The Worst Birthday Party Ever

For this week’s writing prompt challenge, the dare was issued to send my characters to the worst party ever. Now several scenarios came to mind, none were quite as compelling as the birthday party I’ve already written for one of my middle grade novels. The book is written from the perspective of Mike Triplett who is the birthday boy.

The birthday party is hard enough for Mike, but for his twin sister AJ, it gets pretty awful. Between having to share her birthday with her brother and a baby sister who doesn’t recognize boundaries, things aren’t what AJ had hoped for. While this scene doesn’t belong in the novel, it seemed worthwhile to spend a little energy writing it anyway. I hope you enjoy it.

AJ’s Worst Party Ever

After the purple monstrosity of a cake, AJ didn’t think anything else could go wrong with her birthday party. And for all that, the cake wasn’t all bad. It was her favorite kind of cake on the inside, chocolate with raspberry filling. Her very best friends were here, and they would stay the night tonight. Her brother and his friends were leaving them alone, mostly. What could go wrong with what was left of the party?

“Time for presents!”

The shout rang out across the back yard and a dozen kids thundered into the family room where two piles of gifts sat waiting in the center of the floor. One pile was a tumble of blue, red and superheroes, while the other one had an overabundance of pink and white and unicorns. AJ wondered when everyone would realize she had long since grown out of unicorns.

“Pretty!”

Gabby made a mad dash for the pink pile, and before anyone could stop her, had snatched up a gift and run off with it, tearing the paper as she went.

“Gabriella! You get back here with that this instant!” Mother’s shout was about as futile as an umbrella in a hurricane.

Jonathan grabbed for the little girl, but Gabby jumped away with a shriek and a laugh. AJ could do little more than look on in horror as the contents of the package tumbled free of the gift wrap and landed right in Tommy’s lap.

Tommy held up an economy sized package of girls’ panties, and all the boys hooted in laughter. AJ only wanted to die and sink into the floor. Jonathan, seeing what it was, snatched it up and stormed out of the room.

Misadventures in Middle Grade Fiction

Once again, I surprised myself with this week’s writing prompt. Taken from NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program Dare Machine, the prompt was “have one of your main characters break a bone.”

Having just gone through the experience of having one of my children break his arm and all the drama that goes along with that, this should have been a fairly easy assignment. My issue wasn’t so much writing about a broken bone experience, as it was about which character should experience this sort of injury. That wasn’t such an easy task.

In my fantasy fiction, there is a lot of fighting and warfare. Broken bones are probably inevitable. It isn’t likely that my main characters in these stories are going to be able to avoid injury. However, the experience of such an injury isn’t going to look at all like it did for me and my son a few weeks back here in our modern society with ambulances, pain meds and x-rays.

My middle grade adventure fiction, however, takes place right here in this world with real world kids who experience real world life. To keep things simple, I decided to start with one of these characters for the purposes of this exercise.

There are six main characters, three boys and three girls. Most of them are active in sports and various other activities. Injury of this sort would not be unreasonable. The dilemma was in who I should afflict with such an injury. It isn’t easy to just decide to injure someone, even a fictional someone.

I explored what I know about these six pre-teens and decided it was one of three who would be the most likely to break a bone. One boy tends to be reckless on his bike and skateboard, taking unnecessary risks just for the fun of it. He is, however, uncommonly graceful. Or perhaps lucky.

Another boy is the least athletic of the six. He’s overcautious and accident prone. I thought it could easily be this one who suffers such a serious injury. He’s also more likely to be subject to reinjury due to the clumsiness that comes from crutches and ungainly casts.

In the end, it was one of the girls who got hurt. She isn’t the most athletic of the girls, but she does play sports. She tends to try to overcompensate for being a girl in order to compete with the boys. This is, of course, a ridiculous notion, but one girls seem to feel too often. She tends to try too hard and take the wrong sort of chances, leading her into a greater risk of injury.

The story I started writing then, is one that I hope will show that girls are capable of being the best of who they are. That they don’t need to be just like the boys in order to be “good enough.” They are good enough just by being themselves. Unfortunately, my girl gets hurt while on their adventure. But hopefully, valuable lessons are learned along the way.

Camp NaNoWriMo & Writing Poetry With Fifth Graders

For Camp NaNo this April I took on the “project” of writing a daily exercise. One of my goals in this was to recapture a sense of joy in my writing. Each day I’ve taken a new random writing exercise and tried to make the most of it.

Some of the daily prompts I’ve used include:

  • Find ten words in a foreign language that are the same or similar to English words. Use them in a creative writing session.
  • Go out on the town tonight, but carry a notebook with you. Write down any intriguing turns of phrases, jokes or ideas that you encounter.
  • Pretend you are a philosopher in ancient Greece. What would your theory of the universe have been in those days when the world was flat and the earth was the center of the cosmos?
  • Develop a newspaper story about an Elvis sighting, one similar to those that run in the tabloids. Be as humorous—yet convincing—as possible.

The best prompt so far, the one that has generated more thought and more words than any other came on day four. The daily exercise prompted  me to write a song, a poem—any piece of writing you have never attempted before.

While I have attempted to write poetry before, I never have tried a song. But I really didn’t want to write either.

Then I hit upon a grand idea. I would pass this assignment on to one of my fictional characters. And who better than an entire class of fifth graders? My two middle grade adventures series The Silver Compass Adventures and the sister series, The Golden Locket Adventures, center around three eleven year old boys and three eleven year old girls respectively. They hail from a small town, so it is not at all unreasonable that they would end up in the same fifth grade class.

Their English assignment then, is this:

Write an ‘ode’ which is a poem in praise of something. It could be about someone or something you admire. Your poem should be 6-20 lines in length.

So my assignment to write a poem – something I didn’t want to do in the first place – grew into writing six poems. Yikes!

However, this turned out to be an interesting exercise in character development. I spent a great deal of time figuring out how each of the six fifth graders would approach the assignment. Would they groan about it much like I had? Would they embrace it? What would they choose to write about?

I had so much fun responding to this fictional homework assignment that I’ve ended up developing a new obsession with Albert Einstein. I learned a few things about baseball. And oak trees.

I discovered one of my three boys could probably write truly moving poetry if he would only take the assignment more seriously. Another boy gets too caught up in the rhyme and the rhythm and forgets all about the beauty of poetry. One of my girls surprised me by choosing to write a tender tribute to her grandmother.

In the end, it was almost more fun for me to write about writing poetry than to actually write the poetry. However, since this assignment gave me the perfect excuse to write some bad poetry, I went ahead and wrote the six poems. My goal was to convey the six different voices of each of my fifth graders.

So, here they are, in no particular order:

Ode to Baseball, by Mike Tripplet

Nine players take the field
The crowd stands and cheers.
My heart pounds as I wait,
Between second and third, I stand ready.
The wind up, the pitch, the crack of the bat.
Line drive headed my way,
I move in front of it, scoop it up.
A perfect throw to first. Out!

My Grandmother, by Kira Green

Your eyes are bright and full of wisdom
Your face is lined by years of worry.
Side by side we sit in silence,
My hand in yours, there is no hurry.

You hold me close, don’t let me go,
Patient through my frustrated tears.
You teach me to be true, to see inside
How to stand tall despite my fears.

On a foundation of laughter, family and faith
Your kindness shines through all the pain.
I see your strength in the face of adversity,
And never once do I hear you complain.

Einstein, by Elijah Capelli

He developed the theory of relativity
By asking questions with creativity.
A little strange and wild-haired,
He wrote that E equals M C squared.
A winner of the Nobel Prize,
In physics. Who wouldn’t recognize
Einstein’s the greatest scientist of all time.

Ode To My Dog, by Tommy Cooper

I love your wiggly butt dance
When you greet me at the door.
As soon as I get home from school
You’re ready to play ball.
Snuggled together on the floor
You help me through my homework.

Ladybug, by Jordyn Blackwell

The heavens cover the Earth like a dome.
Pinpoints of light blink in the darkness.
Half-moon sends down shafts of light
Like fairy dust on angel’s wings.
Moon beams fade with amber light
As darkness turns to day.
Branches glisten, shiver with the morning chill.
Wind whispers softly through the boughs.
A rustle of feathers is owl returning home,
While with birdsong, sparrow greets the day.
Morning sunlight shines on green,
Turning dew drops into emeralds.
Down below the flowers bloom
In pinks and reds and yellows.
Silently you take to crimson wing
I watch as you alight on a golden flower.
I take you gently in my hand
And I count your star-shaped spots.
I lean in close and watch in wonder,
Until upon your back, the universe I see.

The Tree in the Courtyard, by A. J. Tripplet

There’s a tree in my dad’s courtyard.
It’s taller than the second floor windows.
A tire swing hangs from one of the branches.
It makes me feel like I can fly.
The leaves change from green to brown
Before falling to the ground.
My bed sits by the window, and I see the tree outside.
A squirrel leaps onto the roof over my window.

I’m not much of a poet. But this wasn’t me writing poetry. This was me channeling six eleven year olds as they wrote poetry. I hope I did credit to their individual voices. Writing poetry turned out to be a lot of fun after all.

How the Anne Venture Got Her Name

In the process of writing the first book in my middle grade adventure series, I had to find a name for a ship. People are difficult enough to name, but a ship? I’ve never named one before, so this proved an interesting process.

The book involves my characters Mike Triplett, Tommy Cooper and Elijah Capelli going back in time to 1714 where they find themselves on board a ship bound from England to the American colonies. It was important to me to find a name for the ship that was both meaningful to my story and historically plausible.

I started my journey of discovery by researching the names of real historical ships and I found names fell into two basic categories. First, ships were named for a person. Usually, this would be a saint, a monarch, or a significant benefactor who contributed to the ship’s mission. The second category would be to choose a term that gave meaning to the ship’s purpose, words such as blessing, discovery and fortune.

There was also a third option, one that combined the two together to form a name. This is the direction I chose for my ship. I decided a monarch would be the easiest choice, so I set about learning who reigned in England during the time frame in which I planned to set my story, which was the late colonial period of the Americas. There were a number of monarchs, James, George, William and Mary. But I found myself drawn to one queen in particular, Queen Anne, who held the throne from 1702-1714.

I chose Anne for a couple of reasons. One, I have a personal connection to the name, as it is also my own name. The second reason for choosing Anne was that in reading more about her history, her tragic life seemed uniquely suited to where I hoped to go with my story. Anne lost her grandmother, a maternal aunt and her mother at a young age. She became queen following the death of her sister and brother-in-law. Furthermore, though she experienced more than fifteen pregnancies, she had no surviving children, Prince William, her only child to survive infancy, died of smallpox at the age of eleven. Death, it seems surrounded her, almost, you might say, like a curse.

So, Queen Anne was to be the royal behind the ship I was building. Next, I set out to find the right word to pair with her name to become the identity of my ship. I looked at the other words chosen to name ships: Fortune, Blessing, Discovery, Bonaventure, Assurance. These are words that speak clearly of the ship’s mission and purpose. My ship was to be one bearing passengers from England to a new life in a new world. This was to be a venture, a dangerous, but potentially profitable undertaking. And there it was, Venture.

According to dictionary.com, venture means:

noun.
1. an undertaking involving uncertainty as to the outcome, especially a risky or dangerous one
2. a business enterprise or speculation in which something is risked in the hope of profit; a commercial or other speculation

It was the perfect fit. And so my ship became the Anne Venture, apparently cursed to suffer many deaths.

My three boys – Mike, Tommy and Elijah – will find themselves in the middle of the Atlantic, unable to return home until they can find a way to break the Curse of the Anne Venture.

Photo/Art credit: Isaac S., age 9

For further reading on Queen Anne:
The Tragic Life of Queen Anne
Queen Anne

The Silver Compass Adventures: An Introduction, part 3

Over the last few weeks, I have introduced my current work-in-progress, a novel series titled The Silver Compass Adventures. It has been my Camp NaNoWriMo project through the month of April, and I am very nearly finished with the first book of the series. I have introduced you to two of my main characters, Mike Triplett and Tommy Cooper. Now, here is the third member of the adventurous trio, Elijah Capelli.

Elijah comes from a large Jewish Italian family. His parents are both professors at a local university. He has three older brothers and one older sister. Jerry, the oldest, is in the Marines, and currently deployed overseas. Then there is Isaiah, Annie and Zeke. Elijah is the youngest.

Four years ago, the Capelli’s moved from Chicago, to the small community just outside the state capitol where they now live. Elijah is a bit shy, and the move was not an easy one for him. He became fast friends with Mike Triplett when it turned out they shared a love of classic video games. Mike’s friend Tommy Cooper was a bit harder to convince, but before too long, the three boys were inseparable.

Elijah would trust his friends with anything from his most embarrassing moments, to his newly discovered fear of outer space. But there’s one thing he can’t bring himself to share. He really likes Mike’s sister, A.J. Really, really likes her. And to share this secret would be to invite ridicule from Mike and Tommy which would just be more than he could bear.

Too small for sports, Elijah prefers books to physical activities. He knows his way around a chess board far better than a baseball field. Still, he has great respect for his friends and their athletic abilities. Cautious to a fault, he’s become the voice of reason for the little group.

Elijah isn’t one to back down from a challenge, however, and when Mike is given that compass from his granddad, he is immediately sucked into the mystery of how it works. And any good experiment must be repeated.

Therefore, although not as eager as the others to rush headlong into whatever might come, he can’t resist the Silver Compass Adventures.

Photo credit: Katie Aguilera

The Silver Compass Adventures: An Introduction, Part Two

My work on the Silver Compass Adventures continues. The boys are in the middle of a wild ride across the Atlantic in the Curse of the Anne Venture. A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to Mike Triplett. Today, I’d like you to meet Thomas “Tommy” Cooper.

Tommy is eleven years old. He’s lived with his grandparents since he was two. His mom is currently back in a drug treatment program and he doesn’t really know his dad (though, that may be about to change). Aside from being old, his grandparents are sort of cool. Sometimes. Grandpa Cooper has been teaching Tommy to find his way around a mechanic’s shop. He works hard, and expects Tommy to do the same. Money might be tight around the Cooper home, but with a steady paper route and a handful of regular lawn mowing jobs, Tommy can usually do most of the things he likes to do.

Life in a small community is sometimes dull for Tommy, considered a troublemaker by some folks. But mostly, he’s a good kid. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even if it gets him in trouble. He treats authority figures with respect as long as he believes they deserve it. Which is why he has a really hard time with his mom.

Tommy has a soft spot for animals. He’s not allowed to have a pet at home, his grandpa is allergic and they just cost too much. Still, this hasn’t kept Tommy from trying to bring home the occasional stray.

Mike Triplett has been Tommy’s best friend for as long as he can remember. They learned how to walk together, started school together. They ride bikes and skateboards together. Then, when they were in the second grade, Elijah moved to town, and Mike and Elijah hit it off real fast. Afraid he was losing his best friend, Tommy couldn’t bring himself to like Elijah much. Until Tommy found out Elijah has an older brother in the Marines, and he has an awesome video game collection! Tommy decided the kid was okay after all.

Tommy played Little League with Mike for a year, but doesn’t love the game like his friend. He’s played football, soccer, basketball. He started to learn the guitar. Tommy hasn’t quite figured out yet what his passion is.

One thing is for certain, Tommy does love to have fun. He’s a bit of a thrill seeker, an adventurer. And just when it’s shaping up to be a rather boring summer, Mike is given a special compass that once belonged to his granddad, a really old compass. And it turns out, the compass can transport them through time.

Just imagine the possibilities of the Silver Compass Adventures!

Photo credit: Katie Aguilera

3 Reasons Why I Do My Research in the Children’s Library

As a writer of fiction, I find myself facing lots of questions as I begin a new project. No matter what I’m looking for, my first stop has become the children’s section at my local library. Whether it is the ankylosaurus, Annie Oakley or, more recently, 16th-18th century sailing ships, the information in the children’s library is the same as it would be anywhere else. Here are my reasons to start at the children’s section.

1. Discover the World as a Child Would

The children’s section of the library is filled of course, with shelves full of books, and organized like any other part of the library. The fiction sections are laid out just like the adult shelves, in order by author’s name, but rather than being sorted by genre, they are sorted by age group and reading level. The non-fiction section is exactly like the adult library, sorted and shelved according to the Dewey Decimal System.

However, there are some major differences between the adult section and the children’s section. First, and most obvious, the shelves are shorter. So I may have to sit on the floor to peruse the books in my subject of interest, but I won’t have to find someone to help me reach a book on the top shelf. Also, the children’s section of the library is noisier. There is a play room where kids can go and discover fun things about our world (currently, it’s set up like a grocery store!). The librarians aren’t stern-faced cliches glaring over the rims of their glasses to shush anyone. And there are wonderful displays such as a fully outfitted doll house and a beautiful fish tank.

I love the creativity of the children’s library. Also, since I write for children, it makes sense to me to read about the things I intend to write about as a child would. I can always do more digging on a subject if I find it necessary. A book written for children focuses more on the interesting details rather than the technical aspects of a subject. They are usually beautifully illustrated which lends even more to the imagination and creativity. In reading them, I can find myself fascinated by the subject like a child would be, curious and full of wonder.

2. Don’t Get Caught up in the Details

I don’t know about you, but for me, research can become very distracting. I will uncover ten new questions for every one I find an answer for. Or I can be drawn off subject by a fascinating side note. Internet research makes this sort of thing even harder to avoid. I get fascinated by the numerous tiny details of a subject and find myself moving away from the matter at hand – the story.

With children’s books, I can get a broad overview of my subject without getting so caught up in the details. I get distracted easily, so the broad brush strokes offered by a children’s book can actually help me narrow my focus to learn just what I need for the story I’m working on.

3. It’s Not All About Me

Finally, the best part of doing my research from the children’s library? I get to spend time with my sons reading and talking about sailing ships or dinosaurs or spider, if they insist. And they get to be part of my work. So yes, I do my research in the children’s library. I get to take my kids to the library, spend time with them and learn new things with them, find out what interests them.

My boys will not be small forever, and reading with them, sharing my love of words with them, is priceless. They are the reason I keep writing in the first place. We may as well enjoy the ride together.

Research is an integral part of writing. As long as there is something to write, there will be research needing to be done. Currently, I’m learning about sailing ships from the 18th century. Next up, I want to learn more about space travel. Maybe after that it will be the geography of Japan, or the traditions of Santeria. I may not be able to learn everything in the children’s library, but it’s an excellent place to start.

How do you go about your research? I’d love to hear about your methods.