Tag Archives: writing tips

Digging Deep into History: Sources for Historical Research

I love getting random notifications from our county library system. Yesterday’s was an invitation to a free lecture on the local impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. My writer’s wheels started turning right away and I added the event to the calendar. Though I have no plans to start drafting a flu epidemic middle grade novel anytime soon, I think it’s safe to say that the more your writer-head knows about a historical time period–and history in general–the more inclined (read: less terrified) you become toward actually drafting a historical.

Historical research can be daunting, even for lovers of history, even for lovers of research and research paper writing. We have so much info available to us now…and yet, sometimes a seemingly easy answer eludes us. And then there’s the very real trust issues we writers have with the online world, and justifiably so; though the internet has certainly made it easier to quickly access reading material, it has also made it crucially necessary to question, check and double check, confirm and re-confirm sources. Random Googling can be appropriate for a brief overview of a historical event, person, or time period in MG historical writing; for example, clicking around for short, valid articles is great when you are still in the throes of a new crazy idea and are exploring the topic to gauge your own interest in it. The question “Is this something I want to learn more about?” is just as important as “Is this idea any ‘good’ for an MG novel?” at this stage of the game, and quick search engine results can help you start to answer these basic questions.

But once you’ve decided to dig in and try your hand at a new historical middle grade, to what types of resources do you turn?

I thought I’d share here some of the more interesting and trusted sources of historical info I’ve used in recent years. This is, of course, just to get your own wheels turning, the way that library notification did mine, and to hopefully start some comments from you all with other source ideas to inspire our whole community here at The Mixed-Up Files.

Go local:

Your local library might surprise you, and have a great resource on hand all about the preparations for a medieval feast, or The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, or the first-ever passenger rail car (England, 1825). If your own library doesn’t, search your county or statewide library system, and enjoy the benefits of interlibrary loan (free, real books, delivered to your local library, just for you!).

Local museums, local historical societies, local college and university libraries. Librarians, docents, and historical society volunteers share your passion for info and history, and chances are, they will be eager to help a writer towards historical accuracy.

Go online:

Don’t forget to try your public, state, or university library’s online aggregated content databases of articles and reference books. As a card-holding library patron, you should have access to these databases, often a mix of academic and popular culture resources. For example, my town library is part of Pennsylvania’s electronic library system (called PowerLibrary), which I can access from my home computer by inputting the patron number on my library card. This morning I found a recent Smithsonian article through PowerLibrary perfect for my WIP.

Primary source documents, like digitized newspapers, magazines, and periodicals—some from centuries ago–are amazing pieces of actual history that convey the aesthetics, attitudes, and atmosphere of the time period as well as info.

Online digital libraries. Digitized libraries can be huge aggregates of centuries’ worth of books and serials, many of them full-text… or they can be an individual’s personal web site of images of the local ferry service’s crossing schedules from 1955. And depending on your book idea, either of these or any in between might be equally helpful.  Try your luck with Hathi Trust Digital Library for out-of-print books and resources, Project Gutenberg for works in the public domain, or this site…when you have a few hours free:   http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/250-plus-killer-digital-libraries-and-archives/ I liked how these were organized by state (alphabetically) with multi-state resources listed at the end.

Photographs, of course. I like the search results I get (and the amount of info for citations) from the Photo Archive at the Getty Institute: http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/photo/

Here, for inspiration, are Life magazine historical photos by decade hosted by Google: http://images.google.com/hosted/life

Don’t forget the daily details in all your hard-core historical info. Food, footwear, furniture…depending on your setting, a sales resource like a digitized Sears and Roebuck catalog might be helpful (not to mention fascinating). Today I looked at this  one on Hathi from 1918. Middle-grade-aged girls’ clothes start on the third page, with prices and descriptions.

Grocery store ads with prices, movie posters, war propaganda literature…all telling signs of the times. From a special collections library at Emory University, here’s a 1947  ad for women’s high heels for $5.99 (!!).  How interesting that the ad utilizes the fun, adventurous lifestyle of circus performers to catch the consumer’s attention.

Specific to American history research, try the National Archives (great educator section here, by the way!): https://www.archives.gov/  and the site of the American Antiquarian Society: http://www.americanantiquarian.org/  (for info and primary sources through 1876).

The Library of Congress has an abundance of free reference materials, including an International Collections section as well an American Folklife Center: http://www.loc.gov/rr/ .

Books on historical topics that are especially cool for writers:

The Writer’s Guide to… Series. The Wild West, Prohibition through WWII, the 1800’s, Colonial America, Renaissance England, and more.

If you have kids, you probably know the DK Eyewitness series of books. Written for elementary through middle graders as visual encyclopedias, these books present great overviews on a wealth of topics and time periods. They contain the perfect amount of info if you are just getting started on a research topic—enough to catch your interest and start notetaking, but not so much as to overwhelm.

An illustrated costume history text. You can page through possibilities at bookstores on university campuses with theatre departments, or try a book like What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century by Douglas Gorsline.

I hope you found this to be a fun and possibilities-ripe list!  Please chime in with comments on what creative and helpful sources you’ve used in the past. Thanks for reading and good luck with your future research!

Writing While White

I am a white author. When I write about social justice online, I use phrases like “fellow white people” or “we white women.” I do this intentionally. And yes, like @helloalegria says in the tweet above, it was weird and uncomfortable at first. But you know what? The more I used language that was precise, the easier it got. Plus I began to have much more productive conversations online about dismantling racism and white supremacy.

What does this have to do with middle grade books?

As a white author who has grown up with white privilege and who has benefited from the racism inherent in most (all?) American institutions, I am accustomed to being the “norm” or the “default.” If I read a book, where a character is described as having brown, curly hair (like for example Hermione Granger), I will mostly likely assume that the character is also white.

Because I am “used to being the default definition of ‘people’” as @helloalegria says, I also need to be aware of how I might perpetuate the white default definition of ‘people’ in my books.

This happens if I make a point of describing the skin tone or ethnicity of characters of color but don’t describe the skin tone or family background of light-skinned characters. Doing this makes anyone who is not white into “the other.” And that, fellow white authors, no matter your intentions, is white supremacy at work.

Martha Brockenbrough is a white author who was very intentional in her approach to writing about race in the novel The Game of Love and Death. I asked her to share with us what she was thinking during the process. Here’s what she said:

In college I learned about “marked” language. This was language that assumed male as the standard, and it’s why we say things like “female lawyer” and “male nurse.” (Nurses are stereotypically female, so “male nurse” even works as a punchline.)

With The Game of Love and Death, I didn’t want to center whiteness, and particularly not in the chapters told from the viewpoint of Flora, who is a Black pilot. Where race is observed, blackness is the default. So race is only seen when it is not Black. 

This is part of the empathy we need to cultivate when we are writers. To authentically inhabit characters and understand how their lives feel given our power structures, which favor white people, men, and white men in particular. 

Language is powerful. We build the world with it in so many ways, and as writers, we have the opportunity to build worlds that change the way readers think. And this is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make us feel, and as we process those feelings, we develop a point of view on what it means to be alive.

I love what Martha is saying here. We owe it to our readers—all of our readers—to consider the world from their point-of-view, and to do that, we white writers must be willing to consider that our own point-of-view should not be the “norm” or “default” way to the see the world.

*The title of this post — “Writing While White” — is a shout-out to a blog that I highly recommend called “Reading While White.” Definitely check it out!

** After writing this post, I found another excellent post of the same title by Marianne Modica. Click here to read it.

Writing Quest Stories

  My fascination for quest stories began when I was in middle school.  At the time, our bespectacled young boy named Harry Potter wasn’t born yet. However, because I lived in India, I had the exposure to fantasy quest stories based on Indian culture. I read  Ramayana and Mahabharata epic novels, and stories from other Hindu texts. Those fantasy stories have been in the world for centuries, even millenia in some cases.

I often compare what I grew up reading to the middle grade quest novels of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. My brain is hardwired to pay attention to the common themes in the characters’ growth, and appreciate the similarities and deeper meaning in the journeys of the characters.

 

Quest stories make the characters seek something, and we as readers get to join them on the ride. In her book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones describes a quest as “a large-scale treasure hunt, with clues scattered all over the continent, a few false leads, mystical masters as game-show hosts, and the dark lord and the terrain who make the quest interestingly difficult”(153). Therefore, the hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world where she encounters conflicts with antagonistic, challenging forces before achieving her goal.

In this post, we will take a look at two fantasy quest novels:

Where the Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin    

and 

The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by Frank L. Baum

We will focus on some of the common themes around plot, conflict and change that made these quest stories timeless reads.

Plot:

If you’ve been writing fiction for even a short while, you have probably heard or used the word “plot” in your critique conversations. In his book, The Plot Thickens, Noah Lukeman writes that “plot is not just about having a single great idea; on the contrary, a good plot is an amalgamation of many ideas or elements of writing, including characterization, journey, suspense, conflict, and context” (xv). Therefore, while an idea is important, a plot doesn’t exist without the supporting elements that make up the story.

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, the main character Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey of adventure and folklore to find the Old Man on the moon to ask him how she can change her family’s fortune.

In the Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept away from a Kansas farm to the Land of Oz by a cyclone.

Minli’s quest is to find the Old Man on the moon. Dorothy’s quest is to return to her home in Kansas again.

In both the stories, Grace Lin and Frank L. Baum spend considerable amount of time at the beginning of the book establishing their main characters’ normal life before they take off on their journeys. The authors introduce the readers to the secondary characters and set up the cultural context. The settings create a vivid contrast with the strange new worlds Minli and Dorothy enter. All these elements together make strong plot structures for the stories.

Conflict:

Story plots must always involve conflicts.  Philip Athans writes in his book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that “unless your protagonist comes into conflict – in the broadest sense of the word – with someone or something, you have no plot, no story, and no novel” (25). Therefore, it is exceedingly important to put the characters in difficult situations that cause conflict.

In Where the Mountain Meets The Moon, the central conflict for Minli is that her family’s fortune is very weak. So she goes on an adventure to have a better fortune, make friends and bring green to the Fruitless mountain.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the main conflict is that Dorothy thinks that life will be better someplace else (i.e. over the rainbow). She runs away from home, gets caught in a tornado, and ends up in another world. Finally, she is desperate to find her way back home.

Baum and Lin put their characters in conflict arising circumstances, and raise the stakes to increase the importance of their story goals. How Dorothy and Minli deal with the conflicts show us a great deal about their traits and personalities. They force the reader to take sides and keep reading.

Change:

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, Minli has a lively and impulsive spirit that is different from her parents. She makes friends along the way in her journey. She even befriends a dragon. But when Minli finally reaches home from the Never-Ending Mountain at the end, she realizes that all her questions are answered. Minli’s village is prosperous again, and she is thankful for her family.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, there’s an inherent change in Dorothy’s character when she meets other characters like the scare crow, the Tin Man, the lion, the wicked witch of the west and the wizard. In the end, Baum shows the change in Dorothy by having her realize that the special world of Oz must eventually be left behind if she has to get back to Kansas. This marks her decision to return to her home where Uncle Henry and Aunt Em live. The quest becomes meaningful when Dorothy returns to Kansas with a lesson from Oz. Dorothy finally returns to Kansas with the knowledge that she is loved, and that there is no place like home.

Even though The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and Where The Mountain Meets The Moon were written and published at different time periods (1900 and 2009) and have different cultural references and symbolisms, Baum and Lin have made their characters embark on profound journeys that eventually lead them to self-realization and change from within.

Minli’s and Dorothy’s quests sum up themes that center around courage, coming of age, exploration, and family. The novels take us on fascinating journeys that emphasize similar quest elements of plot, conflicts, and change, which in turn give the characters growth and meaning.

And now, to jump into the world of quest stories, here’s a quick list of some recent books:

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Fish by L.S. Matthews

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer

What are your favorite quest novels? What do you like about them? Share with us in the comments below.