Friday, December 19, 2008

Stories behind Holiday Songs

Book writers are frequently asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Do you ever wonder about the ideas behind some of our most famous holiday songs?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Montgomery Ward employee, Robert L. May, in 1939 as an assignment. The department store chain commissioned May to write a story to be printed and given away to Christmas shoppers that year. Rudolph’s story was turned into the Christmas song we know today when May’s songwriter brother-in-law adapted the story to song and added lyrics. For the full story, click here.

Silent Night was written in 1818 by Father Joseph Mohr, parish priest of the Church of St. Nicholas, and the church’s organist, Franz Gruber. The church organ was out of commission and the men wrote Silent Night for the congregation to sing along with a guitar at the Christmas Eve service. Various accounts point to different reasons for the organ’s temporary disability. The most prominent reason told (and my favorite as a young music student and now) is that a rat chewed through a part of the organ and disabled it. If this is true, a rodent was the inspiration for one of the most famous Christmas carols of all time.

Do Christmas carols fill your car, office, or home at this time of year? Do you have a favorite?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Stories

During the month of December, I look forward to revisiting favorite holiday books and movies.

Some favorite books:

The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado
The Legend of Papa Noel: A Cajun Christmas Story by Terri Hoover Dunham
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

Favorite holiday movies:
It’s a Wonderful Life

If holiday traditions aren’t enough to put a person in the Christmas spirit, it snowed here last evening.

Do you have favorite holiday stories you revisit year after year?

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Writer's Guide to London

This is my last post on my trip to London. I promise. When I travel, I like to see the places frequented by writers, living and dead. I already posted about the Globe Theatre, here and here.

On our last day in London, DH and I visited Waterstone’s, the largest bookstore in Europe. Six of the store’s eight floors are packed with books. I perused the children’s section and romance section. I saw many of my favorite children’s books there, including the British editions of the Harry Potter books. The romance section was stocked with mostly vampire books and historical romance. I was surprised to see contemporary romance missing.

That same day, we went to afternoon tea at Brown’s Hotel. This was the first hotel to open in London in 1837. It has hosted several famous visitors including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who stayed there on their honeymoon, Alexander Graham Bell, who made the first telephone call from the United Kingdom at the hotel in 1876, and Rudyard Kipling, who wrote part of The Jungle Book there.

But that is not why I chose Brown’s Hotel from all of the establishments offering afternoon tea. One of the English Tea Room’s most famous frequent visitors was Agatha Christie. She wrote At Bertram’s Hotel in the tea room, inspired by the hotel and its patrons. While we were there, I wondered if she sat near the same fireplace, observing the other guests, penning her novel in longhand.

Well, okay, and I also wondered if anyone would ever care where I sit to write my stories. Are you inspired by the haunts of famous writers? Can you pass a bookstore without going in to see what treasures are shelved inside? Are you a travel guide planner or a wander about visitor?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Deadline Incentives

What “carrot in front of the horse” measures do you use to trick, I mean tempt yourself to keep going when faced with a deadline? My current deadline is a manuscript that needs to be finished in time to submit to a contest. Maybe you’re trying to finish a manuscript that has an appointment with your editor’s desk, finish a home repair project or write a proposal for your small business.

When the project is enormous, sometimes we lose steam in the middle or when the light is at the end of the tunnel, but it’s only a tiny glimmer, we may still think of giving up.

Do you scold, reward, chain yourself to your computer/ladder/desk? Here are a few things that work for me.

* Keeping a daily log of my manuscript page count. I downloaded a free monthly calendar, printed it out and write the page number I end on each day in the blank square. Seeing the numbers climb as the calendar progresses gives me a little thrill.

* Coffee. Lots of coffee. I make a deal with myself: unlimited coffee after lunch as long as I am writing. Maybe too much caffeine intake is a bad idea, so use this one in moderation.

* A few pieces from the bag of chocolate that I hide in the kitchen cabinet are a boost when a scene is being tricky. (My hiding place is no secret to my family now, so I guess I’m really hiding it from myself until I can’t resist.)

* A book by a favorite author sitting on my To Be Read pile that is off-limits until the project is finished. In this case, Lisa Kleypas’s Seduce Me At Sunrise.

You might be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like the Treat Box elementary teachers keep in their room for good students. I say whatever works, use it.

What works for you? Accountability with a project partner? The reward system? Tips are always welcome.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fall Colors on the Natchez Trace

In case you wandered onto my blog for the first time, let me start with this: I have a fascination with the Natchez Trace Parkway. If you missed the posts about my trek along the entire 444 miles of the Trace from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN last spring, click here and here.

Last weekend, DH (aka Mr. Parker) and I drove on the Trace to view the leaves. As residents of Tennessee for just over a year, we are totally fascinated with the changing colors of the leaves. Just to contrast, in our former home of New Orleans it was very common to see Christmas lights strung on azalea bushes blooming with beautiful pink flowers during December.

No trip up the Trace would be complete without a stop at the Loveless Café on Highway 100 as you exit the end of the Trace in Nashville. They are famous for their biscuits and celebrity diners whose framed photos cover the wall in the foyer. If you arrive at lunch, I recommend the BLT with fried green tomatoes.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Groundlings and Winchester Geese

In a post about my visit to the Globe Theatre in London earlier this month, I promised a later blog about the theatre’s patrons. Here we go.

In the days of the original Globe Theatre, patrons could pay one penny to stand or two pennies for general seating. The theatre-goers who stood in the yard to watch the plays were called Groundlings. Visitors to today’s version of the Globe can still purchase a Groundling ticket for five pounds. In case of rain, no umbrellas are allowed.

In William Shakespeare’s day, it was considered socially unacceptable for women to attend the theatre except in the company of a male family member. Members of polite society sat in the lower or middle galleries. Business was conducted in the upper gallery where prostitutes waved white handkerchiefs to attract customers, presumably to arrange for a meeting elsewhere. Prostitutes in the neighborhood were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester which earned them the nickname Winchester Geese. Now you’re probably wondering why they were licensed by a bishop. Answer: most of the brothels were owned by the Church of England. On our visit to the Globe, we sat in the Upper Gallery among tourists and a few locals. No business was conducted. As far as I know.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Visit with Debut Author Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

It is my pleasure to have Kristin O’Donnell Tubb on the blog today. Kristin’s debut middle grade novel, Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different was released last week. About the book: Autumn Winifred Oliver has charmed a hive of bees, wrangled a flock of geese, and filched a stick of dynamite from the United States government. But it’ll take a whole new kind of gumption to save her Cades Cove home.

Welcome Kristin!

Thanks for having me, Rae Ann! I’m delighted to be here.

In the book world, book titles are often condensed to three words max, so the title of your book is a treat in itself. Did you choose the title? [if not, did you provide suggestions, etc?]

I’m glad you find the title a treat! I did choose the title for Autumn; in fact, they were the first seven words of the manuscript I typed. I had the idea for a book set in Cades Cove back in 2002, and I started researching the text shortly thereafter. I started writing a year later, and I knew by that point that the protagonist would be named Autumn Winifred Oliver, and that she’d be a funny, feisty prankster. The title popped onto the page, and then I knew I had to write a character to live up to it!

Side note: The title is grammatically incorrect, and whenever those ever-so-practical legal eagles were involved (like, on the contract), they inevitably changed it to read “differently.” It was such fun to point out, “yes, that mistake is supposed to be there!”

You are fabulous at research. What types of research did you do for Autumn and how do you know when to stop researching and start writing?

Ah, research – my first love! As for the types of research I did for Autumn, I read seven or eight books about the history of Cades Cove and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and took extensive notes the old-fashioned way, on 3 x 5 notecards. (Makes outlining so easy!) I also traveled to Cades Cove (I had many times before, but this was specifically for research) and took notes on everything – the tiny size of the cabins, the gentle swish of the wheat fields, the chilling spray of the waterfalls, the feeling of protection that the ring of mountains provides. And the best resource of all was the library housed in the basement of the Sugarlands Visitor Center at the National Park. The library was created by park volunteers who realized that the unique Appalachian culture that had evolved in the Smokies would disappear once tourists arrived. Soon after the Park was formed, they roamed the area, taking pictures and conducting interviews. They cataloged everything: clothing, farm equipment, songs, stories, church sermons – so much of what makes a community unique. It was a goldmine. Still is.

And now, since we all love stories of The Call and yours is especially unique, would you please share your story?

Oh, lawsy, I think my Call story might go down in the annals of publishing history as one of the most embarrassing things a new writer could possibly do! But hey, it makes for a great story! (A good writer uses everything, after all!)

The scene: Early February, 2007. My editor calls my cell phone. I am nine months pregnant. I am AT THE OB/GYN.
Wendy: "Hello, Kristin? It's Wendy Loggia from Random House."
Me: "Oh my gosh! It's so good to hear from you! I'm at my gynecologist’s office right now."
Wendy: silence
Me: "Oh, um - I should say, I'm not in the office right now - I mean, I am, but I'm checking out. I'm done." Shut up Kristin. "I mean - I'm scheduling my induction for my new baby. I was newly pregnant when we met, remember?" Shut UP, Kristin. "Everything's great! Healthy baby! I'm scheduling his arrival right now. That's why I'm's office..."
Wendy: laughing "I think this is a first for me."
Me: unbelievably mortified "Uh, me too?"
Wendy: "So I wanted to talk to you more about this wonderful revision you sent me..."
And that was that! There, in my OB/GYN's office, I was offered my first book deal. Two weeks later, my son was born. It was one heckuva month.

Thank you, Kristin, for visiting!

Click here to view the book trailer for Autumn. Click here to visit Kristin’s website.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Southern Festival of Books

I attended the 20th annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville last weekend for the first time, but definitely not the last. The three-day event is held at the War Memorial Plaza in downtown Nashville.

As I waited in the lobby of the auditorium for the previous sessions’ attendees to exit, a steady stream of people walked up to the ushers at the door asking, “Is this where Sherman Alexie is speaking?” As the ushers pleasantly answered yes over and over, I thought how awesome it was to see that type of excitement over hearing an author talk. Once I heard Sherman Alexie speak, I understood. He is the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the 2007 National Book award for Young People’s Literature. He was funny and inspiring.

Another treat was a panel of three debut middle-grade authors from the Class of 2k8, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, Laurel Snyder, and Jenny Meyerhoff. They talked about group promotion and how a writer’s role expands upon becoming a published author.

When I told the moderator for the panel that this was my first time to attend the festival, she insisted that I come back next year. I’ll just have to do that.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Visit to William Shakespeare's (New) Place

When DH and I visited London recently, I just had to see the Globe Theatre, the home of William Shakespeare’s company. The Globe we visited is actually the third Globe Theatre, built a few hundred yards from the foundation of the original.

The current reconstruction of the Globe was the brainstorm of American actor/director Sam Wanamaker. On a visit to London in 1949, he was disappointed to find that there was no great memorial to Shakespeare at the site. He started a foundation and spearheaded the rebuilding of a new Globe. Sam Wanamaker died in 1993 while the construction was underway. The building was completed in 1997.

We enjoyed the play, The Merry Wives of Windsor from the upper balcony. We had great seats, facing the stage. In the lobby, theatre volunteers were renting seat cushions for one pound each. We decided it might be a good idea to rent them. Good move. The theatre is generally a historically-accurate recreation of the original Globe, which means you sit on tiny wooden seats in the open-air theatre. But it was worth it! The play was fantastic and a very fun experience.

Two school groups were sitting in the lower area near the stage. They looked like they had come straight from Hogwarts, minus the robes, but with navy blazers and ties for boys and girls.

Tours of the Globe are held in the morning, so DH graciously accompanied me back to the Globe (the only site we visited twice during our trip) for the next morning’s tour. The theatre is in the Southwark neighborhood, across the Thames River. I pronounced it South-wark (in my Southern accent) until I heard the message on the Underground announce we were approaching Southwark station (pronounced Su-therk as in Southern with a K at the end instead of an N).

The first Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and stood for 14 years until a fire started by a cannon fired during a production of Henry VIII caused the entire structure to burn to the ground. The second Globe was built in 1613 with a tiled roof. William Shakespeare died two years after this Globe was built. The Globe met its demise in 1642 when the Puritan government closed and demolished all theatres calling them “nests of the devil”.

I’ll stop for now, but more on the Globe’s original theatre patrons later.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Conference Report

After the SCBWI-Midsouth conference, I was away on vacation for a week (more on that later). Finally, I have a report on the conference.

Over 100 people from ten states attended the regional conference in Nashville. It was great to reconnect with other writers and meet new people.

The highlight of the conference was hearing Bruce Coville give the keynote address and attending his workshop on writing fantasy. I certainly hope some of that great info seeps into my brain and pours out through my fingers onto the keyboard. During his workshop, he mentioned the importance of humor and secondary characters. This is something I have been trying to layer into my work as I discussed before on this blog. It is always interesting to see how good storytelling techniques translate across different genres of writing.

Picture book author, Alexis O’Neill, did a great workshop on getting published without an agent. It was very well attended by many of the agent-less writers trying to sell our work.

First page critiques by faculty editors, Amalia Ellison and Harold Underdown, were very popular. Unfortunately, my page was not pulled from the box for a public reading. This is a sure sign that I want feedback, if I am disappointed that my anonymous writing was not read aloud to an auditorium full of people to be dissected (in a very nice way).

Next week: tales from my travels.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Americana Music Awards

The 9th annual American Music Festival and Conference is being held this week in Nashville. Last night, DH and I attended the American Music Awards at the historic Ryman Auditorium.

In a front-page article in today’s Tennessean newspaper, writer Peter Cooper calls Americana music genre-blurring. Click here for the article, including a list of winners.

In the romance writing community, we are told to stick within the rules of the genre. It is hard for a first-time author to find an editor willing to take a chance on a cross-genre book. One of my favorite books, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was labeled as a time-travel/adventure/romance/historical fiction on the book’s debut.

When genres blend, whether it’s a mixture of alternative country, folk music, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll on stage, or a novelist mixing different storytelling traditions between the pages of a book, sometimes different is better. Sometimes it’s pure magic.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Shout out to Squi-bee!

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is affectionately known by several nicknames. Some members refer to it as The Society. Others (like me) use the initials, SCBWI, and possibly more creative types, give it the moniker, Squi-bee (the spelling is mine).

The annual conference of the SCBWI-Midsouth region takes place next week. This is the annual gathering of writers and illustrators from Tennessee and Kentucky. I am looking forward to attending this conference for the second time. It was a great experience in both knowledge gained and networking opportunities last year. I met two of my critique group members at this conference and another great writer friend.

This year’s keynote speaker will be Bruce Coville. I hear he was a big hit at the national SCBWI conference in Los Angeles this summer. At last year’s SCBWI-Midsouth conference, SCBWI executive director, Lin Oliver shared a quote from Bruce Coville. The quote is on my desk. It says: “Follow your weirdness.”

So every (week)day when I sit down to write, I try to follow my weirdness or write the stories of my heart.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Girl Books

In the interest of equal time, after last week’s blog on Boy Books, here is a post on Girl Books. Girls tend to read across the spectrum, books that appeal to both boys and girls. I guess a Girl Book is one that appeals primarily to female readers.

A book with both male and female main characters may appeal to primarily girls due to the relationship aspects of the book. Not necessarily romance, but books with friendship as a theme.

A bookseller recently told me that middle school girls are asking for middle grade romance books. An elementary school librarian told me this week that many of her female students gravitate to the animal books and the classic, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, is a favorite.

Some favorite girl books per an informal poll:
For Middle Grade readers:
Judy Blume books
Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie

For Young Adult readers:
Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series
Ann Brashares’s Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series

For the 2007 summary of Accelerated Reader books read by students click here. Section 1 separates books read by gender.

On a side note: As I mentioned in my second blog post, I gave my daughter my treasured boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. My child read one book and part of another before putting them aside. Recently I mentioned the popularity of the stage adaptation of the books. During the discussion, my daughter burst out with, “You mean they were real people?” Since she found out the Ingalls family were indeed real, she is plowing through the books and enjoying them. So I must add that some girls also like historical fiction and biographies.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Boy Books

I have heard a lot of discussion lately on Boy Books (books read primarily by boys). The topic came up during a YA workshop I attended at the Romance Writers of America conference, in an article I read recently, and in a discussion I had with a bookseller this week.

The bottom line is that publishers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians are looking for boy books. What makes a boy book? This means the main character is usually male and the topic is favored by male readers such as horror, humor, adventure, sports, etc.

A website by Jon Scieszka, author and the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, called Guys Read offers suggestions.

Two of my All Time Favorite boy books on my keeper shelf:
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Holes by Louis Sachar

Boy books on the keeper shelves of my children that they have read numerous times:
Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer
Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney
Eragon & Eldest by Christopher Paolini
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket
Goosebumps (very large collection) by R. L. Stine

Next week’s blog: Girl Books

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Hazards of Book Research

I am working on a new women’s fiction manuscript where the main character is a professional baker. I interviewed a very nice baker who gave me lots of great information. After turning to television and the internet for more info, I have decided one thing. I’ve made a big mistake!

I can’t watch episodes of Ace of Cakes on the Food Network (which comes on at 9pm my time) and view sites with beautiful creations from Sugar Art Shows without being hungry. All. The. Time.

I’m not sure who the main character will be in my next book, maybe a teacher, lawyer, or librarian. But no bakers, chefs, and definitely no candy makers.

For fans of cake baking or the boy wizard, check out this video of Chef Duff’s cake at a Harry Potter premier.

Friday, August 8, 2008

RWA Conference - Part Two

The RWA conference was a whirlwind of activity. My online chapter, Elements of RWA gathered for breakfast on Friday morning. It was great to see chapter members in person. Elements of RWA is a chapter for writers of novels with romantic elements. This includes mystery/suspense writers, writers of paranormal fiction, and women’s fiction writers (like me).

Friday continued with more workshops, agent and editor pitch appointments, publisher book signings, and the awards luncheon with speaker, Connie Brockway. I attended some great workshops, including one on how to make your own book trailer. I’m hoping that I’ll actually need this skill one day and I’m pretty sure I’ll have to call on DH to help with this.

My favorite workshop of the conference was Save the Cat! by screenwriter and producer, Blake Snyder. Blake taught us the secret to telling great stories. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (available on his website) outlines the 15 beats of a story. As a musician, I like to think of these as musical beats in the story. This was a fantastic workshop with a great speaker.

The conference wrapped up with the 2008 awards ceremony. Congratulations to Kit Wilkinson for winning the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Romance! For a complete list of winners, click here.

Friday, August 1, 2008

RWA 2008 - San Francisco

Greetings from the city by the bay. The 28th annual conference of Romance Writers of America is well underway.

Wednesday night, the “Readers for Life” Literacy Autographing event raised over $58,000. The proceeds are divided between national literacy programs and services in the host city’s state. I volunteered at this event, selling raffle tickets for baskets of books. I have never been in sales and this is a bit outside of my comfort zone to walk down the very long lines of people waiting to get into the signing and ask them if they want to buy tickets. But it is great to help raise money for literacy and people are usually very excited to be at the event.

Thursday kicked off with a new addition to the conference, an opening session by a motivational speaker and professional pianist, Theresa Behenna. As a pianist, I am in awe of anyone who can play like Theresa. You can tell she practices a lot.

The conference keynote address was delivered by author, Victoria Alexander, an entertaining and inspiring speaker. The address is held during the first luncheon of the conference. I like the luncheons for several reasons. First, it’s a time to sit with friends and catch up and also meet other writers for the first time. When you arrive at your seat, books written by the luncheon speaker and dessert are waiting for you. What more could a writer want? I also got the opportunity to sit with a blogging buddy, Kit Wilkinson, that I met for the first time in person.

After lunch, I attended the PRO Retreat. This is one of my favorite workshop times at the conference. I am in a room with a bunch of writers like me, writers with completed manuscripts who are still trying to sell. At the beginning of the retreat, they had people wearing First Sale ribbons stand. There were four people present this year and there are more who were not there in person. It gives me hope that I’ll be wearing a First Sale ribbon one day.

I haven’t had much sleep, but to give a little twist on a popular country song (I am a member of Music City Romance Writers), I can sleep when I get home.

More later.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Music City Romance Writers at B & N

I participated in a panel discussion with three fellow members of the Music City Romance Writers at our local Barnes & Noble this week. It was a great experience, even though it was a bit nerve-wracking at first. Seeing so many members of our chapter there to support the group went a long way towards settling my jitters.

The topic was How A Professional Writing Organization Can Benefit Your Career (Or Not). We talked about the advantages of writers’ groups, conferences, and critique groups.

(photo: Ramona Richards, Jody Wallace, Annie Solomon, and me)

Here’s a short summary from part of my talk. My writing has improved with each of these steps, joining RWA & SCBWI, attending national conferences, and joining a critique group. Finding my current critique group has been a big plus in my writing this year.

I first met my critique partners in an unusual way. I attended the SCBWI-Midsouth regional conference last fall in Nashville. I knew no one at the conference when I arrived. On our nametags, our hometown was listed, so I spent a lot of time staring a people’s nametags, looking for people who lived in my area. While I was in line for the ladies’ restroom (a line that can be Very long at writers’ conferences), I met my critique partner, Jennifer. She introduced me to another member of our current group (after we exited the ladies’ room).

The moral of this part of the story is: Take advantage of time spent in line. You never know who you’ll meet. This advice should come in handy next week. I’ll be attending the RWA national conference in San Francisco. I am looking forward to networking, workshops, and catching up with friends. And Yes! My manuscript is ready to pitch.

Next week: Reporting from RWA 2008 in San Francisco.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Countdown to Conference

The annual Romance Writers of America conference starts in nineteen days. During the month of July, I am usually writing fast and furious trying to finish a manuscript to pitch at the conference. This year is no exception.

I have a short women’s fiction manuscript I wrote last year that has received one rejection and has been on my hard drive collecting imaginary dust. This is a definite no-no in the aspiring writer’s world of trying to get published. No one will buy your manuscript if it sits in your desk drawer, computer, etc.

I wrote a few chapters of a second story set in the same fictional town, then set it aside to focus on my children’s stories. I had no problem with this for a few months. Then I started thinking about the main characters in the second book. I wondered what happened to them, but I didn’t know because I never finished the story. They wouldn’t leave me alone. So I printed out the first story again and asked one of my critique partners to read it. She did and gave me lots of wonderful comments. I talked to another writer friend about the manuscript and decided to expand the story, make it longer, so I can pitch it to someone else at the upcoming conference.

I have quite a few pages left to write. Here’s hoping I make it. I’ll just have to do it one page at the time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Kid Lit as a Travel Guide

The hubby and I went to Chicago earlier this week. When we discussed our travel plans, DH asked me if there was anywhere special I wanted to go. I quickly answered, “Yes! I want to see Sue.”

Sue is not a person. She is the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered. Visitors to the Field Museum in Chicago can see Sue in the main entrance hall. I read about Sue in the picture book, The Field Mouse and the Dinosaur Named Sue by Jan Wahl several years ago. Since then, I have wanted to go to Chicago to see the giant skeleton.

Sue is named after Sue Hendrickson, the fossil hunter who discovered the skeleton in Faith, South Dakota in 1990. The skeleton was purchased at auction by the Field Museum for $8.3 million. Wow!

Sue’s 600-pound head is in a separate case on a balcony overlooking the skeleton since its weight prevents it from being supported with the display. A 200-pound replica of her head was made and mounted with the rest of her skeleton.

Who needs a travel guide when children’s books are available?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hindsight is 20/20

I will be participating in a writers’ panel next month. We will be speaking to a group of writers on the benefits of belonging to a professional writers’ organization. I of course represent the writer on the road to publication. I started thinking about what experience (not wisdom) I might impart to the group. My first thought was – if you are a serious writer, join with other writers.

I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) after I had completed a few children’s stories and started attending local chapter meetings. I joined Romance Writers of America (RWA) and my local RWA chapter after completing a draft of my first novel-length manuscript. I thought that a completed manuscript was required to join!

My writing skills were not improving while I sat at my computer and wrote in a vacuum. I started to fill my writer’s tool chest when I talked with other writers -- one-on-one, in small groups, and at large conferences.

My writing tip of the week: Join with other writers. Not only will you improve your craft, but you’ll meet some really cool people.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Books and Movies

After reading a string of books for research, I treat myself to a laugh out loud contemporary or historical romance. A great book sometimes makes me want to see a favorite movie again. A new movie will remind me of another movie that has to be added to the must-see list or a book I must tack onto the to-be-read pile.

I recently read Whispers of Heaven by Candice Proctor (aka C.S. Harris), set in 1840 Tasmania. This wonderful book that is now on my keeper shelf reminded me of another favorite, The Thorn Birds, set a century later in New Zealand. My copy of the book is on a shelf in my mom’s house so I asked the young clerk at my local video store if they had any copies of the DVD. I could tell by her puzzled look that she had never heard of it. And unfortunately, the answer was no.

The movie, Nim’s Island (based on the book by the same name), was a must-see after the previews showing Jodie Foster’s writer character. This fun family movie added another film onto my future viewing list, Romancing the Stone. Anytime Romancing the Stone is mentioned or clips are shown at the Romance Writers of America conference, it gets a huge amount of applause. Not sure if all of the writers in my area are checking the movie out, but it looks like I will have to buy my own copy if I want to see if anytime soon. Such a hardship.

Am I the only one in this book reading-movie watching cycle? Is it summertime fever? Do you have any favorite books or movies that you pull off of the shelf at this time of year?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Mirrors in Storytelling

What do mirrors and storytelling have in common? I think of magic mirrors in fairy tales first. “Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .” from Snow White or the magic mirror from The Sister’s Grimm by Michael Buckley. I have to add the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Characters can also mirror each other. I have been brushing up on some craft info lately and read a passage about mirror characters in Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis (a great workbook on revision). She said Mirror Characters “are used to highlight similarities or contrast differences” and gave one example as Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’s characters of pirates Pintel and Ragetti mirroring the two bumbling British soldiers.

I mentioned this at the dinner table one night. The Parker children are taking their Summer Rights seriously by watching the entire Star Wars series (again) this week. They told me there are mirror characters in Star Wars also and gave these examples:

Anakin’s arm cut off (Episode II)
Luke’s hand cut off (Episode VI)

Anakin electrocuted by Count Dooku (Episode II)
Luke electrocuted by Emperor/Darth Sidious (Episode VI)

In the Harry Potter series, I see Harry and Tom Riddle/Voldemort as mirror characters.

Do you recognize any mirror characters in your favorite books or movies?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Word Choice and Lightning Bugs

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

We must make word choices everywhere. Maybe word choice is not so important in conversations where specific words are soon forgotten and only the overall message is saved in the brain, but word choice becomes more important when it is delivered in writing. Have you ever read something you wrote the day before – a sentence, a scene, an entire chapter – then realized it makes no sense?

I buzz through a first draft and leave word choice repair for the revision (which I’m currently working on with my middle grade mystery). After critiquing a friend’s manuscript this week and marking Word Choice in many places, I started to think I was being too picky. Then I read Mark Twain’s quote, on the same day that I saw the first lightning bug of the season. Word Choice is only one tool in manuscript writing. But I don’t want to turn any cute lightning bugs into lightning in my manuscripts.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tennessee Renaissance Festival

Last week I stepped into my time-travel machine (a big yellow school bus filled with middle school students) and journeyed to the 16th century, aka the annual Tennessee Renaissance Festival. This was my first encounter with a renaissance festival. Wow, it almost seemed like I had stepped back in time, sort of like reading a favorite novel.

After alighting from our time-travel machine, our first stop was the jousting field. This was the most popular event with the crowd. Knights on horseback raced across the field in full armor. I immediately thought of one of my favorite movies, A Knight’s Tale. My younger companions must not be great fans of the movie because they were done with the joust quickly and ready to move on to perusing the vendors’ wares, mainly the jewelry.

The fire-eating comedian was a big attraction. I must say this is the first time I have ever seen someone perform this feat in person. Very impressive. I wonder if he had to go to school to learn this or if he apprenticed? My companions were completely enthralled with this, perhaps because lots of middle school boys were also at this show.

Queen Elizabeth I was in attendance to take commoner’s questions on life as a royal in her day. To take a quiz to learn more about the queen, click here.

There is also a real live castle on the grounds open for tours.

If you could travel to any time period in a real live time machine, where would you go?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Rejection Accessories

Rejection is a part of everyday life. It starts with playground politics, then advances to dating and relationships before proceeding to workplace advancement. We each have different coping mechanisms to deal with this.

Rejection letters (the thanks, but no thanks letters from publishers and agents) are an expected part of my writing life. I log them in and tuck them away with my growing collection. Occasionally, the letters arrive in groups or happen to show up on the same day that I encounter other excitement such as running into the steps in our garage crushing the bottom one and/or burning half the dinner I made from scratch because the bottom rack of my oven is too close to the burner (something I would know if I used the oven more often).

On days like this, there is only one thing to do. Accessorize. I put on every single piece of jewelry that I own, well almost. Why does this make me feel better? I’m not sure. But I do know that women have been adorning themselves for many years. Shells that were pierced to be strung as beads dating back to the Middle Stone Age have been discovered. Egyptians fashioned gold into many forms of jewelry over 5000 years ago.

So what keeps you on an even keel when rejection shows up?

Everyone writer faces rejection. Click here to read snippets from rejection letters received by some famous authors.

Blogger’s note: I did not receive any rejection letters this week, but the running into the steps thing and burning half the dinner were both all too real.

Speaking of bling, click over to author Brenda Novak’s annual Online Auction to benefit Diabetes Research. The auction takes place every May and offers handmade jewelry, autographed books, and lots of other fun stuff for writers and readers.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Red Herring

My research question for the week: What is a red herring?

A red herring is a misleading clue, usually used in mystery novels. The author is pointing the finger at an innocent party to keep the reader in the dark about who the real villain is until the end. After all, who wants to read an entire book if everything is explained by the middle of the story?

In the first Harry Potter book, the character of Snape is the red herring, pointing us away from the true villain, Professor Quirrell.

The Nancy Drew mystery series (some of my childhood favorites) are classic red herring stories.

I am working on a red herring for my Work In Progress, a middle grade mystery. A friend recommended an Agatha Christie mystery, “And Then There Were None” as a great example of the red herring device. Agatha Christie must be a good writer to emulate. There are two billion copies of her books in print and her play, “Mousetrap”, is the longest continuously running play in the world. It premiered on the London stage in 1952 and is still going strong.

Just for fun, a quote by the author:

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”--Agatha Christie.
(I like this one because no house elves have shown up to clean my kitchen yet.)

Do you have any favorite books or movies that use the red herring device?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Critique Group Magic

Writing is a solitary activity. Or is it? I have heard the comment that actors are the only artists who must have others around them to work on their craft. Writers, musicians, and painters can work in the privacy of their own home, studio, personal space at their favorite coffee shop, etc.

I may create the first draft of a new manuscript alone, but fortunately, Help is on the Way. Writers may be solitary individuals by personality or by necessity, but there’s nothing most of us like better than talking to other writers. So we form critique groups. I am fortunate to participate in a critique group with three other writers. This has been an amazing experience. Besides the obvious fun of talking with other writers while drinking coffee, I get professional, helpful comments given in a kind manner.

This week I wrote some additional pages on a manuscript I am revising and asked for a quick read. The members of my critique group all replied the very same day with comments.

Some writers say that the key to writing is rewriting. A good critique group can only improve the rewriting. Hopefully, joining a critique group is one step in the right direction on the road to publication.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were members of a group called the Inklings where they read works in progress to the group for critique.

Are there any other writers out there who want to brag on their critique group? Are there any other areas of life where you wish you had a critique group?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Natchez Trace - Part 2

I have completed my trek along the Natchez Trace Parkway, traveling from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. The Trace is full of interesting stops where drivers and bicyclists can turn in and see beautiful sights or learn a bit of history. I want to share my favorites with you.

Mount Locust is the only remaining inn of approximately fifty that served travelers on the Old Trace. Mount Locust is at milepost 15.5 on the Trace or just a few minutes from the beginning of the parkway by car. The inn was a one day walk from Natchez in the Trace’s heyday. Thank goodness for automobiles!
The Park Ranger at Mount Locust is a descendant of the inn’s operators and was born in the house.

This was my first visit to a ghost town. Rocky Springs, a thriving community first settled in the 1790’s, grew to over 2500 people at its peak. The yellow fever epidemic, boll weevils, and the demise of the spring that gave the town its name caused the town to dwindle to nothing. Now all that remains is a church overlooking what was once a thriving town, but is now a walking trail. Two safes, minus their doors, stand among the trees. Everything else is gone.

Meriwether Lewis, senior commander of the Lewis and Clark expedition, died on the Trace on the night of October 11, 1809. The circumstances surrounding his death are a real historical mystery. He either committed suicide or was murdered. I was told by one park ranger that his expedition journals, which Meriwether Lewis had in his possession, were never recovered.

This tragic event occurred at Grinder’s Stand, an inn where he stopped for the night as he traveled to Washington, D.C. A replica of Grinder’s Stand is at this stop along with a memorial and burial site of this great explorer.

This beautiful waterfall named after Andrew Jackson is near the end of the Parkway. We hiked down the path 900 feet to see the falls. The water cascades down to a clear pool before disappearing around a bend. Then we had to hike the 900 feet back up to our car. Not so easy, but definitely worth the time and effort.

There are so many great sights along the Trace that I could fill several blogs with the information. But I will stop here and encourage you to see for yourself when you get the chance.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Natchez Trace Parkway

Peter Parker’s spidey-sense tingles when Spider-Man is needed nearby. I think a storyteller’s writer-sense tingles when a story is present. When I enter the Natchez Trace Parkway, I feel the stories of the people who traveled the road two centuries before hanging in the air.

I wanted to take the same journey in the comfort of my automobile. I started in Natchez, Mississippi and am making my way up the 444 mile two-lane highway that the National Park Service maintains as a tribute to this important road in our nation’s history.

Trace is French for animal track. A park ranger at the Trace Headquarters in Tupelo, Mississippi told me that four major groups used the Trace.

Animals first carved out the trail that became the Natchez Trace. Two theories are: the animals were following the sources of water OR they were traveling to salt licks in the Nashville area.

Native American Indians used the same trail. The Trace winds through land that was part of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations.

Kaintucks traveled the Trace from 1785-1830. Kaintucks were men who floated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to take goods to Natchez and New Orleans. Their boats were dismantled and sold for lumber and these men used the Natchez Trace to walk to Nashville and on to their homes.

Postriders used the trace from 1800-1825. The U.S. Government met with the Choctaw and Chickasaw leaders to gain permission to use the Trace as a national postal road to transport mail between Nashville and Natchez.

By 1830, people could travel up the Mississippi River by steamboat and the Natchez Trace was no longer used on a regular basis.

As I continue my trek along the Trace: more stories and perhaps a photo or two later.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Write Attitude

As Flu Fest slowly crawls to a close in the Parker household, the number of words/pages added to my Work In Progress this week = Zero.

In lieu of a weekly blog, I want to share one of my favorite websites. For writers and dreamers of all sorts, please click here to visit Write Attitude. Enjoy!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Dr. Seuss Week

This week children all over the U.S. are celebrating the birthday of Dr. Seuss with the National Education Association’s “Read Across America”. School libraries and bookstores are hosting special events to honor one of my favorite authors.

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) had ambitions to become a college professor. During his time at Dartmouth College, Ted Geisel was editor-in-chief of the humor magazine, a job he lost for breaking school rules. He continued to contribute illustrations under the name Seuss, his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

Despite Ted Geisel’s successful career as a cartoonist, with his work appearing in The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Vanity Fair magazines, his start as a children’s book author and illustrator was not easy. His first published book that he both wrote and illustrated, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected 27 times!

Some of my favorite Dr. Seuss memories:

*Hearing The Lorax read in place of the class president’s address when I graduated from the Tulane University School of Social Work.
*Seeing the musical, Seussical, at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans and constantly whispering comments to my husband during the show like, “I love that book!” OR “That one is my favorite.”
*Visiting the “Oh, Seuss! Off to Great Places” traveling exhibit featured at the Louisiana Children’s Museum’s reopening in 2006. (I wanted to take the entire exhibit home with me. It was fantastic!).

For more fun info on Dr. Seuss, click here. And yes, I did try the games.

Do you have any special memories associated with Dr. Seuss or any of your favorite books?

Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day

Happy February 29th. Welcome to a day that appears on our calendars once every four years. Leap year (the year including February 29th) is the year of presidential elections and the summer Olympics.

Folk tradition says in past centuries it was acceptable for women to make a marriage proposal to their love during a leap year. Apparently, the powers that be thought this gave women too much power because the period of sanctioned female-initiated proposals was shortened to only one day, February 29th.

This may be in response to men’s ire over a 13th century law that fined men who refused a marriage proposal. Their imposed penalties could include any of the following: a kiss, cold hard cash, or a silk dress. This was supposed to make the woman feel better. I wonder if the spurned woman chose the item. Maybe some ladies were just as happy with a new dress.

To give the fellows fair warning, a woman with a proposal on her mind was supposed to wear a scarlet petticoat (one that showed beneath the skirt I presume) to let any men in the vicinity know some lucky or unlucky man was about to be the recipient of a marriage proposal.

A writer friend and I were talking yesterday about things that spark story ideas for us. These type of fun facts often make ideas start to pop for me. What works for you?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Interview with Kristin Tubb

I am thrilled to share my interview with Kristin Tubb on her experiences at the Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators earlier this month.

Was this your first SCBWI national conference? If you have attended more than one, how was this one different from the others?

The national conference in New York was my second SCBWI national conference. I attended the LA event in 2005. Both are wonderful, with speakers and sessions that leave you crackling with creativity. I’ve heard it said that the LA conference focuses more on the craft of writing, while the NY conference focuses on the business of publishing. In my experience, I found that to be true. It seems as though attendees have more access to agents and editors in NY, but the LA conference offers a huge lineup of kid lit veterans. If I were made of bricks of gold and blocks of time, I’d do both every year!

Can you give a brief overview of what happens at the conference?

I was lucky enough to attend the special Writer’s Intensive that is held every year the Friday before the conference. From 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., eight writers were assigned to one of 30 tables. Each table had an editor or agent who directed a critique session. Writers brought a 500-word sample of their work, and had 15 minutes to both read the piece and receive critiques. It was amazing! My morning session was one of the best critique sessions I’ve ever been involved with at a conference. Our group really gelled. I’ll likely keep in touch with 2-3 writers from that experience. And Jane Yolen gave the closing remarks, focusing her speech on fabulous endings. “A good ending should be both predictable and unexpected,” she said.

Saturday included a number of keynote speakers: David Wiesner, Nikki Grimes, and Carolyn Mackler. (Wow! Pow! Ka-chow!) There were two pre-assigned break-out sessions, each featuring an editor of a major publishing house. The topic was the same for each editor: “What I want to publish.” I chose to attend sessions by Reka Simonsen (Henry Holt) and Wendy Loggia (aka, my SuperEditor, at Delacorte ) The editors were upfront and open about how their houses work, what the acquisition process is, and what their needs and likes are. At the core of every presentation? Editors want A GOOD STORY. Hmmm…

On Sunday, Susan Patron spoke about what it’s like to win the Newbery (it was *fascinating*!). I missed one of my all-time favorite authors, Richard Peck, due to my flight schedule.

Overall, it is delightful experience, one that reenergizes your writing and keeps you focused on quality.

What was your favorite event or speaker?

My favorite speaker was Carolyn Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things). I’d seen her present at the LA conference in 2005, and boy, what a difference three years and a couple of banned books makes! Don’t get me wrong – she was an energetic, funny, and entertaining speaker when I first saw her, but her speech this year in NY was downright inspirational. As in, I-want-to-dash-back-to-my-hotel-room-and-write-right-now, I-don’t-care-that-there’s-no-money-in-kid-lit inspirational. All heart. Fantastic.

How did it feel to go to the conference as a soon-to-be debut author?

I’ve always found conferences a little nerve-wracking. Writers are a reclusive sort, and talking to strangers isn’t always easy. So for me, having a book coming out this fall was kinda like having the ultimate ice-breaker. Kid lit writers are the nicest people on earth, and they are genuinely happy for others’ successes.

Plus, I got my first-ever round of applause for writing at this conference! My SuperEditor offered Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Different as an example of middle grade historical fiction that caught her eye. “And the author is in the audience!” she added at the end of her lovely overview. “Give a wave, Kristin!” As I did, the audience clapped! For *my* book! I’m still floating.

What advice would you give unpublished authors who are considering attending the conference for the first time?

Go go go go go! But first, write the very best story you can write. Research the people who will be presenting at the conference, and see who edits/represents books that are similar to yours. Read those books. (This is a step that is often overlooked, but don’t overlook it! That whole ice-breaker thing again…) Be respectful of the agents and editors who are giving up their personal time to attend the conference. Bring business cards, and meet as many fellow authors as you can. If there are optional or additional critique sessions available, do as many of them as you can. After the conference, send exactly what the editor/agent requests, no more, no less. Write thank you notes. Have fun!

Tell me about your debut novel and when it will be available.

Autumn Winifred Oliver has charmed a hive of bees, wrangled a flock of geese, and filched a stick of dynamite from the U.S. Government. But it’ll take a whole new kind of gumption to save her Cades Cove home.

Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different is an historical fiction middle grade novel set in 1934 Cades Cove at the birth of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the only national park formed from privately owned land. It will be available October 14 from Delacorte Press. For more information, please visit my website:

Thank you Kristin, for taking the time to share your experiences! Now I definitely have ‘Attend SCBWI national conference’ on my to-do-list.

Kristin is a member of the Class of 2k8, a group of 27 debut Middle Grade and Young Adult authors with books coming out in 2008. Check out their website here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Snowflakes and Book Characters

Two words that were seldom, if ever, spoken in New Orleans, but are occasionally heard in Tennessee were announced earlier this week. Snow Day! These seven letters pumped joy into the hearts of school children and made me pretty happy, too. From experience, I know a snow day sure beats the heck out of a hurricane evacuation day.

Before moving to Tennessee, I had only seen snow a few times in my childhood and once in New Orleans (Christmas Day 2004).

Earlier this week, I was sitting at my computer watching the snow through my window thinking, this is definitely a new experience for me. Large flakes started drifting down and I put my coat on and went back outside in a flash. I held out my hands and caught snowflakes in my red gloves. For the first time in my life, I saw the shape of a snowflake. My first thought was, “Wow! It really does look like they say in books.” My second thought was, “I feel like Snowflake Bentley.”

If you are a children’s book writer or reader, you probably know that Snowflake Bentley is the 1999 Caldecott winning biography by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931) developed a technique to photograph snowflakes. He is the person who actually proved that no two are alike. This wasn’t a quick process. It took years of trial and error. Sort of like working towards publication.

Do you ever think of yourself as a fictional character, or in this case, a real live person from history, in one of your favorite books?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Research and the First Draft

I started writing a new middle grade mystery this week. There are few things in my life that match the excitement of opening a document and starting a brand new manuscript.

Many writers love research and say they must make themselves stop the research to start writing. I am the opposite. I must force myself to do enough research so that I don’t leave glaring errors needing a major rewrite. This happened in my last mystery. I was so ready to start the new manuscript, that I relied on my memory of historical facts to write Clue #1 for the story. Lesson learned: Always check your facts, especially when Clues 2, 3, etc. are tied to Clue #1 in the story.

Where I went wrong: I could not remember which order the buildings were constructed that surround Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans, one of my favorite neighborhoods. Just in case any blog readers might find this information helpful, here are the facts:

In 1788, a great fire broke out in the French Quarter on Good Friday, destroying eighty percent of the city’s buildings, including St. Louis Church. The building that would become known as St. Louis Cathedral was rebuilt on the same spot.

In 1849 and 1850, the Pontalba buildings that border Jackson Square (believed to be the first apartment buildings in the United States) were built. They did not exist in 1788 and could not have been damaged by the great fire.

This is the type of thing research can help with! What about you? Are you a research junkie or does the keyboard sing a siren song to you?

Friday, January 18, 2008


The American Library Association announced their picks for best books for children and young adults this week. View the list here.

A unique book was awarded the Caldecott Medal (best picture book) this year. The winner is the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Yes, a 500+page novel won the picture book award.

So is it really a picture book? A writer friend of mine tried to listen to the audiobook, but could not follow the story until she read the actual book with illustrations. The illustrations are an integral part of this story. So Hugo Cabret has the unusual distinction of being part novel, part picture book.

I am not a picture book writer and I’m definitely no illustrator. It is rare that I can say that I own the Caldecott winning book. Until now. My son and I are currently reading Hugo Cabret together. It is a wonderful book. Librarians agree. To hear their response to the announcement at the ALA earlier this week, click here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

By Any Other Name?

The hubby and I went to East Nashville earlier this week to see Elmo Buzz perform. But it wasn’t Elmo Buzz. It was Todd Snider doing a special show. But we knew that, that’s why we went. In the movie, Notting Hill, the movie star character played by Julia Roberts always used a pseudonym (a Disney character’s name I believe) when checking into a hotel. Writers use pen names. So artists of all types go by code names on occasion.

I will tip my children’s book writers’ hat to a few famous pseudonymous writers:
Lewis Carroll
Dr. Seuss
Lemony Snicket

Say you have to pick a nom de plume/code name/alias today. What would it be? How would you decide?