What My Characters Get From Me

I often get asked where my characters come from. To be honest, I’m not always completely sure. In my first book, Casey Quinn leapt (or jetéd) out of nowhere when I was doing a writing prompt. Alice Jones came from my desire to write a detective story, but almost all of my characters have a little bit of me in them-things I like, bad habits, interests, fears, and other odd quirks.

Here are a few examples of the things I share with some of the characters from my latest book.


 

Alice Jones: My hardboiled detective gets her love of math from me. I was no genius, but I found geometry and algebra so satisfying. I especially loved factoring equations. Alice’s interests have given me an excuse to brush up on my math skills.

Kevin Jordan: Charming enough to get out of most of the trouble he makes for himself, I have very little in common with Kevin (I was the good kid with a guilty conscience, even though I never did anything wrong). But he has a sensible streak I’m happy to take credit for.

Sammy Delgado Jr: Sammy gets his relentless optimism from me, but I hope I manage to keep mine from being quite so annoying.

Arthur Jones: Alice’s Dad and a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. He likes to chug water from a sports bottle while he writes, like he’s running a marathon. My friends used to tease me about this in college, and I still do it today.

Delores Jones (AKA Della Lynn): Alice’s twin sister and rising theater star. Alice might not share Della’s love of the stage, but I did! I was an active drama club member in elementary and high school. Alice Jones:Book 2 is set in a theater and I’m having so much fun writing all about life backstage.

Dr. Adrian Learner: The scientist who disappears is based on my time interning at The Jackson Laboratory when I was 17.

Virginia Lynn: Alice’s mom. We don’t see much of her in The Impossible Clue but we do know she’s a costume designer. She gets that from me. I love sewing big elaborate dresses. I once went dumpster diving at a hardware store so I could get the metal strapping they use to tie planks of wood together so I could make my own hoop skirts and bustles.

 

Advertisements

Let Books be Books

I grew up in the eighties, which was a great time to be a kid. I wore bright colors and ran around in the woods, loved dressing up my barbies (both new and hand-me-downs from my mom), dressing up myself, playing in my tree-fort and riding bikes around the block (well, cul-de-sac…I had no sense of direction and got lost the one time I tried to do round the block for real).

 

swing

Flannel lined jeans-a Maine fashion staple

I can’t remember once thinking that there was anything I couldn’t do because I was a girl or that there were things that were meant for boys and not for me.

 

Is this because the eighties was a better time? Or because my parents made sure I had non-gendered toys? Or because I had that special kind of dense self-confidence that meant it simply never occurred to me that I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be and anyone who said different was so much white noise? I don’t know.

Now it’s 2016. I have a son, and I’m worried because I keep seeing lists of ‘books for boys’ and they seem to be saying that if a book is about a girl, it isn’t for him. Like the girls have a secret club and he’s not allowed!

If someone had told me I couldn’t read books about boys when I was a kid, I would have looked at them like they had two heads. I mean The Hobbit, The Phantom Tollbooth, Where the Wild Things Are, The Book of Three, I loved ALL of those books. Will my son have to miss out on Matilda or Harriet the Spy or Ruby Redfort?

I’m being a bit tongue in cheek, because he’s only five and currently loves reading anything he can get his hands on. And I hope he’ll continue to read widely as he grows up. But I do worry that the people who market books are putting up walls between boys and girls  without really thinking about it and the harm it can do.

Reading about people different from ourselves is a huge part of building compassion, empathy and understanding. I remember reading Melvin Burgess’s Doing It when I was in my early 20s and just going ‘ah ha’ so that’s what the boys were going through in high school! It was a revelation, and I wish I’d read it as a teen. AND I hope that my son is that age he’ll read books about what girls are going through so he can understand them.

So this is me, as a writer, reader and a parent adding my little voice to the crowd asking publishers and marketers and everyone building lists of books for boys to Let Books Be Books. Let kids find the stories that interest them without narrowing their choices by adding labels that really don’t need to be there.


If you are interested in reading more about this subject, here are a few links:

Let Books Be Books

Unsuitable for Boys by Tamsyn Murray

My Boy and His Books by Tessa

Boys Could Enjoy Stories About Girls and Vice Versa If We’d Only Let Them by Robin Stevens

How Do We Get More Boys Reading (Clue: Boy Books Aren’t the Answer) by Tricia

 

Boys vs Girls by Shannon Marie Jones

 

Writing, with Children

Recently Girls Heart Books had a great blog post by Sophia Bennett on the best writer’s rooms and sheds. I had a serious case of shed envy. Or tower envy. (Seriously, check out the tower!) I do dream that one day, I’ll have a little room of my own to write in, but for now I do not.

I thought it would be fun to share the other side of the writing-space coin, so here is where I write: On the couch, in our living room, amidst a sea of chaos and usually with a baby somewhere on my person. And now for the glamour shots


Writing with Baby2 Here you can see I’ve got my coffee in easy reach, and tissues (for me or the baby or both? I don’t remember). There’s an old pillow that my son has used as a landing pad one too many times and a toy horse sitting on top of the page proofs Chicken House sent me in the background. BUT the baby is sleeping! Glorious, glorious day.


Writing with Baby3

In this photo you can see me trying to give my daughter her own computer to ‘write’ on. She is far too smart for that. You can also see my hoover sitting where I left it to ‘remind’ me I need to use it. I am very good at ignoring it. In the far background, you can see the pile of coats, scarves and notes from school that gather by our front door.


Writing with Baby1And finally, I’ve given in. The baby is ‘helping’ me write. Any typos are hers, all the brilliant bits are mine.

I’ll be honest, I don’t get a lot done some days.

But I think that’s the life of a writer whether you’ve got a shed or not. I’m always looking for that one gadget that’s going to make writing a breeze (a wireless keyboard, fancy writing software, a dictaphone) but in my heart I know I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist. No matter how many helpful tools you have, you still need to do the hard part. The most important thing isn’t where you write, or what you write with, it’s that you sit down and do it!

(…but I still want that tower.)


It’s October, let the Halloween countdown begin!

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. Costumes and candy, what’s not to like? These days I get my thrills vicariously by handing out sweets at the door, but when I was a kid there was nothing like going out trick-or-treating with a group of friends.

Halloween 198?: That's me as Rainbow Brite

Halloween 198?: That’s me as Rainbow Brite

Here are 13 spooky books to celebrate the season:

1. In a Dark Dark Room and other Scary Stories Alvin Schwartz, Dirk Zimmer (Illustrator) This was the first ‘scary’ book that I had, and I loved it beyond compare. A collection of short stories with just enough scare for young readers.

2. I Spy Spooky Night: A Book of Picture Riddles Jean Marzollo, Walter Wick (Photographer) From the mad scientist’s laboratory in the basement to a spooky cemetery in the backyard, this visual walk through a haunted house is hours of spine tingling fun!

3. The Gashlycrumb Tinies Edward Gorey The definition of macabre.

4. Coraline Neil Gaiman This story is exciting and eerie, and does what all the best fairytales do: speaks to our deepest fears and helps us face them.

5. Clockwork Philip Pullman I won’t spoil it for you, I’ll just say I love how this book comes together. And it features the most terrifying ‘cuckoo clock’ of all time…

6. Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth E.L. Konigsburg After reading this book, I became obsessed with becoming a witch. Not strictly spooky, but a great story about loneliness and friendship (and witches).

7. The Pickle King Rebecca Promitzer The atmosphere of this book is so deliciously oppressive it felt like I was reading underwater. And there are ghosts too!

8. Skulduggery Pleasant Derek Landy A great action series with a skeleton detective and his apprentice/sidekick, Valkyrie Cane.

9. The Witches Roald Dahl Roald Dahl pulls no punches, the Grand High Witch is the scariest character I encountered as a child.

10. The Wardstone Chronicles Joseph Delaney Another great series. Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son, specially gifted to fight creatures of evil. The books follow his apprenticeship with the current Spook (professional evil-fighter) as he learns and battles all manner of things that go bump in the night.

11. One Day at Horrorland (Goosebumps #16) R.L. Stine I read Goosebumps like they were popcorn, but this was always a special favorite because of my childhood summers at Wonderland in Ocean City.

12. All the Lovely Bad Ones Mary Downing Hahn A classic haunting story, with some very naughty children…

13. The Letter, The Witch and the Ring John Bellairs I could put all of John Bellairs’ modern-gothic books on this list, but this one will always be my favorite. Rose Rita Pottinger and her friend (and real live witch) Mrs. Zimmerman are drawn into a terrifying world of occult mysteries.


  • Fun random fact: The baby in that picture is Ryan O’Keefe from the band River Whyless. Clifford the Big Red Dog is his brother Brendan: puppeteer, performer, builder of magical dwellings, and general renaissance man. The little Rainbow Brite? That’s me!

IT’S v. ITS

My own personal Waterloo.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things I struggle with when I write. I could fill a book. The reason this one issue irks me so much is that I should know better. In fact, I do know better.

I know it’s is a contraction of it is and its is a possessive. But when I type at speed, my fingers refuse to leave out the apostrophe. I have resorted to using the Find All feature to check each one before I send out a draft.

I wish I’d figured that trick out in college. I had one professor who delighted in red-penning this particular mistake. He didn’t hate me. He thought it was funny. When I was a senior and he asked me to proofread his own book, I was ready for payback.

I poured over each page of his manuscript looking for a similar mistake. I bought my own red pen just for the occasion. Did I find one? Nope, not a single incorrect it’s or its in the whole 300 pages. Ten years later and I’m still disappointed.

The Story of My First Rejection…

Every author has to deal with rejection. And every author has at least one rejection story they like to share. This is mine.


When I was 12, I decided to be a writer. And not just any writer, but an honest-to-goodness published author. That meant no one could know I was still just a kid, at least, not until I showed up for my first book signing. (Oh I had big plans.)

My local library had an old beat-up copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which I studied diligently, taking notes on how to format my manuscript and write a cover letter. I made a list of publishers that accepted picture books, put together my submission packs (refused to let my mother proofread anything) and mailed them off.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, I started to suspect my mom was hiding the mail. (She swears she wasn’t.)

Finally, months later, I got something back. Not the SASE I had painstakingly provided, but a big padded envelope. It looked like someone had mailed me a dictionary. My mom sat on the couch next to me, bracing herself to soften the blow when the inevitable rejection came.

Except it didn’t. Not exactly.

Inside the package was a letter stating that the publishing house I submitted to was closing down, and therefore could not accept my submission. But, the letter encouraged me to continue writing and seeking publication. To help me on my journey, someone had photocopied the ENTIRE Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and mailed it to me. Not only that, they’d highlighted the publishers who accepted unagented submissions of picture books.

Sadly, I lost that letter years ago, and I can’t remember the name of the publishing house that was so encouraging. BUT, if you were an editor or editorial assistant or some form of sainted intern and you photocopied an entire book to send to a kid (because you must have figured it out, who was I kidding with that handwriting, right?) who wanted to be a writer, Thank You! I didn’t give up. I kept on writing.

20 years later, I’ve had a lot more rejections. But I’ll always remember my first as being the sweetest.

Happy 2015!

My Writer’s New Year’s Resolutions

 

1. Write a little bit every day

I tend to go on massive writing binges, which is fun, but can leave me brain feeling like swiss cheese. This year I want to try writing little and often and see if I can be one of those organized people I’ve always admired.

 

2. Read more widely

I have a tower of books I’ve bought and been given that look amazing, but I have a bad habit of comfort-reading a few favorite standbys. Time to make a dent in that stack.

 

3. Stop thinking I’ll remember a good idea I have in the middle of the night and start keeping a pen and paper on my bedside table!