Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mrs. Humiston - Super Sleuth

There was something about the chest of drawers. It just didn’t look right. It sat among some tools and benches and boxes in a small corner of Mr. Cocchi’s basement and just seemed a bit ‘off’ somehow. Was it sitting on a slant? Perhaps extending a bit further into the room than the other furnishings? Just, maybe, by an inch or two?

The men in the basement moved the chest, and there was the concrete floor, cracked and smashed and not at all what it should be. The men began to dig. And dig. Three feet down, they found it - the bound body of 18 year old Ruth Cruger. Mrs.Humiston knew she’d be there. She had never bought the story the police had given out - that Ruth had run off and become a prostitute.

* * * * *

Mrs. Humiston (Mary Grace Winterton) was born into a wealthy New York family and grew up in Greenwich Village just after the Civil War. She graduated from Hunter College (high school) in 1888, opted to be independent and support herself, and went on to teach. Not satisfied with teaching, she attended the New York Evening Law School and graduated in 1904. She passed the bar a year later and established the People’s Law Firm, where clients paid according to their means. That’s when she caught the sleuthing bug.

As clients came to her with their legal issues, a missing persons case would come up every once in a while, and for some reason, many of the missing people seemed to have disappeared into the South. With a bit of investigating, Mary Grace learned about turpentine camps, where turpentine was extracted from trees, and where many of the missing people seemed to have vanished.

Mary Grace went down to investigate. Dressed in disguises, she traveled from camp to camp for an entire year and found an industry so desperate for workers that, when folks showed up for work, they often weren’t allowed to leave. Some people were even chained up to prevent them from leaving. Others were bound by debt to the company store. Mary went to Washington with her findings and ended peonage in the South.

A few years later, she did a bit of traveling overseas and noticed many of the steamship lines put out brochures aimed directly at immigrants. The brochures led them to believe America was a wonderful place where the living was easy. The idea, of course was to get them to book passage and collect their fares. It didn’t take Mary Grace long to put an end to that.

Eventually, Mary Grace married Howard Humiston and did what all good women of her time did. She gave up her career for a home life. But when she heard about Mrs Antoinette Tola, who was to be executed for murdering her husband, she came out of retirement, did some investigating, and got Mrs. Tola first a reprieve, and then a pardon. Her work on the Tola case led her to Gennaro Mazzelin on death row in Sing Sing prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and after some investigating into his case, she got him an acquittal.

Then came the case of German immigrant Charles Stielow. Stielow was accused of murdering his landlord, Charles B. Phelps, a wealthy farmer, and his housekeeper, Margaret Wolcott. Stielow, a farm laborer, was lucky enough to have friends who believed in his innocence and took up his cause. Even the Deputy Warden of Sing Sing believed he was innocent. They sought out Mary Grace, now Mrs. Humiston, to help. It didn’t take long for her to find Erwin King, seen in the area the day of the murder. He was picked up for the crime and admitted his guilt. He also incriminated his partner, Clarence O’Connell, who was already in jail for another crime they’d committed. Mrs. Humiston went back into retirement.

And then one day in February, 1917, a teenage girl named Ruth Cruger set out for Mr. Cocchi’s motorcycle repair shop to have her ice skates sharpened. She was never seen again. Her family called the police. They questioned Mr. Cocchi. Yes, she had been there. He had sharpened her skates and she had gone. Someone claimed to have seen her get in a car with a strange man. When the investigation ended, the police claimed Ruth was a girl who ‘wanted to be lost.’ They implied she had gone into prostitution.

Enter Mrs. Humiston. She took the case pro bono and spent 12-16 hours a day on it. She learned what she could about Ruth and determined she was a girl who would not run off. She said the police theory that Ruth had gotten involved in prostitution was ‘bosh.’ She believed Ruth had been murdered.

With the help of Kron, a Hungarian agent with the Federal Department of Justice, who she had once hired as an interpreter, she set out to find Ruth’s body. For five weeks they didn’t come up with one clue. And then they found a man who had seen Mr. Cocchi come out of his cellar at midnight on the day Ruth disappeared. An investigation into Mr. Cocchi revealed he was not a very nice man. Mrs. Humiston focused her efforts on him. She asked his wife for permission to search the cellar. Mrs. Cocchi said no.

Alfred Cocchi

Mrs. Humiston went to the Board of Health and got permission to dig up the street in front of Cocchi’s house. The Cocchi’s immediately sold the house and Mr. Cocchi departed for Italy.

The new owners did allow Mrs. Humiston to search the house, and the body of Ruth Cruger was found buried beneath the basement floor. Mrs. Humiston also accused the police of being involved with Mr. Cocchi in illegal activities from kickbacks to white slavery. Mr. Cocchi was picked up in Italy, tried and found guilty, and received 27 years in an Italian prison.

After the Cruger case, Mrs. Humiston got caught up in the problem of white slavery. The New York City Police Department named her ‘a special investigator and charged her with finding missing girls and uncovering evidence of white slave traffic.’ But when she claimed there were 600 pregnant, husbandless young women at the US Army’s Camp Upton, and that two of them had died, public sentiment turned against her. It was war time, and patriotism was in the air. No one wanted to hear anything bad about the army or the brave boys risking their lives for democracy, and Mrs. Humiston couldn’t prove her claim.

Mrs. Humiston continued her work, opening the Manhattanville Be Kind Club, where single mothers could leave their children when they went off to work, and boys could plays sports, and lectures were given - until she was arrested for running a dance hall without a license. The charge was brought by a police captain she had embarrassed during the Cruger case and the charges were dismissed. But by then, nobody seemed interested in Mrs. Humiston any longer, and she slowly faded from the public eye.

The Literary Digest described her once as being a ‘feminine Sherlock Holmes,’ but Mrs. Humiston didn’t agree. Unlike Sherlock, she didn’t use the art of deduction, nor did she put any store in ‘women’s intuition.’ Her process was based on common sense, persistence, and the basic desire to do what was right.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mentor Monday - Fixing the Fizzle - From Idea, to Plot, to Story

Ooh. I just had a great idea for a story!

If you’re like me, you probably say that a lot. So many things I come across give me ideas for multitudes of stories. Sometimes, I’d get so caught up in an idea, I’d sit down and begin writing to see where it took me, and the next thing I’d know, I’d be into chapter five or six of a new novel. I might even make it to chapter twelve or fifteen. And then, suddenly - the novel fizzled.

Why? I wondered. It was a cool idea. Why couldn’t I make the story work?

The answer, I have since leaned, is because I didn’t have a story. I didn’t even have a plot. All I had was an idea, and an idea is nothing more than a sudden thought with potential, which is why an idea can’t be copyrighted. It’s too vague and malleable. I will turn it into one thing, and you will make it into something else, which is why you should never be afraid of someone stealing an idea of yours. An idea is -

Ooh. What if the government could control the weather?

And the potential?
All the what ifs.

What if a secret government organization got hold of it?
What if it was run by an egomaniac who went rogue?
What if he wanted to take over the world?
What if he threatened the whole planet with hurricanes and earthquakes?
What if, just to give us an example of how powerful he was, he bombarded Japan with one earthquake after another until it sank into the ocean? (Hmm. I seem to remember a Bond movie with a similar plot.)

As you can see, my idea certainly has the potential to grow into something more, and you may have gone in a totally different direction. As a beginning writer (and sometimes, even now) I’d sit down and start writing, thinking I had a story. I would throw in some perfunctory characters and get the ball rolling. Eventually the novel, like so many others of mine, would have withered away and ended up as a half-finished manuscript taking up space on my hard drive for years and years and years - all because I didn’t realize that an idea wasn’t a plot.

Ideas tend to be broad, while plots are more specific, and story is even more sharply defined. If I narrow my focus from the broad to the specific, I might come up with a character who is a reporter, who learns of this organization and takes steps to expose them while trying to save himself from their death squads. I still don’t have a plot or a story, but I do have a log line of sorts, an overall premise. I need to get even more specific.

I zoom in closer and give my reporter the tools he needs to work within my overall idea. I give him a name and a newspaper. I give him a city to live in. And because he needs a real reason to do what I’m going to make him do, I give him a burning desire to become famous for his work, or perhaps he has a deep mistrust of the government. Maybe I’ll give him both. But there have to be complications, so I invent a family for him and make him a drug addict. I give him a history with baggage. And then, to get the story started, I give him an opportunity to learn of the secret government organization and what they plan to do.

But I’m still not ready for a plot. Every protagonist needs a foil. So I create one. I give him a name and a government organization to work for. I give him a city where his operation is based. And because he needs motivation, too, I give him a superiority complex. I make him a perfectionist with the need to always be in control, and I give him a deep mistrust of the government. And the complications? I give him a cadre of followers, not all of whom are totally loyal. And I make him a narcissist. I give him a history with baggage. And to get his story started, I give him the opportunity to put his evil plan in motion.

Now I’m ready for plot. And for me, plot is the road map that gets my character from point A (discovering the scheme) to point B (destroying the weather machine and saving the world.) I have a beginning and an end, (yes, it's cliche and corny, but it works with the pictures) and now I have to fill in the middle. The middle will simply be a series of actions and reactions between the two players that goes over the major plot points.

Hero discovers organization and writes about it.
Villain feels his hand is forced and starts the sinking of Japan and orders hero killed.

Hero discovers where organization is and sneaks in as a new recruit.
Villain begins to make life miserable for the countries of the world.

Hero snoops around and learns all he can about villain and weather machine but withdrawal kicks in.
Other soldiers become suspicious and capture him.

Villain decides to kill hero, but the narcissist in him wants the world to know all about his superior genius.
Hero agrees to write Villain’s biography in return for drugs, and because if he ever gets out of this, the book will make him famous.

Japan sinks and Hero is mortified. He decides to kill the villain and destroy the weather machine. With the help of an unloyal security guard, he escapes within the confines of the compound.
Villain’s goons search for him. Villain flashes photos of his captured family on compound tvs.

In the throes of withdrawal, the hero risks his life to save his family and find the weather machine.
Villain is furious that the hero has gotten away and goes to the weather machine to take his anger out on the world.

The two meet for the climax at the weather machine. The battle between them is fought, the weather machine is destroyed and the world is saved.

Notice the plot isn’t ultra-detailed. For me, that leaves room for side trips and detours, and like following any road map, I might even get lost a time or two, but I do have the map that enables me to find my way back. And as I write and fill in the specifics between plot points, my world becomes more defined and my plot slowly turns into story. Yes, it will have to be revised and reworked, but in the end, it will be a story - a finished story that won’t languish on my hard drive.

Save the World Today v2 by voythas
see more of his work at
type voythas into the search box

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Dowser's Ear

The Write Sisters are late to the party this week. It's my fault, and I apologize. I hope this poem with its beautiful language makes up for it, as we here along the east coast experience Irene in all her wild attire.  Janet

The Dowser’s Ear

Empty cattle trailers
               Rumbled dummy thunder
Down the road all day, and now tonight,
Heat lightning flashes more of the same fake rain.
It’s just as well. I couldn’t get to sleep,
And now it ricochets across the sky
With empty loads of light. We’ve had a month
Of drought that tightens dirt around my pond.
The local wells are dry. But I’ve retired,
Threw out my wand. I hate this time of year.
               Roux can burn if flour
               Sticks in skillet butter.
I’ve been cooking up a storm myself,
My Daddy’s filé gumbo recipe.
He used to be a chef on oil rigs
Until the hurricane. I heard the waves
That killed him, and I hear them every year.
It’s emptiness that fills me. That’s my skill.
I hear the vacant rain before it falls.
It’s like the murmur of a spiraled shell.
               Hurricane weather, stewing
               Deep for landfall, spewing
Rain-a-plenty in the Gulf and here
In Tennessee they always have a lack
Of something. Two men called today for wells.
I told them both to go to hell, and now
They think I’m sinful, not to use my skill.
They stand to lose so much, but don’t we all.
I lost a lot in Hurricane Camille
And even now can’t hear the end of it.

               More heat lightning flashes,
               Absent rain that passes
Over clouds, and I can make it out,
Each gurgling current under withered fields,
Down kitchen drains. The neighbors think I’m crazy,
Up all hours, but they’ll never know
The screaming voice inside a breaker’s rage
Or how it simmers in my ear. I hate
The sound of water. Give me one good chance
To make it silent. I’d be right as rain.
                      -- Wilmer Mills
Funny enough, Irene is hosting Poetry Friday over at Live. Love. Explore! 
Go take a look! 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Breaking Into (and Out Of) Print—Part Four

Yesterday I wore my publisher’s hat to talk about people who say they want to write, but end up sabotaging their own careers. Here’s my final take:

4) They fail to keep connections. I can tell who the true professionals are:

*They pay attention to the dates on their contracts.
*They check in.
*They let me know if there’s a problem early enough so we can deal with it.
*They help me promote their books by mentioning them at workshops, on their web sites, blogs, Facebook, or Twitter.

These are the people I send extra work to. These are the people I ask to help launch new series. These are the people who are building a career.

Unfortunately, there are many writers that blow their first professional connections.

The sad tale of Ms. X. The beginning of her writing career with me started well. She completed the work I’d given her in a timely manner. As such, I assigned her five, 550-word profiles in a series of three books that I wanted to send to print on the same date. For these types of stories, I usually give the writers a month per profile, start to finish. I want to see a first draft in about two weeks and the final version two weeks after that.

I know, a month to write a less than 600 words will seem like a lot of time to some of you. But, in this case research and, sometimes, interviews are involved.

I assigned these profiles last November & December, 2010 with the first draft due in January, 2011 (after all the holiday chaos—so writers actually got extra time on this batch). The final drafts for this series were due in May, 2011. Ms. X sent in her first draft on time, along with some questions about one of the other profiles.

And that was the last time I heard from her. Until May. I was putting the books together and realized that I was missing five manuscripts, all belonging to Ms. X. When I contacted her, she apologized, said she’s had a new job she was getting used to, she’d had to move, etc. As much as I felt sympathy for her plight, I was also angry. We could have worked all these things out. Life happens!

There was no way she could get 4 profiles and a revision to me in a decent amount of time. Suddenly, the 3 books I’d hoped to have for a fall promotion, were dead in the water. Not only that, but my printer had offered me a deal: I was actually going to print 5 new books and do a reprint of one of our other titles. By doing six books at once, I could get a much better price. Ms. X had managed to single-handedly delay six books on the list!

I scrambled to find other writers to complete some of Ms. X’s work. I’d already paid her the advances for these projects. We had to re-negotiate our scheduled date with the printer. Pre-sold books that had been promised for September weren’t going to be ready for our customers. Our web site announcements had to be revised. And here’s the kicker: while Ms. X was NOT handing in the work she’d contracted with me, I saw her post on a writers’ list asking about submitting to other publishers.

Hmmmm…. I thought, you DO realize other people (like publishers and editors) read these lists, too, don’t you? And, by the way, if you’ve got time to put together résumés, and post on lists, shouldn’t you first do the work you’ve already contracted to do?

So this is how connections are lost. I would have been happy to recommend Ms. X to any other publisher. Now I cannot. I also cannot ever hire her again. I can’t afford to.

What's your real attitude about becoming a professional writer? Remember that it's not just talent and luck. It's dependability, tenacity, and good connections.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breaking Into (and Out Of) Print—Part Three

Last week we discussed ways to get a by-line or two while working on your main project(s). I said that I feel that doing so allows you to feel like a “real” writer.

A career in the arts is one that is built on past successes. Unlike most jobs, you don’t go in to work every day and complete your required production with a guaranteed payment each week. In the arts, whether it is acting, music, painting, or writing, your career is always built on the things you did recently. The job of the artist is to make others want more of what we have to offer.

Think about it: are you more excited to hear a new song by a performer you’ve come to love or one you’ve never heard of? Do you automatically buy a book by an unknown author or one by a writer you’ve enjoyed before?

One of today’s buzz words is “branding.” Artists and writers have always developed their own “brands.” You can easily tell a Picasso from a Monet. Taylor Swift’s songs don’t sound like Lady Gaga’s. As you write, you are developing work that you hope others will learn to recognize.

Having met and worked with many writers, I am still amazed at the number of people who say they want a career but don’t treat writing as a career. Here are some ways they break out of print:

1) They don’t set aside time to write regularly. It doesn’t have to be every day. My first novel was written primarily on Saturday afternoons. I was teaching elementary school and had three young children. I’m not one of those people who can get up an hour or two earlier or write late into the evening. With the help of a very supportive spouse, Saturday afternoons, though, were mine.

2) They don’t do their homework. They send picture book manuscripts to houses that only accept agented material. They send novel synopses to houses that only do picture books about nature. In short, they waste time, postage, and some editorial assistant’s time, and make a lousy first impression.

3) They fail to use connections. They go to writers’ conferences and get critiqued, but they don’t listen to what the editor said, so they don’t revise. Many times, I’ve heard writers come out of critiques with this bit of conversation: “The editor liked my story but they just did a picture book about a frog. She asked me what else I had.”

When an editor asks you what else you have in your writing pile she’s saying: I like your stuff. I like your style. I’d really like to find a place for you in our list.

If you don’t write regularly, you don’t have anything else to send. Connection lost.

We'll wrap up tomorrow with point #4 as well as a cautionary tale.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Happy Blogoversary to Us!

We're about to embark on our 5th year! Who knew we could have so much to say? (Anyone who's ever been with seven women in one room, that's who.)

I've posted this on others' blogoversarys, so I might as well post it for us:

© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.

Come back tomorrow for another of Muriel's enlightening posts.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Poetry Friday: Mother, Summer, I

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

                              -- Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Doraine Bennett over at Dori Reads. Rumble on over!


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Breaking Into (and Out Of) Print—Part Two

Yesterday I suggested that in order to get published and begin to feel like a “real” writer, that you put away your current project and look at some alternatives. Today we continue with my final suggestions.

#4 Start a blog.
You don’t have to write a lot or every day but pick a theme and commit to it. Write regularly so your followers know that they can depend on you. Blogging allows the previously unpublished writer to have a platform and let the world know that you have a skill with words.If you manage to commit to it, you are also proving that you are dependable and, as I mentioned yesterday, can write to a deadline—even if the deadline is one you created.

I think blogging is one of the best things on the web. This option did not exist when we Write Sisters were getting started. Take advantage of this gift!

#5 a) Prepare a résumé.

If you haven’t been published yet, your résumé may include some related experience that you’ve had such as writing curriculum for a particular age group. Or, another way to break in is to send a writing sample. My publishing company, Apprentice Shop Books, specializes in non-fiction. We don’t accept freelance submissions as all of our series are developed in-house. So, how do you break in to this kind of publishing house? One writer studied our “America’s Notable Women” series. Each book tells the story of 25 outstanding women from a particular state. I generally hire 5 to 10 writers to complete each book. They write 1 to 5 of the profiles in any given book.

One person I did not know broke in by submitting an entry for a state that we had not yet covered. She modeled the word count, readability level, and required additional matter. I could see that she “got it.” I kept her work on file. Just a short time later, one of my writers faced an emergency and had to bow out of part of her assignment. I needed someone to complete two 550-word profiles in a very short turn-around time. Guess who got the job?

#5b) If you completed #2 above and managed to publish some short pieces, your résumé might include the clips you’ve started to accumulate. What if you’ve sold a piece but it hasn’t been published yet? Send a clean (unedited) copy of the work with a note that says, “This (article, story, filler) was purchased by Junior Traveler magazine for their September 2013 issue.”

So, in short, write something different. Doing so will serve a number of purposes. You will get some distance from the primary piece you’re creating. You’ll work some different parts of your brain. If you’re writing fiction, research some non-fiction topics. If you’re writing a novel, try some poetry. You’ll probably get to see your name in print much sooner and have the ability to feel like a “real” writer instead of a wanna-be.

Next week, I’ll put my publisher’s hat on and talk about how some writers shoot themselves in the foot and derail their careers.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Breaking Into (and Out Of) Print

You want to see your name in print. You’ve been working on a novel or picture book. You have submitted chapters and summaries or an entire manuscript. It takes forever to get an answer from the super-busy editors and their assistants.

What can you do in the mean time?

This week and next I’d like to share how-to-get-and-stay published information while wearing two hats: that of a published writer and also as a publisher.

First, Mur-the-writer:

I firmly believe that it is psychologically helpful to get some kind of by-line—even before that first big break. I remember being told that if I was going to be a writer, I had to think of myself as a writer. However, it’s not easy for many of us to do so because of conversations like the following:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“What have you written?”

The correct answer, of course, is, “Lots and lots of stuff that nobody’s printed yet.” But who wants to say that? To avoid that whole conversation, I used to tell people I did word-processing at home. It was true (I was using a word-processor) and the job sounded boring so no one ever asked me to elaborate. But there’s a way around that issue. Don’t limit yourself to one concept about the kind of writer you should be. Open yourself to other possibilities. That’s what the Write Sisters have done and following our suggestions just might work for you, too.

I’m going to start with suggestion #2 since I’m going to assume that if you’ve been following this blog you’re already doing # 1 (Writing). So….

#2 Collect some publishing credits or clips. Any credits. Any clips. If you have to, do it for free. It’ll make you feel like a writer.

a) Volunteer to write short articles for church bulletins (as I did), school or business newsletters.

b) Send fillers, sports team news, or press releases about school activities to your local newspapers. What do these pieces have to do with writing for kids? Sometimes, nothing, BUT you are proving that you can be counted on to complete a project. You are practicing your craft. You are working within a time limit. Some of Diane’s early clips included puzzles for the Christian Science Monitor’s children’s page. Puzzles are not picture books you say. True, but a by-line is a by-line is a by-line.

#3 Educate yourself about available markets.

a) Subscribe to newsletters like the SCBWI Bulletin and the Children’s Writer.
While reading one of these newsletters, I noticed that Capstone Press was looking for writers. I put together a package of clips. I included pieces written for various age groups. A few weeks later, I got a call and an assignment.

b) Read current children’s magazines. Pay attention to style, word count, types of articles. Early in her career, Kathy sold some rebus stories to Highlights. I sold a health puzzle to Jack & Jill. These fillers are an important part of a magazine’s monthly output. Child readers need breaks between longer stories. Puzzles, games, poems, and short fillers give kids that break.

c) Pay attention to themes. Magazine themes are usually planned a year in advance. Holiday pieces need to be sent 6 months to a year ahead of publication. Do you have an unusual holiday craft, tradition, or recipe? Write it up. Have you traveled somewhere interesting? Write it up.

d) Use your research and writing activities more than once. Say you’re writing a picture book about black bears. Your book is fiction but you’ve done some research on what black bears eat. Maybe you can produce a short piece on some of the odd things these omnivores have been known to eat. When I was writing my Sarah Hale biography, I sold a story about Hale’s determination to get a national Thanksgiving holiday to Highlights. I sold a piece on her methods of editing to Writers’ Digest.

More on this topic tomorrow.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Poetry Friday--"The Rules of Evidence"

We've all heard that there are only seven basic plots in all of literature. But, even if there are more, they've all been written, haven't they? And yet, we keep on writing (and reading) novels.

There are only 26 letters to the alphabet--every combination of letters must surely be a word by now? And yet, with each new edition, The Oxford English Dictionary contains thousands of new words.

Is there anything new under the sun? Is there anything that hasn't be thought, said, or presented as evidence?
The Rules of Evidence
by Lee Robinson

What you want to say most
is inadmissible.
Say it anyway.
Say it again.
What they tell you is irrelevant
can't be denied and will
eventually be heard.
Every question
is a leading question.
Ask it anyway, then expect
what you won't get.
There is no such thing
as the original
so you'll have to make do
with a reasonable facsimile.

The history of the world
is hearsay. Hear it.
The whole truth
is unspeakable
and nothing but the truth
is a lie.
I swear this.
My oath is a kiss.
I swear
by everything
Hearsay by Lee Robinson, Fordham U. Press, 2004.

Head over to Karen Edmisten's blog for this week's Poetry Friday Round-Up.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Women of Wednesday--Ask Yourself

Step into the cafeteria of a high school in 1947. Was this really the way that kids talked? And, was this really the way that high schools kids were instructed? I can't imagine that this wasn't completely laughable even back then.

Why is it that the girl who parks in cars with boys is the only one who needs a life lesson? None of the guys who accompanied her were told that taking advantage of someone is not the thing a "popular" person does. Why was that?

Now ask yourself, have things changed over the last 60 years? Hmmm. If you think so, take a look at this article about the portrayal of women in the film, The Social Network, which was released last year. I saw the film and did notice that the women were mostly heavy drinkers who were "hungry," if you know what I mean, but, I never gave it a second thought. This is how women are routinely portrayed. Good grief, have I become totally oblivious? What about you?


The film is in the public domain and comes courtesy of the Prelinger Archives portion of Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is one of my favorite resources!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mentor Monday--Writing History

The Write Sisters have been writing history in the America's Notable Women series profiles that we have worked on. Researching the women and their historical context has been fascinating. Condensing everything into approximately 550 words has not been as much fun. There's always been the conundrum of making the profiles readable for a 4th grade audience, while still including the relevant facts about each individual. So much is involved in writing history that it's a wonder that there are so few writing how-tos on the subject.

A few weeks ago, American Historical Association's blog released a round-up of "The Art of History" series of articles from the Association's journal Perspectives on History. The series has been delving into history writing as an art. Although written for historians, the articles have relevance for children's writers since we also do research, and we write for a particular audience.

I'd particularly like to recommend one article, "The Poetics of History from Below" by Marcus Rediker. In it, Rediker talks about his grandfather who although not a professional historian, was "a master storyteller." Rediker says of his grandfather,
His stories were vivid, complex, passionate, and somehow always practical. They featured apocalyptic Biblical language (a lot of hell-fire), long silences (with fateful stares), and curse words that were normally forbidden in our house (son-of-a-bitchin’ this and that). He always managed to tell a big story within a little story.

And this, my friends, is the key to writing history, or even science for that matter--be a masterful storyteller! Of course, you can't use "curse words" in books that kids will be reading in elementary school, but you can use colorful and musical language. Practice the craft of storytelling and you will certainly be on your way to creating the art of history.

Read a few of the other articles mentioned in the round-up. Despite not being a historian, I found most of the ones I read to be of interest, if not of practical use.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Finally, As Promised . . . .

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books
ISBN-10: 1594744769
ISBN-13: 978-1594744761

Jacob Portman’s grandfather is a bit peculiar. He collects guns, disappears from time to time, and is always telling strange and exciting tales of odd children and horrible monsters and an enchanted island off the coast of Wales. And then there’s that old photo album, filled with strange pictures of weird kids. Jacob isn’t sure if the stories are true or not. He used to believe, but now he’s older and knows better. Unfortunately, Grandpa is older too and may be getting a bit senile.

One day, he gets a call from Grandpa asking for the key to his gun locker. They’ve found him, Grandpa says, and he needs his guns to fight them. Thinking he’s really lost it, Jacob heads over to his house with a friend to calm him down. They find Grandpa near the woods, looking like he’s been mauled by an animal. With his last dying breath, he leaves Jacob a strange cryptic message about a loop and Emerson and finding the bird.

Jacob begins having bad dreams about Grandpa’s death and starts seeing Dr. Golan, a psychiatrist. As he learns more about himself, he also learns more about Grandpa, and it seems his stories may have been true after all. Jacob decides he’s going to Grandpa’s island for some answers. Dr. Golan thinks it’s a good idea. Jacob’s parents agree to let him go, but his father, an as yet to be published writer living off his wife’s money, will go, too. He’ll do some research for a new book. A book about birds.

There’s not much on Grandpa’s island. There’s only one hotel and one phone, and there’s no reception for cells or internet. Jacob goes exploring and finds Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but there isn’t much left to it. It was bombed September 3, 1940. As he returns to the hotel, he notices something odd. The cars and trucks are gone. Instead, there are carts and horses and everyone is dressed funny. Somehow, he’s managed to end up in the past, on September 3rd, 1940, the day the bomb fell. And that’s when he meets the girl from Grandpa’s photo album - the girl who can hold fire.

The adventure begins.

* * * * *

This story is far too involved to give a complete synopsis, but no matter what you like to read, there’s something here for everyone. Riggs gets into time travel, history, fantasy, mystery, monsters, and even romance. He’s got so many irons in the fire here, and he pulls them all together nicely to create a very involving story with lots of twists and surprises. And Riggs doesn’t rely on just the adventure. Jacob also struggles with his relationship with his father, who feels inadequate because he’s living off his wife, can’t sell a book, and doubts his talents. But as the story moves on, you can see their attempts to become closer, as well as his father’s struggle to be his own person.

The ending was a bit disappointing because nowhere on the flap is there a hint that this is just the first of a series, so I assumed I was going to get the whole story, bust as I got closer and closer to the end, it became clear that not everything was going to be resolved. This book is merely the beginning of a story that could go on for as long as Riggs wants it to. The ending does work, though, as an ending for the book.

The drawbacks? It’s a first novel and reads like it didn’t get a lot of editing. There are lots of anomalies, like characters from the past who know nothing of the ‘real’ (Jacob’s) world, and then are suddenly explaining who Jeffrey Dahmer is. Jacob tells us over and over he’s not a good a liar, then brags about how cool his lies to Dr. Golan are. We’re told confined spaces scare the hell out of him, but he’s never scared in confined spaces, and when something is suddenly needed - a cell phone, a photo album - the characters just happen to have them when we never saw how they got them.

But in spite of all that, I really liked it. The story made me not care about the writing. It pulled me along from scene to scene for the most part. Riggs makes good use of all his characters. They have depth and substance, and there are no one scene walk-ons. And there’s lots of mystery and intrigue, not to mention those cool photographs.

Will I be buying future books in the series? You bet.

On a marketing note, Quirk Books are the people who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, another best seller, as well as The Strange Case of Benjamin Button. A movie is already in the works for Miss Peregrine. Seems to me that if you write about the strange, the odd, the quirky, this might be the place for your book.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Poetry Friday

Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion – dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp – buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry – tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph – who you were –
will be waiting when you return

Natasha Trethewey

Start your day's journey off by traveling over to A Year of Literacy Coaching for more great poetry.

Photo courtesy of Gail Des Jardins
View more of her work here

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Sorry, folks. Miss Peregrine will have to wait for Saturday. I didn't have as much time as I thought I would.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

I've Just Read . . . .

Ship Breaker
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN-10: 0316056219
ISBN-13: 978-0316056212

In a not-too-distant future, global warming and extreme weather have played havoc on the world. On America’s Gulf Coast, hurricanes have ravaged the shores several times, leaving those left behind to make their ways as best they can. Nailer, a teenage boy, finds work with a crew of ship breakers, people who break down and salvage what they can from the many oil tankers rusting away on their shores. Nailer’s job is to creep through ducts and pipes in the ships and collect any copper wire or tubing he can find.

Existence is a struggle, and apart from his lousy job, which he is lucky to have, he is saddled with a horrible father, similar to Huck Finn's, who drinks and drugs and beats Nailer for any, or no reason at all.

On the bright side, Nailer is part of a crew that he trusts, and the person he trusts most - a girl named Pima - is also his best friend. They look down on the ‘swanks’ - the rich folks - while dreaming of becoming one of them.

And then one day, after a storm, Nailer spies a ship - a new clipper ship - washed up on a nearby shore. If he and Pima can salvage it, it could be their ‘lucky strike,’ their road to something better. The trick is how to do it without anyone else - particularly Nailer’s father - from finding out about it and taking it from them.

Nailer manages to get out to explore the ship and finds a survivor - an almost dead teenage girl named Nita. His choice is to kill her and salvage the ship, or save her and risk losing the ship. He elects to save her. When word about the ship and the girl gets out, Nailer’s father comes calling. His idea is to salvage the ship and ransom Nita, who is the daughter of a rich shipping magnate.

Nailer pretends to go along with him, all the while hoping to ditch his father, and regain the girl and the ship for himself, but that’s a bit difficult to do since his father has a genetically engineered half-man/half monster named Tool watching over Nailer and Nita, and the monster has been engineered to gladly die in order to carry out its master’s wishes.

However, things change quickly when Nailer learns Nita is not the helpless, pampered rich girl he imagined, and that Tool is not a mindless tool of his father’s. Can the three of them work together to get what they each want?

* * * * *

I liked Ship Breaker for the most part. It’s an adventure story, and that’s what it relies on - the adventure. The plot is more than plausible. I didn’t have any trouble believing something like this could happen in our near future, and Bacigalupi takes the plot from beginning to end very nicely. He keeps the tension and suspense high, and there’s always a reason to turn the page. One thing I especially liked was that India and China had become the world’s new power brokers (although that’s just background, and not important to the story.)

If there are any weaknesses in the novel, for me it’s that Ship Breaker could have gone farther than it did. There are no subtleties, no nuances or shades of gray. It doesn’t raise questions. The focus here is on plot, not character, even to the extent of neglecting Nailer’s relationship with his father.

His father is bad and he doesn’t like the man, and that’s as far as it goes. We never learn if Nailer loves him or hates him or if it’s something in between. He doesn’t ask questions about the relationship that a kid in that position would ask. The relationship is what it is. Even when his father dies, there’s no gladness, no sadness, no relief, no mixed emotions. He shakes with revulsion and walks away and the story moves on. Had Bacigalupi delved into their relationship a bit more, it would have made the story a little more complex and taken it to another level, I think.

I also wished Pima had played a bigger part in the adventure. She's basically left behind once Nita appears on the scene.

On a technical note, I have to admit it was annoying to read the name Nailer over and over and over when he/his/him would have worked just as well or better.

Amazon says the book is for grades 7 and up which seemed accurate to me, although I can see this being read by kids a bit younger. Older teens may find it a bit too soft and safe when compared to Collins’ Hunger Games or Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, another Printz award winner.

All in all, it was a good read, worth the time spent on it.

Stop by Thursday for a look at the New York Times besteller, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mentor Monday - Google Earth

If you’re a writer and you don’t know about Google Earth, you should really get acquainted. Google Earth is exactly what it sounds like - the Earth, brought to you by Google. You start out with the Earth, type in where you’d like to go, and it takes you there, or you can explore on your own. Want to see what Sendai, Japan looks like after the tsunami? Type it in. Want to see the Great Pyramid at Giza? Type it in and you’re there. Want to see your own house? Type in your address. You zoom in from outer space and get a bird’s eye view.

What good is this to a writer? Well, let’s say you’re writing a story that takes place in a city far, far away. Let's say Paris. Just zoom in, and there it is.

That's at about 20,000 feet. All those icons show churches, businesses, museums, parks, and historic sites. A Portuguese American club lets you know what ethnic group lives in the neighborhood, which might suggest a name for your character. Churches, temples and mosques let you know if your population is mostly Catholic, Jewish, or something else. The liquor stores or Starbucks on every corner tell you something about socio-economic levels, all fodder that can help with characterization and description.

Perhaps you’re writing a thriller. Need to know how far it is from the Palace at Versailles to the US embassy? Need to know what the palace looks like? It’s right there. Just zoom in closer.

They even have a street view, so you can walk around your site. You can see any place you need to describe without ever leaving your desk.

Maybe your latest WIP takes place on an imginary desert world? Check out the Gobi and Sahara for ideas. Are there castles in your story? Buzz over a few to see how they use terrain for defense or to see how they were built. Look at the differences between an English castle and a German castle. Do you need to know what the bayou looks like, or a seaside town? Does your story take place in Hollywood or a South African diamond mine? Google Earth can help you. You can even go to the moon and Mars if you like. While there’s not much to see (yet) you can at least get place names.

And what about non-fiction? If you’re writing about places or national monuments, the benefits are obvious. You get a bird’s eye view of whatever place or monument you’re writing about. Doing volcanoes? You can go to any volcano on Earth. You can stare right into the mouth of one.

Writing about Nascar or baseball? Visit a few tracks or stadiums. Doing the Olympics? You have aerial views of any Olympic village you want to visit. Biographies? Visit your person’s hometown or the place of their demise. I haven’t explored copyright issues on using these pictures, but it may be worth looking into if you’re paying for your own photographs.

Google Earth comes with lots of extras, too. You can see earthquakes in real time (not the actual quakes, but dots on the map that show position and strength.) They place shipwrecks and ocean expeditions, what seafood you’ll find off any given coast, and even water temperature. You can go back in time (to the inception of Google Earth) and see Sendai, Japan before the quake, and after it. The same with the gulf coast oil spill - very helpful if that’s what you’re writing about.

There are so many things here that I haven’t yet explored, or simply touched the surface of. Some museums and archeological sites have even made it possible to tour them in street view. Unfortunately, street view isn't available everywhere. Mostly it’s just the larger, more well known cities. But perhaps, in time . . . .

The drawbacks? 500 feet, give or take, seems to be about as close as you can get without everything going blurry. And when you go back in time, you can only go back to the times they have images for.

So how do you get Google Earth? How else - google it and download. Or you can use this link. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s fascinating.

Happy exploring.

All photos were taken on Google Earth.