Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Adventures of a Mudlark #3 - Process

Because I often get new ideas when I'm supposed to be committed to one WIP, I use the following process to 'capture' new ideas, establish some kind of file, and have something to start with when I pick up the project.

1. For each new project I start a notebook - usually just a simple 72-page Hilroy exercise book.
   This is where I record plot notes, reference materials, passing ideas, character outlines, freewriting of scenes, etc.
2. I also label a plastic folder in which I keep the exercise book, along with any loose pages of print outs, etc.
This allows me to carry some basic materials with me when I'm on the road, at work, etc. as a place for collecting poject-based 'gleanings.'
3. I open an Excel file to record outline/scene notes and
4.  a Word file where I note reference books, links to useful websites, etc. and drafts of scenes.
   Both these are filed in a folder in my home ccomputer with a word or two from the working title - in this case 'Mudlark'

Perhaps the most vital piece of paper in any developing project is a one-page outline grid. Although I am not a great outliner, in the early stages when I'm thinking more than writing, it does help me see connections , and understand where the gaps may be and where things might fit.

This and my constant companion, a coil-bound Cambridge Limited notebook, are the two things I carry with my everywhere, and the plastic project folder comes along if I'm doing more than running to the store for milk or out for a quick coffee.

This is a very low-tech process. I don't carry any digital devices with me(other than a cellphone which holds only very few numbers, and only my husband, my daughter and work have the number) so any notetaking I do on the run has more to do with pen and paper than electronics.


Maybe one day I will find a way to get connected to other tools, but right now I am pretty committed to a process that puts pen to paper as much as fingers to a keyboard 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Adventures of a Mudlark # 2- Research

A Victorian-era street from Spitalfields Life
If a plot is, as someone said, `Just one thing after another,` research could be defined as following one lead that leads to the next that leads to the next...

Here's a list of a few of the books and websites I've been immersed in lately as I explore Victorian-era London. You can probably deduce from this list that it's working class and poor Londoners that interest me, rather than the high life of the wealthy and privileged - although of course, they do intersect from time to time.

The Victorian City Child By Pamela Horn (nonfiction)
The Victorian City Child by Pamela Horn (nonfiction)
Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (adult novel)
Folly by Marthe Jocelyn (YA novel)
Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870 by Lisa Picard (nonfiction)
The Frightened Man (adult novel about Jack the Ripper)
London's Shadows: The dark side of the Victorian City by Drew Gray (nonfiction)
London in the Nineteenth Century: 'A Human Awful Wonder of God' by Jerry White (nonfiction)
The Timetraveller's Guide to Victorian London by Natasha Narayan
The Blackest Street: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum by Sarah Wise
London: The biography by Peter Ackroyd
Coster Girls and Mudlarks, edited by Belinda Hollyer
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew
The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes by Henrey Mahew.

The advantage of using a well-researched book is that it`s likely to have a bibliography that will lead to even more.

Then there are all those seemingly `trivial`bits and pieces of information that rise to the surface as I read... that lead me in pursuit of other material.


Spitalfields Life - an absolutely amazing resource for photographs of this area of London, perhaps best known as the haunting grounds of Jack the Ripper. It is possible to create an entire fictional neighbourhood from these images alone.
Chris Snodgrass - an academic at the University of Florida who specializes in Victorian literature and art. Includes an interesting timeline which I might use to help determine specific events that connect with my story.
Jack the Ripper Casebook - whether or not my book is set in 1888, Jack the Ripper research materials are valuable in establishing some context for the period and setting.
Jack the Ripper - another website with a plethora of resources and research materials.
These are only two of many online resources re Jack the Ripper. More than enough info for me to be gong on with!
The Victorian Dictionary - website of Lee Jackson, author of a number of Victorian thrillers.
Lots of basic definitions, media excerpts etc. detailing Victorian life. Here I found a very useful article on Victorian coffeehouses, where Rowena Cole first meets her future patron Charles Dickens in THE ROUGH DRESS.
The Victorian Peeper - 'Nineteenth Century Britain Through the Looking Glass'

Not that I'm spending every minute immersed in research.

This week I've also enjoyed two very different books by Meg Rosoff' - Bride's Farewell and What I Was and my current bedtime reading is the beautifully evocative Shade by Irish playwright Neil Jordon.

And I've also been wrestling with edits on Paper House and a Citizenship and Immigration grant report.

Bring on the long weekend. Happy Canada Day to all.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Adventures of a Mudlark #1- Connections

The mudlark, generally restricted to Australia and New Zealand

It never fails that when I'm working on one story (right now a YA historical novel called THE ROUGH DRESS) I get ideas for another.

So I thought that it might be interesting to use my blog as a way to record the process, and pin some of the thoughts and ideas on the page without/before actually committing to writing what might become a children's novel called THE MUDLARK MURDERS.

  • My Dad is a historian by nature and training. But as a kid, in the days when history in school  mainly involved committing to memory a long list of kings and queens and politicians (British, of course, my deah!) I had no interest in the topic at all. But I remember clearly being captivated by two things. A folder of information entitled Shaftsbury and the Working Children that Dad gave me for Christmas when I was about nine - about the plight of working children in the Victorian era. And a small book about life in a Middle Ages village that we read in school. 
  • During a visit to the Tate Modern a number of years ago to see an Edward Hopper exhibit with my mother, we become as engrossed in an exhibit in another room - thousands of items thrown up from the River Thames by recent excavations during the Canary Wharf and other building projects - buttons, drinking vessels, weapons, crockery.., the ephemera of everyday life as it has been lived along the river for hundreds of years.
  • Many years later I get hooked on Victorian-era London, and find myself with several story germs percolating, and surrounded by a mound of both fiction and nonfiction books on the subject. Including one called The Victorian Town Child by Pamela Horn (who also wrote the The Victorian Country Child, which I will get to next.)
        Earlier this week, browsing the Table of Contents and Appendices before I start reading the book (thanks Dad, for that early training) I find a list of jobs often done by children in the Victorian era. Mudlarking, being one of them. This, I soon learned, involved dredging through the mud of the Thames by hand to find rope, metal, any materials that the child mudlarkers sold to generate an income for their families. 
  • For some reason, bird names often generate story ideas for me. Currently in one stage or another there's CUCKOO'S NEST, SPARROW THIEF, SO FAR FROM HOME (which features a boy and his father in Victorian-era England searching for a rare bird on a remote Scottish island). So it seems natural that mudlarking will generate a story idea or two.
Who'd have thought that I'd love research so much.

Checking into the origins and contemporary manifestation of mudlarking, I find the website (and an uglier website I have never seen!) of the Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society which includes images of thousands of items discovered in the muddy foreshore of the river, and beyond. I also discover that Tony Pilson may have been the curator of the exhibit that I saw at the Tate years ago. And that he has donated millions of his finds to the Museum of London.

And in reading the article about Tony Pilson, I come across these words..."Many mudlarkers were swept away by strong tides or were trapped in the soft mud and drowned at high tide."

And I get what I call 'The Big Chill" - the feeling that there is a story here somewhere.

Somehow, my interest in the Victorian-era London, birds, and the possibility of trying out a little fantasy or time travel comes together in what is currently in the germ of an idea for a kids' novel entitled THE MUDLARK MURDERS.

Next Adventures of a Mudlark posting - research sources.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

And the winners are...

To launch my newsletter, I offered a contest in which anyone who commented on the first issue would have their name entered for a book prize.

And dozens of entries later, the winners are:
Madison Garbish, who wins a copy of SILVER RAIN.
Anne McDowell who wins a copy of THE BALLAD OF KNUCKLES McGRAW for her two sons.
Peyton Lohnes who also wins a copy of THE BALLAD OF KNUCKLES McGRAW
And for all their wonderful notes that included some great reading recommendations that will be listed in the September issue of the newsletter, a copy of A STAR IN THE WATER, the special edition sequel to MEETING MISS 405 goes to teacher Pam Prosser's class at Pierre Elliott Trudeau School in Oshawa, Ontario.

Thanks to everyone who dropped me a note to tell me what they thought of the first newsletter. I will be looking closely at all your comments, and I hope you will like the next issue, due out in September.

Meanwhile, if you are one of the winners noted above, drop me an email with your mailing address, and I will send you your book as soon as I know the mail carriers are back on the job.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Writing for a good cause

Perhaps because of my ten-year+ experience in fundraising, I'm often asked for advice on how to market/fund production of cause-related books.

These are books, often on medical topics, that are designed to help children understand and cope with new situations in their lives - diabetes, autism, hospital visits, loss of a family member or pet...
And many people wanting to produce these books themselves, are looking for potential funding sources,  partnerships amd marketing opportunities.

These are a few tips I include when responding to such queries:
1. Explore what is currently available on the topic.
  • Check library catalogues (as nonfiction topics, and as 'autism', but also 'autism--fiction'
  • Check out websites of organizations that support and educate people about such conditions - they often have useful reading lists.
  • Ask teachers, nurses, doctors for their recommended reading titles.
Then check out these resources to ensure you are not duplicating similiar books that are readily available, and/or that yours is very different. This information will also be useful in pitching your project to publishers, funders, etc.

2. Be realistic about where/how to get funding.
  • Individuals are rarely eligible for corporate or foundation grants.
  • While partnering with an agency that deals with the same issue as your book might be a possibility, be aware that most non profits operate with very limited resources. Unless a book of the type you are proposing has already been identified as a priority, they are unlikely to be able to accomodate a partnership.
        However, if you are able to attract a non profit partner, they would be eligible to apply for grants, and their publicity and marketing machines would help get informaton about your project in potential readers' hands.
  • If your book is part of a broader projecy, you may want to explore developing a non profit society or foundation, which would make you eligible to apply for grants, provide tax receipts to donors, etc. Try Charity Village for useful resources, and check your local provincial/state government website for info on how to create a nonprofit society.
3. Find a publisher

If you are looking for a mainstream publisher for your project, your query/book proposal should include detialed information about what is already on the market on the topic, and your book must be able to compete on a craft level with other books in the marketplace.
   It may help if you have a 'platform' that allows you to reach potential readers easily - if you are active in a support organization as a staff or board member or volunteer, work with affected clients, pr whose writing onthe topic is widely known.
   If you plan to self publish, ensure the writing and production values are sound, and that you have a good marketing plan that outlines how you expect to reach your readership, your key prospects and key messages, etc.

4. Think of story

Many sound ideas are bogged down by pedantic writing and old fashioned moralizing. Rather than writing a book that tells the reader about the condition/situation and offers didactic solutons create a compelling character who has to negotiate the situations in a realist way. Use all the elements of story characterization, dialogue, good plot development, rising action, to draw the reader in and engage them rather than instruct them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pass it on

I enjoyed a whistle stop visit to Jessie Lee Elementary School in Surrey today to deliver a load of books donated by Vancouver-area writer Julie Burtinshaw. These were titles on the longlist of the Red Cedar Awards, of which she is a judge, and she was looking for a good home for them after her judging duties were over.

I didn't have time to stop and visit with librarian Dawne Murray. When I arrived she was in mid-storytime session, telling Linda Bailey's Stanley's Party to a group of rapt primary grade children.

It was nice to know that Julie's generosity will help stock the shelves of this school library, which like so many is underfunded and under supported in both staffing (Dawne splits her time between two Surrey schools) and materials, and be the core of Red Cedar activities in this vulnerable school.

Last summer I spent a lovely afternoon with the summer day camp program at Jessie Lee, during which we spent much of the afternoon playing jacks, an activity that I used as a springboard for discussion about my Depression-era midgrade novel Silver Rain.

Literacy is important in this school. And it's great that authors like Julie Burtinshaw, who might never meet these particular students, can support the teachers' and librarians' efforts to put good books into students' hands.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

School and library visits

The end of the school year is as good a time as any to review what I have learned over the past two+ years of author visits (and 30 years of storytelling, library programs and schooltours.)

Here are a few things that have worked for me, followed by a few additional resources for those just getting into it.

Develop an idea of the central intent of presentations.
Mine is ‘To present an overview of the history of storytelling as a way to share information, explore ideas, celebrate culture and create community’.

Yours might be ‘To share the journey of a book from idea to publication.’ ‘To inspire children to think creatively’, or ‘To share how I pursued my dream to be a writer.’

Since I clarified my intent, I have found I can build various presentations for different age groups and interests around it, using common elements each time and then incorporating additional activities that reflect the specific needs of the school.

Finding Gigs
I seldom make cold calls to teachers and librarians. Most get inundated by emails and faxes from presenters of all kinds wanting to book presentations. A couple of years ago, a school principal showed me the faxes and emails he had received in just one week – a huge stack!
Most of which would not get a reply.

Ihave much better luck (and get a warmer reception and and save lots of time) when I approach contacts I already know - teachers, parents who are on PACs or who volunteer in their kids’ school, librarians I come across personally of professionally, etc.

I rarely get contacted out of the blue – most teachers or librarians who have contacted me have been referred by another school/librarian/parent/colleague or other contact of their own.

Be prepared.
About two weeks before the visit, I send a letter confirming all the details of the presentation, as agreed, along with a list of what I need. This usually includes laptop, projector, table for displaying books, a large jug of water and a glass, and teachers present. I include this last point because I have presented at schools where the teachers settled the students, then left the room.

I use a form to track school contacts, arrangements, details of grade level and number, teacher/librarian contact info., etc. and notes of the presentation. On the few occasions that plans have gone awry and I haven’t ended end up presenting for that school at that time, I follow-up three to six months later to see if they want to book another session.

I use the same form to indicate when/whether invoices have been sent, fees paid, thank-you letters sent and other info that helps me keep track of who I have visited and the outcome. I also use the form to record the outcome of the visit, any required follow-up , and to indicate when I have sent a thank you letter.
Contact me if you'd like a copy of the form and cover letter to base your own on.

Preparing for anything
Floods, fire drills, disruptive students, fainting teachers, intrusive PAs... visiting authors have had them all. Ever since one of my early preschool storytimes was interrupted by a vigorous window cleaner, I have learned to sit back, adapt, adjust, and take what comes with as much patience and humour as possible. In the case of a recent repeated PA announcement, it came in the middle of a told story. So I stopped, we waited and listened, then I launched into Chapter Two of the story... soon followed by Chapter Three after the presentation was interrupted yet again. I still wonder if anyone finally returned that missing camera to the school office.

As for that window washer? Once I figured out why the children were so distracted, I stopped the story I was telling and we all watched him, talked about window washing, and came up with some kind of appropriate song. The washer at the window goes slap, slap, slap... until he was done, at which time normal storytime service resumed.

Beating the crowds
I like to be early enough to be set up before the students and their teachers arrive in the library or gym. This allows me to ‘claim the space’, ensure I have what I need is arranged in a way that works best for me, and then greet children and teachers individually as they assemble and get seated.

Engaging students
Just as everyone learns differently, so do kids interact and respond differently to any given presentation. I try to incorporate spoken word (i.e. told stories), appropriate songs, sometimes other languages, Greek chorus refrains, written activities, and discussion and a Q&A period in most presentations.

I have recently started using Power Points as background to many of my presentations. Rather than taking along equipment that may not be compatible with what the school has on hand, I request the use of a laptop and projector and take along a thumb drive containing the presentation.

If it does not work on first try, I report to a stand-up. There’s nothing worse than struggling to make something work when I’m already keyed up. And it can be uncomfortable for children and teachers to witness the presenter fumbling and fuming.

I take along 8x11 blow ups of the PP slides to use as backup if the technology fails.

I always send a thank you letter within a week of the presentation, and try to reflect in some way on the highlight of my visit. I sometimes request a testimonial letter or email that I might use in subsequent grant applications and approaches to other schools.

I usually leave the host teacher/librarian with copies of my general brochure, the current copy of my newsletter and teacher resource handout or activity sheet based on the book/s I have focussed on during my visit. These items can then be passed on to other teachers and librarians if my host chooses to recommend my presentations to others, and might be used in subsequent classroom activities. (See Finding Gigs)

While I may not have enough for every child, I do provide a handful for the teacher/librarian to distribute. Students will often ask for one, and I direct them to the librarian, to avoid a crush around me when teachers are trying ot get kids organized to return to class.

Other resources

Please add your comments and questions, and I'll use your input when I post Part Two.