Tag Archives: Laurie J. Edwards

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

Author Spotlight: Hillary Homzie

Queen of Likes cover

Releases April 5, 2016

Mixed-Up Files contributor Hillary Homzie is joining us today to talk about her latest release, QUEEN OF LIKES. We’re so glad to have her here.

Welcome, Hillary! And here are the questions we have for you…

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

As a child I wanted to be a writer. For as along as I can remember I’ve loved to make up stories. Whether it was let’s pretend with my stuffed animals, or playing with my Barbies, or making my paper dolls (sometimes I’d draw them or, other times, I’d make them from photos of models in the Sears catalogue) or play-acting I was a lost orphan with my best friend Claire in the woods behind our house, stories ruled my world. Sometimes they even got me in trouble. Once my mother gave me an antique china doll with this beautiful wedding dress. The other dolls decided she was much too snobby, and so they all decided to drop her from the top of the staircase. Let’s just say that story didn’t end well!

Oh, my! I can only imagine. So with all that storytelling ability, when did you start writing down your stories?

Hillary, age 7, with sister, Leslie, age 4

Hillary, age 7, with sister, Leslie, age 4

Well, my second grade teacher, Mrs. McCrone, had weekly creative writing assignments, so I definitely enjoyed writing stories then, but I didn’t actually start to write entire novels until I was about 23. It was after I took a children’s writing course up at City University in New York with author and poet Pam Laskin.

What made you write Karma’s story?

Probably because I have a house full of teens (and one tween). And I see how much they are on their phones and how much they anticipate and live for the number of LIKES they get after a post. My older boys sometimes even compete with each other in terms of who gets more LIKES. And I just thought it would be interesting to write about a tween who calculated her sense of self-worth by the number of LIKES on her social media account. And what would happen if that social media account got shut down by parents! Ouch!

Yes that definitely was a big OUCH for Karma, and it would be for most people (including adults) who are tied to their phones. Karma’s parents taking away her cell phone is possibly the worst punishment ever for an online social media diva like she was. Speaking of punishments, what was your worst punishment ever?

I was what my mother-in-law calls a goody-goody. I never really received a punishment. Just maybe a talking to (if my sister and I were fighting) and maybe sent to my room. Even when I got called down the principal’s office in seventh grade, the principal himself only spoke with me for five minutes and didn’t call my parents. He was my swim coach, and he knew that I never got in trouble and figured that the teacher had somehow gotten things wrong.

Hmm… well, I won’t ask you if the teacher really had gotten things wrong. Maybe we should go back to talking about QUEEN OF LIKES. So… how are you and Karma (love that name, BTW!) alike and different?

Hillary with her labradoodle

Hillary with her labradoodle

Karma and I are alike in that, yes, we both live on the West Coast. I live in California, however, and Karma lives in the suburbs of Oregon. We’re both Jewish and attend reform synagogues. We both own giant labradoodles. [That’s interesting! I’m glad you sent a picture so we can see what labradoodles look like.] We both check how many LIKES we get on social media far too much. We are different in that Karma has a little brother (I have one younger sister). She had one event that made her social media popularity blow up. That hasn’t happened to me. My number of followers on Twitter, for example, has been slowly growing but there hasn’t been one blow-up event. Karma lives for her LIKES. I’d like to think that I’m a bit more balanced.

Karma ends up in some embarrassing situations. What was your most embarrassing moment?

Probably when a boy stopped to talk to me, and I had a tampon in my hand that I stupidly pulled out of my purse. Sometimes common sense and Hillary don’t go together.

What was middle school like for you?

Oh, gosh. In each grade, I feel like I was very different. In sixth grade, I was very happy, had close friends and a teacher that I loved, Ms. Casey. My friends were the brainy set, but I was also connected with an assortment of kids.

Hillary, age 13

Hillary, age 13

In seventh grade, my best friend was no longer in my classes, and in my core class, all of the girls were paired up with their besties. My core teacher was an odd duck who refused to be photographed unless it was in profile. She didn’t like me too much, and I once got into a roll-on-the floor fight and was sent to the office. My language arts teacher couldn’t write very well, and I didn’t respect her. It was a very blah year.

In eighth grade, I moved for a year to Menlo Park, California, where my dad was a scholar-in-residence at Stanford University. It was hard to be the new eighth grader. Lots of the kids were spoiled, directly aggressive, and even racist. I hated it until halfway through the year when I met an amazing group of girls with whom I’m friends with to this very day. Your greater environment can be icky—but if you have close friends, life is very manageable. At least, it was for me!

Sometimes it’s not easy to make friends when you’re the new kid at school. I’m glad you found friends who helped you feel at home. With all that experience behind you, what advice do you wish you could give to your younger self?

Do what you love to do, and those with similar interests will gravitate towards you. Be friends with the kids who make you feel good and supported, even if they are outsiders. Don’t look at the so-called popular kids and imagine if only you could be them or with them, life would be rosy. During one of my high school reunions, one of those so-called popular girls told me that she wished she was me!

What is one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?

Follow your passions, do what you like. Don’t worry about what others think of you. Don’t live for the approval of others.

What are you working on now? Are there any more Karma books in the works?

I’m a multi-tasker when it comes to writing. I just finished a chapter book, and I’m toggling between a contemporary tween middle grade with a dash of magic and a middle grade science fantasy.

Both of those sound like fun, but since you mentioned fantasy, let’s talk about magic. If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?

That love not hate would bring the world together, the end of racial oppression, world peace.

What wonderful wishes! I hope they all come true. I’m sorry this interview is almost over, but I always like to ask authors one last question, because most of them have lived such fascinating lives. What is something most people don’t know about you?

I used to be a sketch comedian. In my twenties, I performed with the HA! Comedy Duo and Rubber Feet at clubs and theaters all over NYC. I’m a fairly even-keeled person in real life, but up on stage, I can get crazy!

Wow! I’m impressed. No wonder QUEEN OF LIKES is filled with humor. I’m lucky that I had a sneak peek at the book, and I’m sure everyone else will want to buy the book, which is available for preorder now from Aladdin M!X and Amazon. Or you can find it at your local bookstore on April 5, 2016.

ABOUT QUEEN OF LIKES

Karma Cooper is a seventh grader with thousands of followers on SnappyPic. Before Karma became a social media celebrity, she wasn’t part of the in-crowd at Merton Middle School. But thanks to one serendipitous photo, Karma has become a very popular poster on SnappyPic. Besides keeping up with all of her followers, like most kids at MMS, her smartphone—a bejeweled pink number Karma nicknamed Floyd—is like a body part she could never live without.

But after breaking some basic phone rules, Karma’s cruel, cruel parents take Floyd away, and for Karma, her world comes to a screeching halt. Can Karma—who can text, post photos, play soccer, and chew gum all at the same time—learn to go cold turkey and live her life fully unplugged?

ABOUT HILLARY HOMZIE

Hillary is the author of the tween novel, THE HOT LIST (Simon & Schuster/M!X), THINGS ARE GONNA GET UGLY (Simon & Schuster/M!X), a Justice Book-of-the-Month, which was just optioned by Priority Pictures, and the forthcoming QUEEN OF LIKES (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X, April 2016),  as well as the humorous chapter book series, ALIEN CLONES FROM OUTER SPACE (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), which was developed to become an animated television series and was sold to ABC Australia. Hillary holds a master’s degree in education from Temple University and a master’s of arts degree from Hollins University in children’s literature and writing. Currently, she’s a visiting professor of children’s literature and writing at Hollins University.

Thanks for such a fun interview, Hillary. I’m sure readers would love to know where they can find out more about you.

I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and they can check out my website. On my website, there’s info about school visits and speaking at conferences, which I love doing. (And I’m sure you’re educational as well as entertaining, with your comedy background.)

ABOUT THE BLOG AUTHOR

Laurie J. Edwards is the author of more than 2300 articles and 25 books in print or forthcoming. In addition to being a freelance editor and illustrator, she also writes under the pseudonyms Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. She is lucky enough to be in the MFA program for Children’s Writing and Illustrating at Hollins University, where she has the privilege of working with Hillary Homzie.

 

A Non-fiction book birthday for our own Laurie Edwards

laurie photo Laurie Edwards is a Mixed Up Files member with a very busy month. Three of her non-fiction titles come out this month. They are all from the educational publisher Cengage and they are: Ancient Egypt, Imperial China, and West African Kingdoms. She graciously stole a few moments away from her time with a brand new grandbaby to answer my questions. Thank you and quadruple congratulations!

1) All three of your books are about the ancient world. Do you have a long standing interest in history?

Egypt coverI’ve always been fascinated by life long ago. I especially like finding out how people lived, so I enjoyed doing the research for these books. Sometimes we think that ancient people weren’t very advanced, but that isn’t true. All three of these civilizations invented items that are still used in our times, and scientists and historians are still trying to figure out how they created certain things. For example, no one knows for sure how the Egyptians built the pyramids.

 

My love of history also extends to fiction. I’m writing a young adult novel set in ancient China and two middle grade novels, one set in Russia during the pogroms and one set in Eastern Europe in 1050 CE. Capstone is publishing my young adult series set in the Wild West that I’m writing as Erin Johnson. The first two books, Grace and the Guiltless and Her Cold Revenge are out now, with two more to follow. I spent a lot of time doing research for all of these books.

I took a quick look at these titles and I think they’re going to be terrific for teens with a thirst for western writing which is not all that common in YA.

2)Your publisher works within the education market. How did you come to work with them? Do they assign a topic with an overall road map to the structure of the finished project or do you come up with the topic and structure yourself?

I’ve worked for Cengage, the publisher of these books, many times doing writing and editing. I started by writing short articles for them, and then later they asked me to write books. The first books I wrote for them were a biography of Rihanna, the Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, and Pirates through the Ages (yes, another history title!).

West African coverBecause these 3 new books are part of a 10-volume set, the publisher wanted them to be consistent, so they gave me topics for the chapters (e.g., Geography, Art, Transportation and Communication) and a general layout for each chapter. The chapters needed to include a brief introduction, 2-3 sidebars, a glossary, 2-3 activities, and a set of questions. I chose what material to include in each chapter.

 

3) What was your favorite juicy tidbit from researching these books? Did you have a particularly useful source or an unexpected one?

I like finding primary sources, which are actual documents or pictures from people who lived during that time. The Chinese and Egyptians both kept good records of events, so I read translations of many ancient documents. We also included some as sidebars in the books. The West Africans didn’t have a written language for much of the period the book covered, which meant that their primary sources were the griots, or storytellers, who memorized all their history.

China coverOne of my favorite documents was a list of rules from an ancient Chinese boarding school. Instead of bells, they used clappers. The first time the clappers sounded, students woke and washed. By the second round of clappers, they needed to be dressed in their robes. After that, they bowed to their teachers. They then followed a whole list of rules, many of which sound like classroom rules today, such as sitting properly, writing neatly, keeping desks tidy, and not eavesdropping. Students took turns washing the floor at the end of each day. Some different rules included never taking off their caps, socks, or shoes even in their rooms, and never going to bed before their elders.

Other fun sources were a list of rules from a Chinese pirate ship run by a woman and descriptions of Egyptian mummification. I also discovered ancient recipes, poems, stories, plays, jokes, and paintings showing daily life. Many of these can be found in the sidebars.

I love this! The combination of familiar rules–like write neatly–with completely wacky rules–like don’t go to bed until all the grownups are asleep and never take off your shoes! You’re a natural at making history engaging.

4) Do you do something special with the MG audience in mind?

Because MG readers are curious, I try to find unusual and interesting facts that will surprise them. But I also like to show that children from long ago have are like modern children in many ways. Knowing that ancient children disobeyed their parents, disliked school, or skipped their chores makes them more real and relatable.

5) I’ve only done a little bit of writing for educational publishers and it has been a while. If a person was interested in writing for the educational market what advice would you give them?

Educational writing is strongly tied to the core curriculum, so having some experience as a teacher or some knowledge of the expectations for the various grade levels is important. Rather than coming up with your own topics, you need to be willing to write books on the subjects that the publishers need or want. To get work in this field, check what publishers are looking for freelance writers and follow their guidelines. Many request a resume and a sample chapter. If they think your writing is suitable for their imprints, they may assign you a book or even a series.

6) Do you have a favorite MG non-fiction title or two you’d like to share?

Two nonfiction authors whose books I love are Candace Fleming and Susan Bartoletti. All of their books are well worth reading.

Here are the two most recent titles by these two authors.18691014

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Thanks again for sharing Laurie. Happy book birthday and happy  birthday to your new grandchild!