Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘writing for children’

Five Things about Lin-Manuel Miranda

My biography, Lin-Manuel Miranda Award-Winning Musical Writer, was released this month. My initial interest in Miranda was because of his great success with the Broadway musical Hamilton. I was curious about Miranda and his writing. I wondered why he wrote a musical about our Founding Fathers and cast African American actors in the roles of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played the role of Alexander Hamilton. As I began my research, I quickly discovered that getting to know more about Miranda was a lot of fun. Here are five of my favorite tidbits from my research.

Miranda didn’t like piano lessons. He began taking lessons when he was six, but he did not stick with it. He didn’t like to practice. Turns out, piano lessons were not necessary because Miranda can play by ear. He can hear a song and then sit down and play it without seeing the music.

But he did like applause. Miranda performed in a piano recital when he was about seven. When he finished his song, the audience applauded. Miranda like that attention so much, that he played another song and then another. After his fourth song, the teacher nudged Miranda off the bench to give the other students a chance.

Miranda got his first acting role in sixth grade. He played rock star Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. All the girls had to pretend to faint when he walked on stage in his shiny gold jacket. That was heady stuff for a 12-year-old who was shorter than most of the girls he knew and pretty much off their radar.

Miranda writes and then rewrites, rewrites, and rewrites. He wrote his first play, In the Heights, when he was in college. Eight years later, it opened at 37 Arts Theatre in New York, and a little over a year later, it opened on Broadway. Getting a play he wrote in college ready for a New York stage took a lot of rewriting. By the time Miranda was finished, all that was left of the original musical was a few notes from the first song.

He wrote several songs for The Electric Company, a children’s show on PBS. One song featured a rap battle between a very negative apple and an optimist hot dog. Miranda appeared on the show as the hot dog, who countered the negative words spewed out by the apple with positive words. You can watch that video here.

As for Miranda’s casting decisions for Hamilton, he said he wanted people to feel that everyone is part of the United States even if they do not look like the Founding Fathers. Miranda has a lot to say about immigration, and that was another reason I wanted to write about him. I’m hoping my biography about Miranda plays at least a small part in getting kids to talk about immigration. They are important conversations to have, now more than ever.

After the First Draft

I finally finished the first draft. My sigh of relief as I typed that final paragraph could be heard across three states. The writing is in sorry shape, but that’s okay. I’m just happy to be moving on to the rewrite, the part I love.

One thing I’ll be working on is cutting. I need to delete about 1,000 words to get the manuscript down to the 8,000 word limit for the series. It could be worse, in fact, it has been. There are times when I’ve had to cut manuscripts by half. I don’t mind because what I end up with is a tighter, more focused piece.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve struggled with finding the focus of this book. The one-sentence summary of what is important about my subject has been elusive. The answer finally came to me when I was having lunch with a friend. We chatted about our current writing projects, and the conversation came around to the things I like about my subject. As I explained what I admire most about my subject, it came to me. I realized mid-sentence that I was actually talking about what needed to be the focus of the biography. Knowing the focus makes cutting easy because I can delete the parts that don’t support that main idea.

I’ll also be taking another look at problem paragraphs. Sometimes I work hard on a paragraph, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t sound right. I’ve learned there are a couple of reasons for that. Either the paragraph is in the wrong place, or it doesn’t belong in the book at all.

Rewriting also involves smoothing and polishing, finding just the right words to convey an idea. I need to think about energy too, using the active rather than the passive voice and choosing strong action verbs.

Finally, I need to lower the reading level a bit. That means dividing some longer sentences into shorter ones. I’ll also replace some difficult words with easier ones that have fewer syllables.

It’s a lot to think about, but I love rewriting because that’s when the book really takes shape. And that’s satisfying. As the George Peppard character on The A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Wrestling with a First Draft

As I’m nearing the end of another first draft, I’m reminded of how messy they can be. “Don’t worry about first drafts,” experienced writers advise. “The most important thing is to just get something down on paper. Allow yourself to write crap.”

I follow that advice. Yet what always astonishes me is how hard it is to get that crap down on paper. One thing that helps me is to set daily word goals. I most often set a goal of 500 words a day. It’s a word count I can reach with minimal hair pulling, and many times I surpass it. After all, the hardest part is just getting myself to the computer. Knowing I can quit after 500 words makes the whole process seem doable.

Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to set a much lower goal in order to lure myself to the computer. So I set a goal of 200 words a day. That only worked a few days and then I came to a complete stop. I soon realized why.

First, I don’t have a clear focus for the book. I need to be able to tell in a single sentence what is important about the subject of my book. Usually, I have that sentence clearly in mind before I start writing. But with this book, I’m on the last chapter of my first draft and I still don’t have a clue. I’ve had trouble making that decision because the subject has had so many accomplishments and she continues to achieve.

Second, I’m not sure of what I want to include in the final chapter. That indicates a problem with my research. Fortunately, I’ve come up with a plan to get back on track.

First, since this book is part of a series, I’ll read other books in the series. Then I’ll try to tell in one sentence what those books are about. It should give me a clearer idea of the focus for my book because reading what others have done is always a big help.

Second, I’ll go back to the research. Nine times out of ten, when I get “stuck” with my writing it’s an indication that I don’t have enough information. I need to dig deeper.

Finally, I’ll keep reminding myself to relax and just do the best I can on the first draft. After all, what follows is the rewrite, and that’s the part I love.

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

How I Found My Writing Niche

The subtitle for this post could be: How a Second Grade Boy Helped Me Launch My Writing Career. I’ve said many times that I started writing biographies after following the advice of another author who said, “Write what you like to read.” I remembered how much I enjoyed reading biographies when I was a kid especially stories about trailblazers such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Elizabeth Blackwell. But the truth is, it took me a long time before I considered writing any type of nonfiction. It was a second grade boy who set me on that track.

Like most beginning writers, I dreamed of writing fiction, particularly the mysteries and ghost stories I loved to read. Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait ‘Til Helen Comes remains one of my all-time favorite books. Joan Lowery Nixon and Lois Duncan were my idols. For years, I ignored the fact that there were more opportunities for writers in nonfiction. That’s because editors are always looking for nonfiction, but most writers want to write fiction.

My change in attitude came when I was working as a media secretary at an elementary school. Seated at my desk, I watched as a class of second graders hurried into the IMC for checkout time. My favorite part of the job was when students asked me to help them find a book. I was not disappointed on that day as a smiling young man approached the desk.

“Can you help me find a book?” he asked.

“Sure, what kind of books do you like to read?”

“Good books,” he said.

That was my cue to recommend what I thought were good books. “Have you read any of the Henry and Mudge books?” I asked. But they did not appeal to him. I recommended a couple of other possibilities from the fiction section, as I assumed that’s what he would want to read.

Then he surprised me. “No, I want real books,” he said.

“What do you mean real books?”

“You know, true stories,” he answered.

“Oh, you mean nonfiction.”

“Yeah, real books with facts and stuff.”

It didn’t take long to find him enough books in the nonfiction section to keep him busy for a while. I soon realized that there were many other kids like him, kids who liked nonfiction. They wanted to read about dinosaurs, sports stars, bugs, unusual buildings, airplanes, and faraway places, almost any subject imaginable.

For the next few days, I thought about that student and noticed how many other kids asked to be directed to the nonfiction section. I also thought about the author who advised me to “write what you like to read.” It soon became clear to me that I should be writing real books, in my case, biographies. Once I focused on biographies, the publishing doors started to open. I had found what I was meant to write, and I thank that second grade boy for setting me on that path.

 

A Problem with Facts

When I started writing biographies for children, I was in for a few surprises. The biggest one was with the research when I discovered that facts don’t always agree. An example is my research for a biography about Ken Griffey Jr. His first year in the majors was a good one. Most people expected that he would be named rookie of the year. Then late in the season, he had an accident in the shower and broke his hand. He had to go on the disabled list, which ruined his chances for rookie of the year.

I found four different articles about his accident. Two of them said he broke his left hand and two of them said he broke his right hand. It was impossible for me to know which articles were right. Fortunately, that problem was easily solved. I called the Seattle Mariners where Griffey played. For me, that experience reinforced the importance of using primary sources. The closer a writer can get to the original sources, the more reliable that information is. But even with primary sources there may still be questions.

I ran into a bigger problem when I was writing about Mahalia Jackson because there were two different dates for her birth. The date on her tombstone did not match official records. They were both good sources and I had no idea which one was right. Since I was writing a young adult biography, I was able to explain the discrepancy in the text. “There is some confusion about her birth date. Records at City Hall in New Orleans state that she was born in 1911. But Mahalia’s aunts disagreed. Mahalia was born a few months after her cousin Porterfield. He was born in 1912, so Mahalia could not have been born in 1911. October 26, 1912, was the correct date, the aunts said.”

If I had been writing for younger children, where word counts are limited, I would have used the birthdate given on her tombstone in the text. Then I would have added  a note in the back matter about the two different dates because I think it’s important to address problems with the facts.

Many years ago, I was told that the way to decide if something is true or not is that if you find the information in three different sources, you can be pretty sure it’s accurate. That isn’t full proof. It could be that those three sources all came from a fourth source that was not correct. When I was writing about Neil Armstrong, I toured the Neil Armstrong museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. They have an old bicycle on display that Armstrong rode when he was young. Armstrong got his pilot’s license when he was sixteen, before he had a driver’s license. The local airport is three miles outside of town. According to the tour guide, Armstrong rode his bicycle out to the airport for flying lessons. It’s a nice story and it has been published in several places. But later, I found an interview with Armstrong where he talked about that story and said it wasn’t true. He had hitchhiked out to the airport.

The story I heard at the museum could be right. I know how hard museums and historical societies work to make sure the facts are correct and they have plenty of primary sources at their disposal. On the other hand, the interview with Armstrong planted some doubt in the corner of my mind. That was my second lesson in getting to the truth, digging deep. I may not have found what Armstrong said about the bicycle story if I wasn’t obsessive about the research.

Getting to the truth can be a challenge and I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Have you run into inconsistencies with the facts? How did you handle it? I hope you’ll share your experiences.

Frederick Douglass: A Voice for Freedom

frederick-douglassMy biography, Frederick Douglass, was released by National Geographic this week. Douglass, who was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland in 1818, was a powerful voice against slavery. He was also a prolific writer. In fact, he wrote three autobiographies.

I have mixed feelings about using autobiographies in my research. That’s because they are often poor resources for details, particularly dates. My theory is that when writing about their own lives, people feel they know the facts. After all, they were there. So they write what they remember without checking details such as dates. Then people like me come along and start researching them. As I draw from a variety of sources, it sometimes becomes obvious that some dates in an autobiography don’t jive with information from other sources. It doesn’t take away from the events themselves. It just means that in writing an autobiography, people are often most interested in what happened and are less concerned about when.

On the other hand, autobiographies are wonderful sources for quotes and for helping me understand how the people I write about think and feel about events in their lives. Douglass’s autobiographies are rich with details about what it was like to be a slave.

He wrote about his mother, who he saw only a handful of times before she died, and of his brothers and sisters who he never had a chance to know. Douglass figured out at an early age that education would give him power. He was determined to learn to read even though in some states it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Douglass learned, and it gave him power.

Douglass also wrote about freedom, something he risked his life to get. His first attempt to escape failed, but he was successful with his second attempt when he was 20 years old. He then began speaking out against slavery, which put him in great danger. He was living like a free man, but he was still property of the slave owner. There was always the fear that he could be forced to return to the slave owner where he might be killed, sold, or treated even more cruelly than he had been before his escape.

At one point, Douglass was in such eminent danger that he fled to England. There he became well-known as a speaker against slavery. The friends he made in England helped Douglass buy his freedom. In 1847, he returned to the United States as a free man. He continued to make speeches against slavery and started a black newspaper. During the Civil War, he served as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln and organized black troops to fight in the war. After the war, the slaves were freed, but they were still not treated equally. Douglass continued to fight for equal rights for freed slaves and for women who were working for the right to vote.

Douglass’s story is an interesting one and his autobiographies were a valuable resource for me. I’m thinking my book might be an introduction to slavery for some young readers. I hope it will lead to discussions about freedom and the importance of treating everyone as equals. It’s an important conversation at any age.

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