Look It Up And Learn

sandwich public domainDid you know the sandwich was introduced to Americans in 1840? I had to look up that piece of information recently for the middle grade novel I’m writing. It is set in 1905.  Characters in my fourth chapter had plans to buy sandwiches to take along on a trip. Would that have been possible in 1905? When were sandwiches first sold in the United States?
locomotive pixabayI haven’t written historical fiction before and one of the things I’m enjoying about the process is researching all kinds of topics in order to make my narrative authentic. The character in my story is making a train trip across the mid-west and so I’ve had to find out where rail lines ran at the turn of the century and what cities would have been stops along the way.

In chapter 3 a trio of brothers in my novel go for a walk in the city of Omaha so I had to consult old maps to figure out what streets they would have walked along and what kinds of buildings would have been on those streets. roller coaster pixabayOne brother rides a roller coaster. Would it have been made of metal or wood? Looking that up I found out roller coasters had names and the one in an amusement park in Omaha was called The Big Dipper. I added that fact to my story.

At one point I wanted my protagonist to shout out an exclaimation in surprise. I thought I’d have him say, “Holy cow.” But wait a minute did people say holy cow in 1905?  After a little research I found out they might have, but the phrase only began to gain popularity in 1900.  Probably safer to go with “Lands Sake!” an exclamation more commonly accepted in the area where my character grew up in the 1900s and one that could be found in regional newspapers there as early as 1845.

copperhead snake pixabayI’ve had to look up so many things doing research.  What does a copper head snake’s body look like? Do gophers eat berries? What kind of nuts would you find on the ground in the mid west in the month of October? What medical information was available about the disease of epilipsy in the early 1900s and how did people react to those afflicted with it?

puzzle learning pixabayFiguring out how to make everything authentic in a historical novel is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It can take a long time but it is incredibly interesting and you learn so much.  

Other posts……….

In Chicken Soup Again

What Makes A Best Seller?

A Published Author At Age 10

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Making the Jump From Non-Fiction to Fiction

Winnipeg writer Larry Verstraete is an award-winning author of non-fiction for children. Although his new book Missing in Paradise is fiction, it is easy to see how his non-fiction background influenced the narrative. Did you know that in the 1940s there were German prisoner of war camps in Canada? I found that fascinating and it’s only one of the links to historical events that Verstraete uses to engage us in his story about a fourteen year old Winnipeg boy named Nate who is determined to untangle a mystery his grandfather leaves unsolved when he dies suddenly.

s is for scientists by larry verstraeteVerstraete has written books about science and that expertise also finds its way into his new book as Nate’s buddy Simon, a bit of a mechanical and technological whiz gets an old photocopier up and running and assembles a metal detector from all kinds of interesting bits and pieces of things he’s collected.

life or death by larry verstraeteVerstraete latest non-fiction book was a collection of survival stories and you can see that theme in Missing in Paradise too as Nate and Simon escape a bear attack and we learn that Nate’s great grandfather was the survivor of a plane crash.

I’ve been on a bit of a quest to discover the magic formula for writing a successful middle grade or teen novel and I’ve come up with a list of characteristics I’ve found in best-selling ones.

I’ve discovered the heroes often have issues with their parents and grandparents play an important role in their lives. In Missing in Paradise the main character Nate has a strict father with high expectations for his son. Nate’s grandfather was a very special man in Nate’s life and seems to be communicating with his grandson from beyond the grave.

Many successful middle grade or teen novels feature bathroom humor and their protagonists use courage and intelligence to solve their own problems. In Verstraete’s novel the boys use the nickname ‘Farter’ for a crotchety neighbor and photocopy their bare butts for fun. But Nate and Simon also tackle a mystery that has stumped adults and they have the courage to take great risks to solve it.

cover - early pdfI’ve learned that best-selling middle grade or teen fiction books frequently have a visual element and the male protagonist usually has an unorthodox sidekick. In Missing in Paradise the visual clues on the front cover of the book become graphic symbols for appropriate chapters of the book.

Simon, Nate’s sidekick is certainly one of a kind. Here’s Larry Verstraete’s description of him. “Simon looked like a lost orphan child. Tuffs of hair stuck out like propeller blades around his head. A smear of jam ringed his mouth. His three-sizes- too -big T-shirt flapped like a tent around his skinny chest.”

Larry Verstraete
Larry Verstraete

As I went through the list of qualities I’ve discovered in most successful middle grade or teen novels I could find nearly all of them in Missing in Paradise. It appears award-winning non-fiction writer Verstraete has nailed it when comes to writing a winning fiction book.

Are you a non-fiction writer thinking you’d like to make the jump to fiction? Read Missing in Paradise and see how Larry Verstraete did just that!

Other posts about Larry Verstraete……..

Launching Not One But Three New Books

Larry’s Party

Do and Don’ts of Book Cover Design

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Is Children’s Non-Fiction in Decline?

imagesN3URCGZYNot long ago I had a back-and-forth email conversation with an editor at a major children’s publishing house.  We’d worked together on a number of non-fiction books and I valued her opinion and her gentle, but firm approach – even when it meant, as it did in this case, that she was rejecting my proposal.

Children’s non-fiction is tough sell right now,” she wrote. She cited a few reasons.  The high cost of production.  Stiff competition from big leaguers like National Geographic.  Print-on-demand and ebooks taking a slice of the publishing pie. The rise of the Internet where every child with a computer, tablet or cell phone has access to information in an instant.

My editor-friend added that of dozens in-the-works projects on her desk, only a few were non-fiction.  Those were of two types.  Books about sports, especially hockey (no surprise there), and books about military history (cross-hairs are locked on WWI and WWII anniversary dates). “Our marketers,” she added. “are reluctant to invest in other subjects.”

Is this an accurate assessment of non-fiction’s current status?  In a letter to The Guardian in 2012, a group of twenty-six British children’s authors argued that almost overnight, the market for children’s non-fiction had ‘vanished’. “We got to the end of our collective tethers,” Jenny Vaughan, one of the twenty-six said. “We thought that something had to be done – that we’ve got to start making a noise about this before children’s non-fiction is obsolete.”

Many reasons cited in the letter echo the ones my editor-friend mentioned, but the group also blamed shifting library and school markets.  Rather than simply being repositories of books and information, libraries were redefining their purpose in the face of new technology, shifting their focus away from being guardians of information to becoming conduits in the information-gathering process.  With a greater chunk of the budget going to purchasing computers, tablets, smart boards and software, fewer dollars remained to purchase books.

images1S5AN90TOn a recent book tour, I noticed this trend in many of the schools I visited.  Instead of libraries, many schools had ‘learning commons’ – open spaces peppered with computers and surrounded by only a few shelves of books.  Instead of teacher-librarians, ‘technology assistants’ manned the places. The focus was no longer on pulling dusty books off the shelf, but on manning students with the means of finding current information for themselves.

So is children’s non-fiction really in decline?  If we’re talking traditional book publishing, perhaps. With so much available online, with access so easy, and with the focus changing to do-it-yourself research of daily fresh sources, traditional book publishers face stiff competition.

That’s not to say that the market has dried up completely, but it does mean that non-fiction writers have to be clever.  There will always be a need for current, clear and concise information and writers who can deliver it in a palatable and interesting way to children.  But we have turned a corner and there is no going back. To survive, writers must adapt and seek new venues beyond traditional print forms, or at the very least produce material that surpasses whatever young readers can find so easily for themselves with a click of a mouse and a leap on to the Internet.  Creative slants, fresh takes, inventive forms, vibrant writing, new topics that challenge, entertain, and raise questions beyond the obvious – books with these ingredients, I believe, still have a place on bookshelves.


Other posts you might enjoy:

Hot Topics Made Palatable for Kids

Batting 1000 With Kid’s Non-Fiction

Nothing But the Truth

Larry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is the author of 14 books for youngsters, the most recent being Missing in Paradise, his first middle grade novel.  Currently in a lull period, he is searching for the next great idea.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Fact Stranger than Fiction? Maybe

bionic eye 2My son in Bellevue, Washington frequently e-mails articles or links to articles to me. He’s a computer engineer and I have a science background so scientific and technical topics are favourites. But we’re also keen on subjects that are off-beat and obscure which explains the recent arrival of items like The Woman with the Bionic Eye (The Atlantic), Photographer Turns the Table on His Subject by Getting Naked to Take Their Portraits (Business Insider), and US Trained Alaskans as Secret ‘Stay-Behind’ Agents (Associated Press). See what I mean?
Most times, I read the article online, but if it is especially intriguing, I print it and pop it into my ‘futures box’ – a holding tank of sorts that I dip into periodically for inspiration. The futures box has been a godsend many times.  Not only a hotbed of research material, it’s also a source for wild and weird ideas – the kind of extreme stuff kids, particularly boys, love.
It’s easy to trace how such ideas influence choices when writing non-fiction since there’s a direct relationship between research material and final product. But what about fiction? Where do those ideas come from – the plot twists, intriguing characters, and sizzling themes that make fiction work?
Now that I’m in the final throes of my first middle-grade novel, Missing in Paradise, I’d like to know. Figuring out what gets creative juices flowing should take me a step closer to harnessing them in the future, right?. Well, that’s my rationale, anyway.  Here’s what I found.
Missing in Paradise is a mystery, adventure story about two boys, 14 year old Nate and 12 year old Simon who, after discovering a box of odd items at a garage sale, embark on a search for lost shipment of gold, certain they are fulfilling the ghostly request of Nate’s recently deceased grandfather.pirate treasureWhat kid doesn’t like a treasure hunt? As a kid, I did. I wasted many a glorious afternoon, digging in the family garden, convinced I’d find pirate treasure between rows of tomatoes.  So the storyline comes from those experiences, right?
Probably, but I can also draw a direct line to several Futures Box items
    • A truck driver, making a road stop in 1998, discovered a box of clothes abandoned in a rickety shack in Nevada. Among the items inside – a grimy, tattered pair of jeans from the 1880s. Auction on eBay as the oldest Levis ever, they were purchased by Levi Strauss & Company for a cool $46,532.
      oldest jeans
      World’s oldest Levis
    • Two paintings bought by bargain hunter Carl Rice, at a 1996 Tucson, Arizona garage sale – one of roses purchased for $10, another of magnolias purchased for $50 – bore the initials M.J.H. in the corner. Turns out they were works by well known 19th century painter, Martin Johnson Heade.  Sold at auction in 1998 for a whopping $1 million.
      Magnolias by Martin Johnson Heade
      Magnolias by Martin Johnson Heade
    • Daydreaming in English class one day in 2000, ten year old Bingham Bryant, a grade 5 student at Old Lyme Central School in Connecticut, studied a gloomy painting that had been hanging in the library for 80 years. “I was certain it was old,” he said. He told his father, an art dealer, about it.  End result: Fate of Persephone, a long lost original by famous artist Walter Crane, sold at auction for more than half a million dollars.
      Fate of Persephone
      Fate of Persephone
    • A 2011 newspaper article recapped a piece of local history. Between the late 50s and 60s, dapper Winnipeg resident Ken Leishman (aka ‘The Flying Bandit’) committed a number of crimes including bank robberies, stealing planes and escaping custody. His most famous heist was the March 1, 1966 theft of nearly $400,000 worth of gold bullion from the Winnipeg International Airport – the largest gold theft in Canadian history.
Ken Leishman - The Flying Bandit
Ken Leishman ‘The Flying Bandit’
Without giving away the entire plot, I can safely say that Missing in Paradise contains many of these real-life elements – inquisitive boys discover a box at a garage sale containing items that, at first glance, appear commonplace, but just might lead to a potential fortune – a legendary lost shipment of gold rumoured to have been stolen in a heist years ago.
Is this a case of art imitating life? Maybe.  But whatever the source of fictional ideas, I’ll keep stuffing my futures box with clippings and encourage my son to send more weird and wacky stuff.  sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and who’s to say where one stops and the other begins?
Other posts you might enjoy:
The Futures Box – A Wealth of Ideas
Nothing But the Truth
Hanging Ornaments on Your Story Tree
Larry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters. His middle grade novel, Missing in Paradise, is scheduled for release by Rebelight Publishing Inc. in November.




For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

The Franklin Quandary

pictureWhen news broke last week that Canadian search teams had discovered one of the ships from the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition, it was BIG NEWS indeed. How two ships –Terror and Erebus – and 129 men under the leadership of Sir John Franklin virtually disappeared in the Canadian Arctic has long puzzled historians, scientists, and many an armchair adventurer – this writer among them.  Despite a century and a half of intense investigation, few clues surfaced to tell the tragic tale: three graves on Beechey Island, remnants of a winter camp on King William Island, an abandoned lifeboat, tin cans, the occasional tool, the odd weapon, a few books, a couple of scrawled notes, a number of human bones.  And now, a ship.
View of the newly discovered ship
View of the newly discovered ship
I’ve been following the Franklin story for decades. I’d written about it twice, first in Mysteries of Time (1992) just after anthropologist Owen Beattie opened the graves of three sailors from the expedition, and added lead poisoning and cannibalism to the tale. I wrote about the Franklin expedition again in Case Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science (2012). By then, scientists and historians had uncovered other clues and were just beginning to troll Arctic waters for the lost ships.  My story incorporated the latest facts and speculation – debates about the source of lead, hints about the ships’ locations from Inuit lore, conjecture about the route the sailors might have taken across the ice as they fled their crippled vessels.
Graves on Beechey Island
Graves on Beechey Island
When news surfaced about the Franklin ship, my first reaction was a mixture of amazement and awe. Amazement that searching for a needle-in-a-haystack prize like this ended so successfully. Awe at the astounding combination of technology, expertise and determination that led to this point.
Right on the heels of amazement and awe, though, I had a second rush of reactions. Disappointment led the group.  Here was something new, a huge discovery.  Anyone reading my accounts of the Franklin expedition would find this information missing.  Wouldn’t that date these pieces?  Make them less accurate and reliable, and perhaps less worthy of a reading? Screen-Shot-2013-04-03-at-3_04_44-PMAs writers we face the problem of dating our material all the time. Fiction writers who include references to the latest pop tunes, electronic gizmos, fashion crazes, food fads and the like, run the risk of losing future readers when these latest and greatest trends trade places with new ones. Anyone who watches old TV shows like MacMillan & Wife or Rockford Files and sees someone using a shoebox-sized cellular phone (or perhaps no cell phone at all), knows how quickly dated material detracts from the story.
Non-fiction writers run similar risks. Sometimes facts that seem solid and indisputable become less so with the passage of time, not through any fault of the writer, but simply because new and more current facts supplant old ones. Case in point: Pluto. Once a mighty planet like eight others, it is now considered to be something less – a dwarf planet.
imagesT552DDA4But non-fiction material also becomes dated when current information is omitted – Franklin’s ship, for example. While my accounts are still factually accurate for the time they were written, by not mentioning the discovery, they assume a yellow-with-age quality.  Hence, my disappointment at hearing the Franklin news.
Along with disappointment, I also felt helplessness. There was no way to add new information to my books. Even if they were to be reprinted someday by the publisher, tampering with the original files would be a costly, unwieldy affair, hardly warranted by the addition of a line or two of updated information.
Disappointment and helplessness aside, I experienced a flood of questions, too. Which ship was it – Terror or Erebus?  What combination of factors brought it down at this spot?  What new things will we learn about Franklin, his men and the ill-fated decisions they made?
Irrational decisions by the crew add to the mystery
Irrational decisions by the crew add to the mystery
Isn’t this the allure of the Franklin story? Uncertainty.  Speculation.  More questions.  The best a writer can do is to tell the story with the facts at hand, and leave the door open for new information.  In Case Files, I ended with such a line: For now, the Franklin mystery remains very much an open case, a puzzle with many more questions than answers.
It’s entirely possible that we will never learn exactly what transpired, and every written account about the Franklin expedition will be judged incomplete at some point. For writers like me, discoveries like the Franklin ship just mean having yet another opportunity to tell the story again.
Franklin search crew
Franklin search crew
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy
Nothing But the Truth
Revision: From Scattergun to Strategic Plan
Quotes to Get You Over a Brick Wall
Larry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters. His middle grade novel, Missing in Paradise, is scheduled for release by Rebelight Publishing Inc. in November.
For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.
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