Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Celebrating Two New Books

CleopatraNational Geographic has released my two latest biographies for kids – Cleopatra and Pope Francis. I wrote Cleopatra before I started Pope Francis, but as Cleopatra went into production, there were times when the books overlapped. One day I would be making changes to the biography about Cleopatra, the richest woman in the world at that time, and the next day I would be writing about Pope Francis who has always lived simply. Writing about two so different people was fun and I couldn’t wait to get to my computer each day.

Cleopatra presented a special challenge. After more than 2,000 years, she is still one of the best known women in history. Even so, when I began my research, the first thing I learned was that we actually know very little about her. Turns out that many of the wonderful stories I have heard and read about Cleopatra are legend, not fact.

That was a problem. I wanted kids to know the true story, but how could I tell an interesting story when there were so few facts available? The answer I decided was to be very upfront with readers. So I began the book by mentioning a few things we do know about Cleopatra and then noted that much of her life remains a mystery. I included the stories I had read about her, but used the words “legend says” to indicate those that may or may not be true. I was glad my editors at National Geographic agreed with that approach. Everyone who worked on the book kept that goal in mind including Patrick Faricy, the illustrator who created the beautiful cover for the book.

I’ve always pictured Cleopatra as Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, but the artwork in the book shows a variety of interpretations of what Cleopatra may have looked like. They include a couple paintings of her as a blonde. As it turns out, the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra may be the most unlikely portrait. Cleopatra was the queen of Egypt, but she was not Egyptian. Her family came from Greece. The book cover illustration of Cleopatra shows how she may have looked when she was 18 and the new queen of Egypt. In that image, she has Greek features rather than Egyptian.

9781426322532[1]I was well into writing the Pope Francis biography when he announced his plans to visit the United States. Somehow that made working on the book even more exciting. Many of my recent books have been about people in history, but with Pope Francis I was writing about someone who was making history. I’m hoping my book will help kids learn more about the person who is creating such excitement with his visit to this country.519hB22MV4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

National Geographic released two editions of Pope Francis. One is written in English and the other in Spanish, Papa Francisco. Having a book released simultaneously in two different languages marks a first for me.

I’m celebrating the release of these books by giving away a copy of each one, Cleopatra and the English version of Pope Francis. To be entered in a random drawing, just leave a comment below. I’ll draw two names on October 16, one for each book, and then will contact the winners to get mailing addresses. Good luck!

Excuses, Excuses Graat Graat

I haven’t blogged for the last few weeks and there are a couple of reasons, or excuses, for that. The first excuse is a happy one. My husband and I are moving into a condo. After 43 years in our home, moving is a big step, but a good one. We’re happy with the condo and our new neighborhood. However, during all those years in our home, we managed to do a lot of accumulating. So although we’re enjoying our condo, we’re still sorting and getting our home ready to sell. That is why my second reason for not blogging lately came at such a bad time. A couple of weeks ago, I fell causing a small fracture in the cap of the bone going into my shoulder.

The accident wasn’t related to moving. It was caused by my own negligence in leaving things lay. Yes, it’s exactly what I used to warn our kids about doing. Obviously, I didn’t listen to my own advice, and I paid the price by tripping over my own clutter.

As fractures go, my doctor assures me that it is in a good spot and there is minimal displacement. So my arm should heal quickly. I just need to wear a sling to immobilize the arm and let the fracture heal naturally. However, it’s hard to type and spending a lot of time at the computer is painful, so I’m not getting a lot of writing done. Even writing with pen and paper is hard because the fracture is in my left arm and I’m left-handed. Hopefully, I’ll only be away from the computer for a couple more weeks. At that time, I’ll have some great writing news to share. So stay tuned…

A Writer’s Journal

doc067I’m celebrating an anniversary of sorts. It was at this time 36 years ago that I started journaling. I’ve made entries most days ever since. There were previous attempts at journaling, but I always gave up after a few weeks. So how is it that I’ve stuck with journaling for 36 years after so many failed starts?

The difference is that the journaling I do now is something that is useful to me. I do some writing about what’s happening in my life, but the main purpose of my journal is to keep my writing career on track. How does that work?

First, my journal serves as a storehouse for future writing projects. Whenever ideas come to me, I write them down in my journal. A look at only a few of the many notebooks I’ve filled over the years assures me that I’ll never run out of ideas.

My journals are also filled with ideas for improving my writing. Entries include tips from other authors that I’ve come across in my reading or picked up at writers’ conferences. There are also notes about biographies I’m reading – what I like about them and what I feel doesn’t work.

I write about the critiques I’ve gotten from my writers’ group and the changes editors want me to make. Accepting criticism is hard. I admit that sometimes those entries are a way to let off a little steam before I come around to accepting that their suggestions will make the writing better.

Journaling also helps me solve problems with my writing. As a beginning writer, I thought all I needed was a great idea. With the right topic, when I sat down to write the words would flow easily. I quickly learned it doesn’t work that way. There are days when everything is going well, but there are other times when the writing just isn’t coming together. So I journal about the problems I’m having. Putting those thoughts on paper helps. I’m amazed at how many times a solution to a problem comes to me before I’ve reached the end of the journal entry. Putting my thoughts on paper is a way of letting go and trusting that a solution will come.

I also journal about my writing goals. Reminding myself of what is important to me helps me make good decisions about what assignments I accept. If I take an assignment will I still have time to work on my own ideas?

Finally, journaling helps me plan my writing time. Like most writers, I’m often juggling more than one project and I worry about getting it all done without missing deadlines. So I journal. I put down on paper what needs to be done first and figure out a schedule for any other projects. Once I’ve scheduled everything, I can relax and focus on the work at hand. Of course, carefully laid plans sometimes fall apart. A project may take longer than I expected or something comes up. When that happens, I work out a new schedule during my next journaling session.

My journals are not fancy. I just use spiral notebooks. During back to school sales, I buy a supply to last a year. Each time I fill a notebook, I put a label on the front showing the date I started writing in that one and the day I finished. Then I file it away to read again when I’m looking for new ideas or writing encouragement. Because the best part of journaling is that it helps me see progress with my writing, and for me, there’s no better encouragement.

BellesCvrFnl_200[1]Baseball has been called America’s pastime, but in 1942 people wondered what would happen to the game. America was at war then and about half the professional baseball players were fighting overseas. Many thought that would be the end of professional baseball at least until the war was over. But Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum magnate and the owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team had an idea. Women were taking on new roles working in factories producing tanks, ships, and other gear needed for the war effort. Why couldn’t they play baseball Wrigley wondered? He became the force behind the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Ball League (AAGPBL). The League began playing in 1943 and over 500 women would take the field over the twelve seasons of the League’s history. They played baseball, not softball, as the players so often needed to explain.

Diana Star Helmer first wrote about the “girls” of the AAGPBL in her book Belles of the Ballpark published in 1992. Her research included interviews with players. That gave her plenty of anecdotal information to tell a lively story about bus trips, curfews, and the delicate balance between playing hard and acting like ladies, which was expected at the time. The book was named to the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list.

Belles of the Ballpark is now enjoying new life with a second edition released this month by Summer Game Books. Diana’s husband Tom Owens, who is a writer and baseball fan, helped with the new edition which has almost doubled in size. New information includes interviews with players and other people involved with the League. It also includes sections about the researchers who have introduced new generations to the League. I asked Diana some questions about research for her book and how this second edition came to be.

What led to your initial interest in the All-American Girls Professional Ball League?

Our first year out of college (1988, Iowa State University, journalism) Tom was hired as co-editor and I was editorial assistant for Sports Collectors Digest, located in Wisconsin. This had been Girls League territory all those years ago, and Sharon Roepke of nearby Michigan made a set of players’ cards that she sent to the magazine. I remember the SCD ad man sauntering by my desk and tossing the cards down. “You’re a girl. You might be interested in these,” he said, not sounding completely complimentary.

Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.

Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.

Tell us about the research for “Belles.”

Research in the late 1980s meant no internet. If there were no books on your topic (there were none at the time on the AAGPBL) then one dug through library archives for old newspaper clippings. This might mean going to the relevant towns.

Ah, if only we hadn’t moved to Washington state just after I learned of the League, and just before I sold the book idea to a small, fairly new educational publisher for young readers. So, instead of just driving to Racine and Kenosha, as I could have done when working for SCD, I had to fly back.

Luckily, before moving, I had done an SCD article on the League and met the incomparable Anna May Hutchison. She invited me to stay in her home for an entire week after the book deal was sealed, opening not just her home but her heart. Without Hutch, the book would be vastly different and, I believe, suffer for that.

Sharon Roepke started me on this journey with her baseball cards, and was the first person I contacted, via telephone, to learn more. Sharon put me in touch with Anna May. I will always be gratefully in debt to her for that, and for her devoting so much of her life to this story and, by extension, to us.

As someone who likes her husband to be far away and very quiet when I’m writing, I have to ask: What is a typical writing day like when there are two writers at work? Also, how did you handle working together on Belles of the Ballpark?

I wrote the first edition, but I sometimes asked Tom for help on the game-action writing. He has been a life-long baseball fan, and I am a Johnny-come-lately.

We were first asked, “How can you stand working with your SPOUSE?” when we were both hired at SCD. The question is almost invariably accompanied by the claim, “I could never WORK with MY . . .”

For us, it’s always just been part of marriage, and some spots take more getting used to than others. But we have been blessed, for about 25 years now, in having two-story homes where we have had offices on different floors. We retire to our separate corners to work. If one of us has a question or discussion point (or wants company for a snack), we approach the other in his or her room and say, “Can you listen?” Sometimes the answer is, “Yes. What’s on your mind?” Sometimes the answer is “Just a second,” or “Five minutes,” or “Fifteen minutes.” The asker can then decide whether to wait nearby or just leave and try later.

The whole thing has probably been a bit tougher for Tom, who can listen to the radio while he works. I really like silence (well, birds don’t bother me . . .) So, if Tom wants to start cooking when I’m working, he has to do without music or baseball, for the kitchen is on the same floor as my office.

This plan, which we’re still perfecting, worked well for the second edition of “Belles.” We decided what material would be added, then divided the tasks. Each of us researched and wrote what was “ours,” then let the other serve as editor. We have learned, over the years, about our own writing styles (strengths and weaknesses) as well as each other’s. Remembering to apply this knowledge is invaluable! Tom, for example, knows he sometimes switches pronouns, and isn’t upset if I mention it. I will use $2 words when I could do well with ten cents, and I admit it when Tom catches me out.

It’s always great to see an out-of-print book get new life. How did this new edition come about?

In 2014, I decided to start key-punching “Belles” into my current computer. I don’t know why, really. I had recently begun self-publishing on Kindle, and thought it would be nice not to let this book be forgotten.

Two amazingly serendipitous things happened early in 2015. First, Tom discovered a “new” publisher devoted to baseball, Summer Game Books. SGB has done a number of reprints of baseball classics. It seemed like a match made in heaven and, after we got to know them, our hopes proved to be true! We love working with the people there, and they are able to offer marketing and design options that would be difficult for us on our own. The publisher delighted us by issuing the new edition in e-book and paperback.

The second lucky thing is that the film, A League of Their Own, which did not exist until after my book was first written, continues to attract attention. The movie has introduced so many people to the idea of the Girls League over these intervening years. Our publisher, Walter Friedman, has a young daughter who loves the film! The subject of the AAGPBL used to be a complete unknown. Hollywood changed that.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Write the book you want to read.” Fantastic advice that I’m afraid I cannot credit.

The Writing-Go-Round

It’s been only a few days since I sent the manuscript for my latest book off to my editors. That means I’m still adjusting to the loss. It’s what always happens. It’s a good feeling to finally finish a book, but there’s also a letdown. After working so intently on a book, when it’s gone, it feels like I’ve lost a dear friend.

Of course, I’m not completely done with the book yet. The editors will be sending it back with suggestions for rewriting. There will be more changes when the book gets to layout. That’s because of the unique features of the leveled readers I’ve been writing the last few years.

The first goal with every book is to tell an interesting story. For biographies that means presenting the facts in a way that holds the readers’ attention. With leveled readers, there’s the added challenge of making sure the writing fits on the page the way it should. Each two-page spread needs a certain number of lines. So the manuscript will bounce back and forth between my editors, the book designer, and me several times in the next few months while we work out the details. Even so there will be days and even weeks during that time when I don’t have anything to do on that book. That means I suddenly have time on my hands.

That down time is just part of the writing-go-round, the stages I go through with each book. The only way past the letdown of a finished book is to start the process all over again with a new project. Beginning is the most delicious of the writing stages. First, there’s the excitement of a new idea. That excitement only builds with the research. As I discover fascinating details about the subject of my new book, I’m certain that it’s going to be my best book ever.

That bubble bursts when it comes to the next stage – writing the first draft. I’ve learned to accept that my first draft is going to be crap. That’s okay because I can pull it all together with the rewrite. There’s just one problem: I can’t rewrite until I actually write something and that does not come easily. My head may be overflowing with good ideas, but my brain does not allow them to tumble out in complete sentences. Fortunately, I have a couple of first draft tricks.

The first trick actually starts with the research. Sentences and sometimes complete paragraphs come to me as I research. I jot them down in a notebook that I always have nearby. That way when I start the first draft, I don’t need to be terrified of a blank computer screen. I already have a few sentences and paragraphs that I can type in to begin.

I also set a goal to write a certain number of words each day. The first few days are stressful and I make a lot of trips to the refrigerator before I reach the day’s goal. At the end of each day, I print out what I wrote. Then I begin the next day by heading out to the coffee shop. There I rewrite what I wrote the day before and begin adding to it in longhand. By the time I get home to the computer, I’ve already made some good headway towards reaching the number of words for that day. Eventually, I get into a flow with the writing, and after several days or weeks depending on the length of the project, I have a first draft.

Then I’m ready to rewrite. That’s the part I love because I can begin to see the book coming together. I call it a rewrite, but actually it’s many rewrites and can cover a long period of time. I cut sections and rearrange paragraphs. I see holes in the writing, places that need more detail, and go back to the research to get the information I need to fill those holes. I submit the manuscript to my writers’ group. They are great at pointing out places that don’t make sense. I need that input. Sometimes an idea is so clear in my head that I don’t realize I haven’t given readers enough information to understand what I’m talking about.

I also think about something a middle school teacher taught me when I spoke to her English classes many years ago. She had a checklist she gave to her students to help them with the rewriting process. One tip on that list stuck with me because it was something I had never heard. It said to look at what was good in the manuscript and think about how to make it even better. So I work on the good parts too. I read the manuscript out loud. If I stumble over the words of a sentence, I know it isn’t quite right. So I do more polishing until I like the way it sounds.

Although rewriting is fun for me, it’s also intense. I get so absorbed in the writing that I forget everything else. I guess that’s why it feels like such a loss when the book is finished. So I take a few days to adjust. I clean my much neglected house and spend time with my equally neglected friends and family. But after a few days off, I can’t wait to start all over again with the excitement of beginning a new project.

Dana%20Slouch%20Cropped[1]One of my favorite biography series for children is celebrating a milestone next month. On May 19, Grosset & Dunlap will be releasing its 100th book in the “Who Was?” series. The subject of that book, chosen by fans of the series, is Steve Irwin. It’s easy to see why the “Who Was?” books have been so successful. They have great kid appeal beginning with the caricature of each subject on the cover and continuing with lively writing and engaging illustrations.

Dana Meachen Rau is the author of three of the books in that series, including Who Was Harriet stowe-cover[1]Beecher Stowe? which was released this month. Dana’s Who Was Gandhi? was published in November, 2014, and is the #1 best seller in children’s Asian history on Amazon. Who Was Marie Antoinette? will be released in October.

gandhi-cover[1]The “Who Was?” series was my introduction to Dana, but I soon learned that her resume goes well beyond those biographies. She has written more than 325 books for children including both fiction and nonfiction. She is also in the process of getting her Master’s in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She will be graduating in July. Dana obviously has a full schedule and I am grateful that she agreed to take time to answer a few questions for this blog.

How did you get started as a writer?

I always knew I wanted to do something creative in life—I was one of those kids who had piles of art supplies, lots of blank paper, and busy hands. By college, I determined that I would either be a writer or an artist. So I majored in creative writing and art history. Right out of school, I got a job as an editorial assistant at a small children’s publisher, wrote some for them, got a job at a larger publisher, wrote some for them as well, and then went freelance when my son was born 16 years ago. I’ve been writing ever since.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

I’m a morning person—that’s the time my mind has the most clarity and I feel the most creative. On an ideal day, I wake up at 5:30 and take an hour to answer emails and clear the decks. Then after my kids are up and out the door for school, I sit down to write. Lots of activities fall under that large umbrella of “writing.” I might be doing research, drafting a scene, pondering over a single sentence. I might even be drawing maps or collecting pictures to help me visualize what I’m trying to capture in words. I’m usually ready for a stretch around 11:00, when I take time to exercise, make calls, have lunch. Then it’s back at my desk until I become a chauffeur for the kids after school. I’m totally spent by the evening—can’t get a creative thought to surface after dinner.

Since Grosset does not take unsolicited manuscripts, how did you establish a relationship with them?

Fate and luck! Back in 1999, my husband and I wrote a biography together on George Lucas. I loved that book, but it never made a huge impact and I believe it’s out of print. Zoom forward to 2013 when I received a call out of the blue from Grosset. The editor had read that book and thought my writing style would be a good fit for their Who Was? series. I was beyond thrilled! It is such a fun, kid-friendly, and recognizable line of books. Lesson learned: You never know when you’re scattering seeds. They will pop up and bear fruit when you don’t expect it, so take advantage of every writing opportunity!

What do you enjoy about writing biographies?

Biographies, unlike other kinds of nonfiction, are focused first and foremost on character—a real character that has his or her own experiences and ideas, not ones that I can create myself (as in fiction). I may already know the major milestones of a person’s achievements, but in the process of researching those, I get to dig in and discover the person. What makes him or her tick? What leads her towards greatness? What are his weaknesses? What challenges did he or she have to overcome? How were they shaped by their circumstances to achieve what makes them significant and memorable?

What do you find most challenging in researching and writing biographies?

I’m always eager to start writing, but with biographies, obviously, research comes first. I have to make sure I stay in the research zone long enough. There can never be too much research, of course, but there is a saturation level. The challenge for me is determining the point when I can switch gears from amassing information to pulling it all together in my own words. I don’t only research the information on a subject, but also the variety of ways other biographers have approached it. I want my approach to be unique and not just mimic the “usual” timeline of a subject’s life. I know I’m ready to switch from research to writing when I’ve discovered the spine/storyline/thread that’s going to run through the center of my text—the approach that is unique to my voice and style.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“You are not your character’s mother.” Our job as writers is not to protect our characters, and I think this applies to both fiction and biographies. It’s okay to show characters suffering. In fact, the more obstacles they have to overcome, the more problems we toss in their path, the more hope they lose, all makes for a more satisfying ending and feeling of triumph.

What advice do you have for others who would like to write for children?

Don’t write what you think is needed in the marketplace, what’s “hot” at the moment, or what you think an editor will like. Write what you are meant to write. What do you feel passionate about? What stories speak to your core? What do you need to share with the world?

However, also remember it’s not all about you—the author. When you create a work of writing, it becomes something other than yourself. It’s about the characters and their story. The author becomes invisible. Your job is to give them a stage to tell their story while you support them in the wings.


CW150Pierce[1]Recently a writer asked me how I kept from going off on a tangent when I’m researching a subject. It may sound like an odd question, but it made perfectly good sense to me. I’ve been in that situation many times. It happens when I’m researching for a current project and I run across information about an entirely different, but interesting, subject. If I’m not careful, I’m soon off researching that other topic. It’s certainly not a good use of my time, especially when I’m working on a deadline as I usually am.

The way I avoid going off on a tangent is to put notes about the topic that’s tempting me into an “ideas” file. That way, when I’m ready to start a new project, I have a file of possibilities. Of course, sometimes in spite of my best efforts, I go off on one of those research tangents. Some stories are too hard to resist. That was the case with Tillie Pierce.

I discovered her when I was researching the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. Tillie grew up in Gettysburg. She was 15 years old in 1863 when she became an eyewitness to the famous battle fought there.

For weeks, all the news in town had been about the approach of the Rebels. On June 26, the reports became reality. Tillie was in school when she heard shouting in the street. “The Rebels are coming!” the voices called. She later wrote about the terror of that day. “Rushing to the door, and standing on the front portico we beheld in the direction of the Theological Seminary, a dark, dense mass, moving toward town. Our teacher, Mrs. Eyster, at once said: ‘Children, run home as quickly as you can.’”

The teacher did not need to repeat herself. The whole class scattered, racing for their homes. Tillie had just reached her front door when she turned and saw men on horseback riding down the street. She ran inside and slammed the door behind her. Then she peeked through the shutters in the family’s sitting room to watch as the Rebel soldiers filled the town. “What they would do with us was a fearful question to my young mind,” Tillie recalled.

There was relief among the people of the town when Union soldiers began to arrive on June 30. That was short-lived as the battle between the Rebel and Union soldiers began on July 1. Tillie witnessed the first day’s battle from her home. Before the day was over, Tillie’s parents decided that she should travel with a neighbor to the Jacob Weikert farm about three miles south. The intention was to get Tillie out of danger. As it turned out, she was traveling towards danger and the heart of the next day’s battle.

For a brief time, I thought I would like to write about Tillie. I gave up on that idea because I knew I would never be able to tell her story better than she did. Twenty-five years after the Battle of Gettysburg, Tillie wrote about her experiences in a book titled At Gettysburg or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle. Thanks to the digital library at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to find a copy of her book. It’s a short book, less than 30 pages, but it’s a fascinating read.

Both the barn and house on the Weikert farm quickly filled with wounded soldiers, and Tillie went to work helping to tend to them. She got a first-hand look at the horrors of war and she describes them in detail in the book. However, that is only part of the story she tells. She also includes anecdotal information about particular soldiers and generals she met. Details about life in Gettysburg before the war and again years after the war when she was writing her book serve as bookends to her story. The book is good reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the Civil War. For me, it was a tangent I was happy to follow.

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