Josephine's Dream Reading

Josephine's Dream Reading
Trying to look like Josephine Baker - and failing miserably!

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls
Conquering the Beast

Monday, December 29, 2008


When your words just won't come, read someone else's. I must admit that I'd done so much writing and re-writing lately that I've been feeling a bit like an empty jug. I need time to fill up with creative juices.
I'd left my novel for a while, to do a bit of writing on another story. Then I had some inspiration for something I'd been playing around with for a few years. I'd wanted to write a short play for children based on one of my books. No matter how hard I tried, nothing seemed to work. Then yesterday the idea came to me, along with the notion, 'Keep it simple.' I'd been making it much too complicated. But between all that writing I was reading a murder mystery, just for fun. Now I've finished that and it's time to move on to something else.
Yesterday afternoon I read 'Screaming Mummies of the Pharaoh's Tomb II', by James Howe. It's a very funny children's book. Now I'm reading 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard,' by J.K. Rowling. I like the fairy and folk tale genres. I like to write in that style sometimes. You should try it, by the way. It's a good writing exercise.
If you don't mind a reading challenge there's a series of books that date back to the 1920s which I find very funny and clever. It's the 'Just William' series by Richmal Crompton. You might have to order them, or go to a library. The one I have in front of me is 'William the Pirate.' It was first published in 1932, but the humour still works beautifully today. It's just that the writing style is not as simple as the styles we are used to these days. Anyway, I think the whole series has been re-printed. Give it a try.
Finally - I'm not a fast reader. I'm a very slow reader. Maybe you are too. Who cares? Just read at your own speed and enjoy - while you fill up with creative juices.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Gift of a Story

This year I didn't send Hanukkah cards. Instead, I attached one of my many Hanukkah stories to my email greetings.
For those of you celebrating Christmas today, why not write a Christmas story for your family? What a wonderful gift. It's something they can keep forever that's part of you. When my son was little he would often dictate stories to me that I would write down in a special book. I still look at them and marvel at his creative mind. If you want to do it that way, ask your dad or mom to grab a pen and notebook and just make up a story off the top of your head. Sometimes your own imagination can surprise you.
If you are reading this now, on the West Coast, it's 10:20am. So find a quiet corner and get writing.
If you live a few time zones away, you can still make it. If that doesn't work, there's always Boxing Day or New Year's Eve. If it helps, just scribble down some ideas first.
Snow, sparkle, firelight, mountains, elves, smell of pine, icy pine cones, mysterious stranger. Well, you get the idea.
Have a great day!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Always Carry a Pen and a Notebook

Here I am, prepared to scribble!

Book Launch at Vancouver Kidsbooks - 2008

I'm the short author in the middle of this illustrious group. Lee Edward Fodi is on the left, James McCann is holding the cup, I'm clinging to my Brilliant 'Honey Cake' editor, Cindy Heinrichs, and Dan Bar-El is on the far right, looking like the cat that ate the marzipan mouse.
Children's Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia (Cwill) is a great organization for those of us who sometimes need to hang out with our own kind.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sewing, Knitting, Writing. Same Rules Apply.

Have you ever done any dressmaking? First you are down on your knees fitting pattern and fabric together - pins in your mouth, scissors at your side. Then you take your work to the sewing machine and put it all together with tiny, perfect stitches. But after all the blood, sweat, tears and creativity - it doesn't fit. You love it - but it's not quite right. The skirt part is okay, but the collar is all wrong, the belt's an inch too high, and it's a bit snug around the armpits. Nice bodice though. Too bad it has to be either taken apart and re-sewn or given to someone smaller and thinner.
I've never actually been able to sew, but I remember knitting a cardigan, following the pattern religiously, and the finished cardigan was absolutely lovely - but three sizes too small. I know it was three sizes too small because that's how many times I had to unravel the thing before it finally fit me. I had to change the needles and I had to change the size. The pattern hadn't worked for me.
Well, now I'm unravelling parts of my novel and putting it back together. I loved it the way it was, though now I see some of the errors of my ways. My publisher ripped into it the way a bunch of kids rip into a birthday pinata. My brilliant editor was gently critical, offering possible solutions, and doling out a little encouragement and praise when I actually came up with some solutions to my own problems.
Today I felt I needed some distance, so went back to another unfinished masterpiece-in-the making. I hadn't looked at it for months, and now I can see it with fresh eyes, as if someone else had been writing it. 'What clever person wrote this chapter, I wonder? Oh - t'was I!"
When a cardigan goes wrong, knit a scarf until you're ready to go back to it.
When the dress doesn't fit, sew something else for a while.
When the novel is in pieces and spread all over the floor, go back to one of the other stories you have on tap. And don't tell me you don't have any. Every writer has a pile of unfinished stories.
Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Chillblains Anyone? Why not Write a Winter Tale?

There is snow on the ground in Vancouver. Beneath some of the snow is a sheet of ice waiting to send me flying. Doctor's orders are to walk (but not to skate and fall). What a dilemma. On the positive side, snow can inspire a story. I've written plenty of snow stories in the past, but you might be thinking of one right now. You might be chewing on your pencil, or your computer keyboard, and thinking, "Hmm, a story with snow. How do I get the feeling I have about snow across to my readers? What kind of story shall I write?"
No publisher has ever shown much interest in my snow covered tales ... well, no, wait a minute, that's not entirely true. One of my best Hanukkah stories came back to me with such a heartwarming rejection letter, that I almost felt sorry for the publisher. 'We love your story .... it deserves to be published ... but ...' I wanted to put my arm around the editor's shoulders and say, 'There, there, don't feel bad. I know someone's going to publish it one day.' And who knows, maybe they will. Never let rejection stop you from writing stories.
When I was a child I loved snow. I mean I loved it up close and personal, as opposed to high up on the mountains, which is where I prefer it to be nowadays. I love the way it looks - in the distance, framed by the branches of frost-covered evergreens. A bit like a postcard.
Back in the old days (the nineteen fifties, if you must know) I would go outside in my wellington boots, inside of which I wore a pair of my own socks covered by a pair of my dad's socks. My wool mittens were woefully inadequate, though my pom-pon hat served its purpose. As I built my snowman with soot covered snow (I lived in an industrial city in the North of England. It was decades before I realized that snow was white) the snow would fall down my wellies and soak my socks. By the time my snow person was finished my feet were frozen.
"Don't put your feet too near the fire," my mother would instruct, "or you'll get chillblains." I always disobeyed. I always got chillblains. I'm not very good at science (although I think I might ask my good friend Shar Levine about the chillblain effect. She's the
Here's what happens. You take red, cold wet feet, put them close to the flames of the coal fire that's burning in the grate, wiggle your toes until hot and, 'voila!' they end up covered with red, itchy, lumpy things. The more you scratch them the worse they get, and Mother will always say, "What did I tell you? But will you listen to me? Oh, no. What do I know? I'm only your mother."
What else do I remember of childhood snow days?
Houses did not have central heating or double glazed windows. On very cold days, and nights, frost covered the window panes inside and out, and I could use my nail to trace patterns, or create little pictures, in the frost. Sometimes nature created those patterns without my help. They looked like giant, glittering snowflakes on the glass.
The robins in England (called robin redbreasts) are much smaller and redder than North American robins. My mother would throw out food for them and they would gather in the snow and bob for crumbs. Red and brown birds pecking about in the twinkling snow (and soot) - against a backdrop of trees on which the leaves had been replaced by icicles. The setting for a fairy tale waiting to be told.
Something else I've noticed. A blanket of snow seems to transform all sounds into a whisper.

So, kids, those are some of my wintertime memories and observations. What are yours? Stop chewing your pencils and write something!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Re-Write Nightmares and Chicken Soup

Yes, re-writing can be a nightmare. Here I am, instructed by my doctors to take it easy and not stress (how do people obey instructions like that?) and I spent all yesterday trying to re-write my brilliant novel. I'm not telling you this to discourage you. Absolutely not. I want you to write, and re-write, and you have to trust me that one day it will be very satisfying and worth the effort. Now back to my problem.
I'm not one of those writers who says to herself, "I shall now write a story that will appeal to boys between the ages of six and eight," or, "I'm going to write a book for teenage girls," or "Just wait until the newborn babies hear this one!" No, I don't do any of that. What happens is that I get an idea and start writing for me. I finally get to a draft that I think is as good as it can be - knowing it will never be that good. I drink a celebration cup of tea and send the manuscript to the publisher.
The publisher sends me an email that says the POV (point of view) is wrong. The book must appeal to ten year old boys. Okay, he has part of a point. So I have to do two things. I must not give up my story and compromise so that it is not mine anymore, but I must remain true to myself whilst following the publisher's rules.
As I re-write I see that it just might work, but I still have to have a couple of other points of view in the story. It's a problem, but one I'm going to try to solve. I'll imagine I'm a scientist, and my formula is not working, so I have to take away some of that and add a little of this to take its place.
Actually, to give him credit, my publisher (I hope he's my publisher!) said it was like a recipe for chicken soup. A little celery, a few carrots etc.
Hmm. Maybe that's what I need. Chicken Soup for the writer. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hospital Tales

I spent a couple of days in hospital this month. It wasn't much fun (the food was like airplane food used to be, in the days when they actually fed passengers). However, I met some very dedicated and smart nurses and doctors. Two nurses in particular stood out as possible characters for a story. Yes, even on my bed of pain, and despite having to take pills that made me feel woozy, my mind was at work. Parts of it, anyway.
There was one very intelligent, brisk, and efficient, but quite funny, young nurse. She was training another nurse who was obviously new in that ward. He was doing his best to follow all her instructions - and doing very well. He too had a sense of humour. Nurse Bossy-Boots and her trainee nurse made a good team. And they helped me to feel better.
When I got home, and my mind was a bit clearer - no more pills dulling my brain - I came up with a funny story of a little girl who has to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. Of course, she eventually decides to become a nurse. I wrote the story the day after I arrived home and did a couple of re-writes after that. Naturally, if I ever want to have it published I'll need a couple of extra re-writes at home, followed by more of the same if a publisher accepts it. But for now I'm simply sending it as a thank you gift to the nursing staff at the hospital. Don't worry, I already sent a thank you card to my surgeon. I didn't think of a story about him, but give me time. He might show up one day as a character in another book. As I said before 'It's all material.'

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Of Course You're Not Crazy! You're Creative!

When I was on my recent Ontario book tour I told a couple of school groups that it was okay to have crazy ideas, and to use your imagination. 'It probably just means you're a writer.' At least three students looked very relieved. One of them came up to me and said she wanted to be a writer, a movie director and an actor. 'I dream my movies, and I even see the credits at the end,' she said. I told her to keep on having those dreams. 'My guess is that one day they'll come true.'
Yes, I meet a lot of talented, creative children. It gives me hope for the future of books (and art, and music).
I'll tell you about another of my stories that came to me out of the blue - my picture book 'Josephine's Dream.' I was watching a book review show on t.v. when someone mentioned a book that I hadn't read, but I'd seen the cover. 'That cover was very colourful,' I thought. And then the word 'rainbow' popped into my mind, followed by the working title 'Josephine's Rainbow.' In other words 'colour' let to 'rainbow' let to 'Josephine's Rainbow.' Yes, I know, the book became 'Josephine's Dream,' but that was much later. And if you want to know what rainbows have to do with Josephine, well, you'll have to read the book.
I'd always admired the late, great, Josephine Baker, but until that moment it never occurred to me to write about her.
So - and I think I've said this before - pay attention to things that pop into your head. They might lead your imagination somewhere interesting.

Friday, December 12, 2008

You Live in an Interesting Place!

Yes, kids, you do live in an interesting town, city or village. You just might not know it yet. Or maybe you come from an interesting country, with lots of history, but you don't live there anymore. Maybe your family members know a tale or two. Ask them. Listen closely. Take notes.
I only learned recently that some of the places I used to vacation as a child, have fascinating histories, with deep, dark secrets, going back hundreds of years. After researching them on the net, and asking people in the know to tell me more, I began writing a fictional story based on those fascinating anecdotes, legends and bits of history. I also went through my collection of childhood vacation photos to jog my memory. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll soon be able to revisit and explore these old vacation haunts. Next time I'll pay more attention. You'd be surprised at just how much inspiration you can get from simply being in a place - and paying attention.
Are you writing a scene that takes place in a park? You could invent your own park (great idea) or you could look as some photos of parks, gardens or playgrounds. Better still, take your notebook into a park, sit on a bench, walk around, swing on the swings.
What does the air smell like? How does the bench feel against your legs? How does the air feel on your face when you swing high? What colours are the flowers? Is someone walking a dog? Does the dog remind you of a dishcloth on legs? Or is it a greyhound, reminding you of a skinny fashion model?
Now, go home, look at what you've scribbled in your notebook, and decide which ideas you want to discard and which you want to use. And remember, you can still invent your own park, but just add bits and pieces from your experiences of the park you know. You can make your park a lot bigger, or much smaller. Don't forget, in fiction almost anything is possible. ('What if?)
Your park might even be on another, as yet unknown, planet. In that case, I guess everything is possible.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

To Young Writers Everywhere! 'It's All Material.'

That's right, everything around you is material for a story, a piece of a story, a snippit of dialogue, a description. When students ask me, 'Where do you get your ideas?' I tell them, 'The same place you get yours.' You just have to pay attention and recognize an idea when it hits you in the head.
I'll give you an example - without going into too much detail. I was surfing around the internet, looking for a hotel in one of my favourite, small English towns. Not that I could afford to stay there, you understand, but I have a great imagination. I could imagine staying there. I found a lovely hotel that listed some local tourist sights, one of which had a very interesting history, involving a colourful and highly disreputable character. 'I've been to that place!' I thought. In fact I had a photo of myself in the jail cell where that disreputable character had finally been locked up (over 300 years ago). In the photo I'm sitting on his prison bed - very uncomfortable.
'What if?' I said to myself (lots of stories begin with 'what if? and also 'why not?') 'What if I wrote a story in which this man was one of the background characters?' In other words, the book wouldn't be about him, but he'd show up now and then and somehow influence the plot?
In three weeks I'd written 18,000 words! I now have 23,000 words. I've never actually written so quickly, but don't worry, I know that not every one of those words is brilliant. That's what re-reading, editing and re-writing are all about - not to mention proof-reading. Writing isn't ALL fun and games. Anyway, I hope a publisher likes my story as much as I do, and if that happens I'll keep you all informed.
So here's your exercise. Take a character, any character, from history. Let's see now - there's Florence Nightingale, George Washington, Louis Riel, Amy Johnson (look them all up if you don't know them!) And how about Charlie Chaplin? Now, just imagine a situation where you'd least expect them to show up, and plonk them down, right in the middle of your story. A little girl is at the beach and sees Charlie Chaplin walking his dog. A shepherd boy is watching his flock when Amy Johnson flies her plane onto his field. A kid is lost and in danger, and Flo Nightingale comes by and helps him hide - and maybe gives him a bit of medical attention.
I know, those are all ideas I could use (perhaps I will), but you know what? There are plenty more where they came from. Enjoy writing!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Later That Day ...

I forgot to list my books. You should read them all, especially if you are between the ages of newborn to 99 (or older). In fact you could read them to your unborn child. But speak up, I'm not sure about womb acoustics.

Picture Books: 'Shira's Hanukkah Gift' (also known as The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band) illustrated by Richard Row. Scholastic Canada
'Sadie the Ballerina' illustrated by Bruno St. Aubin. Scholastic Canada
'Josephine's Dream' illustrated by Chantelle Walther. Silverleaf Press

Chapter Book: 'Honey Cake' illustrated by Cynthia Nugent. (The cover of the U.S. edition is illustrated by Joanne Renaud.) Tradewind Books (Canada) and Random House (U.S.)

When I figure out how to add links and photos etc. you'll see them here. So watch this space. Well, not all the time. Go away and eat, or read a book - one of mine, perhaps - or take a walk. But don't forget to take that notebook and pen!

Born to blog

My friend Cynthia tells me I'm born to blog. So here I am blogging. But I won't let this blogging thing distract me from writing my stories. I read something today in a newspaper about a writer who gets her best ideas while jogging. She carries a bag with her containing a pen and paper for whenever she's inspired. That's what I do, except that I don't jog. I walk a lot, and talk to myself, and write notes to myself.
For those of you who want to know where ideas come from, they're all over the place and they pop into your head, and you should pay attention to them - if you want to write stories. Maybe you should still do it even if you don't write stories. The thing to remember is that when you least expect it - in the shower, shopping for tomatoes, running for the bus, in math class or at your best friend's wedding - ideas will come.
So, don't leave home without a notebook and pen. Just don't take them into the shower.
Watch this space for more bon mots. Joan Betty Stuchner, Dec. 10/08