Author Archives: Michele Weber Hurwitz

Houses and Stories

I love houses.

Old and new. Big and small. Cozy and sprawling. Mansions, cottages, castles, ranches, igloos. Tudor, Cape Cod, Colonial, French Provincial. No matter the size or style, houses simply fascinate me.

One of my all-time favorite books for young readers is The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1942 and winner of the Caldecott Medal. I remember being completely taken by this book as a child — the story of a little house that was happy living in the country, swallowed up by progress, then moved and happy again. I delighted in sharing this book with my three children.

153540What struck me as a kid, and still strikes me now, is the house’s expression and how it changes from a smile to sadness and despair, back to a smile again. How interesting it was that a house could have a face!

But the truth is, I think houses have stories too, shaped by the people who live in them and the neighborhoods they are a part of, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much.

I’ve never been a runner or very good at going to the health club, but I do take a long walk almost every day. Sometimes when I’m out walking and get a glimpse inside someone’s house, I immediately start imagining the story of the people who live there. (It’s a little creepy, yes, but admit it — you’ve done it too.)

My mini-obsession with houses prompted me to set my middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, in a cul-de-sac of eight houses. Here’s a drawing from the first page of the book. Each house in the neighborhood has a story and a personality. Mr. D, a reclusive neighbor who never comes outside, has a neat house with the shades revised cul de sac finaldrawn tightly. One house is for sale and it’s unloved and empty, with overgrown grass and broken shutters. Mrs. Chung’s house has Christmas lights strung around her trees year-round and marigolds in front.

All of these details come into play in the story, as the main character sets out to do 65 good things for her family and neighbors the summer after eighth grade, except things don’t go exactly as she envisions.

For me, character’s houses (or apartments or huts or igloos) go so much beyond just the setting. They’re almost characters in themselves, with quirks and emotions and unique attributes. And the details that are found in houses can become important parts of the plot, such as a lost toy or Grandma’s antique table or a rusty, squeaky swing set.

I particularly loved Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window for just that reason. Seventh-graders and best friends Sophie Young and Grace Yang, who 12848132make a game out of spying on their neighbors, stumble on an adventure and mystery that unfolds from something they see in a house.

To me, home is not just where the heart is, but where the heart of the story is.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Both books are on 2015-2016 state reading lists. Michele can be found at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

Weeding out good ideas…from the not-so-good

One thing I’m really good at as an author: coming up with ideas. Like many writers, I have several notebooks filled with smatterings of thoughts, pieces of dialogue, notes on characters. Not to mention assorted doodles, observations, and moments I felt the need to record at the time.

journalOne thing I’m not so good at: knowing if those ideas can actually fly. It’s sometimes hard to figure out if my ideas — which always seem brilliant when I think of them — can be fleshed out into something book-worthy or should remain hidden away in a notebook, never seeing the light of day.

So I’ve devised a sort of “test” for my ideas — questions I ask myself before I start a WIP — to help discern the good ideas from the not-so-good.

1. I start by asking if the idea is compelling? Do I have a solid plot in mind, with a central conflict, change, and a resolution or outcome?

2. Does something happen? Do the stakes rise as the plot unfolds?

3. Is the idea getting under my skin? Am I thinking about the story while I’m driving or out walking? Am I worrying about the characters? Do I care about them, and do I care what happens to them?

images4. Can I envision big moments in the story? And are there small moments as well?

5. Will the idea appeal to my intended audience? Has it been done before, and if so, am I bringing a fresh take?

6. Am I taking a risk with this story? Both for my characters and for myself as a writer.

7. Can I describe the story in one sentence? How would I pitch it?

8. And lastly, am I in love with it? Is the idea tugging at my heart? Do I tear up when I think of a particularly poignant scene? Do I get angry at a certain character for his or her actions? Am I not only imagining the story, but do I “feel” it as well?

If I can answer positively to all of the above, I know I’ve got something. Do you have questions you ask yourself before you begin to write? Share them in the comments!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

We’re so happy to host author Kate Hannigan on the Mixed-Up Files today. She’s the author of the Cupcake Cousins series, and today is the release date for her thrilling historical fiction adventure, The Detective’s Assistant.

Synopsis: Eleven-year old Nell Warne arrives on the doorstep of her Aunt Kate, the first ever female detective for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. With huge events unfolding in the Civil War era nation, Nell uncovers truths about her past and also helps her aunt solve mysteries in the present. Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this is a tale filled with nail-biting suspense, adventure, and history.

Q: Hi Kate! Tell us how you came up with the idea for this story.

A: It seems that 1856 is my year. I was researching another story altogether when I sort of stumbled onto a sentence about Kate Warne and how she was hired as a Pinkerton detective. It was just a quick aside about her, but it struck me as a fascinating tidbit. I wondered why I’d never heard of her — America’s first woman detective? And she’d had a hand in saving Abraham Lincoln’s life? I began to dig deeper into the history of Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, reading anything I could find on the cases that involved Kate Warne. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. Then I began to worry that I was going to get scooped. So I sat myself down and wrote like a madwoman!

Q: Your Cupcake Cousins series is not historical fiction. Was it hard to switch to a different genre?

A: At first I wanted to write Kate Warne’s story as a picture book biography. But I quickly realized the story I wanted to tell couldn’t be contained to 32 pages! I felt like a middle grade audience was the right one for this. They’re the right age to appreciate a clever heroine and perhaps want to be as bold and courageous as Kate Warne.

It wasn’t hard to switch gears into writing a history-rich story. The whole experience writing The Detective’s Assistant was really fun. Being a complete nerd, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the pre-Civil War era. I checked out stacks of books — from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Godey’s Ladies Book. I wandered around the Chicago History Museum and even called a railroad museum for details about what exactly my characters would be sitting on while riding a train in 1860.Detectives Assistant cover medium

Q: You feature strong girl characters in your books. Did you set out to do this, or did it happen as you were writing the characters?

A: I do love writing strong, clever, resourceful girls. I was a big Charlie’s Angels fan growing up, and while that show can be dismissed as nothing but fluff and great hair, back then it was groundbreaking. Women detectives solving crimes, fighting bad guys, doing all sorts of exciting things! I loved that they could save the day. Fast forward to The Detective’s Assistant. I wanted to present a female heroine who was smart, clever, able to fight bad guys using her wits and intelligence, and I wanted her niece to realize that she had those same traits within herself.

My hope was to write a book where girls can see themselves at the center of the action, not relying on boys to handle the dangerous parts. The protagonist, Nell Warne, who is 11, puts all her cleverness to work, and the results become enormous as the stakes continue to rise. I hope young readers feel a bit more powerful after reading the book.

Q: Can you share a favorite quote from The Detective’s Assistant?

A: Okay if I share three?

“Just a girl?” retorted Detective Webster, the smile never leaving his face. “There’s no such thing as just a girl, is there?”

“Be fearless, Nell,” he whispered. “In everything you do. Fearless.”

“His accent was bouncy and strange, and I figured he must have come from somewhere exotic. Probably Texas.”

Q: As a middle grade author, what do you love about writing for this age?

A: I believe middle grade books are where the truths are. There is so much growing and searching and imagining at this age; to be able to present possibilities to readers on the cusp of everything, that’s pretty special. I also love writing for this age because it takes me right back to my own younger self. I am still very much an 11-year old wanna-be detective, though I’ve never been able to get my hair to do the same thing as Jaclyn Smith’s.Kate Hannigan Head Shot medium

Q: Same for me! She had amazing hair! So what do you hope readers will take away from this story?

A: I hope readers will realize that women were great contributors to American history, but often their stories were dismissed or forgotten. It’s important that we’re willing to explore for ourselves and come back with new stories to tell, stories that perhaps might feature non-traditional heroes.

Q: What three words describe The Detective’s Assistant?

A: Madcap, rollicking, heartfelt.

Q: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

A: I’m excited for Cupcake Cousins Book 2, titled Cupcake Cousins: Summer Showers, which comes out in June. I’m in the process of writing Book 3 in that series, which publishes fall 2016. I’ve also just signed with Calkins Creek for a nonfiction picture book biography for spring 2017.

Q: Finally, fill in the blanks:

1) I’d love to go to… San Simeon, California, and whale watch.

2) If I had the chance, I would… learn how to speak Gaelic.

3) In my spare time, I… cook for my family while we’re all together being goofballs.

Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Kate. Check out more at katesbooks.com.

Michele Weber Hurwitz was a big Encyclopedia Brown fan as a kid. She’s the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Visit her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.