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My Writer's Journal

The Crazy Season

Just when I want to spend all my time working on my new book, BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER, I'm being pulled in several different directions while I try to keep up with lots of projects.

On Saturday I fly to Philadelphia to give an 18-minute talk at a TEDx conference at Arcadia University. I've never done PowerPoint, it's being recorded, and it has to be EXACTLY 18 minutes. Emails fly back and forth arranging for transportation, etc. I'm nervous.

At the end of April I'll be in Chicago to participate in an International Reading Association panel. But some of the other writers have had to drop out, others have been shifted around, I don't yet have travel arrangements or book signings confirmed, or much of an idea on how many people will be attending. I'm to meet this week and next with the other writers to figure out how it will all fit together.

I was invited sign books at a bookstore in June, but the bookseller had the wrong book in mind--THE WILD QUEEN will be available, but VICTORIA REBELS won't be out until January. Then I had to contact the publisher to find out if books would actually be available in time, once we realized which book we were talking about.

Last Tuesday I gave a presentation at Parents Night for the workshop I'm doing in June at the Albuquerque Zoo--but first I had to spend time at the zoo to learn what facilities will be available. I plan to talk about Charley Darwin, his boyhood and his Beagle voyage. After I'd spent an hour or so polishing up my presentation, only one parent showed up.

In July I'm teaching a weeklong writers' workshop in Taos on writing for Young Adults. Yesterday a Taos bookstore contacted me for a list of the books I'd like to have for sale. ("All of them" is not the right answer.) I decided what I thought would work and looked up the ISBN numbers for both hardcover and paperback editions. I haven't even begun to think about what I'll organize to keep students engaged and excited for a whole week .

A few days ago a seventh grader emailed me, asking me to explain my theme and goals in writing PATIENCE, PRINCESS ELIZABETH for her RTL--Response to Literature, she explained. I had to write back that I have no idea what the theme is because I don't think that way. My goal is to tell a good story, and I have no educational goals in mind. This was not what her teacher wants to hear, so I had to cook up an answer. We've now had 4 emails back and forth for clarification. I get a LOT of emails asking for help.

I found out yesterday that CLEOPATRA CONFESSES is coming out in paperback in June with a gorgeous new cover. Nobody had told me! I just happened to see it on amazon.com and quickly got that up on my Facebook page. I'm trying to Tweet 3 times a day, post on Facebook every day, and write a blog post every week that makes some sort of sense.

What I REALLY want to be doing is working on BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER, but this is spring--beautiful and always very, very busy. Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part IX

Back to the saga of my life as a writer. The move from Albuquerque to Denton, TX, in 1990 was wrenching, but that dislocation brought me in contact with new people and new ideas. Back in Chapter VII I talked about the idea for WHERE THE BROKEN HEART STILL BEATS: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker, set in Texas in the 19th century.

But then I stumbled upon a new bit of Texas history: the African-American community of Quakertown that had thrived within the town of Denton at the beginning of the 20th century--thrived until the white people of Denton decided that the small enclave in the heart of the town would make a wonderful park and contrived to get rid of the black folks who had their homes, businesses, churches and school there. I researched the actual history of Quakertown, as well as the town of Denton, the state of Texas, and the place of black people in the US. And then I invented the characters to tell the story: Rose Lee Jefferson, her family, her friends, her community. The result was WHITE LILACS, published in 1993, and the sequel, JUBILEE JOURNEY, which picks up the story of the Jeffersons 75 years later, published in 1997.

When I'm asked, "What's your favorite among the books you've written?" the answer has long been WHITE LILACS, because it was such a challenge.  Read More 
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BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER: HERMIONE, The Daughter of Helen of Troy

Nothing like a new project to get me excited! During a dead period last fall, while I was waiting....and waiting....and waiting for word on VICTORIA REBELS, I used the time to read Homer's ILIAD and ODYSSEY and found myself pulled into the world of the ancient Greeks. (I probably read at least parts of them in college, but that was a long time ago.) Women did not fare well in those days, when the guys were out merrily slaughtering each other and the gods were behaving badly, and I got caught up in the story of Helen of Troy, who left her husband and ran off with Paris, sparking the Trojan War that lasted for ten years. Helen: the most beautiful woman in the world! What would it have been like to be Hermione, the daughter of that divinely beautiful woman?

The publisher said Yes to my proposal, and now I'm deeply into the research, fleshing out the characters, figuring out how the plot should unfold. The research is quite different this time around, because these are ancient stories, mostly myth with a dollop of history, none of it consistent. It's a real stretch for me. And quite a leap from Victoria and from the Hotline series I was working on just two weeks ago. Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part VIII

Need to back up a little; I missed an important chapter before the move to Texas. This was the HOTLINE period of my writing life.

In 1989 I was asked to write a series of four books about a group of high school kids who decide to form a crisis intervention line when a mutual friend commits suicide. The series was to be called HOTLINE. I saw it as a huge challenge, and it was. I spent 6 weeks in a training class for a volunteers and then did my time sitting in a cramped little office, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping that when it did it would be somebody with a solvable problem, and NOT somebody standing on the ledge of a building and ready to jump. I also spent time at an ABQ high school with a diverse student population. Then I came up with four major characters, each taking a turn as the main character in one of the books. BECAUSE OF LISSA, GILLIAN'S CHOICE, THE PROBLEM WITH SIDNEY, and THE TWO FACES OF ADAM were published in 1990 and 1991. One set of books turns yellow and crumbling on my shelf.

Fast forward 22 years to the present. I've become interested in the possibilities of e-books and self-publishing. The stories and the themes and the characters of the HOTLINE books are still relevant. Just need a little updating in language and setting, some new covers, and voila! Ready to go!


It's a new world. Teenagers who read those books 22 years ago are probably themselves now the parents of teenagers, and it's now a digital world of cellphone, the internet, texting, chat rooms, IM-ing. Does anybody even have a land line any more? So how would peer counseling/ crisis intervention work? I still think the stories are good, and I'm still trying to figure it all out.  Read More 
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An interruption in the story of my life

For the past month or so I've had a fine time revisiting the publishing milestones in my life, and so far I'm only up to about 1990 with 22 years and as many books to go. Between blog entries and daily tweets and Facebook posts (and messing around in the kitchen), most of my working day has been taken up with revisions of VICTORIA REBELS. It's ready to go back to the editor, and I'm pretty sure there will be another round--there always is. There are undoubtedly writers who do things perfectly the first time, but I'm definitely not one of them. Kirsten Hamilton, a writer friend of mine, says she wants a BRILLIANT editor, one who will hold her feet to the fire, and I wholeheartedly agree. So far I've been very lucky to get that kind of editing.

My first draft (which I thought was pretty darn good when I sent it months ago) was heavy on detail of Victoria's life, but it needed focusing. That meant heavy cutting in the first half and expanding in the second half, sharpening the personalities of the characters, and figuring out what to do with a lot of historical background that--to me, at least--makes the story so much richer. We writers of historical fiction are often accused of "info-dumping," and I'm guilty as charged. Young readers often don't have the general background to get what's going on without some help. The trick is to smuggle in the necessary information without getting caught. Sometimes I'm better at it than other times. (Hint: Dialogue is usually not a good place for it.)

So off she goes tomorrow, my DEAR, DEAR Victoria, as she would say. I have my fingers crossed that it's going in the right direction. Wish me luck, dear readers.  Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part VII

Not just one new chapter began when we moved to Texas--a whole lot of ideas started popping up!

At first I was beset by homesickness for Albuquerque. We drove the 600 miles back "home" as often as our schedule allowed, a long drive across the Texas Panhandle and the eastern plains of New Mexico. One day we stopped in a Dairy Queen in the little town of Quanah, where in addition to a Blizzard I picked up a brochure on the local history. Quanah, I read, was the name of a Comanche chief; his father was a chief, and his mother was a white woman named Cynthia Ann Parker. She had been kidnapped from the Parker family compound in East Texas at the age of 9, had grown up with the Comanches, learned their language and customs, and married Peta Nacoma when she came of age. She had 3 children, including Quanah and a daughter named Topsannah. When Topsannah was an infant, a group of Texas Rangers seized mother and child and took them back to civilization. Cynthia Ann had been kidnapped a second time!

I was fascinated by this story, and set to work learning more about her and figuring out a way to tell the story myself--this would be my first attempt at writing historical fiction. WHERE THE BROKEN HEART STILL BEATS was published in 1992; it will be reissued in April with a lovely new cover. Click on the title listed under Selected Works to see it. Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part VI

I was in a dismal state in the spring after my move to Albuquerque. I had no ideas, my writing was going nowhere, until someone recommended that I get out and walk. I did--about 2 miles a day. (That was 27 years ago; I now walk 3 miles almost every morning: that's about 750 miles a year X 27 years = more than 20,000 miles.) I began to feel more optimistic. Then an editor suggested that I make a trip to South Africa, which was then in turmoil and beginning to resist apartheit. I did my research, made a few informal contacts, flew to South Africa, rented a car, and began. It was a life-changing experience. VOICES OF SOUTH AFRICA: GROWING UP IN A TROUBLED LAND was published in 1986, about the same time I took off for Northern Ireland. Another VOICES book, and then a trip to Japan, where language and culture were challenges.

It would be awhile before i got back to writing fiction, but when I did, it was with a strong tilt to historical novels. My husband and I had left Albuquerque for a new home in Texas, and a new chapter began. Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part V

My first novel for young readers was C. C. POINDEXTER, about a misfit. I felt I had a lot of experience in that department. Then I wrote EULALIA'S ISLAND based on that summer on St. Lucia, where my 13-year-old son John befriended a local kid named Eulalia. When I found the diaries my dad kept when he was in college and in love with a girl named Peg (I had his photo albums too, so I knew what she looked like), I wrote from the point of view of a young girl in the 1920s who had found her brother's diary: THE SUMMER I LEARNED ABOUT LIFE.

Meanwhile, I kept my hand in the non-fiction area, because I had found that I really liked doing research. In the late 1970's I drove across the country to a writers' colony in Taos, New Mexico. I had visited California, but I had never been in the Southwest, and the experience was life-changing. After a few months, I decided to relocate.

I bought a tiny house in Santa Fe, loaded up a U-Haul, and drove across the country to my new home. Everyone thought I was crazy, and probably I was. Nevertheless, I settled in. When I met the girl next door who showed up in the middle of the city on her horse, I started my next novel, THE LUCK OF TEXAS McCOY. (Research for that project involved learning to actually ride a horse.) I was still associated with the Institute of Children's Literature, working my way through a batch of student assignments that arrived every week . Money was always tight; one summer I got a job producing a weekly half-hour TV show called "ArtScene" that paid me the princely sum of $100 a week and left me exhausted with no time to write.

Burned out with Santa Fe after five years of struggle, I moved to Albuquerque, hoping to get freelance work or a part-time job. At one point I considered film school in Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a screen writer. But then life took another sharp curve. (To be continued) Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part IV

Time--that was always the issue, and I never had enough. Nevertheless, I managed to keep writing books for kids--one of my favorites in the early days was THE BREAD BOOK, but there were also how-to books about embroidery, carpentry, knitting and macrame, Christmas crafts, jewelry-making, even Bible stories. I was recruited by the Institute of Children's Literature to teach correspondence courses, and I wrote a monthly column on children's books and occasional articles for McCALL'S, a women's magazine popular in the '60s and '70s.

My kids were growing up, and my how-to books eventually gave way to more complex non-fiction projects. That's when I discovered that I enjoyed doing research and that I was good at it. I also discovered that I loved to travel: a summer in the Caribbean resulted in a book about coconuts; I roamed around the Eastern US, interviewing craftsmen; later I traveled to a remote Yup'ik village in Alaska and wrote about the people I met there, then back to Pennsylvania to spend time among the Amish.

Working on non-fiction taught me a lot, but still I dreamed of writing novels.... Read More 
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What I'm afraid of

I'll get back to my occasional series On Becoming A Writer in the next week or so, but today, the last day of 2011, I want to deal with a question posed on a recent author questionnaire: What do you fear most? I've been trying to think of an answer that isn't just a shallow brush-off of a deeply philosophical question.

I was once hiking with a group in the Grand Canyon, and when the time came to cross a narrow ledge with a huge drop-off, I froze, absolutely terrified. Couldn't move, forward or backward. Finally somebody had to come and pry me off the rock I was clinging to and talk me across. That was fear of the most basic kind.

On the other hand, I'm not afraid to speak in front of a crowd, and I understand that some people break into a sweat at the thought of it.

But--and this may be an occupational hazard for many writers--I am afraid of running out of good ideas. What if I don't have any creative juices left to figure out an interesting plot, to develop a compelling character, to find the right words for describing a scene or setting up a dialogue?

So here's what I really fear: I'm afraid of getting boring. The antidote, I believe, is just to keep on writing anyway, because if I let the fear win out, I'll stop writing. And then I might as well stop living, too.

And so--onward into the coming year!  Read More 
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