A Page from a Writer’s Notebook (with explanations)

Picking up a notebook this morning I noticed it was already used — pages of notes from an unfinished novel as well as from THE BADGER KNIGHT. I thought it might be fun to explain a page from my notebook. This one is late in the process of THE BADGER KNIGHT, a draft nearly complete but with various elements to clarify:











Starting from the top….

What is his greatest fear? This is a question I ask about all my characters. Sometimes there are multiple fears or I’m still thinking about which one is the greatest.

Insert Donald trying to give him/them oatcakes from his bag. (The page numbers indicate a couple of scenes where this could be inserted.) This was an anecdote to reveal his kindness.

What is Adrian going for? How is he different at the end of the novel than when we first meet him? What is the psychic change in him and how has it come about? These are overall questions that require my reading through the entire draft in order to check if the answers are there.

What does Adrian want? And why? What is he scared of? And why? These are constant reminders to myself to be aware of what’s driving my character.

Hugh could bring oatcakes from Donald to bank of stream OR p. 197 D tries to give them oatcakes + they have awkward realization he’ll need them for battle. (Again, page numbers indicate scenes for possible insertion.)

Work thru the final phase: A+D going to Scotland for the climax. At this point in the process I obviously hadn’t finished Adrian and Donald’s journey.

keeper/warden  Need to explain about warden/marches  Decide whether Sir Reginald is a keeper or a warden? Has Donald heard of him? Does he know he’s corrupt? Here I knew I had to explain the way the border areas (marches) between England and Scotland were governed in 1346, the time of the novel. I wanted to keep consistent language and decide if Sir Reginald (a bad guy) was a minor governor (keeper) or major (warden). I also had to decide if Donald knew that Sir Reginald was corrupt (he does).

whistle/flute  vellum/paper  shoes/boots  These are notes to myself to search the document for these terms in order to be consistent about usage. If I called Donald’s instrument a whistle at one point, I don’t want to refer to it as a flute later or it’d be confusing.

 make clear that D is hit on back of head / in the arm (bleeding) in battle scene Here I had to decide what his injury was.

need to insert SOMETHING more about lepers–that unholy 3 stone Thomas  Since Adrian disguises Donald as a leper in an attempt to get him through enemy lines I needed to keep the theme of lepers present by having the bullies in Adrian’s village (the “unholy trinity”) throwing stones at their local leper, Thomas.

hears wind + it sounds like it’s saying “Ailwin,” telling me I’m as useless as that poor man  Sometimes I slip into the voice of my character when I’m writing my notes.  :-)

add: otherwise, Good Aunt is right and I really should’ve died in that plague  This refers to the opening of the novel when he remembers his (not so good) aunt saying he should’ve died in the plague rather than his mother and sister

When I completed a task, I checked it off or crossed through it.  Sometimes, I don’t use all the ideas so they may be left unchecked. Or, if it’s the last element on the page that I’m actually going to incorporate into the story (like making clear where Donald’s injury is) then I don’t bother crossing it off because it’s time to flip to the next page of notes.

Every writer’s process is a little different but we all have to work through edits and revisions. That’s what helps to perfect a story so it can make it to the printed (or electronic) page. Happy writing (and revising)!

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The Imitation Game — It’s the bomb!











Really!  Great movie, but also the “bombe” was the name of the machine designed primarily by Alan Turing (aka Benedict Cumberbatch in the film, The Imitation Game) to help break the Nazi’s Enigma code.  It was crucial because breaking Enigma saved millions of lives — maybe including ours because some of us might not be here today if it weren’t for the work done by code breakers like Turing at Bletchley Park, England.


Station X, or Bletchley Park, the British code breaking site, was called “the hush hush place” by locals.  Nobody in the tiny town of Bletchley knew exactly what was going on there although they likely didn’t believe the stories of an upper class hunting club or the “cheese and chess society” despite the fact that Bletchley Park was a beautiful estate.  To their credit, they kept it to themselves.  It’s hard to imagine that kind of silence in today’s social media age, but maybe if you were in fear of imminent invasion–in fact your country’s outer islands were already occupied–you might be inspired.  The workers took pains to keep the secret, too, some of them getting off the train at nearby Milton Keynes and walking to the site so as not to raise eyebrows at crowds pouring off the train in little Bletchley.  Even those who worked at Bletchley Park had little idea of what was going on in the next hut. And they couldn’t talk about what they were doing to anyone.  They were dedicated code breakers these men and women, more women, actually since the men were in battle.


One group was breaking the Nazi code  in a building that previously was the apple and pear stand.  Led by the quirky but brilliant Alan Turing, they eventually succeeded, yet had to keep that fact secret so that the Nazis would not abandon that code method and come up with a new one.  Their actions opened shipping channels in the Atlantic and helped with the D-Day invasion and many other battles, probably shortening the war by two years.














(Photo of Turing’s office, showing how he chained his mug to the radiator so no one would take it.)

A sad — no, horrifying — part of the story is what happened after the war, to Turing.  For the “crime” of homosexuality he was given a sentence of either imprisonment or chemical castration (basically, taking estrogen to supposedly curb his desires).  He was vilified, his reputation attacked, was likely under surveillance, and died an early death, deemed a suicide, at 41.  A very sad end indeed for someone who probably saved our lives.  He was officially pardoned by Queen Elizabeth last year. (!)


I visited Bletchley and if you can get there, go.  It really feels like you’re traveling back in time — even the exhibits are endearingly presented with typed index cards in keeping with the times.  If you see the film, you’ll recognize the places and feel like you’re following in the footsteps of The Imitation Game crowd.  Here are some striking takeaways:

–using what we would consider rather primitive tools and methods (including carrier pigeons) they managed to win the war

–self discipline (work ethic, absolute secrecy, even surviving on very limited rations of food) was inspiring

–we are now appropriately embarrassed at the treatment of Alan Turing (judging by the tenor of the exhibits)

–in times of crises we can manage to put aside the things that don’t matter (like sexual preference or sexual stereotypes)



More info, if you’re interested:

The Seven Highly Productive Habits of Alan Turing

An explanation of The Imitation Game

Bletchley Park (including an exhibit on the movie)



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Ubuntu, the facts and the heart


scan0143 - Version 2August 26 is a bittersweet day.  My fifth book will publish (sweet) but 18 years ago to the day I lost my mother.  She was warm and wise, witty and fun, brave and beautiful.  And she’s the one who inspired me to pursue a writing career although she never knew it.  While she was proud that I became a lawyer and would always be able to take care of myself, I think she would’ve loved to read my books (whose mother doesn’t?) and been a proud supporter (like my sister, who has already ordered 30 copies of The Badger Knight for friends, whether they want it or not).

My mother was an excellent writer herself and I think dreamed of writing the Great American Novel but ran out of time.  Growing up, homework was our responsibility but she couldn’t help looking at papers we wrote with a critical eye.  Like a reporter, she wanted to see the facts supporting the argument but like the novelist and woman with heart that she was, she also wanted to know the “why” of everything.  I can still see her … “Yes, but why?”  “This is lovely but why is it important?”  Or simply, “Mmm-hmm”– the paper handed back — “and why?”  In fact, we heard “and why?” so often that my sister and I would tease her with, “AND why!” in all sorts of situations.  But she was right.  And it made me a better writer — both the facts and the heart.


She encouraged us to find what inspired us and do it the best we could.  Go after whatever you want, she said, work hard, study hard, do whatever it is to achieve your dream and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.  You can.  She got her pilot’s license at age 15, even before her driver’s license.  But — and this part was important because I can still see the seriousness in her face — pursuing your dream is never at the expense of others.  In fact, you should be helping others at all times. In her words, the world is our community and we are put on this earth to help each other; otherwise, really, what is the purpose?   It’s the African concept of ubuntu.  Maybe she learned it while we were living in South Africa but I suspect she was just born that way.  Of course she gave much money and even more time to charitable causes, but what I remember most is her sitting with an elderly or disabled person and just talking, smiling, laughing until they did, too, or stepping into a situation to diffuse the tension, or standing up for someone or something even when it wasn’t popular.  Everyone deserved equal treatment and kindness.

Here’s Nelson Mandela explaining ubuntu:

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When she finally had a chance to retire, she battled cancer and ran out of time, on this earth, at least.  It made me realize that writing, which I’d planned to do when I retired, couldn’t wait.  I had to start.  And I had to do it well as a tribute to her and to my community.  So I try always to get the facts right, check my sources, do the research.  And then I think about the why, which takes a lot longer because it’s at the heart of every story.  Why did something happen?  Why did someone act that way?  Why are we here?

And that’s why I write.  To bring meaning to my life and to try help young people make sense of this world.  Sure, people can laugh that I gave up a job as a lawyer to write for kids (“Can’t she even write for adults?”) but for me it’s the right choice.  It’s not hard when you boil it down to the essence, to the why.  It’s to try to bring something good into the world.

Thanks, Mom.  Thanks for teaching and embodying ubuntu.  Thanks for making me think of the why.

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Close, Erika Raskin


Close.  What a great book title!  Fellow local author Erika Raskin’s novel (for adults) comes out in a couple of months and here’s the very engaging opening to pique your interest:

Sometime the dread was just a light tapping on the edge of awareness. Other times it was a howl in that dark space between anxiety and terror.

I love it! Here’s the synopsis:

Single-mom Kik Marcheson is doing the best she can. But effort doesn’t seem to count for much in the parenting department.

Her oldest daughter, Doone, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence. Casey, the middle-child slash good-girl is fraying along the edges and Tess, a quirky kindergartner, has installed an imaginary playmate in the family abode.

When Doone falls in with the wrong crowd, a TV therapist offers to help. And things do start to look up. But only for a while.

Erika obviously has a way with words and has earned quite a few accolades since she followed in the family business, as she puts it (love that, too), and became a writer.  To get to know Erika a little better (and she is a very fun person) I hope you’ll enjoy this light interview:

Tea or coffee?  Coffee.

Flavor?  Instant.

Milk or sugar?  Definitely doctored.

Favorite season?  I love the colors and sweater weather of autumn (before the leaves drop) — as well as all the impending celebrations. I also love spring when the gardens put on their party ensembles.

Can you deal better with wind or rain?  Wind. Unless I’m wearing a skirt. Then I get a little frantic.

Deciduous or evergreen?  Evergreen. Barren trees bum me out.

What’s always in your fridge?  Carrots.

Favorite comfort food?  Watermelon.

Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?  In a perfect world I’d eat a watermelon and Dorito diet.

Food you’d rather starve than eat.  I’m a vegetarian…

Cat or dog?  Dog.

Flats or heels?  Heels I plan on retiring them, though, as soon as I get just a little taller.

Natural fibers or synthetics?  I like cotton – but seem to have a lot of the other stuff.

Jeans or fancier?  Jeans. And make-up.

Short hair or long?  In between.

Ideal evening.  Hanging out with my husband after a productive workday, bingewatching TV.

Ideal vacation.  Big beach house with everyone I love inside.

Favorite board, card, or computer game?  Scrabble.

Favorite sport or form of exercise?  Ballet barre.

Language in which you’d most like to be fluent.  Spanish. Still.

Country you’d most like to visit.  Ireland.

Skill you’d most like to acquire.  Being able to sing without scaring small children.

Favorite musical instrument.  Guitar.

You’re going on a book tour: Plane, train or automobile?  Depends on the distance. (Are we there yet?)

Topic you’d most like to write about.  I love writing and exploring different families.

Topic you think most needs writing about.  Social justice issues.

Author you’d like to meet.  Anne Lamott.

Question you’d ask that author.  How did she get so fearless.

What / who gives you spiritual guidance and inspiration?  Different writings, different authors. Sometimes no more than a line can change my path.

What most surprises you about our current culture?  The general acceptance of a loss of privacy. Totally creeps me out.

Some favorite books?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Mockingbird, Angela’s Ashes, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Traveling Mercies

Some favorite movies?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Terms of Endearment, Good Will Hunting, Little Women.

To learn more about Erika and her writing, please visit her website or her author page on Facebook.  Happy reading!



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Walter Dean Myers






“As a writer, I absorb stories, allow them to churn within my own head and heart — often for years — until I find a way of telling them that fits both my time and temperament.” — Walter Dean Myers

I am still reeling over the loss of this caring, smart, funny, determined and very accomplished man — the kind of man who responds to a boy who wants to write a book with him, and does just that (Kick), the kind of man of goes into prisons to talk with young people there, not just talk about the glaring lopsidedness of poor and minority kids in prison, the kind of man who is gracious and thoughtful, hoping to catch a cup of coffee sometime or discuss writing with me over email (while I took breaks between emails to hop-skip around the house, shouting, “Walter Dean Myers emailed me!  Walter Dean Myers emailed me!” and then sat back down again to try act like a grownup), the kind of man who never acted impressed with himself, although he had every reason to.  He’s such a famous author, there’s even fiction that includes him as key character (Love that Dog by Sharon Creech).

He didn’t just contribute to the body of literature — and a critical contribution since his work tended to focus on (often ignored) minorities and their families and neighborhoods — but to the body and soul of who we are.  As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature his motto was “Reading is not optional.”  It’s not optional because reading is power.  Reading puts us on a higher level.  Reading anything — the directions on a household cleaner, a prescription bottle, a job application — can have serious implications for one’s individual future.  And, as a society, who will we become if we don’t forge those neural pathways that lead to reading, which includes distinguishing shapes, translating shapes into sounds, and shapes and sounds into meaning and understanding?  There is no video game or even audio book that will substitute for that brain training.  Don’t let a kid tell you that reading isn’t important, isn’t worth it, isn’t necessary, or is too much effort.  Tell him that if a kid from the Bronx with a speech impediment who carried books in a paper bag so no one would see he wasn’t “cool,” can read, he  can, too.  He or she might even become a writer, and write over a hundred books in a variety of genres, and maybe become the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.  But most importantly, they will learn to think and feel, to empathize, to experience the wider world, leading to understanding of others and themselves.  Reading will bring them a sense of humanity and humility, something we should all strive for so the world can have more Walters.

Authors, editors, book sellers, and book buyers will, I hope, strive to continue his calling.  He wrote, most recently in a New York Times editorial this year, about the need for minority kids to see themselves in literature, recalling what James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” did for him.  He said, “I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue.”

Thank you, Walter, for all you’ve done for us.  You have long strides for us to emulate and try follow.  But we will.  Because it’s not optional.  And, as you said, “There is work to be done.”





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The Secret of Writing, Revealed

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People often ask me how to write for children, how to get published, how to be successful.  For me, there was one magic elixer that turned my writing life around.  It taught me to really know my audience as well as the industry.  It took my writing and raised it to a higher (publishable) level.  And it’s always there to keep recharging me whenever I need it.  No, it’s not coffee or chocolate or even a loving husband.  It’s something available to all:  the Highlights Foundation.  Sure, they provide that magazine you might’ve had as a kid but it’s much more than that.  It’s a foundation that nurtures writers for children, in any aspect of writing not just magazines (and if there’s some niche you can’t find covered, let them know and they’ll likely add it).  What makes Highlights the magic elixir?  Hmm, well here are some facts:

–experienced and generous faculty

–craft lectures and exercises

–one on one mentoring

–the synergy of other writers

–a nurturing environment (gourmet meals, your own cabin, a serene woodland with stream, yoga, drinks and snacks 24/7)

–most importantly, you’re TREATED as a writer and you’re EXPECTED to be a writer

That last point cannot be underestimated.  How often do we doubt ourselves as writers?  How often do we put our writing at the bottom of the list, below work and family and laundry, etc.?  At Highlights, you are treated seriously and as an equal — so much so that you start believing what you should’ve believed all along:  I’m a writer.  I may have much work to do yet but what I have to say is important.  And I will be published.

Those are the facts.  There are the intangibles, too — the kindness in the air, the support that surrounds you, the incredible creative energy (at the event I just returned from, Patti Gauch called it “lei lines,” or lines of magic that cross right there at Boyds Mills, site of the Highlights Foundation workshops).  I honestly don’t know what it is exactly but I can tell you this.  In the fall of 2003 I attended a Highlights workshop and the following summer I went to Chautauqua, a Highlights conference that’s now held at the same place as the workshops in Boyds Mills, PA.  As a direct result of those two experiences, I published my first novel, Quaking in 2007 and Mockingbird in 2010, and several more since.  They have all done pretty well.  I’m proud of them and proud of my writing.  But mostly I’m grateful to that magic elixir that enabled me to fulfill this dream, and keeps filling me up whenever I need it.

It’s out there waiting for you.  It really is available to everyone (there are scholarships or you can do what a writer at the last workshop did — start a GoFundMe page).  Set your goal.  Write.  Write well.  And then publish.

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Blog Hop — Happy Spring!

Fresh green growth, flowering trees, and even the rain is putting spring in my yard and a spring in my step.  Time to break free of the winter blahs and get reenergized for writing!  Thanks to the very talented Tracey Baptiste for inviting me to be part of this blog hop.  Tracey is an editor and author AND freelance “fairy Godauthor” (I love that) which means she can help you with your writing!  She writes from a great perspective — having grown up in Trinidad before moving with her family to New York city as a teen.  Here’s a fantastic post she just did to keep the #WeNeedDiverseBooks fire going!  Please enjoy reading about Tracey (and please enjoy reading her books, too!).

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Tracey Baptiste is an author and editor of children’s books. Born on the island of Trinidad, Tracey became interested in fairy tales and told her mother at the age of 3 that she would grow up to be a writer someday. She wrote her first novel at the age of 13, moved to New York with her family at age 15, and graduated with her Master’s Degree in Education at age 22. After teaching 2nd grade for several years, Tracey left to work for McGraw-Hill, developing Reading and Language Arts programs. Tracey wrote her first novel, Angel’s Grace, on the commute to work. After leaving McGraw-Hill to freelance, she wrote 7 middle grade non-fiction books including a biography of her fantasy hero, Madeleine L’Engle.

Tracey has recently returned to full-time work (though she happily works from home) as an editor for Rosen Publishing, where she edits non-fiction books for kids. Her second novel, a creepy middle grade called The Jumbies will be out from Algonquin in 2015.

Tracey is represented by Marie Lamba of Jennifer De Chiara Literary and is currently at work on a chapter book for younger kids, and a middle grade novel. She can be found at www.traceybaptiste.com where she blogs a weekly-ish roundup of publishing news. She also helps other writers with their fiction and non-fiction manuscripts via Fairy Godauthor (www.fairygodauthor.com). You can find Tracey in person at the NJSCBWI conference in June. She will be giving two presentations: non-fiction writing, and the author/agent relationship. She will also be critiquing non-fiction proposals.

At the end of this post are several more authors I’ll introduce you to, but first let me answer the Blog Hop questions:

1.  What am I working on?

It depends what day it is.  Seriously, I have so many different projects that I work on whichever one I’m most passionate about that day.  Mostly, I’m a novelist, but I’m working on several picture books and also a novel for adults.  I do try to focus most of my attention on one or two projects so right now it’s a picture book biography and a new novel that, amazingly, might even have a fantasy element which I don’t usually write.  I really need to work on my teen road trip novel, though.  And, OK, there’s also this middle grade historical novel that’s on the top of my list … see what I mean?

2.  How does my work differ from others of this genre?

I think every author has his or her own style.  Mine is to deal with tough issues but include the all important element of humor.  I also think authors have different strengths.  I believe mine is in the characters.  They feel real to me (and, actually, they appear in my head that way so I hardly feel like I can take credit for creating them myself).  I love it when people say the characters in my books stick with him and they don’t want the story to end because they’ll feel like they’ve lost a friend.  I think that’s a lovely compliment.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I love reading contemporary or historical novels so that’s what I tend to write.  I feel for kids, particularly in their transition to adulthood, which is why I tend to write middle grade and young adult novels.  My books deal with difficult topics because I’m trying to make sense of them myself and hoping that these stories will help kids think through these topics and make some sense of them, too.  My themes are tolerance, understanding, social justice, and peace.  Those themes are important to me in life so they come out naturally in my writing.  Finally, I always end on a note of hope.  That is critical.  I couldn’t write without hope.

4.  How does my writing process work?

It’s messy.  It’s unconventional.  It’s haphazard.  And that’s the way I like it.  I have never enjoyed routine — variety is the spice of life, right?  I love working on whatever project interests me so whatever mood I wake up in determines my work for the day.  Often I’ll sit and write very early in the morning when I’m fresh and the house is quiet and before the day gets away from me.  Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a power nap and I can repeat the creative surge in the afternoon.  I write (in my head or on my voice app) when I’m driving or taking walks.  And really, writers are always working on stories because we’re observing and tucking little incidents away for future modification and use.  I write whatever comes into my head and the only downside is having to take that jumble and shape it into an organized story.  That is the hardest part for me.  But even in that process I learn something and make revisions and realize why it is I’m writing this story.  Research, to me, is part of the writing process because I couldn’t write without really knowing the ins and outs so I do spend a fair amount of time reading, exploring, traveling, etc. in order to get the information I need to write an authentic story.  It’s probably not the most efficient process but we all have to follow our own style.

And now for three talented writers whom I respect and whose writing I very much enjoy.  Please check them out!

Jennifer Elvgren can make even tough topics understandable to the very young, and memorable for all of us.


A former print journalist, Jennifer’s children’s fiction has appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, and Spider magazines. She is the author of Josias, Hold the Book, a Bank Street College Best Books selection and a recipient of the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Her new picture book The Whispering Town was recently reviewed in The New York Times and received a Starred Review from Booklist. She lives in Albemarle County, Virginia, with her husband, three children, Caspian the Border collie, Copperfield the Foxhound and Goodnight Moon the Quarter Horse. Please visit her at www.JenniferElvgren.com


Dionna Mann is such a beautifully lyrical writer that reading her words is like drinking in deliciousness.

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Dionna is a spinner of children’s yarns, a weaver of nonfiction articles, a forever-learner enrolled in the Institute of Imaginative Thinking and a keeper of an MFA–a Mighty Fine Attitude, that is. Her work has appeared in WEE ONES, KidMag Writer, the SCBWI Bulletin, the ICL’s newsletter, and in regional newspapers. She has sold a non-fiction feature to Highlights for Children and has had a poem accepted by Ladybug. For eight years now, Dionna has been writing articles on editorial assignment for Charlottesville Family, a Parent’s Choice winning magazine. In 2012, her debut middle-grade, FREEDOM PEN, was published by Pugalicious Press. She may be found at www.dionnalmann.com





Shelley Sackier has a wit you can’t even imagine (actually, you can once you read her bio!) — it draws you in and keeps you laughing.


Shelley Sackier is a bone-tired woman who faces a daily insurmountable amount of laundering and cleaning of crockery. These tasks are generated mostly by her faithful hound who is an unusual mixed breed of part highland cow and part wooly mammoth. She owns two children who also tax her with the insatiable need for full bellies and clean underwear. And she accomplishes these undertakings with nothing more than the assistance of her teeth.

With her hands, she is free to idle away her hours writing middle grade and young adult contemporary and historical fiction. June 2015 is the date her publishers have set as the unleashing of her book Dear Opl, a humorous look at grief, obesity, and diabetes; a tagline her editors refuse to acknowledge as marketable.

To learn more about Shelley, visit Peakperspective.com where she blogs weekly about living on a small farm atop a mountain in the Blue Ridge and how it’s easiest to handle most of it with home grown food, a breathless adoration for tractors, and a large dose of single malt scotch.


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