Archive for March, 2009

Dirt Piles and Pyramids

March 27, 2009

I was mowing my lawn one day when I found myself thinking about how I might be able to deduct a visit to see my sister on my taxes.  At the moment, I was thinking more in terms of trying to get a paid author visit to the school where she teaches, the Cairo American College.   But then an idea hit me.    I could send my characters from SAVING THE GRIFFIN to Egypt.  And they could meet some kind of creature.  A sphinx?  No.  Too obvious.  Besides, a sphinx was just a bit too close to a griffin.  A scarab?  Maybe.  At least it wouldn’t be cute and cuddly like Grifonino.  I didn’t want to write the same book.  By the time I finished mowing our back hill, I knew that a scarab would be chasing Kate and Michael through the piles of sand at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza. 

I completed the first draft of THE MARK OF THE SCARAB (working title)  a few days before leaving for Egypt.  I wanted to have the whole project mapped out so that I’d know where I needed to go and what I needed to find out in order to complete the project.    This required lots of research.  I bought guide books.  I read the blogs of tourists and ex-pats.  I watched YouTube videos and studied pictures on Flicker.    I interviewed my sister about her life in Maadi. 

When we reached the Giza, I was prepared for the massive size of the pyramids.  But I still gasped with delight at the sight of King Khafre’s pyramid framed by the buildings of Nazlet as-Samaan.  My husband and I had arrived early with a driver and entered near the Pizza Hut.   We shared the Sphinx with a French student and a few tourist guards with machine guns.   

From there, we climbed up the plateau to the great pyramid of King Khufu.  We went to the western side where I planned for my characters to meet the scarab after improperly walking along the bottom row of blocks.  One look told me my first chapter would need a rewrite.  The Western Side of King Khufu's Pyramid

My characters wouldn’t have ventured past the yellow rope.  Even worse, the whole area looked very well swept.  I had seen any number of pictures with the dirt piles, but those pictures might have been old and didn’t reflect the current reality of things.   I did notice a few piles of dirt and had my husband take pictures just in case. 

After visiting a few tombs in the Western Cemetery, we walked over to the western side of King Khafre’s pyramid.  Can you say paydirt?  I’m pretty sure I did.  The tumbled hunks of pink granite and piles of dirt were a perfect place for my scarab to be skulking around. 

The Western Side of King Khafre's Pyramid

My husband and I were the only two tourists back there.  I knew my characters would scramble up onto the bottom row of blocks for just a few moments while their mother, a chronic tourist with a weakness for clear days and ancient monuments, took a few photos of King Menkaure’s pyramid.  And yes, that is the smallest of the three major pyramids at Giza in the picture below.  If you look hard, you’ll see a dark spot close to halfway between the bases of these two pyramids.  It’s a couple of horses.

King Menkaure's Pyramid as seen from the back of King Khafre's Pyramid

When I returned home, I had my own photos for reference.  While I can reel off dialogue by the page, I always struggle with description.  With the pictures in front of me, I could build the scene on the page with the hopes that it would leap up into the mind of a future reader.   I often work from photos when setting a scene in an unfamiliar place.  If you’re a writer who struggles with description, you should try this, too.

My Griffin

March 24, 2009
How much is that griffin in the window
How much is that griffin in the window

 It had been a long day in Siena. My family and I were walking along the Via Terme back to the Blue SITA buses when I saw him in the store window: a griffin clutching a ball. I stopped and stared. A larger version of this creature could have sat on the roof of Siena’s cathedral and not looked out of place. My family came back to see what had caught my attention. I murmured that it must be too expensive to even consider buying.

My husband, who always ridiculed “dustcatchers” of any sort, said six words that will live in my memory forever: “You never know until you ask.” He and I went inside. The griffin was expensive, but not horribly so. The owner of the shop explained how her husband had carved the piece for his own amusement out of a small, spare block of travertine marble. I now wanted the griffin more than ever. Travertine stone decorates the top of the Torre del Mangia, Rome’s Colosseum and dozens of other monuments around Italy. Five minutes later, I was the proud owner of an original work of art by Ruffini Dario.  Or is it Dario Ruffini?  I’m not entirely sure.  If anyone goes to Siena and wanders into his shop, let me know.  Okay? 

My carefully swaddled griffin rode on my lap all the way home to Merano. We gave him a home in our study, right by my desk. He provided a wonderful remembrance of our trip to Tuscany, but he also tickled my imagination. He was thinner than any young griffin ought to be, and he had such worried eyes. I wondered how I’d feel coming nose to beak with him under a laurel hedge like the one in our garden.

From there, I moved on to what might happen if a young, hungry griffin interrupted the batting practice of two young Americans. And it was only natural that Blue SITA buses, the Torre del Mangia, and Siena’s Gothic cathedral should appear at some point in the story.

I like writing first drafts by hand.  For some reason, I was paging through one of my old notebooks and found the first draft of SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  I skimmed through three pages of my atrocious handwriting. (My poor students at the Institute of Children’s Literature know what I mean.)   On the fourth page, I found the opening scene of my novel. Hardly any of the dialogue had changed!

A Book Binge

March 23, 2009

Claire Dunkel, the author of THE HOLLOW KINGDOM, once wrote that she never reads other people’s novels when she’s in the middle of writing one of her own books. This was years ago, and she very well may have changed her approach.  But I thought there was something to that.  I still do read, but I’m more likely to spend time rereading my favorite books–books that I can put much more easily.  But since the SCARAB is safely out the door and I’m caught up with work, I went on a reading binge this weekend.

TROUBLE by Gary D. Schmidt.  Engrossing and depressing with elements of forgiveness and redemption. My daughter asked me if she’d done anything wrong. 

Two KIKI STRIKE books.  Fun adventures with a great sense of place.  Kiki Strike’s New York is as much a character as Sherlock Holmes’ London

HERE LIES THE LIBRARIAN by Richard Peck.  I’ve been a fan of his books since GHOSTS I HAVE BEEN.  He brought some really great characters to life again.  They do, of course, remind me of some of his other characters, but mostly because of either their caring and generosity or their bravery and impetuosity.

Edit Using More Than Your Eyes

March 21, 2009

Last week, I put the finishing touches on a middle grade novel and sent it off to my agent.   It had undergone one major revision and any number of minor ones.  Once I fixed various problems with setting, logic, characterization, and plotting, it was time for the line edit.  I don’t want my agent or any other earlier reader to be distracted by spelling and punctuation errors.  Unless I’m pressed for time to get something to one of my critique groups with a set submission date, I read every word out loud.  The ears, lips and tongue can keep the eyes from skimming over the all too familiar words.  I do this for ALL of my fiction and nonfiction.

Researching Craft

March 16, 2009

Why on earth would I place lessons learned on the writing craft under the researching category instead of the section on writing?  For me, studying the writing process really is separate from actually sitting down and doing it.  Naturally, there will be some crossover.  Character, plotting, and voice are also inextricably linked, but editors will try to tease apart the threads when discussing them.  Batting coaches will break down different parts of the swing.  And I have to make some choices on sorting things.

Toads and Diamonds

March 16, 2009

Last weekend, I attended a SCBWI Missouri retreat with editor Cheryl Klein. I might come to think of it as the “Toads and Diamonds” retreat. Word gems dropped from Cheryl’s mouth almost every time she opened it during her critiques and presentations.  

My notebook is filled with her observations on characterizations, plotting and voice.  Many writers and editors become inarticulate when they try to pinpoint what makes a great voice although they know it when they see it.   Cheryl was able to break down how voice needs to be consistent, suitable to the scenes, and believable.  She also discussed the various enemies of voice.   

I’m going to be revising some old projects in the next few weeks or months as I spend some time researching the setting for a new novel.  I’ll be keeping her presentations in mind as I work on refining the aesthetic and emotional points of my projects.

Leaping Over Picture Books

March 9, 2009

When I was a kid, my school and public libraries always had a limit of how many books any single person could check out.  Since it only took me a few minutes to read a picture book, I made the jump to chapter books a few months into first grade.

I think that my early reading habits made their mark on my writing habits.  While I’ve tried my hand at a few picture books–often so that I could attend the SCBWI Missouri retreats with a focus on picture books–I’ve completed more manuscripts for novels than picture books.   And actually, my agent has assured me that those projects for younger readers are short stories. 

Don’t get me wrong. I adore picture books. But I immerse myself in novels.

This is my letter to the world

March 5, 2009

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–

Emily Dickinson

As I start this blog, I do feel like I’m flinging words out into space.   But I wrote for years before I had anything published.  It might not take that long for someone to stumble over these thoughts on reading and writing, researching and revising.   This blog’s title may seem like a slightly odd clumping of elements, but every story that I’ve written has come to life because of them.  Why?

READING: No one can be a successful writer without reading extensively.  Of course, even if I hadn’t started writing, I would still be a reader.  In fact, one of my greatest achievements as a parent has been to raise three readers.

WRITING: Some people tell me that they’d like to be a writer once they get that cabin in the woods or on the beach.  But the key is to incorporate writing time into your life. 

RESEARCH: Here’s some of my favorite advice: Don’t just write what you know. Write what you care about. Pursue the subjects that fascinate you, and your passion will shine through to the reader.  This pursuit of knowledge doesn’t just take place in libraries and at my computer desk.  I have pursued interesting subjects  in, on and beside the following places: soccer fields, the Mastaba of Ptahshepses, Siena’s Campo, Merano’s portici, Missouri wineries, olive groves, my driveway.   

REVISING: I love the surge of energy and inspiration that comes with writing getting a first draft down on paper.   But I know that a scene won’t jump off the page and into a reader’s head without substantial revision.