In Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
Two! A daughter and a son, who have both grown up to be amazing creative artists themselves—in theatre and film.
Thirteen. Six YA and Middle-grade novels; five picture books with illustrator Lynn Munsinger; and two adult nonfiction books I wrote when I was a magazine journalist.
Honestly, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t scribbling down stories. I was lucky to have a healthy imagination, and by elementary school I was writing stories on typing paper my parents would staple into “books” for me. I do recall the loud scratch a well-sharpened pencil made on the crisp sheet, and that it was very hard to erase my drawing boo-boos. Most of the stories included animals as “supporting characters,” something I still seem to do today. I wrote my first “historical fiction” back then, “Mary Moore, Indian girl,” clearly influenced by the story of Virginia Dare (the English baby born in the late 1500s in the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, NC, and reportedly adopted by local Native Americans). My drawings were….well…. let’s just say I am incredibly lucky that my picture books are graced with the beautiful artwork of Lynn Munsinger!
I think what I instinctively loved about writing was it allowed me to ask all those “how-come” questions, like Alice in Flying South. “How-come” people act they way they do? Writing helps you explore and come to understand and then celebrate the rather remarkable creatures that human beings are.
Frankly, I was a bit of a tomboy and spent most of my childhood romping through wildflower fields behind our home, climbing trees, and playing with our pets. I was lucky to live in one of the lusher parts of Virginia, where the hills roll green—so I was an outdoor child. But when I went indoors, a phenomenal library awaited me. I grew up in what had been my grandfather’s home. He was a commonwealth’s attorney (a prosecutor for the state), by all reports a kind of Atticus Finch (of To Kill a Mockingbird). I wish I had known him. But I felt kinship with him through his vast collection of books. His study was filled with stories of adventure, chivalry, and quests. I grew up on Rudyard Kipling poems, Just So Stories, and the Jungle Book; J. M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan; Robert Louis Stevenson poems and novels like Treasure Island; the real Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, with that wry humor and delight in childhood; C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan. These are often classified as “boy books” – thank goodness no one told me that or shoved a Barbie doll in my hand. I think that’s why I can write books like Under a War-torn Sky and A Troubled Peace that feature a male teenager coming of age and following ideals of hope and courage, even amid the destruction and hatred of war.
There were also poetry collections. My favorite was William Wordsworth with his jubilation over daffodils and rainbows. My mother read Charles Dickens novels to us at night, changing her voice for each character. Listening to Dickens, I learned about the excitement of cliffhanger chapter endings. I also met up with Shakespeare early, and if I didn’t understand the plot lines I simply relished the pictorial language. I very much wanted to be the faery Puck (or Tinker Bell). I still sit down with some Shakespeare when I need to be inspired to write colorful, image-infused descriptions.
For voice: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, (her Shiloh trilogy and Alice series in particular), Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie, and Harper Lee’s magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird. For compassionate humor: Jerry Spinelli, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Carl Hiaasen. For outdoorsy coming of age: Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain series and Will Hobbs; for sports: Fred Bowen, Mike Lupica, and John Feinstein. For history Karen Hesse, Laurie Halse Anderson, Richard Peck, Scott O’Dell, Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry. Also Brian Jacques’ Redwall is a wonderful series.
I grew up just outside Washington D.C. so I was very aware of history in the making. One of my first clear memories was of JFK’s tragic assassination. My house boomed with the sound of anxious news broadcasts. Fast upon that came the killing of his brother Bobby and another man of eloquence, Martin Luther King. From my front door you could see the distant dark clouds hanging over the capital city as it burned with the agonized riots that followed his shooting. I came of age during the Vietnam War protests and Watergate. It would have been impossible not to have a sense of events changing the world and the way people thought.
But the real love of history came from knowing a number of elderly ladies in what was then a small town community. At garden parties, over fresh-squeezed lemonade, they’d talk and talk in musical voices and long anecdotes. They talked of history – but not about dates, battles, or political figures. It was personal, about how their relatives (or they) survived hard times, how mothers worried about their children during epidemics and wars, where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked and how they helped the war effort afterwards. From them I learned that history is a very human drama. I absorbed potential plots and characters. The real life story of an unlikely romance between a local young woman accused of being a Confederate spy and the Union officer who arrested her was pretty intriguing to me when I was an impressionable pre-teen and decades later became the spark for Annie, Between the States.
The great author Willa Cather said we should write about the ground beneath our feet. And so much of our history happened here in Virginia, so it is easy for me to find inspiring topics. I have to say one of the greatest joys in writing Across a War-tossed Sea was going up and down the James River, driving around the area my father grew up and listening to (and trying to recreate in my characters’ dialogue) the mellifluous colloquialisms and drawls of Tidewater Virginia that I grew up hearing.
I play flute and piano. At one point I even hoped to perform classical music professionally. (I also thought briefly about being a vet but quickly found I did not have the necessary science aptitude!) I firmly believe that studying music made me a better writer. It taught me a sense of pacing, rhythm, that any composition—whether of words or musical notes—needs flow and a sense of crescendo. I was thrilled to be able to incorporate the magic of music, its ability to liberate and connect us, in Give Me Liberty. It’s always been a way for humans to express and spread ideas and was particularly important as a political forum and as military signals during the American Revolution.
Historically horses were VERY important as the mode of transportation. But in both Give Me Liberty and Annie, Between the States, the horses (Vixen and Angel) grew in importance without my really planning it. Inspiration is a funny thing; sometimes characters or situations creep into a book with their own force. My daughter is an accomplished rider, an eventer, a former National Champion with USPC (pony club), and the bond between her and her horses as they train to compete is a beautiful thing to watch—clearly the seed for the horses in my novels. I also ride, but purely in an amateur mode! I consider one of my greatest accomplishments, though, to be learning to drive the horse trailer without hurting anyone. When my friend, illustrator/author Henry Cole read Annie, Between the States, he teased me about how much the book-loving, strong-willed equestrian Annie is like my daughter. (He was her science teacher once upon a time.)
Because most American pilots didn’t either. When they were forced to bail out of their planes in battle, they fell out of the sky onto territory occupied by German-speaking Nazis with their only hope for survival being French-speaking civilians. Including snippets of French lets you as a reader experience briefly (and slightly) the discomfort, the confusion, even the terror those boys must have felt during WWII. The French strangers they were depending on to save them could as easily be collaborators as Resistance fighters. Also, those passages (which are always basically translated for you in the next paragraph) give you a chance to see how very clever you are. I purposefully chose French words that mirror English ones. Most times, you can figure out quickly what the French person is saying.
My children, even now as adults! They are my first readers and editors, and now as writers and theatre directors themselves, they are particularly wonderful sounding boards as I write. When they were young, their interests and concerns guided my choice of subjects and helped me build my characters. Sometimes they inspired the story itself. The Hunter and Stripe picture book series, for instance, started as bedtime stories for my son when he was dealing with some playground issues of peer pressure and competition. (See the ALAN Review article for more specifics about the books and my children’s impact on them.) Both of them have traveled with me to places like France, as I research my historical novels, and help me gather facts.
I am a far better writer because I am a mother. Being a mother opens one’s heart to the miraculous nature of life: its joys, its wonders, and its tragedies when lives and the potential of the young are lost or wasted. Plus, children have a way of cutting to the pith of things with their untainted outlooks and hopes—they have not yet been conditioned to accept compromises or apathy as, sadly, some adults have been.
I like them both and enjoy the variety. That’s one of the glorious things about writing for a living --- every day, every story is different. A writer is always learning new things. As a journalist, among other things, I wrote about soccer star Mia Hamm, I followed doctors who saved babies born three months too early, I watched a choreographer create a new ballet, I profiled a woman who’d been attacked, handcuffed, and thrown off a bridge into a river and survived. In my novels, I learned about flying airplanes, how carriages were made in the 1700s, read some exquisite poetry written during the Civil War by ordinary people, and learned of women who refused to succumb to survival selfishness born of starvation and kept one another alive in concentration camps by sharing scraps of food.
What could be better, more expanding? Students often ask me how much money I make – I always answer that a writer is rarely rich monetarily, but she is certainly rich in spirit.
Oh dear, I hate this question. They all become like children, you know. I love them all for different reasons and in different ways. In Under a War-torn Sky, I’d like to have the courage and sophistication (and the wardrobe!) of Madame Gaulloise, I marvel at Henry’s tenacity and ability to care about others and little Pierre’s compassion, his hope. In A Troubled Peace, Claudette delights me with her fiery idealism and personality. (I swear she wrote herself!) In Annie, Between the States, I admire the spunk of Annie, her ability to form her own opinions despite enormous pressures to conform to the status quo, and I’m slightly in love with Thomas. In Flying South, I love how Alice insists on trying to figure out people; Edna represents the strength and dignity of those in the Civil Rights movement. In Give Me Liberty, Basil makes me laugh, Moses makes me cry, and Nathaniel reminds me of how much bravery it takes to grow up. I am very proud of him at the end of the book. I now have a particular fondness for Wesley and Charles of Across a War-tossed Sea, and a great admiration for their typically British pluck, resiliency, and droll sense of humor.
I honestly can’t pick one favorite.
Mostly in the early morning and in my home office, which I am happy to report is sunny and serenaded by wrens, chickadees, mockingbirds, and phoebes. Its walls are covered with photos of my children and our vacations, plus their artwork. So it is very conducive to creative thought, although it was never a quiet ivory tower around here! But my training as a journalist makes me able to write whenever and wherever. I’ve outlined chapters on plane trips to visit my son at college, have edited pages waiting for his many athletic matches to start, and come up with many an idea while sitting in carpool line. One of the best came to me as I hid in a horse trailer during a thunderstorm at one of my daughter’s horse rallies. When I’m driving and have a “eureka!” moment, I pick up my cell phone and leave myself a message.
It depends. Some picture books I’ve written in a day. But then I refine and tighten several times over. For my historical novels, the longest work is the research. For Annie, Between the States, for instance, I researched it for eighteen months, but I wrote it in six. If I have all my research ready, I can write 2,000 words a day easy. (Remember I am a longtime journalist and had to write to deadline for years.) What slows me up is if I have a hole in my knowledge, which I have to stop and research. I hate that because I lose my rhythm! For A Troubled Peace, for instance, when I was writing a chapter that included Henry essentially stealing a bi-plane I realized in the middle of a paragraph, that I didn’t know EXACTLY how cranking the propeller kick-started the engine. Luckily, a very nice man at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in New York answered my telephone call and explained.