Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summer Time...

It's been so hot, even in New Jersey, this week that all I can do is sit still, dreaming up ways to stay cool. I know, I know. Writing while sweating is supposed to be good. After all, didn't my home state of Mississippi produce more accomplished writers than almost any other? And that was pre-airconditioning.

Although I'm not writing, I am reading- a perfect summertime activity if ever there was one. And just now I stumbled across this posting from my group blog A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Rereading it made me think this hot June day would be a perfect time to share it here. If the picture doesn't send you searching for a cold frozen treat, nothing will...

Photo credit: Scott Keeler, St. Petersburg Times

Details, Details (or What Sno-Cones Have Taught Me About Writing)
This season’s blog theme is What Writing Has Taught Me About Life. No, we don’t have to do the assignment. We can blog about anything that catches our fancy. After all, it’s not 8th grade math class. But I was always a bit of a teacher's pet, even did the extra credit stuff. I take these “voluntary” assignments seriously.

But not too seriously. So in honor of summer, I’ve turned my assignment around.

By the time I took to writing professionally, giving up another career to write, I had already learned a lot about life—and not from writing. So today I’m thinking instead about what life has taught me about writing.

Specifically, what eating Sno-cones teaches me about writing fiction.

Stay with me here. By studying Sno-cones carefully, I understand the importance of detail, the use of emotion, the seriousness of research, and the tricks to finding the perfect image in every word. And getting it right.

First off, is it Sno-cones or Snow Cones or Sno-balls? (Or some might make a case for Italian Ice, but if we are setting the story in the South, they would be dead wrong.)

In Mississippi, where I grew up, kids ate Sno-cones, spelled like that. And I didn’t think much about it. Then a couple from New Orleans opened a Sno-ball (spelled like that) stand a short drive from my Florida neighborhood. My transplanted Louisiana relatives were ecstatic. I was confused.

These Sno-balls looked like the summer treats of my childhood—the paper cups, squished to overflowing, that turned to soupy liquid when most of the ice is munched away. But then the proprietor of the Sno-ball stand asked if I wanted cream on top. Cream? On a Sno-cone? No, here they’re selling Sno-balls and sure, I’ll try the cream.

So right off the bat, Sno-cones have taught me the importance of research and fact checking, even in fiction. Not to mention spelling. Most of the time, you can’t fool your readers with mistaken details. Especially if the details are part of their history.

Now I’m working on a kids’ novel set in Florida, in the summer. Small-town Florida, a place where kids ride their bikes to the Sno-cone stand. Where they drip orange and purple all over their white shorts, just like my friend Eileen remembered when I asked around for Sno-cone stories.

Life— in the form of a frozen treat-- teaches me that memories are an important component of fiction.

Remembering in all five senses makes a scene come alive. The cold sticky colors dripping down an arm as we squeezed the paper cup. And white shorts, the worst thing to wear while slurping a Sno-cone. Watermelon and cherry and banana— whether the Sno-cone flavorings actually smell like the fruit they are named for, they taste that way and they evoke a scent. So I’m having my character eating a cherry Sno-cone, always my favorite.

Hot nights under the summer sky, Little League games at the park, the sound of the bell on the truck, the worry over the quarters—saved to pay for a lemon Sno-cone— that slipped through the pocket and are gone forever. Memories seep into stories and emerge as something else, another thing life has taught me about writing.

So I’m including a cold summer treat in my story, and I’ll get the details right. I’ll have to think about what to call it—a Sno-cone or a Sno-ball— but a few more trips to my new Sno-ball place, and I should have it all figured out.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Word After Word After Word

What a fine title!

Click here for a great interview with Patricia MacLachlan. I'm a big fan of a lot of her books. They are well loved by kids and the adults who share them. The 3rd graders at the school where I last worked read Baby, the 4th graders Sarah, Plain and Tall. We had some memorable discussions about those books. I'm looking forward to reading this new one.

When Publishers Weekly interviewed her about the novel being published just this month, Word After Word After Word, they asked how it happens she writes so sparely and can squeeze so much into her shorter works. I love her answer, maybe because having grown up in the South, I tend to use way more words than I need! Revision/ reduction is key. But wouldn't it be nice if I could start off knowing just the right words to use...

Here's her answer to the question about writing sparely. Be sure to read the entire interview. Good stuff.

I think what happens is you write how you grew up. And I was born on the prairie and so everything is kind of spare on the prairie. And so I’m just used to writing in that way. Sarah, Plain and Tall was that way. And most of my fiction is. I like writing small pieces. Somehow it just suits me. My writer’s group laughs that I start to faint when I get to 200 pages—so that’s kind of a standing joke.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere

I've already gone on enough about how much I liked this young adult novel. I especially like when a book surprises me like this one did. So I won't add much to my previous post, except that there's a terrific interview with Jandy Nelson up over at the Tollbooth blog. There are 4 parts, 4 different blog postings. Be sure to scroll through and read them all.

A few things she said will stick with me today as I talk writing with my smart, original, amazing critique group.

Here's a bit of that interview, with Jandy, quoting a book I plan to check out very soon
(And I'm thinking what he says about voice might just hold true for a few other Life Things!):

Obviously not because I wrote it quickly, but because I wrote it like I was talking to myself or a friend and it never occurred to me that voice is just that—who you are but on the page, and so it is who your character is too, right? It’s so simple! That floored me! There’s this fantastic and very helpful and inspiring quote about this by Les Edgerton who wrote Finding Your Voice. He says,

". . . no matter what you write, there’s a good chance that someone else may do the same thing better. There’s only one thing another writer can’t do better than you. And, it only happens to be the most important thing a writer can possess. Yourself. Your voice. They can’t get your personality on their page. And, since a personal voice is the single most important component of writing and the single most important element leading to success, no matter how good the competition may be, you’ve got an edge on them by simply being you."

Related post: The Sky is Everywhere

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Deborah Wiles' amazing new middle-grade novel about the 60s, her first in a planned trilogy about the decade, is in my hands, and my book review was just published in The Christian Science Monitor. I've grown quite fond of the narrator, Franny. What a totally appealing 11-year-old! I hate to leave her and wonder if she'll make her appearance in the next two books. Somehow, I'm not so sure.

At the heart of this story is the Cuban Missile Crisis. On this topic, I've consulted my siblings, my best friends, anybody I can think of who was in school in Cleveland, Mississippi, with me at the time. We just don't have the memory for the event that Wiles writes about, although many of my contemporaries who lived in other places sure do. Maybe the Mississippi Delta was too isolated to consider itself a target.

But Deborah Wiles has done such a remarkable job of recreating a summer in one family's life, how these historic events touched them, that I feel like I was there ducking and covering, worrying about whether the world was about to blow up. When in fact, I was oblivious. How about you?

Wiles has written so wisely in her blog about the creation of this trilogy-in-progress. I heard her speak a few years ago about Hang the Moon, the next novel in the series, how hard it was to write. I love what she says about that upcoming book:

It was larger than my talent -- and my skills -- when I discovered it.

And how she finally had to trust her own instincts, give up on help, and just write:

And what I have learned in the intervening years is that there is a time to move beyond your teachers and take up your unique voice. It's a little like leaving home. It's a starting-over. You take what works and leave the rest.

I truly understand what she means.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


OK, so I love barbecue. Those trucks by the side of the road. Even the chains, especially if they originate in Memphis. Well, maybe not all the chains. To tell the truth, I want my barbecue to come from a place with a screen door letting the flies in.

I loved reviewing this book. And the Culinate website is filled with all sorts of good things for foodies. Check it out. Sign up for their email. And don't forget to read my review while you're over there.

Memphis Barbecue vs. Carolina 'cue. You be the judge...

And remember a while back when I was making and commenting on coleslaw? I was trying out recipes. All for a good reason. Reviewing a cookbook requires more than just reading and writing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Comma Queen

I was once known as the Grammar Queen. I shared that honor with my friend Leslie. We knew the rules, which is important if you want to break them. The comma thing is particularly vexing. Rules change at the drop of a hat. Ditto for dashes.

But writing fiction, and especially creating dialog, requires that you hear where commas are needed and leave them out where they aren't. No matter what Mr. Strunk and Mr. White might think, sometimes, in fiction, you have to break the punctuation rules.

That's why I love this blog post from Cheryl Klein about using commas. It's taken from a book she's about to publish, and I'll be first to check that one out! As Ms. Klein, super editor at Scholastic says:
The ENEMY to sentence rhythm: the wrong punctuation..

Recently I received a critique from a highly regarded agent (not mine!) commenting that I should check for "typos" in my manuscript. Me? The Grammar Queen? I was insulted. But I knew exactly what he referred to-- those commas that separate compound sentences. I'd left them out intentionally. It just didn't sound right.

Joan talked and Julie listened. Glory raced upstairs and Frankie followed her.

Now I know those could use a comma, but it destroys the rhythm of the sentence. At least the way I hear it in my own head's voices! And Cheryl Klein gives even more excellent examples.
It's a short blog post. Click on over there and read. And whether you like serial commas or not, at least we writers need to know what they're intended for in the first place.

You do remember serial commas, don't you?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

De-Rotting the Brain

My friend Julie just shared something she heard at a recent lecture by a neuroscientist at Princeton, about staving off brain rot:
Exercise! Exercise! Exercise! And doing things that REALLY challenge your brain - like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. (Try it - not easy.)

As I'm pondering jolting the brain cells, getting back into a writing state of mind after a brief sojourn, I think it must be a message (from whom?) that today my Trader Joe's cash register receipt featured this quote, from Dr. Seuss:

I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.

Now off to bed, to dream of who-knows-what, right after I attempt brushing my teeth with my left hand.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Now this is what I need for my midnight snack/ writing diversion.

I bet my friend Lee could whip up some of her famous cookies decorated with favorite book covers...

Click to see more of these delicious books-
Cake Wrecks! Yum!

(Cake picture from Tiffany H., made by The Whole Cake and Caboodle)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Welcome Summer!

I hope writing in the summer isn't like that assigned Summer Reading List some of the students in my realm complained about.

In June, they usually looked upon it with enthusiasm, a new project, a clean slate. Titles much discussed, purchased and carefully laid out, perhaps packed in camp trunks. By mid-summer it had barely been tackled, but the goals were still in place. Then, a few weeks from the dreaded deadline, a sudden push to complete the requirements: three books read in a week!

Actually, most of the readers in my world, myself included, loved nothing better than to curl up with a good book. It was just the required reading of Silas Marner we dreaded.

So with that in mind, I tackle my summer writing project, vowing it will be more Gone With the Wind than Robinson Crusoe (never a favorite of mine). At least in my enthusiasm to embrace it!

Do you have summer writing goals? Or is summer just another season, with more diversions? Is your stack of Writing Books To Read handy? Ready with pristine notebooks to embrace a new idea? Write away! And here's hoping you find a nice hammock, a cool upper bunk, a big shade tree while you're at it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Historical Fiction, Pt. 2

I seem to be reading a lot of historical fiction lately. Two books written for kids were sent to me by their publishers to review. Countdown, set in the early 1960s, could be one of my favorite books of the year. Turtle in Paradise, a midde-grade novel which takes place during the Great Depression in Key West, features a really fun young narrator whose view of life is perfect for the story.

Historical fiction provides a terrific view of other cultures, other times. Without a book like One Crazy Summer, how would kids experience riding across country when flight attendants were known as stewardesses and phone booths housing pay phones, needing actual money or maybe "reverse the charges" messages, predated cellphones? All the details of past lives and times, right there for them to question and smile over.

The first history I remember came from the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Remember those turquoise or orange books with titles like Abigail Adams: Girl of Colonial Days, Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl, or Robert E. Lee: Young Confederate? Never mind that these people may have actually accomplished something other than their childhood adventures, I loved reading about their escapades as children.

Imagine my dismay when, as a working school librarian, I realized that these books were not truly biographies but were better cataloged as historical fiction. Alas! My own childhood knowledge base, tainted by story.

Truly, it's the story that fascinated me most. Still does. Put it in the context of English kings and queens or the American Civil War, and you have the added benefit of learning a little history while tearing through a terrific tale.

Related post: Writing History

Friday, June 4, 2010

Turtle in Paradise

Here's a fun summer book for middle-grade readers. I posted my review to the Reading, 'Riting & Research Blog before I left on my trek northward. Not much blogging time on the long drive to New Jersey.

TURTLE IN PARADISE is a terrific novel, set on Key West during the Great Depression. I'm a big fan of historical fiction and of Turtle, a wise narrator whom kids will love.

Click on over to read the whole review. And if you have a young reader, looking for a topic not that familiar and a story that's truly fun to read, check out Jennifer Holm's newest book.

Great cover, no?