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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Rio Grande Stories

Original jacket: RIO GRANDE STORIES

The idea for RIO GRANDE STORIES was conceived in a fit of homesickness. We'd moved from Albuquerque to Denton, Texas, in 1990, and I was missing my old home--the friends, the family, the chile (both red and green), the mountains, the clear blue sky, the beautiful weather, the culture.

One evening, lying on the couch with a magazine that wasn't holding my attention, the idea for a book popped into my head out of nowhere: how about writing a series of linked stories about kids in a middle school in New Mexico who decide to write a series of stories about New Mexico--about La Llorona, and the walk to Chimayo on Good Friday, and Las Posadas on Christmas Eve. They'll write about bizcochitos and Indian pots and jewelry. There will be a dozen stories, and they'll put them into a book and sell copies to raise funds for their school. They'll call their book RIO GRANDE STORIES.

I was on fire with ideas for that book! But actually getting the book written was another thing entirely. My editor ("Archeditor Liz") wouldn't let me get away with any weak characters or second rate plots. I wrote and wrote and rewrote.

I thought it might have just local interest, and it has had that. But to my amazement, there are classes in middle schools from California to Virginia, for goodness sake, where kids are putting together their family stories, using RIO GRANDE STORIES as a model. I've gone to visit them, seen them for myself. It's a great feeling. Read More 

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Behind the Books: Jubilee Journey

JUBILEE JOURNEY, 1997; paperback, 2007
After WHITE LILACS was published, I went on to work on other books, but a couple of things got me to thinking about it again a few years later. One was an interracial marriage and the birth of a biracial child in my family. What would Erin's life be like? How would she identify? What challenges would she face?

About the same time, people who read and enjoyed WHITE LILACS had begun to ask, "Whatever happened to Rose Lee Jefferson?" And I began to wonder about that, too. To answer the question, I decided to write a companion book, not a sequel that continues Rose Lee's life as a young girl but to pick up the story seventy-five years later with a whole new generation. In 1996 Rose Lee, now 86, writes to her great-granddaughter and invites her to attend the Juneteenth Jubilee in Dillon, Texas. Emily Rose Chartier is thirteen, growing up in a biracial family in Connecticut when she receives the invitation, and she and her brother begin their own journey to visit the great-grandmother she's never met.

One of the great benefits of living in Denton, Texas, was the use of the library at the University of North Texas, where I had access to oral histories had been collected from residents of Quakertown--the real name of Freedomtown in my novels--that provided me with plenty of material from which to weave a new narrative. By the time JUBILEE JOURNEY was published, that biracial child who had inspired the book had been joined by a baby brother. The book is dedicated to them: Erin, who is in college now; she has her mother's beautiful dark skin, huge brown eyes, and seriously curly hair; and Joe, a senior in high school, blue-eyed and brown-haired like his dad. They have stories of their own to tell.

Jackets paintings for both books were done by well-known artist Jerry Pinkney. The books were reissued in paperback with new and very different covers in 2007. Read More 
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Behind the Books: White Lilacs

Moving is a pain, even if it's just a few blocks away, as my last move was. But moving to a new town in a different state takes the pain to a level of trauma. It can also bring a whole new perspective to a writer's life.

In 1990 we moved from Albuquerque to Denton, Texas, a college town north of Dallas. Once the old house was rejuvenated, my office established overlooking a pear tree, and the kitchen functional, I began to wonder where I was going to fit in a town where women wore dresses and had their hair done regularly. I was still fumbling to find my place when on a chilly February day I wandered to the park near our house where I often walked the dog and discovered a ceremony in progress: the dedication of a historical plaque, honoring an African-American community that had existed on the site of that park from soon after the Civil War until the 1920s. I stuck around to listen to the speeches about the black people who had lived there and the white people who had driven them away. Before the speeches were done, the character of Rose Lee Jefferson had taken up residence in my head.

But I had a lot to learn about Texas in the 1920s, as well as about black Freedomtown and white Dillon, as I renamed them. And not just Texas, but all of the South. And I took some big risks: Choosing to write in the voice of a 13-year-old African American girl was a stretch--would I be roundly criticized for it? In fact, the book was warmly received by the black community. I was even invited to speak at the Sunday morning service of a black church, an experience I'll never forget. Some of the white people, however, were less enthusiastic. They were still proud of the statue of the Confederate soldier on the town square. I was the outsider, the Yankee who had come to criticize them.

WHITE LILACS was published in 1993. It's still in print, and still in use in many school districts--and not just in Texas.  Read More 
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Behind the Books: The True Adventures of Charley Darwin

I knew it was a risk, for several reasons. I had taken a break from writing about royalty with books about a dancer who modeled for a well-known painter (MARIE, DANCING), the wife of the most famous playwright in the English language (LOVING WILL SHAKESPEARE), and the sister of one of the world best-known composers (IN MOZART'S SHADOW). So--why not a book about a male character and a scientist whose theories are still for some reason controversial? What about a novel about that scientist--not as an old man with a long, white beard, but as a boy interested in rocks and birds' eggs who discovers his passion and becomes a great natural scientist?

Why not write a book about CHARLEY DARWIN?

And what a character Charley turned out to be! He was bored silly with school but curious about the world. His father despaired that he would ever amount to anything and would be a lasting disgrace to his family. He fell hopelessly in love with a girl who had other things was not much interested in a man with no profession in mind. He embarked on a sea voyage that was supposed to last for two years and went on for five. He collected so much stuff that nobody knew what to do with it all.

I visited the Darwin home in Shrewsbury, England, the school that he disliked so much, and the home of the girl who wouldn't wait for him. I wish I could have followed his sea route around the world, but that was beyond me. I think I fell a little bit in love with Charley, and I certainly loved writing about him. Read More 
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Behind the Books: In Mozart's Shadow

In Mozart's Shadow
Imagine being a young girl, an enormously talented musician, with the bad luck of being the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! That was the fate of Nannerl, growing up in Salzburg in the shadow of a bratty kid brother, a snotty little genius who got all the attention. Add to that a domineering father bent on promoting his amazing son, and a mother willing to sacrifice everything.

Fortunately for this 21st century writer, when the Mozart family went on the road to showcase their musical children and to gain fame and fortune, they wrote lots and lots of letters, and I am forever grateful to the scholar who collected them and translated them from German to English, because those letters provided the basis for the story.

A trip to Austria and to everything Mozart--of which there is plenty--didn't hurt, either. And I do love wienerschnitzel.  Read More 
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Behind the Books: Loving Will Shakespeare

Loving Will Shakespeare
Interesting, how one thing leads to another. I so much enjoyed researching and writing about a young dancer in 19th century Paris that I wanted to write another story about a relatively unknown figure associated with a great one. Anne Hathaway, wife of Will Shakespeare, was a natural. I already knew something about the Tudor world, and who doesn't recognize the name of Shakespeare!

There has been much ado about Will for centuries, but the amazing thing is how little is actually known about Will's life. I chased down whatever I could find out about his parents, his siblings, the church the family attended, the kind of schooling Will likely had. I researched a glove-making, ale-brewing, sheep-shearing, and the effects of the plague that swept through the countryside and killed so many people. I investigated the dances people enjoyed, the songs they sang, the food they ate, the crops they grew, the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, the things they bought and sold at the weekly market.

I explored Anne Hathaway's cottage outside of Stratford-on-Avon, and stayed at a house across from Will's grandmother's farm in Wilmcote, a few miles away. The house existed in Will's time. I'm sure Will used to warm himself by that fireplace and gaze out of those windows. I dreamed the fictional dream and tried to bring it to life in the book. And I wish I could do it all over again. Read More 
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Behind the Books: Marie, Dancing

Marie, Dancing - 2005
File this one under "Where ideas come from." During a visit in 2002 to my oldest son and his family in Rochester, NY, we went to an exhibit of work by French artist Edgar Degas, famous for his paintings of ballet dancers. I was captivated by a small bronze sculpture dressed in a real muslin tutu and wearing actual ballet shoes, her hair tied with a real silk ribbon. The girl is not portrayed as an ethereal beauty--she's a bony kid. It was titled "Petite danseuse de quatorze ans"--Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. The label offered a bit more information: the model was a dancer named Marie van Goethem who sometimes posed for Degas in Paris in the 1880s. The sculpture was the only one Degas exhibited in his lifetime, and it was highly controversial at that time because of its frank realism.

Not much was known about Marie or her sisters, but I was struck by the sculpture and the scraps of information about her. Marie "danced" into my life at a time when I was feeling I had said enough about princesses and queens and longed to write about young women who didn't live in castles or wear tons of jewels or have to deal with royal male egos, mistresses, and temper tantrums.

Research for MARIE, DANCING was a joy. I sat in on ballet classes. I read the novels of Emile Zola and made great use of the Parisian setting of his lugubrious "Therese Raquin." And finally I went to Paris, to visit the Opera where Marie danced, to walk the street where Degas had his studio, to sit in the park across from the apartment building where Mary Cassatt lived. It doesn't get any better than that.  Read More 
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Behind the Books: Duchessina

A Novel of Catherine de' Medici
After writing the stories of Mary, Anne, Elizabeth, and Catherine, always with the maddening and magnificent Henry VIII as the driving force in each woman's life, I thought I was done with the Tudors. (I got some complaints about this; after all, there were four more of Henry's wives waiting for their stories to be told. But, to be honest, I was getting a little sick of old Henry.) However, I'd discovered that I really liked writing about those young women, before they became queens and their stories went off in other directions. I looked for a slightly different subject.

Then I thought of Catherine de' Medici. As usual, I knew next to nothing about her before I started the research--but I did know that she had a bad rap. Perhaps deservedly so, but I wanted to get to know her before she started dealing rather harshly with her enemies.

Duchessina (pronounced doo-kess-EE-na) means "Little Duchess" in Italian--Catherine's early nickname. She wasn't born a princess but the daughter of a very rich and well-connected family. Orphaned as an infant, she wound up living with her influential uncle in Rome who just happened to be pope--a very ambitious pope. When young Catherine fell in love with a boy her uncle knew would not improve his own political connections, he put an end to the romance. Now once again we have a girl of 14 shipped off to a foreign country to marry a total stranger, a French prince who had a mistress old enough to be his mother. It wasn't a happy beginning, but eventually Catherine achieved great power. Unfortunately, she did not use it well.

The best part of the research for this book was a trip to Italy, especially to Florence (Firenze) where Catherine grew up, walking the streets where she walked, visiting the church where she worshiped, staying in an apartment across from her palace. Writing her story was a challenge; how do you handle a scene where she watches her husband making love to his mistress? What about the extremes to which she went in order to get pregnant to provide the king with an heir? And I didn't make any of it up.  Read More 
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Behind the Books: Patience, Princess Catherine

The Tudors: Catherine of Aragon
Just imagine being 14-year-old Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabel and King Fernando of Spain, and you're sent off to England to marry Prince Arthur, heir to the throne. It takes weeks to ride your mule across Spain to a port city. You sail for England, but storms just about drown you. You finally reach this strange new country and meet your future husband. He's younger than you, shorter than you, and he doesn't speak Spanish. You don't speak English. You manage to communicate in Latin.

Then your young husband dies. What to do? If you go home to Spain, your in-laws won't return your dowry, and it's huge. If you stay in England, you have no status. You're in your mid-teens, a widow, and a virgin. And you're miserable.

But there, waiting in the wings, is Arthur's kid brother, Henry. He's young--younger even than Arthur. There are those who want you to marry him and those who don't. It doesn't matter what YOU want.

In terms of the historical timeline, PATIENCE, PRINCESS CATHERINE should have been written first. But since I had no idea when I started that MARY, BLOODY MARY would launch a series of Young Royals, it didn't work out that way. The idea of leaving one's home and family and all that was familiar to journey to a distant country for the purpose of marrying a total stranger, knowing that you will never see your parents or your country again--that was a concept that intrigued me.

Catherine's story begins in 1501. In the centuries that followed, that same scenario has been played out over and over, countless young women making long, difficult, and dangerous journeys to join their lives with a total stranger, hoping and praying that it would all work out for the best. Sometimes it did, and sometimes...not so much. Read More 
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Behind the Books: Doomed Queen Anne

The Tudors: Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was an ambitious troublemaker. She was determined to marry King Henry VIII and become Queen Anne. But there was a problem: Henry already had a wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had failed to produce the required male heir (MARY, BLOOD MARY was her only child), and Henry, never a faithful husband in the first place, wanted a new wife. Anne Boleyn set her sights on becoming that wife--whatever it took.

Anne was an interesting character to write about, but she was a wily schemer and it was not easy to make her sympathetic to the reader. There was another issue: because the actual year of her birth changed depending on which historian you want to believe, she could have been a sophisticated woman in her twenties who knew exactly what she was doing when she set out to catch Henry--or she could have been a devious teenager who also wanted to one-up her sister, Mary Boleyn, who'd once had a fling with Henry and borne him a son. Or perhaps something else entirely.

I found myself eventually drawn to this complex and deeply flawed young woman, just as I was drawn to Henry himself--a complex and deeply flawed man. In the end I decided that they deserved each other. Read More 
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