July 19, 2009
Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was my daughter’s favorite book. She’d learned to read, while her cute caterpillar friend ate his way through apples and pears and slices of pie. Although she’s long outgrown it, that book remains on our shelf. But this week, we had a caterpillar experience that was anything but warm and fuzzy.
I had planted tomato plants in containers outside on my patio. In the July heat, the plants grew large and leafy, loaded with plump, ripening tomatoes. Every day or so, I would inspect my future harvest. Then I discovered what appeared to a peck on one of the fruits. A bird, I thought. The next day, I noticed that a much larger chunk was missing. No doubt about it, something was eating my harvest. The pest had destroyed two juicy tomatoes, just as they were ready to be picked. A squirrel or a rat or perhaps a raccoon? The planter box had wheels, so I rolled it across the deck to another location, reasoning that I could outsmart the culprit. Little did I know that I had simply wheeled the perpetrator along with the plants.
The next day, more fruit was damaged. Then I discovered the biggest caterpillar I had ever seen. Three to four inches long and about the thickness of my index finger with what appeared to be a thorn on its tail end. Yuck! The monster clung to a tomato stem, its pale green coloring providing the perfect camouflage. “Very hungry” didn’t even begin to describe this ravenous beast. It had stripped the stem of all its foliage and was chomping away at a green tomato. A tomato hornworm. Gross!
My daughter pled to adopt it as a pet, thinking it would soon make a cocoon and perhaps change into a beautiful butterfly. My thoughts were far less charitable. I dispatched the pest and now keep vigilant watch over my tomato plants for more of its ilk. Oh, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar? I don’t think I shall ever read that book quite the same way again.
July 15, 2009
I was intrigued by the topic of historical fiction and made the trek to Marin to hear Ellen Klages speak on June 30th.
Huddled behind high school desks, a group of about 30 attendees listened as Ellen sat atop the teacher’s desk with her legs crossed, looking like she belonged in a classroom. It’s always interesting to hear the journey of other writers. A publisher approached Ellen after she had read one of her adult short stories at a conference. The publisher told her she should write young adult and asked her to submit a manuscript. If only we could all be so lucky. Ellen balked, but eventually found a suitable short story that she could modify for a younger audience. Yet, despite being recruited, her completed manuscript sat unread for many months on various desks. Alas, the path to publishing is never smooth. Eventually, her first novel, “The Green Glass Sea” was published and her work has since received the Scott O’Dell award.
Ellen talked about the research process, a topic that elicits great passion. The extent of the detail needed to capture an era can be daunting. She has a whole bookshelf on the Manhattan Project and the World War II period that comprises the setting of her YA novel. Apparently, the one mistake that a reader has uncovered was that the color of the band aids was white, not pink, in pre-atomic bomb era.
I did not glean as much practical advice on re-working my own historical fiction novel as I had hoped. Still, I was intrigued enough by the subject matter in “The Green Glass Sea” to want to purchase her novel and was disappointed when she sold out by the time I got to the end of the line. I have since purchased her book while visiting Ashland (yes, independent bookstores still exist) and am looking forward to a good read.
July 9, 2009
One of the pleasures of vacation is curling up with a good read. This summer’s reading fare? The MG/YA novel. Both of my teens are into fantasy, so all three of us enjoyed reading and passing around the books we had chosen.
I chose Susan Cooper’s Over Sea Under Stone, the first novel in her Dark is Rising series. This one is classic fantasy in the vein of C.S. Lewis. Although slow to start, the plot picked up with the discovery of an old map. From then on, it was a real page-turner as the Drew children raced one step ahead of their enemies in a classic Arthurian-inspired quest.
For my second selection, I traded with my son for Sea of Monsters, Book Two of Rick Riordan’s Olympian series. My daughter gave me a hard time for starting with the second book, but I argued that I should be able to pick up any series on book two and still be able to follow the plot. Riordan didn’t disappoint. His book was written in a modern style – first person narrative, lots of voice, and humor (which my son loved). Of course, there was the requisite quest and a cadre of kid heroes, but with a clever twist on classical mythology. This was especially interesting to me as I’m currently working on my own twisted version of the Cyclops myth.
Not only was this fun reading, but also educational from a writer’s standpoint. The authors wrote in two very different styles. I noted how both told satisfying stories while planting the seeds of an overall arc for their respective series. And I gathered ideas as I prepared to revise my own middle-grade fantasy, gaining insight into what works in my novel and what still needs attention.
I’m ready to delve into another book, but my daughter hasn’t finished with her selection yet.
What are you reading this summer? How does it inform your writing?
July 9, 2009
One of the things I’ve heard Judge Randy Jackson say during the last few seasons of American Idol is, “If you can sing, you can sing the phone book.” So I got to wondering, if you can write, can you write the phone book? Then, I started planning how I might just do that.
A few complications immediately surfaced. Way, way, way too many characters for starters. So the first thing I’d do is pick a phone book from a very small town –say two hundred folks. What kind of plot could involve that many people? Surely, they all couldn’t play an active role.
I decided I’d write a murder mystery where there’d be a lot of suspects. The victim would come from a Catholic family and the murder would take place during the annual 4th of July town picnic. I could include a single page of text with perhaps 100 residents that way. I’d have three point of view characters: the victim’s wife, the detective investigating the crime, and the murderer. That would still leave a fair number of people to mention.
Ah ha! The list could be wrong! Someone who wasn’t at the celebration, but who’s motive is revealed a few chapters. Thus, I could generate brand new long list of suspects – maybe 60 or so. A visit to Meg’s Diner at the outskirts of town where the murder weapon is found could knock off another 20 folks. That leaves seventeen memorable characters I’d have to develop in various subplots. I could accomplish such a feat. Yes, Randy, it can be done. If you can write, you can write the phone book.