Interview: Kate Messner on writing and researchingW

Kate Messner headshotToday, I’ve got a great guest post on writing and researching from Kate Messner, author of Sugar & Ice, a Junior Library Guild Selection, Best Book for December and on the Winder 2010-2011 Kids IndieNext List.

Here’s the synopsis of Kate’s book:

For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family’s maple farm. But all that changes when Claire is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-a scholarship to train with the elite skaters in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where competition is everything, Claire soon realizes that her sweet dream-come-true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want her to fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow?

Sounds fun.

Now, here’s Kate’s advice on writing and researching:

It’s all in the details…

Sugar & Ice book coverWhen I was writing Sugar & Ice, I did a lot of the research you might expect – reading books about the different spins and jumps in figure skating, studying skater biographies and interviewing coaches and competitive skaters about what it’s like. But there are some things you just can’t get from a book or an interview.

How does a skater interact with a coach who’s really pushing him or her?  What kinds of things does a coach say to encourage a skater who’s struggling?  To push a skater who’s not working as hard as he or she needs to be?

To answer those questions, I spent several afternoons at the skating rink. Former Olympian and current skating coach Gilberto Viadana allowed me to attend several of his sessions with skaters, so I bundled up and listened in as they worked on everything from sit spins to salchows.

“The arms! The arms!” Gilberto would shout.  And I would scribble down his words in my notebook.  More than that, though, I watched him watching his skaters. I paid attention to the way he nodded, just a little, when they responded to his coaching, to the way a skater stood when he or she was listening to advice, to the body language of a coaching session.

When you read the scenes in Sugar & Ice that involve Claire’s coach, Andrei Groshev, Groshev’s personality is all his own. But some of his words, his gestures and his coaching strategies are borrowed from Coach Viadana.

Authors rely on experts not only to review manuscripts and answer questions, but also to open up their worlds for that inside experience, and I’m so very thankful for this. The tiniest details – the things that could never come just from my imagination – are what make a scene feel rich and real.

Want a personalized, signed copy of Sugar & Ice?

The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid is hosting a Sugar & Ice launch party from 3-5 pm on Saturday, Dec. 11, so please consider this your invitation if you live in the area! If you can’t make it but would still like a signed, personalized copy, just give the bookstore a call at 518.523.2950 by Dec. 10. They’ll take your order, have Kate sign your book after the event, and ship it out to you in plenty of time for the holidays.

Interview: Kirby Larson on research

Revision update: Halfway through chapter 10 of 29. Goal: To be finished by the end of the month.

Kirby Larson headshot

Kirby Larson

Today, I’m thrilled to have an interview with Newbury Honor winner Kirby Larson. I met Kirby at the Austin SCBWI conference, where she gave an awesome talk about her journey from unpublished writer to her current success and all the peaks and valleys in between. I asked her to answer a few questions on research, both the research she did for her fictional Hattie Big Sky (2007 Newbury Honor book) and the research she nows does for her non-fiction books. She also talked about writing with a partner and writing on your own.

But, before we get to Kirby’s wisdom, tomorrow I’m at the Houston SCBWI conference with another incredible lineup: author Cynthia Leitich Smith, Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins assistant editor Ruta Rimas, Henry Holt creative director Patrick Collins, Simon & Schuster senior editor Alexandra Cooper, Scholastic senior editor Lisa Ann Sandell, Harvey Klinger agent Sara Crowe and National Geographic Children’s Books editor-in-chief Nancy Feresten. So check in next week for reports from the conference.

And now, onto Kirby…

Hattie Big Sky book coverYou said at the Austin SCBWI conference that you did a lot of research for Hattie Big Sky. Can you tell us about the work you did and how the research helped you develop the idea for the book?

KL: I was an abysmal student of history so I knew nothing about homesteading in the early 20th century, nor even about WWI. I initially thought I might be doing something like a more grown-up version of the Little House books. But when I became aware of the tensions and prejudice of those particular war years, I knew there was a bigger story to tell. I worked on Hattie Big Sky between 2000 and 2004 and, while there was a goodly amount of information available on the Internet, it wasn’t like it is now. I relied heavily on inter-library loan to get books and journals not available in our library system, and I took three or four trips to Montana to read primary sources firsthand. One of the best resources was the local newspaper — the Wolf Point, Montana, Herald; I read every single issue put out in 1918. I found it so helpful not only to gather attitudes, but social mores, manners of speech and what things cost. All the more reason to mourn the demise of newspapers in our country.

After Hattie Big Sky, you started writing non-fiction books with your partner Mary Nethery. Why did you decide to write with a partner and why Mary Nethery?

Two Bobbies book coverKL: The truth is that Mary and I began Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival before Hattie Big Sky came out; maybe before it sold; I can’t remember. We’d both been going through a tough time in our writing lives and, when I heard a wonderful writer named Pamela Greenwood talk about the benefits of collaborative writing, I was intrigued. And there is no one else I could write with (or, shall we say, who would be able to put up with me!) than my friend of many years, Mary Nethery. We have always been each other’s best cheerleaders and critics; we got each other’s work. I knew we’d make a good team.

How do you and Mary find the stories for your non-fiction books?

KL: Complete serendipity! Mary actually found both of the story ideas that panned out — one, by channel surfing and coming across a segment on Anderson Cooper’s 360 (Two Bobbies) and the other, by reading an article in the paper (Nubs). People have since sent us ideas, but we kind of need to find them ourselves. To be more accurate, I should say, Mary needs to find them! 😉

How much research do you do for your non-fiction books? How does it compare to the research you did for your fictional Hattie Big Sky?

KL: The depth of the research is similar, certainly. Since the picture books are more focused — on a very specific time period/event — it doesn’t take as long. But we still make ourselves as crazy trying to corroborate a particular detail with the picture books as I did with Hattie.

How do you and Mary approach the research? Are there specific things you do, library, interviews, Internet?

Nubs book coverKL: Mary and I like to conduct the interviews together (generally, via phone). That way, there are two sets of ears to pick up on what we’re hearing. The picture books feature events and people in contemporary times, so much of the research was by phone interview or in-person interview. Hattie Big Sky was set in 1918, so most of the research happened by reading — journals, diaries, books, magazine articles. I would comb all of the bibliographies of everything I read to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The Internet (then) was great for recipes, folk lore, home remedies, songs/music, etc. Now, with the Library of Congress more online, the Internet is even more helpful in doing research.

How do you and Mary approach the writing? Do you write together or work on different parts?

KL: Mary lives in Eureka, California, and I live in Kenmore, Washington, so we can’t really work together. We generally each take a section of the story and write it — let’s say I tackled the opening of Two Bobbies. I’d construct a draft and send it to Mary, who would comment on it/critique it. I’d tweak that, while she was working on the next section. The sections would be emailed back and forth each week. Every Friday afternoon, we’d have long phone conversations about that week’s work. Usually with an adult beverage at hand.

HA! Those adult beverages can help with the writing. 🙂 Having worked on fiction and non-fiction, alone and with a partner, what are the differences/difficulties of each?

KL: Writing with a partner is terrific, and Mary and I are hoping to do many more books together. By focusing on narrative non-fiction picture books, we selected a genre that neither of us had tackled individually. That left us each free to continue to explore our individual writing passions — Mary’s are fiction picture books and mystery/suspense novels; mine are historical novels. The only downsides, for us, to writing together are the geographical hurdles and the obligations we’ve got for our individual careers. The downside to writing by yourself is … writing by yourself!! I am so thankful to be able to do both.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to get into non-fiction books?

KL: Have Mary find your stories for you.

Seriously, I think it’s not that different than any kind of writing. Find what moves you, what you really care about. Dive in! Get all the information you can and then some. Find the story arc in that non-fiction idea and let it shine. That will be what hooks your readers.

What advice would you give to writers considering working with a partner?

KL: Mary and I spent a lot of time talking about what our process would be before we even knew what in the heck we’d write about; because our friendship is so important to each of us, we didn’t want ANYTHING to harm it. The bottom line for us: nothing would go into a book if we didn’t both agree on it. That “rule” was our safety net. I also think it’s critical to select a partner whose writing you completely admire and who respects your work, too. Mary and I feel like complete equals in our process, and we work very hard to write in a voice that is a blend; I don’t think you can pick out what either of us may have written. Also, make sure the person you work with has a sense of humor. That is completely essential.

Great advice and info, Kirby. Thanks very much.

Got any questions about research or writing with a partner? Put them in the comments.

Write On!

How research can lead a writer

Revision update: Too many late nights, and I haven’t moved forward. I must get up earlier tomorrow!

Today, Day By Day Writer is thrilled to be participating in the blog of author Therese Walsh, who’s debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was just released. Therese has written a fabulous guest post on research and how it can help in our writing.

Before we get to that, however, the book’s publisher, Random House, has provided the first three chapters of the book in an online reader. Check it out here.

And now I pass the floor, er, blog, to Therese … take it away!

Therese WalshWhen I first began writing my debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, it was not intended to become what it did—the story of twin sisters and their everlasting bond—but was rather a simple best-friends-fall-in-love story that would kick off at an auction house. The story changed because of research that led me to interesting facts. The item of interest at the auction was a Javanese dagger with a wavy blade called a keris. It wasn’t until later, after a friend’s innocent inquiry, that I researched the blade and discovered a storyteller’s goldmine.

Some pros hate the idea of a writer stalling in her tracks for research, because it’s simply too easy to become derailed. Just do the minimum, they suggest, then get back to writing. Truth is, The Last Will of Moira Leahy wouldn’t have become what it did without the keris, and I wouldn’t have known about the keris if not for my research-related diversion. I am both a pantser and a pauser. I write as the story leads me, and I pause to “listen” along the way. Some might listen to their muse, and I do that too, but I also listen to my research. Hard. I don’t pause to research minor details necessarily, but I pause to research anything plot related, and I allow that my research may turn the course of the story. Sometimes it does.

The Last Will of Moira LeahyAn even more potentially impactful kind of research is immersion research, when you visit the place of your story and put yourself in situations resembling those of your characters. I visited Castine, Maine, for example, while writing The Last Will. My perceptions as well as my interactions with the people there influenced the plot of my novel, turned several characters onto different paths, and generally helped me to visualize the novel better than I ever would have without that experience.

I’m a researcher at heart, so I am biased toward lots and lots of research, but I can attest to its power. It can help your stories become more powerful by:

  • helping you identify new ways to inject a situation with conflict
  • providing you with first-hand accounts that can lend authenticity to your work
  • allowing you to hone in on the best settings for your scenes

and of course

  • leading you to story ideas you never imagined, that can turn your story into something so much better than you would’ve created left to your own devices.

I know this to be true. My personal zigs and zags made a world of difference for The Last Will—a story that might otherwise have been as predictable and commonplace as a straight line.

What is your relationship with research? How do you incorporate research into your writing? Do you control it, let it run wild over your pages, or do you practice something in between?

Write on, all!

Questioning yourself

Done today: research

Revision remaining: 46,313 words (entire book)

Daily words needed to be finished by end of November: 842

I started my revision today, but only got as far as researching.

Research is a very necessary part of the writing process — guru Robert McKee says research is the key to overcoming writers block — and research is useful at all times. Anytime you’re not sure about something, research it until you’re comfortable.

But this morning, as I was researching a certain aspect of the book, I started questioning myself. Which way should I go? Should it be option a), option b)? Is it necessary at all? Does it add to the story? If so, how?

It was enough to drive me nuts.

I think the reason I’m questioning myself is because I’ve been away from the story for a few weeks. It was a good break, giving me a distance that will help me be more objective in my revision, but it also has allowed those nasty doubts to wriggle their way into my head.

Maybe I should get back into the story with some text revision then go back to the research I have to do.

Anyone else battling this right now?

Write On!

Research cures writers block

  • Current word count: 35,287
  • New words written: 969
  • Words til goal: 4,713 / 208 words a day til the end of September

I got over a hump in my writing today. For the last week, the story hasn’t been flowing as much as it had been. I was still writing, and the story was still progressing, but it felt like more of an effort. This morning that changed, however, and what changed it was research.

It reminded me of something I have read a number of times about Robert McKee, author of Story. McKee has said over and over in seminars that if you have done enough research, you won’t have writers block, the story will pretty much write itself. I’m not sure that tiredness and other things can’t contribute to writers block, but I do think McKee is right that when you know where you’re going in a story, it does write itself. And if you need research to get you there, then research away.

I had come to a point where I knew where the story was going but I didn’t know enough about the details. They weren’t details the characters could provide as I went along. I needed facts. So, this weekend I spent a lot of time on Google while I was writing, and this morning, before I typed a word in my manuscript, I Googled away until I had found exactly what I needed. I did find it, and after that, the story sped along again.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

Also, I wanted to check in with the other goals I had set at the beginning of the week:

  • Send off entry to Backspace contest: Check
  • Send picture book to three editors I met at various SCBWI events: Check
  • Send revised first novel to agents: Check. I’ve sent to four, who I had researched and had the personalized query letters ready to go. I’ve still got a bunch on my list to research and send to, but that will be another week. At least I made a start.

How’s your writing coming?

Write On!

Day 17 and research to write

Didn’t get too much actual writing done today, in day 17 of my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month. Instead I researched and thought, still trying to figure out the middle that I thought was behind me. Sigh. It’s frustrating, but worth it to do this work and get it right.

Coincidentally, today my husband sent me a link to an article about writing consultant Robert McKee saying Hollywood is “dying.” That was a quote, but if you read on, I don’t think it’s actually what he meant. He meant it more as a warning, that Hollywood is losing good stories.

McKee is a screenwriter’s guru, but what he teaches applies to writers of all fiction, be they screenwriters or novelists. McKee’s book Story, which Janet Fox quoted at the Brazos Valley SCBWI conference, is a very interesting and useful book to writers of all kinds. I’ve read it and recommend it for any writer’s shelf.

Anyway, at a recent seminar McKee was giving, he talked about the state of today’s movies (screenwriters are his primary audience) — of course, there’s a reason why most good movies nowadays are based on a novel. But McKee explained that to write good stories, writers should research. The more research they do, the story will write itself, he said.

Doing a lot of research follows what Cynthia Leitich Smith said about setting and Janet Fox said about character at the Brazos Valley SCBWI conference. Research is key to truly knowing your world and your characters, and from them the story will come.

Cynthia Leitich Smith suggested visited the settings you’re writing about, while Janet Fox suggested making scrapbooks for characters (click for more).

What do you do to research your work?

Write On!