Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Topic 14: What We Did for Love

For this series of posts, we  asked several authors to tell us about the research adventures they’ve had on their way to creating new work.  This idea was inspired by Debbie Dadey’s astounding feats, so she gets to go first.  David follows with his cave exploration, and then Sandy chimes in with her volunteer stint at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.  Finally, a bevy of guests take us to all sorts of unexpected places, from a Jewish ghetto memorial in China to 3000 feet into a deep sea trench in the Bahamas.

Debbie Dadey
April 7, 2015

I’ve always heard, write what you know. Perhaps it should be write what you DO. I’ve always wanted to experience what I write about if it is at all possible. So, unless it’s dangerous I do it. 

Ooops, wait a minute that isn’t true, because some people would say sliding into a shark tank or sky diving is dangerous and I’ve done both to help me write stories.

I guess this ‘doing’ thing all began when I was writing a Bailey School Adventure book with my friend Marcia Thornton Jones. When we first started writing the series, we actually sat side by side and worked out the story together. We were stuck on a scene when the kids were in a classroom. We wanted Eddie to do something a bit wild, but what? So we were ‘doers’. We went into a third grade classroom and sat down at a desk. Scraps of paper were spilling out, which we included in our story, but that wasn’t wild. It wasn’t the pencil stubs, but the scissors poking their blunt points out of the mess that gave us the idea. Eddie was sitting behind Liza and her long blond hair was swinging. Can you guess what Eddie was going to do? (Or try to do?)

So when we were writing the story, Hercules Doesn’t Pull Teeth, it made perfect sense for us to go to the dentist to do research. Sure, I’ve been to the dentist more times that I can remember, but I’d never really paid attention. So, going to the dentist and taking a few notes really helped bring the dentist’s office to life. The same was true for bringing karate practice alive in the book, Angels Don’t Know Karate. What better way to write about karate than to actually do it? It was a bit embarrassing though since my son was a higher belt and I had to bow to him. (He loved it!)

I think the key to being a ‘doer’ is to put a limited number of details into the natural flow of the story. I didn’t want Mrs. Jeepers in Outer Space to become a non-fiction book about space camp, but I did want kids to feel like they were really there. So I hustled myself off to Huntsville, Alabama to experience what it was really like. Spinning around to the point of nausea on the multi-axis trainer was worth it because I could write about it with a bit of authority.

For Whistler’s Hollow, I drove eight hours so I could sit on a coal train. I took notes so I could write one paragraph about what it felt like. It must have worked because when that book came out, the publisher of Bloomsbury USA told me, “It felt like I was really on that train.”

I also slid into a shark tank for Danger in the Deep Blue Sea, book number four in my Mermaid Tales series with Simon and Schuster. But probably the craziest thing I have done for writing was to fall out of a plane! I wrote a story, that I’ve never sold, where a grandmother wanted to go sky-diving. So, I figured to be able to write about it I should experience it. Big mistake!! You can see me scream on my website, http://www.debbiedadey.com.

Some folks might think being a ‘doer’ is an unnecessary extra step and perhaps it is. Probably researching or watching videos will suffice in most instances. And I’m sure going to see a real live reindeer for Reindeers Don’t Wear Striped Underwear, getting a scooter of my own for Pirates Do Ride Scooters, and creating a mess making cookies for Slime Wars wasn’t totally necessary. But for me, it’s hard to pass up the chance to be a kid again. And if it can help me write better, then I’m all for it.

Currently, I am writing a story about a mermaid who is injured and can’t swim. I wanted to write it because I think kids deserve to see their mirror image on the covers of books. I don’t see many books with handicapped children on the front. I hope Mermaid Tales #14 will feature a mermaid on the cover in a ‘wheel-chair’ of sorts. So what do I need to do? I need to experience it. Anyone have a wheelchair handy?

David Harrison
April 14, 2015

Debbie, I loved reading about how you prepared to write your stories. Such adventures you’ve had in pursuit of the truth and the firsthand experiences that breathe real life and meaning into your work. 

Leaping from a plane! Swimming with sharks! Young people who read your descriptions are learning valuable lessons about what goes into writing before one word is put on paper.

So now it’s my turn. I, too, have gone to some lengths to prepare for my subject – flying to England, boating up the Amazon — but today I’m going to take a slightly different track. I’d like to talk about books that spring from the adventure itself. That is, instead of having a book idea and setting out to learn about the subject, sometimes a writer has an adventure and realizes that there’s a book to be written because of it.

Here’s my example. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked America taking thousands of lives in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a cave was discovered near Springfield, Missouri by a road construction crew. Not long afterward I was invited into the cave.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with caves. I was carried into my first cave on my father’s shoulders at age four and explored one on my own as a boy of twelve. From that one I brought home a skull from an extinct form of black bear. I wrote a book about caves in 1970 (THE WORLD OF AMERICAN CAVES) and another in 2001 (CAVES, MYSTERIES BENEATH OUR FEET). After spending a day going through the newly discovered cavern, I posed in the welcome sunlight with my three companions. Smiling for the camera, covered from head to foot in sticky red clay, what was running through my mind wasn’t that I was filthy and needed a bath. I was thinking that I was going to write a book about this cave.

It didn’t take long to learn that no one involved with the discovery of the cave knew the whole story. Everyone had a piece of the puzzle but no one had the whole picture. I began interviewing people who had a role in discovering, saving, or exploring the cave: the road construction crew foreman, the guy who set off the dynamite blast that uncovered the cave, the geologist who led the exploration team, the paleontologist who discovered valuable ancient fossils inside, the engineer who rerouted the road to one side to save the cave, the cartographer who mapped the cave, the speleologist who repaired and cleaned damaged formations . . . . Eventually I put the story together.

Now I could almost imagine that quiet day when the blast tore a hole in the earth and ripped off part of the ceiling in the cave below. Almost. I had everything but the sound it must have made! What did that blast sound like? I called the guy who set off the blast and asked if he had any blasting to do, and he did. I met him at a quarry, walked along the limestone bluff where he was working, looked down into the holes that would soon be packed with explosives, and then, from a safe distance, I heard and recorded the sound of dynamite blasting rocks into powder and small chunks. It sounded like – ready? – a waterfall! Like water pouring over a cliff onto rocks below. Who knew? I did! Now.

So I had my story and the sound of discovery. Back into the cave where I spent hours walking, slipping, crouching, and crawling through red clay that sometimes came over shoe tops. Marveling over tracks left by peccaries thousands of years ago that were still moist. Sitting beside wallows scooped out by enormous short-faced bears that became extinct more than ten millennia ago. Gazing in awe at claw marks left by American lions, saber tooth cats, and the bears. Holding a fossil peccary’s foot bone that had been crunched off in an attack.

Then I wrote the 48-page book. Piece of cake.

Sandy Asher
April 21, 2015

Most of my research over the years has dealt with folklore or history and has involved the library, Internet, and vast store of knowledge preserved in my historian husband’s books and brain. Although the development of my play “I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp” began with the book of the same name, it was in every other way an out-of-the-ordinary experience. And not just because I met Paul Newman.

It all began with a visit to a children’s theater in NYC, where the artistic director asked if I’d be interested in writing a play about children with cancer. Everything about that previous sentence is out-of-the-ordinary. I was living in Springfield, MO, at the time, did not get to NYC often, had never been to this theater, had not met this artistic director previously, and don’t receive these kinds of invitations often. Top that off with a visit to a NYC bookstore later that day and the discovery of the above mentioned book, propped up on a table as if intentionally placed there to attract my attention. Serendipity!

As you may know, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is a summer retreat founded by Paul Newman for children with life-threatening illnesses. For their book, I WILL SING LIFE: VOICES FROM THE HOLE IN THE WALL GANG CAMP, counselors Larry Berger and Dahlia Lithwick ran a summer-long creative writing program at the camp and also lived for a month with each of seven campers, observing their daily lives and interviewing each of them and family members. The book pulls together those observations and interviews, plus a wealth of poetry, stories, and plays written by the seven highlighted campers and others who participated in the creative writing program. It is so jam-packed with wisdom, humor, joy, and drama, I immediately wanted to share it with the world.

The artistic director, on the other hand, did not feel this was the basis for the play she needed. Too late, I was hooked. I had to write it. I’d find a theater to produce it later. (As it turned out, theaters were leery – a play about children with cancer? — until I produced it myself.) First step: I wrote to the camp office and received permission to adapt the book – and a warning that others had tried to make it stageworthy and failed.

I remained undaunted. Or maybe just driven. But no sooner did I start writing than I realized I needed to experience the camp for myself. I applied to be a volunteer for an 11-day session. A detailed written application, several references, and two long phone interviews later, I was accepted. Now, I was terrified. What did I imagine lay ahead for me that summer? A kind of sepia-toned movie ran in my head: gloomy, slow-motion images of desperately sick kids and their grim caretakers struggling to make the best of a tragic situation.

I could not have been more mistaken. Bright sunshine, brilliant colors, frenetic activity, funky music, endless chatter, and shrieks of laughter filled the Wild West-themed bunks and buildings and spilled out across the spacious green areas and deliciously heated pool. Sure, there were catheters, crutches, and wheelchairs here and there, and a few children who needed to be carried from activity to activity. But whatever each child needed, that is exactly what he or she got. And more. And every minute. The boundlessly loving staff never wavered or weakened in their dedication to giving those children a great camp experience. The overall mood was one of pure, unstoppable celebration. I took my place assisting the creative writing teacher and helping out with a bunk of pre-teen/early teen girls and received far more than I gave. I learned what it meant to “sing life.”

I wished that experience for everyone, so that’s what I tried to put into the script. I’m happy to say that it’s been produced and published and that a percentage of the royalties are returned to the camp – small payments on the huge debt I owe those counselors and children for their lessons on appreciating the gift of each and every day.

Oh, and I did meet Paul Newman, a small, quiet man in his early 70s riding a no-speed bike to and from his home on the premises, eating meals with the children, watching them rehearse a play, and mostly being ignored. I introduced myself as a volunteer and thanked him for the opportunity to participate in such an amazing program. “It is nice, isn’t it?” he replied, softly.


April 28, 2015


For Nellie the Brave, an historical about the Cherokee Trail of Tears, I went to Tahlequah, OK, to the Cherokee Nation headquarters and saw objects that were brought to OK on one of the wagon trains from the Indian removal. I also took the tour of the grounds to learn more about Cherokee culture.
For First Cousins (out later this year from Schoolwide) I went to Washington D.C. and toured the White House and other historical sites.

Because I write for adults, I’ve researched occupations I’ve given my heroines. When I wrote about a newscaster, I spent two days at at TV station, interviewing folks with different jobs and going into the studio, the engineer’s booth with at least 30 screens, even crawling into the remote van. When I wrote about a professional baseball player, I toured a ball stadium, even going into the locker room. When I couldn’t go to a place, I interviewed people with the jobs of my main characters.

The book I’m just now planning for this MFA thesis will be set during the Vietnam era and in Vietnam. I’ll have to trust Jimmie’s memory for some scenes, but I’ll research the historical time instead of trusting to my memory about what was going on here in the States, and I’ll interview other Vietnam vets, too, and read tons of books about that war.

That Sunday Afternoon


Since for many (most) authors a trip to Hawaii or Egypt would be at least as much and probably more than they will get–IF they get–any advance on the book, and might be more time than they can reasonably take away from family duties, we have to consider other imaginative ways to get into the blood and bones of a book.

I haunt old bookstores where I found a travel book on Edinburgh datelined 1929 which slots nicely into a 1930s graphic novel set in that very place.

I joined a friend who was doing a paid-for article for Yankee Magazine as she went around the Shaker Village in New York State just as I was writing a novel about Shakers.

I had an Indian colleague of my husband’s read a manuscript set in India in the 1920s.

A friend just back from a trip to Poland brought me photos and travel brochures, post cards and snapshots from there because I was writing a novel partially set there. And I used her interesting take on the Polish airport that I got from her when I took her out for lunch.

Stone Angel


I just thought I’d share a short example of diligence in creating authenticity…

A year and a half ago, I had an idea for a counting, rhyming picture book – but no way to write it. That’s because the concept involved 12 different languages – only one of which I knew fluently (English) and one I knew partially (French). But these needed to be diverse languages from all corners of the Earth, from English to Chinese to Navajo. So what’s a guy to do??

First, I searched online for educational material on speaking each language. Then I needed to search that language’s use of numbers – specifically, natural numerals (1, 2, 3…) and not ordinal numerals (first, second, third…). I needed to figure out what the numbers looked like AND what they sounded like (in order to provide phonetic pronunciations). Interestingly, many numbers of the same language are written differently and even spoken differently, depending on dialects and accents – so what I thought was going to be moderate amount of research turned into a major, MAJOR effort, watching videos of natural citizens speaking their native tongues, watching them draw the characters, and comparing and contrasting the differences and similarities.

I finally got it done and am quite proud of it – of course, I’ll be prouder if it gets picked up! – but the research was mind-boggling. It probably took me 10 times as long to research it as it did to actually write it.



I am the author of one book so far: I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY. It came out to starred reviews in 2012 and is illustrated by Michele Wood.

Each poem is named for a traditional quilt block pattern and each references/recalls slavery in one way or another.

For example, “Log Cabin” is a poem depicting what archeologists have found excavating the slave quarters near a plantation. To research that idea, I went to Mount Vernon, Virginia and took notes as the historians gave us a tour of the actual dig that archeologists were working on.

For the poem “Anvil” I went to several blacksmith demonstrations at arts and crafts festivals in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Annapolis and talked to them about their work.

I listened to the WPA interviews with former slaves and their children and grandchildren, not just for the information, but for cadence, their rhythms of speech in order to get the sound right in my poems.

I also researched the history of the quilt blocks themselves and spoke with quilt historians and museum curators about their quilt collections, the variance in quilt designs and names. And finally, I made by hand, a queen-sized quilt including all of the quilt blocks I wrote about in order to get a sense of each block, of hand-piecing, and working with a limited color palette.


My husband Tom and I made two trips to China during the years I was researching my book, SHANGHAI SHADOWS, which is about the resettlement of eastern European refugees during the Hitler years. In the Old City of Shanghai there is a small park sandwiched between two crumbling buildings that had been part of the ghetto where 20,000 Jews lived from 1939 to 1945. They weren’t mistreated, or worse, as they would have been had they not escaped from Europe. But they were confined in the Hongkou Ghetto to starve along with everyone else during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. We walked into this little park peopled by Chinese retirees taking their graceful morning exercise. Suddenly everyone stopped and watched us conspicuous westerners wend our way to the back clump of trees in front of which stands a monument inscribed in three languages — English, Chinese, and Hebrew — dedicated to the “Stateless Jews of Europe.” Tom and I trembled as we read the monument in the two language we could, running our fingers over the other words as if they were in Braille. We were profoundly moved by the fact that 20,000 people, who might well have been our own ancestors, survived the war and gave breath to all their descendants, because of the generosity of the Chinese people. Tom and I held one another as tears slid down our cheeks. And finally, we turned to go, and were stunned to see that all the people in the park had formed a semi-circle behind us in silent sympathy. They’d probably never noticed the monument before and maybe had never even seen westerners, but they were clearly curious about our reaction to this odd piece of granite, and we felt cradled by them 65 years after the ghetto had emptied. None of my research moments has equalled this experience. Thanks for letting me share it.

Steal Away Home


As a writer of many nonfiction books, I too have gone to great lengths to conduct research, from studying 100-year-old journals and letters from the northern gold rushes to holding in my hand Susan B. Anthony’s actual 1896 letter to California suffragist Mary McHenry Keith. I never fail to get the shivers reading the words of real people. In the past few years I have been doing research about current events in my own lifetime and my favorite is to interview these participants by phone or even better, in person. So my most memorable research experience was my November 2014 interview with my hero Rep. John Lewis. Long before he served in Congress he was one of the early civil rights’ activists, a Freedom Rider, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, a leader of the voting rights march in Selma when he was beaten senseless on Pettus Bridge. The last remaining civil rights activist in Congress he’s been interview often during these anniversaries and recent events in Ferguson and New York City. So I knew his face and voice well. But nothing prepared me for his generosity, his kindness, his belief that America can move forward toward a better country for all of us. I will never forget those 60 minutes with John Lewis, a highlight of my writing life.

My Country Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights

April 29, 2015


Deep Research

Like many writers, I’ve had the good fortune of exploring the world by researching my books. 

Writing has allowed me to hike through Costa Rican cloud forests, scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, watch a tallgrass prairie burn, and airboat through the Everglades. However, the experience that left the, ahem, deepest impression on me was the opportunity to dive to the deep sea floor.

Back in 2001, just after 9-11, I was invited to accompany Dr. Edith Widder on a cruise to the Bahama Islands. By then, Dr. Widder had already earned an international reputation for her work on bioluminescent organisms—animals that can make their own light. At the last minute, she had received a few extra days of time using the four-person submersible Johnson Sea Link. Remarkably, she invited me to come along.

For four days, the submersible carried Dr. Widder, me, and other writers, scientists, and students to the bottom of a deep-sea trench 3,000 feet deep. For me, it was better than going to the moon. Why? Even though the deep sea—like space—is cold and dark, it is full of life. At the bottom and in the water column above, we passed hundreds of strange creatures: ctenophores, viperfish, siphonophores, giant salps, angler fishes, and many more. Not only did these dives astonish me, they changed how I felt about the world.

Sitting in total darkness on the sea floor, I realized, “This is what most of the world is like—not the sun-drenched, landscape we humans are lucky enough to live in.” It made me appreciate that much more how fortunate we are to live on Earth and enjoy what really is an almost perfect world.

The dives also highlighted how much we take this world for granted. In addition to the problems we humans have created such as global warming, toxic pollution, and more, I saw that we have used the ocean as one giant garbage dump. Looking out the porthole of the submersible, I saw beer cans, plastic bags, and other trash every few feet. I’d known that humans dumped garbage into the sea, but my submersible dives showed me the vast extent of the problem.

My experiences aboard the Johnson Sea Link resulted in my book In the Deep Sea (Marshall Cavendish, 2005). That book is long out of print, but its effects on me have been permanent. I returned from these dives a changed person, not only with a new appreciation for life, but a new dedication to encourage people to take better care of this amazing gift we all share.

Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests


Ideas for novels or stories come with a ray of sunshine and gleam of possibility. The inspiration for my upcoming novel about the early days of the Hollywood silent movie industry came from a statue outside the entrance to Universal Studios: a circa 1930s sound stage with actors and technicians. 

What would it be like, I wondered, to be present at the beginning, soon after the industry had moved from the east coast to the west and filmmaking was still something you cold get into just by showing up?

The inspiration stage is fun. But sooner or later, when constructing a plot, an author comes up against the cold hard facts—or rather, lack of cold hard facts. A bunch of kids making a movie would need some technical know-how and equipment—chiefly, a camera. And more specifically, a camera that two teenage boys of not-especially-prepossessing size could haul all over Los Angeles County without attracting much notice. Books couldn’t give me that information; I needed to talk to somebody. Aftrer stabbing around in the dark (my research methods are not what you’d call professional) I decided to see if I could get in touch with someone at the Smithsonian. Further online research got me the name of Shannon Perich, a curator specializing in photography in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian is called “the nation’s attic,” and if the nation is looking for a particular object in connection with a particular project, it is welcome to come in and rummage around. Ms. Perich connected me with John Hiller, then retired, whose long career had included studio work in the film industry as well as cataloguing for the Smithsonian. On a lovely day in July, I met Shannon Perich and Mr. Hiller at the entrance to the American History Museum in D. C. and we drove together out to one of the many Smithsonian storage facilities in Maryland. The reader will be gratified to know, as I was, that the entire Smithsonian collection (at least ten times the amount that is on display) is painstakingly catalogued and carefully stored for maximum preservation. It’s possible to find the location of every single item—unlike your backyard storage shed—at any given time. We signed in at the door and went downstairs and walked by stacks and stacks of storage cabinets until we came to the particular aisle, stack, and shelf where the item was supposed to be. There I found the Prestwich Model 14 in its cherry-wood case, a motion-picture camera light and compact enough to carry to the battlefield (World War I forms part of the background for my novel), as well as to a dozen “on location” filming sites. I touched it, took pictures, explored its iron innards.

Even without the camera, talking to John Hiller was worth a trip: he was a wellspring of the sort of little-known facts and telling details historical fiction writers absolutely adore. At least three of these found their way into the novel. I complain as loudly as anybody about some of the uses my tax dollars are put to, but I can’t help but have warm feelings about the Smithsonian. Shannon and John didn’t just share information, but set aside valuable time to take me out to the storage facility and show me the actual item I was looking for—and I didn’t even have a book contract at the time! Many thanks for the kindness of these two strangers.

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous


I write non-fiction; so far 25 books, and over 100 magazine articles. My subjects are mostly historical, biographical, or travel-oriented. I’ve delved into archives and trekked through three continents doing research, but my best fact-finding has come through live interviews.

The interview process was key when I wrote The World of the Trapp Family. Later I re-told the same story for children in V is for Von Trapp, “the Cliff’s Notes version,” a reviewer wrote.

As a 1960s kid, I saw The Sound of Music. On family vacations we visited the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont many times. There, Von Trapp reality collided with the Hollywood version.

The current media blitz marking the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music reminds me that the Von Trapps’ flight from the Nazis is called “one of the best known escape stories ever.” Maria, Captain Von Trapp’s third child, told me the authentic story of her family’s departure from Austria.

Maria said the Von Trapps’ butler, a closet Nazi, tipped off her father that the family was in danger. They had said no to the Nazis too many times. Refusing to sing for Hitler’s birthday, it was imperative that they leave before the borders closed. So they packed up, all eleven of them, as if they were going on a hiking trip. They simply took a train to Italy’s northern Alps, and didn’t return.

Contrary to the movie, no Nazis were in pursuit, no nuns disabled German vehicles, and there was no climbing of ev’ry mountain into Switzerland. “Geographically impossible!” Maria laughed.

The Von Trapps made it to New York, with work visas for a USA concert tour. Theirs was a classic immigrant story. They continued concertizing for twenty years.

Yes, I spent weeks pouring over the Von Trapps’ personal archives. I traveled to Austria for more research. But the interviews with members of the family are what enriched my writing. Woven into my texts are the actual voices of the Von Trapps. I discovered a quiet heroism about each of them. I hope I conveyed this in the books I wrote.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography


The first books that I wrote and illustrated, The Windchild and The Queen With Bees in her Hair, were purely fiction, just my imagination’s authentic children. But then I wrote one about the Pilgrims, those poor seafaring pioneers who had to make themselves at home in the New World wilderness. Sure, I pored over photos of the 1957 replica, the Mayflower II, and costumed reenactors at Plimoth Plantation, http://www.plimoth.org but I thought, if I was going to nail these illustrations, I’d better GO THERE. And I did. It turned out to be the first of many gallivants.

Besides all of the libraries and museums, I went to the former homes – all the places I visited are ‘former homes’ as all my subjects have been dead for years – of John & Abigail Adams, their firstborn, JQA; Abraham Lincoln, Washington Irving, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I’ve walked about in the White House, wishing I could go upstairs, but that museum’s personnel carry FIREARMS. I did stand in Susan B. Anthony’s upstairs office & peered in at her bathtub. I walked about in the little house in Seneca Falls, where Susan’s buddy, Mrs. Stanton once lived. I marveled, horrified at Teddy Roosevelt’s glassy-eyed hunting trophies at Sagamore Hill. For all TR’s love of the natural world, he sure as hell blasted a LOT of creatures clean out of it!

My dad and I drove along the old Erie Canal. Never would I have thought, back during the Reagan Administration, when I was trying to break into books, that the profession would turn me into a time travel tourist, but so it did.

Flags Over America

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Topic 13: What Else Is Out There?

Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Introduction: David
September 2, 2014

Hi everyone,

It has been a long while since Sandy Asher and I added to WRITERS AT WORK, the series in which we visit informally about various aspects of being writers. To refresh everyone’s memory of previous conversations, here’s a list of topics.


September 2010       The Care and Feeding of Ideas
October 2010            Obstacles to Writing           
November 2010        Reality of Rejections
December 2010        Editorial Suggestions
January 2011           Perils and Joys of Writing in Many Genres
February 2011          Pros and Cons of Having an Agent
March 2011               Wrestling with Endings
May 2011                   Dealing with Speaking Engagements
June 2011                 We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
January 2012           Regarding the Emperor’s New Clothes
March 2012               About this Business of Internet Publishing
June 2013                 Making On-line Challenges Work for You

So now we take up a new topic: WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE? And why is this timely? Because even during the short span of these chats the publishing world has undergone changes that impact writers around the world. Living by the philosophy that there will always be a need for good writing in some form, we find ourselves constantly contemplating the market, seeking ways to peddle our peaches (as folks around here used to say).
We hope that you will join us on each of the next four Tuesdays as we post Parts 1-4 of our conversation. As always, it’s an open forum that invites comments and shared experiences. I’ll go first next week on September 9. Hope you’ll join us.

*           *           *

Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 1: David
September 9, 2014

Sandy, I think there’s more to surviving as a writer than reacting to perceived changes in our niche markets. Maybe it has to do with our need to communicate about something that feels important. In previous WAW sessions I described how I began as a short story writer and segued to writing for children, beginning with picture books and, over the years, adding nonfiction, poetry, and educational books.
In this first part of WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE, I want to talk about my journey into educational books that began in 1997. At the time many teachers were expressing concern that they were expected to teach poetry but had little or no personal or professional experience in writing poems. After several such conversations I wondered if I might write a how-to-write-poetry book for classroom teachers. This, I think, is an example of two principles: write about what you know, and write about what interests you.
But guess what? I had no more idea how to write an educational book for teachers than many of them had about writing publishable poems for trade books. We loved the same kids but spoke to them in different languages. I had never been a classroom teacher. Had never taken a course in education. Never read a book written for teachers. The only teachers’ conferences I’d attended were to speak, not to listen and learn. Did I have a lot of nerve or what!
Many years earlier I’d gone to England to research a book I meant to write about English history. I came home discouraged but wiser. I didn’t know enough about my subject to ever write well about it. I scrapped the project. In this case I knew my subject but wasn’t sure how to translate from “writerly” to “teacherly.”
I needed to partner with a teacher, someone with national name recognition. Then I thought of Bee. Bernice Cullinan. Dr. Bernice E. Cullinan, professor at NYU, former president of International Reading Association, Poetry Editor-in-Chief for Boyds Mills Press, the publisher of my books of poetry. Bee loved my work and I loved her. I spoke with her about partnering on a book to help teachers teach poetry. She agreed.
Then I thought of Wendy Murray, my editor at Instructor, a publication of Scholastic. In 1994, Wendy had published a poem of mine with a brief article on writing poems. Since then Wendy had left the magazine side to join the educational book group. Next time I was in New York I pitched the idea and Wendy liked it. Back to Bee to outline a table of contents and agree on what I would write and what she would do.
We each wrote an introduction. For the sections that followed I introduced and explained various elements of poetry. Bee provided commentary and activities for use in the classroom. So far so good.
Then we came to the part of my outline that dealt with verse. Bee struck it out, explaining that elementary children were not ready for verse and only free verse would work in the classroom. I put it back in. Children, I insisted, are perfectly capable of playing with rhyme and rhythm and most of their favorite poems are structured language rather than free verse.
She said absolutely not. I said absolutely yes. She said she would not have her name on a book that had verse in it. I said I would not have mine on a book that didn’t. We called for a meeting with our editor. Poor Wendy!
Back in New York we met in a conference room at Scholastic. Wendy sat midway along one side of a long table. Bee and a doctoral student of hers sat at one end. I sat at the other end. The meeting was stressful but it eventually ended with an agreement that verse would be included in the book if teachers (to be consulted) thought it was a good idea. They were, they did, and it was.
When I sent my next poetry manuscript to Boyds Mills Press, Bee was still too upset with me to edit me. Instead, my friend Jan Cheripko was thrown into the breach and edited my book, Wild Country. He did a fine job.
My “Bee” book came out in 1999 as Easy Poetry Lessons that Dazzle and Delight. Our long suffering editor felt compelled to write a note to go on the credit page, something you seldom see. Here it is in full.
“Four years ago David Harrison and Bee Cullinan decided to write a book together, going on the hunch that their different perspectives – that of a poet and of a teacher – would complement each other nicely. But they quickly discovered in this arranged marriage of authorship that their views on teaching poetry were remarkably different – and that they sometimes clashed. Bee favors free verse and questioned introducing too many details of structured verse to children, while David doggedly defended his belief that teaching iambic pentameter and the like wouldn’t turn children into staunch poetry phobes. Faxes, Fed-Exes, and phone calls flew back and forth between the three of us, revision upon revision towered like stacks of Saltines in our offices. Teachers were called upon to read drafts and give their views. Poems and lessons were added, deleted, tweaked, and debated until days before the production deadline. In the process, we reexamined our beliefs about teaching poetry and wound up with richer, broader perspectives. And in the end, Bee and David wrote a book that offers an eclectic mix of their sensibilities. This is its beauty and its strength. Too often in educational publishing we deliver one school of thought on a topic, and tune out others. Working with Bee and David taught me a lot about the wisdom of editing with an open mind and about the power of sticking to one’s convictions. Their passion as educators and poetry lovers is remarkable, and it produced a fine book. (And a whopping strain on my fax machine.) – Wendy Murray, editor”
Our book has done well. Bee and I kissed and made up long ago. She told me she had learned that verse is not a bad thing for children to write. I told her I had learned that teachers want less philosophy (from me) and more information with direct application in the classroom. Bee and I remain friends. She invited me to write the poetry chapter for the 3rd edition of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, co-edited with Deborah Wooten (University of Tennessee), and published by International Reading Association. I’m currently working on the poetry chapter for the 4th edition of the book. These days I belong to the major educational organizations and read their journals. I often present on educational issues at state and national conferences.
So, Sandy, my story has a happy ending. But there is a lesson in it. Be careful what you wish for. Or at least be prepared to take a few lumps along the way when you choose to investigate WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE!

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Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 2: Sandy
September 16, 2014

“Historians don’t hug.”

That was my husband Harvey’s observation when he joined me for one of my conferences years ago and realized why I couldn’t wait to get to my events while he simply trudged off to his as a professional obligation of his long career as a professor of history.

People who write for young people hug.  A lot.  We don’t read one another’s work with an eye toward getting published by refuting it.  We do respond to one another’s work, usually in small groups – and, okay, sometimes with an editor as mediator – but the goal is never self-serving or competitive.  We can’t write one another’s books, poems, or plays, and we’re enthusiastic audiences and readers.  So when we get together, we aim at making the dream each of us dreams for each of our own creations come true. 

Respecting children and their literature, understanding the challenges and frustrations of our chosen field, working toward the same goals, we get close.  Close enough to hug.  It’s an excellent perk of the job, don’t you think, David?
That closeness takes on a slightly different importance in playwriting, which is my main “what-else-is-out-there.”  I majored in English and only minored in Theater, so I was never fully in the loop.  When we moved to Springfield, MO, I worked alone and mailed scripts out, much as I did with stories, articles, and poems.  Winning a few playwriting contests helped get those particular plays produced once, but what about other productions in other theaters?  There were many long dry spells.  It took me years to uncover the big secret:  theatrical producers and directors tend not to take chances on new scripts unless they feel a personal connection to the playwright. 

Why?  Because theater is a community effort.  Sure, as book-writers and magazine-writers, we encounter editors and art directors and marketing people.  But we rarely get to meet them, and we certainly don’t interact with them on a daily basis.  They go about their jobs, sometimes with our approval and often without it.  In live theater, the cast and crew are in one another’s lives for hours a day, every day, for weeks, months, even years of rehearsal and performance.  The four members of the Children’s Theater of Charlotte’s Tarradiddle Players just spent an entire school year traveling the southeast together in one van, doing 110 performances of my adaptation of “Too Many Frogs” plus other plays for other ages, day in and day out, weekends included.  Can you imagine the in-your-face closeness of that?  A cast has to be chosen for compatibility, patience, and endurance as well as talent.  And often with a new script, the playwright is in the room from auditions through rehearsals through at least the opening performance.  Not much will be accomplished if everyone gets on everyone else’s nerves.

It wasn’t until I began participating in theater conferences that I learned how the business really works.  And I do mean “participating,” sometimes as a panelist but often less formally.  At conferences dedicated to children’s theater, sessions tend to be hands-on.  A technique is presented and then everyone stands up and does it, as if they were children in a class or audience.  At this summer’s American Alliance for Theater and Education conference in Denver, for instance, I found myself wearing a rooster mask and enthusiastically greeting a series of imaginary mornings.  You just never know!

And you never know where such antics will lead.  I’ve had more than one director whom I’d never met before come up after a session and tell me, “I like what you had to say in there.  I’m interested in working with you.”  One such occasion springs immediately to mind because the ramifications went way beyond being commissioned to write one new script.  It involved the director of a children’s theater in Salem, OR.  Our casual conversation during the break between two sessions led to a plan for working with senior citizens and middle-school students to create an original script about growing up in Oregon.  The deal included two trips from Missoui to the Northwest, which just so happened to be where my son was living.   Nice perk (and, yes, more hugs).  This experience also led to commissions from other companies for other community-based scripts that have taken me to Omaha, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago . . . so far.

Another serendipidous  AATE meeting was with the director of a children’s theater in York, PA.  “I’ve been watching you,” she said, after inviting me to lunch.  “I’d like you to do an adaptation of Little Women for my theater.”  Apparently, directors are constantly running auditions, even when no one in the room knows they’re auditioning!  This director and I have been friends ever since (hugs!), and working with her in York, PA, meant visiting a mutual friend in neighboring Lancaster, someone we’d both met at conferences (more hugs!).  And that led to my moving to Lancaster after Harvey retired – and working on three new plays with these two friends since.

Showing up, as we know, is Step One of success in any field, but more so in theater, I think, than almost anywhere else.  Networking at these conferences make a huge difference.  Participating in more than one each year means really getting to know both the regulars and the newcomers and getting thoroughly inside the loop.  Besides AATE, there’s One Theatre World, New Visions/New Voices, Write Now, and more.  Getting involved with local theater groups, onstage or behind the scenes, is another great way to show up, learn, and network.
I’ve long suspected that one could be a hermit living on a mountain top and maintain a book or magazine writing career, as long as there was some way of getting one’s manscripts off the mountain and into the hands of editors.  No one would care how long one’s beard had grown or how often one took a bath.  Not so in theater, where a certain amount of hugging is practically a requirement.  It’s a matter of getting out there to become part of “what else is out there.”

Willingness to don a rooster mask and crow on cue is considered a definite plus.

So, David, what else is out there for you?

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Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 3: David
September 23, 2014

“Don a rooster mask and crow?” Really? Sandy, I think I’ll stick to poems and stories! But I would like to hear a recording of a roomful of playwrights limbering up their barnyard chorus. Hmmm. Maybe you could make a recording and play it as background music for a staged sequel to Too Many Frogs called Too Many Roosters. Just a thought.
So now it’s back to me. In Part 1, I wrote about my decision in the late 90s to break into the educational market. I had a reason, a plan. My logic was to become better known among the university folks who teach children’s literature and write about authors and poets who create it. I wanted to go to the source so that new teachers would already have an idea about my work. I got my share of comeuppances along the way but teachers are above all generous so I had plenty of help and encouragement as I toiled along unfamiliar pathways.
It didn’t take long to learn some important differences between writing for kids (via trade books) and writing to teachers about kids (via educational publications). For example I learned that trade book authors “speak” at conferences while educational book authors “present.” The way in which national conferences treat trade book authors has changed during the past fifteen years. These days fewer of us are featured in conference programs. Looking back, I made the transition almost without realizing at the time that I’d made a lucky choice which gave me a second option.
Sandy, as we’ve mentioned before, nothing is easy or uncomplicated about this business no matter whose yard we’re playing in. One of my early initiations into the educational market was learning how to write and submit a proposal to present at a conference. I went online, downloaded a submission form, blinked and swallowed rapidly, asked myself, “Why? Why?” and tackled the blanks. Who was I? What did I propose to present? In what way would my presentation be useful to classroom teachers? What credentials could I offer germane to the occasion? Who should attend my sessions? And on.
On my first submission, I was accepted but conference planners paired me with another presenter and told us we’d each have half of the allotted time. The other party and I were strangers. She was repelled by the requirement of sharing, especially with a trade book writer! After a terse exchange, she contacted the conference chair and refused to appear. I got the whole hour. Nanner nanner nanner. Next I was paired with a different professor, again someone I didn’t know. We met for the first time a few minutes before going on. We got through it but it wasn’t the most professional act you ever saw.
Then came a conference where I met Mary Jo Fresch at an authors’ reception. She’s a professor of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University and loves children’s literature. Our friendship was immediate and it wasn’t long before we not only started presenting together but writing books too. We now have five titles in print and are working on a sixth. Our presentations draw well. Our current proposal, which includes two others, is already submitted for IRA in St. Louis next year. There is never a guarantee of acceptance. One year at NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) Mary Jo, Margaret (Peggy) Harkins, and I packed a large room. Every seat was taken and people sat on the floor along the walls while others in the hall craned to look in. The next year NCTE turned down our proposal which, by the way, included one of the big names in education, a man who is a frequent keynote speaker.
I sometimes remind myself that this was my “what else is out there” plan to find new work and become better known in educational circles. It has taken on a life of its own but in the beginning I envisioned it as a way to promote my name and my trade books. On with my story. There’s the matter of money to pay for these conference trips. By the time I learn if I’ve been accepted, many of my publishers have completed their author support budget for the year. If I don’t present, they won’t help me. But if I don’t tell them in time, they can’t help me. If I present at more than one conference during the year, they may not be able to help me. Universities tend to provide conference funding for their main professors as part of the “publish or perish” big picture. Trade authors have no one to turn to if our publishers can’t help. Sandy, I’m not whining about this. Okay, I’m whining, but not BIG whining, just LITTLE whining. If we want to play in someone else’s neighborhood, we have to play nice and accept their rules. I’m glad I made the effort and happy to have become part of the educational publishing crowd.
Sandy, I’m about ready to pass this back to you, but there’s one more point I want to make. It’s another aspect of the educational writing business. I find myself doing a lot of pro bono work. I am delighted, flattered, and honored when asked to contribute something to a journal or book. Recently I wrote a chapter in a book for classroom teachers. Of the twenty-one authors, I was one of two not involved directly in education, mostly at the university level. The other author was James Cross Giblin. Did I work hard on that 20-page, 5,600 word manuscript? You bet I did! I wanted it to be my best effort and I worked hard on it for a good many weeks. How much was I paid? Not a dime.
Not long ago I was invited to write an article for a planned issue of a respected journal. Four professors and a number of others were involved and everyone worked hard. Chalk off another several weeks. When all was ready, we had a nasty jolt. The journal’s editor resigned and was replaced by someone with different ideas about the direction the journal should take. Our issue was cancelled. I have a good article now, taking a long nap in a file.
That’s it. What else is out there? Plenty. Writers write and we’re a curious lot to boot. Over the years I’ve gone from fiction to nonfiction to poetry to how-to books to digital publishing to educational publishing. The list of possibilities is long, my friend. I wonder what we’ll try next?

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Topic 13: What Else is Out There?
Part 4: Sandy
September 30, 2014

Uh-oh, David.  Sounds as if you’ve wandered awfully close to the Forest of People Who Do Not Hug at those academic gatherings.  You’ve accomplished great things there, but hold tight to your map so you can find your way back out!

As for me, my latest adventure in discovering “What else is out there?” has taken me deep into hugging territory.  In fact, it’s all about hugging experts: very young children.  And it was my granddaughter, a hug specialist, who led me down this marvelous path when she was three years old.

It all began in December of 2008.  My daughter and son-in-law had been offered free lodging in London over the holidays while U.K.-based friends traveled back to the United States to visit their own family.  Their house had a spare bedroom, airfares to England were affordable in the dead of winter, and the grandkids would be in residence, so, of course, off we went.

But before leaving home, I went on-line and booked tickets for three shows being performed during out stay by theater groups who specialized in work for young audiences.  My daughter, granddaughter, and I would attend; the grandson was still too young for live theater, so he would spend that time with his dad and granddad.

All of the performances were professional, and each was unique.  One was almost wordless, but visually beautiful as it explored nightfall, bedtime, and falling asleep from a child’s point of view.  Another was a raucous adaptation of a Raold Dahl story I’d never heard of, “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me,” complete with huge puppets and a Keystone Cops kind of frenetic energy. 

And then there was the third, “How Long Is a Piece of String?” created and performed by Tim Webb’s astonishing Oily Cart Theatre.  The other performances were excellent and well attended.  This one was a life changer.  This was “What else is out there?” with frosting and jimmies and a cherry on top!  It featured a kind of theater for the very young that was new to me, but not to Oily Cart and their Artistic Director, Tim Webb.  They’ve been creating and touring new works for 30 years now, specializing in theater for the very young (0 – 3 and 3 – 5, mostly), and in theater for young people with special needs. 

No, that is not a typo.  They do theater for children under a year old, and their parents, of course.  In small groups.  They also do theater for no more than a handful of seriously challenged children and their caregivers at a time, and I believe they’ve done one piece where the audience consisted of one child at a time, plus caregiver(s).  No need to take my word for it.  Visit their website at http://www.oilycart.org.uk, follow them on Facebook, and, to see clips of actual performances, search for them on YouTube.com.  I recommend starting with “Oily Cart + String Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Air Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Blue,” and “Oily Cart + Blue Balloon” for examples of their work with and for all of those populations.  You can also see interviews with Tim Webb, Artistic Director and resident genius.

Okay, so there we were – daughter, granddaughter, and moi – on a cold, crisp December afternoon in London, excited about going to the theater but completely unaware of what we were about to experience.  When about 15 children, mostly 3 – 5 year olds, and their accompanying adults had assembled in the lobby, we were instructed to put one hand on a red string and follow it to where the play would be taking place.  This took us to a cavernous black box theater space.  I knew immediately something extraordinary was about to happen because there were all sorts of string-related gizmos, designs, and contraptions on the walls and a musician was singing us to our seats while playing – what else? – stringed instruments.  What followed was something called “full immersion” theater, an approach in which children become an integral part of the play and fully experience the world of the story through their senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

At first, I was holding my granddaughter’s hand and leading her into the experience, but within five minutes, all of the children had left their adults behind and taken up residence in the world of the play.  The Pied Piper has nothing on the Oily Cart company!  And then the magic took over for me, too.  Seated with the rest of the adults in the center of the room as the action moved around us in all directions, I realized this was great theater for everyone, child and adult.  It had everything: a clever story well-acted, delightful music, and spectacular visual imagery – heightened by the breathtaking sight of our own little ones totally enjoying themselves as they learned to care for yarn doll babies, worked the Rube Goldberg-style gizmos, rowed a boat while being spritzed by water, crossed a rope bridge, bathed their babies in cascades of multi-colored bubbles, and finally tucked them into a caravan of cribs to be reunited with their String Parents.

I fell madly in love – with Oily Cart, with “How Long Is a Piece of String?” and with the concept of full-immersion theater for the very young.  I returned home determined to write that kind of play.  My picture book Here Comes Gosling! seemed a good place to start – children could join Froggie and Rabbit in a variety of activities involving their senses.  (We’re more restrictive about serving children food here in the U.S., so “taste” ended up as pretend-eating rather than actual ingesting.)  At an American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference, I read the book at a Playwrights Slam session and announced that I needed a theater group to work with me on developing a full-immersion script for the very young.  Patricia Zimmer, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, came forward immediately, saying she’d worked with a large Head Start school in her area before and could see this as a great match. 

It was!  We took Patricia’s university students into the Head Start classrooms to test out my ideas with real, live 3 – 5 year olds and later performed the finished play for them.  I will never forget the moment when the children were gathered around a red-and-white picnic blanket, playing “Dance and Freeze” with Froggie, Rabbit, Goose, Gander, and baby Gosling and giggling madly while their parents and teachers grinned ear-to-ear in the background.  “I did it!” I thought.  “They’re experiencing this dance at this picnic in this imaginary world because of the words I put on a page.”  And then I thought, “How can I ever again write a play in which preschoolers don’t get up and dance?”

Well, I calmed down, of course. And so did they, sitting quietly to listen to Froggie read a story before filing out through the greenery-decorated archway that had led them into this new world and would now take them back to their everyday lives.  After other productions in Austin, TX and Bentonville, AR, the stage version of Here Comes Gosling! is headed toward publication by Dramatic Publishing Company. I hope it keeps a lot of little people dancing for a very long time.

I’m now working on a new script for the same age group, “Chicken Story Time.”  Through “full-immersion theater,” very young children discover “what else is out there.”  And so do I!

Hugs, everybody!

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