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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: August 2007

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Thursday's thing to love...

...about being a writer: I'm still loving research.

Did you know that there are about three libraries in the world that have copies of The Hot Springs Daily Star from the 1890's? And yet, you can have the microfilms sent to your local library (for a minimal charge) where you can read the daily events of a booming frontier town from over a hundred years ago.

I know, I know--this is old news to all you experienced history writers--but it astonishes me every time I scroll through those microfilms.

What appears in these old newspapers? Each edition is about 4 pages long, with one page covering local events (with a heavy emphasis on politics;) two "women's pages" containing everything from how to make a cocoa whip to how to treat a sore throat to slightly romantic fiction; a page or so of advertisements, including all sorts of patent medicines; and a page devoted to local events, such as nearby train information, new hotel visitors, and--my favorite--the "NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS."

Remember, this is before every house held a computer, television, telephone, and internet access. The NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS includes items such as the following:

  • J.B. Dickover is intending to leave for Chicago on a business tour.

  • For lame back, side or chest, use Shiloh's Porous Plaster. Price 25 cts. Sold by W.W. Root.

  • R.W. Shann has leased his meat market, and it is rumored that he intends to go into the real estate business.

  • Charles Streator is steadily improving, his many friends will be glad to learn, although he is getting weary of lying in bed.

  • John Sidey has some centipedes found in the Bad Lands a few days ago.

The ones that wrenched at me were the ongoing sagas of this or that sick person. "Dr. S is sick with pneumonia" followed the next day by "Dr. S seems to be improving" and then "Dr. S is very low today." I found myself scrolling ahead to find out what happened to these far-off people. Did Mr. R's 4-year-old recover? Did the 2 pound baby survive? In the 1890's death was never far off. Reading these snippets of news, it was easy to forget that I belonged to another century, easy to get drawn into these peoples' stories.

I guess that's the point. Perhaps the hours I spend in a dark library room, scrolling through microfilm, will breathe life into the final draft of my nonfiction picture book. Wish me luck!

:) Cheryl

Thursday's thing to love...

Thursdays thing to love about being a writer--Writing Retreats.

The opportunity arose for me to go on another writing retreat, so I seized it. It was a gift--a condo offered by a friend of a friend, for writers who needed a place to get away. So for a little over 24 hours, I and two writer friends stayed in a beautiful condominium in Vail, where we researched and read and brainstormed and took creativity naps.

Two retreats in a month -- that's more than I'd usually attempt -- but every writer needs the occasional getaway. (I think that every person needs the occasional getaway, but that's a subject for another blog....) Different writers have different reasons, but uninterrupted time and a peaceful space are the perfect treatment for many different writing problems. Call in favors, get help with your home or work responsibilities, find a quiet place and GO. Need more reasons? Read on....

Ten Remedies found on a Writing Retreat:

  1. Rest and recharge your creativity.

  2. Seek inspiration in long hours of peace and silence.

  3. Fuel your writing with beauty.

  4. Fill your head with all the details of your project, so that you can see the big picture.

  5. Live, breathe, and dream of your work for a few days, so that you can play out the story like a movie in your mind.

  6. Seek story structure solutions by reading and re-reading a few excellent books. Take notes on their plot structure, character arc, or whatever suits your needs.

  7. Pour out a first, sloppy draft by getting in the flow and not stopping until you feel like it.

  8. Take time to have fun with writing, to re-discover why you write.

  9. Sleep enough that your brain is fresh.

  10. Take along friends for encouragement, laughs, inspiration, and joy.

And if you read this, thank you John and all the other wonderful people who've made a getaway possible for someone who could use it!

:) Cheryl


Children's Fantasy Agents: Jenny Rappaport

Another agent on my short list is Jenny Rappaport. I'm not sure she's the right agent for me, because she seems to steer more toward YA and adult fantasy--but she definitely is a fantasy fan, and I love some of the books she's represented! Besides, Emma Bull's War for the Oaks is one of her favorite books, so I like her already.

Things to note:

  • She's getting married sometime in the near future (or just did?) so don't expect a speedy response

  • She does NOT want e-mail queries--stick to snail mail unless you're an international author

  • She does not want sample pages, just a query letter, synopsis, and SASE

  • She does not return manuscripts. I guess that means if you don't hear from her, she's not interested.

Here are her interests, taken from her blog at

I primarily represent science fiction and fantasy, horror, young adult fiction, and romance. I also do represent some nonfiction material, but it's not my primary area. In terms of SFF, I like almost all examples of the genre, even epic fantasy, but I'm very picky if something sounds cliched. There's so much wonderful material out there to explore that every fantasy novel doesn't need the stereotypical elf, dwarf, and farmboy-turned-world savior, all of whom start their adventure in a bar with tavern wenches. Regarding horror, I tend to go more towards the darker, psychological side of things, and I very firmly do not like splatterpunk. I represent all types of young adult fiction, but my favorites are the ones that fall into the SFF or horror genres. Regarding romance, I am only looking for historical romances, as well as paranormal romances (contemporary or historical). I also do a splattering of women's fiction in there, and I'm always a sucker for a very good historical novel.

I do not represent picture books, most types of nonfiction, and anything religious in nature. I am also not fond of literary fiction because I feel like it tends towards too much navel-gazing and overanalyzation of psyches.

For more info and specific guidelines, check out her blog.

:) Cheryl


Thursday's thing to love...

...about being a writer: great books. Have I mentioned that I love books? I love the way they feel, the way they smell, the way they make me race through to find out the end of a great story (a la Harry Potter) or read slowly to savor the beautiful writing (a la The Bookthief.) I love....

Ahem. Sorry. Didn't mean to get carried away there.

Today, I want to tell you about a particular book: By the Sword, a nonfiction picture book written by Selene Castrovilla. It tells the story of Benjamin Tallmadge, a not particularly famous young man who lived and served during the Revolutionary War. Castrovilla's book paints a picture of the war through one man's story: the story of Benjamin Tallmadge and his beloved horse, Highlander.

I read this book because I am currently working on a project I hope to sell to the publisher, Calkins Creek, the history imprint of Boyds Mills Press. Carolyn Yoder, also history editor for Highlights for Children, is editor for the imprint.

In this book, Castrovilla does exactly what I want to do in my writing. She draws a fascinating story out of a primary source--Benjamin Tallmadge's personal memoir--and brings the story to life without compromising historical accuracy. I'm also trying to draw an exciting story out of a rambling journal and a few other primary sources. She takes the story of someone who isn't particularly famous, and uses it to tell a larger truth about the Revolutionary War. I'm also trying to tell the story of an ordinary young man in such a way that it tells a larger truth about life in frontier America.

How does she do it? First, she tells a very specific story with a beginning, middle, end, and specific events in between. That sounds simple--but it's not always that easy, especially when you have a pile of research material six feet deep! It took a great deal of artistry--and discernment--to choose exactly what scenes to portray in a story that spans several days (with several weeks' worth of backstory.)

Second, she brings each scene to life with vivid sensory detail: the feel of the musket against Benjamin's shoulder, the boom of cannon fire, the flash of muskets. Since present nonfiction-writing frowns on creating quotes for historical characters, she doesn't invent dialog; instead, she writes Benjamin's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in such a way that it reads like dialog. She writes questions that seem to create a window into Benjamin's mind, questions like "How could they even survive?"

If you're a writer of nonfiction for children, this is a great book to check out. Castrovilla sifts through her own six-foot-deep pile of research material (I'm guessing at the 6-foot part, but she definitely did her research!) to tell an exciting story that gives a snapshot of life during the Revolutionary War--in 32 pages. Besides, it's a great read!

:) Cheryl

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Collecting Material

Today was my son's first day of middle school. All I can say is: wow.

I thought I remembered middle school. I didn't. After this morning, I wonder if anyone really remembers middle school. The kids I saw today were all too busy worrying--about their schedules, who they knew, where they were supposed to be--to notice much beyond their own bubbles.

Nearly all the students were nervous--and they all felt alone in their nervousness. Maybe it's a human trait to try to hide our weaknesses, assuming that no one else shares them. Maybe that's why I remember so clearly being the only kid in middle school who couldn't get her locker open the first week of school--it never occurred to me to look around for those other kids who were just as nervous and self-conscious as I was.

Today reinforced for me how important it is for us, as writers for children, to be with children. I often think that children's writers remember childhood more clearly than most people--but we still forget. As I sat in that room with a hundred incoming sixth graders and their parents, I was flooded with all the bits and details of what it's like to start a new school. I was flooded with the sorts of detail you can't get from memory: backpacks too heavy with school supplies, a mother near tears, two girlfriends greeting each other with squeals of joy, a cafeteria steaming with sweat and nervous kids and parents, hallways crowded with students who are desperately trying to figure out how to open combination locks without anyone else realizing that they're trying to figure it out.

Why do I write for kids? Maybe today is why. Maybe it's because of the fears and hopes of kids as they start a new grade, a new school. Because I want to help them make sense of life--and because I want them to know they aren't alone.

Until later--Cheryl



Agents for Children's Fantasy: Maya Rock

I've been checking out a lot of agents over the past weeks, compiling a (short) list of those who might be interested in The Last Violin. Maya Rock is one of those who impressed me. Anyone else looking for an agent for children's fantasy writing? Here's what I learned:

Maya Rock -- Writer's House (

3 WEEK RESPONSE TIME (response time for me--5 days)

Maya Rock is a relatively new agent actively seeking new clients.

In an interview with Michael Neff for the Algonkian Writer's Conference, Maya says:

"I am looking for all that's good, wonderful, interesting, and unique. I have a special yen for literary fiction, historical fiction, YA, practical nonfiction, self-help, and romance. I particularly like books with foreign settings, strong heroines, and a good dose of suspense. I like funny things. I also like some fantasy...If I fall in love with the writing, that's it. I don't think I'd mind much if the writer was crazy or hellish if I loved the writing. But it's also nice when people are flexible about improving and editing their writing before submitting it to publishers. There's often a lot of work to be done in between getting an agent and getting a publisher."

Read the entire interview at
PS--Pictured is the famed Lily, inspirational poodle extraordinaire :-)

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Thursday's thing to love...

...about being a writer.

Writing has a way of permeating life. It adds an edge of awareness to every moment, letting me see more of the world than I would otherwise. I imagine that writing sharpens the senses the same way that drawing or painting does: I'm constantly on the lookout for interesting character quirks, new images, unusual situations.

Writing sharpens the way I view the world around me, but it also sharpens the way I look within. Every emotion, every up and down of life, is material I can use to bring my characters to life. I like to think that this increased awareness brings something of value to my readers. Regardless, it brings something of value to me: the more I write, the more aware I am of my interactions with others, my emotions, my gut-level reactions--the better I understand them. I wonder: what truth will you find in your life, if you take the time to look?


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Building a Bibliography: Notes from Highlights' Carolyn Yoder

The summer before last, I participated in one of the best writing workshops I've ever attended: the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. The workshop has been on my mind lately. I'm in the process of rewriting a nonfiction picture book manuscript, and what I learned at Chautauqua was invaluable to the process of envisioning, researching and writing the manuscript. If I hadn't had the chance to discuss the idea with Carolyn Yoder (Highlights for Children's senior history editor as well as editor for the history imprint of Boyds Mills Press) I would not have attempted the project at all. Science, I can research without hesitation--but I didn't know how to go about researching history.

At Chautauqua, Carolyn taught a session on writing historical fiction, where she presented a wealth of information about how to build a bibliography for historical fiction or nonfiction. Here are some of the points I found helpful:

  1. Think beyond history books -- seek out primary sources such as letters, journals, and newspapers.

  2. Read journals of other people who lived in the area, not just the subject of your book/article.

  3. Travel to the site of your story for first-hand experience of the landscape and weather.

  4. Consult and interview experts on your topic. (She strongly recommends working with an expert on the time period.)

  5. Visit the area's local historical society. Or, if you can't visit, contact them. Some will copy relevant papers and magazines that aren't available elsewhere.

  6. Visit the area's state museum to see historical artifacts--these can breathe life into your project by adding details about day-to-day life. Check out clothes, tools, food, furnishings, money from the period.

  7. Many small museums will let you come in and look through their items. In most, the items aren't catalogued, but you can find treasures with a little searching. What did a plow look like? Windows? What were people of the time reading? What music did they listen to?

  8. Read almanacs, cookbooks, and catalogues from the period.

  9. Visit the area's graveyard.

  10. Investigate historical maps.

  11. Scrapbooks: in the 18th and 19th centuries, people kept scrapbooks chronicling their lives and the lives of other in the region. These can be an excellent source for recipes, art objects, and day-to-day details.
Historical information isn't neatly gathered and catalogued in my local university library. Maybe that's because it deals with people, and people aren't as easy to catalog as scientific information. It's more of a treasure hunt to track down all the right bits of information to flesh out a book, historical novel, or magazine article--but when the pieces all come together, I shiver with the magic of it. I feel as if I have a window into the past.

:) Cheryl

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Thursday's thing to love about being a writer...

...a bit late, but Thursday's thing to love is HEALTH.

Okay, I'm thankful for health in all areas of my life, not just my writing life, but when I'm so sick that I can't write I don't feel like myself anymore. Writing's so much a part of who I am, I don't know how to function when I'm not writing on a regular basis.

Of course, that was the problem: I wasn't functioning. I spent much of last week sleeping off what I thought was a nasty virus. It turned out to be strep throat. Have you ever let strep bacteria incubate for four days in your throat? It's not a good idea. Luckily, I eventually figured out that something wasn't right and headed to the doctor.

Even more luckily, I have access to the medicine of the 21st century. Here are a few more of my favorite turn-of-the- century "granny remedies" from Bleed, Blister and Purge: A History of Medicine on the American Frontier (Volney Steele, M.D.):

  • For purifying blood: drink a tonic made from rusty nails soaked in vinegar
  • For a cold: wear a bag of asafetida around the neck
  • For whooping cough: sip some owl broth
  • To restore energy: mix gold filings in honey and enjoy

Until later--