Archive for September, 2009

Virtual Author Visits

September 30, 2009

My publisher recently decided to put together a program for virtual author visits.  I decided to sign up and do a short promotional video.  If you’d like a glimpse of my office, click on over.


Behind the Scenes of SAVING THE GRIFFIN: Flying Lessons

September 29, 2009

   “At least we can take care of him for a while,” Michael went on.  “We’ll teach him how to fly and hunt for food.”
   Kate snorted. “How are we supposed to teach him something we don’t know how to do ourselves?”

I know that either those lines or a variation of them were in the first draft of SAVING THE GRIFFIN because one of my critique partners wanted a complete scene featuring them.  It sounded like a really good idea, but I couldn’t quite fiugre out how and where to stitch it into the novel.  The group had agreed that the manuscript was in pretty good shape at that point, so I decided not to fool around with a project that was working. 

Several years later, I received what was essentially a “revise and resubmit” phone call from my editor at Peachtree.  She liked what was going on with the novel and the family relationships, but she wanted to see more Italian characters.  For her, that had been one of the strong points of DEFENDING IRENE. (My first first novel with Peachtree featured a girl playing on a boys’ soccer team in Merano, Italy. )

So I decided that Kate and Michael ought to have a near miss with someone who was staying on the De Checchi estate.   My friend’s suggestion that I incorporate flying lessons immediately came to mind. 

I modeled Anna Renauto on a little girl named Anna, the rather shy daughter of some friends of ours. She was most comfortable interacting with people while in her parents’ arms.  Anna’s mother helped me with the proper Italian dialogue for that scene with Fabio and Anna. 

I’m pretty sure that Fabio Renauto started out with another name.  But partway through the scene, I was looking for an Italian turn of phrase that this character could use to express the utter strangeness of seeing a creature with wings and a tail.  The perfect comparison lit up my brain like a halogen light. He would compare it to “the island that isn’t there.”  L’isola che non c’e is the way Italians refer to Never Never Land.  

I learned about this translation after getting together for sing-alongs with Fabio, one of my husband’s co-workers.  We sang plenty of American pop songs by everyone from John Denver to the BeeGees.  But my favorite song of the evening was always  L’isola che non c’e by a guy who writes and sings like an Italian Bob Dylan. From that moment on, I knew that this character had to be named Fabio.  Even as I made this decision, I knew that I’d just have to ask permission. I think he liked the idea.  I told Fabio, “Non e’ proprio tu.”  (He’s not really you.) 

The De Checchi olive groves came from hours of wandering through Tuscany, the Cinque Terre and the Amalfi coast.  We always walked past the trees instead of climbing them.  But goodness, they were tempting.  I loved the way those silvery-green leaves  fluttered in the slightest breeze.  Since Kate and Michael were guests on the estate, I let them take the liberty of climbing trees.  

After all, my kids climbed every tree in our Italian garden.  Every tree.  And some of these giants were over a hundred years old.  Naturally, they didn’t tell me until we were back in the U.S.  “We’re glad you didn’t look out the kitchen window for that one tree,” my oldest said.  Just to put that in context, we lived on the third floor of a building that had very high ceilings.  In fact, I’d put it on the level of a standard American fourth floor.  My parental side was horrified; my eleven-year-old self, incredibly jealous.

Behind the Scenes: Building the De Checchi Estate

September 22, 2009

When I started writing SAVING THE GRIFFIN, I knew that I wanted to put Kate, Michael and Grifonino on an estate in Tuscany.   Olive groves and vineyards are quite exotic in and of themselves, but I wanted to build up the otherwordly flavor just a bit more.  I knew that various Italian villas had some interesting statuary dating back to the 16th century when Prince Vicino Orsini designed his interesting garden at Bomarzo.   I decided that my De Checchi family would have followed that fashion though on a much smaller scale.  So I decided to have Kate and Michael use the statue of a dragon for their backstop. 

Yoshiko Jaeggi's dragon was inspired by phots from Italian Gardens

Yoshiko Jaeggi's dragon was inspired by photos from Italian Gardens

Many owners of old estates now pursue what is known as Agroturismo, agricultural tourism.  They grow grapes and olives and rent out their old guest houses to visitors. 

While I was looking for a place to stay during my family’s visit to Tuscany, I ran across this lovely house that reminded me of the castles that my kids used to make out of tin cans and cereal boxes.

Kate and Michael's family stayed in a house very much like this one.

Kate and Michael's family stayed in a house very much like this one.

(Note: I’ve seen a lot of traffic on the site for people searching on Italian villas.  If you’d like to see more about the house shown above, go to the Le Terrae website and take a look around.)  

And what about the monster house where Grifonino was staying?  It was inspired by another piece of statuary found on the Orsini estate.  There were a number of imitations found around Italy.  Who wouldn’t want this kind of playhouse set away in the woods?

An inspiration for Grifo's hideout

An inspiration for Grifo's hideout

Behind the Scenes of SAVING THE GRIFFIN

September 18, 2009

I’ve always enjoyed those behind the scenes extras on DVD’s.  I can’t tell you how many hours I spent watching material on the making of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  So I decided that I could share a bit more about some of the things that went into the writing of SAVING THE GRIFFIN, especially for the kids who might be reading it as part of the Kentucky Bluegrass Award or Georgia Book Award.   

Earlier on this blog, I shared how I found a stone griffin in Siena and how he served as the inspiration for this story.  I also wrote about going back to one of my old notebooks and finding the rough draft of the conversation that started the first chapter. Right now, I’d like to share a bit of the  background that enabled me to write this book.

My family moved to Merano, Italy back in 1998.  My kids were five, seven and nine at the time.  But my husband wasn’t on a short-term assignment like Kate and Michael’s dad.  We had essentially committed ourselves to at least three years.  

In big cities like Milan and Rome, there are American schools and large English-speaking communities.  In Merano, we were the only Americans.  When I arrived, my husband and I had taken at least 200 hours of Italian. I knew 100 verbs and could use them  about four tenses, but I was most comfortable in the present tense and the most popular past tense.   If people spoke slowly and simply, I could understand what they said.   But Italians tend to accelerate until only a few familiar words pop out like is, was, he, she, go, it. 

By the end of our time in Italy, I was “conversant” in the language.   There were still some special tenses that gave me trouble.  There were still so many words that I didn’t know.  But I’d reached the point where I could hang out and speak Italian all day long without getting a headache.  To a non-Italian speaker, I might have even sounded like I had a halfway decent accent.  My kids, though, sounded like little Italians.  Che bella! (How beautiful!) 

During out time there, I also became very familiar with the way Italians speak English on a variety of levels from tourist English to complete fluency.  I knew which words would give them trouble.  I knew where they’d pop into Italian in hopes that I’d be able to identify the Latin word.  Fabio’s use of coccodrillo was a good example of that.  After all, crocodiles don’t come up in every day business English.  And I remember my husband looking at one of our daughter’s tests on zoo animals.  He shook his head and said, “I think I would have failed.”  So I was able to put a lot of my language knowledge to good use in the book.   I’ll go into some of the inspirations for various characters in later posts. 

But if you’d like to know how I felt about living in Italy, you don’t have to go any farther than my characterization of Kate and Michael’s mom.  Some of my qualities were useful for the book. I am a chronic tourist, but I have “flare-ups” on clear days.  On summer days when there was nothing on the schedule and I could see a certain mountaintop in the distance that was hidden by haze 340 days out of the year, we would take off for a hike in the mountains or a trip to a castle.

A Book for Boys?

September 8, 2009

Well, first I guess that I’ll have to admit to a narcissistic Google habit.   But it is fun to see where my books have turned up.  There is one site that always makes me smile when it turns up in the search.  SAVING THE GRIFFIN is on a list of books for boys. 

Now I know that boys have liked this story. In fact, the young friend of one of my writer friends told her that it was his favorite book.  (I expect that it will be displaced in his heart if it hasn’t been already, but for it to have been anyone’s favorite book for any length of time is something that I treasure.)  The librarian who placed SAVING THE GRIFFIN on the list had probably forgotten that the book’s narrator is a girl. 

But if you look beyond that fact, I can see how it might have happened.  During the novel’s final revision,  I remember discussing the book with my editor in terms of it being Kate’s story.  She said firmly, “It’s Michael’s story, too.” 

I think she was right. 

Yoshiko Jaeggi's fabulous cover

Yoshiko Jaeggi's fabulous cover

A boy similar to Michael

A boy similar to Michael

Chapter One: More or Less Done

September 4, 2009

I used to buy into the assertion that picture book writers have to be much more selective in their word choices than novelists.  In fact, I still believe that in general.  But if  I went back to see how much time I spent working on the the new chapter one,  I’m sure the number would horrify me.  But it was still worth it because things are working!  

What has to happen in a first chapter?  In some ways, it’s all about making readers want to turn pages.  One editor put it in these terms.:

“I’ll read the first sentence.  If I like it, I’ll keep reading.  If I like the first paragraph, I’ll go onto the second.   But then, here’s the real test: you have to make me turn the page.  If you can do that, I’ll usually read at least until the end of the first chapter. ”

Ouch. That sounds awfully harsh. But are we any different as readers?  If we pull a book off the shelf without any kind of personal recommendation, we usually begin with the title and the cover art.  From there, we move onto the flap copy to see if the story has an interesting premise?  Often the title, cover art and flap copy are products of the marketing department even if they’re inspired by the writer. So we’ll turn to the first line.  If we don’t want to turn the page, we’ll probably set the book back on the shelf.

That’s essentially what I did with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  Because my eighth grade English teacher recommended the book, I think that I finished the two chapters before putting it back. I really didn’t want to spend any more time with Mrs. Bennett.  She was a very silly woman. Miss Elizabeth Bennett didn’t begin to demonstrate her charms until the beginning of Chapter 4.   

But first chapters are hard for other reasons.  It’s necessary to establish the world of the book whether it’s high fantasy or high school.  And all of this information has to come across through the thoughts of the main character.  Or at least that’s how I have to do it.  Some writers can open with several pages of the main character telling the reader things.  

Usually, it’s best not to obssess too much about first chapters in first drafts.  Get something on paper and move on.  No matter how well you think you know your main character, you’re going to learn some things along the way if you leave yourself open for inspiration.  One writer–it might have been Richard Peck–said that the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.  Since this is a revision, I have a pretty good idea of where this book is going.  

Pardon the celebratory babble.  I’m excited!