I often receive letters from readers asking me questions about my writing, my inspiration, or how to become a writer. Below I've answered some of the questions I am asked most frequently.
Q: How old were you when you started writing?
A: Actually I was only four years old! But since I didn't yet know how to write, my dad listened to me tell my story and he wrote it down for me. We worked together for several weeks until I had my first "book."
Q: Do any of your friends of family member write books?
A: I have lots of friends who write books because writers tend to make friends with other writers. But I'm the only person in my family who writes books. My father is a veterinarian and he used to write articles about cats and dogs, but no books.
Q: How long does it take you to write a book?
A: That depends on the type of book. It takes me about four to six months to write a contemporary story like Starting School With an Enemy, Sarah and the Naked Truth, Corey's Story, or The Pack. I do research for these books, but not nearly as much research as I have to do for my historical novels. When I write historical fiction, like Storm Warriors, Stealing Freedom, Last Dance on Holladay Street or Blood on the River, it takes three years or more to complete all of the research, writing and editing.
Q: What got you started in writing books for young people?
A: I felt as though I had something to say to young people -- I wanted to encourage them to follow their dreams, find the courage inside of them, believe in themselves -- and I felt that presenting those kinds of messages within the pages of a exciting novels was the best way to reach out to young readers.
Q: You're an avid rock climber, windsurfer, white water paddler and skier. Do you ever get story ideas while you're out risking life and limb?
A: I don't usually get ideas while I'm rock climbing, windsurfing or paddling, because when I'm doing those things I'm busy trying not to kill myself. What those dangerous sports do for me is teach my brain to focus. Then, when it comes time to write, I've got the focus I need to write a good story. However, I do get ideas while I'm cross-country skiing. I spend winters in the mountains of West Virginia, where we get lots of snow. I write all morning, then spend the afternoon cross-country skiing and mulling over where the story will go next.
Q: You do a lot of research for your novels. Can you talk a bit about your research methods?
A; I do the usual book, article and photo research, though I focus mostly on original sources rather than secondary sources because they have more life to them. Also, I'm an experiential learner, so I use a lot of fun research methods to help make the story come alive for me. For Last Dance on Holladay Street, I got a private tour of a Colorado silver mine (because one of the characters is a miner). I rode a narrow guage railroad train up into the Rocky Mountains the way Eva did. I even got to touch an old fashioned curling iron (tongs that were placed into a kerosene lamp to heat up) in a museum, and this inspired me to add a scene where Lucille is talking to Eva while curling her hair for her evening's work (the scene includes the smell of burning hair -- those curling irons were hard to regulate!). I find that if I can touch and experience the things my characters did, I will discover the details that will make the story vivid for my readers.
Q: Did you use experiential learning to research Blood on the River? What other research methods did you use?
A: I got my information for writing the book by doing loads of research, using books, articles, museums, artifacts, reenactment, original records, and interviews. I got a lot of my research materials directly from Jamestown, Virginia. I interviewed historians and reenactors who work at the James Town village. I camped out in Jamestown (they have a camp ground there) and tried to experience what Samuel did, hearing the same insects at dawn and dusk as he did, even going hungry for a few days to see (a little bit) what it was like for him. To learn about the Powhatan Indians, I went to several of their pow wows, interviewed members of several Powhatan tribes, and even interviewed a chief.
Q: What inspired you to write Blood on the River?
A: I was inspired to write this book because I thought it was a fascinating, exciting story that I could make really interesting for young readers. I have always loved history, and you can see on the bio page of my website where my sixth grade teacher said I loved to do historical research.
Q: In Blood on the River: James Town 1607, are the characters real people? Did those things really happen to them?
A: Yes, every one of the characters is a real person, and I followed their lives very closely, according to the original records—the writings of the men who were actually there. All of the major events in the book, and many of the minor events were taken directly from these writings as well.
Q: Was even baby Virginia a real person?
A: Yes, Virginia Laydon was a real person, and she did survive the starving time (that is why I thought she must have been at Point Comfort and not at Jamestown during that winter.) In fact, I am now working on a sequel to Blood on the River, in which Virginia, grown up as a young girl, is the main character.
Q: How did you get the idea for writing Night Running: How James Escaped With the Help of His Faithful Dog?
A: When I was researching my novel, Stealing Freedom, I read many hundreds of first person slave narratives. On a typical writing day, I would read the narratives, sometimes for hours, before I started writing (I have about 2,000 pages of slave narratives in my personal library.) This helped me feel like I’d gone back in time to the era of slavery. That’s how I discovered the true story of James Smith and how his faithful hunting dog helped him to escape from slavery.
Q: What was it like writing your first picture book? Was it easier than writing a novel?
A: Actually, for me writing a picture book was a lot harder than writing a novel. I had to go through a real learning process. When I first wrote it, my editor said, “That’s not a picture book, that’s a short story.” I already had experience writing short stories, and the difference between the two types of writing eluded me. In order to turn the short story into a picture book it was as if I had to delve down into a deeper place in my imagination. My early drafts are completely different from what I ended up with, and it took about two years of rewrites to get there.
Q: LAST DANCE ON HOLLADAY STREET is a story for young readers almost entirely set in a brothel. What inspired you to write this story?
A: When I first learned about the brothels in the 1800's and how young women and girls were coerced and pressured into working there, I was struck by the parallels with what is going on today, with young girls often being pressured into sexual activity when they are much too young. I wanted to write a story that would be empowering to young readers, that would help them see the value in sticking up for themselves, being strong and being true to themselves, and most importantly, NOT giving in to peer pressure.
Q: Are there any "messages" that you are trying to give to your readers via the book LAST DANCE ON HOLLADAY STREET?
A: Yes, definitely. Here is what I am trying to say to young readers: *Don't let yourself be pressured into something you don't want to do. *Be strong, be yourself, and value yourself and your body. *No matter how far you think you have fallen out of grace, there is still love and forgiveness waiting for you if you open to it. *No matter how bleak and impossible things look, there is always a good way through the troubles and on to the good stuff.
Q: How did you know how to write what a hurricane felt like when you wrote Storm Warriors?
A: I like to use reenactment to help me better understand my stories. On one of my trips to the Outer Banks in April I thought I was safe in telling my friends that what I really needed for my research was a good hurricane. April is not hurricane season. But toward the end of the trip a Northeaster came in with 55 mph winds, drenching rain, blowing sand and trees bent sideways until they looked like they'd snap. It was perfect for my research. For three days I either sat inside our shuddering cottage listening to the rattling and clattering as the storm seemed to try to tear the walls down, or bundled myself up to push out onto the beach in the strongest wind I've ever experienced in my life. Sand blew into my eyes, foam scuttled across my path, and my jacket flapped like rapid machine gun fire around my body. I would go out onto the beach for as long as I could stand it, feeling the force of the wind, taking in all of the sensations. Then I'd trudge back to the cottage and write it all down. I did this over and over again until I had pages of description of what it was like to struggle against a raging storm. These were the closest conditions to the night of October 11, 1896 I could have experienced without being evacuated from the Outer Banks.
Q: How did you get interested in Ann Maria Weems' story?
A: I first learned about Ann Maria Weems when I went to hear historian Anthony Cohen speak at my local library. Her story intrigued me and I immediately set to work researching her life.
Q: Why did you feel that Ann's story was important to tell?
A: Ann Maria Weems was such an incredibly courageous young girl. I felt as though her story should live on and inspire other young people. I also felt that an in-depth story that tells of the harshness and horrors of slavery was important to tell. We need to not forget that this is our heritage.
Q: Did you have kids who bullied you in school, the way Sarah does in Starting School With an Enemy?
A: Yes, I did experience kids bullying me when I was growing up, and they made my life miserable. I only wish I'd been as strong and feisty as Sarah is!
Q: How did you come up with all those crazy things Eric and Sarah did to each other in Starting School?
A: I came up with all the horrible things Eric and Sarah did to each other by using my imagination. When I write, I close my eyes and watch the story happen in my mind's eye. Sometimes my characters surprise me by coming up with interesting things that I don't think I could have even thought of.
Q: How did you come up with all the funny things that happen in Sarah and the Naked Truth?
A: Some of those things also came from my imagination. But in that book, lots of the things that happen, especially to Olivia, come from true stories that were told to me by my friend Alice. Alice has an artificial leg just like Olivia does. In fact, do you remember the scene where Olivia's artificial leg flies off during an amusement park ride at the beach and lands in front of this big, strong life-guard type guy and makes him faint dead away? Well, that really happened to my friend Alice when she was about Olivia's age!
Q: What made you decide to write Corey's Story: Her Family's Secret?
A: I wrote this story because I wanted to help readers learn more about the disease of alcoholism. I wanted to show how alcoholics have good days and bad days, and how their children still love them and hope for more good days and fewer bad days. I also wanted young readers to know how common it is for a child to have one or two alcoholic parents. In fact, anyone who is living with an alcoholic parent can figure that several of their classmates are too, so they don't need to feel like they're the only one on the planet with this problem.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
A: First, don't forget to find the fun in your writing. The more interest and inspiration you have while you're writing a story, poem, or article, the more interesting it will be for the people who read what you write. So, look for the things that will spice up your writing for you.
Second, if you've decided to be adventuresome and submit your stories and poems to your school magazine or even one of the national magazines that publish work by young people, hang in there and keep trying even if you get rejection letters. Stephen King used to collect whole stacks of rejection letters. And my book Starting School With an Enemy got 53 rejection letters before it was accepted!
Third, be patient and be willing to spend time on your work and edit it to make it better. Editing can be part of the fun of writing if you are patient with it. I wrote the first draft of Stealing Freedom in about six months, and then spent another two and a half years editing it to make it much better than that old first draft.
So, pour your inspiration, perseverance and patience into your writing projects, and maybe some day I'll be reading your books!