Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Now that’s a headline I never expected to write, but here we are. As a writer, I thought staying home and social distancing would be life as usual. But I was wrong. I’m missing the public library and the two university libraries where I do much of my research. And I’m missing the two or three days a week when I start my writing day at a nearby coffee shop. Turns out, I’m not a hermit after all.

I’m especially missing the university libraries now because I need several articles for my current project, and I know those libraries have them. But of course, they are closed. I tried to locate the articles online. I found one but ran into a dead end with the others. So, I did the only thing I can do about those articles for now. I made a list of the titles, so I wouldn’t forget what I needed and set the list aside for later.

In the meantime, I found a lot of information for my project on https://www.newspapers.com/. Signing up with that site is an investment, but it’s been well worth it for my current book and for a couple of other projects I’ve had on hold because of snags with finding needed details.

Unfortunately, even all the new information hasn’t helped me stayed focused. My regular schedule has been interrupted and I’ve been feeling at loose ends. I needed to get out of my slump, so a couple of weeks ago, I tried something that has helped me get on track other times: making a list. Not a things-to-do list. As much as I like crossing items off a things-to-do list, it can also create tension on some days. And right now, I don’t need any more stress. The daily news is enough. So, I made a things-I-CAN-do list.

I wrote down what I need to do for my current project. I also wrote down steps I can take for a new book that is in the thinking stages and for another one that is finished and ready to submit. I divided the tasks into small steps that can be easily accomplished.

Now each morning, I look at my list and decide what I feel like doing for the day. I know it’s a lot like a things-to-do list, but in my mind, there’s a difference. I feel like I’m giving myself more freedom to do what I want instead of thinking I have to do something. And it’s helping. I’m definitely getting more done than I was a couple of weeks ago. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement, and  I’m open to suggestions. What have you been doing to stay motivated to write during this time? I would love to hear your ideas.

I’ve found that each book brings its own challenges with the research. Harriet Tubman, my new book for National Geographic’s readers series, was no different.

I quickly discovered that writing about someone who had not learned to read or write was hard. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on letters, journals, and books and articles written by the subjects of my biographies. Without those materials, I felt slightly lost as I began the research on Tubman.

It didn’t help that Tubman’s work in rescuing slaves through the Underground Railroad needed to be so secretive. Later, she was a spy for the Union army during the Civil War, again all necessarily done in secret. Fortunately for me, Tubman lived a more public life after the slaves were freed. At that time, she had a new mission in helping freed slaves and working for women’s rights. She traveled giving speeches that included talking about her early life. I was happy to find a couple of interviews she did with reporters at that time. They provided some details about her life and a couple of great quotes.

Tubman also had a biographer. Sarah H. Bradford wrote two biographies about Tubman, Harriet: The Moses of Her People (1886) and Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869). Bradford was an excellent storyteller and had Tubman’s cooperation in writing the biographies. So, her books contain many interesting events from Tubman’s life including her thoughts and feelings about her childhood as a slave and her experiences with the Underground Railroad.

On the other hand, Bradford was a practical businesswoman and she wrote the books partly to help raise money for Tubman’s living expenses. So, Bradford wanted the books to sell well. To increase sales, she embellished Tubman’s story turning her into a kind of folk hero.

Misleading information is always a problem, and Bradford’s biographies didn’t make my job any easier. I was discouraged to find that sources I would normally consider trustworthy still go by information based on Bradford’s version of Tubman’s story. For example, according to Bradford, Tubman made 19 trips as a conductor on the Underground Railroad rescuing 300 slaves. As I got further into the research, I learned that Tubman actually made 13 trips rescuing 70 slaves including many family members. That was an amazing feat considering the danger. No embellishment is necessary.

Those 13 trips have been carefully documented by historians such as Kate Clifford Larson. Her book Bound for the Promised Land was a valuable resource for me, and I was doubly blessed when Larson agreed to serve as the expert reader for my book. The expert reader is exactly as the title says. It’s someone considered to be an expert on the person I’m writing about who checks the book to make sure the facts are accurate. Larson was asked to go through my book at a couple of different stages in production. Each time, she was helpful and encouraging.

She was also able to clear up a problem I was having with a photo said to be of Harriet and her first husband John Tubman. That photo has been widely circulated on the Internet, and to be honest, I wanted it to be a photo of the couple because it was perfect for my book. I don’t know what John Tubman looks like, but the woman in the photo certainly looks like she could be Harriet. Yet from what I had learned in my research my gut told me it was very unlikely that there was a photo of the couple in existence. Larson confirmed that my gut was right, and we did not use the photo.

Getting the facts right is hard and with each book I am reminded that I don’t do it alone. Like raising a child, “it takes a village” and I’m grateful for the team I work with at National Geographic and for expert readers like Kate Larson.

I’m celebrating an anniversary this year. August 7 marked 40 years since I first started journaling. I decided to celebrate by reading some of my early journals. That’s been an interesting experience.

I guess I should say I’m celebrating the anniversary of when I started journaling and actually stuck with it. There were other attempts, but those didn’t last beyond a couple of weeks. So how did I go from another failed attempt to making journaling an essential part of my day? The answer was in my early journals.

As I began reading my first journal, I was surprised to see that the entries were so short. Once in a while, I had an idea for an article, and I sat down and wrote the whole first draft in my journal. More often, my early entries were only a couple of paragraphs.

What’s even more surprising about those early entries are the times I stopped writing mid-sentence. On August 26, 1979, I wrote: “Some days are just too busy. You look around and see all that needs to be done and you know that it’s….” The sentence ends there. I suppose I planned to come back later and finish that thought, but it didn’t happen. The next entry was August 27 and I was off on a completely different topic.

It’s a little creepy to see something like that forty years later. Where was I going with that thought? It’s a mystery that will never be solved. On the other hand, I do understand how that could happen. Maybe it was early morning and the kids woke up interrupting my thought. Or maybe I was writing in the afternoon and there was a ruckus in the back yard that needed my attention. My kids were four and six then and there were a lot of interruptions. Or maybe I was writing at night and fell asleep mid-sentence. At that time, I didn’t have a regular schedule.

Those early entries also showed a lot of frustration about finding time to write. In those days, I read all I could about becoming a writer. Those books stressed how important it was to write a certain amount each day and to write at the same time every day. Good advice, but I was failing miserably. Sadly, I let that inability to do what the experts said hold me back as a writer.

Journaling was different. I didn’t worry about when I worked or how much I wrote. I simply focused on doing the best I could. And guess what? Those journal pages started adding up, and soon manuscript pages were adding up as well. Focusing on writing what I could whenever I found time freed me to just write. I think that’s why I stuck with journaling this time around. I saw it as a first step in launching a career I had dreamed about ever since I was a kid.

 

When I was signing on to write my latest book, Who Is Oprah Winfrey?, the editor asked if I preferred writing about people in the news or historical figures. I wasn’t being flip when I told her I didn’t have a preference. I really can’t say I enjoy one more than the other. I like doing both primarily because it gives me variety. The research for writing about a living person is much different than researching someone who lived maybe 100 years ago. So, I like to switch things up. However, if I’m being completely honest, there are a couple challenges in writing about living people.

One is that it’s hard to find a way to end those biographies because the subjects are still active in their careers and continuing to make headlines. That was certainly the case with writing about Oprah Winfrey, who I’m fairly certain will never retire and never stop trying new things.

The first time the ending problem came up for me was in 1995 when I was working on a young adult biography called Amy Tan Author of The Joy Luck Club. I was just finishing up, happy to be making my deadline, when I discovered that Tan was about to release a new novel. I had visions of my book being out of date before it was even released. Happily, my publisher extended the deadline giving me a couple of weeks to read Tan’s new novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, and write about it.

It all worked out, but I vowed then that I would never write about living people again. That didn’t exactly work out for me mainly because I was writing for a series called “People to Know.” Most of the books in that series were about living people.

Then I came up with what I thought was a clever solution to the ending problem. Neil Armstrong was still living when my biography about him was published, but he had retired as an astronaut. The book focused on his life up until his retirement. So, the ending was not a problem.

However, I soon learned that I couldn’t depend on people to stay retired. My biography about John Glenn focused primarily on his career as an astronaut. I was also able to include information about his work as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and I was happy he had announced he was retiring from that position too. I thought my biography had a logical ending, but I was wrong.

That book was published in 1998, the same year Glenn decided to make another space flight. At 77, he became the oldest person to fly into space. I wasn’t celebrating because my book was outdated a few months after it was published.

The second risk in writing about living people, is that they sometimes make bad choices. I think I can say everything you need to know about that in two words – Lance Armstrong. For obvious reasons, my biography about him did not stay in print for long.

I don’t think that will be a problem with Oprah Winfrey. I feel confident she will continue to be a good role model for the children who read the book. But what about the ending? Did I find a satisfying way to close even though Oprah is still very active in her career? Well, you tell me. After you’ve read the book, of course!

Mother Teresa

January 15 was the official release date of Mother Teresa my new biography for National Geographic’s reader series. I call it the official release because some of you may have seen an earlier edition of the book published by Scholastic Inc. The cover and the binding of the Scholastic edition are different, but the text is the same.

I don’t know the details of how it came about that Scholastic released the book first. I just know that the publishers came to an agreement for Scholastic to print their edition and sell it only through their reading program for a year before National Geographic released it. Now the book is available to everyone, which for me has seemed like a long time coming.

One of my favorite parts of the books in National Geographic’s readers series is the spread called “In Her [His] Time.” I’ve often said that I wasn’t too interested in history until I started reading biographies. Putting a real person into a time in history and seeing what it was like for a person living in that time gave me a whole new perspective about history. With the “In Her Time” section, I can give kids a peak at what it was like when the person I’m writing about was young. But sometimes those pages are hard to research.

When I started work on Mother Teresa, I was concerned about how I would find information about her childhood. She grew up in the 1910s in the city of Skopje in what is now Macedonia. The political circumstances in that territory were constantly changing and the area had endured two World Wars. I wondered how much of their history had survived all that change.

Other biographies about Mother Teresa had some background information that gave readers a sense of what it was like when she was growing up. But I was looking for particular details such as what kind of toys children played with at the time. What kind of transportation did they use and how did they dress?

I wouldn’t have worried if I had just remembered how helpful people are when I’m researching a book. For Mother Teresa, that help came from the Museum of the City of Skopje and the Mother Teresa Memorial House in Skopje. I contacted both with very specific questions. What type of toys did children play with at that time and what games did they play? How did people get around in the city and for short distances outside of the city? I’m assuming people at that time were using the telegraph, but what about mail service?

I sent my list of six questions to both the museum and the Mother Teresa Memorial House. Then just so they would understand why I was asking what may have seemed like oddball questions, I told them a little about the “In Her Time” spread in the book.

Their replies were amazing! They answered all my questions in great detail and the museum sent me additional information about the city. It helped me visualize Mother Teresa, who was then Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, as a young girl in Skopje.

Sometimes writing can seem like a lonely business, but my research always reminds me that I’m not in this alone. Putting together a biography is a collaborative effort, and I’m grateful to the Museum of the City of Skopje and the Mother Teresa Memorial House for their help in telling Mother Teresa’s story.

Back on Track

I guess it’s obvious that I haven’t been blogging this summer. Truth is, I haven’t been doing much writing at all. At first, that downtime was a relief. After a busy spring with tight deadlines, I was happy to relax a bit. With no new due dates in sight, I was looking forward to developing my own writing ideas.

That may sound like a strange statement, so let me explain. For twenty-five years I’ve been writing for the educational market. Those publishers target school and public libraries with their marketing. Because the books are usually curriculum oriented, educational publishers have needs they want to fill and writers try to get those assignments. It means that for most of my writing career, I’ve written books on assignment knowing from the start that the publisher wants the book I’m writing and that it will be published.

The other publishing arm in writing for kids is the trade market. For those publishers, the author writes a book or does a proposal and then tries to sell it to a publisher. I was eager to focus on the trade market this summer, but unfortunately, I’ve floundered for a couple of reasons.

First, there is no certainty that publishers will be interested in my ideas. It means that I could spend a lot of time researching and writing a book or doing a proposal and then never find a publisher for it. I know how that feels because I’ve been there. Along with writing for the educational market I’ve developed some of my own ideas too. So far, I haven’t sold any of them. That has weighed on my mind this summer making me wonder if it’s possible that I can come up with an idea that a publisher will want. What’s the secret? I seem to have no clue.

I’m also discovering that it’s hard to stay motivated when I don’t have a definite deadline set by a publisher. I’ve read books and articles with suggestions about how to stay motivated without deadlines. One is to set your own due dates. That doesn’t work for me. If I’m feeling lazy and unmotivated, it’s easy for me to ignore self-imposed deadlines.

Another suggestion is to set deadlines and then have writing friends hold you accountable. But my friends are too understanding, especially if we’re all in the same boat. So, I’ve struggled this summer with trying to find an idea and gather the motivation to see it through.

As always, the way to pull myself out of a writing slump is to get to work. With that in mind, I’ve been researching possible ideas. Unfortunately, I’ve also been discarding those ideas because they are topics that have already been done. Finally, I decided to continue researching one of those ideas because it was about women in sports, a topic I love. My hope was that a new idea would come from that research, something that hadn’t already been done. And that is what happened. I’ve landed on an idea now that I believe has potential and I’m enjoying the research.

The next step is motivating myself to stick with the project even on the days when doubts fill my mind. I think I’ve figured that out too. I’ve penciled in a writing conference for the spring of 2019. It’s a big conference, which means there will be several editors there. It’s a custom for editors who speak at conferences to accept submissions from attendees after the conference even though those editors usually only take manuscripts from agents. That is a motivator for me because I’m cheap. I feel like it’s a waste of money to go to a conference if I don’t have anything ready to submit after the conference.

So, I’m doing my umpteenth rewrite on a picture book biography and I’m working on my new idea with the conference due date in mind. In the meantime, I would like to hear from other writers. How do you decide if an idea is strong enough to stand out in the marketplace? And how do you stay confident when self-doubt threatens to derail you?

My Coffee Shop Office

As I write this, I’m sitting at my regular table by the window in the coffee shop where I like to start my day. People laugh when I tell them I can concentrate better there. I see their point. It’s definitely not quiet. There is music playing and people are chatting with friends who they have met for coffee and bakery. Some are gathering for business meetings.

It’s easy for me shut out those sounds though because I don’t need to do anything about them. At home, I’m tuned in to sounds. One of those noises may be something that needs my attention. At the coffee shop, it’s all just background noise, and there are studies showing that some noise can be good for creativity. According to those studies, an environment that’s too quiet can be just as bad as a very noisy one. In fact, there are Apps now with coffee shop background noise to play when you’re working.

I don’t think those Apps would work for me because better concentration is only one reason I like going to the coffee shop. Those morning trips also help me get a better start to my day. When I stay home, I tend to dawdle in the mornings. I eat breakfast and read the paper. I may even turn on the TV to get the morning weather report. I don’t do any of those things on days when I go to the coffee shop. Instead, I get up and get going as if I have a regular job. And when I’m at the coffee shop, I can’t throw in a load of laundry or pick up a few things around the house. All I have to work on is the writing I brought with me. So, I settle down to business, and that’s good because getting started is the hardest part of writing for me. Once I get going on a project, it’s easy to keep the momentum going when I go home to the computer.

Working at the coffee shop also gives me another way of looking at my writing. I never take my computer with me because I don’t want to leave it unattended when I get a refill. So, I write in longhand. That slows me down a bit and that’s exactly what I need when I’m trying to work out some detail or a problem I’m having with the writing.

Of course, the morning shot of caffeine doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, the bakery has consequences. Right now, I’m needing to take off a few pounds and my mornings at the coffee shop probably have a lot to do with that. I figure if I’m taking up a table at a place of business I need to buy more than a cup of coffee. So, for now, I’m limiting myself to a couple mornings a week at the “office.” I save those trips for days when I trying to work out problems with manuscripts.

I admit that there is a limit to how much noise I can tune out. The coffee shop was much quieter when I arrived over an hour ago. There were only a few regulars here then. They were reading, working quietly, and talking softly. But more people have arrived, and the chatter is getting louder. Plus, although I can’t prove it, I think they’ve cranked the music up a few notches. That’s my sign that it’s time to pack up and head home to work at the computer. I’m ready for that transition now because after an hour or so in my “office” I’m on a roll.

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