Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Faculty Voices with Sherri L. Smith: Drowning in Research

Have you ever wondered how to go about building the world of an historical novel?  Well, let me show you how I do it!  I am currently writing a book set in 1940s Japan.  Toward that end, I am:
  • learning basic Japanese;
  • going to Japan;
  • reading the 20th of 30 or 40 books on the period and culture, including wartime diaries;
  • emailing strangers and asking them odd questions;
  • outlining;
  • day dreaming; and
  • basically drowning in research.

This is what I do.  For every single book I write, I drown myself in the process.  It’s probably not healthy—I have next to no room in my head for my own day-to-day life when I’m in drowning mode—and it’s never won me a championship on Jeopardy.  But for the few bright moments of vision and revision, I become an idiot savant.  I become an expert.  

Granted, it’s a useless sort of expertise, unless you are a writer.  Like cramming for a test, as soon as the book is done, the knowledge will fade to make room for the next story.  Really, what good is it knowing what instruments use silk strings, or what blind men used to play in Edo period Japan, unless you are a writer (or a time traveling musician)?  I can’t actually play a string instrument (if you don’t count three Groupon lessons I took for cello… and I don’t).  My book doesn’t even take place during the Edo period.  Does it matter if I know the name of Japanese work pants, or the common crops of a mountain farming village circa 1937?

Hopefully, yes.  To my story, and to my readers.  (The pants are called monpe!)

I say “hopefully” because I don’t know how much of what I am learning will be used in the final book.  There is a lot of “read-and-discard” going on.  I scour the internet for reference books, checking out what I can from the library, and purchasing the more obscure titles.  It can be frustrating, like sifting for gold.  Sometimes you buy a 500-page book that turns out to only have a paragraph or two of interest.  And then, sometimes, you hit the motherlode.
Like the koto player writing her own book on the spirituality of Japanese instruments.  Or the sociology book about the region you are researching, tucked in the high shelves of a small used bookstore in Vermont.  Suddenly, vistas open up!  Volumes of information that make the warp and weft of great worldbuilding, and the intimate details that make the story ring true.  It’s this sort of gold strike that makes all of the digging worthwhile.  

While the work seems huge, I like to start small.  I like to use kids’ books—they give you the short version of your research, and often come with a handy list of cited sources.  Those are the adult books I turn to next.  From there, I develop my story, making a list of what I don’t know along the way.  And then I start asking question of myself, the story, and take that list to the library, the internet, looking for answers.  

I do my research before, during, and after a draft.  Every time I feel stuck, it usually means I need to do more research.

And remember, nothing you learn is wasted, even if you discard it for now.  Somewhere deep inside that sea of knowledge, you might find the seeds to your next story. 

Sherri L. Smith is the author of several award-winning young adult novels, including the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist, Flygirl, the “cli-fi” adventure, Orleans and the middle grade historical fantasy, The Toymaker’s Apprentice.  Her books appear on multiple state lists and have been named Amelia Bloomer and American Library Association Best Books for Young People selections.  Sherri has worked in comic books, animation, construction, and most recently, a monster factory.  Currently, she teaches in the MFA Writing program at Goddard College and the Children’s Writing MFA program at Hamline University.  Her latest book is the YA noir mystery, Pasadena.  Learn more at

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Alumni Voices with Jane O'Reilly: The Notations of Cooper Cameron Cover Reveal!

I am thrilled with the cover for The Notations of Cooper Cameron. It was designed by the amazing artist,  Julie McLaughlin, who managed to squeeze just about the whole book onto one page.
The Notations of Cooper Cameron by Jane O’Reilly
Cover by Julie McLaughlin
Pub date: 10/1/17
CarolRhoda Books, A Division of Lerner Publishing

Excerpt from The Notations of Cooper Cameron
“Cooper,” his mother says. “I have just the job for you. Caddie and I will make the beds. Think you can bring in the groceries?”

The groceries are a big and important job. Food is sustenance. Food gives life. Yes, he can bring in the groceries. He will bring in the groceries to make his mother happy.

The cereal boxes and chips and cookies fit into place on the open shelves like puzzle pieces. Soup cans and salt and cinnamon and many other red-capped spices are stacked in perfect rows. The groceries are snug and safe, like ancient cliff dwellings packed into the mesa. Everything fits. And it is beautiful.

“Cooper, what in the world. . .?” His mother says.

“Geez, Cooper,” Caddie says.

His mother squeezes Caddie’s hand to keep her quiet. Smiles at Cooper. He sees her think he doesn’t know. Sees her pretend everything is okay and he aches with this lie. 

Summary from the jacket
Eleven-year-old Cooper Cameron likes things to be in order.
When he eats, he chews every bite three times on each side.
Sometimes he washes his hands in the air with invisible water.

After the death of his beloved grandfather, Cooper invented these rituals, believing he could protect those he loves from terrible harm.

When Cooper’s strange behavior drives a wedge between his parents, and his relationship with his older sister, Caddie, begins to fray, his mother’s only solution is to take Cooper and Caddie to the old family cabin for the summer.

Armed with his prized possessions—a collection of rocks, his pet frog and pocket-sized notebooks in which he records his observations of the confusing world around him, Cooper vows to cure himself and repair his damaged family. 

Jane O’Reilly is a 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her first book, The Secret of Goldenrod, which published on October 1, 2016, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, and was named a Junior Library Guild Selection and a “Kirkus Best Book” of 2016. Jane is also the recipient of a McKnight Fellowship in screenwriting. Her forthcoming book, The Notations of Cooper Cameron, about a boy with OCD, was inspired by the childhood of her older sister, Catherine. Just like Cooper, the main character, Jane spent many summers at the family cabin in the North Woods. Although their children live out of state, Jane and her husband remain in their hometown of Minneapolis with their elderly cat and brand new puppy. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Alumni Voices with Polly Alice: Changing Lives

Dear MFAC Hamliners and Alums,

It was so great to be at the winter Hamline Residency this year for a few days. I was inspired, encouraged and impressed by all the new faces.  I’m writing to you from my sewing room/ office well really it’s my mother’s office. I have no idea what my computer is in here really. Her doctorate degree is here above my head and a quilt I may never start is folded up on the table to my left; picture of my grandmother on my right-- along with the iron. It’s been out since I put the Boy Scout patches on.  I ironed them in the wrong place and they had to be removed.

So how is writing going for you all? It’s finally come to my late-blooming-attention that writing is something that always happens on the side.  And won’t happen without intention. I am maybe one of the only people I know who loved my Hamline critical thesis. I worked on it from the day I began as a student up until I graduated three years later. I took it from 40 pages to 20 pages. I guess I’m a research paper nut. This all makes sense to me now that I’m in my second semester teaching college freshmen to write term papers. Yes it all makes sense. I get some kind of evil enjoyment out of teaching other people to write essays. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But I’m glad I fit in somewhere, thank you, God.  (Yes I know last time I wrote you Hamlinites, I was running an art gallery—ahh the life of the artist, things change so fast). Now I’m three blocks up at the community college. Same commute, same neighborhood—different art.

I get to write notes to the students thanks to Blackboard (a new invention since I was 18). I never ever sent a message to a teacher outside of class. hmmm. Now I get messages night and day. I’ve even gotten a call during class so someone could tell me about their intestinal trouble. Student teacher confidentiality has changed a bit since I was in school. One thing, I have the students write me letters at the end of the semester about what they’ve learned as part of their final. So cheers to me. I finally get some letters.

So my crazy need to write to people and have them write back is now fulfilled by being the cooky absent-minded English professor.  Yes, I like it. I also wear silly scarves and thick classes—it makes for the look, too bad everyone still thinks I’m a student. I don’t know what I do wrong there.

And I’ve decided to take my beloved Hamline Thesis and use it again! First I took it from 20 pages to 6 pages and submitted it to a contest and won prize. Then from 6 pages to a 1 page abstract and I got accepted to share at a conference--and went to a conference and shared. That was fun. Now I’ve turned it into a book proposal. One of those books you read on the plane. I think that although I have fun trying to get to my novels I will get to these nonfiction books much faster. Let’s hope.

Besides all that I just got a new summer job. I’m going to be writing for kids. I’m writing and creating art curriculum for summer camps! Who knows how that will go. But let the paint fly.

Being a writer is turning out to be really life changing. I’ve been put on a Title III committee to teach classes that help students get college ready. Our textbook in English 90 and 101 is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. We watched the new documentary, 13th, about the thirteenth amendment by Duvernay… I’ve never learned so much about the country that I’m living in and what people overcome to just live. Just live. All my students want to be better writers. I’ve got single moms, people from every continent on the globe and several islands, basketball scholarship winners, hopeful ex-cons, baby boomers, survivors, and kids from down the block. We all jump in to writing together. I share with them what I learned from you all.

I can see it changing lives. After each student leaves, I take a small breath. There goes one more person who will now get a better job, have a chance to get an education, someone who will make a difference.  Next fall I’m teaching English 102. The textbook is Hamilton. Profs are fondly calling the class: Find your own revolution. I certainly have. 

POLLY ALICE author and illustrator, opened New Thing Art Studio in 2015 back home in Kansas City-- where she paints, illustrates children’s books, and teaches college writing. Her work is often mixed media. “I create my art to be more like poetry—to have symbolic meanings layered from dream and memories.” Polly won the 2014 Ernest Hartmann award from the International Association for the Study of Dreams from Berkley CA for her research on self awareness for writers and artists through dreamwork. She loves to grow basil and explore the unexpected in her free time.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: Re-Vision Part 2

Before reading this post, be sure to check out part one to see where this poem started.

So I thought about the poem and in my own pagan way prayed about it and worked on (re-visioned)  the last third or so.

The Plane Doesn’t Crash But the Landing is So Rough
There’s a Lot of Screaming

Right next to the airport is a gentlemen’s
club where all the dancers wear Santa
hats.  I have a stiff drink, slip 20

to the topsy-turvy down girl on the pole,
then enter the freeway tentatively, like
a horse at the ocean.

Windows down, I hear John Coltrane
from the nearest Camaro and near
1st and Hill a congregation praying
from a rooftop.  
I’m not quite sure what to do with
my other life, the one that ended
on the tarmac where the ambulances

It rides alongside me making mordant
jokes about the seatbelt.

Home at last, I park beside an electric
reindeer lying on its side and twitching.

Lighted windows.  On the shadowy
porch the smokers are changelings,
shape shifters.

We go inside together, that other life
and I.  My wife says, “Oh, there you
are.  I was starting to worry.”

Her other life looks at mine and bursts
into tears.

Ah ha.  Now the turn in the 4th stanza is a portent I can live with.  As is the new character, “my other life.”  Now there’s some accord between it, the fallen reindeer, and the shape shifting smokers. The tears in the last stanza seem more, as we say, earned.

I’m probably another draft or two away from being completely happy with it.  I’m not sure about mordant.  And there’s a chance that whole little stanza can go.  

We’ll  see.  A little more prayer, maybe some chardonnay, a good night’s sleep and anything is possible.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program. He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.