Sunday, April 28, 2013


If you're going to write historical fiction, you better like doing research. Lots of it.

You have to know your setting well. You have to get the details right. Clothing, food, transportation, politics, social customs, entertainment, occupations, music, schools, even the way people talk. The list goes on and on.

The sources are endless. You can consult books, newspapers, maps, magazine articles, even other novels about your time period. Visit museums. Talk to local people (I am working on a novel set in Harrison Hot Springs in the 1950's and the museum put me in touch with Bev Kennedy, who grew up in Harrison at that time and has been an invaluable resource for me - the fact that we have formed a good friendship is a bonus!)

And, of course, use the internet. Google the year of your book and "popular music" or  "clothing" or "food" and you'll be flooded with information.

A word of warning though: you can't believe everything you read on the internet! Be cautious.

Be on the lookout for story ideas that may jump out at you. I was skimming through Beaver magazines (Canadian history) looking for articles about the explorer Henry Hudson and I found an interesting excerpt from a book by pioneer Catherine Parr Traill. I clipped it and stuck it in a file. Several years later, I dug it out. Catherine Parr Traill described how pioneer families, travelling into the backwoods, sometimes left their children at farms along the way, intending to come back once they had settled on their land. The roads, often just tracks through the forest, were poorly marked and it was easy to lose your way. According to Traill, some families were never reunited.  Traill's dire tale inspired me to write Ellie's New Home, and then four more books in my pioneer series. And I found the article by accident!

I've read that James Michener does years and years of research before he begins writing. Stephen King, on the other hand, likes to write his first draft and then research. Somewhere in the middle works best for me. I can't start until I have a pretty good sense of my setting. As I write, I find out the areas I need to know more about. I'll put a set of brackets in the middle of my page and keep going until I have time to look it up - it might look something like (what model of car?) or (had Kraft dinner been invented?

How much is enough? The danger with researching historical books is that you can get so immersed in a sea of fascinating facts that you forget you are writing a novel. Not an article for an encyclopedia. A novel. Be careful that you don't bury your story in too much information. Select the details you are going to use carefully. Try to appeal to all five senses. And remember you can leave some things to your reader's imagination.   

Some advice from Nancy Lamb in The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children

When you make the effort to do your research in order to be historically and culturally correct, your time is never lost. Even if you don't use everything you've learned, the knowledge you've accumulated allows you to write with authority and authenticity. When it comes to research, treat it like salt. Use only what it necessary, and set aside the rest. 


Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat

This historical novel is set in Ireland in 1847, during the Great Famine. Carline Pignat knew just how to choose the right details to make her story of 14 year old Kit and her family's struggle for survival moving and a real page turner. It was the winner of the Governor General's Literary Award in 2009.

Next week:  The Song Remembers When


Saturday, April 13, 2013


People often say to me, "It must be so much fun to write books for kids."

It is fun. A lot of the time. It's fun when the writing comes easily and the words flow. It's fun when a character comes alive. It's fun when you hold the book, fresh from the publisher, in your hand.

It's amazing how a great review can lift my spirits. Even better -  meeting  kids who have read my books and loved them. An email or a letter from a young fan can make my day!

So when isn't it fun?

The days when I hate what I have written.

The days when I compare myself unfavourably to other writers who write brilliant books.

The days when the sheer number of words to write seems daunting.

The days when the muse is not calling to me.

The days when I'd rather garden or go for walk or read someone else's book or have tea with my sister or do ANYTHING ELSE!

The days when a publisher rejects my creation.

It happens to all writers. James Scott Bell says, "Don't worry about being worried, and don't let worry drag you down." He adds, "You will worry if you are a writer. Turn that worry into writing."

Jean Little, an icon in Canadian children's literature, wrote in Writers on Writing (edited by David Booth):

If you are sunk in gloom, convinced that every word you have ever written or ever will write is worthless, be of good cheer. That is normal. We have all felt that. Try this test. Actually pitch the whole thing into the wastebasket. Can you now walk away and leave it there? . . .  You are sneaking that hated manuscript out of the basket. There is, you discover, a spark somewhere in all those ashes, a character crying out to be given a chance at life. Good. Go to the rescue. Start working. Writing is hard work. Joyous, absorbing, frustrating, exciting, soul-satisfying, lovely, hard work. Worth doing well.

I often remind myself to enjoy the journey, instead of focusing so much on the end product. And it is a journey, with detours, stretches where you speed and where you  crawl, uphills and downhills, stalls and even the occasional crash. But if you can't enjoy the journey, what is the point of going?

I also make sure I don't neglect the other parts of my life. I make time for that gardening, walking, reading, tea drinking!

Lawrence Block, in an article in Writers Digest in 1989, summed it up perfectly for me:

It's all part of being a writer and all part of the process of writing. And that's all I really wanted when I first signed on for this voyage, years and years ago, and when all is said and done, it's still all I really want.


Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka

A compelling story, inspired from current events and told from the points of view of several girls, about a polygamous community called Unity.


What if . . . you stumbled upon an ancient grave in the forest? Who was buried there? How did they die? What was their story?


 Next week: How Much is Enough?



Monday, April 8, 2013



When I read to my classes at school and they hollered out, "Don't stop now!" when I reached the end of a chapter, I knew I had picked the right book. The kids needed to find out what was going to happen next, to turn the page, to keep reading.

That's what we all want when we write a story. We want our readers to keep reading.

I've watched hundreds of kids read books and I've noticed one thing over and over again. They can be halfway through a book and then abandon it without warning - because the author failed to make them turn that next page. I remember saying to my daughter, "I thought you were enjoying that book?" Her response - "I was, and then it got boring."

Kids can be unforgiving and not willing to persevere once their interest is lost.   

How can you make your reader turn the page? Use a cliff-hanger.   

Cliff-hangers were popular in serials in early movie theaters and in literature that was published in weekly instalments (eg. Charles Dickens). They are still one of the best tools for suspense we can use today.

A cliff-hanger can come at the end of a scene or a chapter. Think about ending with

1.  a premonition that something terrible is about to happen

     Harry had come without signs, like a big wind blowing into their lives, and in the end she knew he was going to ruin everything. - from Never To Be Told

2.  a shocking piece of information

     Inside the box a chain, with a heart-shaped gold locket, rests on a piece of white cloth. In the middle of the heart a name is engraved in scrolly letters:  Livia. - from Missing

3. suspenseful dialogue

     Ares saw Jeremy at the same time. "Hey! You again!" he shouted.
      "Run!" said Aristotle.  - from Jeremy and the Enchanted Theater

       Then I called into the cold empty air. "Help! Help us, somebody, please!" - from The Freezing Moon

4.  a question

          The girl's light hazel eyes stared at Melissa steadily. "Are you friend or foe?" - from After The Fire

5. emotion

          Melissa felt like she was going to throw up. She took a big breath. Then she sat beside her friend and said softly, "Alice, who is Tristan?" - from After the Fire

Remember: Leave the reader dangling. I have a card posted on my computer that says NEVER TAKE THE READER WHERE THE READER WANTS TO GO.

 Currently I am reading Ashes Ashes by Jo Treggiari. How's this for a cliff-hanger at the end of chapter one?

 The cramp was back again, jabbing into her side with an ferocity that made her wince; her lungs felt starved of oxygen; her heartbeat echoed in her ears. Then the crack of a branch snapping, loud as a gunshot, made her look up.

I just had to turn the page to see what happened next!

Some advice from Nancy Lamb in The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children .

Never end at endings. Avoid ending a plot line at the end of a chapter. That makes it too easy for the reader to put the book down.


Safe as Houses by Eric Walters
Based on a true story of a terrifying flood, this is a fast exciting read  and a great example of cliff-hangers.


What if . . . you  found  a copy of an old leather bound book in a dusty corner of a library? Someone has left a message tucked into the book. What does it say?

 Next week:  Are You Having Fun yet?



Thursday, April 4, 2013



If your story is wandering all over the place and you have no idea what happens next, it might be helpful to think about cause and effect.

One thing leads to another. Event #1 causes event #2  to happen. Not always right away. A delay, perhaps while you move to a subplot, can create suspense. But at some point, event #2 happens because of event #1. It could be an action taken by a character, a piece of dialogue, even the weather.

Paying attention to cause and effect will make your story stronger. It will give you a structure to build your plot on. It will make your scenes feel that they were meant to happen rather than randomly chosen.

A fatal mistake is to create a scene because you, the author, need it to happen to make your plot work. A scene should occur because a character did something in a previous scene to make it occur.

I learned this while I was writing my Enchanted Theater series (fantasy time travel books for 6 to 8 year olds.) In the first book, Jeremy and the talking cat Aristotle travel to Mount Olympus. In an early draft, they had lots of narrow escapes but the order of events  was random and it felt flat. My editor suggested using more cause and effect.

This is how it worked in one scene when I rewrote it:

Ares, the god of war, is about to shoot an arrow at a target as part of a contest between the gods. He has just drawn the arrow back when a deer with silver antlers steps in front of the target. That causes Jeremy to leap out from behind a tree and shout, "Don't shoot!" That causes Ares to get distracted and miss the target. That causes Ares to lose the contest. That causes a furious Ares to chase Jeremy and Aristotle.

The scene was linked by cause and effect and was much more dramatic. Once I started thinking about cause and effect, the whole series was much easier to write.

Elizabeth George, a best-selling mystery writer,  uses the image of dominoes to describe cause and effect. She calls them dramatic dominoes!

Some advice from Elizabeth George in Write Away . . .

The key here is to remember that scene one is the first domino. It knocks the next one over and so forth. If that doesn't happen, you have failed in your duty to make your scenes casually related.


If I Just Had Two Wings by Virginia Frances Schwartz

Phoebe runs away from a plantation in Alabama and flees to Canada on the underground railway. This is a beautifully written story which won the Geoffrey Bison Award for Historical Fiction for Young People and the Silver Birch Award. Another great book on the same topic is Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker.

 Next week:  Don't Stop Now!