Thursday, July 29, 2010

PLAYING WITH LANGUAGE: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post # 5 of 6)

Dear Heather and Allyson,

What you said about details and about every word counting, Heather, got me thinking about the specific words that Cushman selected in writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann to (1) convey the historical time/setting, and (2) develop the characters.

Some of the unusual words, like “gallimaufry” (p. 4), “fishwife” (p. 4), and “kirtle” (p. 60), were in use in Elizabethan times but are not in common use today, while others, like “dampnified” (p. 4), “annoyous” (p. 10), and “tipsify” (p. 59), seem to have been created out of familiar words. They convey a feeling for another time by sounding old, even though they aren’t “real” words. They sound as if they could be real, though, because we recognize the root of the word, but the added syllables or suffixes are decoys Cushman has used to create the illusion of past usage.

Cushman also uses familiar words in unusual combinations to convey a feeling for the past and to delineate characters, such as Meggy’s repeated exclamation, “ye toads and vipers,” which opens the story and introduces Meggy:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great snuffle that echoed in the empty room. (p. 1) 
Cushman uses the phrase “ye toads and vipers” to individualize Meggy while also filling in part of her backstory--noting that “the girl” had learned the phrase from her granny establishes the connection between them at the outset. And each time “ye toads and vipers” is echoed throughout the novel we get a familiar jolt of recognition.

During a presentation that Karen Cushman made to the Western Washington Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in May, when asked how she came up with some of the unique words that she used to push the story back to Elizabethan times, Cushman said that the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary was a rich resource, as were Shakespeare’s plays, “especially for the insults.” Also, she said, “I sometimes made the structure of the sentence a bit odd” to give the story a sense of both familiarity and distance.

Cushman’s message was to be creative and stretch the limits—but not too far. I can imagine her chortling over some wonderful constructions as she wrote Alchemy and Meggy Swann. One of my favorites is this enraged outburst Meggy addressed to Roger when he turned his back on her and began walking away during one of their altercations:
“Go then, you writhled, beetle-brained knave!” she shouted. “You churl, you slug, you stony-hearted villain! May onions grow in your ears!” (p. 124)

Storysleuths’ Tip # 89: Tackle the challenge of language like a giant jigsaw puzzle, searching in reference materials (and your own imagination) to find pieces that fit together to delineate characters and clarify setting, while avoiding overloading the text with arcane, awkward words and phrases.

Monday, July 26, 2010

EVERY DETAIL MATTERS: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post #4 of 6)

Dear Meg and Allyson,

How many times have you heard an editor or writing teacher say that every detail in a novel counts? That every scene, action, description, sentence, word must contribute in some way, whether advancing the plot, deepening character, or establishing setting?

I’ve attended enough SCBWI meetings and writing conferences to have absorbed this writing edict, and yet sometimes, when I hear it proclaimed, I think, “Really? Every word? Every description? What if something extraneous slips through?”

Well, I had the opportunity this last month to compare a book where every detail matters to a book where some scenes seem, well, unnecessary.

Let’s start with the latter. I won’t name names. Suffice it to say that I picked up the latest mystery novel of a well-known author who has made a career writing fiction and non-fiction all set in a particular place, which I was planning to visit on vacation.

Now, part of the pleasure of this author’s books is the vicarious thrill of reading about beautiful settings, fabulous meals, and witty conversations, but I found myself wondering the purpose some of these scenes served. Why was the author spending so much time describing the gourmet five-course meal the protagonist ate alone during a layover? Would some detail show up later in the book? Would the character return to the restaurant later? Would he discover a clue there to help solve the crime? Alas, the answer was no. The restaurant scene had no function other than showing the character indulging in a good meal. The story would have functioned just as well without it.

I compare this to our July book, Karen Cushman’s Alchemy and Meggy Swann, where every detail seems to matter. Take, for example, the ballad sellers that appear on the streets of Elizabethan London. The first one appears on page 27:
“Come and buy,” a ballad seller called, “a new ballad of Robin Hood.”
This line is embedded within a long series of paragraphs describing Meggy’s first walk in London.

A ballad seller appears again on page 44.
“Come and buy a ballad newly made,” a passing balled seller called. “Mayhap ‘The Ballad of Good Wives’ or ‘The Lover and the Bird.’”
This time, the ballad seller is more than just one of many people on the busy street. The way he carries his papers in a backpack gives Meggy an idea about how to carry her goose, Louise, while also grasping her walking sticks.

Another ballad seller appears on page 74, and at this point, I’m beginning to think, “There were a lot of ballad sellers in London!” Soon, Meggy meets a ballad printer while on an errand for her father. And then Meggy runs into yet another ballad seller while standing outside the baron’s gate on page 130.

What a pleasant surprise (and yet not wholly unexpected) to learn, then, that the solution to Meggy’s problem relates to selling ballads! The way Cushman integrates details about ballad selling and printing, as well as Meggy’s skills with singing and language, make the climax of this story satisfying. The novel feels unified, a tightly woven tapestry where every strand counts.

Let me just conclude by saying that the ballad seller is not the only seemingly small detail that grows in importance in Alchemy and Meggy Swann. Look back at the book to references to the heads on the Tower Bridge and the issue about players needing noble patronage.

StorySleuths Tip #88: Make sure every detail matters. Look for ways to introduce important details early in the story and then re-introduce them throughout the book to create a unified effect.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ASKING QUESTIONS THROUGH INNER DIALOGUE: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post #3 of 6)

Dear Heather and Meg,

In Meg’s most recent post about Alchemy and Meggy Swann she points to one of Meggy’s problems being her loneliness—she is alone in part or all of many scenes. As a result, much of the dialogue that takes place is inner dialogue—Meggy pondering, noticing, fretting. In looking at how Karen Cushman uses this inner dialogue I became particularly interested in the way that Meggy is continually asking herself questions.

As the story gets underway, on page 2, Meggy has just arrived at what is to be her new home.

“Darkness comes late in high summer, but come it does. Meggy could see little of the room she sat in. Was there food here? A cooking pot? Wood for a fire? Would the peevish looking man—Master Peevish, she decided to call him—would he come down and give her a better welcome?”
Over the following pages Meggy asks herself questions all the time:

• What sort of place was this London? (p. 6)
• Was Master Peevish coming down? Was he sorry he had given her so poor a welcome? (p. 7)
• What was she to do to quiet her grumbling belly? (p. 13)
•Would Master Peevish come downstairs? Did he even recall she was there? Would the boy in the brown doublet come back? (p. 13)
This continues throughout the book, and I think the thing that drew my attention to it is the fact that these questions often appear in clusters. This question-asking accomplishes several things. First, it gives me, the reader, a direct line to, and constant reminder of, Meggy’s problems. Second, it creates suspense. Each of these questions demands an answer. Sometimes the answer comes right away. Sometimes Meggy wonders the same thing over a series of pages and scenes leaving both herself and the reader wondering whether or not her question will be answered and her problems solved.

Further, questions asked by the protagonist allow both the reader and the protagonist to assess progress the character is making toward accomplishing her goals. Toward the end of the book, on page 155 as the story has nearly come to its conclusion Meggy wonders, “Was she so changed? Just when had that happened, and how?” These questions allow both Meggy and the reader to stop for a moment and ponder the answers, revisiting the path that led to the main character accomplishing her goals.

StorySleuths’ Tip # 87: Allowing the protagonist to ask questions can emphasize problems, create suspense and track the character’s progress toward realizing their goals.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post #2 of 6)

Hi Allyson and Heather,

We’ve given 13 of our posts the “characters” label--we’ve examined antagonists, minor characters, contrasting characters, character development, character wants vs. needs, putting characters under pressure, and differentiating characters through dialogue, among other character-related topics. But no matter how many times and how many ways we look at character, it seems there’s always something new to learn about character from great writers.

One of the many qualities of Karen Cushman’s writing that intrigues me is the power and immediacy of her characters. I wondered: how does Cushman entice me to care so keenly about Meggy? In rereading Alchemy and Meggy Swann, I looked for clues that might help me portray vivid characters in my own writing.

In the same way that Cushman describes the setting of Elizabethan London using various ways (the five senses, contrast, lists, and language), she defines Meggy’s problems and strengths in various ways. Cushman uses repetition, dialogue, and the five senses to clarify Meggy’s problems, and she uses action, memories and dreams to clarify Meggy’s strengths.



Meggy’s first problem is that she is alone. Her opening exclamation is a response to her aloneness:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “Ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great sniffle that echoed in the empty room. She was alone…” (p.1)

Farther down the page, “alone” is echoed:
She was alone, with no one to sustain or support her.

"Alone" is echoed again in the same paragraph:
Belike Louise was on her way back out of the town with the carter, leaving the girl here frightened and hungry and alone. (p. 1-2)

And it is reechoed again, at the end of the chapter:
The dark, the cold, the strange noises, the unfriendly man who had judged her, found her wanting, and left her alone— (p. 6)

The repetition of “alone” tolls like a bell, reminding us of Meggy’s aloneness.


Meggy has another problem: she’s hungry. Although we’re told that she’s hungry (“frightened and hungry and alone”), her hunger is emphasized as we listen to her interact with other characters through dialogue. She calls to Roger:
“You cannot abandon me here. What am I to do here? Who will tend to me? And fetch me things to eat?” (p. 11) 
She adds:
“You will have to fetch me food.” (p. 12) 
Hearing her desperate pleas for food in her own words emphasizes the intensity of her problem.

The five senses

By using the five senses to describe Meggy’s pain and sadness, Cushman engages readers directly—we see her tears:
…tears left shining tracks like spider threads on her cheeks (p. 2),  
touch and taste them:
…she could not dash the tears away. They felt sticky on her lips, and salty. (p. 3); 
hear her singing:
…she sang, but the sound of her trembly voice in the empty room was so mournful that she stopped and sat silent while darkness grew.” (p. 4) 
and smell what comforts her:
she breathed in the familiar smell of goose and grew sleepy. (p. 6).
The strong sensory images connect us viscerally to Meggy.



Meggy’s transformations from hunger to eating, from loneliness to neighborliness, from pain to strength, all begin with action. Driven by hunger, Meggy sets out to buy food.
A rumble from her belly finally sent Meggy reaching for her walking sticks. (p. 24) 
At the end of this venture she takes the initiative to introduce herself to the friendly cooper:
“Margret Swann, if it please you.” Then, surprising herself, she added, “Called Meggy, if you will.” (p. 31) 
Meggy’s actions continue to get her what she longs for—friendship:
“Nay, you have a friend” (p. 57), 
She sat down at the table and feasted on chicken and apple cake (p. 60),
and strength:
"I will stand, Master Printer. I am not breakable, and I be stronger than I look." And to her surprise, she realized she was. (p. 87)


In addition to action, Meggy’s memories are sources of her strength. Memories of her gran give her empathy for others and “ease her spirit.”
Her gran, soft and warm and smelling of meadow grasses and ale, had cooed at her so and sung her to sleep. Meggy let the little girls snuggle up against her, which eased her spirit just as the drink eased her bones. (p. 51)


Meggy’s dreams lead directly to her transformation.
In her dreams she danced and ran, but only in her dreams. (p. 29)
 Suffice it to say, for those who haven’t yet finished the book, that transformation grows from Meggy’s actions, as well from the memories of her loving gran, and from her own dreams.

StorySleuths’ Tip # 86--Use all the tools in your writer’s toolbox to create complex and believable characters—including repetition, dialogue, the five senses, action, the character’s memories, and the character’s dreams, to make even radical transformation believable to readers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

IMPRESSION, ELIZABETHAN LONDON: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post 1 of 6)

Dear Meg and Allyson,

Last month, we read One Crazy Summer, a work of historical fiction set in Oakland, California, 1968. Now we reach back in time with our July book, Karen Cushman's new middle grade novel Alchemy and Meggy Swann, to another summer. Here it's 1573 in Elizabethan London, a city described by the protagonist as "all soot and slime, noise and stink" (p. 2).

(Quick scheduling note for those of you planning your summer reading: This is the first in our series of six posts on Alchemy and Meggy Swann, which will culminate with an interview with Karen Cushman in early August. The StorySleuths will then spend the rest of August engaged in some summer reading of our own. We will return with a new book and fall schedule in September. To stay posted on our September read, please sign up for our newsletter .)

Cushman brings London to life in Alchemy and Meggy Swann, capturing both the specifics of the time period as well as the frenetic energy of an urban center in any time period:
... the streets were gloomy, with tall houses looming on either side, rank with the smell of fish and the sewage in the gutter, slippery with horse droppings, clamorous with church bells and the clatter of car wheels rumbling on cobbles. London was a gallimaufry of people and carts, horses and coaches, dogs and pigs, and such noise that made Meggy's head, accustomed to the gentle stillness of a country village, ache. (p. 4).
How does Cushman create such a vivid impression of Elizabethan London?

The five senses
Cushman's narrative descriptions include sound, sight, smell, tastes, and touch. Here are just a few examples from Meggy's trip to find her friend Robert (p. 42):
Sound: "Shop signs swung and banged in the wind..."
Sight: "... the afternoon was wet, with mist rising off the river."
Smell: "The girl and goose stood in the fragrant steam rising from an inn."
Taste: "The crust [of a pork pie] crumbled deliciously against her teeth..."
Touch: "... meaty juices bespattered her chin."
Meggy's childhood growing up in the country contrasts sharply with life in the city.
She missed the scents of fresh ale and clean rushes and meat turning on the spit. This house stank of dust and mildew, and from somewhere, a foul reek like hen's eggs gone rotten. All in all it did not seem a place where people truly lived (p. 13).
Cushman uses contrast to differentiate between Meggy's expectations and her present experiences.

Visiting a strange city is often exhausting: there is so much to observe at any given moment. Cushman creates the sensation of busy, crowded streets with lists rather than dense descriptions.
Every corner swarmed with people: peddlers and rat catchers, toy merchants and dung collectors, silken-cloaked ladies and children in ragged breeches, all going about their lives, laughing, shouting, arguing, jeering, and jostling. (p. 26)
The list jumps from one person to the next, providing a wide scope of view in a concise format. The reader never feels bogged down in detailed description or superfluous information. Furthermore, the list also mimics the way an observer's gaze jumps from one thing to another.

Cushman's choice of words also helps to convey the time period and location in her descriptions. Here is another list, this one of food:
...apples and pears, carrots and cowcumbers, fat salmon, pigs' trotters, chunks of cheese, and ginger cakes. (p. 30).
While I am unfamiliar with the term cowcumber, I assume it is an old-fashioned word for cucumber. The use of this word reminds me that the book takes place in another time and place.

The setting of Alchemy and Meggy Swann plays an important role in the book. Meggy has moved to London against her will, and she fears she will not survive in such a place. Cushman brings the chaos and vibrancy of the city to life throughout the book in a textured, almost impressionistic way through her use of senses, contrasts, lists, and language.

Tip #85: Lists, word choice, contrasts, and sense details work together to create a textured, lively impression of place.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Guest post by Monica Edinger--ONE CRAZY SUMMER: Attending to your audience

Thinking about how engaging One Crazy Summer might be for teachers to read with children, StorySleuths asked master teacher and 2008 Newbery Committee member Monica Edinger to share her thoughts and experiences of reading the story aloud to her class. Her insights illuminate considerations we as writers would do well to heed. For more of her insights about books for children, reading, writing, teaching, and much more, check out her blog Educating Alice. (Photo is of Rosemary Brosnan and Rita Williams-Garcia with Monica.) This post may make you wish your children could be in Monica’s class!

When I received the ARC for One Crazy Summer around a year ago, I took a look at the flap copy and was immediately intrigued. The summer of 1968? Folks in Afros and black berets? A time and people that I’d yet to see much of in stories for the age group I taught --- fourth graders. Those I had encountered often felt overly earnest, their authors working hard to make connections to situations today, say linking the Vietnam War to our current engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or they focused on familiar icons and events of the civil rights movement. This book looked different.

And so it turned out to be. During that first reading a year ago I fell completely in love with those three sisters, their story, and Rita’s poetic and elegant prose. Months later, after learning that I’d reviewed it for the New York Times, my fourth grade students asked me to read it to them. They were alert and insightful listeners --- laughing as Fern said yet again “surely,” curious about the Black Panthers (I showed them that photo of Huey with the shotgun), and moved (not upset) by the girls’ complex mother.

As I read and reread the book, on my own and to my students, I was progressively more and more impressed with Rita’s sensitivity for her intended audience. I've noticed that this is a particularly tricky thing for those writing for children. Some claim not to be aware of their audience while others seem too aware. Don’t you, I've ask some writers, think about your intended reader when writing? No, some of them answer, I only think about the story. But, I will persist, you clearly make decisions that affect that audience. You use one word instead of another. You consider what a young person will know or not know. Perhaps you do it unconsciously, but you do it. No, they will tell me, I just think about my story not about who will read it.

At the other end of the spectrum are those writers who over-think and over-focus on their young readers. These are writers who earnestly and always with the best of intentions, moralize and instruct all too obviously. One hilarious example is Lewis Carroll who talks down most cloyingly to his young audience in his Nursery Alice. One of my students did a wonderful parody of this with, of all things, The Golden Compass.

Rita, I feel, manages this tightrope just right. She respects her young readers, trusts them, and serves them beautifully. While not shying away from having Cecile tell Delphine about her sad and hellish childhood, she does it in a way appropriate for a middle grade reader. What it needed to be, but no more. Similarly, she doesn’t overdo the Black Panther information, giving them a taste, but no more.

This spring Rita visited my classroom and met with our faculty book group where she spoke of deep awareness and personal connection to the Black Panthers. Yet she was very careful not to allow that personal knowledge to take over the story --- she always kept it completely grounded in Delphine, just the way it needed to be for her and for the children today who would read the story. For more about our day with Rita, how I read the book to my students, and their own responses to it please check out this blog post of mine, One Crazy Day.

Thank you, Monica, for this stunning and insightful post, which wraps up our StorySleuths focus on One Crazy Summer.

StorySleuths Tip # 84: Be aware of the audience and adjust the writing accordingly, but don’t overdo this so the writing becomes didactic or forced.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Poet Julie Larios on Joyce Sidman’s UBIQUITOUS: “a symphony of a book”

The StorySleuths are once again overjoyed to share a review prepared especially for us by poet Julie Larios. This time, Julie looks at Joyce Sidman's book, UBIQUITOUS: Celebrating Nature's Survivors. Take it away, Julie!

Not only is “ubiquitous”* a good word to describe the poet Joyce Sidman lately (*Definition: something that is – or seems to be—everywhere at the same time), it’s also the title of her most recently released collection of poetry.

UBIQUITOUS: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors is the new jewel in Sidman’s impressive string of picture books over the last five years, all of which have garnered critical attention and praise, and two of which (Red Sings from Treetops and Song of the Water Boatman) have been named Caldecott Honor books. Beckie Prange, the talented artist who paired up with Sidman for Song of the Water Boatman, is back, illustrating what some people might consider daunting subjects for poets and readers (bacteria, lichens, diatoms, grasses!) as well as more familiar animals and plants like sharks, coyotes, squirrels, and dandelions. Homo sapiens put in an appearance, as do crows, ants, beetles and—one of my favorites— mollusks (“…the pink lip/of a pearled world. // Who swirled your whorls and ridges?”)

What could pull these seemingly unrelated subjects together into a collection of poetry? Well, it’s all there in the subtitle: These are nature’s survivors – tenacious, sturdy, prolific, adaptable, diverse and street-smart (meadow-smart , muck-smart, desert smart and saltwater-smart, too!) It’s a fresh and wonderful concept that’s been executed with elegance – and I do think “elegance” is the right word. The book is not as playful as Red Sings from Treetops, nor is it as serene as Song of the Water Boatman, nor as simple as This Is Just to Say. It isn’t a melody, as those other three seem to be; instead, this book feels positively symphonic. While each one of the poems might be said to function as part of a song line through the book, the non-fiction which accompanies each poem on the facing page is quite a bit longer and more densely packed. It provides deep harmony and variations on the theme. Think Beethoven for this book rather than Mozart!

That’s not to say that Sidman’s particular style as a poet has changed. She’s still got her signature range of traditional forms (for example, several concrete poems, which echo the shape of the object being described) and rhythms, metered as well as free verse, rhyming and non-rhyming lines. This time around, though, the diction is slightly altered. For example, one of my favorites, called “Scarab,” (shaped like the beetle it describes) is almost incantatory: - you’re there, in Egypt, along with the Pharoahs, worshipping:

                                              found me, you
                                      are blessed. Born a grub,
                                  cradled in rot, I am Sheath-wing,
                                 beloved of ancients. You have never
                                  seen armor like mine. As the sun-god
                               rolls his blazing disk overhead, so I roll my
                               perfect sphere of dung across the sands….

(“Sheath-wing” is actually a translation of the word “coleoptera” – the scientific order to which beetles belong. Thank you, Joyce Sidman, for the look at etymology!) I was going to say that the diction and tone of the book are more serious, but that’s not right –they’re simply more intricate.

Have I said yet that teachers and non-fiction addicts will love this collection? On the page facing “Scarab,” the text provides readers with a whole slew of facts about relative size, length of time on earth, and traits which help it survive (did you know beetles have forewings that act almost like armor and allow the beetle to survive in just about any climate?) Added to this material, the illustrator provides a visual step-by-step of the insect’s larval stages. That’s what I mean about a symphony – all kinds of synchronic information to balance the melodic poetry.

Another strong poem (“Come with Us”) provides the song line for coyotes (canis latrans: barking dog!)

Come, come with us!

Come into the woods at evening.

Come canter across the cornfields,

Come slink in the dusk like smoke.

Come, come with us!

Come plunder the wind’s riches….

Meanwhile, on the facing page, Sidman tells us about the adaptability of coyotes to whatever helps them survive, such as a change in social structure or natural habitat (coyote populations come closer and closer now to suburban settings.)

Animals don’t get all the attention. Look at how deftly Sidman handles the anthropomorphizing of grass:

I drink the rain,

I eat the sun;

Before the prairie woods
I run…

On steppe or veld
Or pampas dry,

Beneath the grand
enormous sky,

I make my humble
bladed bed.

And where there’s level ground,
I spread.

“…my humble / bladed bed.” That’s the kind of phrase only a talented poet can write. Someone else might have written “My humble little bed” and the whole poem would have imploded into sentimental schlock. But Sidman knows how to hunt for the perfect word. “Bladed” snaps the poem right back into the natural world – razor-sharp, not sweet and saccharine.

Prange’s linocuts, hand-colored with watercolors (thank you, Houghton Miflin, for providing this information on the pub data page of the book! How I wish more publishers did it!) employ a whole new palette of super-saturated colors for Sidman’s words. The title page alone is worth the price of admission – bright purple, fiery orange, glowing gold, deep black. And the end-papers – well, all I can say about those is don’t pass them up. An illustrator’s note at the end provides an explanation for them.

The author, illustrator, editor and book designer haven’t left a single thing out of this symphony of a book – poems, non-fiction notes, a glossary, author and illustrator notes, and a gecko whose body stands out in relief on the front cover (and whose tail wraps around to the back of the book!) UBIQUITOUS is a singular intersection of language, visual art and science . It adds quite a nice touch to the shelf of Sidman books I’ve been collecting (and oh, it looks like another book, titled Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night is coming out just after Labor Day this year….hooray!)

Thank you, Julie, for once again sharing with us and our readers a deeper look into the world poetic!

StorySleuths Tip #83: Don’t think for a moment that non-fiction needs to be dull! Give a topic your own new, fresh take and create something unforgettable.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


The StorySleuths were fortunate to be able to ask a few questions of the amazing Rita Williams-Garcia. Busy with her work as a member of the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and dashing to and from the ALA conference, Ms. Williams-Garcia took time out of her busy schedule for us, and we thank her. And now, some words from Rita:

1. We always hear that when writing historical fiction it is challenging to keep from including each and every incredibly cool tidbit gathered during the research phase. Is there one particular piece of information that you really wanted to plug in but just couldn't find the place for?

For sure! Actually, there were many that went into my “Unused” folder. I made a deal with myself, that if I found a place for any one of them, in it would go. The other deal I made was to not fish around in the “unused” folder. I’d have to come upon a place in the writing that begged to have the material woven in. Now, 1968 was a huge year. I kept a diary of one line entries--truth told, too many TV Guide entries--and it was hard to pick, so I remained close to the “Free Huey” movement. I desperately wanted to include Angela Davis and couldn’t do it as naturally as I would have liked to. And there were so many historical events from my childhood. This meant my recollections of Dr. King’s assassination which lead to the Eric Starvo Galt aka James Earl Ray manhunt; hearing Bobby Kennedy’s speech at the Monterey Peninsula Airport and taking a picture with him; more specifics about the Vietnam conflict, and Eartha Kitt being removed as “Catwoman” from the TV show Batman because of her anti-war remarks at a luncheon with Lady Bird Johnson--could not be used in the novel. I could always feel myself reaching to make connections and I’ll tell myself to “stay on story.” It’s part of my work song.

2. Are there any characters that changed significantly since your original concept, and if so, how are they different? Are there characters that started out in the story but got cut?

This time around I didn’t have to cut any characters, but their roles did change. The most significant change was Fern. I always intended Fern to be Delphine’s baby. I had an image of her, and her role was to bring out Delphine’s maternal instincts while hampering Delphine’s carefree childhood. I had given her a sweet little soul and Miss Patty Cake. But then, Fern was also the reason or excuse for Cecile’s departure. Her sweetness doesn’t really work on Cecile who won’t leap up to get her a simple glass of ice water. And then I saw and understood why: Like Cecile, Fern insists on herself even at birth. That there is something in Fern that wants to fly off the handle in a rage (although this has to be understood in her fist banging), whereas in Cecile it is overt. I had to make a confrontation between Fern and Cecile. Fern is the undoing of everything.

Sister Mukumbu’s role had changed significantly from the plan. Originally, Sister Mukumbu was to take on more responsibility and nurturing, but that would have been too convenient. As a result there was an opportunity to let Mrs. Woods step out into the story. That worked out well because I intended to have Hirohito’s father, a Vietnam vet turned Black Panther, more visible. Brother Woods’ presence was more logical, historical and I could go to my “Unused” folder for an “in scene” appearance with Brother Woods fixing the Go-Kart. But I saw this Japanese woman sitting with Delphine, Vonetta, Fern and Hirohito. She was naturally maternal, a strong but nurturing mother to Hirohito. She was the antithesis of Cecile, so good-bye Brother Woods. But also, my editor, Rosemary Brosnan’s questions about Delphine and sisters being on their own gave another opportunity to activate Mrs. Woods.

3. What did you start out with? Character? Story idea? The era?

Years before I even proposed the story, I knew I would write from my childhood years and that it would be a story not yet written. A few years ago it was time to propose stories for my contract and I already had JUMPED fully formed in my head. As I wrote my email to my editor, I heard, “RUN!” and saw this woman taking off, leaving her small children to struggle to keep up with her. I wrote a basic story idea about this woman who reunited with her children and was involved with the Black Panthers, but was on the run from Maxie, whose printer she had “found.” The names of the characters spilled out onto the screen without even taking a moment. And I knew where there names had come from and why Cecile left them. I heard Delphine say, “When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle. When Fern left, Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up. When Fern left Pa wasn’t sick, but he wasn‘t doing well, either” (from my notebook). Then I asked, why does she say it this way, in a cadence? The answer: because she grew up hearing cadence. From where? From Cecile. And the images rained! Writing on the wall. Homelessness. The girls’ father, a lonely but loving man. A teen curled up around Milton and Countee Cullen in the stacks of a library. A finger pointing down and a voice yelling, “What is wrong with this picture?” This story was telling itself to me faster than I could write it.

My mind and pre-research frame of references were full: My cousins were involved with the Black Panthers. That my mother smoked and played smoky music. I had free breakfasts in the summer and a Sickle Cell Anemia shot, courtesy of the Black Panthers. Nikki Giovanni printing her own poems on her own printing press. That a Black Panther woman, who was probably just a teen said, “Little Sister, have you had your smile today?” And that nowhere on the news would I see her smile. Or George Jackson’s smile. Or the loving family man in Malcolm X who wasn’t a Black Panther, but whose assassination inspired the movement. I believe it was us, the children, the ones who were served who know what the world doesn’t. I wrote a lot before I could actually get to the business of putting my scenes and dialogue into chapters. I’d dream deeply, ask and answer questions. How is this so, Rita? Explain this to me.

4. Is there a particular element of craft that was particularly challenging for you when writing One Crazy Summer? If so, how did you overcome it?

I had to stop “telling” the story as much as I loved Delphine’s voice and point of view. I had to remove a good deal of telling by asking myself, “Rita, what happens when this is extricated?” If I didn’t do it, my editor (Rosemary Brosnan at Harpercollins) would strongly suggest it. I also had to give Delphine “the hook” and let her be in the scene and not tell us about it. 

5. If there is one final edit you could make, what would it be?

It’s a small thing, but every time I come across it, I pause. At the end of “Everyone Knows the King of the Sea,” Delphine says, “I hadn’t cared if I never saw that grinning mammal again.“ This is correct because she is retelling from the past, but every time I read it I lose Delphine. I would revise to the incorrect, “I didn’t care if I never saw that grinning mammal again.” Told you it was small.

Ms. Williams-Garcia -- the StorySleuths thank you for sharing!

StorySleuths Tip #82: When writing historical fiction allow your reasearch to give the story flavor and texture, only including those actual facts that fit the story, rather than changing the story to fit the facts. From RWG's response above--wait for a place in the story that begs to have the material woven in.

Post #7: Guest Posting by Monica Edinger --Attending to Your Audience