, and sometimes even wonderful quotes from your subjects. To find them you generally have to go to the school's webpage and use their search function.

Often the only tangible record of an “ordinary person” may be the inscription on a headstone. Cemeteries also preserve records that may not be available elsewhere – the death of infant children, repeated names in the same generation, a military rank. Today cemetery transcriptions, indices and photographs are available all over the internet. Check out (one man’s project, over 200,000 photos). I found the date of death for Emma Fielding Baker in the about her grave at Only the year is on the stone, so I emailed the person who uploaded the photograph (via the helpful link on the page) and he told me where he had found the full date. is another such site. has links to a lot of cemetery transcriptions. Local historical societies may have transcripts of cemeteries and family plots within their towns. You should look at multiple sites because there is no coordination among these projects – and of course, if you can travel to your subject’s home town, check with the local library and historical society, and go wander in the cemeteries. (Note – gravestone rubbing is generally not allowed these days, so take a notebook and digital camera and leave the charcoal at home.)

Family trees:
A number of genealogy websites encourage people to post their family trees on-line. Look on Cyndi's list for these pages. Sometimes these trees even include the family historian’s notes and photographs. You may find transcriptions of unpublished material, old letters, family Bible notes, etc. You may also be able to email the person who developed the family tree, to ask additional questions, get permission to quote unpublished material, or even gain access to other family information sources.

Caution [picture this in big flashing letters] – even first-hand information can include inaccuracies; family histories often enshrine legends or embellishments. Everyone wants to prove they are related to Charlemagne or Queen Victoria; or at least that their family includes a Mayflower passenger or an Indian captive.

You can spend a lot of time in the genealogy world - it's a bit like eating potato chips. There's always another connection, another potential source. Keep in mind whatever your original purpose was, and resist the urge to figure out where your subject's grandmother's father was born. But every once in a while, you'll find that sparkling treasure that makes the digging worthwhile.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mentor Monday--Tapping genealogy resources for historical research, Part I

Many of the women we profile in Notable Women are notable but not famous (one might say “notable but not noticed”). This can be a result of the male-orientation of many fields, or of the simple fact that history often overlooks people outside the realms of military and political power. Whatever the reason, it can make finding solid information about their lives difficult to find.

Several times in my research I have found that my genealogy work stands me in good stead. Resources and methods I first discovered in searching for facts about my own ancestors and their lives also turn out to be good sources for information about other people’s relatives. I’ve also found that constructing a family tree for my subject can help me organize the data I have and point out connections I might not have noticed or question marks worth pursuing. (Quirky case in point: Sarah Kemble Knight, one of our Connecticut ladies, was the second wife of Richard Knight. His first wife was Remembrance Grafton – grand-daughter of Amias Thompson, who was one of my subjects in the New Hampshire book.)

Incidentally, many of these sources can be of value not only in searching for information about specific people, but also for researching a particular time and place; although in most cases because the information is being catalogued and preserved by the genealogy industry, you’ll need at least a surname and a date to begin your process.

Like so many other hobbies and passions, genealogy research has been utterly transformed by the internet. Where once you had to go into the cellars of county courthouses in the places your subject lived, and pore over voluminous indices in search of their names, you can now often locate that same county’s records on-line, and in many cases, read scanned copies of the hand-written deeds transferring lands or noting foreclosures. Town histories that were hard-to-find and very expensive have been scanned and indexed and can be read on-line or purchased on $10 cds. Descendants who have boxes of newspaper clippings may be posting on family-tree websites, and may be willing to share their information via email.

The downside to this wealth of information is that one person’s transcription error or misinformed judgment call can be repeated endlessly, and as the information moves further and further from its source, these errors can be difficult to spot. The first of my paternal line’s ancestors to immigrate to the New World, Robert Dunbar, is routinely listed as a son of Ninian Dunbar of Scotland. Ninian did have a son named Robert, but they are not the same person – just someone’s wishful belief that they had found the right ancestor, repeated over and over until it has become “accepted.”

A great place to start your search is the inestimable Cyndi’s List, currently boasting over a quarter million links: . The most comprehensive of the commercial sites is

The best of the internet resources charge for access, and not without reason – scanning old documents is very labor-intensive, indexing them even more so. But lots of material is available at a minimal charge, often through local historical societies or small-town newspapers. In addition, because of the growing interest in genealogy, many public libraries subscribe to the big genealogy and newspaper sites, so you may be able to access materials from the library that you can’t get to from home.

 Because of their religious beliefs, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints maintains an ever-expanding collection of genealogical materials. They have done the lion’s share of the scanning and indexing of old materials, most of which is available to researchers without regard to religion, both on-line and at their regional libraries. (Note that even the Mormons are not immune to the risk of repeating the well-travelled error, however. They confidently report that Robert Dunbar was the son of Ninian.)

Weigh the information you find carefully, and beware that tendency to believe that you’ve found what you hoped to find. Even when the name and date are correct, it doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily found your person! It is more common than you might think for two people of the same age and with the same name to live in the same state. Even professional historians can get tripped up by these doppelgangers. The woman who wrote the History of the Town of New London, Connecticut reported that Sarah Knight had kept a shop in Norwich in 1698. In later correspondence with a researcher preparing a copy of the journal for publication she observed that she had been mistaken, the “widow Knight” who was the shopkeeper was almost certainly NOT Sarah Kemble Knight. But the New London history had been published and is still out there to confuse researchers.

With that caution, here’s a look at what you might find.

Vital records:

State or national databases of birth, death and marriage certificates, social security death records, and church records of baptisms and marriages. These government documents are public record, but most states will not release copies of vital record on living or recently-deceased persons unless the request comes from a relative or other person with a direct interest. The lists, however, are often searchable on the internet or in state offices, and will include the most essential information. Church records, particularly in Europe, often go back much further than civil records and can provide a useful fact-checking resource. Many historians recorded that Amias Thompson’s son John was the first white child born in New Hampshire – but I found his baptismal record in Plymouth, England, four years before the Jonathan left for the New World.


Newspaper archives may yield obituaries and birth and marriage announcements. They also contain articles about elections (whether to Congress or to Grange officer) and announcements of awards and citations. Also in the paper you may find stories of minor catastrophes and criminal proceedings. A contemporary newspaper account may be a more accurate source of the date of a fire or location of a marriage than a later account based on faulty memory. And don’t ignore items that don’t seem to be directly significant for your subject: “Mr. and Mrs. Brown attend uncle’s funeral” may give you Mrs. Brown’s maiden name and sometimes the names of her parents. A tiny note in the San Antonio paper about Clara Driscoll’s arrival in town showed me that it took months for her to bring her mother’s body home from England for burial.
If you have the choice of seeing a whole page of the paper (as shows) rather than just the single article (as you get from, for example, Highbeam ( ), take it. The New York Times archive offers both for some years. Unrelated stories in the same paper as items about your subject will give you a feel for the time and place: your setting. Advertisements are often wonderful peepholes into history.

Next time, we’ll look at some less-obvious sources of information the genealogy folks love.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mentor Monday: How to Critique in a Group Setting

  • Remember the writer is a human being who is entrusting you with her work and her words. She's likely worked to whatever skill level she has, and wants an objective critique. Be sure you're critiquing the writing, not the writer.

  • If you're new to critiquing, don't worry about your level of writing skill. It's all about how skilled you are as a reader. You wouldn't be in a writers' group if you weren't also a reader, would you?

  • Listen to the critiquing voices you trust. What resonates with you? What are some of the things your fellow writers focus on?  What questions do they ask? Can you ask similar questions?

  • Don't assume you have any superior knowledge about writing. Even the most inexperienced writer can teach you a thing or two about writing – if you're open to it.

  • Listen to what the writer has said before you read the piece. An experienced critique group member will sometimes preface her work with a question she has about the manuscript or a statement about something she's struggling with. Focus on that, while also keeping in mind the piece as a whole.

  • At first, pay attention to the way you feel about the entire piece rather than focusing on the specifics. A critique group is not a place for heavy line-editing. Notice places where you're pulled from the story or where the writing technique is more obvious than the content. What didn't sit quite right? What was confusing? It's only toward the end of the critique that the Sisters mention little nit-picky things, such as word choice, grammar, or punctuation.

  • Don't feel the need to respond immediately after you read the work. Give it at least a minute for some thought. As the discussion begins, the conversation will develop naturally. You'll have time to chime in.

  • Some groups insist on the sandwich model of critique – where the negative comments are sandwiched between two positives. The Sisters have been together for a long time, and are comfortable with who we are, so sometimes this doesn't happen. We're cool with that . . .

  • Sometimes asking a question is a softer approach to critique, i.e. What did you want to accomplish with this paragraph? Why did you choose to write it this way?  How do you feel this paragraph moves the action forward? The writer's answers may help her discover something on her own.

  • Don't speak with authority unless you have it. The Write Sisters have each been writing for children for 20 years, and we're still not authorities on the subject.

  • It's not your job to rewrite someone's work.

  • Consider your delivery. Sometimes many voices can feel like an attack. If you need to be the one to pull the group out of its feeding frenzy, don't hesitate to speak up.

  • Some authors feel a need to answer every comment with an explanation. A gentle reminder to that person should be enough to get her out of this habit. After all, the writer won't be sitting there as an editor reads her submission. The work should speak for itself. If she insists on explaining, you must persist!

  • Pick your battles, and remember that some authors don't want to hear about everything that's wrong with a piece all at once. Sometimes the author will discover the rough patches on her own when she goes back to rewrite it. Give the author hope so she can go back and revise with confidence.

  • Mark up copies if the writer has provided them. If not, make notes as you listen. Don't be afraid to ask the writer to re-read something . . . or ask for the copy so you can read it yourself. In my opinion, critiques work best when the critiquers can see words on the page. The Sisters almost always bring copies for everyone. 
Next time: How to Receive a Critique.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Poetry Friday: A Poetry Postcard from Katherine Fall Pettey

Greetings from vacation land! Having lots of fun. Wish you were here.


P.S. Once again, I'm in vacation mode and sending off a funkily spaced post. Sorry for not being able to break up your stanzas, Katherine.

Morning on the Desert
by Katherine Fall Pettey, from Songs of the Sage Brush, 1910

Morning on the desert, and the wind is blowin' free,
And it's ours jest for the breathin', so let's fill up, you an' me.

No more stuffy cities where you have to pay to breathe—

Where the helpless, human creatures, throng, and move, and strive and seethe.

Morning on the desert, an' the air is like a wine;

And it seems like all creation has been made for me an' mine.

No house to stop my vision save a neighbor's miles away,

An' the little 'dobe casa that berlongs to me an' May.

Lonesome? Not a minute: Why I've got these mountains here;

That was put there jest to please me with their blush an' frown an' cheer.

They're waitin' when the summer sun gets too sizzlin' hot—

An' we jest go campin' in 'em with a pan an' coffee pot.
Morning on the desert! I can smell the sagebrush smoke;

An' I hate to see it burnin', but the land must sure be broke.

Ain't it jest a pity that wherever man may live,

He tears up much that's beautiful, that the good God has to give?
"Sagebrush ain't so pretty?" Well, all eyes don't see the same;

Have you ever saw the moonlight turn it to a silv'ry flame?

An' that greasewood thicket yonder—well, it smells jest awful sweet

When the night wind has been shakin' it; for smells it's hard to beat.

Lonesome? well, I guess not! I've been lonesome in a town.

But I sure do love the desert with its stretches wide and brown;

All day through the sagebrush here, the wind is blowin' free.

An' it's ours jest for the breathin', so let's fill up, you and me.

Mosey on over to Laura's place at Author Amok for a gander at this week's Poetry Friday. Happy trails, Cowboys and Cowgirls!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Lucy and Company

I’m en route from Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico to Bernalillo, New Mexico, our final destination today. We spent most of the day exploring Mesa Verde National Park  in Colorado. Gazing across the canyons into the homes those ancient people carved into the sides of those sheer rusty cliffs gave me a new appreciation for my own rusty brick home. It also gave me an appreciation for the skill, determination and copious guts these folks possessed.

How did they do it? And how did the women manage the day-to-day tasks life in a cliff house demanded? Water had to be hauled up from a spring at the head of the canyon floor. So did food, fire wood, you name it. (Not from the spring, but from elsewhere in the neighborhood.) (And you know it was the women doing most of the heavy lifting while the guys carved out houses and traded fish stories.) And I can’t even imagine how mothers kept their toddlers away from the edge. That alone would have been an all day job for me, if I managed to make it up the cliff in the first place. Actually, if I made it up the cliff I would not have come back down. I’d have been the first agoraphobic in history. Once ensconced, I wouldn't have left the house. Ever.

My Women of Wednesday post today is a salute to the women who did make it up the cliff wall, both figuratively and literally. We owe a debt of gratitude to those women upon whose overburdened backs entire societies have been built.

I visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science yesterday. There was an exhibit on the ascent of man featuring Lucy, no last name. I can only imagine what life was like for little Lucy, the Australopithecus female so high up in our family tree. “Easy” does not spring to mind. To Lucy and all the women who did the hard stuff (and are STILL doing it), you make me want to stop gazing at the cliff and start climbing it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mentor Monday: Listening to Dick and Jane

I'm between flights at Dulles Airport working on my brand, spanking new HP Netbook as we speak. I totally love it. It's about the size of a composition book and fits in my purse no problem. I'm composing on WordPad because I refused to buy MS Office for the gazillionth time. I'd compose directly into Blogspot, but I also refuse to pay the $5.95 to connect to the internet through one of the four options Dulles has so graciously provided. I figure there'll be free internet at the hotel tonight, and I'll cut and paste this into Blogspot there. If the spacing is messed up, you'll understand about the cutting and pasting and WordPad stuff.

So how does this relate to writing? Even though I'm on vacation, my writing isn't. It's my week to blog, so my posts are going to be catch as catch can affairs. I bought this nifty little Netbook specifically to take with me so that I can keep up with email, do my blogging, and work on my Sarah Porter bio for the Connecticut book in the Notable Women Series. (Hi, Mur!)

I also stuffed a brand new composition book into my purse along with a few pens and pencils. (It's a big, shoulder crushing purse.) You never know when inspiration is going to strike and you need immediate access to writing implements. I can’t tell you how many snippets of overheard conversation I’ve lost over the years because I didn’t write them down immediately. Most of those conversations have taken place in my preschool classroom. It’s true what Art Linkletter said about kids. They really do say the darndest things.

We’ve talked about the importance of reading extensively within your genre. Immersing yourself in picture books, middle grades, young adult, or whatever else you’re writing will strengthen your writing, but you know that. What you might not know is that you need to listen to your target audience. You need to know how they perceive and react to situations, and how they speak their minds. When you’re putting words in your child character’s mouth, those words have to be authentic to both the character’s personality and the character’s age. Hence, the importance of eavesdropping.

(I’m in the air now! We’ve left Dulles and are heading for Denver. The captain says we can use our electrical devices, except cell phones, so I’ll continue.)

Years ago, I had a 4-year old girl student (I’ll call her Jane) approach me to narc out one of the 4-year old boys (I’ll call him Dick). Dick was trailing behind Jane, looking exasperated. They’d been friends since they were babies and were more like brother and sister. Dick was a bright kid with excellent verbal skills. He sounded older than he was, but when you got beyond how he put words together and listened to the logic behind his words, he was still very much a 4-year old. He was also very much a classroom cop. (You teachers will know what I mean.) The conversation went like this:

Jane: Dick said we should show each other our penises.

Dick: I told her not to tell you. Turns to Jane, and in a scolding voice says: Jane! I told you not to tell her! Come on! Let’s go! (Looks at me and shakes his head in a Kids! What-are-you-going-to-do-with-them? way, takes Jane’s hand and starts leading her away.)

Me: Hold on there, Tiger. Do you think that was a great idea?

Jane: I don’t.

Dick: It’s an idea.

Me: But not a great idea.

Jane: It’s not great. Let’s just play babies.

My favorite thing about this exchange was Dick really and truly thought that explaining to me that he told her not to tell would be the end of it. Jane would realize the error of her ways and we could all go about our business. (I also loved that Dick thought he and Jane both had penises. Or maybe he wanted to confirm the fact that they did.) This conversation probably wouldn’t have gone on between an older and wiser 5-year old Dick and Jane. There really is a difference between 4 and 5-year olds. And that’s the point. You need to know the difference.

Eavesdropping will help you flesh out your characters in ways that ring true. It’s often wildly entertaining, as well.

Okay, folks. I was going to write more, but I'm on vacation, after all. I’m currently at Budget Rent-a-Car at the Denver Airport. We’re heading to the Denver Zoo this afternoon. I’m sure the eavesdropping is going to be great.

Happy writing travels!

(I just previewed this and the spacing is atrocious. So sorry. I would have fixed it, but I'm on vacation and all. To make up for it, here's a picture from the Denver Zoo.)