FAQ #10: Joy

What’s sitting on your desk that gives you joy?  

This photo of Padraic never fails to make me smile. He was a great dog, part border collie by ancestry, ALL border collie by behavior. At his heaviest he weighed 30 pounds and liked to sleep on my lap, which he had to share with Lobelia, the orange cat, who snuggled against him. Wish I had a picture of that! Padraic loved to play football, with a real football. We’d throw it, he’d leap and catch it and carry it home in his mouth like a cigar.


FAQ #9: Inspired

What do you read for inspiration?

I tend to read novels set in whatever time period I am writing about. I like to see how other authors tackle the tricky problems involved in writing historical fiction: authenticity vs. info dumps, history vs. imagination, how they invent the past.  

During the years I worked on the medieval books, I read a heap of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Fabulous books. 

I also read a lot of middle grade novels since that’s what I write.

At the moment I’m reading the delightful Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead about Livy and her friend, Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit, and Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s The Book of Boy, in which a Medieval child named Boy discovers his courage, his skills, and his wings—literally. I’m loving it.

Brother Cadfael, Bob, The Book of Boy


Totally Middle SchoolI loved receiving this review for the new middle-grade anthology, Totally Middle School (Delacorte, ed. by Betsy Groban). I hope you’ll discover the wide variety of stories within this book, many of them the right length for a classroom read-aloud, and all of them engrossing for reading on your own.

“Featuring an eclectic mix of short stories from a number of beloved authors, this collection explores three topics—“Family,” “Friends and Fitting In,” and “Finding Yourself”—in a variety of formats, from poems to comic panels. Margarita Engle takes on the “dreaded/ dreadful/ deadline-looming/ first-in-my-lifetime/ Middle School/ Mixer,” while Katherine Paterson and granddaughter Jordan offer advice-laden Facetime and text exchanges between two cousins (“organize, organize, organize”). A David Wiesner comic visualizes finding one’s place in an intimidating new setting, and Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin’s story, told in part from a dog’s perspective, considers cross-species family life. The stories look at eras and cultural differences, as well, from Gary Schmidt’s searing story about a boy’s neighbor heading off to the Vietnam War, to Hena Khan’s present-day tale of a Pakistani immigrant connecting with her new classmates. The collection, “dedicated to middle schoolers everywhere” (“This, too, shall pass”), deals honestly and sensitively with this volatile time.” (Publishers Weekly)

FAQ #8: Stuck

What do you do when you’re stuck on a writing project?

I don’t sit at my desk and try to push mashed potatoes through a keyhole. I do something else. Walk, putter in the garden, play computer solitaire, eat an orange, do the laundry, nap, or work on a different project. My subconscious seems to work on the problem without me, and eventually I find a way back in.

(photo credit: Katerina Kovaleva)

FAQ#7: Frustration

What do you find most frustrating about researching a book you’re writing?

I know other writers who swear by it (Kirby Larson, I’m looking at you) but I hate reading old newspapers on microfiche.  Talk about frustrating. Maybe that’s why I mostly write about pre-newspaper eras.

In Observation of Memorial Day

Memorial Day

We Americans have been commemorating our war dead with flowers and speeches for more than 150 years. Each year we hope there will be no more soldiers to bury, but still we send our sons and daughters into battle.

Lately I read that 2018 has been deadlier for school children than for soldiers. It’s a hard truth to face.  More than twice as many people have been killed in school shootings than in all combat and non-combat deaths this year. Will we have to have a new holiday for remembering our murdered children?

When will we ever learn?

FAQ #6: Research

What’s your favorite part of researching a book you’re writing?

I like the early research that give the flavor of a time, a few interesting facts, and a place for me to stand.

It gets harder later when I search for specifics such as, “Was there mail delivery at Mission Beach, San Diego, 1941?” Never did find that answer. Do you know?

FAQ #5: Dinner Party

If you could invite four people from history over for dinner, who would be sitting around your dinner table? What food would you serve?

Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Oscar Wilde for their strength, intelligence, and wit, and Paul Newman, because who wouldn’t?

I’d serve roast chicken because that’s what I always serve. And salad with grapes and avocados. And pumpkin pie.

FAQ #4: Time Traveler

If you could time travel to any point in history, where and when would you go first?

To be honest, I’m not sure I would pick any. Such noise, such smells, such danger.  If I were pushed to choose, I’d like to see Robin Hood and his Merry Men cavort in Sherwood Forest. I’d guess that would be medieval, although imaginary.

Robin Hood, illustration by N.C. Wyeth