Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for May, 2015

A Behind the Scenes Look at “Belles of the Ballpark”

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.

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