Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Study or Savor?

Every once in a while I come across writing that takes my breath away. Listen to this passage from "The Oar: A Summer in Three Acts" by Chris Dombrowski which appeared in the December 2010 issue of The Sun.
I cast into the glare-coated water and watched the lure pause on a cushion of current before the trout plucked it from the surface. I caught a small cutthroat with dark bars on its scales--an indication that it was still a parr and too young to go to sea. Luca asked me to let the palm-sized, parr-marked fish go. Little parr-marked boy, wild and pure.

Part of me wants to pull this passage apart to figure out what made it work so well. But another part just wants to sit with it and savor its light.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving musings

I was recently reminded of my gratitude as a new writer, who had never been published, for the great gift that writing gave me of living life attentively.
No future bestseller, no grand award, would ever be as wondrous as this.
I think poet Lisa Starr speaks to that same sense of paying attention in her poem "Because," recently published in the Providence Journal.
Here is the link:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Turkey Chorus

Did you know that turkeys gobble in a chorus?
I just returned from picking up my turkey at Laurel Leaf Farm.
There was a pen full of survivors, who eyed us suspiciously as we walked by. If anyone took one step too close to them they let loose a gobble warning, in unison.
One of those concrete details I would never know without first hand experience.
The glory is in the details, writers!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Fourth Wall

I was reading an article in THE CHILDREN'S WRITER about how more and more plays are breaking through the "fourth wall" between the actors and the audience. The trend began when Peter Pan first asked the audience, "Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, clap your hands."
It seems to me that many books for children also broach that fourth wall by having the author directly address the reader. Kate DiCamillo does this brilliantly in The Tale of Despereaux.
Do any of you know of other books that break through the fourth wall?
What effect does this have on the reader's experience of the story?
When should a writer broach the fourth wall? When shouldn't s/he?
It seems to me that this technique is most successful when the character or narrator speaking to the reader has a distinctive persona.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bargain Prices

Writing When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story transformed my thinking in a number of ways.
I recently found a sweater on sale--great styling at a bargain price.
But after the initial joy of purchasing it, I got to thinking. The sweater didn't cost me much, but how much did it cost the environment?
It cost vegetation in feeding the sheep for its wool. It cost petroleum in manufacturing the synthetic component of the yarn. It cost energy in spinning the yarn. Someone had to sew it. What were conditions like in that factory? Then it was shipped here from China, unloaded at the docks, and sent through the mail to me.
Did I really need a sweater that cost so much?

Friday, October 22, 2010


I just finished When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story. I'm elated, but whatever will I do with all my time now?
Blog on a more regular basis!
Of course there are sure to be revisions ahead, but they won't be quite so all consuming.
But then it won't be long until I need to dive into my next American Notable Women book, Women of the Ocean State. My first lady is Ann Franklin, printer related to you know who.
Still, I hope to post more frequently, weekly even...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Early Morning Musings

Oak branches reach out their leaf-hands
Baptizing my head with dew.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Animal Action

I went to the zoo this week and that got me thinking of animal verbs.
Stop horsing around!
He weaseled his way in.
He snaked it through the pipe.

I thought it might be fun to create my own animal verbs:
He rhinoed his way into the room.
She swanned up to him.
She kangarooed across the dance floor.

Anybody want to share an animal verb?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flowers bedded

I spent the weekend setting out all the flowers I grew from seed over the winter. It's lovely to see them nestled in their garden beds. I have a vision in my mind's eye of all their contrasting colors and textures.
As I do my research for my Earth Day book, I'm hyper aware of the environment around me, and my impact upon it. Every time I go to turn on a light, use a disposable, or have the urge to buy something, I ask myself, "Do I really need that?"
What ways have others found to lower their impact on the earth?

If you participated in the first Earth Day, I'd still love to hear from you. You can email me through my website

And the new and shiny tentative title for the book is: When Rivers Burned: Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Earth Day Request

It's been a busy couple of months. I completed revisions on a fiction project and finished my bios for Women of the Prairie State. (It will be part of Apprentice Shop Books' American Notable Women series.) Plus I worked up a proposal for a new book.

Great news! My proposal was accepted! I'll be writing a book for grades seven and up, tentatively entitled, Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day for Apprentice Shop's new Once in America series.

The book will focus on the first Earth Day and its impact. I'm looking to interview folks from around the country who participated in that first Earth Day. (Since there were 20,000,000 demonstrators, some of you must be out there!) Please email me through my website if you're willing to share your Earth Day experiences with me. My website is:

Monday, March 29, 2010

Historical Preservation Panel

I've been invited to take part in a Historical Preservation Panel as the local "noted author of children's history books." Here are the details:

Western RI Civic Historical Society is hosting a panel discussion on Preservation of Coventry History.

The panel will include Suzanna Prull of Preserve RI, historian Don Carpenter, Park Ranger Bob Grandchamp, Linda Crotta Brennan noted author of history books for children, the Coventry Town Manager Tom Hoover, and Guy Lefebvre of Parks and Recreation.

It will be held on April 14 from 7-9 p.m. at the Coventry Town Hall Annex, 1675 Flat River Road, Coventry, RI.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pat Lowery Collins Interview--HIDDEN VOICES

Your main characters are three very different young women. You attended a boarding school as a day student. Were these characters based on your experiences there? How were their lives similar and how were they different?
My characters were totally from my imagination, but their interaction and the internal workings and life of the orphanage were based in part on what I know of boarding schools that house girls far away from home. In an all girls’ school there are always those who get crushes on other girls. Anetta’s crush is a good deal more serious than most of these and definitely not a phase. The girls where I went to school usually had two parents and more freedom than my characters, especially the day students. They did not need to rely so heavily on one another. And there was certainly not the emphasis on music (in fact there was very little of that as I recall) or the so-called womanly arts, although we did have to attend something called “Social Forms” and were required to wear very unattractive uniforms and obey some fairly strict rules.

Each girl has a different fate within the confines of her times and social circumstances. Yet none lives out the Cinderella version of happily ever after. Was that a deliberate choice?
It was not a deliberate choice. As with most of my other books, although I have a fairly good grasp of the characters at the beginning of the process, I have no idea where the story is going and certainly not what the ending will be. I did intend that the ending leave something to the imagination and provide realistic outcomes for all three girls.

Most books portray orphanages as harsh, evil places, yet here the orphanage was a refuge which provided vast opportunities to young girls without families. Could you tell us a little about that?
I had a decision to make at the beginning as to whether or not I wanted the drama in my story to be caused by a restrictive institution or if, as it seemed to me from all that I had read, I should characterize the ospedale as a nurturing place. I decided on the latter and on allowing the girls to live out their own story, make their own choices, and provide their own theatrics.

You went to Venice to research this book. Could you tell us a little about that?
It seemed absolutely necessary that I go to where these ospedales had been prevalent and see as much as I could of the city of Venice first hand. I found the Hotel Metropole on the site of the old Ospedale della Pietá, observed the views from the windows that the girls would have looked through, saw the birthplace of Vivaldi where he lived through much of his adulthood and the streets he would have taken to arrive at work. I also toured the nearby doge’s palace, St. Mark’s Church and square, and the Cá Rezzonico, a museum of the 18th century. The character, Rosalba, was actually named for a famous pastel artist of the time whose work adorns the museum. There were so many things –surprises such as an original covered gondola from the period and an exhibit of 18th century instruments - that I would not have known about if I hadn’t taken this trip. In short, I would not have been able to write this particular book without such on site research.

What drew you to 18th century Venice?
When I first heard about Vivaldi’s role in the life of these girls and learned about the foundling wheel, I knew there was a story there that I wanted to tell. That, and my love of baroque music, drew me to 18th Century Venice.

What was the “Social Service System” in the Republic of Venice under the doge?
There were many foundling children in Venice – often bastards of profligate dukes – at the time of my story. The orphanages, or ospedales, took in older youngsters and answered the Republic’s problem with abandoned babies. By virtue of the foundling wheel, where infants were deposited with no questions asked, the girls and boys had the promise of a better life than being raised by a single woman or extremely poor family. The social service system of the time instituted a board of governers who oversaw these orphanages and made the rules. Music was an integral part of the life of Venice and of other Italian cities that had similar institutions, and it was decided that a musical education would be provided to some degree for all the children in these establishments and, to a greater degree, for those who had special gifts. Though Italy was a Catholic country, from what I could gather from my research, these were not convents and I tried not to portray it as such.

Vivaldi and his music are a central part of this book. What drew you to this man and his music? How have teen readers responded to this aspect of the book?
A popular composer, Vivaldi’s music is played daily on classical music stations that I listen to. I have always loved the Baroque, and the things that I was beginning to learn about him and his position at the Ospedale della Pieta intrigued me.

It is a little early to tell about the response. Teens and adults who are musicians seem to be drawn to it. Others read it for the story itself and the history.

This book concentrates on a small slice of Vivaldi’s life. Can you tell us what happened to him afterwards?
I purposely set the story during the early years of Vivaldi’s career when his own growing celebrity didn’t take him away from the Ospedale for long periods. During this, the earliest part of the 18th century, he was already becoming known in the world of opera, but it did not yet consume him. Later, he traveled throughout Europe with two of his students and there was a hint of a love affair with one of them. I really didn’t want to deal with that. As I say in my author’s notes, I wanted to focus on the orphans.

What do you think modern teens can take away from HIDDEN VOICES?
I hope that modern teens will learn from this story that in spite of cultural differences and the idiosyncrasies of other times and places, people’s emotions, needs and aspirations are basically the same. Deep friendships were formed then as they are today; a woman’s place in society was dominated by a male perspective, but there were opportunities for these girls none the less, often more so than in other periods of history.

How does this book fit in with your other titles? What are you working on now?
“Just Imagine” was my first book of historical fiction. It required little research because I was born shortly after the years of the Great Depression that I write about. If I needed to know about a detail or fact, I could usually find the answer by asking an older member of my family. “The Fattening Hut” was set on a mythical island, but based on a real place, Anguilla, that I traveled to in an effort to learn about the history, topography, and the flora and fawna. All of these figured into what I now think of as an historical fantasy.
“Hidden Voices” required more research than any of my other books except the one coming out in the fall called “Daughter of Winter”. That book is set in Essex, MA, in 1849. Essex is the next town over, so I didn’t have to travel far, but I probably did more intensive research for this book than for any other. Some of my picture books are also set in real places, but only two of them required much research – “Waiting for Baby Joe” and “Schooner”. In fact, some of the research that I did for “Schooner” was useful when I wrote “Daughter of Winter.” Presently I’m working on a memoir of my years as a child radio actress in Hollywood. It’s also a coming-of-age story and portrait of an ambitious and quirky family and magical place.

Could you tell us more about “Daughter of Winter”?
It's another historical novel - this time set in Essex, MA in 1849. The protagonist is a twelve year old girl whose father has sailed by schooner for the goldfields of California. Left completely alone when her mother and brother die, she keeps the deaths to herself until such time as the townsfolk discover the ruse and come to get her. She runs away before they arrive, however, choosing to try to survive by herself in the harsh winter landscape of the ship yards and Hog Island, where, with the help of a displaced Wampanoag Indian woman and an ancient ceremony, she eventually learns profound secrets about herself.

Is there something you’d like to say that I haven’t asked about?
Other writers may be interested in the way the story is told in three voices. I read many books written from multiple points of view to see how this could be done successfully. From the reviews I’ve seen, most readers feel the girls have very distinct voices. I had been worried about this because I was using the syntax and idioms of another time and society.

Thank you so much for joining me here. It's been a pleasure! If you'd like to find out more about Pat and her books, you can visit her website at

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Voice--out in the open and hidden

I had the most remarkable discussion with my good friend, and talented author/illustrator Cheryl Kirk Noll about voice. We discussed books that had it, and how we might develop distinctive voice in our characters. Cheryl has noticed that in novels with strong voice, the character's particular way of speaking is carried into the narrative, even in third person. She pointed to Katherine Patterson's Bridge to Terebithia as an example.

That brings me to Hidden Voices, a wonderful YA novel set in Baroque Venice. I'll be interviewing the author, Pat Lowery Collins, this Friday on my blog. Hope you can join us!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pat Lowery Collins Interview

I'm delighted to announce that I'll be interviewing author Pat Lowery Collins on her new book, Hidden Voices, on March 19th.

Please join us!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Novels in Verse

I recently wrote a narrative poem, which is picture book length, but a bit advanced for the picture book set. An editor suggested I might build it into a novel. That idea is a bit daunting, but I've been reading novels in verse to explore the possibilities.

I fell in love with Diamond Willow by Helen Frost. It's quite unusual, with a shape poem on each page based on the shape of the "diamond willow" pattern. Apparently, in the far north, willows that have been scarred sometimes develop a diamond pattern around the wound. This wood is often used to create special objects.

The main character in the book is named Diamond Willow, and the painful scars of her life develop into beautiful new patterns.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Play on Titles

Today I read an article on how a title can help sell your book, to an agent, an editor, or a reader. The article went on to talk about how the title must suit the genre. So I decided to play with giving common phrases a new twist to convert them into titles. I wondered what type of books these might be:
U-Maul--a suspense thriller?
Sky Queen--biography of a female aviator?
Surf's Down--murder mystery of a beach bum?
Moondoggle--expose of a scam at NASA?
The Spice is Right--cookbook?
I'd love to see what others can come up with.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

School visits and creative nonfiction

I just returned from doing a school visit to Paine School in Foster, RI. I've been invited to speak there year after year. It's always a pleasure to return. The school has such an upbeat and creative culture. Today was the hundredth day of school, a big celebration for the younger grades. The upper grades were playing a science Jeopardy Game to prepare for an upcoming quiz.

I gave my talk on THE BLACK REGIMENT OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. And I was reminded of how honored I feel to have been chosen to tell this important story. One student asked me whether I prefer to write nonfiction, fiction, or poetry and I realized I couldn't chose one over the other. I love the creative freedom of fiction. I love playing with words and images through poetry. And I love learning about a new topic and figuring out how to tell my subject's story so that the reader can see its beating heart.

Perhaps the piece of writing that I'm proudest of is my biography of Dian Fossey in WOMEN OF THE GOLDEN STATE: 25 CALIFORNIA WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Yesterday, I volunteered to help at the kick-off conference for Read Across Rhode Island, one state, one book. Our title this year is the delightful The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society The book takes place in England, just after the close of WWII. The Guernsey Islands off the cost were occupied by the Germans. This is a tale of the island people's resilience and recovery. Written in letters, the main character, Juliet is a witty and endearing observer.
This year, there will also be a Youth Read Across Rhode Island, which will be launched this spring. In the meantime, our committee is busy reading the titles under consideration.
Anyone know of worthy books aimed at 4-5th grade that would appeal to both boys and girls?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Email again!

I was alarmed to discover this week that emails sent through my website were not reaching me. But the problem has been fixed. Hurray for Mouseworks! (
If you recently tried to reach me through my website and I haven't responded, please email me again. Thanks!

Friday, January 22, 2010

When Illinois was the frontier

Whew! I just finished my biography of Christiana Holmes Tillson for WOMEN OF THE PRAIRIE STATE. This remarkable woman wrote an account of her years as a pioneer in Illinois. Just getting out there was trial...and she makes some rather acerbic observations of the backwoodsmen she encountered along the way. But when she arrived at her log cabin home, she discovered someone else had taken up residence and all her baggage was lost. She stuck a fresh made candle on a nail and soldiered on.