Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Celebrating BLUE BIRDS with an interview with author Caroline Starr Rose!

Today we’re celebrating Bluebirds, Caroline Starr Rose’s soon-to-be-released historical fiction novel-in-verse, set in the 1587 "Lost Colony" of Roanoke, Virginia. There’s so much I could say about this book: how much I loved it, how it rang wonderfully true to the time period, how it made me think and made me laugh and made me cry--you know, all the good things books can do. But since you get to hear me talk all the time, I asked Caroline if she would join us here today for an interview, and she graciously agreed. Without further ado... 

FEH: Welcome, Caroline! I’m so grateful for your story and particularly grateful right now for your generosity in joining me here today.
I think people tend to pigeonhole writers of historical fiction as romantics who wish they lived in the past, but I’ve found that most of them are happy to be solidly situated in the present. What are a few things about life in the past that you’re glad are, in fact, past? (Even if they make for interesting fiction...)

CSR: Barber surgeons. Privies. Bathing rarely and having to heat water batch by batch to fill a tub. Butchering an animal rather than buying meat nicely packaged at the grocery store. The gross factor is a big one for me. Part of my fascination with the past is that everyday living seemed like so much work in comparison to my own life. I have tremendous respect for those who lived ordinarylives. Really, they inspire me.

FEH: What are a few things from the past you wish could be resurrected?

CSR: Less distraction. A slower pace of life. Handiwork! Id love to be able to make beautiful things.

FEH: Isn’t it interesting that with all the work women had to do, they still had time to create beautiful handiwork? (Proof, perhaps, of the time-stealing nature of the internet and television...) The great thing about all the past things you love is that it’s not too late to bring them into your own life a little at a time!

One of my favorite things about BLUE BIRDS was--as with all great historical fiction--the glimpse into cultures I would never be able to experience outside of fiction. You tackled not only one, but two very diverse cultures, and I was struck by how different they both were not only from each other but from our lives today. What detail about each of your main character’s lives do you think would strike a modern reader as the most surprising?

CSR: What a great question! I think young readers might be surprised how much work each girl was expected to do within her community. Alis is expected to serve as nursemaid, first to two toddlers in the English settlement and then to her own brother and the infant Virginia Dare (the first English child born in the New World). Kimi works in the fields, along with the other Roanoke women, and does other tasks, such as weaving and meal preparation.

One of my favorite passages is a very simple reflection on Aliss part. She is going about the English settlement, comparing it to London:

Some say the village is a rude establishment:
There are no pipes and fountains
as there are in London,
just water from a stream.
No fish and vegetables appear in market stalls,
just those we trap in swirling waters,
those coaxed from the withered garden.

But I’ll take a bit of extra work
for the forest’s wild beauty,
the open skies as fair trade
for the luxuries we’ve left behind.

I picked the word luxuriesdeliberately. I wanted readers to see what Alis considered a luxury pipes and fountains, market stalls and have a moment to compare her world with their own lives.

As for Kimi, one obvious surprise for readers will be her appearance. Roanoke women had tattoos on their arms, legs, and sometimes faces. Alis meets Kimi in the summer months, when skirts were the only clothing Roanoke women wore. I remember trying to explain this to my eleven-year-old son a few months ago. He got very serious and said, Mom, you have to change that.In other words, he was uncomfortable. I think this is a very natural modern-day response, especially for a kid! Both Alis and Kimi find the other odd as far as appearance goes, but there is something fascinating about the other, too. They are able to move beyond fascination and into the others true personhood once their friendship forms.

FEH: The passage you quoted was the exact one I had in mind when I wrote that question! To me, the new world is, indeed, a totally different world from Tudor London, but the hardships were a trade-off; you had more convenience in Europe, but you had to take the filth to go along with it. After London, Virginia must have seemed pristine.

Do you have a favorite bit of research that didn’t make it into the story?

CSR: The day Governor John White returned to the island Roanoke (and found the settlement empty) was the third birthday of his granddaughter, Virginia Dare. What a cruel irony!

FEH: I’ve heard you mention that writing and revising BLUE BIRDS was one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. What kept you going during the hardest moments, and what advice could you offer to other writers going through tough writing times?

CSR: This book was hard on so many levels. Because it was the first novel I wrote after publishing a rather successful first book, I had an invisible audience I had to learn to ignore. The stakes felt higher. I worried about comparisons between May B. and Blue Birds. This was also the first time Id written a historical about specific events, rather than just a specific era. Then added to this was the realization the story needed to be told in both girlsvoices. I felt utterly unqualified to write as a Native American child.

I suppose I kept working on the book because thats what I do. I write. There was definitely some stubbornness and pride involved. But also, I wanted to see the book and these girls through to the end. They deserved that. Im someone who finds drafting terrifyingly hard, and I know thats part of what kept me going: If I could push through to the end, then I could get to the good stuff the shaping and discovery that takes place in revision. The real writing, in other words.

What I would encourage others to do is to shut out the rest of the world what you think they think of you, what you think they think of how you approach your writing. Then shut yourself off, too your worries, your fears, how monumental the task feels. If you can, find some friends also on the writing journey. I have a Brenda Ueland quote on my wall my friend Valerie Geary sent me while I was working on Blue Birds. Its such a lovely way to approach writing. Ive highlighted my favorite bit:

And when you work on your writing remember these things. Work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as through talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally thumb your nose at the know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, and doubters.

FEH: Beautiful advice, Caroline! Thank you so much for this, and for taking the time to answer these questions. I wish you much--deserved--success for BLUE BIRDS!

This post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of the book Blue Birds. Author Caroline Starr Rose is giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell's, then email a copy of your receipt to caroline@carolinestarrrose.com by Monday, January 19. PDFs will be sent out January 20.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Top 10 reasons you should be entering writing contests

I love writing contests. I don't win very many of them, but I am a firm believer that entering contests is one of the best things you can do for your writing.

As a frame of reference, I've entered a moderate amount of contests. My lifestyle isn't such that I can be one of those people who constantly seeks them out and enters, enters, enters--though I have a friend who has done pretty much that and it's been successful for her. But neither do I turn my back when a contest presents itself. I won a statewide writing award: the Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children's Literature. But I entered it  lots of times. I was a finalist three times, an honorable mention once, and then there was that great year when they called me and said, "You won!" (Interestingly enough, they weren't in that order.) I enter my husband Mark in contests, too--or, at least, force him into it--because he's more humble about his writing than I am. :) He won the "Tassy" as well, the year before I did. He also won the online contest WRiTE CLUB, with which you may be familiar. Both of us had near misses in the PEN New England writing contest, in which the judges made a point of calling us and encouraging us to enter again. And.... we've also entered plenty of things which, on the face of it, were completely unsuccessful.

But the unsuccessful ones were just as worth entering.

Here's why I think you should be entering as many writing contests as you can fit comfortably into your lifestyle:

1. They force you to look at your writing objectively. This isn't showing off a manuscript to your mom or writing partner/friend. Someone is going to be judging you on this, and you know you're going to look at it differently.

2. They make you realize you didn't need those extra 2500 words, after all. Mark and I have worked harder to cut down the beginning of our books because of contest word count restrictions than for any other single reason. Oh, it hurts to cut that favorite joke or perfect description. But once it's gone, it's pretty clear that the story is better without it. Just the practice of cutting, cutting, cutting makes it easier to carry on with the rest of the book.

3. You will learn to meet a variety of publishing guidelines and standards. So one contest wants 1 inch margins, the other one wants a title page, the third one wants a .pdf entry. Contests are a great way to figure out how to do all those things before embarrassing yourself sending off a poorly-formatted manuscript to an agent or editor.

4. Connecting with other writers. Many regional contests have open-invitation awards ceremonies. Go to them. Even if you lost. Trust me, you'll meet other "losers," and you'll meet other winners and you'll realize how much you all have in common. Plus children's publishing people are the nicest people ever, so you'll end up having great conversations and meeting really interesting folks.

5. Did I mention deadlines? All contests have 'em. Some of us (pats self on back) wouldn't get anything done without deadlines.

So much for the general reasons. Here are 5 more that relate more to technical success within the contest world.

6. Finally, finally! Something to put on that bio section of your query letters.

7. A chance to be published, even in a small way. Not every contest offers publication--the one I won did not. But many will print at least sections of winnings manuscripts, which mean that many more people will have a chance to read your work.

8. Feedback from professionals. Even if you don't win, many judges are kind enough to offer feedback to entrants they deemed "close." In a contest Mark did NOT win, he still heard from a judge who offered him practical suggestions and the glorious news that, "Lois Lowry [another judge] absolutely loved this."

9. Many contests offer a small monetary award. This shouldn't be sniffed at. It buys babysitters.

10. Last, but far from least: small successes are every bit as important as the big ones. Winning, or placing in, a contest tells you that you're not wasting your time. You're on the right track. When you wake up at three in the morning wondering why you're bothering with all this, why you endure rejection after rejection, you'll be able to remember that someone out there thinks you can write, and that at least once you were praised and accepted. This means everything.

Here are a few contests worth looking into:
The Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children's Literature (for unpublished Connecticut writers and illustrators--Deadline: Feb 2)
The Susan P. Bloom Children's Book Discovery Award (through PEN New England) (for New England writers--Deadline: Feb 2)
Hunger Mountain Katherine Paterson Prize (any children's writer--Deadline: June)
SCBWI awards and grants (various grants are offered in different categories, various deadlines)

Please feel free to share any good contests in the comments, as well as to weigh in on how you feel about contests in general. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's "Revolushuns"

Yesterday my 7-year-old Lucy asked me, “Do you know that some people make sort of promises every New Year’s, of things that will make them a better person? They’re called ‘revolutions.’ Have you heard of those?” (I did tell her that a ‘revolution’ was actually a kind of a rebellion, but either that didn’t stick or she thought it a more appropriate term anyway.)

Boldini, The Summer Stroll
Later she made a sign marked, “Stand here to make your new year’s revolushuns,” and insisted that each of us take a turn promising to do something that would make us better people.

I’m more of a goal-setter than a resolution-maker, but I had to go along with something that cute. So we all stood on the sign, one by one, and promised:

Lucy: “I promise to pay attention to all the details of everything. In drawing, but not just drawing. All the things.”

Zoe: “I promise to listen to Mama and Papa right away.”

Me: “I promise to practice drawing.”

...and, last but not least, Ginny (who is 3). She spent a long time considering before finally coming up with: “I promise to have an umbrella!”

Luckily her grandpa was nearby to give her an umbrella since we did not, in fact, have one. I have a feeling her resolution will either last the longest or end up in a broken umbrella.

Monday, December 29, 2014

These are a few of my favorite things (of 2014)

Hey, wanna play a game? I’m going to list a whole slew of my favorite experiences from 2014. If you want to share yours, leave a comment and/or share a link.

Favorite book:

I’m making this game up. Therefore I can change the rules. Thus: subcategories!

Adult fiction: Money for Nothing, by P. G. Wodehouse. I read this aloud to Mark over many long drives and painting sessions, and laughed SO hard. I’ll give a runner-up, since I like to acknowledge good contemporary writing: Dear Mr. Knightley, by Katherine Reay.

Adult non-fiction: A Million Little Ways, by Emily Freeman.

YA: Looking back, I read very little YA in 2014. So I have to give this to a classic: Emily of Deep Valley, by Maud Hart Lovelace. (It may not have had much competition, but it deserves the honor regardless.)

Middle Grade: This is a re-read, but I’m so in love with The Secret Garden now after reading it aloud to my girls. Some runners-up: The Shadow Throne, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Over the Moon, and The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher.

Picture Book: Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, by Ben Hatke. This book could have been written just for me and my girls.

Children’s non-fiction: How We Crossed the West: the Adventures of Lewis and Clark, by Rosalyn Schanzer. 

I LOVE Ms. Schanzer’s non-fiction picture books. We also read her book about the California Gold Rush... I learned more from these two picture books than I did from any middle school textbook. My three-year-old knows more about Lewis and Clark than I ever did before.

Favorite movie/tv show: BBC...I love you. Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, Death Comes to Pemberly, Northanger Abbey... But I think my favorite was the Masterpiece adaptation of Great Expectations. Mark and I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning because we HAD to finish it. We never do that.

Favorite song: Happy, by Pharrell Williams. This version kept my teething baby smiling, and the rest of us dancing:

Favorite new accomplishment: Making sourdough bread. And lots of yummy sourdough things.

Favorite food: Mark learned how to make sushi either late last year or early this year, and I’ve found I really like it. I could probably eat spicy Sriracha Mayonnaise on anything.

Favorite writing moment: Brainstorming funny bits for a book Mark and I are working on together. It’s slow-going, but lots of fun. There was this one time when we decided, "Hey, we should tell this part in the chair's viewpoint...!" then burst out laughing. Then did it. It might get cut someday, but right now it's awesome.

Favorite cute kid moment: There are many, trust me, but I won’t overwhelm you with all that cuteness at once. I think my favorite was a result of Lu’s reading level being a bit beyond her maturity. (Warning: you should probably be familiar with Little House to get the joke.) She started reading The First Four Years, only to come running to me in tears a few minutes later. “Mama!” she sobbed. “You know the sixth commandment we just learned about? How you can’t be in love with someone new when you’re already married? Well (gasp, sob), Laura’s committing adultery!! She was getting married to Almanzo and now she’s married to some guy named Manly!” You should have seen the relief on her face when I explained that Manly was Almanzo’s nickname...

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Literary Buffet

How do you decide what project to work on next?

I’m still plugging away at a revision that’s had me in its grip for a couple years now, but I’ve been starving without the joy of plunging into the messy creation of a story--the bread and water to any fiction writer.

So I’m dabbling, like a kid at a buffet, to see where I should focus my energy.

Should it be the humorous Gilded Age cross-class romance?

Or the World War II ghost story?

Or the Civil War Shakespeare retelling?

Or one of the magazine stories I have planned?

Or the funny stories of saints, told for young readers?


One thing I know, I need a full plate of SOMETHING, or I will waste away to my writing skin and bones. Would you mind saying a prayer that I find direction and a wee bit of inspiration to get me beyond “Page 1”?